Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday - The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos

Author: Deborah Heiligman
Illustrator: LeUyen Pham
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (June 25, 2013)
Source: Purchased
Audience: Grades 2-4
Keywords: Biography, Mathematician, Nonfiction

Description from GoodReads:
Most people think of mathematicians as solitary, working away in isolation. And, it's true, many of them do. But Paul Erdos never followed the usual path. At the age of four, he could ask you when you were born and then calculate the number of seconds you had been alive in his head. But he didn't learn to butter his own bread until he turned twenty. Instead, he traveled around the world, from one mathematician to the next, collaborating on an astonishing number of publications. With a simple, lyrical text and richly layered illustrations, this is a beautiful introduction to the world of math and a fascinating look at the unique character traits that made "Uncle Paul" a great man.

My thoughts on this book:
Rather than a numbers person, I have considered myself more of a word person. Hence, I do not spend a ton of time reading math biographies.  However, this was one I definitely wanted to read.  Heiligman knocks it out of the park with this picture book biography about Paul Erdos.

Paul Erdos was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1913.  He grew up with parents who supported and encouraged his fascination and love of numbers.  His mother was a math teacher and when she returned to work Paul was left with a nanny.  When Paul rebelled at school against the rules, his mother kept in at home.  With both his mother and nanny available to take care of all of his needs, Paul continued to grow in his understanding and love of numbers.

When Erdos grew up, he lived a very nomadic life staying with friends and other mathematicians in order to continue learning about numbers and sharing that knowledge with others.  Erdos may not have been the best guest and did not always pay attention to simple social rules, but he was brilliant and well loved to the point of being referred to as "Uncle Paul". 

Erdos was very singular in his purpose in life, and utilized his skills to connect mathematicians together to create "better math".  At the end of his life, Erdos passed away while at a math meeting.

Heiligman and Pham within the limited number of pages of a picture book captured the essence of Paul Erdos' life.  Heiligman's author's note provides much more detail including information about Erdos' father and other bits about his personality and behavior.  Erdos was a true genius, with a very singular passion that he generously shared with others.

Along with Heiligman's storytelling, Pham uses numbers prominently in the illustrations.  There are three pages at the end of the book where Pham shares her very intentional way of incorporating math and math symbols and math concepts into her art.  Both Heiligman's and Pham's notes should certainly not be overlooked because part of the brilliance of this story lies within those four pages.

If your school or local library does not have a copy of this book, think about picking up a copy and donating it to the library of your choice.  Educators interested in more about Paul Erdos might want to check out this post by Deborah Heiligman which includes many wonderful links and resources.

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