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.