Category Archives: Books

Googol On!

I had just given an evening program for families at a school in Berkeley when a parent named Steven Birenbaum came up to tell me something remarkable. During the presentation I had introduced my book G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book by projecting this inequality on the screen. (The slashed equal sign means “does not equal.”)


Continue reading

New Hope for Old-Fashion Books

golden-gate-booksExactly one month ago I received an email from my friend and colleague (and fellow East Bay resident), Marissa Moss. It began almost apologetically:

“I know this probably comes out of thin air, but I’ve heard from so many talented writers and illustrators that they have problems getting contracts now from the major NY publishers who only want books with mass market appeal …”

Sounds like an understatement in these days of publishing uncertainty (aka “crisis”) but I was hooked. Marissa is a versatile writer and illustrator of both fiction and non-fiction, full of ambition and creativity, who has enjoyed considerable success. What was she up to?

“The golden age of picture books, when fine books were edited and published Continue reading

Math-Lit for the Older Set

I got an email the other day from a parent looking for good mathematical literature to interest and challenge older children. Is there any? Which books would I recommend?

Before I describe a few of my faves, I must point out, as I did at length in my INK post of May 28, 2008, that many educators have inspired intermediate grade, middle school and even high school students with picture books, using them as age-appropriate teaching tools. I believe my most successful mathematical picture books are those that can be used on many levels. In fact, when asked the target age for How Much is a Million?, I often say, “Preschool through high school.” Actually, it’s not true. I should say. “Preschool through college,” but that answer might sound overly smug. (I have twice met college professors who use my book when teaching about Avogadro’s number, a behemoth number critically important in understanding quantitative chemistry.) That said, I will mention a few books that probably wouldn’t make it into the 2nd grade math classroom but should be a staple of math classrooms or libraries serving upper elementary, middle school and high school students.

In The Number Devil by German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a middle school-age boy named Robert dreams of travels through the world of mathematics under the tutelage of an impish devil whom he at first finds annoying but gradually comes to enjoy and admire. At the start of the book, Robert is a mediocre and indifferent math student — no surprise, considering that his ho-hum teacher at school gives the students mathematical busywork without the least bit of mathematical inspiration. (His uncomprehending mother is no better: she believes a son who voluntarily speaks of mathematical concepts must be ill!) But Robert and the devil are on an irrepressible romp and together they challenge each other while developing plethora of mathematical concepts and meeting a pantheon of famous mathematicians. All names are whimsically disguised — Leonhard Euler becomes “Owl” (Eule in German translates to “owl” in English) and roots (as in square roots, cube roots, etc.) are called “rutabagas” (which are literal roots) — just two of many such examples. Figuring out the conventional words for the concepts at hand just adds to the devilish fun of this 1997 book which is well on its way to becoming a classic.

Flatland is not on its way to classic status: it’s already there. Like The Number Devil, it incorporates dreams but the concepts are geometrical rather than numerical. This novella, written in 1884 by English schoolmaster Edwin A. Abbott, is a pointed satire of closed-minded, hierarchical Victorian society but it is also, as Isaac Asimov put it, “The best introduction one can find into the manner of perceiving dimensions.” The story has been developed into several short films and a 2007 feature film; there have been TV episodes, a role-playing game and sequels by other authors.

The narrator of the original Flatland is a square named – ready? — A. Square. He lives in Continue reading

A "Super" Find

Way back a few centuries ago in the mid-1980s, long before anyone had ever heard the word “internet,” I was assigned to write an article for Smithsonian magazine on the decline of a once-loved American institution, the drug store soda fountain. The research for my story led me to seek newspaper and magazine articles from the heyday of soda fountains in the early- and mid-20th century.

If you are of a certain age, you will understand what I mean when I say that this endeavor resulted in my spending many hours in a public library squinting through a gargantuan, eye-straining machine known as a microfilm reader. If you are younger than that, herewith a brief explanation: to make back issues of certain magazines and newspapers accessible for years to come, a few companies were in the business of photographing the publications, page by page, and printing them onto acetate film in a much reduced size.

The film was called microfilm and in order to actually read it, a researcher could put the film into a machine called a microfilm reader and turn a cranking device (later replaced by an electric motor) in order to scroll to the section being sought. Continue reading

How Much Is a Million? 's best friend

How Much Is a Million?'s Best Friend

My friend Merri Rudd, a contra dance caller from Albuquerque, sent me this picture. Some of you “dog people” might like it — and who knows, maybe it will inspire some folks to love the book as much as LuckyDog does. (More about Merri and LuckyDog)

Since I mentioned that Merri is a contra dance caller, I should say that I am an avid contra dancer. I can hear you asking, “What is contra dance?” I could answer, “It’s a bit like square dance except that it’s done in lines instead of squares,” but that wouldn’t be a very satisfying explanation because contra dancing is really VERY different from square dancing and not just because of the geometry. Contra dancers get asked about their dance form so often that some have posted definitions and explanations on the web. Here’s a site with several long and one short explanation.

But no collection of words can really explain a dance form, and words certainly can’t capture the terrific music (which is always live at contra dances), so why don’t you just come out and join me on the dance floor?! Most contra dances are kid-friendly, though they are not usually kid-oriented. More about dances in your area.

Now… did you think I was going to sign off without a math connection? Contra dance abounds with “math moments.” Here is one I just experienced at “Labor Day Dance Away,” a fabulous weekend of dancing that took place in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California. In a contra dance, the dancers start out standing in lines, but as they move through different figures the geometry changes. In one of the dances last weekend, groups of four dancers formed circles, and our caller, Cis Hinkle from Atlanta, told us to rotate the circle to the left “three-quarters of the way around and a little bit more.” What a delightful, kinesthetic way for a child to learn fractions, I thought to myself. I can just imagine the discussion that might grow out of a question like, “What fraction is a little bit more than three-quarters of the way around but still less than all the way around?” A contra dancer I know, Bernie Scanlon, a math instructor at Bakersfield College, gives workshops for teachers in using dance to teach math. And check out this Science News article for another take on the math-contra dance connection.

See you on the dance floor!