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University News

Math and monsters add up in children’s book

Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

From the author of “The Pentagram Integrals for Inscribed Polygons” and “Spherical CR Geometry and Dehn Surgery” comes “You Can Count on Monsters,” a colorful picture book featuring 100 math-themed monsters. Professor of Mathematics Richard Schwartz’s first children’s book offers young children a unique math experience.

The book, recently featured on National Public Radio, is filled with colorful graphics of monsters that correspond with the numbers one to 100, presenting young children with a unique and exciting way to learn about concepts like prime numbers and factoring. The graphic of each monster is related to the number it represents — the number five monster, for example, is a five-sided star.

The project originally took the form of a poster of the 100 monsters, which Schwartz said he had made for one of his daughters.

“I wanted to just make something for her,” he said.

Schwartz said he made several comic books when he was in his 20s and that creating graphics is a hobby of his. He created the pictures of the monsters using X Fig, a program used by many mathematicians that brings up shapes and geometrical patterns, he said.

The book contains three sections — an introduction explaining the concepts in the book, the actual graphics of the 100 monsters and two appendices at the end of the book containing the Sieve of Eratosthenes and Euclid’s proof for prime numbers.

“I kind of did it in bursts,” Schwartz said. “I’d estimate the whole book took a thousand hours.”

After receiving coverage Jan. 22 from Keith Devlin on NPR, the book leapt to the number-one position on Amazon for the children’s math book category for over a day, Schwartz said, one year after the book was published.

The NPR coverage was “essentially a four-minute glowing advertisement,” Schwartz said. “It was on a Saturday morning, I actually overslept.”

Schwartz published the children’s book with A K Peters, Ltd., a publishing company that focuses on books related to computer science and mathematics. Schwartz had several previous publications with the company, but he said they were very mathematically complex.

“You Can Count on Monsters” is the first book for very young children published by A K Peters, said Klaus Peters, a co-founder of the company and a former professor of mathematics at the University of Erlangen in Nuremberg, Germany. The company had previously published other books for middle-school children, but this book is intended for children six and up, Peters said.

“We saw absolutely fantastic illustrations,” Peters said. “I told everybody in our company that this book would become a real classic children’s book.”

A K Peters sold the book to mathematicians at various conferences, Peters explained.

“I showed the book to (Keith Devlin) at the last mathematics conference,” Peters said, adding that NPR responded very quickly.

“I believe mathematics is something that is completely misunderstood by the public because of bad teaching,” Peters said.

He said he recalled an e-mail he received in which Schwartz was described as “a new Dr. Seuss.”

“You Can Count on Monsters” won first prize in the children’s category in the annual Book Builders of Boston competition this spring, Peters said.

Schwartz said he believes that his previous publications with A K Peters allowed him to get his children’s book “in the back door,” he said.

“The children’s book market is brutally competitive.”

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