It’s likely that you’ve seen this book reviewed elsewhere. There has been a lot of buzz about it in the kid-lit world. And for good reason. The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable LIfe of Paul Erdos is a wonderful biography of a fascinating man. In case you’re ignorant like me, Paul Erdos was a Hungarian mathematician known for his work in number theory and for his eccentric personality.
Deborah Heligman strikes a perfect balance in this book between the story of Erdos’ life and an explanation of the mathematical problems that so intrigued and consumed him.The main focus of the text is on the life of Erdos: from a childhood where he was kicked out of school for not following the rules; to his ability at the age of four to quickly tell a person how old they were in seconds once he knew their birthdate and time; to his love of prime numbers and to his mostly itinerant life as an adult as he traveled the world collaborating with other mathematicians.
When it fits with the story Heligman goes into more detail on the math itself (for example a terrific explanation of prime numbers). However, numbers and math are primarily incorporated into the book through the illustrations by LeUyen Pham. The endpages include an extensive explanation of the math she worked into the drawings. One example is that of equations and diagrams from problems Erdos puzzled over drawn into the architecture of buildings in Budapest on one page. And that’s just one example of many.
Mathematicians have coined a term “Erdos number” that describes how close someone was to Erdos. If a person met him or worked with him directly, their number is 1. If they worked with someone who worked with Erdos, their number is a 2. One of my favorite illustrations is a detailed double page graphic that shows this web of influence that Erdos had in the world of mathematics.
Erdos was also known for being eccentric. Heligman doesn’t ignore this. She describes how he never learned to butter his own toast, even as an adult. Or that his friends around the world essentially took care of him: doing his laundry, paying his bills, cooking his food. I think many adults who read this book will not be able to help but wonder if Erdos was autistic or had Asperger’s (and in fact a quick Google search found that many Asperger sites claim him as a famous person with the syndrome). Kids probably won’t pick up on this, unless they themselves have a diagnosis of Asperger’s or HFA. In that case, they will likely find Erdos’ success despite his quirks inspiring.
Heligman refers in the author’s note to a biography by Paul Hoffman on Erdos: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. I was intrigued enough by this story that I looked up Hoffman’s biography and did some quick reading on the Internet about Erdos. As with most picture book biographies, his life is more complicated than it appears here. I think Heligman’s biggest achievement with this book is that she has taken a figure that might seem weird or geeky or unapproachable and humanized him in a way that should make kids who don’t like math think it’s a little more cool than they thought before. And at the same time kids that are a little bit weird or geeky or who just love math will read this book and be inspired.
This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I received a review copy from the publisher specifically for the Cybils. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.