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Review of the Day: The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős
By Deborah Heiligman
Illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Roaring Brook (an imprint of Macmillan)
ISBN: 978-1-59643-307-6
Ages 6 and up
On shelves June 25th

Make a beeline for your local library’s children’s biography section and learn firsthand the shocking truth about picture book bios of mathematical geniuses. Apparently there was only one and his name was Einstein. End of story. The world as we know it is not overflowing with picture book encapsulations of the lives of Sir Isaac Newton or Archimedes (though admittedly you could probably drum up a Leonardo da Vinci book or two if you were keen to try). But when it comes to folks alive in the 20th century, Einstein is the beginning and the end of the story. You might be so foolish as to think there was a good reason for that fact. Maybe all the other mathematicians were dull. I mean, Einstein was a pretty interesting fella, what with his world-shattering theories and crazed mane. And true, the wild-haired physicist was fascinating in his own right, but if we’re talking out-and-out interesting people, few can compare with the patron saint of contemporary mathematics, Paul Erdős. Prior to reading this book I would have doubted a person could conceivably make an engaging biography chock full to overflowing with mathematical concepts. Now I can only stare in amazement at a story that could conceivably make a kid wonder about how neat everything from Euler’s map of Konigsburg to the Szekeres Snark is. This is one bio you do NOT want to miss. A stunner from start to finish.

For you see, there once was a boy who loved math. His name was Paul and he lived in Budapest, Hungary in 1913. As a child, Paul adored numbers, and theorems, and patterns, and tricky ideas like prime numbers. As he got older he grew to be the kind of guy who wanted to do math all the time! Paul was a great guy and a genius and folks loved having him over, but he was utterly incapable of taking care of himself. Fortunately, he didn’t have to. Folks would take care of Paul and in exchange he would bring mathematicians together. The result of these meetings was great strides in number theory, combinatorics, the probabilistic method, set theory, and more! Until the end of this days (when he died in a math meeting) Paul loved what he did and he loved the people he worked with. “Numbers and people were his best friends. Paul Erdős had no problem with that.”

There are two kinds of picture book biographies in this world. The first attempts to select just a single moment or personality quirk from a person’s life, letting it stand in as an example of the whole. Good examples of this kind of book might include Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell about the childhood of Jane Goodall or Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President And the Country by Kathleen Krull. It’s hard to pinpoint the perfect way to convey any subject, but it can sometimes be even harder to tell an entire life in the span of a mere 40 pages or so. Still, that tends to be the second and more common kind of picture book biography out there. Generally speaking they don’t tend to be terribly interesting. Just a series of rote facts, incapable of making it clear to a kind why a person mattered aside from the standard “because I said so” defense. The Boy Who Loved Math is different because it really takes the nature of biography seriously. If the purpose of a bio is to make it clear that a person was important, how important was a guy who loved math puzzles? Well, consider what the story can do. In a scant number of pages author Deborah Heiligman gives us an entire life synthesized down to just a couple key moments, giving the man’s life form and function and purpose, all while remaining lighthearted and fun to read. Who does that?

Did you know that there are kids out there who like math? I mean, reeeeeeally like math? The kinds that beg their parents for math problems to solve? They exist (heck, Ms. Heiligman gave birth to one) and for those kids this book will come like a present from on high. Because not only does the author highlight a fellow who took his passion for numbers and turned it into a fulfilling and fun life, but thanks to illustrator LeUyen Pham the illustrations are overflowing with math equations and puzzles and problems, just waiting to be interpreted and dissected. I have followed the career of Ms. Pham for many years. There is no book that she touches that she does not improve with her unique style. Whether it’s zeroing in on a child’s neuroses in Alvin Ho or bringing lush life to a work of poetry as in A Stick Is an Excellent Thing, Pham’s art can run the gamut from perfect interstitial pen-and-inks to lush watercolor paints. I say that, but I have never, but ever, seen anything like what she’s done in The Boy Who Loved Math.

It would not be overstating the matter to call this book Pham’s masterpiece. The common story behind its creation is that there was some difficulty finding the perfect artist for it because whosoever put pen to paper here would have to be comfortable on some level with incorporating math into the art. Many is the artist who would shy away from that demand. Not Ms. Pham. She takes to the medium like a duck to water, seemingly effortlessly weaving equations, charts, diagrams, numbers, and theorems into pictures that also have to complement the story, feature the faces of real people, capture a sense of time (often through clothing) and place (often through architecture), and hardest of all, be fun to look at.

But that’s just for starters. The final product is MUCH more complex. I’m not entirely certain what the medium is at work here but if I had to guess I’d go with watercolors. Whatever it is, Pham’s design on each page layout is extraordinary. Sometimes she’ll do a full page, border to border, chock full of illustrations of a single moment. That might pair with a page of interstitial scenes, giving a feel to Paul’s life. Or consider the page where you see a group of diners at a restaurant, their worlds carefully separated into dotted squares (a hat tip to one of Paul’s puzzles) while Paul sits in his very own dotted pentagon. It’s these little touches that make it clear that Paul isn’t like other folks. All this culminates in Pham’s remarkable Erdős number graph, where she outdoes herself showing how Paul intersected with the great mathematicians of the day. Absolutely stunning.

Both Heiligman and Pham take a great deal of care to tell this tale as honestly as possible. The extensive “Note From the Author” and “Note From the Illustrator” sections in the back are an eye-opening glimpse into what it takes to present a person honestly to a child audience. In Pham’s notes she concedes when she had to illustrate without a guide at hand. For example, Paul’s babysitter (“the dreaded Faulein”) had to be conjured from scratch. She is the rare exception, however. Almost every face in this book is a real person, and it’s remarkable to look and see Pham’s page by page notes on who each one is.

Heiligman’s author’s note speaks less to what she included and more to what she had to leave out. She doesn’t mention the fact that Paul was addicted to amphetamines and honestly that sort of detail wouldn’t have served the story much at all. Similarly I had no problem with Paul’s father’s absence. Heiligman mentions in her note what the man went through and why his absences would make Paul’s mother the “central person in his life emotionally”. The book never denies his existence, it just focuses on Paul’s mother as a guiding force that was perhaps in some way responsible for the man’s more quirky qualities. The only part of the book that I would have changed wasn’t what Heiligman left out but what she put in. At one point the story is in the midst of telling some of Paul’s more peculiar acts as a guest (stabbing tomato juice cartons with knives, waking friends up at 4 a.m. to talk math, etc.). Then, out of the blue, we see a very brief mention of Paul getting caught by the police when he tried to look at a radio tower. That section is almost immediately forgotten when the text jumps back to Paul and his hosts, asking why they put up with his oddities. I can see why placing Paul in the midst of the Red Scare puts the tale into context, but I might argue that there’s no real reason to include it. Though the Note for the Author at the end mentions that because of this act he wasn’t allowed back in the States for a decade, it doesn’t have a real bearing on the thrust of the book. As they say in the biz, it comes right out.

I have mentioned that this book is a boon for the math-lovers of the world, but what about the kids who couldn’t care diddly over squat about mathy malarkey? Well, as far as I’m concerned the whole reason this book works is because it’s fun. A little bit silly too, come to that. Even if a kid couldn’t care less about prime numbers, there’s interest to be had in watching someone else get excited about them. We don’t read biographies of people exactly like ourselves all the time, because what would be the point of that? Part of the reason biographies even exist is to grant us glimpses into the lives of the folks we would otherwise never have the chance to meet. Your kid may never become a mathematician, but with the book they can at least hang out with one.

One problem teachers have when they teach math is that they cannot come up with a way to make it clear that for some people mathematics is a game. A wonderful game full of surprises and puzzles and queries. What The Boy Who Loved Math does so well is to not only show how much fun math can be on your own, it makes it clear that the contribution Paul Erdős gave to the world above and beyond his own genius was that he encouraged people to work together to solve their problems. Heiligman’s biography isn’t simply the rote facts about a man’s life. It places that life in context, gives meaning to what he did, and makes it clear that above and beyond his eccentricities (which admittedly make for wonderful picture book bio fare) this was a guy who made the world a better place through mathematics. What’s more, he lived his life exactly the way he wanted to. How many of us can say as much? So applause for Heiligman and Pham for not only presenting a little known life for all the world to see, but for giving that life such a magnificent package as this book. A must purchase.

On shelves June 25th

Source: Advanced readers galley sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. My boy needs this book. NOW.

  2. I love picture book biographies but sometimes my kids don’t like them as much as I do. I think this one will be a hit!

  3. I just did a math bibliography for my teachers and the only biographies I could come up with were Carry on, Mr. Bowditch and The librarian who measured the earth. I’ll order this one for next year.

  4. Can’t wait to get this. And I must add to your list of math bios – Blockhead: the Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D’Agnese. One could make a case for Starry Messenger by Peter Sis, too, though like DaVinci, it’s not a hidden math personality being brought to life….

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      I did consider Starry Messenger, but wasn’t sure where to slot it in. Blockhead is an excellent choice. Forgot that one.

      It’s the recent fellers (and gals) that still tend to be rarest. If anyone can come up with some 20th century names I’d be grateful. After all, how many kids say, “When I grow up I want DaVinci’s job!”

  5. Do people really LIKE math? I”m just kidding. I know there are people who do… out there…somewhere.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      I know. To an English major it’s like saying to a junk food lover that someone else likes kale. You respect their opinion but you can’t help wondering what they’re seeing in it that you’re not.

      *shudder* Kale.

      • I think this speaks to your question about 20th century names, too, though. These biographies are not about math – they are about people. I mean, look at the book Longitude by Dava Sobel. You don’t need to ever have asked “I wonder about the history of longitude” or have any interest in science to like it. Most of us, I dare say, would never had thought to ask about that history or heard of the name(s) behind it. Keeping the conversation on interesting people and stories (well told, at that) makes it easier for others to pitch worthwhile bios rather than thinking “well, no one is gonna be interested in xxxxxxxxxx.”

  6. With the local schools in the midst of the annual biography assignment, and the hard push towards nonfiction to satisfy the CCS, I appreciate a new title to offer. Now if only more teachers would accept picture book biographies for their older students. (sigh)

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Show them the backmatter for this book. If the kids are required to read that portion then it should more than satisfy teachers of 4th and 5th graders. Heck, teens would get a kick out of it.

  7. There are also some picture book/children’s books about Pythagoras. Thanks for this suggestion.

  8. Want. Want. Want. Even with my kids grown, I may buy my own personal copy of this one, rather than wait for the library to get it.

    And though I had a math major (and Master’s), I had essentially an English minor. They are NOT NOT NOT opposites. I’m just saying.

  9. Sorry, Betsy. Looking back, I was a little too vehement there. But people can love English and Math both. Honest. Being an English major just doesn’t wash as an excuse for not liking math, just like my math major is no excuse for me not liking sports. And the implication that people who love math don’t love English is probably what hit the sore spot for me.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      I like your passion, kid. And yes, there are folks out there that are bilingual in this fashion. To them go the spoils.

  10. Wow, this sounds fantastic. I’ve never even heard of Erdos, but now I can’t wait to learn more about him. Einstein who?

  11. The NBA and NBCC-nominated novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell has a Master’s in Mathematics and is working on a novel which incorporates, among other proofs, the Konigsberg bridge problem this alludes to. Having read a draft I was chastened to realize that no numbers are involved — math isn’t arithmetic, and by the time she’s done you can see how someone could think math is beautiful.

    But kale is still right out.


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