Literacy is important. Numeracy is important.
So…why not combine literacy and numeracy while learning about real people and real events? I get giddy when I enter the children’s section of the library or bookstore these days because there are SO many wonderful books to discover.
Here are two books I recommend reading to your child. Yes, read to your child. Even if your child is 9-years-old and reads to himself. If you ask him, “Would you like me to read a book to you?”, he may say, “No. I’m going to play with my Beyblades.” But if you plunk down next to him on the couch and just start to read aloud, his curiosity will be piqued, and he will probably snuggle in beside you.
First and foremost, reading together is intimate. You’ll sit near each other. Hopefully you’ll cuddle. There won’t be any phones or iPads or other tech distractions to divide you from each other (make sure of this.) Second, when you read together you can observe and wonder together. You can linger on a page and talk about the images or talk about the story — or just talk about life. Third, we already know that we should be reading to our very young children, but it is just as important to continue reading to our older children because it give us another way to stay connected to each other as they become more independent.
Of course, you already knew all that. So, let’s take a look at these cool books…
I’m always on the lookout for a good “math” book to read to my kids. These two, in particular, stand out for their vivid artwork, their well told stories of real-life people, and their examples of how other people live with math in their lives.
The first book is one we’ve been reading since the 9-year-old was a 3-year-old. The Boy Who Loved Math is written by Deborah Heiligman and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. This child’s biography of a real-life mathematician is not only interesting and engaging, but it is beautifully illustrated. Every page is colorful and bursting with the wide-eyed energy of Paul Erdos, a famous mathematician. There is math to discover in every picture. Numbers peek through windows, dance out of Paul’s thoughts, and stream through the air.
In The Boy Who Loved Math, the math is at the center of the story. As we read, we wondered why certain numbers were on the pages (specific numbers are explained at the end of the book), we learned about negative numbers, and we discussed prime numbers. We talked about Paul Erdos’s lifestyle and how he interacted with other people. It wasn’t simply an opportunity to talk about math, but also an opportunity to talk about what “makes people tick.”
The second book is one I found more recently. It was just published in January 2018. Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly and illustrated by Laura Freeman is a children’s adaptation of Hidden Figures, the story of the black women who worked as NASA mathematicians and were integral to America’s success in space. Math, gender, and race all rolled up together in a beautifully illustrated children’s book? Yes, please!
I read this book to the kids while we ate dinner. (If I had said, “Hey Kids! Let’s read a book together!” the answer would have likely been, “No! We are playing with our Beyblades!” But I slipped it in at dinner time without any fanfare, and there was no protest.)
Immediately the boys were engaged – we observed that each of the women in the book wore earrings that were related to astronomy. Moon! Saturn! Stars! While the story is important and engaging (What? She was a COMPUTER? But computers are machines! Why couldn’t she go to school with everyone else?? Why do they keep saying NO to her?), I know it’s the illustrations that hooked my children. They are bright and bold and clear and interesting. On each page, you will find images of math and science softly intertwined with illustrations of history and social justice .
The story gave us many opportunities to observe and wonder and discuss. On our first read, the kids asked about World War 2, segregation in schools, and noticed MLK in a train window. No questions about math. And that’s okay, because what I think (what I hope) they learned about math from this book is that anyone has the capacity to be a great mathematician. I hope they also learned a little bit about persistence – both that it is necessary in order to achieve great things AND that it is tiring if it must be used to demand what is unfairly withheld. For me, this series of illustrations was the most striking one in the book:
In this scene, Katherine Johnson is repeatedly asking her boss if she can attend a meeting that only white men have been allowed to attend. He says it is impossible because she is a black woman. She asks again and again and again. The illustrations clearly show Katherine’s determination. They can’t possibly depict the side-effects of that dogged persistence…how the other aspects of one’s life get squeezed when you have to work so hard for something that is handed to others.
And this is another reason why it’s important to get mathy with your kids. Because “real-life examples” aren’t just a way to teach math…math is another way to teach by example about real life.
(Mathematically…it’s important to remember that supporting our kids in math doesn’t mean simply practicing arithmetic and algebra with them. It means giving them robust examples of math in action. Reading biographies of mathematicians, engineers, and scientists is one way to do this. Otherwise, kids might think that math is simply what they learn in school, and they might start asking silly questions like “when will I ever use THIS??”)