A seven-year-old tells her father how you can determine the number of faces in a geometric solid from its number of points. Has she been studying her brother’s old geometry book?
Hardly. This knight-obsessed girl was inspired by Sir Cumference, a book about knights that teaches math along the way.
Math stories, it turns out, are a great way for elementary students to learn math without even knowing it.
For the purposes of this article, math “stories” are books in which the story is more, or at least as important as the math it contains. They are not to be confused with “story problems,” the bane of many a standardized test-taker. A math story is a really great story that happens to contain math.
It’s also a very effective way to spark interest in and understanding of math in elementary-aged kids.
When children are still in the picture book stage, there are many wonderful books to teach early math concepts like counting, addition, and shapes.
Math stories for more advanced thinkers start with the Sir Cumference series, picture books about medieval times peopled with wonderfully named characters: Lady Di of Ameter Geo of Metry, and of course Sir Cumference himself.
The books have the lush pictures and captivating storylines you’d expect from picture books, but they also teach math concepts in a deep way.
In learning about pi, that confusing number associated with circles, Radius (Sir Cumference’s son, of course) actually experiments with a pie. The shape of King Arthur’s table leads to a discussion of circles and their particular attributes.
The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat is a great next step. Author Theoni Pappas has written a number of math books for a range of ages and abilities. They all seem to center around the idea that if people just understood all of math’s lovable attributes, they’d love the discipline as well.
Children instantly fall in love with Penrose. He learns mathematics because his mistress (Pappas) is always looking at her math papers. So like any good cat, what does he do? He inserts himself between his mistress and the papers. Fun and learning follow.
The charm of Penrose is, first, that he is a real cat. Though the illustrations are in pen and ink, there’s a photo in the beginning of the book of the real Penrose, poised in mid-play amongst his mistress’s papers.
The fictional Penrose not only enjoys getting attention, but also gaining knowledge. He starts to wonder about what’s on the papers, and soon the numbers and shapes come alive and talk to him.
This is a consistent metaphor in the books, and is a good metaphor for what happens to a child charmed by Penrose. At the end of each story there is a small box with an intriguing question. A child who screams in frustration at a page of math problems might easily take the initiative in finding paper and pencil to answer the first chapter’s conundrum.
This Pappas series can be enjoyed for months, with children hungrily lapping up Penrose’s forays into tessellation, prime numbers, and equiangular spirals.
After Penrose’s short story format, a good follow-up is the novel The Number Devil. There are a couple of caveats about this book: First, this is a playful take on religion, with a Number Heaven/Hell and the Number Devils that live there, so beware if this doesn’t fit with your world view. Also, this book starts with the main character, Robert, having nightmares, and parents with highly sensitive kids should give it a preview.
Despite the nightmares, The Number Devil is a lovely book for young kids. Even a child who has trouble with nightmares will enjoy watching the Number Devil invade Robert’s dreams and drive away all the bad thoughts. They are replaced by dreams of number theory, explained through colorful language and ever-changing scenery.
The book has a therapeutic as well as didactic approach: Robert’s fears of the big, scary world and also of his detested math teacher, Mr. Bockel, are replaced by musings about the beauty of numbers. By the end of the book, Robert becomes a number devil himself, having earned a place in Number Heaven (or Hell, depending on how you look at it) and a license to think about the cool stuff that number philosophers have thought about since ancient times.
This may all beg the question: What will a child get from this? Will he learn useful skills?
It’s probably safe to say that all this reading will probably not translate directly to any increase in testable numbers. Standardized tests look for mastery of skills; these books encourage excitement about ideas. Standardized tests focus on grade-level standards; these books throw all that out the window and figure kids should learn about the cool stuff… leave the boring, repetitive stuff for another day.
What math stories do is introduce kids to the big, enticing ideas that make all the work on boring stuff like multiplication facts worth the effort. A child who is excited by geometry is going to learn soon enough that having to pull out a calculator or multiplication chart over and over to remember 3×3 just delays the pay-off.
Math stories also teach math concepts in a deeper way, embedding them in a narrative that fits into the way children learn in the real world, through experience and need.
If you’re looking for math stories for older children, check out the British Murderous Maths series (not distributed in the U.S. but available used or through horriblebooks.com) and Theoni Pappas’s The Joy of Mathematics, both of which teach the history and ideas behind the math that kids will need to tackle in late elementary and middle school.
See also: Conceptual Learning for Younger Gifted Children, visit LivingMath.net for more math links
This article was originally published in different form in the California Homeschooler, a publication of the Homeschool Association of California.