Outnumbered but never outdone

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Many stories have made children long to be detectives or athletes, and helped build the image of those with sporting and musical talents. It is harder to find books portraying positive images of mathematicians, or suggesting that talents for accurate addition or fast multiplication are special. Fortunately, they do exist - and some specifically celebrate children's ability to calculate mentally. As well as painting a favourable picture of young mathematicians, they can encourage children to carry out mental calculations while creating useful mathematical possibilities.

Perhaps the youngest mathematical star in children's literature is "Calculating Connie" in Dick King-Smith's eponymous story. This amusing tale appeals to children towards the end of the infant years, though it offers mathematical starting points ranging from counting fingers and deciding which number follows two, to mental calculation of VAT.

Connie is a toddler with remarkable ability, adding numbers in her head when she is only two - though harder problems have her screwing up her face and sticking out her tongue. But her talents develop as the story progresses. She can recognise odd or even numbers, total shopping bills and calculate using percentages. She becomes contemptuous of pocket calculators and, unfortunately, of her parents! Ultimately, Connie receives a bump on the head and loses her powers.

Marty Malone is an older mathematician, star of Betsy Duffey's The Maths Wiz. Marty's love of maths has him calling his pet guinea pigs Plus and Minus. Predictably, they multiply and Marty happily charts the number of pets in the house, though his mother takes a dim view.

The story explores Marty's attempts to come to terms with his new school, especially PE lessons. He is aided by his maths teacher's creative approach to problem-solving, and the promise of a maths club picnic. Marty is also cheered by a note passed to him in a maths lesson, consisting of just a number. This heralds the start of a new friendship which, as the teacher suspected, is the real solution to Marty's problems. Roald Dahl's Matilda is a famous prodigy, recently heroised in a popular film. Sadly her abilities are not appreciated by her parents. Her mother thinks looks are more important for girls, while her father denies that complicated calculations can be done mentally. Yet he sees a use for maths.

As a crooked used car salesman, he takes a keen interest in increasing his profits by decreasing the stated mileage of cars!

Then Matilda goes to school. The chapter dealing with her first lesson with Miss Honey says a lot about multiplication, with the enlightened Honey inviting Matilda to explain her mental methods. Miss Trunchbull's maths lessons, on the other hand, are a wonderful caricature of all the negative possibilities of tables tests. As children emerge with stretched ears and sore heads, she delivers firm opinions about

multiplicatio n. They include a rather direct method of teaching the commutative property and a firm denial that multiplication can be performed as repeated addition.

Most children are neither Martys nor Matildas, but they can all be encouraged to calculate mentally, and to improve and take pride in their mathematical performance. These stories can help, while making a welcome change from strings of beautiful, brave or daring heroes and heroines so busy taking the world by storm that they miss out on mathematical adventure.

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