Mathematical Marvels: Five Children's Math Books from 1817 to Today

March 21, 2022 | Myrna

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Math phobia is nothing new. For centuries parents and educators have been seeking ways to make math fun. Our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books has a unique collection of math and counting books available to view in person. From silly counting rhymes to demystifying factorials, these books have found creative ways to teach math to young readers. 

Nathaniel Numeral's Novel Notions of Acquiring a Knowledge of Numeration (1817)

Nathaniel Numeral's Novel Notions of Acquiring a Knowledge of Numeration uses a popular counting out rhyme to teach the numbers 1 to 32. Counting out rhymes like "Eeny, meeny, miney, moe" and "Tinker, Tailor" have been used for centuries by children when selecting who is "it" in games like tag.

Nathaniel Numeral's features a modified version of counting out rhyme "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe." The first recorded use of "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" was by children in 18th century Massachusetts. By the 19th century, "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" became commonly used in nursery rhyme and counting books on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Two pages with text reading "One, Two, Ma'am how d'ye do" and "Twenty-five, Twenty-Six, My Donkey Kicks!"
In Nathaniel Numeral's (1817), silly rhymes help young readers count from 1 to 32.

Number Castle (1859)

Number Castle transforms math basics into a fairy tale narrative. King Arithmetic is served by four giants named Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Division. When thieves steal from the King's orchard, each giant uses their unique mathematical approach to solve the problem.  

Number Castle's publisher Ward and Lock created several books which taught education basics through story. Mr. Noun and Mrs. Verb, or, Grammar in fun (1859) was another book in their Aunt Affable's Pretty Play-books series. Mr. Noun and Mrs. Verb get married, but only after Mr. Noun's friends "I, Thou, He, We, You, and They" persuade the widowed Mrs. Verb. 

Pages from Number Castle showing the giants named Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Division.
The King's four giants, Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Division, use math to solve a theft in Number Castle (1859).

Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar (1983)

Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar by Mitsumasa and Masaichiro Anno introduces the concept of factorials through a simple narrative about one island and two countries. A factorial is when you multiple a number by all the preceding numbers down to one. The story introduces us to one island, with two countries, each with three mountains continuing on to nine boxes each with ten mysterious jars. A factorial of ten would be 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8 x 9 x 10, or 3,628,800 mysterious jars. 

Mitsumasa Anno was a prolific Japanese author-illustrator. In addition to Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar, he created the Anno's Math Games series and other educational picture books. Anno was popular enough that real porcelain jars, just like the book's Mysterious Multiplying Jars, were produced for the book's Japanese release. 

Page showing 10 porcelain jars with the text "within each box there were 10 jars."
Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar explains factorials and shows us how multiplication can quickly go from 1 to 3,628,800.
Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar porcelain
The porcelain Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar has 3,628,800 written on the bottom. 3,628,800 is the factorial of 10 and the number of jars in the book.

Cookie Count: A Tasty Pop-up (1997)

Created by pop-up master Robert Sabuda, Cookie Count is mouth watering counting book. Celebrated for his complex paper engineering feats, Sabuda's book counts from 1 to 10 with cookie-themed pop-up creations. The book counts from "1 chocolate chip cookie" to "10 gingerbread windows," showing several mice bakers hard at work on sugary creations. 

Inuksiutiit / Inuit Tools (2014)

Inuksiutiit is a dual language Inuktitut-English board book, which teaches counting alongside Inuktitut language. The board book has each word written in Inuktitut syllabics, romanized Inuktitut, and English if the word is translatable. It begins with 1 ulu (or ᐅᓗ in Inuktitut syllabics), a type of curved knife used to cut animal skins and prepare food. The counting continues with 4 qamutiik (ᖃᒧᑏᒃ or sled), 8 umiaq (ᐅᒥᐊᖅ or boat) and ending with 10 iggaak (ᐃᒡᒑᒃ or snow goggles). 

Board book pages showing 4 sleds with text reading ᖃᒧᑏᒃ, qamutiik and sled.
Inuksiutiit (2014) teaches counting and Inuktitut language.

Further reading

Find more historical math and counting books on our Digital Archive. 

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Explore all blog posts featuring the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books.

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