book and toy reviews

(***Also see Cool Math: toys for mathematically-minded adults and kids.)

Children must do drills, in order to get fast enough with basic arithmetic facts. However, the deadly boredom of memorization starts them to thinking that they hate math. While they are being bored at school, how can you awaken their interest in the beauty and fun of mathematics? (Certainly not by adding more work!)

What I did was add fun math books to our list of books to read aloud. Some children love math puzzles enough to accept a book of cool math facts; mine, however, require at least a slim plot to hang the information on, to hold their attention and make them wonder what happens next. Reading aloud was necessary for us; it makes it more fun to marvel over the discoveries together, and what seems dry to a child reading alone is much more exciting read by an adult. We can read aloud books that would be too difficult for reading alone for many years in the future.

We also acquired nearly every good geometrical building toy. These are my kids' favorite toys, because there are so many ways you can play with them.

Help for School

Times Tables the Fun Way: Book for Kids: A Picture Method of Learning the Multiplication Facts

First, here's some help for those boring drills. Times Tables the Fun Way gives a little easy-to-remember cartoon-illustrated story that links each problem (e.g., six X six) with some sort of pun for the solution (e.g, thirsty sixes = thirty six). Great for those who remember stories more easily than math facts, or anyone who has just a few facts that they just can't seem to remember. There is a similar book, Addition the Fun Way, for younger students, and the publishers also supply workbooks, flash cards, etc., though we bought only the books themselves.


The best toys teach without seeming to teach, absorbing attention just because they are so much fun. These are our favorites.

  • 1. Zome

    cover Zome is the most versatile of all building systems, allowing the construction of organic molecules as well as geometric solids. I believe the best place to buy Zome is from ZomeTools, as you can buy many different sizes of kits (hint: buy twice as much as you think you could possibly want!) and even custom sets of just the parts you need for a special project. Another good source is Construction Toys. For a small starter set, you can order from Amazon, with the link below, if you prefer. Zome is the ideal toy for both children and adults. Scientists use it for serious models, but the design of Zome is such that you can be just doodling along, connecting parts together, and find that you have designed something beautiful, almost in spite of yourself!

  • 2. Geofix

    Construction Toys carries the beautiful Geofix building set pieces. Nothing else can give as intuitive an understanding of the nature of three dimensional shapes! The translucent jewel-tone plastic triangles, squares, pentagons, and hexagons fit together to form all of the Platonic solids, Archimedean solids, Johnson solids, prisms, and anti-prisms. The program Poly, below, gives explicit instructions in how to build these shapes, or you can build grand castles and free-form constructions. Wonderful for adults as well as children. A child as young as age five with good hand-eye coordination will enjoy this (tetrahedrons are widely felt to make fine space capsules); for those with less developed hand-eye coordination, you might want to wait a couple more years. There is no upper age limit; Geofix is great for adults who like this sort of thing.

  • 3. Poly

    cover Poly is a reasonably priced program, for both Mac and Windows, which shows the different types of geometric solids - the five Platonic solids, the Archimedean solids, Prisms and Antiprisms, and so forth - names them, allows you to turn them in space or flatten them out to the shape you would put together in order to build one. It even lets you choose between solid sides and sides made of Geofix building pieces! This is a marvelous program, well worth the registration fee, but you can download it yourself for free to see whether you, too, agree. Poly is provided by Pedagoguery Software in British Columbia.

  • 4. Geomag

    cover One (adult) friend of ours spent many hundreds of dollars on a huge quantity of Geomag from Construction Toys, because the strong magnetic bars and steel balls are so satisfying and beautiful to build with. All of our young friends, age four and up, have received smaller sets from us for presents. I like to keep a stock of the small $10 sets on hand for unexpected birthday parties. There's no risk, because even someone who already has a set needs more. Decide for yourself whether Geomag or Roger's Connection (a similar concept, with longer, slimmer bars, available from Construction Toys, among others) provide a better value for your own purposes. (WARNING: teach children to keep magnets away from TV screens, video and audio tapes, and memory cards!)


    It's best to read these books aloud with your child. They are much more fun that way.

    preschool through first grade

  • The King's Commissioners (Brainy Day Books)

    cover This short picture book demonstrates counting by twos, fives, and tens, with a silly king and a clever princess as the main characters. Notes for parents on teaching the concepts are included at the end.


  • One Hundred Hungry Ants

    cover This book is great, for a child who needs to learn that 100 = 2 x 50 = 4 x 25 = 5 x 20 = 10 x 10. It's also very amusing, with clever pictures, so a child who already knows these facts can also enjoy paying attention. (Unfortunately, another book by the same team, A Remainder of One, is flawed by having vocabulary is far more advanced than the arithemtic.)

  • Spaghetti and meatballs for all: a mathematical story

    cover I feel a little too much sympathy for the woman in the story whose carefully-made plans get all messed up to really enjoy this book myself, but that's part of how good it is. It's about how much shorter the total perimeter of a bunch of tables is if they are pushed together than if they are spread out separately. My kindergartener loves it. Lots of clever details to encourage many re-readings.

  • How Big Is a Foot?

    cover This is a minor book, certainly worth reading, about what a difference it makes if you use a small person's foot instead of the king's big foot to measure.


    kindergarten and early elementary

  • cover Alice in Numberland (I Love Math/Fantasy Math)

    This is a book for young children, kindergarten to perhaps second grade. My six year old loves it. He makes me read it again and again and again.... Of course, he knows the answers to all the puzzles by now! (My ten-year-old son enjoyed reading it to himself, once.) The puzzles involves addition, subtraction, place values, two and three-dimensional shapes, and simple fractions, among others, with notes for parents. We borrowed our copy from our local public library.

  • Amanda Bean's amazing dream: a mathematical story

    cover This is great. "I'm Amanda Bean, and I count anything and everything!" It's about why one might want to learn multiplication facts by heart, instead of just adding. A lesson my older son could have used at a certain point, I remember - he was good enough at adding that he didn't quite see the point to memorizing all those multiplication facts. Another nice point is how the main character's obsessive behavior seems cool. It's very funny, too, and has a good rhythm for reading aloud.

  • The Greedy Triangle

    cover This is the best introduction I've seen to polygons, from triangle though quadrilateral, pentagon, on up to decagon. The charming story gives many examples of each shape (though the six-sided one) in real life. I don't mind reading it again and again, which is very important in books for this age group.


    The rest of the books in this list are for older kids, at least age nine.

  • fourth grade and up (many even for adults)

  • The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure. cover

    This is the book that started this whole project. A boy who thinks he hates math, thanks to the dull things he must learn in school, is visited nightly, in his dreams, by a being that tells him all about many fascinating facets of mathematics. Utterly absorbing - the only problem was in stopping in time for bedtime each night. For the first time, my nine-year-old son realized that learning the multiplication tables was not all there was to math. He went from somewhat disliking math to loving it.

  • Math Trek cover

    'Math Trek' is amusing, though less gripping than 'Number Devil'; it covers a different range. Great to read aloud.


  • Math Trek II


    'Math Trek II' is even better than 'Math Trek' - but read 'Math Trek' before 'Math Trek II'.



  • Anno's mysterious multiplying jar by Anno, Mitsumasa

    cover This short but pretty book illustrates the concept of factorial, with the final number being 10 factorial. My kindergartener loves it, it's good for my fifth-grader, too, and for much older students as well - anyone who is ready for an introduction to the concept of factorial numbers. I think it's pretty remarkable when one book is good for such a wide range of ages.


  • The Man Who Counted cover

    This one is very different from the others, but still one of the best. The medieval Islamic culture is a plus.



  • The Adventures of Penrose the mathematical cat cover

    'Penrose' is a little more suited to classrooms, with shorter bites of information, and not as exciting or as deep as the others, but it's good all the same.


  • G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book cover

    Not all alphabet books are for little kids! The entry on 'x' sparked enthusiasm for algebra in my nine-year-old. Very fun, from beginning to end.



  • A Gebra Named Al: A Novel cover

    There's not a lot of algebra here, but it gives a strong grounding in the order of precedence in solving problems. More than that, it includes a smattering of chemistry. It was actually written by a child, but my own child enjoyed it immensely, even where it seemed a bit thin to me.


  • The Phantom Tollbooth cover

    This book is a classic, and well-deserved at that. It is far better suited to children than the famous "Flatland", which turned out to be more Victorian satire, against sexism and the like, than a math book at all. The Phantom Tollbooth contains math and logic, as well as quite a few things that are neither but still contain a lot of thought-provoking fun.


  • Math Curse cover

    We got this from the library, and enjoyed it, but it was a very quick read, like the books for the younger kids, not a major find like the previous and next books in this list.


  • Conned Again, Watson! Cautionary Tales of Logic, Math, and Probability cover

    Many adults succumb to con games when a little knowledge of math and logic could save them. How wonderful to innoculate a child against that sort of stupidity! It covers many aspects of math that I'd never gotten straight myself before, even when I was a math major in college. This book is fun to read, because it is couched in the form of Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock Holmes purists may cringe, but I found the anachronisms few and easy to take, and we both enjoyed this one tremendously.

  • Algebra, the Easy Way cover

    Many books in this series are in the form of fantasy novels; many are not. Be careful to get only the former, if your purpose is to explore math in a fun way! The latter are more suited for adults who need help with college courses. This one, however, is a fantasy novel, and it's the current book on our reading list. I was so excited to find it! It's really great so far, for my ten-year-old. The story shows *why* we really want to learn these things!

  • Also see my math toys blog, Cool Math: toys for mathematically-minded adults and kids

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    Last updated: September 3, 2008
    Page created: February 9, 2003