Books for Young Mathgeeks: "A Place for Zero"

I recently had the opportunity to get hold of a collection of children’s picture books with math stories. A fellow scienceblogger had been contacted by a publisher, who offered to send review copies of their books to interested SBers.

The publisher turned out to be the folks who publish the “Sir Cumference” books. My wife bought me a copy of the first of that series as a joke, and my daughter immediately appropriated it, and absolutely loved it. So I requested copies of a large bunch of their math adventures, and I’ll be posting reviews as my daughter and I finish them.

The first one that we read together is “A Place for Zero”:, by Angeline Sparagna Lopresti. My daughter picked this one because of the artwork: it’s done in a really attractive style – simple enough to be engaging, and yet complex enough to really be a part of the story.

The story takes place in the Kingdom of Digitaria, where the number zero is a sad, lonely digit. He’d been created by Count Infinity, the court wizard of the kingdom, as an experiment, and no one knew what to do with him. The story is about his search for a purpose.

He first goes to visit Count Infinity – where they have a really clever little encounter where they teach the idea of zero as the additive identity. This still leaves Zero feeling incomplete, so he goes to King Multiplus, the ruler of Digitaria, to see if he can help figure out Zero’s place. And this is where the book sadly doesn’t quite pull off it’s aim.

The problem is, up to this point, the story is written as if it’s aimed at first or second graders. But once they get back to King Multiplus, the whole tone of the book just stops working. It’s styled as if it’s written for a first grader – but the content is too difficult – it doesn’t explain enough for it to really make sense. It tries to introduce the idea of 0 as the placeholder in decimal numbers, but it does it in such a rush that it seems to assume that the kids already really understand what zero does in a decimal number system. One moment, the King is talking about how they can’t do numbers larger than 9 because they run out of digits – the next moment, zero is standing next to one, and everyone understandings the idea of decimal number placement. There’s no explanation – it just pops out of nowhere. It’s quite unfortunate – the author did such a nice job finding a way of working an explanation of the idea of additive identity into the story, but she couldn’t quite pull off the same thing for number placement.

I really want to love this book. There’s a lot of really great stuff about it. But unfortunately, the leveling problem is just a bit too severe. It just doesn’t explain things properly for the younger kids, who seem to be the intended audience; and the writing style and generally “cutesy” style won’t work for older kids.

I don’t mean to say that it’s not a good book. It’s nice – just not terrific. But the quality of the “Sir Cumference” books from this publisher really had me expecting something great. Instead, “A Place for Zero” ranges from very good in some parts to confusing in others. Overall, if I had to rate it on a 1 to 5 scale, I’d give it something like a 3: above average, but definitely not exceptional.

0 thoughts on “Books for Young Mathgeeks: "A Place for Zero"

  1. Chris' Wills

    The difference between Zero and Nothing was hard for the ancient greek philosophers to understand and using a symbol to denote a place with nothing in it (originally just a “.”) is a fairly new idea so I can understand the difficulty that the author has as we use the same symbol for all three tasks.
    Nice to know that some publishers and authors are trying to write good mathematics books.

  2. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    I agree – I’m very happy to see a publisher really trying to write good, entertaining math books for kids. The fact that “Zero” isn’t completely successful is understandable – it *is* trying to get across multiple non-trivial ideas. It’s still a good book, just not a great one.
    Some of this publishers other books *are* really, truly great. The Sir Cumference books are just delightful – great art, with clever engaging stories that really teach interesting geometry.
    What I really love about this publisher is that they’re not just writing math books for the younger set, but that they’re writing math books for kids that teach how fun math can be.

  3. Blake Stacey

    Did anyone else here read The Phantom Tollbooth? It’s not so much intended to teach specific ideas about math, but it’s the book which immediately sprang to mind when I read this post.

  4. Matt Jensen

    Here are some of my favorite fun math books for young children:
    “G is for Googol”, by David Schwartz. [He also wrote “How Much Is A Million?”]
    “Go Figure!: A Totally Cool Book About Numbers”, by Johnny Ball.
    Stuart Murphy has a large series of books that start with sequencing and work up to multiplication and problem solving. Look for the “Math Starts” series.
    Hmm. Amazon also points to “The Great Number Rumble: A Story of Math in Surprising Places”, which isn’t due to hit stores for another two weeks. Worth checking out, I suppose.
    Amazon users have also created nice lists of math books for kids:

  5. Jonathan Vos Post

    I’m delighted that Blake Stacey brought up “The Phantom Tollbooth” [Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, NY: Knopf, 1961]. It’s the closest thing to 20th century Lewis Carroll, as clever and child-accessible fun with Math and Logic and Language.
    Wikipedia says: “Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth (ISBN 0-394-81500-9) while he was living in Brooklyn, New York. He had received a grant from the Ford Foundation to write a children’s book about urban perception–how people experience cities. After several months of work, he realized he was bored with that project and wrote The Phantom Tollbooth instead, primarily to amuse himself.”
    “Feiffer was a neighbor of Juster’s who lived in the same building in Brooklyn Heights. He started contributing illustrations while Juster worked on the novel. Feiffer’s illustrations have been part of the book since the first edition. The first edition of The Phantom Tollbooth was published in September 1961; the book has remained in print since then….”
    The author and illustrator were both neighbors of mine in Brooklyn Heights. Since my parents were book editors, we all had occasions to meet.
    When I was in Grad School [U.Mass./Amherst] Norton Juster was an Architure Professor at nearby Hampshire College, and we met again.
    He was to have been a plenary speaker at the 6th International Conference on Complex Systems, in one of the 3 sessions I chaired, but suddenly changed international flight schedules forced cancellation of his talk. But what a pleasure to catch up with him by phone!
    Sure, I strongly recommend this, plus Lewis Carroll (Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated Alice” and sequelae) to be read to any child whose parent knows enough Math to explain the jokes.

  6. Chris' Wills

    I kow that it is old, but “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” by Edwin Abbott is still my favourite, followed by “Flatterland” by Ian Stewart.
    Not really for young children I know, but my nieces & nephews liked the stories when young and re-read them when they got older and got more out of them each time.
    Perhaps, now that Harry Potter is ending, J. K. Rowling might be tempted to try her hand. Think how many millions of children would read “Harry Potter Explains Mathematics”.
    I am in awe of people who can explain difficult ideas to children in an engaging and fun way.

  7. Lisa

    In Britain, there’s a whole series of math books for middle school age students called Murderous Maths. The first two include lots of familiar recreational math topics; after that they move on to specific topics: arithmetic, fractions, probability, triangle trig, algebra. Very fun and well written. Unfortunately, there are some differences in terminology so they may require some translation from British English for readers in the states.
    The author is Kjartan Poskitt. You can buy them directly from Amazon in the US.
    If you like those, you can move on to the Horrible History and Horrible Science series.

  8. Steff Z

    When I was a kid, starting in about 3d grade IIRC, I had _The I Hate Mathematics! Book_ (Marilyn Burns, 1975 1st ed., Brown Paper School Books). (Apparently still available.) It rocked. I read it a googleplex times. (Yep: exponents are in there too.)
    It was funny, and had good illustrations, and continually pointed out that the reader already knows how to do most of this stuff, it just takes a little mental re-organization, or a slightly different point of view.
    Forex: Instead of conic sections, it used banana sections (the open-air, ancient-Greek market was “fresh out” of cones that day).
    To introduce probability, it asked, how do you know your mom hasn’t joined the Rockettes and run off to Bora Bora?
    One whole chapter was on “Street Maths,” stunt math to impress your bored friends with. Then it dissected the logic of each stunt, so you could see how the trick works, e.g., resolving long syllogisms to reveal hidden tautologies.
    Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that the reason that things like stoichiometry or dimensional analysis just kindof *happen* for me, without my having to actively *do* them, is because of (re-re-re-)reading that book.
    (Errors in dimensional analysis jump out at me, yell, and smash me in the head. Ow. But OTOH, I don’t often make mistakes in unit conversions.)
    The book really made it obvious what math was *for,* along with how to approach solving math problems. Really broadly, too; not just, “you’ll use arithmetic in keeping track of checks and algebra in expanding recipes.”
    Also, IIRC, it’s nonchalantly gender-neutral. The book just presumes that girls are some of the people doing math. Duh.
    It’s allegedy for kids a little older than the Zero book — 8-12 year olds. But I wish I still had my copy, and I’m almost 39.


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