Math isn’t something that one doesn’t often purposefully think about outside of a classroom setting, but it can be found everywhere in our lives. Take notice: research shows that math skills at kindergarten entry are a better predictor of school success than reading skills or attention span, as I wrote in my March, 2014 School Library Journal “First Steps” column about summer math programs in the library.
Math goes beyond numbers, creating visually stunning patterns in plants, animals, architecture, and more. Math word problems challenge our brains to process information differently and to think about math facts in new ways. Whether told in equations, prose, or stories, the books below offer fun and quirky ways to view math with a new pair of eyes.
Adler, David A. Millions, Billions & Trillions: Understanding Big Numbers. Holiday House. 2013. ISBN 978-0-8234-2403-0. Gr 2 Up.
Did you know that there are roughly one million granules of sugar in just ¼ cup? Or that you could buy 397,120 slices of pizza with a million dollars? A million is a lot! Using clear, concise language and examples, Adler showcases just how big a number a million, billion, and trillion really are, and how those numbers are used in everyday life to explain things like population and spending numbers worldwide.
Adler, David A. Triangles. Illustrated by Edward Miller. Holiday House. 2014. ISBN 978-0-8234-2378-1. Gr 2 Up.
An inquisitive robot and his two friends explore the geometric shape that we know as a triangle. Lots of mathematical vocabulary is introduced throughout, including the terms “obtuse,” “vertex,” reflex angle, isosceles triangle, protractor, and more.
Adler, David A. You Can, Toucan, Math: Word Problem-Solving Fun. Holiday House. 2006. ISBN 978-0-8234-1919-7. Gr 1–3.
A former math teacher, author Adler puts his past to good use in this title that helps students improve their basic math operations of adding, subtracting, multiplication, and division. Digitally created illustrations add a visual element to the word problems to assist readers with their problem solving.
Axelrod, Amy. Pigs at Odds: Fun with Math and Games. Illustrated by Sharon McGinley-Nally. S & S. 2000. ISBN 068981566-2. Gr K–2.
The Pig family heads to the local country fair and learns a lesson or two about probability along the way as they try their luck at a variety of game booths. Watercolor and ink illustrations match the colorful carnival atmosphere. A brief explanation of the concept of odds and probability is included at the end.
Burns, Marilyn. Spaghetti and Meatballs for All! A Mathematical Story. Illustrated by Debbie Tilley Scholastic. 1997. ISBN 0-590-94459-2. Gr 1–3.
If you think your family dinners are complicated, try hosting a spaghetti and meatball dinner for a 32 member family reunion! The seating arrangements grow more and more complicated as additional guests keep arriving in this mathematical story. A note for parents and teachers at the end explains the concepts of area and perimeter that were used to arrange the seats.
Campbell, Sarah C. Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature. Boyds Mills. 2010. ISBN 978-1590787526. Gr 3 Up.
Explores the concept of Fibonacci numbers, which can often be found in nature. Fibonacci numbers follow a sequence where adding the first two numbers get the next number. So, 1 plus 1 = 2; 1 plus 2 = 3; 3 plus 2 = 5; 5 plus 3 = 8; and so on. Crisp and colorful photographs showcase great examples of Fibonacci sequences in spirals, such as those found on pineapples, sunflower centers, and pinecones. Additional information about Fibonacci numbers and a glossary close out the title.
Chae, In Seon. How do you Count a Dozen Ducklings? Illustrated by Seung Ha Rew. Albert Whitman. 2006. ISBN 978-0-8075-1718-5. PreK–1.
Mrs. Duck is having difficulty keeping track of her twelve ducklings, so she begins to arrange them in different sized groupings that are easier for her to quickly count. When they are surprised by a wolf on their morning walk, the ducklings get the last laugh after the wolf incorrectly thinks there are only two ducklings–when in actuality there are two lines of six ducklings that promptly fend off the wolf’s attack to save the day. Expressive illustrations give each duckling–and mama duck–a distinctive look and personality.
Clements, Andrew. A Million Dots. Illustrated by Mike Reed. S & S. 2006. ISBN 978-0-689-85824-6.
Gr 2 Up.
How much is a million? And what do a million dots look like, anyway? The answer to both questions can be found in this unique look at a large number. Readers will learn lots of anecdotal information along the way while “reading” both the text and the full color pictures, which are over-laid with minuscule black dots that add an interesting texture and feel to the illustrations. For example, “200,000 pennies would fill twenty-two one-gallon milk jugs.” Or “three ordinary wooden pencils can draw a line 554,000 feet—more than 100 miles!—long.” This title offers a fun look at a hard to visualize number.
Colgan, Lynda. Mathemagic! Number Tricks. Illustrated by Jane Kurisu. Kids Can Pr. 2011. ISBN 978-1-55453-425-8. Gr 3–5.
For students who like solving math problems, this book will be a real treat. By applying basic math concepts and skills, anyone with a solid knowledge of their math facts can come off looking like a math magician by following the steps presented. A glossary of math terms is included.
D’Agnese, Joseph. Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci (Henry Holt, 2010). ISBN 978-0805063059.
Gr 2 Up.
Leonardo Fibonacci grew up in Pisa, Italy, where he loved to seek out numbers. In fact, he thought about them so much and so often that his teacher called him a blockhead for wasting time in class daydreaming. But Fibonacci was doing more than daydreaming: he was constantly thinking in numbers. He created a famous riddle using rabbits that explains his sequence of numbers, where if you add any two consecutive numbers in the patter, you get the next number. Shortly after, he began to notice the number patterns appearing in nature—in flowers, starfish, and even the inside of an apple. An author’s note at the end gives some additional information about Fibonacci. The last page offers activities to do both at home, and offers some Fibonacci number patterns that are hidden throughout the illustrations.
Demi. One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale. Scholastic. 1997. ISBN 978-0590939980. Gr 1–3.
In this classic Indian folktale, Rani outsmarts a very selfish raja and, when offered a reward for her good deed, cleverly asks only for one grain of rice, doubled each day for 30 days. What sounds like a small amount very quickly turns into lots of rice: enough to feed a village—and to teach the greedy raja a lesson he won’t soon forget as he winds up handing over his entire stockpile of rice. Demi’s gorgeous paintings, tinged with gold tones, illuminate this story.
Dugan, Joanne. 1 2 3: A Counting Book of New York City. Abrams, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8109-13811-3. PreK–1.
Impressive black and white photographs of famous New York City landmarks and icons teach children how to count from 1 to 20 along the way, and to always look closely at their surroundings because numbers can always be found! A location list at the end tells readers where in the city they can go to see each item in person.
Goldstone, Bruce. Greater Estimations (Henry Holt, 2008). ISBN 978-0-8050-8315-6. Grades 1–3.
Full-color photographs teach readers how to estimate large numbers by grouping objects together in order to reach a reasonable estimate. Readers will enjoy guessing how many objects they see by training their eyes to group in sets of ten, hundreds, and thousands, and by boxing and counting. Large photographs for readers to pore over offer plenty of counting and estimating opportunities.
Gunderson, Jessica. How Big? Wacky Ways to Compare Size. Illustrated by Keino. Capstone/Picture Window Books. 2014. ISBN 978-1-4048-8325-3. Gr PreK–2.
Colorful digital illustrations compare items together to show readers how big something really is. One example shows a tarantula with fifteen pennies on its back; while another claims that “the Empire State Building is the same height as 264 gorillas.” While some of the comparisons might be difficult for younger readers to fully grasp, the overall effect creates unique contrasts for readers to ponder.
Harris, Trudy. Pattern Bugs. Illustrated by Anne Canevari Green. Millbrook Press. 2001. ISBN 978-0-761-321-071. PreK–1.
A butterfly, beetle, bee, caterpillar, cricket, and firefly make their way throughout a garden in patterns that get longer as the story progresses. The last word of each pattern is left blank to allow readers to participate and fill in the blank. Information about basic patterns is included at the end of the story.
Heiligman, Deborah. The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős. Pictures by LeUyen Pham. Roaring Brook Pr. 2013. ISBN 978-1-59643-307-6. Gr 2 Up.
Math genius Paul Erdős was a truly unique individual who traveled the world espousing mathematical problems to anyone that would talk to him; he truly saw the world through numerical eyes. Pham’s paintings elevate the story to the next level, incorporating mathematical data and information. Author and illustrator notes at the end extend the book and offer additional information for older readers.
Jenkins, Steve. Actual Size. Houghton Mifflin. 2004. ISBN 978-0618-375-943. Gr PreK–3.
Proving that “seeing is believing,” this visually fascinating book takes a look at size comparisons by featuring 18 animal and insects depicted in Jenkin’s trademark textured paper collages at their actual sizes. Notations at the end of the book give additional information on each entry.
Lasky, Kathryn. The Librarian Who Measured the Earth. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Little, Brown,1994. ISBN 0-316-51526-4. Gr 2 Up.
Details the life of Erathosthenes, the Greek geographer and head librarian of the Alexandria Museum, who figured out a way to accurately measure the earth’s circumference.
Leedy, Loreen. It’s Probably Penny. Holt. 2007. ISBN 978-0-805-0738-98. Gr PreK–2.
Lisa’s class is learning about probability and is given a homework assignment to think of an event that will happen, one that might happen, and one that can’t happen. Who will assist her with the assignment? Probably Penny—her Boston terrier! Leedy’s signature illustrations carry the story along as Penny romps through different scenarios. Luckily for Penny, she won’t be meeting a big blue shark anytime soon.
Leedy, Loreen. Mission: Addition. Holiday House. 1997. ISBN 978-0823-413-072. Gr 1–3.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it? Become an addition detective and have fun while adding up the numbers discovered along the way. The book is broken into sections with clever names such as “Having Sum Fun” and “What is Your Problem?” An answer sheet is located on the last page so readers can check their addition skills.
Lewis, J. Patrick. Artithme-Tickle: An Even Number of Odd Riddle-Rhymes. Illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz. Harcourt. 2002. ISBN 978-0-152-164-188. Gr 1–4.
Nineteen challenging math rhymes are presented in a book that begs for a pencil and scratch pad to be attached to it so readers can immediately attack the problems at hand. Watercolor and colored pencil illustrations complement the rhymes that appear on “pieces” of ripped out notebook paper.
Lewis, J. Patrick. Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems. Illustrated by Michael Slack. Houghton Harcourt. 2012. ISBN 978-0547513386. Gr 2–5.
Taking inspiration from 14 classic poets, Children’s Poet Laureate Lewis reimagines some of their poems and transforms them into clever math riddles for readers to solve. Humorous digitally created illustrations add character appeal and help bring the words to life. A double page spread at the end offers brief biographical information about the highlighted poets.
Litton, Jonathan. Mesmerizing Math. Illustrated by Thomas Flintham. Candlewick/Templar. 2013. ISBN 978-0-7636-6881-5. Gr 3 Up.
Filled with interactive flaps, tabs, pop-ups and spinners, this book makes math entertaining and fun. Topics include: statistics, measuring, symmetry, geometry, probability, and more.
Long, Ethan. The Wing Wing Brothers: Carnival De Math Holiday House. 2013. ISBN 978-0-8234-2604-1. Gr 1–3.
What do you get when you cross math concepts such as adding and subtracting by tens with a carnival? If the five Wing Wing brothers are involved, then you wind up with some wacky numerical fun! When a wiener eating contest erupts in the second section, 100 wieners wind up being downed in a frenzy, until “Wendell, Wilmer, Willy, Walter, and Woody all need wider waistbands.” Silly math antics ensue!
Long, Ethan. The Wing Wing Brothers Geometry Palooza! Holiday House. 2014. ISBN 9780823429516. Gr K–2.
The Wing Wing brothers are back in another series of zany adventures that showcase basic geometric terms such as: describing relative positions, creating larger shapes with simple shapes, and partitioning rectangles into equal shares. A note at the end mentions which kindergarten and first grade common core state standards are addressed.
McNamara, Margaret. How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin? Illustrated by G. Brian Karas Random/Schwartz & Wade. 2007. ISBN 978-0-375-84014-2. PreK–2.
Charlie is the smallest in his class, but when his class has to guess how many seeds are in a pumpkin, he is surprised to find out that the smallest pumpkin actually contains the most seeds – so sometimes being the biggest isn’t the best thing! Gouache, acrylic and pencil illustrations rendered in autumnal hues depict a multicultural classroom setting.
Merriam, Eve. 12 Ways to Get to 11. Illustrated by Bernie Karlin. S & S/Aladdin. 1996. ISBN: 9780689808920. PreK–1.
Shows the different ways of counting to eleven, using a variety of experiences. “Six bites, a core, a stem, and three apple seeds” is one clever example. Cut paper and colored pencil illustrations pop against double page spreads.
Murphy, Stuart J. Leaping Lizards. Illustrated by JoAnn Adinolfi.HarperCollins. 2005. ISBN 9780060001308. K–2.
A fun look at the concept of counting by fives and tens as the leaping lizard show awaits all 50 of its stars to arrive. Bright and lively illustrations of cavorting lizards fill the pages, offering lots of opportunities for little ones to count along.
Murphy, Stuart J. A Pair of Socks. Illustrated by Lois Ehlert.HarperCollins.1996. ISBN 0-06-025880-2. PreK–K.
Featuring Ehlert’s trademark cut paper collage illustrations in vivid primary hues that teaches the basic concept of patterns and pattern recognition as a search ensues for a lost sock’s match.
Overdeck, Laura. Bedtime Math. Feiwel & Friends. 2013. ISBN: 978-1250035851. PreK–4.
Five short chapters offer 38 simple stories that are each followed by three math questions geared towards “wee ones, little kids, and big kids.” The differentiations in question levels allow the title to be used with a wide range of ages. An introduction explains the basic concept of Bedtime Math—which is to make math a fun, everyday part of life and not something to fear.
Pallotta, Jerry. Ocean Counting: Odd Numbers. Illustrated by Shennen Bersani. Charlesbridge. 2005. ISBN 0-88106-151-4. K–2.
Children can count from 1 to 49 as they learn about fascinating fish and other creatures located in the Atlantic Ocean off of the Massachusetts shore. Realistic colored pencil drawings beautifully display such unique creatures as 25 cunner fish or 39 skate eggs for readers to find and count.
Rosenthal, Amy Krause. Wumbers. Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle. 2012. ISBN: 978-1452110226. Gr 2–4.
This clever book takes text messaging short hand to the next level and inspires kids to create words made out of letters and numbers. Readers will be challenged to figure out the actual words by using the illustrations to help decipher some of the wumbers presented on each separate double page vignette. Some fairly advanced vocabulary (elate el8, stupendous s2pendous) fits nicely with common core’s look at more complex vocabulary.
Schwartz, David M. If Dogs Were Dinosaurs. Illustrated by James Warhola. Scholastic. 2005. ISBN: 0-439-67612-6. Gr 1–4.
A comical look at the principals of ratio and proportion applied to everyday items. So, if your dog was as big as a dinosaur, his food would fill your entire living room. Eleven examples are illustrated on double page spreads, and then explained in further detail on the final pages of the book. Looking at our dog again, 40 pound Rex suddenly turns into a 14,000 pound T. Rex. His one bowl of food a day turns into 350 bowls, or 14,000 ÷ 40 = 350.
Scieszka, Jon. Math Curse. Illustrated by Lane Smith. Viking. 1995. ISBN: 978-0670861941. Gr 1–4.
A young girl starts to see her entire world as math problems in this irreverently funny take on how math surrounds us at all times, after her math teacher, Mrs. Fibonacci, tells the class “you know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem.” An oversize format brimming with Lane Smith’s signature collage and illustrations marry the pictures and text perfectly.
Sebe, Masayuki. Let’s Count to 100! Kids Can Pr. 2011. ISBN 1-55453-6618. PreK–Kindergarten.
Brightly colored comical cartoon characters featured in easy to count groups of ten encourage readers to count their way to 100. Search-and-find elements scattered throughout the pages add another level of interactivity for readers as they peruse the pictures.
Slade, Suzanne. The Great Divide. Illustrated by Erin E. Hunter. Sylvan Dell. 2012. ISBN 978-1-60718-5215. Gr 2–4.
This introduction to division also teaches readers the names of different groups of animals, many of which they probably have not heard before, such as a “charm” of hummingbirds – or a knot of toads. The last four pages offer opportunities for teachers to do extension activities, and online resources and tie-ins are also included.
Stills, Caroline. Mice Mischief: Math Facts in Action. Illustrated by Judith Rossell. Holiday House. 2013. ISBN: 978-0-8234-2947-9. PreK
A group of mice spend the day both cleaning and practicing their tumbling and acrobatic skills as they showcase various ways to reach the sum of ten as they get ready for their circus. Crisp white pages allow the collage, pencil, and acrylic illustrations to leap off the page, offering lots of soft details for readers to see.
Tang, Greg. The Grapes of Math: Mind Stretching Math Riddles. Illustrated by Harry Briggs. Scholastic. 2001. ISBN 0-439-19990-5. Gr 2–5.
A variety of math riddles are presented for young readers to solve using different mathematical concepts such as identifying patterns, adding, subtracting, and using creative thinking to find easier and smarter solutions to the problems at hand. For example, “how many panes are filled with light? Here’s a way that’s really bright. Don’t just count the lights you see. Subtract the rooms where there’s a Zzzzz!” The accompanying illustration shows an apartment building of five stories, with seven windows on each story. So, 7 x 5 = 35, minus the 7 windows filled with Zzzzs gives readers an answer of 28. An answer key is included in the back that explains how each problem is solved.
Tang, Greg. Math Fables Too: Making Science Count. Illustrated by Taia Morley. Scholastic. 2007. ISBN 978-0-439-78351-4. PreK–K.
Geared towards the younger crowd, Tang challenges readers in rhyme to think about numbers in creative ways as they transition from simple counting to adding numbers. He intersperses complex vocabulary with interesting facts about the featured animals. The last page also gives additional information on each animal.
Tang, Greg. Math-terpieces: The Art of Problem Solving. Illustrated by Greg Paprocki. Scholastic. 2003. ISBN: 978-0-439-443883. Gr 2–5.
Combines mathematical problems with famous works of art to create visual problems for students to solve ranging from easy to more difficult. The math problems for older students focus more on problem-solving, while the easier equations focus on addition.
Thompson, Lauren. How Many Cats? Illustrated by Robin Eley. Disney/Hyperion. 2009. ISBN: 978-142310801-6. K-1.
A lone dog thinks he is home alone, until cats start appearing – frolicking throughout the house. Starting with one lone cat, up to 20 felines appear, and then disappear for readers to track in simple sums.
Wells, Rosemary. Bunny Money. Dial. 1997. ISBN 0-8037-2146-3. PreK–1.
Everyone’s favorite bunny Max and his sister Ruby go shopping for a present for their grandma in this simple story that teaches money management as they spend their money along the way. The end papers are illustrated with bunny dollars, and a note at the end encourages readers to photocopy the “money” to play along with Max and Ruby and practice adding and subtracting skills.
Wood, Audrey. Ten Little Fish. Illustrated by Bruce Wood. Scholastic/Blue Sky. 2004. ISBN 978-0-439-635-691. PreK.
A simple counting tale that starts at ten and ends at one – or does it? Another fish comes along to make “two little fish, in love with each other. Soon one is a father, and the other is a…mother.” Ten little baby fish happily swim by in a line on the last pages of the book. Vividly hued digital artwork weaves throughout the ocean blue backgrounds.
School Library Journal “First Steps” columnist Lisa G. Kropp is the youth services coordinator at the Suffolk Cooperative Library System in Bellport, NY.