Thoughts on writing math books for kids

Eighty-eight Butterfly (Diaethria anna)

Dana McKellar wrote a kid’s book about math called “Ten Magic Butterflies.” Photo credit: Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Kids’ math books: I’m not talking about textbooks, but rather cheerful math-themed picture books parents might give to wide-eyed, excited kids as holiday gifts, books that take math-obsessed kids on journeys to learning thrilling new math outside the walls of the classroom, or even ones that caring adults might consider handing to kids who are struggling in math to say “You need math to succeed in life, but it’s also cool! And, you can do it!”

In a 2016 post for the AMS “Book Ends” blog, Eriko Hironaka explored the question “What makes a good math book for children?” While it’s difficult to answer that question precisely (“Is it more important that a child be left with knowledge that they can understand and retain, or a new awareness that keeps them thinking and wondering?   Is mathematics a world that one can enter and join in, or is mathematics a personal journey? Of course both sides are important, but how much weight should be put on one side or the other?” she wrote), sometimes it’s easy to spot when material written for kids is unlikely to jive with its intended audience.

I’ve never written a book about math for kids, but I have been asked to review them. That’s something I hesitate to do when the book is already published, out in the world and it’s too late to make any changes until it’s time to write a future edition. I also feel strange writing reviews of kids’ math books when I don’t have kids of my own to ask what they think.

So, instead of writing reviews, I would rather offer advice for folks who are thinking about (or have already started) writing a book about math for kids. That advice, shared below, is based on my own experience with writing in different capacities about math for kids, from online non-fiction stories aimed at middle school students to content for a series of math and science comic books for elementary school students. This isn’t meant as an exhaustive guide, but, rather, a starting point.

Make your target audience specific and somewhat narrow.

With some books, it seems the author or publisher was concerned that if the target audience was too narrow, the book might fail. However, if you’re writing for an audience that’s too broad, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to feel as if the book is meant for them. This is especially true if you’re writing for kids. If a kid thinks something isn’t for them and they have a choice in the matter, they’re going to drop it like a hot potato.

For example, I’ve seen books which were designed to help kids catch up in math that were aimed at third to sixth graders. In the U.S., that roughly includes kids ages 8 to 12, not accounting for kids who have started school at younger or older ages than average, skipped grades or repeated grades. Tack on a couple of years of wiggle room, and those become books aimed at 7 to 13 year olds. That’s a huge range of ages and levels of development.

If you were going to talk about a concept to a child who’s 7 and then explain the same one to a child who is 13, those would be two very different conversations. Books are sort of conversations between authors and readers, so make certain the audience you’re interacting with is prepared to understand and learn from the conversation but also isn’t going to feel as if they’re being talked down to. Why not start with a more narrow audience in mind (say, third graders who are struggling to understand multiplication or seven year olds who would enjoy reading a bedtime story about numbers with their parents) and only broaden it if necessary?

Tightly focus the information you want to convey.

I’ve read a book that tried to address study habits, math anxiety and confidence issues, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, test taking strategies and more, all aimed at an elementary school audience of kids who were struggling with math. As an adult who has a math background, when I saw all that information combined into one book, it felt like an onslaught of too much information. If I were a kid who was trying to read that book from cover to cover in order to improve as a math student, I can’t imagine not feeling overwhelmed and deciding to quit reading the book.

Wouldn’t it be better to choose a small number of connected topics to focus the book on than to present so much information that kids get overwhelmed and only understand a small fraction of the information you’re trying to share? For example, Danica McKellar’s Ten Magic Butterflies picture book is “an enchanted story about ten hopeful flowers and a very special fairy who helps their dreams come true. In the midst of it all, kids will be introduced to all the ways to ‘make 10.’ So, 9 + 1, 8 + 2, etc.,” her website notes.

Also, make certain the information you want to share is best suited to kids and not their parents and teachers. For instances, you might not get very far by including information about math study strategies in a book for 7 or 8 year olds, because many of them probably rely on their parents’ direction for that and may not have much choice related to things such as how they organize their study space or options for taking a break from their homework if they’re overwhelmed.

Advice on tone.

Don’t try too hard to seem like your readers’ peer or hip older friend, because that tone probably isn’t going to work long-term. Focus on drawing readers in and keeping their attention, but don’t resort to tactics such as writing in textspeak. If that isn’t already off-putting to young readers, it might make your book seem dated sooner, as language evolves quickly and what’s trendy today might seem “cringe-y” tomorrow.

Tips to prevent mental and visual overload.

This isn’t the same as “dumbing things down.” Make sentences only as long as they need to be. That will make it easier for kids to follow the information you’re presenting. Something similar applies to using short words instead of long ones, provided the two words mean the same thing. Also, keep paragraphs short – that will keep readers moving through the book – and don’t try to cram too many ideas into the same paragraph.

Unless you are self-publishing the book, you might have a limited say about the layout of your book’s pages. However, to the extent that you have input, advocate to minimize visual clutter. Aside from the main text, it can work to have information in other places, such as boxes and speech bubbles, but young readers are likely to become overwhelmed if one page contains the main text, many boxes, speech bubbles, and copious amounts of other information strewn about in various places. If you think the page looks too blank, instead of decorating it by packing in more information in various forms, consider asking about adding illustrations that are visually pleasing and support the information that’s already on the page.

Have an idea?

If you think you have a great new idea for a kids’ math book, first do your research to make certain something similar hasn’t already been done. If the idea still seems new and exciting, look for ways to shop your idea around with teachers, parents and their children. You might even get more benefit out of testing the idea with others if you share it with folks who aren’t your friends and family. Ask for their criticisms and then give them serious consideration.

Writing a picture book? Read these guidelines for choosing a high quality math picture book and then evaluate how the book you want to write can meet those.

As a former library employee, I can attest to the large volume of children’s books that are out in the world already. For every book that becomes a timeless favorite, such as Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, there are many more that languish unread. Yet I would also argue that math is overdue for more kids’ books that will be cherished, unforgettable or even life-changing.

Have advice or ideas to share? Comment below or share them with me on Twitter @writesRCrowell.

Editor’s note: This post was updated on 11/29/2019 to include the information about Eriko Hironaka’s 2016 post for the AMS “Book Ends” blog.

This entry was posted in K-12 Mathematics, Math Communication, Math Education, Publishing in Math, Recreational Mathematics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Thoughts on writing math books for kids

  1. Shecky R says:

    Tangential to math books I’ve long thought that young people should be introduced early to paradoxes and critical thinking — these can be both entertaining and enlightening to young minds. There are definitely books available suitable for middle schoolers and above, and I suspect there are some for younger ages as well (…but if I’m wrong, well, someone get on it!).

  2. olympiadsuccess says:

    Writing Maths books for kids is really challenging, picture books are really the most helpful in order to make a kid learn things in the right manner. Your post has some of the good ideas on it, integration of modern day technology with it can also help kids learn the mathematical topics quickly. Thanks for your informative post. Keep on sharing the insightful ideas. All the best!

  3. Roy Blacksher says:

    I have written a Calculus book (not yet published), intended for an 8th grade student. Not a watered down version, however. All Calculus concepts are explained using lots of pictures and graphs. Am I crazy to think this might fly? In Oregon it doesn’t, but I have had some encouraging feedback from several High School math instructors.

    All comments are welcomed.

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