Support math skills the sneaky way — with books

For The Baltimore Sun

Everybody knows that reading with kids helps them become better readers. But what if the time you spend enjoying books with your kids also helped improve their math skills? Many grown-ups instinctively ask questions while reading picture books with little kids to keep them following along with the story. Simple questions like, "How many ducks do you see?" or "Do you see any circles on this page?" reinforce math concepts in a seamless, painless way.

But some books are richer in math content than others. A book like "Ten Black Dots" by Donald Crews, originally published in 1968, has taught generations of preschoolers about number names, sequence, and the relationship between numbers and quantities.

Other books train kids on math concepts that we don't even think about. The classic story "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" teaches correlation and comparison. The hardest bed belongs to the biggest bear; Baby Bear's chair is smaller than Mama and Papa Bear's chairs. These are concepts that are part of the curriculum in most elementary schools.

Older readers enjoy puzzles and problems that they must decipher to solve a mystery. Look for mysteries like the "Chasing Vermeer" trilogy by Blue Balliett or the long-running "39 Clues" series. These books challenge readers with number theory, pattern recognition and logic.

"In the same way that you get better at reading by practicing reading, you get better at mathematical thinking by practicing mathematical thinking," says children's book author Jon Scieszka, a former teacher. "No one ever says, 'Oh, I'm just not good at words.' So no one should ever say, 'I'm not really good at math.'" Scieszka's book "Math Curse" pokes fun at word problems and slips arithmetic challenges into its jokes.

An annual book award, the Mathical Prize recognizes books that "inspire young people to engage with mathematics in the world around them." These books and others can increase a kid's exposure to math concepts — no nagging necessary!

Picture books

"8: An Animal Alphabet" by Elisha Cooper. Beautiful illustrations of animals both well-known (goose) and less so (gibbon) encourage kids to look closely and count the eight similar animals among the crowd on every page. Mathical Award winner, Pre-K.

"Shape Shift" by Joyce Hesselberth. Baltimore artist Hesselberth shows young readers how to combine shapes to create a variety of pictures. A rectangle balanced on top of a circle can be a lady with a fancy hat … or a super car! Organic textures and patterns in a palette of lovely natural colors soften the hard edges of geometric illustrations.

"Counting Chickens" by Polly Alakija. Friendly faces and an abundance of detail reward the reader as Tobi's hen lays one egg a day. Tiny lessons about baby animal names and daily life in a West African village supplement the counting fun.

"Absolutely One Thing" by Lauren Child. A trip to the store prompts Charlie to demonstrate simple calculations to his little sister, Lola. Charming story and illustrations, and a fantastic example of how to painlessly practice math skills while doing other things.

"Max's Math" by Kate Banks, pictures by Boris Kulikov. Max and his brothers take a journey through a surreal landscape looking for math problems to solve. They make squares out of triangles, find the missing number in a rocket launch countdown and solve an age-old mystery: Is it a six or is it a nine? Winner of the Mathical Award for grades K-2.

Books for early readers

"Charlie Piechart and the Case of the Missing Pizza Slice" by Eric Comstock and Marilyn Sadler, illustrated by Eric Comstock. Fractions are easier to understand with visual aids — and visual aids like pizza are the best kind! Second in the series, "The Case of the Missing Hat," will be coming out in October.

"Peg + Cat: The Pizza Problem," by Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson. Second in a series of companion books to the PBS Kids show (the first was "The Race Car Problem"). Cute and challenging, strikes a good balance between story and teaching.

"The Wing Wing Brothers Geometry Palooza!" by Ethan Long. Goofy ducks Willy, Wilmer, Wendell, Walter and Woody perform slapstick feats of daring so silly that readers may never notice they are learning about relative position, shapes and division. Tragedy strikes when Walter is sawn in quarters during a magic act, but a big pot of glue puts him together again.

"Bedtime Math: The Truth Comes Out" by Laura Overdeck, illustrated by Jim Paillot. What if your bedtime ritual included a little math puzzle along with a story? The books in this series are meant to be dipped into and doled out in small doses. One funny paragraph per two-page spread is followed by a set of easy, medium, and harder questions.

Books for bigger kids

"Guinness World Records: Wacky and Wild!" Fact books like this give kids practice with scale — can you visualize a 100-pound hunk of cheese? — as well as units of measurement and comparison.

"You Do the Math: Fly a Jet Fighter" by Hilary Koll and Steve Mills. See how jet pilots rely on math skills to complete military missions. Exciting graphic novel-style design gives this book and the others in its series ("Solve a Crime," "Launch a Rocket into Space") extra appeal.

"Secret Coders" by Gene Luen Yang. Hopper, Eni and Josh solve mysteries by deciphering simple programming problems. The second book in this funny graphic novel series, "Paths and Portals," will be available in August. This book won the 2016 Mathical Award for grades 3-5, and its author, a former high school computer science teacher, is the national ambassador for children's literature, a post appointed by the Library of Congress.

"101 Things to Do While You Poo" by Courtney Sanchez and G.L. Moore. If your kids spend as much time in the bathroom as mine do, you'll want to park this book of rude humor and tricky word and number puzzles within easy reach of the toilet. Gross but fun facts and cartoon illustrations are sprinkled throughout.

Paula Willey is a librarian at the Parkville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. She writes about children's and teen literature for various national publications and online at She can be reached at

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