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What’s In a Number?

I’m not very good at maths. That’s not a ‘girl’ phrase, but a statement of fact. In school, my teachers thought I did have good maths capability and sat me for my GCSE a year early. I achieved a B, no mean feat in those days of no A*s, but they then shot for the moon, and sat me for maths AO Level, and I crashed and burned with a lousy D. Needless to say, I was not as good at maths as they thought.

These days, numbers are everywhere, more prevalent than the virus as it turns out, with statistics, predictions, probabilities and graphs popping up on the media minute by minute. And my maths is sharpening. I regularly listen to Tim Harford on BBC Radio 4’s More or Less show, and I think I understand what the statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter says four fifths of the time. And I definitely understand when retailers send me percentage discount emails.

But I get stuck explaining maths to children. Here, two brilliantly practical and mathematical books are helping me out this autumn.

Dosh
Dosh: How to Earn It, Save It, Spend It, Grow It and Give It by Rashmi Sirdeshpande
is a phenomenon. Neatly packaged to be slightly wider than a traditional paperback novel, and coloured with a lurid green, reminiscent of an American dollar, this guide does exactly what it says on the cover. It explains that money is about making choices, it can be used for good and bad, sometimes you might not have a lot, but the best thing to do is know how to manage what you have.

There’s history here too, as well as up-to-date information on crypto-currencies, and trailblazers who have innovated in business and created new companies, and made money. What’s more the book aims to inform the reader about adapting to change, finding new ways forward, and applicable life skills, all told in a friendly, non-patronising, informative chatty way.

How about starting your own business – ideas aplenty – or learning how to avoid fake ‘special’ offers, which maybe aren’t quite as special as they seem? What’s compound interest, what’s a mortgage, and when was the word ‘bubble’ used to mean something before coronavirus?

This is a fascinating and fantastic guide, which isn’t at all boring. It links tulips in Amsterdam to the housing market, it explores charity and sharing chocolate cake. For anyone planning to live in our society, this is a must-read book for upper-end of primary school/lower secondary school. You won’t regret investing in it. You can buy it here.

in great numbers
The publisher Little Gestalten very kindly sent me In Great Numbers, illustrated by Daniela Olejnikova during lockdown. For primary school readers, this is a great full-colour non-fiction book that opens up the world in terms of where numbers are and what they can do. This dissects maths in the world rather than explaining mere sums at school. It tracks the history of numbers from the people who invented them, to the modern calendar and ways of measuring things, to explaining how the universe doesn’t make sense without numbers and how if you look hard everything is made of patterns of numbers, and that numbers and their possibilities are endless. And it’s written in simple, explanatory prose paragraph bites.

Particular attention should be paid to the spread on how animals use numbers, learning how spiders count the prey caught in their webs, or perhaps you’ll find more of interest on the page about how the world came up with how to tell the time in different places. For me, there’s always the genius of the Fibonacci sequence, phi and the golden ratio, and of course code cracking. With bold primary colours, detailed illustrations, and something to catch the eye on every page, this is a cracking introduction to how relevant and necessary numbers are. You can buy it here.

how to hold an umbrella
And now for a little self-promotion (sorry). For adults reading this who like their fiction short and sometimes surreal, you might wish to look at this short story anthology, How to Hold An Umbrella, in which one of my own short stories has been published.

Latest Book Review

Friend Me by Sheila M Averbuch

friend me
Do you have children with phones? Silly question really, as Ofcom’s 2019 survey found that 83% of 12 to 15 year olds in the UK owned a smartphone. So, it’s only fitting that some of the contemporary literature for this age group features interaction with a digital device. Yet, writers of fiction have argued for some time that phones get in the way of plots. It’s harder to go missing and have an adventure if your parents can text you every two minutes. It’s easier to solve mystery clues if you can just ‘Google’ the answers. And far less interesting for the reader.

But Averbuch has discovered a cruelly satisfying way to lend interest to the digital device. It can, as she says in the book, become an easy way for a loner to look busy or popular – they can just look down at their phone.

Friend me is a cautionary tale. Roisin, recently moved from Ireland to America, and struggling to fit in, is bullied in school by Zara. Happening in person, but exacerbated online, Roisin finds herself unable to confide in her parents (her mother is a workaholic, her father back in Ireland), or her older brother. However, she finds a true friend in Hayley, online. Someone who lives at an inaccessible distance in real life, but who online, not only sympathises with Roisin’s experiences, but has shared similar, and completely agrees with Roisin on pretty much everything.

But then Zara, busy taking selfies, has a dreadful and shocking accident, and when Roisin thinks about it, it’s not that shocking in regards to private conversations she has had with Hayley.

The book almost pivots at this point, from a contemporary tale about a new girl, into a scintillating, positively filmic thriller, in which Roisin must race against time to discover who Hayley really is, what impact she may have had on Zara, and perhaps while Roisin’s doing her detective work, discover a bit more about who she is herself and what true friendship means.

What could seem unrealistic towards the end, never quite reaches implausible limits, simply because the premise is so simple – when we get sucked into our phones, it can have an effect on our real lives, and friendship can be a messy business.

Grippingly tense in the second half, and nicely built in the first, this is an exciting new read for tweens and young teens, and an excellent warning about phone over-reliance. As we know in our Covid times, there really is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, and friendship in person.

Roisin is a well-rounded character, with identifiable weaknesses and immaturity, and yet possesses a good moral compass and firm grounding. She is easy to know and like, and the reader is rooting for her all along, even when perhaps wincing at some of her text messages.

The prose-style lends itself well to the subject matter – this is an easy, absorbing read, with enough incident and drama to keep readers fully engaged, and most thrillingly it doesn’t dictate the rights and wrongs of the situation, but lets the reader find their own way through the dilemmas and trials so common to this age-group. The author clearly has a great grip on tech, and young people’s use of it, and the story feels authentic and apposite.

A good read, highly recommended. Put one in the teen’s Christmas stocking!

(An American text, this was sent to me by the publicist in exchange for an honest review). Published by Scholastic, and  currently available in hardback and kindle.)