Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Boy who Loved Math, by Deborah Heiligman

Now, I don't normally profile picture books on this blog, but this is about math, people! As soon as I heard the title, I knew I'd have to read it.

I love everything about The Boy who Loved Math, starting with the fact that Deborah Heiligman thought the life of mathematician Paul Erdos (born in 1913) was an important, and doable, subject for a PB biography. (I'm not able to reproduce the characters properly here, but this is a Hungarian name pronounced AIR-dish.) I love that though she could have portrayed him as a downright misfit, she portrays him as a joyous soul who creates a life for himself that works. This is a man who, as a four-year-old boy, could ask you your birthdate and instantly calculate how many seconds you've been alive, but who literally did not learn to butter his own bread till he was an adult.

I love this look into the fascinating mind of a genius, who flew all over the world meeting with other mathematicians and proving theorems, stayed in their homes, played with their "epsilons" (their kids, so called because in higher math epsilon represents a very small quantity), laid the groundwork for today's computers and search engines, gave money to the poor, endeared himself to many as "Uncle Paul" -- and yet couldn't drive a car or keep house for himself, and thought the way to open a juice carton was to stab it with a knife. (As one who is near-hopeless at opening many sorts of containers, I feel a weird, slightly scary identity with this.) I love the artwork by LeUyen Pham, who has built all kinds of math into her portrayal of early-20th-century Budapest. I love the author and illustrator notes that explain their research and give further information on Erdos's life. I love that when Paul Erdos passed away (in 1996), it was at a math meeting. I love that Paul imagined there was a book in which God kept all the most elegant proofs.

This book is outstanding for encouraging an early positive opinion of math in children. For more on Paul Erdos, adults might be interested in The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, by Paul Hoffman, and Bruce Schechter's My Brain is Open, which title is taken from the phrase Erdos used when announcing to colleagues, at any hour of the day or night, that he was ready to do math. Readable and delightful.

12 comments:

Vijaya said...

I have loved all her books, and will certainly enjoy this. Again, I love that she portrays joy!!! So many of my highly focused friends who are enchanted by epsilons or fermions or even the lowly bacterium, have a certain joy. Thanks for the spotlight, Marcia.

Faith E. Hough said...

Okay, I saw this book at the library and wanted to pick it up but my arms were already full of books! When PB biographies are well done, I absolutely love them. And I've got a couple little girls who are really loving math right now, so I'd better go back with empty arms!

Marcia said...

Vijaya -- Isn't that joy fascinating? Maybe it's that they feel they're glimpsing creation's secrets.

Faith -- Well, unless growing another is an option. :D

Rena Jones said...

Sounds like an awesome book. Any book that gets kids excited about math is awesome to me.

Leandra Wallace said...

I love what he called kids, very original(I have my own epsilon falling asleep in my lap right now). And to have that sort of genious mind w/math, wow! My brain is so not wired that way...

Medeia Sharif said...

I've never seen a picture book about math. I think this is great for children.

Mirka Breen said...

I've read The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, because at one point someone in my family resembled this amazing mathematician. Although I'm a math-dufus, I was really curious.
I noticed this PB for the same reason- I'll check it out.

Marcia said...

Rena -- Yes, I hope this book does really well.

Leandra -- That was one of my favorite details, too.

Medeia -- I've seen PBs that make math concepts part of a story, but this *celebrates* math.

Mirka -- I'm going to have to get both adult titles. I'm curious, too!

Janet said...

I love PB biographies! I'll have to look for this one.

Bish Denham said...

Very cool! It sounds like he was a kind of idiot savant. I knew one of those. He could expound on theoretical physics (with no formal education) but he had absolutely no sense of social boundaries or etiquette. An unusual and interesting person.

As for me and math... we are like oil and water. :)

Ruth Schiffmann said...

Sounds fabulous! I'll be looking for this one on my next trip to the library =)

Marcia said...

Janet -- Me too!

Bish -- I know; the combination of academic genius and social or practical backwardness is so fascinating. But I get why he wanted to stab the juice carton. I really, really get why he wanted to stab the juice carton.

Ruth -- Enjoy!