Learning math through literature


             Your child loves math but doesn’t want to read. Or she loves to read but shies away from math. What’s a parent to do?

            Consider taking an approach that teachers have used in the classroom for many years. We look for books that have high interest and appeal, along with simplified vocabulary for reluctant readers. In this way, we introduce stories and ideas to children who are not yet enjoying books in an easy and enthusiastic manner.

            Fortunately, there is a growing number of books that use stories, riddles, puzzles, and beautiful illustrations as a means of teaching math concepts. In working with books such as these, we use a child’s strength to help with an area that needs support.

            You are probably familiar with counting books which typically display numbers that correspond with objects, thereby helping children to understand the meaning of numbers. These books provide the easiest and earliest entre into combining math and reading. I like the ones where numbers are written not only numerically (1, 2, 3) but in words (one, two, three). Children learn that the same numerical concept can be represented in different ways.

            The last dozen years or so have seen an increase in the use of what teachers generally refer to as manipulatives - items that the kids can handle so that their meaning is not limited to an abstract squiggle on a piece of paper. In the classroom, we put small blocks, plastic teddy bears, buttons, and rubber bugs into kids’ hands so that they can move them around and bring meaning to math lessons.

            Following are some books that approach several different angles in mixing math with literature:


            Since kids get a kick out of playing with their food, parents can make good use of this strategy to help with math. Barbara Barbieri McGrath has made a career out of using familiar brand-name food in fun and creative ways. Her titles that use food include Skittles Riddles Math, The M & M’s Brand Counting Book, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Fun Book, The Cheerios Counting Book, Kellogg’s Froot Loops! Counting Fun Book, and Necco Sweethearts Be My Valentine Book.


  •  Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday, by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz

  •  Amanda Bean’s Amazing Dream: A Mathematical Story, by Cindy Neuschwander, illustrated by Liza Woodruff

            Marilyn Burns Brainy Day Books incorporate stories in which math principles are used. At the end of the books is a section “For parents, teachers, and other adults” and another called “Extending Children’s Learning:”

  • A Cloak for the Dreamer, by Aileen Friedman, illustrated by Kim Howard

  • The Greedy Triangle, by Marilyn Burns, illustrated by Gordon Silveria

  • The King’s Commissioners, by Aileen Friedman, illustrated by Susan Guevara


  • These books have specific math skills as their focus. The titles by Stuart J. Murphy are part of the MathStart series, which has dozens of titles:

  • Bat Jamboree, by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (addition)

  • Elevator Magic, by Stuart J. Murphy, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (subtracting)

  • Bats Around the Clock, by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Melissa Sweet(time)

  • Bats on Parade, by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (multiplication)

  • Betcha!, by Stuart J. Murphy, illustrated by S. D. Schindler (estimating)

  • Give Me Half, by Stuart J. Murphy, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (fractions)

  • A Fair Bear Share, by Stuart J. Murphy, illustrated by John Spiers (regrouping)

  • Divide and Ride, by Stuart J. Murphy, illustrated by George Ulrich (division)

  • The Big Buck Adventure, by Shelley Gill and Deborah Tobola, illustrated by Grace Lin (money)

  • The Best Vacation Ever, by Stuart J. Murphy, illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott (collecting data)

  •  Lemonade for Sale, by Stuart J. Murphy, illustrated by Tricia Tusa (bar graphs)


  • Pigs on the Ball: Fun with Math and Sports, by Amy Axelrod, illustrated by Sharon McGinley-Nally

  • he Baseball Counting Book, by Barbara Barbieri McGrath, illustrated by Brian Shaw


  • Ten Times Better, by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Leonard Baskin

  • Grapes of Math, by Greg Tang, illustrated by Harry Briggs

  •  One Riddle, One Answer, by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Linda S. Wingerter

  •  The Case of the Missing Birthday Party, by Joanne Rocklin, illustrated by John Spiers

  •  Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar, by Masaichiro Anno and Mitsumasa Anno

            Jay Davidson lives in Palo Alto and has been teaching in San Francisco for 31 years; he teaches first grade. He is also a personal organizer who helps people move from clutter and chaos to order and serenity in their homes and offices. He can be reached through his website at www.jaydavidson.com.

This column has been incorporated and expanded in Teach Your Children Well: A Teacher’s  Advice for Parents.

All columns are copyright © Jay Davidson.  Permission is hereby granted for individuals to download and copy them for individual use.  There is a modest charge for printing these columns in any publication.  To receive that permission, contact   Jay Davidson