There are two kinds of children’s books: those that are aimed primarily at the kids themselves and those that are aimed at the adults that actually shell out the cash to pay for the books. There’s certainly a lot of overlap — books that kids love but that also catch the eyes, hearts & minds and wallets of the adults doing the shopping. But wander the aisles of your local bookstore and you’ll see what I mean. Often beautifully illustrated, with a sophisticated artistic touch and a mature and serious topic, you can tell the books that are aimed at the parents and uncles and cousins and aunts and friends and neighbours and grandparents. Next to them are the fun, silly and truly childish books that appeal to the actual kids themselves. And the reverse, too, silly books that are aimed at what adults thinks of as childish concerns but that miss the mark. There are plenty of serious books that perfectly frame the real issues in kids’ lives but are perhaps too “gritty” or “realistic” for adults to think that the kids in their lives would be ready or mature enough to understand them.
And now we come to the notion of a biographical kids book about a mathematician. It seems kind of counter-intuitive, of course, at first glance but then you remember that perhaps there are a few interesting oddballs among the mathematical ranks. Even among the oddballs, perhaps most wouldn’t make for great stories for kids — think Paul Dirac or Grigori Perelman for example. And then you remember Paul Erdős. And yeah, perfect.
And that brings us to the book at hand, The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham (ages 3-8).
A kids book about Paul Erdős actually kind of makes sense. Certainly he had his quirks and oddities, in fact his whole life was a bit of an oddity. Basically, he spent most of his adult life couch surfing from city to city, from the home of one mathematician to another, sleeping on their beds, eating their food and most of all, collaborating with them and producing scholarly papers by the ream. He’s actually kind of famous for that habit of collaboration — it’s even spawned the famous Erdős Number (and variants like the Erdős-Bacon number), which calculates the degrees of collaborative separation between mathematicians and Erdős himself.
But, to once again somehow circle around to the main reason for this review, this bizarre idea of a kid’s book about this eccentric mathematician. Does it work? Yes, actually it does. Not surprising, it’s quirky and playful and a little nutty, and definitely plays up the more child-like aspects of Erdős’s life and personality like his obsession of numbers and his playful disdain for everyday life and habits (and not the more adult sides, like his drug use). The book is actually quite light-hearted. LeUyen Pham’s artwork very nicely picks up on the mathematical themes with lots of numbers and equations and visual hat-tips to math embedded in the various scenes. It’s also clean and a bit retro even, not distracting at all from story.
The notes at the end explain a lot more about Erdős’ life and math, something perhaps for the adults reading the book to pick up a bit more than the kids. Which cycles me even further back (recurses, maybe?) to the beginning of the review. Is this a kids book for kids or a kids book for adults? Eh, a little of both. Definitely not something just anybody would pick up for just any kid — either the adult will likely have a math connection that they want to infect the kid with or perhaps some adult will recognize a kid with a math bug and research math-related kids books and find this one.
Which is kind of too bad. I think any kid would enjoy this book, as would any math-loving adult. It would make a great present for any family with a young kid or as a fun gift for any sciencey person in your life.
And to cycle even further back in time, I first heard about this book at the end of January, at the Ontatio Library Association SuperConference, in the exhibits room. The distributor for the book had a few copies on display and I tweeted a picture of the cover:
— John Dupuis (@dupuisj) January 31, 2013
Which at one point was the top tweet for the conference! And luckily, while expressing my excitement over the book to the staff at the distributor’s both, they were kind enough to give me the copy to take home. A favour I’m returning with this review. Trust me, it was tough waiting until the book was actually released to review it!
Of course, the book is titled The Boy who Loved Math. And we don’t all have boys. What about girls that love math? Or who could love math if they had a book with a female role model? What books could we buy for them?
I have some suggestions, although not many that would be for girls in the 3-8 age range that the Erdős appeals to.
- Emmy Noether: The Mother of Modern Algebra
- Math Girls and Math Girls 2: Fermat’s Last Theorem by Hiroshi Yuki
- Danica McKellar has a bunch of books on math aimed at girls
- Not quite math, but there are a few books on Grace Hopper aimed at girls.
- Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists, a graphic novel by Jim Ottaviani and others.
- Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks (my review)
Further suggestions of books appealing to girls (and boys) are, of course, welcome in the comments.
Heiligman, Deborah and LeUyen Pham. The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2013. 37pp. ISBN-13: 978-1596433076 (for ages 3-8)
(Advanced Reading Copy provided by publisher/distributer)
(A more math-centric review here.)