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The Bulletin
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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Ball, Johnny Go Figure!: A Totally Cool Book about Numbers; illus. with photographs.
DK, 2005 96p5
ISBN 0-7566-1374-4 $16.99             R*       Gr. 5-9

For many kids (and adults), it's hard to see the wonder in mathematics, and it seems to be a difficult subject to address creatively in literature, since books that want to make numbers fun are often dull, manipulative affairs tainted with condescension. Here's an invigorating, imaginative exploration that makes a strength out of the topic's breadth, looking at numbers in, appropriately, numerous and creative ways.

The book's four sections examine the history of numbers, magic numbers (pi, of course, but also phi, infinity, square and triangular numbers, and other powerful mathematical agents), shapes (not just yer basic squares and cubes, but also multi-sided figures, buckyballs, topology, and symmetrical axes), and "the world of math" (probability, chaos theory, fractals, logic, and art, plus some shortcut tips and thumbnail bios of significant mathematicians). Each topic is compactly addressed in a single oversized spread that offers a brief explanation, a cornucopia of examples and relevant uses, and often some games, puzzles (answers are appended), or genuinely appealing craft ideas (how could you not want to make your own pop-up dodecahedron?) to boot. The page layouts are executed with energy but also considerable care, with strategic use of color (each section employs its own dominant accent color), creative and varied design, and a plethora of photographic vignettes and diagrams all cunningly employed, resulting in feature-dense pages that are invitingly rich rather than dauntingly overbusy.

Nor does the book rest on the laurels of sound workmanship. Right at the start, in its first featured spread, it demonstrates its inventive enthusiasm with a mock newspaper front page from a world with no numbers (the total prize of a lottery is "several housefuls of money," and the TV listings are "on the page before the page before the page before the last page"), cleverly making its point about the importance of numbers even as it hooks readers. The exploration of number systems effectively conveys the startling idea that the base ten system to which we're accustomed is simply an option, not an inevitable or inherent arrangement; the magic-number examination offers a stop-action shot of numbers in action throughout the natural and conceptual worlds; the investigation of shapes illuminates their significance as structural building blocks in nature and in engineering. Readers will have their mathematical consciousness raised by seeing objects and concepts they take for granted in mathematical terms, and they'll also get some solid and entertaining answers to the age-old question of what all this math is good for in the real world.

The buffet approach means there's something for everybody here: kids intimidated by numerals can latch on to the world history, trace their way through a maze, or investigate shape theory, while the happily enumerating will find their horizons broadened. The book's generous provision of enjoyable trivia (want to know what comes after "novemdecillion"? Of course you do) and brain teasers (some old classics, some less widely known) ensures that readers of various commitment levels are well served. Significant ideas sparkle with the unintimidating charm of tidbits, so that readers will find themselves absorbing fractal theory or finding the Fibonacci series in broccoli as easily as they can create a homemade Moebius strip.

With its clear and enjoyable explanations of concepts, encouraging tone, and lively style, this is rife with teachability (an index helps point users to specific topics), and in fact the book is likely to have a secret audience of guilty adult mathophobes. More importantly, it will serve audiences ranging from young mathophiles to older students who find math their most nerve-wracking subject and appreciate a friendly way in. For browsers or problem-solvers, curricular use or backseat recreation, this is a math book to count on.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover image by from Go Figure!: A Totally Cool Book of Numbers © 2005. Used by permission of DK Publishing.

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This page was last updated on December 1, 2005.