November 17, 2017

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Mathical: A New Book Award Honors the Magic of Mathematics

Marc 2What subject area is the ugly duckling of your library? The one that doesn’t get much attention, isn’t seen as appealing or as much fun as the other sections—but just may be as attractive and exciting? I bet I know: math books. I’m talking about those titles that approach the topic as fresh and interesting—and as alive as the latest sports result. If math titles are your ugly duckling, I have a solution—a way to free those titles to flock with the other swans. Just last month a new prize was announced: Mathical Books for Kids from Tots to Teens. I can’t say I love the name, but I do think this is an award worthy of your attention.

A bit of background: the prize comes from an alliance between Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI)—a non-profit that focuses on mathematical research and works to deepen appreciation of mathematics across all age levels—and the Children’s Book Council (CBC). As you know, the CBC works with other organizations, such as the National Council of Social Studies and the National Science Teachers Association to produce annual lists of “notable” trade books in those fields. But the Mathical prize is different. As David Eisenbud, director of MSRI, explained to me, the organization wanted to select and honor individual exceptional books, which makes the award sound to me more like American Library Association’s (ALA) celebrated youth award winners, than a long list of titles.

The name Mathical was chosen to imbue math with a sense of the magical, or mythical—the aura of wonder and inspiration—and Eisenbud hopes the prize will help K-12 readers to appreciate the “charm and reach” of mathematics. Thus MSRI is open to all kinds of books in which the subject plays a role—nonfiction, of course, but also adventure stories, picture books that take an imaginative and original approach to the topic, applications of math to real-life situations and concerns, and more.

To facilitate this wide-ranging mandate, the organizers have crafted an impressive, and unusual, set of judges. There are the math professors—Jordan Ellenberg, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin and author of the wonderful How Not to Be Wrong (Penguin, 2014), was struck by the “variety and multiplicity” of approaches in the books; but also SLJ blogger Betsy Bird; and former children’s book ambassador Jon Scieszka, who along with some middle and high school math teachers, comprised the panel (full list on the site). Each book had many readers, indeed, some judges also actively sought comments from young readers. The judges then met—physically and digitally—to share perspectives. Out of this discussion came the first list of winners and honor titles—and one very special addition.

If you want to highlight math in your library as creative and an exciting and enjoyable endeavor, here’s your ready-made display (the prize comes with handy stickers, and a poster and bookmarks, so the books can display their pride). From the Mathical site:

The Mathical prize winners in five age categories, published in 2014, are:

Pre-K:
Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light

Grades K-2:
One Big Pair of Underwear by Laura Gehl

Grades 3-5 and Grades 6-8:
Really Big Numbers by Richard Evan Schwartz

Grades 9-12:
Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano

The Mathical Honor books (published 2009-2014) are:

Pre-K:
Count the Monkeys by Mac Barnett
Over in a River: Flowing Out to the Sea by Marianne Berkes

Grades K-2:
Zero the Hero by Joan Holub

Grades 3-5:
Bedtime Math: This Time It’s Personal by Laura Overdeck
Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D’Agnese
Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems by J. Patrick Lewis
Numbed! by David Lubar
The Rookie Bookie by L. Jon Wertheim and Tobias Moskowitz

Grades 6-8:
Mathemagic! Number Tricks by Lynda Colgan
The Ice Castle: An Adventure in Music by Pendred Noyce

Grades 9-12:
The Unknowns by Benedict Carey
What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter by Jeffrey Bennett

The first Mathical Awards were presented at the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library in Washington, DC. Fourth grade students from were in attendance.

The first Mathical Awards were presented at the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library in Washington, DC. Fourth grade students from Sacred Heart School were in attendance.

The Mathical folks are aware that in honoring math books they have a lot of catch-up to do—so they’ve added a Hall of Fame category. Each year, a book—a past great, published long before the prize existed but deserving of a place in the sun—will be named. The first winner, is, of course:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

The first Mathical prize was announced to applause at the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library with fourth grade students from the Sacred Heart School in Washington, DC, in attendance. CBC will have a table at ALA annual in San Francisco where you can pick up Mathical swag to decorate your display. And the next round of books, the 2015 candidates as well as the second Hall of Fame selection, will be judged in June to be announced at a propitious time in the winter or spring. For authors or publishers interested in submitting books for consideration, a set of guidelines is available from Mathical.

So fly on math books—you are finally free to soar, with your prizes glittering in the sun.

Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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