The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdös

illus. by LeUyen Pham. 48p. notes. Roaring Brook. June 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-307-6.
Gr 3–6—Erdös (1913–1996), the Hungarian-born son of two math teachers, displayed his fascination with numbers early on. Before entering school he could calculate the number of seconds a person had lived just by asking the time and date of their birth. Unable to sit still and follow rules in school, he was homeschooled by his mother. High school was a better fit, and he made friends with students who shared his love of math. His skills became famous, but Erdös didn't know how to do laundry, cook, or even butter his own bread. He "didn't fit into the world in a regular way." So, he created a life that fit him instead. For years he flew around the world, his modest belongings in two suitcases, working with other noted mathematicians. They worked on number and set theory as well as new ideas like combinatorics and the probabilistic method. Some of their efforts led to the better computers and search engines that we use today. The well-researched text and painstakingly accurate illustrations (in terms of setting and mathematics) provide a fascinating introduction to the man. The oversize eyes of the characters give many of them, especially Erdös, a rather maniacal look that is off-putting. The extensive endnotes provide much information and would be useful in a classroom setting. That may be the most likely scenario for exposing children to this picture-book biography. Only the most mathematically devoted would pick it up on their own.—Sara-Jo Lupo Sites, George F. Johnson Memorial Library, Endicott, NY
Heiligman and Pham combine their considerable talents in this unique look at the "Magician from Budapest," nomadic mathematician Paul Erdos (1913-96). A precocious youngster, Paul hates rules. Cared for by his doting mother and imperious "Fraulein," young Paul is spoiled rotten -- the two women "cut his meat and buttered his bread and got him dressed and tied his shoes." But where the mundane details of daily life don't do much for Paul, numbers are a different story. Paul "thought about math whatever he was doing, wherever he was" as he grows into one of the world's renowned intellectuals. Not one for settling down, Paul travels the world, lecturing and attending math meetings, all while others "did his laundry and cooked his food and cut open his grapefruit and paid his bills." Heiligman presents Paul as an appealing eccentric: for instance, Paul referred to children as "epsilons" (because epsilon "is a very small amount in math"). Pham's artwork is inspired -- her characters have a timeless quality, and each illustration is a puzzle for the reader to solve, with prime numbers hidden on buildings and complex numerical concepts seamlessly integrated into the fabric of many pictures. While the overall layout is high in reader appeal, the font size is far too small for the target audience. Especially tiny are the otherwise excellent author's and illustrator's notes, which further demonstrate their respect and admiration for Erdos and are well worth the potential eye strain. Design flaws aside, this is an infinitely creative and entertaining book for epsilons, numerically inclined or no. sam bloom

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