What are some good references/books/articles from which to derive some good bed-time math stories to pique a child's interest in math? I am fascinated by math (used to hate it as a kid) and want my kids to be curious about it and fond of playing with the subject.

I was thinking a good way would be to talk about the history/origins of various concepts ideas in math and present them as a "once upon a time" stories and then let them explore the ideas. As a kid I felt a story of "why" behind the what would've been motivating for me to explore the ideas in the field instead of shun them away.

What would be some good math 'stories' to tell them all the way from counting to advanced math (for when they grow older)? I don't mind reading existing books and spin a story on the topics by myself :) Any references to use in particular? Age range 3 to 18 :)

  • 11
    Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Der Zahlenteufel, ISBN 9783446189003 – Michael Hoppe Nov 7 '13 at 21:20
  • 8
    In case your children don't know German, it's also available in English as "The Number Devil". It's very good, and despite appearances, it plays with concepts like limits, set bijections, Pascal's triangle... – Henry Swanson Nov 7 '13 at 21:36
  • @MichaelHoppe I read it when I was about 6-8. It was my favorite book :) – Daniel Robert-Nicoud Nov 7 '13 at 22:35
  • 2
    @MichaelHoppe This deserves to be an answer. Perhaps it is better for the child to read it themselves, but if the age is appropriate reading it with them should suffice. Also the English translation is quite good. – Kaya Nov 7 '13 at 23:53
  • A closely related question: Interesting math books for children. Perhaps you might distinguish this question from that one. – Nate Eldredge Nov 8 '13 at 1:01

20 Answers 20

E.A. Abbott, Flatland: a Romance of Many Dimensions.

  • 6
    Ian Stewart's sequel is good, too. – jwodder Nov 8 '13 at 0:19
  • 7
    Though you may want to edit out the rampant sexism. – Nate Eldredge Nov 8 '13 at 0:45
  • 5
    Another interesting sequel is Dionys Burger's 1965 Sphereland, which introduces the ideas of curvature in higher dimensions. To the extent that Flatland teaches you about higher-dimensional Euclidean space, Sphereland will teach you Riemannian geometry. – Nate Eldredge Nov 8 '13 at 0:55
  • 6
    I think the sexism was deliberate satire, drawing attention to real-life sexism. But ymmv. – Greg Martin Nov 8 '13 at 1:13
  • 1
    The sequel mentioned by @jwodder takes place in a later and more equitable era of Flatland. In in the first chapters it describes the movement for the rights of women and lower-caste shapes that takes place between the two books. – Matthew Piziak Nov 8 '13 at 15:38

You could always tell the story of the Princess and the Frog.

SMBC 3000

Credit: http://www.smbc-comics.com/

  • AMAZING hahaha! – Konstantinos Gaitanas Nov 8 '13 at 16:18
  • 14
    Strictly speaking,that was PHYSICS, not mathematics,that created the moral of the story,but ok......... – Mathemagician1234 Nov 9 '13 at 4:59
  • 1
    @Mathemagician1234 as long as we're fighting with comments, they do need to know math: xkcd.com/435 – corsiKa Feb 24 '16 at 22:13
  • But how was the prince transmuted into a frog in the first place? – Bill Thomas Mar 21 at 20:55

The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure by Hans Magnus Enzensberger is a fun survey of elementary number theory. It's structured similarly to the series of children's books 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid.'

If I remember correctly, the storylines from each of its chapters are pretty close to independent.

  • 2
    I read this book 8 or 9 times as a kid--and I didn't particularly enjoy math. It is well written and keeps things interesting! My favorite part was how it taught me speed-enhancing tricks to do certain aspects of math that I struggled with. – Alec Gorge Nov 8 '13 at 0:40
  • 1
    I have only good things to say about the Number Devil. – 6005 Aug 3 '15 at 4:15
  • +1: Just got myself a copy of this book, and it's a lot of fun. I'm surprised they go into stuff like Goldbach's conjecture (pp. 62-63). – bwDraco Apr 1 '16 at 2:20

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, has several nice mathematical bits, including an exploration of infinity, a Dodecahedron, and a character who is the 0.58 of a child from an "average" family.

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

  • 1
    It's been a while since I read that book, but aren't there basically one or two lines that reference math, and they're all veiled? Is a child even going to make the connection with mathematics? – Jack M Nov 7 '13 at 22:13
  • 11
    @JackM: There is very little explicit mathematics, but Carroll's interest in logic leads him to play with ideas of precision, symmetry, vacuous truth, etc. I think the sequel Through the Looking Glass goes even further in this direction. A child won't learn mathematics from reading Carroll, but he or she just might start to think like a mathematician. (Incidentally, I highly recommend Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice edition.) – Nate Eldredge Nov 8 '13 at 0:52
  • @NateEldredge, I read somewhere that Alice's shrinking to a midget and growing to a giant are allusions to infinitesimals and infinite numbers, the the lingering smile of the Cheshire cat after the cat itself disappears is an allusion to the "ghosts of departed quantities" of Bishop Berkeley. Does anyone have further information on this? – Mikhail Katz Nov 8 '13 at 9:30
  • 1
    @Nate Eldredge: I completely agree with you: before going to bed (and not only at this time) it is more useful to teach child to think, not memorize the multiplication table or Euclid's axioms. – Boris Novikov Nov 8 '13 at 9:51
  • I thought Alice was written in derision of advanced math? The whole point of the story is how absurd it all is...? – MikeTheLiar Nov 8 '13 at 13:42

I recommend the videos by Vi Hart on YouTube :)

  • 7
    Her videos are wonderful, but I see most of them as better sources of inspiration for teachers than for students, not least because her pace tends to the frenetic and she often relies on the viewer to make the connection between what's in the video and mathematics. That said, the "green bean matherole" video was an excellent introduction to the concept of a vector field, and for those in the know, "Reel" was just wonderful. – dfeuer Nov 8 '13 at 1:43
  • 2
    As much as I love Vi Hart's videos, I can't imagine one of them being appropriate for preparing a child to go to bed... she's just too energetic! – Andrew Coonce Nov 8 '13 at 15:23

"The Man Who Counted" by Malba Tahan would be my suggestion but not sure what exactly ages are your children ... Perhaps it suits better pre-adolescents, not sure.

  • I don't think it is a problem, it was the first complete book I actually read :) – chubakueno Nov 7 '13 at 21:47

You might try $\epsilon$-Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Bolzano-Weierstrass Theorem. (dead link, 2017-12-23)

  • How are children supposed to understand this? – Doorknob Nov 7 '13 at 22:55
  • 10
    If they've heard "Little Red Riding Hood," then the generalization should be obvious to them. ;-) – abnry Nov 7 '13 at 22:57
  • Funny, but not useful. – dfeuer Nov 8 '13 at 1:38
  • I'd read it to my kids. :) – abnry Nov 8 '13 at 2:41
  • 1
    That was brilliant. I hadn't read that before thanks. And I was going to suggest Rudin's "Principles of Mathematical Analysis." But, It might cause nightmares. – Doug M Apr 1 '16 at 3:54

Lewis Carroll (of Alice in Wonderland fame, as mentioned) wrote a book called "Pillow Problems" (now usually paired with "A Tangled Tale") about mathematical puzzles that Carroll considered solvable by just mulling them over in one's head before drifting off to sleep.

Of course, what Carroll could successfully mull in his head will be well beyond kids at the lower end ---even the higher end--- of your specified age range. (Personally, I often found myself having to whip out pencil and paper to work out solutions when I came across this book in college.) There's also the issue that the problems are described in 19th century phraseology, which can be a bit stilted. A Tangled Tale is more story-like, but its puzzles are also challenging.

Project Gutenberg has A Tangled Tale as a free download. (Hmmm ... Also The Game of Logic, which I have not read but seems interesting.) I don't see Pillow Problems, though, but you can find print versions for sale at your favorite online book vendor.

Shanameh, the Persian Epic of Kings, contains a mathematically relevant story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat_and_chessboard_problem

In it, the inventor of the game of chess is called to meet the king, who offers to let the inventor choose a reward. The inventor knows that he cannot ask for too great a reward, because doing so will anger the king and rob him of any reward. Therefore he frames his request in the following way: he wants one grain of wheat on the first square of the chessboard, two grains of wheat on the second square, four grains on the third, eight grains on the fourth, all the way up to the 64th square.

The king accepts, puzzled that the inventor would ask for so little, and tells his treasurer to figure out the amount of wheat the inventor is due. A week later, he asks the treasurer how much the inventor received. To his surprise, the treasurer has not even finished calculating the amount of wheat, and he tells the king that the entire wealth of the kingdom would not suffice to give the inventor his reward.

The story ends in a variety of ways; in one, the inventor becomes the new king in a rare mathematical proletarian revolution.

Short when we hear it, since we know how fast exponentials grow, but if you couple this with the exercise of trying to calculate how much wheat the inventor should receive then this should be a fun bedtime story/opportunity to learn a little math for a child.

EDIT: There is also a great volume of anecdotes from mathematics history that could serve as bedtime reading, though you'd have to adapt them to a good format for putting children to sleep. A lot of my early interest in mathematics stemmed from such stories; most vividly, I recall the story of how Pythagoras (allegedly) ordered his disciple Hippasos thrown off a boat for proving the irrationality of $\sqrt{2}$.

  • 1
    This was my all time favorite when I read it in a comic book. I understood it much later in life but it always stuck :) – PhD Nov 8 '13 at 7:09

Some recommended children's books - these are actual storybooks, with pictures and the like, and while they have math, they aren't math books for children, they are children's books about math (not a distinction without a difference) that tell actual mathematics stories:

For younger kids (4-6)

For older kids (7 and up)

And all of the Achilles and Tortoise stories in Godel, Escher, and Bach are pretty funny even for kids (although a lot of them have material related to the words themselves (crostics, etc.), so "telling" them means you miss some of the material.)

  • Wait, are you the same guy who got the greatest reputation from a single post... – Mohammad Zuhair Khan Oct 20 at 7:59

There is a well known story about Karl Friedrich Gauss when he was in elementary school. His teacher got mad at the class and told them to add the numbers 1 to 100 and give him the answer by the end of the class. About 30 seconds later Gauss gave him the answer.

The other kids were adding the numbers like this:

 1 + 2 + 3 + . . . . + 99 + 100 = ?

But Gauss rearranged the numbers to add them like this:

 (1 + 100) + (2 + 99) + (3 + 98) + . . . . + (50 + 51) = ?

If you notice every pair of numbers adds up to 101. There are 50 pairs of numbers, so the answer is 50*101 = 5050. Of course Gauss came up with the answer about 20 times faster than the other kids.

In general to find the sum of all the numbers from 1 to N:

 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + . . . . + N = (1 + N)*(N/2)

That is "1 plus N quantity times N divided by 2."

  • 1
    From my experience, nobody can agree on exactly what the story is. I think this is more of a parable. – Cruncher Nov 8 '13 at 20:00
  • The exact story, which I know because I heard the tape recording, is as follows: Teacher: "I now want you to add up all the numbers from 1 to 100. That should keep you quiet for a while." Pupil: "What are the odds that Karl comes up with the answer in about 1 minute?" Gauss: "About 50-50." – Alex Selby Dec 20 '17 at 18:04

You're asking about mathematical content, but part of the romance of mathematics is in its characters; pre-modern mathematicians in particular were colorful characters, entering public competitions of mathematical prowess, dying in duels, etc. Telling some of these stories, even without going into the mathematics itself, could do a lot to counter the image of mathematics, and those who practice it, as staid and boring.

My memory of sources is rusty, but the story of factoring third degree polynomials (public competitions and all), and the later demonstration that it's impossible for high degrees, should make for a good story-- and doubtless has already. How about the story of Fermat's last theorem? And there's another mathematician (the name escapes me) who committed to paper all he could, the night before he died in a duel. Recent mathematics discoveries are also rich sources of drama: Einstein's theories leading all the way to the atomic bomb, Diffie-Helman encryption, etc. Feynman's autobiography makes fun reading, too.

Maybe this was a bit short of specifics, but the general idea is: You don't necessarily need to convey the mathematical principles in order to nurture interest in math. So consider biographies, and the stories around the discoveries.

  • Yes.That's the plan. I wish to spin the bed-time stories around math discoveries from the "beginning of time" in essence. – PhD Nov 8 '13 at 17:07

Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica... Very useful for putting your children (or anyone, really) to bed!

On a more serious note, Conway's Book of numbers is nicely illustrated, and great for kids (and old kids). Not a story book, but definitely worth looking into.

The aforementioned Norton Juster also wrote the children's book, The Dot And The Line,which famously was adapted by legendary animator Chuck Jones for MGM and narrated beautifully by Robert Morley. I suspect the cartoon is how my generation experienced the story for the first time. It's set in a planar world where a scholarly,upper crust straight line has an unbearable crush on a dot, who unfortunately for the line, falls for a chaotic squiggle with no brains or character. (Girls always fall for the bad boys,don't they? I don't think even they know why most of the time......) How the line ultimately learns the potential of geometry and uses it to win her heart is well worth relating to your kids.

The book $1,2, 3. .. ,\infty$ by George Gamow has lots of interesting stories. I am sure there is atleast one suitable for any age people. For example, The story of invention of Chess is very nice and the solution to the problem at the end is also very interesting which is not very much technical.

I've not read the book Bedtime Math featured on bedtimemath.org, but it's from a brainchild with a background in astrophysics who memorized perfect squares as a child. The site exposes three levels of math challenges: wee ones, little kids, and big kids. It may be worth a look.

The Cat in Numberland by Ivar Ekeland is a truly wonderful children's book -- it offers an exposition of the Hilbert hotel within a charming story about the cat who lives there.

Another excellent choice is Richard Evan Schwartz's You Can Count on Monsters, a 200-page treatise on primality and factoring intended for parents to read to preschoolers.

Going a bit outside the question. What about either http://www.last.fm/music/Matthew+Matics or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Count_von_Count depending on the age of your kids.

You might not believe this one: Dear God this is Anna by Fynn. Is is more physics oriented.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.