a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Number Stories: Learning Arithmetic Through the Adventures of Ralph and His Schoolmates (1916)
Alhambra G. Deming

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A simpler, slightly different book than the one by David Eugene Smith (“Number Stories of Long Ago”). This book, instead of speaking of the history of numbers, goes into a connected string of stories (over 200 pages) which very gently and seamlessly introduces young children concepts of arithmetic, geometry, accounting and the like. I highly recommend it to parents who can use it for their children aged 12 and below, for it is a rather enjoyable tale on its own but with much instructional value, far beyond basic number problems found in texts. As the preface says:

(quoted from Number Stories: Learning Arithmetic Through the Adventures of Ralph and His Schoolmates )

“These stories are to be read to pupils in the intermediate grades. Their primary aim is drill in the essentials of arithmetic as applied to a child’s experience. In addition to this the vital lessons of system, industry, independence, uprightness, courtesy, school loyalty, generosity, thrift, and appreciation and consideration of parents are taught by suggestion. The story should be kept uppermost and the teachings, apparently, made incidental.”

The Introduction speaks to the admirable goal:

(quoted from Number Stories: Learning Arithmetic Through the Adventures of Ralph and His Schoolmates )

“ARITHMETIC as taught in the past has, perhaps, been more abstract and more foreign to the real life of the child than any other subject included in our grammar-school curriculum. The pupil’s imagination might help compass the end in view in the teaching of geography, reading, and history, but in arithmetic the imagination has been offered no opportunity to help. Since school-teaching began children have juggled with the uninteresting symbols which we call figures, without realizing their values and without a suspicion that they could have anything to do with a child’s experience. Even when the abstract was made concrete by the application of figures to actual working experience, the conditions of the problems presented were generally far removed from the child’s interest. Such problems were for the most part made to fit grown-up conditions, and were utterly dissociated from one another.”

“The past few years have seen much improvement in the teaching of arithmetic, but there is still crying need for methods which bring this subject into closer relationship with the life of the child. These NUMBER STORIES have been written with the object of begetting a live interest in a hitherto abstract subject. Interest begets effort; effort begets accuracy; accuracy begets efficiency, and efficiency is to-day the great aim of elementary education.”

Note: There are now many children's books (many of them picture books) which aim to teach children elementary mathematical concepts motivated by a story. In general, I do not include those in this database of mathematical fiction unless they are distinguished in some way. Often, it is because the book considers a surprisingly high level of mathematics or because it includes a character who is a mathematician. Neither of those apply in this case, though. This one is being included for its historical significance, being a very early example of that genre. -ak

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Works Similar to Number Stories: Learning Arithmetic Through the Adventures of Ralph and His Schoolmates
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Number Stories of Long Ago by David Eugene Smith
  2. The Man Who Counted : A Collection of Mathematical Adventures by Malba Tahan
  3. The Number Devil [Der Zahlenteufel] by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
  4. The Magic Two-Horn by Sergey Pavlovich Bobrov
  5. Three Days in Karlikania by Vladimir Levshin
  6. Math Curse by Jon Scieszka / Lane Smith (illustrator)
  7. Lost in Lexicon: An Adventure in Words and Numbers by Pendred Noyce
  8. Jayden's Rescue by Vladimir Tumanov
  9. L.A. Math: Romance, Crime and Mathematics in the City of Angels by James D. Stein
  10. Intoxicating Heights (Höhenrausch. Die Mathematik des XX. Jahrhunderts in zwanzig Gehirnen) by Dietmar Dath
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GenreDidactic, Children's Literature,
MotifMath Education,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumShort Stories, Collection,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)