Several years ago, a friend told me he was planning on taking calculus classes at a local community college. Voluntarily signing up to learn math? I was perplexed...until a few months ago, when I came across several standout math-themed picture books. I was drawn to these titles not because of the lessons they taught but because they left me with feelings of joy and wonder—emotions I’d never before associated with this subject. Unlike English, writing, or art, math classes typically don’t reward students for veering off course. But these books do just that. Offering innovative, thought-provoking, and, in some cases, wildly funny takes on everything from patterns to exponential growth, these stories encourage kids to approach math with a sense of adventure, humor, and passion.
Tony Piedra and Mackenzie Joy’s One Tiny Treefrog: A Countdown to Survival (Candlewick, Feb. 14) does triple duty as a counting book, an introduction to the life cycle of the red-eyed treefrog, and an eye-opening reminder that Mother Nature isn’t as cuddly as she appears. The book begins with 10 treefrog eggs and counts down as hungry animals pick off the tadpoles, with just one making it to adulthood. In the lush paintings, the predators are terrifying, and though the determined little tadpoles are never anthropomorphized, readers will root for them to beat the odds. Piedra and Joy have managed a rare feat—a counting primer with a Hitchcock-ian sense of suspense.
The title of Claudio Aguilera’s 9 Kilometers (Eerdmans, Feb. 28), illustrated by Gabriela Lyon and translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, refers to the distance a Chilean child must walk to school each day. Our young narrator has the mind of a budding mathematician and the soul of a poet. Traversing rivers and forests, they ponder: How long would it take a snail to make the journey? A puma? How many steps are in a kilometer? How many skips? Why does the trip feel “like a stone inside a worn-out shoe” some days but “as sweet as a handful of blackberries” on others? All are questions that will burrow inside curious readers’ own heads.
They say some things, like love, are immeasurable, but readers will question that assumption after finishing Lalena Fisher’s clever and poignant Friends Beyond Measure (Harper/HarperCollins, Feb. 28), which uses infographics to chart the ups and downs of Ana and Harwin’s friendship. Venn diagrams show what the two have in common, while a bar graph measures Ana’s emotions upon learning Harwin is moving (“shock” and “sadness” dwarf “excitement for you”). Kudos to Fisher: How many authors can say they’ve sparked a passion for pie charts and pictograms?
In Tadgh Bentley’s One Chicken Nugget (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, March 7), Frank, a voracious monster, gobbles up the nuggets that food-truck owner Celeste sells. She attempts to get rid of him (“monsters are not good for business”) with a contest in which competitors eat twice as many nuggets each day as they did the previous one—surely even Frank will be put off his beloved snack after a trillion nuggets? Drawing from folktales told across the world and over centuries, Bentley uses humor to help readers wrap their minds around the dizzyingly huge numbers associated with exponential growth.
Part of Charlesbridge’s Storytelling Math series, Grace Lin’s board book A Beautiful House for Birds (March 14) follows young Olivia as she paints alternating pink and green stripes on a birdhouse. Distracted, Olivia accidentally paints a blue stripe but realizes she can just incorporate a new color. Social-emotional learning skills (staying flexible in the face of the unexpected is no small feat for a small child), the concept of patterns, and artistry all blend in this simple yet elegant tale.
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.