Storytelling Math

Picture books as a vehicle for expanding views of math and who can do it

BY MARLENE KLIMAN

Think of a math picture book for ages 0–5. What comes to mind?

If you’re like most adults, you think of books about counting or shapes. The books that come to mind are likely to feature animals or white main characters, rather than reflecting current U.S. demographics, in which young children of color predominate. These books may be better-suited to a math lesson than to a favorite bedtime read aloud, and chances are, they were written by white authors.

Why don’t we tend to think of books that offer a wider range of math topics, feature main characters of color, appeal to a broad audience, and are written by authors of color? Because few such math picture books exist.

The STORYTELLING MATH project, based at TERC, Inc., is working to change the landscape of math picture books. With our partner Charlesbridge Publishing, we are producing a dozen English and Spanish books that:

  • feature math topics that research shows to be important for young children but that make scant appearance in fiction picture books;
  • center on authentic mathematical contexts that young children encounter in their daily lives;
  • have main characters of color; and
  • are designed to draw in families that may not intentionally be seeking out math—but will find it in our books, woven into emotionally resonant, engaging stories.

With these books, we aim to broaden popular conceptions of content, contexts, and characters in math picture books; and with our stellar authors and illustrators of color, we hope to expand views of who can create math picture books for young children.

Why combine math and picture books?

Infusing math into picture books offers an unparalleled opportunity to promote learning among young children in the years before they enter school. The benefits of reading to and with children are well known; when math and literacy are combined, children experience synergistic impacts in both domains, with growth in complexity of language, vocabulary, mathematical understandings, and enthusiasm for learning (Ginsburg et al., 2016; van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and Elia, 2012; Anderson et al., 2005). Opportunities for early math learning are essential: early math skills are one of the best predictors of overall academic success in the years to come (Morgan, 2016; Mongeau, 2013; Sonnenschine et al., 2012).

Why Extend Math Content and Contexts in Picture Books?

Although common views of appropriate math for children in the preschool years have long centered on counting and identifying shapes, a burgeoning research literature suggests the importance of a wider range of early math skills, including understanding of patterns, spatial relationships, and everyday math vocabulary (DREME, 2019; Erickson, 2019; Pruden et al., 2011; Purpura et al., 2016; Rittle-Johnson et al., 2016). Connecting math to developmentally-appropriate experiences also contributes to understanding: math stories about contrived situations in which children would rarely if ever use math in real life can serve to exacerbate conceptions that math has little practical utility (Sitabkhan et al, 2018). By contrast, math stories grounded in contexts in which children organically use math can foster a sense that math is relevant, helpful, and interesting.

Why is Racial Diversity in Children’s Books So Important?

Books can be both mirrors and windows (Bronson, 2017; Lin, 2016). As mirrors, they should reflect our nation’s racial diversity. Books that offer children of color positive portrayals of families like their own can promote self-esteem and healthy development (AACP, 2016; Pew Research Center, 2015). Positive math identity for young children of color is critical: despite decades of calls for change, pernicious “deficit” discourse appears in math education as early as preschool (TODOS and NCSM, 2016). As windows, books featuring children of color are vital for white children. Such books enable all readers to see children of color portrayed as fully realized characters.

Although librarians report that patrons of all backgrounds are eager for more diverse books, fewer than 25% of children’s picture books published in 2018 include any characters of color; of those that do, many are thematic books about particular racial or cultural groups, festivals, or historical figures (CCBC, 2019; Mortensen, 2019; SLJ, 2019). Books that portray children of color doing everyday things—including mathematical thinking—are in short supply.

In this board book for toddlers, Olivia looks for something the right size to fill her basket. “The beet is too small. It has room to roll around.”

Some in the storybook world employ animal characters in attempt to avoid issues of race; this approach does nothing to attain parity between U.S. demographics and character representations in books. Since most human characters in children’s books are white, using animal characters, rather than human characters of color, sustains the status quo. Furthermore, recent research suggests that human characters in storybooks, and not anthropomorphized animal characters, are effective at promoting prosocial behaviors and patterns of thinking (Craig, 2017; Larsen et al., 2017). The possibility of a similar mechanism at work for math attitudes, confidence, and reasoning offers yet another reason for featuring people of color in math-infused storybooks.

The Dearth of Books that Meld a Rich Range of Math, Diversity, and Story

With growing awareness of the importance of early math and of the power of storybooks to promote math learning, lists of “best” mathematical storybooks for young children have proliferated. Prominent early childhood organizations and publications offer recommendations, and internet searches reveal myriad suggestions submitted by educators, librarians, and parents. Yet, very few titles on these lists reflect today’s racially diverse families; instead, white children and animal characters predominate. For instance, a few years ago, The Horn Book, perhaps the preeminent periodical on children’s literature in the U.S., recommended 14 math picture books for young children (Quinlan, 2015). Of the 12 that include human characters, only one has a main character who appears to be African-American or Latinx, none offers biracial or multiracial families, and just one was published after the year 2000.

Likewise, most such lists offer a narrow range of content (primarily counting and learning shape names), missing important opportunities to engage young children and their caregivers in the full breadth of enriching, relevant, and developmentally appropriate mathematics.

To gauge literary qualities and beyond-classroom appeal of books commonly found on “best” math picture book lists, we have begun asking children’s book stakeholders, e.g., authors, editors, and book reviewers, to rate a sample of such books along a variety of dimensions. Our preliminary findings suggest that stakeholders believe that few of these books include the qualities—like emotional resonance, relatable characters, and a tension-filled narrative arc—that make for an outstanding fiction picture book.

Influencing the Influencers of the Children’s Book World

To find out why so few books combine math, racial diversity, and the best qualities of children’s literature, we look to the world of children’s trade publishing. Publishers wield tremendous power as gatekeepers. On average, they accept only about .03% of submissions they receive (Underdown, 2010). Which stories do they choose? Children’s publishing is a predominantly white and female field, and despite the best of intentions, biases about race and anxieties about math can prevail (Lu, 2019; Templeton, 2019). Some authors avoid traditional publishers by self-publishing or choosing another non-traditional route. Yet, aligning with traditional trade publishers confers substantial benefits. Publishers can provide professional editorial and design experience, promote books to a wide range of audiences, ensure that books appear in prominent displays in stores, and, through advertising and media, influence public opinion and tastes.

Our STORYTELLING MATH books will reap these benefits through our partnership with Charlesbridge, an independent trade publisher. To develop the STORYTELLING MATH books, Charlesbridge and TERC reached out to authors to solicit manuscripts in a variety of math areas that are under-represented in fiction picture books, but that recent research highlights as important for young children (including spatial relationships, reasoning quantities and informal measurements, and comparing patterns). We also offered free workshops and webinars to provide authors with more information on the math topics we sought: most author participants had never before considered that math for young children could consist of more than counting and shapes. We encouraged authors to write from the heart: to tell stories that mattered to them, and to connect with us for math support if needed.

“When TERC first approached us about STORYTELLING MATH, we were immediately interested,” says Alyssa Mito Pusey, Executive Editor at Charlesbridge. “Charlesbridge has always been committed to diversity. The idea of publishing math books for young children of all backgrounds spoke to us. Here was a chance to publish books that could truly make a difference.”

We received over 450 submissions. As we reviewed and selected among them, we carefully chose stories to reflect a balance of math topics, ethnicities, cultures, and story themes. Interestingly, none of the authors whose manuscripts we ultimately selected have a background in early math or math education; several professed anxiety about, or even, dislike of math. Yet, they were skilled at weaving engaging stories, and they typically brought an intuitive understanding of children’s mathematical thinking—although they may not have recognized it until we talked through math ideas with them.

We are pleased that of the twelve manuscripts we selected, eleven of them are #OwnVoices stories by authors of color. The #OwnVoices movement highlights books by authors who share a marginalized identity with their protagonists: an African American author writing about an African American character, for instance. “#OwnVoices authors can write about their characters with unparalleled authenticity and nuance,” says Pusey. “As an Asian American editor, I’m proud to be working on these stories. Young readers of color can see themselves reflected in these books in a way that I couldn’t, growing up.”

Since selecting the manuscripts, we have worked closely with Charlesbridge editors and designers to ensure that the books are well-written, beautifully illustrated, and mathematically sound. Later in the process, we’ll collaborate with Charlesbridge’s world-class sales and distribution partner, Penguin Random House Publishing Services, to reach as many readers as possible.

Will We Make a Difference? Stay Tuned

Our first books will be released in Fall 2020. We hope they make an impact on several levels: sparking mathematical thinking, learning, and conversation among readers; giving the public a broader vision of math picture books; and perhaps even prompting other publishers to follow the Charlesbridge lead, offering picture books that are mathematically rich as well as beautiful, lyrical, broadly appealing, racially diverse, and written by authors of color.

Join our mailing list and be the first to know when the books will be available! contactus@terc.edu


PHOTO CREDIT

Illustration © 2020 by Grace Lin from Fall: What Will Fit? Used with permission of the publisher.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Heartfelt thanks to the Heising-Simons Foundation for their vision, their deep commitment to racial equity, and their enthusiastic and generous support; to Alyssa Mito Pusey and her colleagues at Charlesbridge for their collaborative spirit and for ensuring that these books are joyful, resonant, and beautiful as well as mathematical; and to Star Bright Books for the stellar math board books developed with Ellen Mayer and Ying-Hwa Hu as part of our pilot effort, also funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

AUTHOR

In over 25 years at TERC, Marlene Kliman has led national-scale research and development projects involving mathematics learning in public libraries, after-school programs, community-based child care settings, family homes, and other informal learning environments. Her projects have been funded by public and private agencies including the National Science Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the IBM Work/Life Fund.

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