Eat Math, Burp Fractions: A Review of Eat Your Math Homework
Recipes for Hungry Minds
by Debra Ross
Parents who understand how important it is for kids not just to get good grades in math but really to GET it—to have numbers be their friends—are always on the lookout for excuses for kids to have fun playing with math concepts. And cooking is mentioned frequently as a way to acquaint kids with measurement while having fun. I tend to agree, and have written about this often.
So you can imagine how pleased I was to receive a review copy of Eat Your Math Homework: Recipes for Hungry Minds, by Ann McCallum, published by Charlesbridge this summer. But when I opened it, I was even more intrigued: This book isn't your typical "use the measuring cup to learn fractions" cookbook for kids. Rather, each recipe cleverly uses a math "appeteaser" to discuss a math concept (e.g., Variable Pizza Pi, Fibonacci Snack Sticks) and loads of fun facts and little jokes in and around the recipes to help kids understand the concept at a deeper level than they'd learn it in school. Mix in Leeza Hernandez's charming, engaging illustrations that tell a story themselves (these are NOT Beatrix Potter's bunnies!), and you have…something completely different from what you expect.
Not for Cooks Illustrated fans
What Eat Your Math Homework isn’t is a comprehensive cookbook whose focus is on perfecting every nuance of a recipe. In fact, there are only six recipes, and most of those are straightforward enough that 10-year-old kids can manage them completely on their own (a plus). So you can see that you don't really buy the book for a lot of food ideas. (As an aside: The recipes are not all for the health conscious, so those who are looking only for rabbit food, be aware of this. Fraction Chips and Variable Pizza Pi contain no sugar and are low in fat; the Tangram Cookies and Tesselating Two-Color Brownies are just what you might think; the Fibonacci Snack Sticks suggest probably-unnecessary miniature marshmallows; and the Probability Trail Mix contains M&Ms, though you can substitute anything you like into the last two recipes.)
Is the math the author's way of dressing up the recipe? Are the recipes a creative way of dressing up math? I’d have to say they are both about equal.
I said above that Eat Your Math Homework is not for Cooks Illustrated fans, but that’s not true. I’m a fan of Cook’s Illustrated, which focuses on the theory and science of cooking. And I love this book. I guess it’s that I get my fix of theory in the math stories rather than in the recipes themselves. Ms. McCallum does the best job I’ve ever seen at communicating math concepts in ways that kids and adults can easily understand and appreciate.
I guess the fact that McCallum is also a math teacher has something to do with it… but math texts are written by math teachers, too, and those are impenetrable. This is great. I love the matter-of-fact way she clears up some mathematical confusions which bug kids, like the concept of infinity. And here’s the most straightforward explanation you’ll ever see for the concept of pi: The Greek letter pi (Π) represents the constant value that you get when you divide the measurement of the rim of a circle—the circumference—by the measurement of a line drawn directly across the middle of that circle—the diameter (page 31).
So what IS Eat Your Math Homework? Is it a cookbook? Is it a picture book? Is it a math storybook? Is it a math supplement book? It is all of these things.
I think that 10 is the ideal age for Eat Your Math Homework, as long as that 10-year-old a) likes to cook and b) is not cynical… that is, she is willing to be seduced into learning new aspects of math by the illustrations, engaging stories, and sidebars. Fortunately, I had a cheerful 10-year-old handy: My daughter Ella spent a week looking through the book, figuring out the puzzles and enjoying the pictures, before finally deciding what to cook. (She made the brownies, whose secret ingredient really does make a yummy difference, although something went wrong with the texture, and we had a hard time cutting them into tessellating shapes.)
They can do it themselves.
Because the recipes are easy and use ingredients that most of us have handy already, pulling out Eat Your Math Homework makes for a perfect afternoon for parents who want to have fun with their kids and yet not have to do all the work. Really. You know how all of those cookbooks purport to be for kids and yet really require lots of parental involvement, where you end up expending most of the effort and the cleanup to boot? Not this one. Yes, your kids will consult you before putting the Two-Color Tesselating Brownies in the oven (at which point, by the way, they are one-color non-tesselating brownies) but for the most part, you’ll only have to look up occasionally from the book as they move from step to step.
Yes, YOU’LL be reading the book too. You’ll brush up on some math concepts, sure, because Ann McCallum’s explanations are clear, quick, and actually fun to read. But the real reason you’ll savor Eat Your Math Homework is illustrator Leeza Hernandez’s brilliant work. It’s not just that these bunnies aren’t your typical sweet bunny fare (rather, they remind me of Matt Groening's Life is Hell series—the precursor to The Simpsons—though considerably more upbeat), but also you could read the book just for the illustrations.
A 4-year-old could pick up the book and tell his own story even if he couldn’t read. For example, he’d show you that the wildly-kicked soccer ball on 19 sails through the book and is about to slam into the head of the M. C. Escher bunny on page 22. A mathematician (e.g., my husband) could pick up the book and shout, “Euler! The bunny on page 6 is supposed to be Leonhard Euler!” (He’d be wrong, though: I found out that it’s really supposed to be Fibonacci, but check out this famous picture of the mathematician Leonhard Euler, one of the popularizers of using the Greek letter pi in mathematics, and wonder with me whether that hadn’t somehow insinuated itself mysteriously into Ms. Hernandez’s consciousness as she was working on this book.)
In fact, the more culturally literate you are and the more you read Eat Your Math Homework, the more you’ll see some of the jokes in it that you hadn’t seen before, mostly courtesy of the illustrations. Read the text, and you’ll get more of the jokes. Read the text with your kids, and both of you will guess the secret behind the number that appears on each bunny (the last one is 39,088,169...and by the time you've read the book, that will make perfect sense).
Cooks younger than 7 or 8 will enjoy the illustrations, the stories, and the cooking, even if they're not up to all of the nuances of the math yet (though they will definitely understand some of it, if you read it to them). Kids 8-12 will like it because they’ll actually understand the math, have fun with the cooking, and try to figure out what each bunny is thinking (even if they don’t admit to doing that). Teens are probably a little beyond the book. But if a teen is looking for something to do with a younger sibling, it’s perfect. And as soon as they grow up they’ll enjoy it again.
This is truly the book that keeps on giving: I know there are puzzles we haven’t solved yet. I know that the diagram on page 27 has some significance. (Oh! And I just realized there is a chicken-and-egg joke. See what I mean?)
You’re not supposed to play with your food, right? But this book encourages kids and parents to play with their food together (literally, in the game Play with Probability on page 41). Along the way, both of you will discover that numbers are your friends. Just like bunnies.
Please enjoy Ella's interview with Leeza Hernandez, the illustrator, below.
Interview with the Illustrator, Leeza Hernandez
Ella and I were intrigued with the illustrations of Eat Your Math Homework, and we decided to go on a bunny hunt to see if the artist might answer some questions for us.
Ella: How did you choose bunnies as the main animal to illustrate Eat Your Math Homework? Did the author or editor tell you to use them, or was that your idea?
Leeza Hernandez: When I read the manuscript for the book, it was the Fibonacci Snack Sticks recipe that I kept coming back to. Fibonacci discovered the famous number sequence by studying rabbits - so I thought it would be really cool to see bunnies in the kitchen making Fibonacci Snack Sticks. The bunnies were my idea. I remember when I first started thinking about the illustrations for the book, back in 2008, and whether fluffy bunnies were a good idea or not. The book is geared for slightly older kids than a typical picture book reader age, so I changed my mind and tried to create illustrations with boys and girls instead of bunnies. But, boy were those bunnies upset about that! When I have an idea for an illustration, I see the picture clearly in my mind. When I tried to picture boys and girls, I kept seeing unhappy bunnies waving their paws at me about not being featured in the book. So what could I do? I ditched the idea of boys and girls and went back to the bunnies but this time around I made them a little older and more tween-like. They're like mischievous boys and girls having fun in bunny suits!
Ella: How long did it take you to do the illustrations for Eat Your Math Homework?
Leeza Hernandez: That's an excellent question! If I include all the time it took to create the sketches and revised sketches and more revised sketches, as well as the final color art and then all the extra sketches of the cover, and revised sketches of the cover (there were a lot of those!) and the final color cover, I'd say it took about two years in total (phew!). However, that's not working on the book every day. Whenever I sent a round of sketches to the editor and designer for approval, I'd have a few weeks off while I waited for a response.
Ella: What is the bunny on page 10 thinking?
Leeza Hernandez: I LOVE this question. Well, bunny number 8 is SUPPOSED to be thinking about Fibonacci numbers and how she's going to construct her Fibonacci Snack Sticks to share with her furry friends. BUT, between you and me, bunny number 8 is looking at those banana slices and thinking about her favorite joke: What's yellow on the inside and green on the outside? Answer: A banana dressed up as a cucumber! (Bunny number 8 loves bananas and jokes. What's your favorite joke?)
Ms. Hernandez also told Ella that the bunny on page 33 is listening to Ella Fitzgerald on those headphones. Ella loved that!