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Thanks to the ‘Horrible’ series of books, we have come to expect children’s history, geography and science books to be engaging, humorous and informal in style. But is it expecting too much for a maths book to also be fun? Believe it or not, in Murderous Maths, Kjartan Poskitt has managed to do just that, showing maths to be exciting, creative and even cool. The book’s tone is conversational and brimming with geeky enthusiasm, which is surprisingly infectious. “The exciting thing about powers is that you get some murderously massive numbers” states Poskitt, before providing an example of bacteria reproducing itself to show what happens when you keep multiplying a number by itself. If you’re like me, you will never have thought that division sums were ‘cute’ before, but Poskitt insists that they are. Why? Because you can swap the dividing number and the answer round and the sum is still right. (For example, 15 divided by 5 = 3 can also be expressed as 15 divided by 3 = 5) He even manages to make algebra sound much more intriguing by talking about working out the ‘mystery numbers.’ Once children start thinking of maths as a series of puzzles rather than sums, it begins to sound much less tedious.
The book begins with the basics – adding, subtracting, division and multiplication – and moves on to what are really quite complicated areas of maths, including equations and angles. However, the information is delivered in ways that prevent it becoming heavy. Mathematical concepts are explored through a series of humorous stories featuring wacky characters like One Finger Jimmy and his gangster pals, Professor Fiendish, Urgum the Axeman and even a detective called Sheerluck Homes. (Yes, the puns do make you groan, but they are all part of the atmosphere of silliness that pervades and keeps things light.) For example, the book provides an unusual way to learn about geometry. The reader has to imagine that Professor Fiendish has trapped them in a bathroom where a patch of toxic fungus is growing on the floor. The only way to stop it is to cover it completely so that there are no gaps for the spores to escape. The reader has to select the correct shaped tile for the job. Which shapes will work? Which will leave gaps? (No, unfortunately you can’t just use square ones. It requires a little more thinking than that!) Readers can also test their knowledge of symmetry by finding their way through the Mindmasting Maze, turning left if they meet a sign that has rotational symmetry, turning right if they meet a sign with reflective symmetry, etc. They can help Colonel Cancel crack a secret code (and learn all about prime numbers as they do so) and join the Valiant Vector Warriors on their quest to rescue a princess from a tower. This involves entering the tower via the ‘rhombic window’ – but the reader should not make the assumption that this is a square shaped window. Areas of maths that could be rather dull if learned the conventional way are more likely to stick in the mind as a result of these entertaining stories. My daughter has never been a big fan of maths, but she has always enjoyed stories, so the combination of the two really helped to increase her enthusiasm.
The author is keen to make the point that maths isn’t just for geeks but it is relevant to many aspects of ordinary, daily life. You can use maths for everything from working out the bill at a restaurant (and avoiding getting into a quarrel like One Finger Jimmy and his gangster pals when they eat at Luigi’s Diner) to understanding what it means when shops have a 20% off sign in their windows. You can use maths to build things, measure things, estimate things and solve a range of problems. Poskitt shows us that maths is all around us. For example, when you go into a shop where everything is priced at 99p, it can be irritating to try to calculate what all your purchases have come to, but the author teaches a simple way of working it out. He reminds us that if you want to see maths, you only have to switch on the news. Why is it, Poskitt asks, that you never hear a news announcer say, “Today at the Cup Final there were one hundred and two thousand four hundred and twelve people?” It’s a good way of introducing the subject of why and how we round numbers off. It is fascinating to see examples of maths at work in the world, beyond the confines of the school classroom.
One thing I do like about this book is that it encourages kids to be less reliant on calculators. Poskitt makes the point that calculators are not the answer to everything. They are not very good at showing fractions, for example. He stresses that if you had to divide a birthday cake up between 7 people and you were daft enough to work this out on a calculator, the calculator would inform you that each person should get 0.142857143 of a slice of cake. Useless! The section entitled ‘5 Things to do with a Dead Calculator’ is gloriously silly but pokes fun at the calculator-dependent culture. The book reveals why the abacus was such a clever invention – something that I found fascinating because I can vaguely remember using an abacus in primary school to learn about hundreds, tens and units. Apparently the abacus is still very much in use in the Far East and some people can carry out multiplication on an abacus faster than they can on a calculator. I would love to see these people in action! My daughter loved the cartoon illustration in the section about the abacus which shows a bemused man asking, “But where do you put the batteries?” In order to help children cope without calculators, this book is packed full of useful tips for speedier mental maths, including ways to quickly spot when you have made an error so that you can correct it. There are handy hints to develop what Poskitt calls “getting the feel for when the answer is right”, which helps children to become more instinctive in their mathematical thinking. Many adults could benefit from that also.
One of my daughter’s favourite sections of the book compares our current numerical system with the Roman numerical system, with a chance to try out some very odd looking sums written in Roman numbers. You can find out the advantages and the disadvantages of the Roman system and discover the one number that the Romans couldn’t write down. (I didn’t know this.)
If you thought all mathematicians were nerdy weirdos, the section on great mathematicians introduces some awesome individuals indeed. Archimedes, for instance, produced some great inventions which seem all the more impressive when you remember that at the time there was no decent system for writing numbers down. You can also find out what it was that made him jump out of his bath and run stark naked down the road shouting, ‘Eureka.’ You can also discover which female mathematician was denounced as a pagan and punished by having her flesh scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells. The world of mathematics is full or colourful and often dubious characters.
In the section on time, you can find out how the year came to be divided into months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. Why do we split the day into 24 hours? Why do we split each hour into 60 minutes? This section ties in with ancient history, as it looks at the Romans and discusses some fascinating ancient clocks. It also ties in with science, looking at how a sun dial works and the impact of inventions such as pendulums on the reliability of clocks. You can learn the difference between absolute and relative time and see if you’re clever enough to solve the mystery of the Duchess’s missing diamonds. Which suspect has given a mistimed alibi?
There are lots of practical activities to get involved in. Readers are encouraged to test things out for themselves, which is a great way to learn. There are card tricks to try out on friends and family and things to make, such as a magic square, including an unusual suggestion for a birthday card – a magic square where each line of the square adds up to the person’s age.
I would recommend this book for children aged 8 and upwards. I do feel that it is more appropriate for those kids who already enjoy maths activities. If a child has a real aversion to the subject, I can’t honestly see this book converting them. If they struggle with maths, some of the topics in this book may just make them switch off completely, as there is some rather complex stuff involved. For example, the maze is an inventive way to illustrate symmetry, bit it is by no means straightforward if you don’t have the sort of brain that can easily deal with patterns and rotations. My daughter, although she didn’t like maths at school, was always quite good at it so this book worked for her and didn’t confuse her too much. She liked the historical references and the links to scientific subjects. It certainly helps to make maths more meaningful. Rather than just pages and pages of sums for the hell of it, children learn through the imaginary scenarios and likeable fictional characters how maths can be used in many practical situations and can even help save your life!
With the use of cartoons, corny jokes and word play, Kjartan Poskitt makes the subject more fun than I ever thought a maths book could be. Maths is one subject that gets taken very seriously in life, by teachers, pupils and parents alike, so a book that has a more laid back approach is very refreshing. The jokes and silliness do not distract from what is being taught though. On the contrary, I think they help the information to sink in.
It is not a substitute for the more formal maths books but a good way to consolidate what is being learned at school and I feel the author should be commended for improving the image of the subject that so many children dislike or feel intimidated by. Used copies can be picked up from Amazon sellers for a mere £0.01.