Mathical: Prize-Winning Math Storybooks for Young Children

Mathical Book Prize judge Herbert Ginsburg reviews One Big Pair of Underwear, by Laura Gehl and Tom Lichtenheld, and shares tips for parents and teachers to inspire a love of reading — and math.

by Herbert P. Ginsburg, Columbia Teachers College

The Mathical prizewinner One Big Pair of Underwear, by Laura Gehl and Tom Lichtenheld, tells a story that begins with underwear and goes on to present a series of hilarious adventures that embody basic mathematical ideas.

Here are a few tips about reading Underwearand other math books with young children. I illustrate these pointers with examples showing how Luke, who proclaims himself to be “five and one quarter,” and the adult (Mia Almeda, a member of our reading project) read the book together.

Tip 1: Select a Good Book

That’s easy to say, but what’s a good book?

The first consideration is literary merit. When you select a book to read with your child — any book, not only a math book — consider whether it is interesting, captivating, funny, or appropriately scary (as when the three bears return to their house to learn that Goldilocks has invaded it), and whether the child, and you, will enjoy it.

In Underwear, the artwork is charming, the idea of yaks with black backpacks does not lackhumor, and the tongue twisting Dr. Seuss-like rhymes are hilarious. If the book under consideration does not have interesting features like these, don’t read it, regardless of its math content. Literary merit is central because we want children to grow up with a love of reading, not a distaste for boring, pedantic books — and certainly not a fear of mathematics that these kinds of books may engender.

Tip 2: Involve the child.

First things first: the cover!

At the outset, Mia asks Luke what he sees on the cover and what he thinks the story will be about. Why ask? Mia wants to involve Luke in the reading from the outset. She wants him to understand that reading time will not be an adult-controlled lesson, but an experience in which she reads with, not at, him.

Here is Luke’s reaction.

Luke was very expressive and also amused. He anticipated that the story will be about underwear so large and with so much extra room that it is really like “a dad’s kind of underwear or a grandpa’s underwear.”

At the very outset, then, we see that the book includes mathematical comparisons of size and capacity, and that Luke understands, at least partially, something of these basic ideas. Further, five-year-olds will likely find underwear a splendid source of humor. In any event, Mia succeeded in drawing Luke into reading the story.

Tip 3: Enjoy the book.

It is clear that Luke enjoys the book (or at least his own playful dad/grandpa joke). Indeed, everyone, including the camera operator, laughs. Laughing is good. Both reader and child should enjoy the book.

Tip 4: Stimulate the child’s thinking.

Underwear involves a recurring theme. In each case one animal is left out of an activity because there aren’t enough desired objects to go around. Here is one page that sets the scene.

The page shows that there are seven jet skis and eight cows. (You can ask the child to check the numbers by counting.) Then we see that there are seven cows, each mounted on one jet ski, and all having a great time. Indeed, in the throes of joy, they are calling, “Moo woo-hoo!”

The basic mathematical idea is 1–1 correspondence. There is a jet ski for each cow, except for one, which is left unhappily jet ski-less. If each cow had a jet ski, then there would be the same number of both. If one is left over, then there is more of one set (the cows) and fewer in the other (the jet skis). These are fundamental definitions of moreand less.

What does Luke understand about all this? Let’s see.

Mia reads the page and then asks, “What do you think is going to happen next? If there are eight cows all craving for something new . . .” Luke interrupts to finish the syllogism, saying, “and then only seven boats, then one of them will be left out.”

He did not simply calculate the result. Instead, he seemed to have learned the general pattern: he did not need to see the unhappy and left-out cow on the next page to know that one cow was left over. It is possible that he was engaged in a simple form of algebraic thinking, namely using a general rule to anticipate new results.

So that is the story of reading one of the Mathical prize winning stories. You can read in this way too, and can develop some tips of your own.

To see more resources for early math storybook reading please visit our blog. To see the other Mathical Prize winners, visit the Mathical website.

Herbert Ginsburg is the Jacob H. Schiff Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia Teachers College. He is a member of the DREME Network’s Parent and Early Caregiver Engagement in Math research team, as well as the Early Math Resources for Teacher Educators team. (Visit those free resources at on our DREME TE site.)