Maybe you’ve never been a “math person.” Maybe you only recently learned that googolplex is not the name of the Google cafeteria. Maybe when you’re out to lunch with friends you sit quietly when the check comes, hoping someone else will calculate how much you owe. But that doesn’t mean your six-year-old isn’t fascinated by numbers.
At the beginning of kindergarten I bought my son How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz, originally published in 1985. The book is considered a classic — you see it now with a 20th Anniversary Edition banner — but it didn’t exist when I was in elementary school. Though this is a book I thought L. would tolerate at best, he was captivated from the first reading. Schwartz manages to put numbers like million, billion and trillion in concrete terms that speak to five, six and seven year-olds perfectly. For instance: A million kids standing on one another’s shoulders would reach farther up than airplanes could fly! If you sat down to count to a billion, you would be counting for 95 years! Illustrator Steven Kellogg’s human figures often look unsettlingly mutant-like to me but the whimsical imagery here conveys the concepts perfectly.
More recently, at last week’s Bank Street Children’s Book Awards, I got us an autographed copy of one of the winners: How Many Jellybeans? by Andrea Menotti, which took home this year’s Cook Prize (awarded to the best science, technology, engineering or math picture book). Now, as much as I would love my offspring to get into M.I.T., coughing up $19 for a hardcover about numbers still does not come naturally to me. But I’m so glad I did. This glossy, color-packed book with illustrations by Yancey Labat (he and Menotti are a husband-wife team) shows kids what 5,000, 10,000 and 100,000 jelly beans actually look like. And at the very end there’s an eye-popping payoff: a massive gatefold that opens up to reveal one million jellybeans. I can’t remember the last time I brought home a book that prompted both kids to scream “AWESOME!” And though you’d think the book would be a one-read wonder, it’s not. The very next morning I found L. looking at it again, still mesmerized.