August 15, 2017

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Easy as 1-2-3 | The Best of the New Math Books

Engagingly presented and packed with child appeal, these titles can fuel interest in mathematics and increase understanding and retention of basic concepts. From enchanting picture books to engrossing try-this manuals, the offerings presented here provide fresh ways to explore ideas and reinforce fundamentals, while adding an interactive element to the learning mix. Share these resources with students to convey, review, and apply basic skills and generate enthusiasm for both math and reading.

Math Starters

Pairing charming paper collage artwork with a lively interactive text, Marthe Jocelyn’s Sam Sorts (Tundra, Feb. 2017; PreS-Gr 1) introduces basic concepts in an inventive and informative way. Sam’s 100 favorite possessions are piled in a colorful heap on the floor, and though the job looks daunting, he finds a fun and reader-riveting method to “tidy up.” First, he extracts Obo the robot (a “one of a kind” creation cobbled together from juice box, thread spool, and pipe cleaner, followed by two “snarling” dinosaurs, three tiny decorative boxes, and four “fake foods.” As Sam continues to organize his things, these and other interesting objects are counted, compared, and classified according to physical attributes, and grouped and re-grouped. One spread showcases sets consisting of rocks, round objects, and items that come in pairs (circles made of baker’s twine cleverly delineate the sets and overlap to indicate subsets, creating a simple Venn diagram). Other pages organize objects by color, shape, texture, items that rhyme (readers identify and vocalize “house” and “mouse”), things Sam made “all by himself” (including Obo), and much more. Throughout, the balance between text and visuals encourages readers to count, compare, classify, and take each concept to the next level of application while also emphasizing the joy of discovery and imaginative play

Filled with endearingly depicted critters, Susie Ghahremani’s vibrant picture book encourages readers to not only count, but also Stack the Cats (Abrams Appleseed, May 2017; PreS-Gr 1). In addition to giggle-inducing piles of brightly colored kitties that “teeter,” “totter,” and occasionally “tumble,” this arrangement introduces addition, subtraction, and even multiplication operations. One spread, reading “Six cats prefer two stacks of three cats,” depicts the two feline towers along with a ruler on one side and a dotted line on the other indicating that the amounts are of equal value. Another page states, “Nine cats agree to three, three, and three,” and presents numerals in a vertical number sentence along with the appropriately apportioned felines. Ultimately, “Ten cats are just too many!”—so the critters begin to disappear (one sleeps, two climb a scratching pole, two hide under the carpet, etc.), providing the perfect (purrfect) opportunity for discussion of subtraction. A final query, “How will you stack the cats?” encourages further exploration of the concepts (kids could even cut out and color their own versions of these simply shaped, easy-to-trace cats to use as manipulatives).

Bob Barner’s Ants Rule: The Long and Short of It (Holiday House, Feb. 2017; K-Gr 2) provides an eye-pleasing introduction to nonstandard measurement, comparing lengths, and organizing and representing information. The carpenter ants are busy making plans for the Blowout Bug Jamboree. The first step is to determine each insect’s length, using an ant as a basic unit of measurement (a true-to-scale ruler presented on the lower edge reveals that each ant is one inch long). Readers discover that a caterpillar is four ants long, a bee is the same as two ants, and a ladybug is equal to one ant. This info is clearly displayed in a chart that helps youngsters make comparisons, interpret the data, and answer questions (“Who is the shortest? Who is the longest?”). As more bugs are added, different visual methods are utilized to present their increasing sizes, while narrative prompts keep kids interacting with the text. To finish their project, the ants need to know how many of each kind of bug will attend the jamboree, and the data is displayed in a bar graph and a pie chart. Finally, a double fold-out reveals the reason for all of this data accumulation (and provides an example of the real-world applications of math)—a roller-coaster-style Buggy-go-round. Winsome paper collages satisfy the eye and invite close consideration. Kids can get rulers out to quantify the colorful critters in inches and centimeters, or use another nonstandard unit found in the classroom (e.g., paper clips, erasers, or snap cubes) to measure and formulate their data into a graph.

It’s hard to comprehend astronomically large numbers, but Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg’s A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars (Greenwillow, Sept. 2017; K-Gr 3) provides readers with an enlightening launchpad. Playfully written and strikingly illustrated, this picture book begins by asking youngsters to contemplate the sky, moving the focus from a single entity to the uncountable: “The sun is just a star,” the text explains as the set-against-black illustration reveals a solitary fiery orange-red ball, “And there are (maybe) 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars” (this spread pulsates with seemingly countless white daubs). The spotlight swings back to Earth, a warm-hued orb covered with “three hundred seventy billion billion” gallons of water and “three trillion” trees (thankfully, amounts are always expressed in both digits and words). The mind-stretching quantities continue—always presented with lighthearted touches in text and artwork to make them more comprehensible. The moon is 240,000 miles away, a distance equal to about 10 times around the earth, or “almost 420,000,000 yous (or dogs or smallish snakes or guitars or baseball bats) lined up head to foot.” If you hold your breath for five seconds, and repeat 6,307,200 times, “you’ll be a year older.” The narrative makes it clear that these “crazy numbers” are constantly changing (“getting bigger or smaller right before your eyes”), and an author’s note explains the use of estimates to help readers “imagine sizes and compare one big fact to another.”

Topic-Based Explorations

David A. Adler and Edward Miller’s Money Math (Holiday House, Aug. 2017; Gr 1-3) introduces the U.S. currency system and delves into determining value and adding and subtracting money. A group of multicultural kids want to make purchases at the Betsy Ross Gift Shop, but first they must learn to count their money. Historical figures including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt step up to explain the values of the coins and bills that display their portraits, and cleanly designed visuals help to make amounts and equivalencies crystal clear (for example, a neatly lined up block of pennies is displayed next to a dollar bill, and values are described with words and numerals). The decimal point and dollar sign are introduced for amounts “100¢ or more,” with each part of the featured quantity, $1.42, identified and explained (in the background, Ben Franklin flies a kite with a half-dollar, three quarters, a dime, a nickel, and two pennies dangling from the string, providing another visual interpretation and money-counting opportunity). Kids are invited to get hands-on by using real (or plastic) coins to solve “coin puzzles”; with the help of easy-to-follow graphics and helpful dialogue balloons, they can figure out the many different coin combinations that make certain amounts (there are 50 ways to make 50¢), and use the coins to practice addition (counting money) and subtraction (giving change) problems. The book’s upbeat text, colorful artwork, and money-counting approach add up to a fun approach to math.

Adler and Miller’s Let’s Estimate (Holiday House, Jan. 2017; Gr 3-5) utilizes the same combination of textual and visual clarity to introduce concepts of estimating and rounding numbers. This time, cheerful dinosaurs join the cast of human characters to convey ideas and keep the pages looking interesting. After explaining why an approximate answer might sometimes be better than an exact answer (for example, when responding to the question, how old are you?), the book uses a shopping trip to show the difference between rounding and estimating as well as how they work together (round the cost of individual items and add them up to estimate the total bill). As more examples are presented, box charts delineating place values and other visual aids help readers determine whether to round up or down, and how to round to different place values. The book ends by highlighting the many uses for rounding and estimating, from figuring out how much pizza to buy for a party to doing mental math calculations. Colorfully illustrated and informative, this offering can be used with small groups or one-on-one with students to reinforce important concepts. Be sure to check out the many math-based titles from this creative team, including Triangles (2015); Perimeter, Area, and Volume (2013); and Time Zones (2011, all Holiday House).

Sir Cumference and the Fracton Faire (Charlesbridge, Mar. 2017; K-Gr 3), the latest in Cindy Neuschwander and Wayne Geehan’s series of math adventures set in medieval times, introduces fractions. As the humorously named protagonist and his friends, Lady Di of Ameter and the Earl of Fracton, stroll through the market place, they chat with merchants and discover how fractions can be used to measure and purchase wares (both the narrative and the artwork introduce concepts and terms such as denominator and numerator). Unfortunately, the nobles’ interactions with the townsfolk also reveal that merchandize has gone missing. Surmising that the thief must be an outsider to Fracton (and thus not have a solid understanding of fractions), the friends set a trap: a gold coin will be awarded to the person who finds the slip of paper with the largest “Fracton number” (the perpetrator foolishly grabs and presents 1/32, thinking it the largest, and is run out of town). Share this entertaining math adventure aloud and make sure to illustrate and emphasize the concepts and examples on the board, or with math manipulatives.

Line graphs, bar graphs, and pie charts are three of the most common infographics used today to represent data, but most people know very little about the individual who invented them. In Lines, Bars and Circles (Kids Can, Apr. 2017; Gr 1-4), Helaine Becker and Maire-Eve Tremblay tell the intriguing tale of William Playfair (1759–1823). Both a creative thinker and irritating jokester throughout his boyhood days in Scotland, Will managed to master mathematics under the tutelage of his much more grounded (and annoying) older brother John. Bursting with ideas, Will left home at age 14 to pursue “grand dreams” that would result in nothing less than “riches! fame! glory!” However, lack of attention to the work at hand (inventor James Watt, who took him on his assistant, called him a blunderer), failed business schemes, and poorly chosen ventures left him “flat broke…” and “…in trouble with the law.” An appealing blend of descriptive narrative and effective visuals depict Will’s big breakthrough—the revolutionary picture charts that made it easy to share “hard-to-understand information”—and explain how line graphs, bar graphs, and pie charts function to readers. Unfortunately, Will’s contemporaries, who viewed him as both a scoundrel and schemer, pooh-poohed the idea, which did not catch on for another 100 years. An author’s note provides more detail about the background of this groundbreaking independent thinker, along with reproductions of his original graphs. Spirited writing, humorous illustrations, and thoughtful analysis make this picture book biography a winner.

Fun Applications

Rebecca Rapoport and J.A. Yoder’s Math Lab for Kids (Quarry, Jan. 2017; Gr 1-6) provides more than 50 hands-on activities that explore mathematical concepts and make learning fun. Thematic chapters include brief and clear explanations of the featured topic, which span from geometry and topology to parabolas, fractals, tangrams, and graph theory. Real-world applications for the subject are highlighted, and a “Think About It” challenge helps to introduce the idea [“Can you draw a curve (or something that looks like a curve) using only straight lines?”]. A series of labs explore the concepts presented, and the book’s easy-to-follow instructions, effective diagrams, and inviting photos guarantee success. Sidebars with helpful tips, additional math facts, brief bios of mathematicians, and “Try This!” expansions are scattered throughout. Students can build pyramids and other shapes from toothpicks and gumdrops, draw and stitch a variety of curves, create a fractal snowflake, solve tangram puzzles, and more. Projects suit a variety of skill levels, and occasional “Math Meet” activities provide opportunities for kids to collaborate. Throughout, the authors’ upbeat try-and-see attitude fosters problem-solving skills and can-do confidence. Though students could use this book independently, the projects will be useful to educators when planning programs and activities.

Written in a lighthearted tone and filled with cartoon illustrations, Mike Goldsmith’s This Book Thinks You’re a Math Genius (Thames & Hudson, Oct. 2017, Gr 2-6), illustrated by Harriet Russell, invites youngsters to dive right in and experiment, imagine, and create. Though the pages are meant to be scribbled on, cut up, and colored, the content can be adapted for group use. Activities are divided into sections that present several activities: geometrical shapes (tessellate animal shapes, a topology scavenger hunt, draw in 3-D, the mice problem and pursuit curves), measurement and statistics (collect data for a chart, measure by using water displacement, ratios and baking), mazes and graph theory (plot a path without lifting your pen, etc.), patterns (draw a fractal tree, etc.), codes and ciphers (send a secret message, use a Polybius square to encrypt pictures, binary code), logic (sudoku, nim, etc.), and math games (Pig, “mind-reading” number prediction methods, quick-draw arithmetic). The text is brief and easy-to-follow, and boxed “Where’s the Math?” inserts introduce concepts and highlight applications. Enticing and amusing, this book makes an appealing expansion for independent use or an idea bank for educators.

“How many bees does it take to make one jar of honey?” “How many pieces of gum can stick me to a wall and hole me there?” “How many people would it take to hold hands and circle the earth?” Laura Overdeck tackles these questions and more in How Many Guinea Pigs Can Fit on a Plane? (Feiwel and Friends, Jun. 2017; Gr 1-5). The queries all came from fans of the author’s “Bedtime Math” series (, and can all be answered, of course, by using math. Arranged into broad sections (“Animal Math,” “Nature Gone Wild,” “Your Life in Numbers,” etc.), the questions are presented on double-page spreads that feature colorful backdrops and eye-catching photographic montages. Overdeck tackles each problem by breaking it down into components, gathering pertinent facts and statistics, explaining and applying mathematical functions, and working through the equation that provides the answer. The upbeat text and dynamic visuals make the volume entertaining to browse, while the author’s methodology provides a good example of breaking down a complex problem into more manageable pieces, and book’s scope indicates the useful and diverse real-world applications of mathematics.


What makes a good math app? Gretchen Kolderup shares her thoughts and some of her favorite productions in this School Library Journal  Touch and Go column.

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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