Irving Adler, a social activist and prolific author of math and science books for children, died September 22 in Bennington, VT, from complications of a stroke. He was 99.
Adler wrote more than 85 books—including the “In Your Life” series, which focused on various scientific phenomena—and was thrust into writing for kids after losing his job as a New York City schoolteacher.
During the McCarthy “Red Scare” era, he was active in the city’s teachers union and was asked the question, “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” His refusal to answer led to his 1952 suspension and eventual dismissal in 1954 At the time, New York State’s Feinberg Law sanctioned such line of questioning and allowed for the for the dismissal of teachers who belonged to “subversive organizations.” Adler was one of the 378 New York City teachers who were dismissed under the law. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that many provisions of the Feinberg Law were unconstitutional. Ralph Blumenthal featured Adler in his 2009 New York Times story “When Suspicion of Teachers Ran Unchecked”.
Adler was born in Manhattan on April 27, 1913 to immigrant parents and attended New York City Schools. He graduated City College of New York at 18 and began his teaching career. He met his future wife, Ruth Relis, a mathematics student at Barnard College, and they were married in 1935. Their daughter Peggy told School Library Journal that Ruth encouraged Adler to join the Young Communist League while they were students. Ruth illustrated many of his books and died in 1968. He later married Joyce Lifshutz Sparer, who died in 1999.
Many of Adler’s books were published by John Day publishers, which were later purchased by Thomas Crowell. His books have sold more than four million copies and have been translated into 19 languages, including French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, and Japanese.
When asked how he chose his topics, Adler told the Horn Book that his “primary goal is to present scientific ideas so simply that they can be followed and understood by an unsophisticated reader.” One of his most popular books was The Giant Golden Book of Mathematics (1960).
“It presents an absorbing account of numbers and number lore—intriguing facts about prime numbers, triangular numbers and square numbers,” said The New York Times in its review of the book. “Word and picture combine to tell about angles, triangles and polygons; about the famous theorem of Pythagoras; about spheres, cones, cylinders and the regular solids. The list looks frightening for young minds, but the writing is always simple and homespun and readable.” On October 17, Dover Publications will reissue his book, A New Look at Geometry, which was first published by John Day in 1966.
Adler taught at Bennington College and received many awards, including an award from National Science Foundation in 1959 for Outstanding Contributions to Children’s Literature. In 1972, 1975, 1980, and 1990 he received citations for Outstanding Science Books for Children from the National Science Teachers Association/ Children’s Book Council. In 2009, he received a lifetime achievement award for “nearly a century’s dedication to making the world a more just and humane place through an unswerving belief in individual rights and equal treatment under the law.”
His is survived by his two children from the first marriage, Peggy Adler of Clinton, CT, and Stephen Adler of Princeton, NJ; a stepdaughter, Laura Wallace of Cambridge, NY; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
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