Teaching Math with Picture Books, Part 2
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
When I was a child, math lessons and reading lessons were totally separate entities, and never the twain would meet. And while I loved reading time, math lessons were often something to be borne — let’s race through these worksheets to move onto something else!
Thankfully, so much has changed in mathematics education in the past three decades. We teachers are encouraged to find mathematical applications across the curriculum and to teach math with games, puzzles, and yes — literature!
In my first blog post on this subject, I shared some of the ways I use picture books to teach math, as well as a justification for using math literature. Now, get ready as I unveil my hard-to-pare list of effective, clever, and just-plain-fun math picture books. I’m going to share some of my more unusual favorites with you — the books on my math shelf are so wide-ranging! Which picture books do you like to use to teach math? Be sure to share your recommendations, too!
Math Books With Frame-Worthy Illustrations
Math and art always go hand in hand in my mind. How can we admire the angles, proportionality, and shapes in artwork without also appreciating math? So I am thrilled that there are many math picture books that have illustrations that are artworks in their own right. When reading these books to my students, I allow extra time for analyzing and discussing the illustrations. A reading, math, and art appreciation lesson all rolled into one — how efficient!
Ten Times Better by Richard Michelson
The rhyming text and attention-grabbing science facts can barely compete with the stunning watercolor illustrations of the animals boasting about their status along the number line. Each animal tries to best his partner by being “ten times better” in surprising ways.
Actual Size and Just a Second by Steve Jenkins
Jenkins started by creating collages for his science picture books, but he has broadened his reach with some titles with math applications as well. I appreciate that his books are consistently sophisticated — he gives children their due by trusting them with a wealth of topical information.
Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar by Masaichiro and Mitsumasa Anno
Students explore the concept of factorials in some rather outlandish situations with this beautiful book. The illustrations are graceful and the authors pose problems that students can work on immediately.
Biographies of Mathematicians
Lets face it, when reading biographies to our students, mathematicians rarely make it onto the list with the presidents, civil rights leaders, athletes, and artists. If we don’t expose our students to the lives of mathematicians, though, how can we possibly hope to inspire a new generation to take up the mathematical mantle?
Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D’Agnese
This first-person biography tells the story of Leonardo Fibonacci’s beginnings as a boy in medieval Italy who was teased for seeing the world differently. Of course, we know he grows up to be a very important mathematician, but my students enjoy hearing about his childhood. Even mathematical geniuses get into trouble, after all!
The Librarian Who Measured the Earth by Kathryn Lasky
This book emphasizes how an inquisitive boy grows up to use and even develop mathematics to answer some of his questions. While learning about Eratosthenes, we also learn about geography and life in ancient Greece, and that people really didn’t think that the Earth was flat prior to Columbus’s voyage!
Books for Math-Heads and Early Finishers
I’ve always had several students in my class who pretest out of most of my math units before I’ve even begun to introduce the topics. I also have students who seem to grasp mathematical concepts in the blink of an eye — practice exercises would be tedious torture. Thankfully, there are several math picture books that I rely on to challenge these students. These books wouldn’t necessarily make the best read-alouds, but they are fabulous jumping off points for highly able math students.
Murderous Maths by Kjartan Poskitt
I had to scrounge up a used collection of this series from an online reseller because they only seem to be available in the UK, but it was worth the effort for these zany math comic books. Professor Fiendish and his band of nefarious characters tackle all sorts of offbeat math problems and puzzles in this series.
Penrose the Mathematical Cat Collection by Theoni Pappas
The decidedly “old school” looking books in the Penrose series are nonetheless fabulous for introducing young math scholars to all sorts of advanced mathematical content that doesn’t often find its way into our math curriculums. From fractals to infinity, Penrose’s creative adventures cover a wide range of math concepts that stimulate advanced math students.
The Secret Life of Math by Ann McCallum
My bright students are always wondering about how things came to be. (We studied the etymology of the English language to satisfy just such a curiosity.) It’s no surprise that my students love poring over this book, with its illustrated history of numbers and chapters on zero, finger math, and more.
Basher Math Books by Dan Green
If you’re not familiar with the Basher books, you’re missing out on a highly creative series populated by sprightly cartoon avatars that personify academic concepts. For example, Infinity confesses, “Shh! Don’t tell the others. I’m not a number . . . ”
Math Books That Make Me Smile
Have you ever noticed that when you truly love a book, it ends up being a favorite of your students, too? Those books that you can’t help chuckling about aloud or read with a dry eye. The ones where you naturally speed up at the good parts or spend overlong staring at a beautiful illustration? These books fit that bill for me. Which are your favorites?
Among the Odds and Evens by Priscilla Turner
My all-time favorite math picture book, this old timey adventure tells the story of when letter explorers X and Y become stranded in the Kingdom of Wontoo. While these very ethnocentric explorers learn about their numeric hosts, they realize that the odds and evens have markedly different personalities, yet coexist surprisingly well. Many of the puns and literary references in this book sail over my students’ heads, but they still enjoy the detailed ink and watercolor illustrations.
The Sir Cumference Series by Cindy Neuschwander
I clearly have a yen for puns, since the books in this series crack me up, too. Reading the adventures of the hapless Sir Cumference, his wise wife Lady Di of Ameter, and their clever son Radius brings a smile to my face every time. The allusions and puns in this book are blatant enough that my students enjoy being on the inside of the jokes as well. This whole series is available as eBooks for Storia, so I now read these books aloud projected on my SMART Board.
Math eBooks on Storia
The selection of eBooks available for Storia seems to be growing every day, and the selection of math eBooks currently available is already quite impressive. I’ve created a Math Books shelf for students to use with Storia. They enjoy reading these books independently although I also “put aside” some eBooks to first use as read-alouds with my class. (To hold over books, I simply don’t assign them to any shelf on Storia. Then my students don’t have access to these books.) My students engage more fully with the mathematical illustrations when I project the eBooks onto my whiteboard than when I just read aloud from the regular paper book.
The Storia math bookshelf, which includes a wide selection of eBooks, is one of my students' favorites.
Interactive "Lightning Bolt" activities turn the math eBooks into fully realized center activities.
Which math picture books do you use in your classroom? Share your recommendations and ideas in the comments section below!