Book Review, and a Message about Math Messages

Yesterday I passed by a bookstore display of The Numberlys by William Joyce and Christina Ellis,* and my children’s math radar buzzed – was this some hot new math picture book that should be on my radar? So I stopped, and I read the book, cover to cover (it’s not long). And it turns out that it’s not a math book…but the math teacher/math lover/math advocate in me had a strong negative reaction to the message about math that it nevertheless sends.


I hate to write a negative review of The Numberlys, because it has so many charming qualities – beautiful illustrations, a cute and quirky setting, a message about creativity and nonconformity and cooperation that doesn’t (to me) feel tired or trite. It’s cute, it’s different, it’s fun.

But my problem with the book, and I think it’s a relevant one whether or not this particular picture book has crossed your parent path, is with the subtle message it sends about numbers and, therefore, mathematics.

Here’s the plot summary, directly from Amazon:

Once upon a time there was no alphabet, only numbers…

Life was…fine. Orderly. Dull as gray paint. Very…numberly. But our five jaunty heroes weren’t willing to accept that this was all there could be. They knew there had to be more.

So they broke out hard hats and welders, hammers and glue guns, and they started knocking some numbers together. Removing a piece here. Adding a piece there. At first, it was awful. But the five kept at it, and soon it was…artful! One letter after another emerged, until there were twenty-six. Twenty-six letters—and they were beautiful. All colorful, shiny, and new. Exactly what our heroes didn’t even know they were missing.

And when the letters entered the world, something truly wondrous began to happen…Pizza! Jelly beans! Color! Books!

The message? Numbers are gray, dull, orderly but boring, and definitely not colorful and creative. That’s what letters are for!

Do you see the problem with this message? It’s a message that I doubt Joyce and Ellis intended to send, and it’s a message easily overlooked. But it’s a message gets repeated over and over to children. Math is boring. Words are fun. Math is rigid and structured and words are beautiful and creative. I am particularly attuned to these messages because I was a child bursting with imagination (like most children!) and I got the message – math had no place for me and my creativity. It wasn’t until college that the message was disrupted and I discovered I could find just as much beauty and creativity (just of a different kind) in the world of numbers.

As parents, we can help combat that message by recognizing it, and by countering it. Have you heard of the praise-to-criticism ratio? This originally comes (as far as I can tell) from a study at my alma mater, the University of Michigan, examining low- and high-functioning business teams. They found that the praise-to-criticism ratio in high functioning teams was almost 6 to 1. That is, every criticism was balanced out by six compliments. I’ve heard this idea extended to marriages, sibling relationships, and parent-child relationships as well, and I like to think (with, admittedly, no solid research to back myself up) that a similar idea might apply to math messaging: for every (subtle or not-so-subtle) negative message a child gets about mathematics, they should hear six positive messages.

And so with that in mind, here are six positive messages I’d like to send out in response to the unfortunate negative message in The Numberlys.


Math-terpieces: The Art of Problem Solving by Greg Tang (get your art and math fix at the same time!)

Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar by Masaichiro and Mitsumasa Anno

How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz (my husband still remembers this one from Reading Rainbow)

Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book by David M. Schwartz

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham


What are some of your favorite math-positive books for kids?


* Apparently this book began life as an iPad app, but I am not familiar with the app, and $5.99 was more than I was willing to pay to check it out. If any of you are familiar with the app, I’d be curious to hear how it compares with the book.

9 thoughts on “Book Review, and a Message about Math Messages

  1. Good review! Also good spotting of the subtextual messages.

    One thought I had reading your post is that letters have the meaning we give them. Numbers already have meaning tucked away inside them, and many secrets still waiting for us to discover them. They have a life beyond our use of them as tools.

    • I love your insight! I’m still discovering surprising and new things about numbers – I suspect I always will, and it’s one of the things I love about mathematics 🙂

  2. Thanks for the review! I saw that the other day and have been thinking about buying it for my boys. Not now. The last thing they need to hear is that math is boring. Math is the key to so many cool things–programming, chemistry, engineering, music. I feel like a better understanding of math helps with things like language and dance, as well. Since college, I’ve allowed myself to avoid difficult problems that involve complex math or science, and it has hampered my ability to learn concepts I really ought to know.

    • I completely agree that math can contribute to things like language and dance as well (and vice versa!). And I feel like having kids gives us an opportunity to revisit math as adults in ways would probably would have avoided on our own :).

  3. I recently saw that book at the bookstore. After flipping through it, I came to the same conclusion!
    My oldest daughter is 5; we have been going through the level 1 MathStart books by Stuart J. Murphy. I am using those books (with hands-on activities) as our kindergarten math curriculum. We all (that includes the 3-year-old) enjoy the MathStart books.

  4. Thanks for the review. It is an interesting contrast with the reviews on Amazon which are generally strongly enthusiastic, if a bit uncertain what age or type of child will enjoy the book. None of them flagged the anti-numbers bias.

    This reminds me of my own reaction to the bucket book: Have you filled a bucket?

    I understand this is a standard in many American schools for giving kids a graphic picture of kindness. However, the mathematician/physicist in me always gets stuck on this analogy directly breaking conservation of mass (something even very small children have learned to appreciate as a critical physical law).

    My additions to the good mathy books:
    – Chicka Chicka 1 2 3 by Ehlert, Martin, Sampson. Basic counting and the numbers are silly (though no objects to count).
    – One Lucky Duck by Lightfoot and Maloney. Counting book with fun rhymes.
    – The Doorbell Rang by Hutchins. Counting and division.
    – The Cat in Numberland by Ekeland and O’Brien. Playing with infinity, this presents some sophisticated concepts, but even at 3 and 6 yrs by kids really enjoyed it.
    – The Number Devil by Enzensberger. A lot of fun explorations in a cute story (though I’m not sure it has a purely math positive tone)

    Also, an under exploited resource, the storybooks from the CSMP math project:

    Here’s an excerpt to give you a taste (from “I Am Not My Name”):
    “While 0 and I were talking, the phone rang. It was my little friend 1/2 calling. 1/2 was very upset, crying and talking at the same time. I had trouble understanding what my little friend was trying to tell me. ‘. . .I lost my name . . . they gave me a new name . . . they change my name all the time. . .’ ”

    Several of these stories have become favorites of my kids. That’s striking given the simplicity of the illustrations and the fact these were intentionally written as part of a math curriculum.

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