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Fiction + Math = <3

2011 April 5
by Becky ONeil
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You might think of “Math” and “Fiction” as two circles of a Venn diagram that don’t overlap at all. In fact, I know some teens who’d say that “math fiction” is a full-on oxymoron. But enough awesome math teachers have asked for fiction tie-ins, and enough teen math fans have wondered what’s on the fiction shelves for them, that I’ve started to keep an eye open. Turns out, when you really look, there’s a lot there.

First, and perhaps the easiest to booktalk, you’ve got the books about making money. There’s no better intro to economics than Lawn Boy, and author Gary Paulsen wrings laugh-out-loud humor from chapter titles such as “Principles of Economic Expansion” and “Law of Increasing Product Demand vs. Flat Production Capacity.” Think making money is a boring book premise? Consider Kirsten Landon’s new book, The Limit. In the near future, teenager Matt’s family exceeds their legal debt limit and Matt is taken by the government to work in the Federal Debt Rehabilitation Agency workhouse.

And whether or not we’re talking about the future, the sci-fi/fantasy angle is, of course, a natural fit for math fiction. There’s the tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time, the number 42 in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and more algebra than I ever realized in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The romantic in me has always had a soft spot for Norton Juster’s The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, and I’m sure his Mathemagician from The Phantom Tollbooth would agree.

Speaking of romance, my favorite genre of math fiction is something I call “Making Sense of the World.” Here you’ll find Colin Singleton and his attempts to find a mathematical formula for relationships, outlined in An Abundance of Katherines (a Printz Honor book). There’s Christopher Boone, the autistic narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (an Alex Award winner), who numbers the chapters with prime numbers an includes an appendix with the mathematical proof of his favorite problem. Tess in Secrets, Lies, and Algebra (Do the Math, #1) has always felt that math is dependable when life is not — at least until she gets to middle school and all of its variables. And in Forever Changes, Brianna Pelletier lives with cystic fibrosis, unsure if her math skills will mean anything if she doesn’t live to see her first year at MIT. Can a simple idea — the importance of infinitesimals — make even mortality seem less daunting?

Readers looking for more straightforward math can always go for a puzzle book, such as Meanwhile: Pick Any Path: 3,856 Story Possibilities (a 2011 Top Ten Great Graphic Novel for Teens), or The Clock Without A Face. Amateur detectives can follow math-related clues in The Unknowns: A Mystery, or Chasing Vermeer, or The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour. And of course, what mystery lover doesn’t appreciate solving crimes with mad math skills? Hello, The Numbers Behind Numb3rs. Now we’ve stepped into nonfiction, so we’d better mention Math Doesn’t Suck, Kiss My Math, and Hot X (Danica McKellar’s magazine-style books aimed at middle-school girls), as well as The Manga Guide to Calculus and its Edu-Manga kin.

Last but not least, no math post would be complete without a nod to Jon Scieszka’s hilarious picture book Math Curse, which was getting attention as a Best Book for Young Adults way back in 1996.

As you can see, there’s no shortage of math-related books in the world of teen lit (and I haven’t even covered chess, cooking, or poetry!). Any favorites that I’ve forgotten? Share them in the comments — I’d love to know your thoughts!

— Becky O’Neil, currently reading I Am J, by Cris Beam

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7 Responses
  1. April 5, 2011

    I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about Ashley Hope Perez’s What Can’t Wait (http://www.worldcat.org/title/what-cant-wait/oclc/656847496&referer=brief_results) and it’s on my to-read list. It’s about a girl from an immigrant family who’s really good at math and hopes it can lead her to a better life.

  2. Mia permalink
    April 5, 2011

    What a great post! Too often there is the Big Divide (no pun intended) between “math kids” and “English/ reader/ future librarian” kids. I get asked for puzzle books fairly often, I really appreciate how rich with recommendations this piece is!

  3. Francisca Goldsmith permalink
    April 5, 2011

    Thanks for reminding us all of this! It may surprise some of you who can’t remember a time when California wasn’t moribund that the state’s Department of Education developed–with the assistance of school and public librarians and teachers–a data base of math and science related literature (NOT text books but just the kinds of works mentioned in the post above). The url is still active, although the list hasn’t been updated in several years: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/sc/ll/

    Also, I wonder if any other blog readers here have worked, as I have, with a high school where math teachers recognize literature? t]The 9th and 10th grade math teachers at the high school closest to the public library where I worked in the 1990’s ALL assigned their students to read at least one fiction book featuring a math thread each semester.

  4. April 5, 2011

    Oh man, I can’t believe I forgot All of the Above by Shelley Pearsall! http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/576688.All_of_the_Above

  5. Mari S. Smith permalink
    April 16, 2011

    There’s also The Number Devil by HansMagnus Enzensberger. Here’s the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Number-Devil-Mathematical-Adventure/dp/0805062998 and the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Number_Devil .

  6. Katherine R permalink
    May 4, 2011

    Another YA book heavy on economics is FOR THE WIN by Cory Doctorow. The World of Warcraft slant can’t hurt.

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