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.