When you think about math picture books, do you think about counting and shapes? I did.
Do you think about diverse characters and rich, satisfying stories? I didn’t.
But then Marlene Kliman, a math expert at STEM non-profit TERC, reached out to Charlesbridge, the independent publishing company where I work as an editor. Marlene proposed an alternative perspective on what math picture books can and should be. What if a math picture book could explore important math topics beyond counting and shapes? What if it could feature characters who reflect the diversity of our world? And what if it told a story that young children would want to read again and again? Such a picture book could have the power to change a child’s life.
Naturally Charlesbridge said yes. We partnered with TERC to develop Storytelling Math, a new series of board books and picture books that bring together math, diversity, and the power of story.
What types of math?
There are many wonderful counting and shapes books out there, but math is more than that. Young children need exposure to a rich array of math topics, such as patterns, categorizing, and spatial reasoning. As Marlene puts it, “Research has shown that facility with math topics like these is critically important for young children’s school success in all subjects.” Storytelling Math introduces important but often overlooked math topics to young children and helps them build a foundation for later understanding.
In What Will Fit? by Caldecott and Newbery Honor winner Grace Lin, Olivia visits a farmers’ market and searches for something to fill her basket. As Olivia tries to fit an apple, then a zucchini (courgette), and finally a pumpkin in her basket, she builds her spatial sense. We use spatial sense every day, when we read a map, pack a car trunk, and put our shoes on the correct feet. Spatial sense is also crucial in every subject, including math, science, and reading.
Each Storytelling Math book includes hands-on activities for kids and grown-ups to explore math together. After reading What Will Fit?, parents can ask children to help pair socks or mittens and talk through their reasoning: “How can you tell these two are a pair?” Conversations like these can help children become stronger, more confident mathematical thinkers.
It’s vitally important for books to reflect the diversity of our world, and for kids to be able to see themselves in books. Diverse books can empower young readers, validate their experiences, and make them feel seen.
The same is true for children’s math books, and the need there is dire. When Marlene shared the data of how few math picture books feature children of color, I was shocked. It was obvious that math literature needed the same sort of transformation that’s happening in the wider world of children’s books: more #ownvoices creators and more BIPOC characters.
Children of color need to see themselves as good at math. As Marlene says, “Despite decades of calls for changes, research shows that pernicious ‘deficit’ discourse appears in math education as early as preschool. Many adults, despite the best of intentions, hold unconscious bias.” Storytelling Math seeks to help undo that bias in two ways: “young children of color will build positive math identity as they literally see themselves as mathematical thinkers, and all audiences will see children of color as fully realized mathematical thinkers.”
In short, representation in early math books is an issue of equity: building math confidence and aptitude is critical for every child’s success in school and life.
In Lia & Luís: Who Has More? by Ana Crespo, twins Lia & Luís love Brazilian snacks, but they argue over who has more. The problem is a universal one that readers will recognize no matter their cultural background. If readers are of Brazilian descent, though, they may very well see themselves in the story: “That’s just like my family!” or “I like biscoito de polvilho, too!” And when Lia comes up with a clever solution to the problem, they’ll see that they, too, can be mathematically empowered.
We expect a good picture book to be emotionally resonant and compelling. We expect the story to make us care. Why not expect the same of math picture books?
Beyond the math, beyond the diversity, we want kids to love these stories. Maybe they’ll root for the main character and wait eagerly for each page turn. Maybe they’ll laugh themselves silly. Ideally, they’ll shout, “Again! Again!”
In The Animals Would Not Sleep! by Sara Levine, it’s bedtime for Marco and his stuffed animals, but the animals will have none of it. When Marco tries to put them away, they fly, swim, and slither right out of their bins. Marco tries sorting the animals in different ways, but nothing works and the animals start getting cranky. How can Marco make everyone happy?
The math is excellent: an expertly developed introduction to sorting and classifying. Young readers will hopefully absorb the math (perhaps without even realizing it) and build their understanding along with Marco. But first and foremost, this is a great story. I laugh every time the animals start their wild rumpus, and I cheer for Marco as he races against (bed)time. At the end, when Marco saves the day with both math and empathy, my heart just melts.
Bringing it all together
The first six Storytelling Math books are now available, and more are on their way. I hope we’re succeeding in our mission to develop better math storybooks for children of all backgrounds—and I hope we’re helping change the landscape of math literature for the better.
When you think about math picture books, do you think of deep math, rich diversity, and top-notch storytelling? I do now!
About the author
Alyssa Mito Pusey is an executive editor at Charlesbridge Publishing. Together with TERC senior scientist Marlene Kliman, she edits the Storytelling Math series, which was developed under a grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation. Alyssa’s other titles include Hot Pot Night by Vincent Chen, Mario and the Hole in the Sky by Elizabeth Rusch, Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner, A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, and the Baby Loves Science series by Ruth Spiro. Alyssa presents regularly about nonfiction, fiction, and Storytelling Math at events for authors, illustrators, and educators.