Adventures in Literary Math
By Guest Blogger: Kazia Berkley-Cramer
As summer reading programs start across the country, it’s a good time to explore books for children and young adults that deal with mathematical concepts in a significant and accessible way. Here are two books that are compelling, creative, and will spark a little math thinking.
For the middle grade reader, a great option is Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. Balliett’s first book (along with sequels The Wright Three and The Calder Game) is a Chicago-based art mystery that also features mathematical concepts. As someone who has can be intimidated by all things mathematical, I can assure that Balliett is exceptionally good at making these concepts exciting, fun, and accessible for young people.
Sixth grader Calder (co-protagonist with fellow sixth grader Petra) constantly fidgets with his set of pentominoes, which he finds helps him think and often sparks new ideas. A pentomino, Balliett explains before the story begins, consists of five squares in different patterns (named after the letters of the alphabet that they resemble) and is used by mathematicians to help them think about issues related to numbers and geometry. Although Calder’s set is three-dimensional, it is also possible to make them out of paper or cardboard (see this helpful page on Scholastic’s website). One of the goals of playing with pentominoes is to get a certain number of pieces to fit on a board, and Scholastic’s website has an online version of a pentomino board with varying degrees of difficulty.
Calder is also particularly fond of codes. He and his best friend Tommy create their own code system based on the pentominoes, which they use when they write letters to each other. Balliett includes these coded correspondences and requires readers to decode each message the friends send to each other. The back of the paperback edition includes many extras, including a guide with suggestions for how to create your own code system.
John Green’s young adult road trip novel An Abundance of Katherines features more traditional math: formulas and graphs. Child prodigy Colin Singleton, a recent high school graduate who has been dumped nineteen times by girls and women named Katherine, believes that the world’s population is divided in two: those who have a tendency to dump (“the dumper”), and those who have a tendency to be dumped (“the dumpee”). Working from the idea that all romantic relationships result either in a breakup, a divorce, or death, Colin works obsessively on creating a formula that can predict the outcome of romantic relationships.
Green supplements his book with a real mathematical formula created by mathematician Daniel Biss, and the book features an appendix by Biss that explains Colin’s formula in clear and understandable detail. If you want to see what the formula looks like but don’t have the book on hand, here is a page from Green’s tumblr where he briefly discusses the formula. Although by the end of the novel Colin realizes that human relationships are much more complicated than a formula can allow, it is interesting to think about what other everyday situations could or could not be graphed.
Both of these books have potential for great interdisciplinary lessons in school, but they are also excellent ways to keep kids and teens thinking mathematically beyond the classroom. What are some of your favorite books that feature math in some way?