If you haven’t already seen some of these, you may have trouble imagining a fun math book. Get ready to expand your mind. In order by the age and sophistication of the readers who’d enjoy them, here are ten of my favorites …
Quack and Count, by Keith Baker
(ages 2 to 7)
This is a board book, so it’s good for the youngest child who will sit and listen to a story. And it stays good because it’s so luscious. Great illustrations, fun rhythm and rhyme, cute story, and good mathematics. 7 ducklings are enjoying themselves in every combination. “Slipping, sliding, having fun, 7 ducklings, 6 plus 1.” (And then 5 plus 2, 4 plus 3, 3 plus 4, and so on.) It would be great to have a book like this for each number, showing all the number pairs that make it. If I ever get to teach math for elementary teachers again, I’d love to get my students to make books like this one.
Anno’s Counting House, by Mitsumasa Anno
(ages 2 to 7)
Everything I’ve seen by Mitsumasa Anno is delightful. There is so much to see in his books, many of which have no words. In this book, ten people are moving from one house to another. In each two-page spread you can see one more person who’s moved from the left house to the right, along with lots of furniture and other small items.
Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar will appeal to older readers. There is one island with two counties, which have three mountains each …, until we get to ten jars within each box – a lovely, very visual representation of factorials. Anno’s Magic Seeds does have words, and tells a fascinating story, of a plant whose seed, when baked, will keep you from being hungry for a full year. The plant grows two seeds in a year, and one needs to be used to grow a new plant… Anno has written over 40 books, most available in English.
How Hungry Are You? by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen
(ages 3 to 12)
There are lots of great of great books on sharing equally. My favorite used to be The Doorbell Rang, by Pat Hutchins, but this one is even more delightful. The picnic starts with just two friends, rabbit is bringing 12 sandwiches and frog is bringing the bug juice. Monkey wants to come, “My mom just made cookies. I could take a dozen.” They figure out how much of each goody each friend will get. In the end, there are 13 of them, and the sharing becomes more complicated. One of the delights of this book is the little icons showing who’s talking. It would make a good impromptu play.
One Grain of Rice, by Demi
(ages 5 to 12)
The greedy raja is gently outsmarted by a wise village girl named Rani. This is a very sweet take on the story of grains of rice put on a chessboard. (One grain on the first square, two on the next, then 4, 8, 16, …, until the board is filled. How much rice is that, anyway?)
The Cat in Numberland, by Ivar Ekeland
(ages 5 to adult)
The story starts when Zero knocks on the door of the Hotel Infinity. He’d like a room, but they’re all full (with the number One in Room One, and so on). Turns out that’s no problem. The cat who lives in the lobby gets confused – if the hotel is full, how can the numbers make room for zero just by all moving up one room? Things get worse when the fractions come to visit. This story is charming enough to entertain young children, and deep enough to intrigue anyone. Are you ready to learn about infinity with your 5 year-old?
The Man Who Counted, by Malba Tahan
(ages 6 to adult)
Written in Brazil, set in the Middle East, these stories follow the adventures of Beremiz, an accomplished mathematical problem-solver. He uses math to settle disputes, solve riddles and mysteries, and entertain his hosts. The series of 34 adventures, each with a math puzzle, is reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. If you read one chapter a night, your audience will be begging for more – and isn’t that the way it should be?
The Number Devil, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
(ages 7 to adult)
The Number Devil visits Robert in his dreams, and gets him thinking about the strangest things! Rutabaga numbers and prima donnas (roots and primes) are just the beginning. Anyone who’d like a gentle introduction to lots of interesting math topics will enjoy this one.
Powers of Ten, by Philip and Phylis Morrison
(ages 6 to adult)
The first photo shows a couple having a picnic. It’s shot from one meter above them. The next is from 10 meters, then 100. After we’ve traveled to the edge of the universe, we come back to the couple, and zoom in. Each page has one large photo, and explanatory text about what can be seen at that level. Way back when I first began teaching (in the ‘80’s), I showed a film version of this to junior high students. Now you can watch it on Youtube.
You Can Count on Monsters, by Richard Evan Schwartz
Each number from 1 to 100 is a monster, and each one gets its picture on its own page. All of the numbers (except poor 1) are made up from their prime parts. The pictures are colorful, full of intriguing detail, and amusing. The pages in the front and back that explain prime factorization are unassuming, waiting for the reader to decide it’s time to find out more. This and Powers of Ten would both make great coffee table books, to peruse over and over.
Euclid in the Rainforest, by Joseph Mazur
(12 to adult)
Logic, infinity and probability are the topics. Adventures in Venezuela, Greece, and New York furnish the background. Mazur has wide-ranging interests, and skillfully brings the math to life.
I promised you the top ten, so I have to stop here. But that means I can’t tell you all about Family Math, the (out of print, but still available) I Love Math series, Mathematics: A Human Endeavor, Chances Are: Adventures in Probability, and all the delightful math readers I’ve discovered in the past few years. You can find more math book reviews at my blog, Math Mama Writes. You can also find hundreds of suggestions at livingmath.net.
If you’ve never found pleasure in math, pick one book from this list, and give it a chance. You’ll be glad you did.
Sue VanHattum blogs at Math Mama Writes, teaches math at Contra Costa College (a community college in the Bay Area), and is currently working out the final details of Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers, a collection from over 30 authors which will be published soon.