Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös, who died in 1996, remains a cult figure in the world of mathematics. As far as I can tell, Deborah Heiligman’s new biography of the man—The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdös, illustrated by LeUyen Pham—is the only illustrated picture book that exists that shines a spotlight on his life. And what an intriguing figure he was. He demonstrated, as Heiligman writes in the book’s closing author’s note, that “math could be fun and social.”
Heiligman opens the book with 3-year-old Paul, who had a huge problem: His mother, his primary caretaker, had to return to work as a math teacher, so she left him with a woman named Fräulein, who was a strict disciplinarian. “That was the problem. Paul hated rules.” To ease his worried mind, he counted the days till his Mama would be once again home with him all day during the summer months. Thus began his love of numbers, counting and math.
His mother’s first glimpse of Paul’s mathematical genius came when he was four and a visitor told him her birthday, including the year she was born, and Paul “thought for a moment. Then he told her how many seconds she had been alive.”
As he grew, he played with numbers and became increasingly infatuated with mathematics. Heiligman does a skillful job of weaving his fascination with math into his daily childhood life in Budapest, making it crystal clear how he had so much head space for things like prime numbers: With his mother and Fräulein essentially homeschooling him, they slipped into overprotective patterns that rendered him unable to take care of himself. They dressed him, tied his shoes, fed him—even buttered his bread and cut his meat.
By the time he was 20, she explains, he was world-famous for his math, yet still couldn’t do his own laundry. So, “he invented his own way to live,” essentially adopting a vagabond lifestyle, traveling around the world to visit friends and colleagues with only two small suitcases in hand for each visit. His friends and their families would host him, as they set to work to solve math problems. Paul was set! No need to cut his own grapefruit or wash his own clothes, because he wanted, instead, to do math “about 19 hours a day—every single day.”
Heiligman, who expertly captures Erdös’ quirky behavior, while also conveying great respect for her subject, eventually takes readers into Erdös’ old age, showing him with his elite mathematician friends and highlighting the types of mathematics with which they worked: number theory, combinatorics, the probabilistic method, and set theory. Some of the math he and his friends did, she explains in simple but never condescending ways to child readers, brought about better computers and better search engines for computers.
And his exit from this world? Why, he was at a math meeting, of course, when he died.
LeUyen Pham’s sharp, colorful illustrations are a pleasing match to Heiligman’s text. With humor and reverence, she shows us Paul’s world. But her artwork goes a step beyond the story Heiligman puts down in words. As Pham explains in a lengthy and very detailed illustrator’s note, she incorporates a good deal of math into her artwork—from harmonic primes on Page 1, floating through the white space, as young Paul chases after them, to prime numbers on the final spread, part of the very fabric of the buildings, just waiting for observant eyes to discover them.
In between, we see theorems, equations, graphs and much more, all waiting to be found on nearly every spread. Pham goes to great lengths to explain them in her final notes. She includes famous Budapest landmarks (with descriptions at the book’s close), and she identifies in these final notes each and every mathematician pictured in her spreads, the ones with whom Paul collaborated.
Readers won’t be able to keep from poring over this one; it’s fascinating, whether you consider yourself a math-lover or not. This solid, well-crafted biography of “Uncle Paul”—what mathematicians all over the world called Erdös—is made exceptional by these engaging spreads from Pham.
Best of all, you won’t have to count down the days till its release: It’s already out on shelves.
A one-in-a-million picture book biography. Don’t miss it.
THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH: THE IMPROBABLE LIFE OF PAUL ERDOS. Copyright © 2013 by Deborah Heiligman. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by LeUyen Pham. Published by Roaring Brook Press, New York. Spreads used with permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.