“How Much Is a Million?” by David Schwartz

Some people upgrade from zero to a hero, others  from zero to… a million. Or a billion. Some earn it, some win it, and I am sadly in neither category. It’s unfortunate, but most likely for a reason.  Such big numbers are just too abstract to me!

And that’s why I was quite thrilled to come across today’s picture book.

In “How Much Is a Million?” David Schwartz helps children  (and some mathematically illiterate parents, like myself) to visualize big numbers. If one million/billion/trillion kids climbed on one another’s shoulders, how big would be the tower? Would it be taller than the biggest buildings? Would they reach the moon or jupiter? How long would it take to count to one million/billion/trillion? Days or maybe years? How big should be a bowl to contain a million/billion/trillion goldfish? As big as a stadium or maybe a city harbor?

I must say, the visualizations are as creative as surprising, and most importantly, calculated.  I would have never guessed that counting to a trillion would be a matter of over two hundred years.  Mind boggling!  At the same, time the writing is very engaging and approachable and the book is warmly illustrated by Steven Kellogg. My five year-old-number-lover made me read the story over and over again and every time his eyes seemed to glow with wonder “Wow! Really?”

“Zero the Hero” by Joan Holub and Tom Lichtenheld

We live in the era of superheros. You don’t think so? Ask your child. Kids know all about it. What’s  interesting about superheroes is that they are often hidden in the most a-heroic-appearing creatures. Take the friendly Spiderman. Who would think that a nerdy Peter Parker would shoot webs all over Manhattan?

The same could be said about a little number, Zero. In the eyes of other numbers, Zero was nothing. They called him names, from fruit-loop to letter O. He was always left out in the counting games, because who counts with Zero? He was deemed useless in adding or subtracting. 2+0 =2 and if you take zero away from two nothing changes either. Zero was overshadowed by other numbers and even if he wanted to think about himself as a Hero,  the multiplication tables were showing otherwise.  Any number times Zero turns into… Zero. Only a villain would make his friends disappear!  Feeling bad about himself, Zero decided to go away. At first,  other numbers didn’t even noticed that Zero was gone. Until number 1 needed Zero to make 10.   Zero was quite useful after all. Beyond useful, actually. When numbers got attacked by the Roman numerals, Zero’s powers to make things vanish made him a real superhero indeed

Bright illustrations, lively writing filled with numeral puns and jokes, “Zero the Hero” is not only a great entertainment for any age, but also an engaging introduction to basic math and the exciting  world of numbers. What’s more, the story also teaches our children an important life lesson. Believe in your talents and strengths, even if others don’t, and know your weaknesses,  so you can turn them into superpowers. 


“Math Curse” by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

A five-year old Sylvia is conversing with her three-year old brother on the topic of getting married. As it turned out, the siblings had some differences of opinion regarding the same sex marriage, but never mind.  Suddenly the girl asks her mom when she (Sylvia) will be able to get married. Her mom answers diplomatically that she can choose to do so when she turns 18.  “Oh, no!”, exclaims Sylvia sadly. “I will never get married then!” ????? !!!!! “I don’t know that number.”

You never thought there is a link between knowing numbers and getting married, did you?  And there surely are more arguments for doing ones’ best in the math class. Apparently, how well one does in math indicates how much one will earn.  No wonder. We do need more GOOD engineers, architects, programmers, accountants, inventors…. A list of professions suiting a math-wizz is loooooong. If you are good at math, you will always be employable, if not self-employed. But of course when you are five, six or seven, you don’t think about your future paycheck. You want  to have fun.  The books I suggest in this post and other posts make math not only fun, but also approachable and relevant on the verge of omnipresent. Kids learn to solve engaging mathematical problems without thinking thy are learning math. What’s more, they don’t even think they are learning at all.

In “Math Curse”  children get to see everyday things as math problems. This is exactly what happened to the boy in the book. As if under a spell, he couldn’t help seeing numbers, charts, fractions. He kept counting, adding subtracting, measuring… He took milk out of the fridge and wondered how many pints were in a quart. He counted kids on the bus and in the class. Then he counted the fingers in the class. There was pizza for lunch. He wanted 2 slices or 2/8?. Things got worse when English turns to be a word problem. If you take away ‘stick’ from a ‘lipstick’, will it equal ‘lip’? Even outside the school the problems continued. Counting money to buy candy: how many Lincolns are in one Washington coin? Hour by hour, the boy realized that “math was just a total problem, whether on Planet Tetra or Binary (or our Earth I guess). What do you think, True or False? 

Eventually the boy got out of the spell and beat the math curse. Until the science class, when his teacher said, “You know, you can think of almost anything as a science experiment…”

Clever, ingenious, hilarious…  A picture book and a math lesson in one. A new look at math and numbers in our lives. We are surrounded by curious math problems and “Math Curse” helps our children to see it. You have to see a problem if you ever want to solve it.

In the next post, we will talk and read about… nothing, nada, nic, niets, or simply, using the math languagezero.