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Interview With Prolific Kids’ Math Literature Author Stuart J. Murphy
At the start of my teaching career, I began accumulating books that I would use to introduce math topics in my classroom. After initially discovering Betcha! by Stuart J. Murphy, I would go on to find out about his full book series-- the most complete and wide-ranging collection of math picture books for elementary age students that exists. Now, I can truly say his books have made me a more effective teacher because they have enabled me to reach all kinds of learners over the years. What a difference it makes to have such an engaging teaching tool-- his books are thoughtfully created with math fully woven throughout the story, not just tacked on. There is a reason I feature and recommend so many of his titles on this site!
I have found that in Murphy's many books the formats are interesting and grade-level appropriate, the pictures are colorful and appealing, the mathematics is integrated with each story in a logical way, and what is most impressive to me is that the mathematics is always very clear and laid out on the page so that it is easy to follow.
Given my admiration for his work, I reached out to Mr. Murphy to seek answers to questions I had for him. He responded with graciousness and offered incredibly considerate responses that share insight into his role and experience as a children's author as well as elaborate on why literature is such an effective resource for teaching math. Ultimately, he offered sincere and compelling advice for parents who are seeking to take an active role in their child's math education.
Read our three part Q&A below:
Do you have a favorite book that you have written?
Students often ask me this question and my response is always, The Best Bug Parade. When asked why, I respond that this was my very first book and it set the stage for the entire series. It is dedicated to my wife, who has been a big support to me in my work. The dedication reads: “To Nancy, who makes my life a parade.”
In reality, it is difficult to select one title from my 63 MathStart books, 79 if you count my 16-book I See I Learn series. I especially like the books that incorporate a number of math skills in one broader topic, like Betcha!, which is about estimation, but includes multiplication, addition and problem solving. Treasure Map teaches mapping skills, which involve dimension and scale. And Probably Pistachio, an introduction to probability, utilizes mathematical thinking along with problem solving.
I have seen a slogan associated with your MathStart series—“math skills equals life skills”—can you expand on what that means?
Many children still think of math as a school skill and not a life skill. I have often heard students say, “I’m done with my math.” By contrast, you never hear them say, “I’m done with my words for today.” The reality is that you can’t do much without math. You can’t talk about how old you are in relation to others, how much money you have, your schedule of events for the day, or the scores of your favorite teams without math. It’s part of how we think, make sense of things, and communicate our ideas to others – it's part of our lives.
Attainment of math skills is also critical when thinking about future job opportunities and careers. STEM skills – those related to science, technology, engineering and math – are now considered essential to future employment and success.
Math skills are indeed life skills!
You loved art and writing as a kid, but was math something you enjoyed growing up? Why or why not?
I have been quoted as having said that I hated math as a child. This isn’t true. I liked math well enough and I did okay with it. However, it didn’t excite me the way art and writing did. It didn’t seem creative. Rather it felt like just a bunch of problems to be solved. It wasn’t until later in school that I learned that math was a part of our communications system, that problem solving in math was exciting and creative, and that math could be fun. This realization led me to my interest in writing math books for kids. If I could show them that math was interesting, they, too, might come to enjoy it and excel at it.
There is now quite a bit of research out there regarding the benefits of using stories in math, but what do you see as the most important benefit?
The most important benefit of providing math concepts in the context of stories is that it shows children how math can be applied to something. When introduced to a new math topic, we often hear children say, “Well, I’m never going to use that again.” Showing math in a story provides an example of when and where that concept might be used.
Other benefits include the fact that early childhood educators know how to teach from stories. They are often experts in teaching language arts and can use stories to great advantage. And most parents are comfortable with stories and with reading books to their children. Storybooks provide a way to teach math concepts in an easy and familiar way.
Further, stories help to engage children in math. They help to interest children and motivate them in a way that a list of problems is unlikely to achieve. Literature can help to make math enjoyable. Kids can have fun with math as they experience the story and the interactions of the characters.
Do you place value in the interactive experience of a parent reading to a child? What is different about that versus children reading a math book on their own?
Many reading educators note that “Kids who are read to become better readers.” It follows that kids to whom we read books about math will become better at math. The adult reader animates the story and validates the math content. Parents also have a chance to explain things that the child may have missed or not understood. It’s a rich and vital learning opportunity.
What do you think makes a good math story?
A good math story has to achieve a perfect balance between the math and the storyline. If the math content takes over, the engagement in the story gets lost. If the story becomes too dominant, the presentation of the math suffers. The math also needs to be fully integrated into the story and not appear to be an add-on. All this makes writing a math story a difficult task. Finding this balance is one of the most challenging and also one of the most satisfying aspects of my work.
Your stories are so visual-based, and often writers and illustrators work separately, so how does that play out with your books? Do you have opportunity to choose any of the illustrators?
Before writing my own books, I worked for many years as an art director, selecting illustrators and then directing their work through the sketch and finished art stages. Therefore, I have a great deal of experience in working with artists. Also, in the MathStart series, much of the content is in the art. It is a visual/verbal presentation in which the images and words are inseparable. Because of these conditions, I have had the unique opportunity of working with my publisher in the selection of the artists and being a part of the entire text and illustration development process. Happily, the illustrators always bring a new vision and their own creativity to a story. Their work often causes changes in the text to mesh the images and the words and adjust the pacing of the story. It is an exciting, organic process!
Did you decide on each topic within your series, or did your publisher request that certain topics be covered?
I proposed the topics for each of the books. I kept lists of topics teachers suggested during school visits. I read reports on mathematic concepts that students found most difficult. And I studied the frameworks associated with state and national standards in math education. From these lists, I would prioritize the topics that most needed to be addressed.
At the same time, I kept lists of social situations that were of interest to children. I spent time in bookstores watching which magazines and books they selected on their own. I kept track of the things they liked to talk about the most. I would even sometimes ask them to show me what was in their backpacks – a scary prospect for sure!
The magic moment comes when a situation or activity suggests a high-priority math topic -- an outing at an amusement park and division with remainders (Divide and Ride), sequencing and a pajama party (Rabbit’s Pajama Party), counting on and building fantasy figures with blocks (Jack the Builder), understanding area and moving to a new house (Bigger, Better, Best!).
Do you do any further research before beginning a book (i.e. seeing what other books are out there covering the same or similar topics)?
Each book has its own set of research needs. In addition to reviewing other books that had been published on the same topic, I always looked at how textbooks introduced that topic. After all, that is how students were exposed to the topic in school. I would also survey teachers on certain questions. Are “chart” and “diagram” synonymous and, if not, how do they differ? Is it acceptable to use the word “guess” when talking about an estimate? What are some common errors in teaching a particular topic?
The storylines often demand research as well. For example, I interviewed a veterinarian about the early stages of cats’ lives for Pepper’s Journal. In the case of Polly’s Pen Pal, I studied mile to kilometer conversions, distances between cities in the US and Canada, and average heights of 7-year-old girls. When working on the manuscript for Game Time! I talked with a number of coaches of girls’ hockey teams to make sure that I got it right.
How do you try to ensure diversity in your series so that every kid can see themselves in one of your characters?
Luckily, with such a large series, I have had the chance to show a large variety of diverse situations. This would have been impossible in just one or two books. I kept track of the protagonists in my stories by gender and race and would refer to this when starting a new story. I tried my best not to stereotype the characters. I included a few physically handicapped characters when it seemed natural to do so. We also had long discussions about making sure that situations were not outside the financial range of students. While each book is not totally inclusive, the series as a whole provides a wide range of diverse situations.
As an amusing aside, I also kept lists of the pets and other animals I included in each story. During a school Q-and-A, a Second Grader once stated that I seemed to have more dogs than cats in my stories. I had the information to prove him wrong!
It has been a while since your last MathStart book was published, but do you have any plans on expanding the series? What are you working on now?
The MathStart program contains a total of 63 books. That’s a pretty big children’s book series. I don’t see that being expanded in the near future. Instead, I am embarking on creating single titles that deal with math-related topics that interest me and that are not covered in the MathStart series. My current project is a book on infographics, charts and graphs that explain information visually to others. The book is about both understanding infographics, receiving information, and creating infographics, communicating information to others -- taking in and giving out. I believe this is an important new language for our children. The book will be published in about a year.
In your books you also include activities as well as recommendations for further reading. What is the importance of follow-up and how do you suggest parents build upon topics in any math book they read with their child?
The interrelationship between the skills a child is learning in school and how those skills are experienced at home is critical. If a child reads one of my books or if the book is read to them in school or at home and nothing else happens, it's a lost opportunity. That’s why I suggest activities that can easily be done at home and that represent the skills presented in each story.
Meanwhile, selecting the books I list as recommended reading is a difficult task as many of my books feature skills that have not been included in storybooks. At the same time, I feel that this is an especially valuable tool for parents. If a child has responded well to a book about math, why not try another book? I have therefore listed the books as representing “some of the same concepts.” I have also made sure that all the books listed were of high quality and were in print at the time of publication of my book. This was to assure that the books would be easy to find online, and in bookstores or libraries.
Ultimately, activities and further reading are perfect ways to continue the learning and demonstrate how skills can be applied to other situations.
Finding quality math books isn’t necessarily easy for parents to navigate, as many don’t make it obvious that they contain math themes, or it is tricky for parents to know the grade level of the concepts involved. Why isn’t it easier for parents to find such books?
Writing stories about math is such a specific interest and field, and its not easy. Meshing the story and the math concept, paying attention to how they work together, and making sure that both are well represented, accurate and engaging takes a great amount of effort. To do this successfully, the writer must be dedicated to the concept of math-related literature. For this reason, there are relatively not all that many examples out there.
A lot of books that contain math topics are single titles, and some are sets of three or four books. These don’t lend themselves to the creation of a chart or sequence of skills. Having a series of 63 books has allowed me the opportunity to consider the books as part of a greater body of work with the ability to organize the titles by math topic, grade level, and even to show relationships between the skills in a group of books. I think this is a great resource for teachers and parents as they seek books on specific topics and assure themselves that the grade level is appropriate.
I also think that websites such as BookSmart Math serve a great purpose in listing books by math topics and themes for teachers and parents. BookSmart Math also provides lists of related toys, games and activities for parents and teachers.
You have been championing visual learning for decades. What would you like parents to know about using visuals to help teach concepts and how to help their children become skilled in visual literacy?
When working with teachers who were using my Level 1 MathStart books, I was encouraged to consider social and emotional skills and how those might be addressed through stories and visual learning strategies. I learned that cooperation, self-regulation, and dealing with frustration are essential to success in math, in school and in life. It was this link between these skills and math skills that caused me to create the I See I Learn series. The underlying goal is the same – using visual learning strategies to help children succeed.
Parents need to take advantage of the fact that their kids are natural visual learners. They can create opportunities to show how they use math in their own lives and where math occurs in everyday life. They can help their kids become good observers. “Look at that building. How many windows does it have? What parts are parallel or perpendicular to one another? Can you estimate how many floors that skyscraper has?” “Check out those flowers? Look at the petals? Is there a pattern there?” “How much is the toll. Here’s a bunch of change. Can you organize it so you can quickly count it?” “Set the table. How many things are needed for each person? How many people? How many things in all?” Parents can help their children “see” the math!
What general advice and suggestions do you have for parents who want to take an active role in their child's math education?
I think you should encourage interested parents to fully engage themselves in advancing the math skills of their children. Suggest that they meet with their child’s teacher and find out what is going to be covered over the next weeks. They can select a few of those topics and read books about them, do projects that relate to them, encourage observations to reflect these skills, and otherwise reinforce the learning that will take place in school. Parents should be encouraged to make math enjoyable and not heavy-duty and burdensome. They must work to avoid stereotypes like “I was never good at math.” or “Math is boring.” They can bring math to life by using it and having fun with it. That would be a tremendous gift to their children.
I am very grateful for Mr. Murphy's time and effort spent participating in this interview and addressing my questions. It was a true delight to interact with an absolute rock star of the children's math literature field!
Be sure to check out both MathStart and I See I Learn where you can browse his entire list of books and purchase any that suit your child. While you're there, try free activitives and learn more about his approach.
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