Playing by the book

Reviews of kids' books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do

We’ve Got Your Number – a Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlistee

Posted on | October 16, 2014 | 6 Comments

7277407-MWe’ve Got Your Number written by Mukul Patel and illustrated by Supriya Sahai aims to show 10-14 year olds why almost everything in their lives boils down to maths, and explains why they should change how they get pocket money so they start with just 1p in the first week of the new year.

It’s bold and bright and full of cartoons. It covers everything from the maths of planets, space and time, to the way maths impacts on decisions you make every day, from what flavour ice-cream to have to how to choose a healthier snack. Brief biographies of mathematicians, such as Fibonacci, Euler and Al-Khwarizmi are interspersed with facts and lots of small projects to try out at home (with the solutions provided at the end of the book, so you can double check how you’ve got on).


With lots of short stand-alone sections, this book is easy to dip in and out of; this is just as well because it is so packed with information, it could easily feel slightly overwhelming if you tried to sit down and read it from cover to cover. I do wonder if this book will work better for us the longer we live with it, using it as a reference book to go back to when M, J and I want to explore a particular topic.

This book proudly believes its readers can understand quite complex mathematical issues; the unpatronizing approach continues in the resources list which includes several books and websites mostly marketed for adults, but which the author believes kids could also appreciate. If asked to recommend this book for a particular readership I’d suggest it’s not for the beginner/early mathematician, but rather for one who is already pretty curious about the way numbers work.

Although We’ve Got Your Number didn’t work brilliantly for us, it did prompt me to find some other ways to get M excited about maths. And so I turned to magic!

There’s a whole class of magic tricks based on maths, and many of them are easy to do, even if you don’t understand WHY they work. I taught M a Mind Reading Maths trick (below), which she then went on to perform in class in the “show and tell” slot one day. Cue lots of oohs and aahs, and quite a lot of street cred from her classmates and teachers. It definitely worked for boosting her confidence in and curiosity about maths. It looks rather long and wordy having typed it out below, but I do encourage you to give it a go. It’s simple, beautiful and packs a big punch!

Mind Reading Maths

  • 1. Remove the tens, jacks, queens, kings and jokers from a complete deck of cards.

  • 2. Shuffle the cards.

  • 3. Ask your friend to pick any card from the deck. Your friend should not show the card to you, but they do need to memorise the number on their card.

  • 4. Ask your friend to put her card down on the table, face down.

  • 5. Now you (the magician), pick a card from the deck. Don’t show it to your friend, but do memorise the number on your card.

  • 8. Lay your card face down on the table next to your friend’s card. It is important to place your card on the right hand side of your friend’s card as your friend sees it.
  • cardtricklayout

  • 9. Give your friend a piece of paper and pencil to do a little bit of maths. Ask your friend to:
    (a) Double the value of her card

    (b) Add 2 to that number

    (c) Multiply that answer by 5

  • 10. Now you (the magician) need to to a little bit of maths. In your head subtract the number of your memorized card from 10.

  • 11. Have your friend subtract your answer from her final answer.

  • 12. Say “Are you thinking of this number?”. Flip over the two cards on the table, and the two cards together should make the number that your friend has calculated.

    (If things go wrong, either you put your card on the wrong side of your friend’s card, or your friend got her maths wrong – you can always double check)
  • Click here to download a printable version of this trick!

    Given how much fun we had with this one trick, I’ve now prepared some more Maths Magic Lunchbox Printables for M. I will put these in with her lunch this week so she can wow her friends with her amazing magic skills whilst they munch their sandwiches.


    You can download my Maths Magic Lunchbox Printables here (sheet 1 – slightly easier maths), here (sheet 2 – slightly more complicated maths), and here (a blank sheet for friends to use as part of the magic tricks). I suspect the most popular trick will be the one you can use to work out the age and shoe size of your teachers and dinner ladies…

    We didn’t have any music on whilst we learned our Maths Magic Trick, but if you want songs to go with We’ve Got Your Number you might enjoy these:

  • 7 8 9 by Barenaked Ladies (totally child friendly, despite their name)
  • I Will Derive! (Inspired by I Will Survive. The maths in this is probably too difficult for most primary school kids, but adults will appreciate this song)
  • Math Math Baby (Inspired by Ice Ice Baby)
  • Here’s a whole Pinterest board dedicated to maths songs and videos.

  • Other activities which you might enjoy along side reading We’ve Got Your Number include:

  • Learning even more maths magic card tricks with Colm Mulcahy’s new book Mathematical Card Magic.
  • Play the lottery. Yes, just for this week, and only in the name of learning about maths, why not buy a family lottery ticket. You can work out your odds of winning using this helpful site (good for any lottery), which also provides a useful way to visualize your chance of winning, and some comparative odds so you can contextualise your chances.
  • Visit a maze (UK suggestions, US suggestions, Aus suggestions) and try to find your way out. If you’re stuck in a maze here’s a useful algorithm (a step-by-step method for performing a task) that will always eventually get you out of the maze: Keep one hand in contact with a wall as you walk. You WILL find the exit… but are you brave enough to try?

  • What’s your favourite number and why? What books have your found accessible, well pitched and exciting when it comes to getting your kids enthusiastic about maths?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of We’ve Got Your Number from the Royal Society.

    royalsocietyprizebuttonEach year the Royal Society awards a prize to the best book that communicates science to young people with the aim of inspiring young people to read about science. We’ve Got Your Number is on this year’s shortlist for the The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. The winner will be announced mid November.

    The Colour Thief x 2

    Posted on | October 13, 2014 | 3 Comments

    Can you imagine a world without colour, where all you see is black, white or the shades of grey in between? As a self-confessed colour junkie such a world would sap my energies and leave my life (perhaps ironically), somewhat blue.

    Thus when two new books came to my attention both titled ‘The Colour Thief’ I was very intrigued; not only did they look like their subject matter would appeal to me, it was funny and surprising to see two books, from different authors/illustrators/publishers with the same title.


    In The Colour Thief by Gabriel Alborozo an alien looks longingly across space to planet earth, full of colours and brightness. He believes such a beautiful place must be full of joy, and so sets off to bring some of that happiness back to his home planet.

    With just a few magic words the alien is able to suck up first all the reds, then the blues and the greens and before long planet earth is looking very grey and sad. But what of the alien? Can he really be happy when he sees the glumness he has caused?

    Alborozo’s story about kindness, desire and what makes us joyous and content is full of appeal. There are lots of themes which can be explored; from the beauty around us which we might take for granted (requiring an outsider to alert us to us), to whether or not we can be happy if we’ve caused others distress, this book could be used to open up lots of discussion.

    Click to see larger image

    Click to see larger image

    Although the alien’s actions could be frightening, this is mitigated by his cute appearance, just one of the book’s charms. I also think kids will love the apparent omnipotence of the alien: He wants something, and at his command he gets it, just like that, and this identification with the alien makes the story more interesting and unusual. The artwork is fun and energetic, seemingly filled with rainbow coloured confetti. I can easily imagine a wonderful animation of this story.

    The Colour Thief by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, illustrated by Karin Littlewood is a very different sort of story. It draws on the authors’ own experience of parental depression, exploring from a child’s perspective what it can feel like to watch a parent withdraw as they suffer from this illness.

    Father and son lead a comforting life “full of colour”, but when depression clouds the father’s mind he withdraws, and all the colours around the family seem to disappear. The child worries that he might somehow be the cause of this loss, but he is repeatedly reassured it is not his fault and gradually, with patience and love, colours start to seep back into the father’s life and he returns to his family.

    Mental health is difficult to talk about when you’re 40, let alone when you are four, but this lyrical and moving book provides a thoughtful, gentle, and unsentimental way into introducing (and if desired, discussing) depression. If you were looking for “when a book might help” to reassure a child in a specific situation, I would wholeheartedly recommend this; it is honest, compassionate and soothing.

    However, I definitely wouldn’t keep this book ONLY for those times when you find a child in a similar circumstances to those described in the book. It is far too lovely to be kept out of more general circulation. For a start, the language is very special; it’s perhaps no surprise when you discover that one of the author’s has more than 70 poetry books to his name. If you were looking for meaningful, tender use of figurative language, for example in a literacy lesson, this book provides some fabulous, examples.

    Click to see larger image.

    Click to see larger image.

    And then there are the illustrations. Karin Littlewood has long been one of my favourite illustrators for her use of colour, her graceful compositions, her quiet kindness in her images. And in The Colour Thief there are many examples of all these qualities. I particularly like her use of perspective first to embody the claustrophobia and fear one can feel with depression, with bare tree branches leaning in onto the page, or street lamps lowering overhead, and then finally the open, sky-facing view as parent and child reunite as they walk together again when colour returns.


    Particularly inspired by the imagery in Alborozo’s The Colour Thief we made a trip to a DIY store to pick up a load of paint chips.


    Wow. My kids went crazy in the paint section: Who knew paint chips could be just so much fun? They spent over an hour collecting to their hearts’ desire. A surprising, free and fun afternoon!

    Once home we snipped up the paint chips to separate each colour. The colour names caused lots of merriment, and sparked lots of equally outlandish ideas for new colour names, such as Beetlejuice red, Patio grey, Spiderweb silver and Prawn Cocktail Pink.


    We talked about shades and intensity of colours, and sorted our chips into three piles: Strong, bright colours, off-white colours, and middling colours. I then put a long strip of contact paper on the kitchen table, sticky side up, and the kids started making a mosaic with the chips, starting with the brightest colours in the middle, fading to the palest around the edge.


    Apart for the soothing puzzle-like quality of this activity, the kids have loved using the end result as a computer keyboard, pressing the colours they want things to change to. I also think it makes for a rather lovely bit of art, now up in their bedroom.


    Whilst making our colour mosaic we listened to:

  • My favourite ever, ever song about colours…. Kristin Andreassen – Crayola Doesn’t Make A Color For Your Eyes
  • Colors by Kira Willey. This song would go really well with ‘My Many Colored Days’ by Dr. Seuss.
  • Roy G Biv by They Might Be Giants

  • Other activities which might go well with either version of ‘The Colour Thief’ include:

  • Taking some online colour quizzes to learn more about just how you see colour (and how that might be different to someone else)
  • Making your own colour swatches or favourite colours book, using this amazing 322 year old Dutch book as inspiration. It will be much cheaper and a lot more fun than buying a Pantone Colour Guide.

  • If you know someone suffering from depression these charities may be of help:

  • Depression Alliance
  • Mind
  • Sane
  • Pandas Foundation – Pre and Post Natal depression support
  • Acacia – Pre and Post Natal depression support

  • Disclosure: I received free review copies of both books reviewed today from their respective publishers.

    Some other books I have since found with the same title but by different authors/illustrators/publishers include:


    ‘The Snowy Day’ by Ezra Jack Keats, and ‘The Snowy Day’ by Anna Milbourne and Elena Temporin


    ‘Bubble and Squeak’ by Louise Bonnett-Rampersaud and Susan Banta, and ‘Bubble and Squeak’ by James Mayhew and Clara Vulliamy


    ‘My Dad’ by Anthony Browne, ‘My Dad’ by Steve Smallman and Sean Julian, and ‘My Dad’ by Chae Strathie and Jacqueline East

    My thanks to @josiecreates, @FBreslinDavda and @illustratedword for alerting me to some of these titles.

    What makes you You? A Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlistee

    Posted on | October 9, 2014 | 1 Comment

    royalsocietyprizebuttonEach year the Royal Society awards a prize to the best book that communicates science to young people with the aim of inspiring young people to read about science. In the run up to the announcement of the winner of The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize in the middle of November, I’ll be reviewing the books which have made the shortlist, and trying out science experiments and investigating the world with M and J in ways which stem from the books in question.

    7277405-MFirst up is What makes you YOU? by Gill Arbuthnott , illustrated by Marc Mones.

    Have you ever thought how your genes could get you out of prison?

    Or what the consequences might be if a company owned and could make money out of one of your own genes?

    How would you know if you were a clone?

    Why might knowing something about junk DNA be important if you’re running an exclusive restaurant with slightly dodgy practices?

    Answers to these and many other intriguing questions are to be found in this accessible introduction to genetics, pitched at the 9-11 crowd. Arbuthnott does a great job of showing how relevant a knowledge of genetics is, whether in helping us to understand issues in the news (e.g. ‘Cancer gene test ‘would save lives’‘) or understanding why we are partly but not entirely like our parents. What makes you YOU? covers key scientists in the past history of genetics and crucial stages in its development as a science, including the race to discover what DNA looked like, the Human Genome Project, and Dolly the Sheep.


    Arbuthnott portrays the excitement and potential in genetic research very well, leaving young readers feeling that this is far from a dry science; there are many ethical issues which make the discussion of the facts seem more relevant and real to young readers. Whilst on the whole I felt the author did a good job of balancing concerns with opportunities, I was sorry that in the discussion about genetically modified plants no mention was made of businesses ability to control supply to food stock, by creating plants which don’t reproduce, leaving farmers dependent on buying new seed from the business.

    A timeline of discoveries, a very helpful list of resources for further study, a glossary and an index all make this a really useful book. Importantly, not only does the book contain interesting and exciting information, it also looks attractive and engaging. Lots of full bleed brightly coloured pages, and the use of cartoony characters make the book immediately approachable and funny – a world away from a dry dull school textbook.

    What makes you YOU? provides a clear and enjoyable introduction to understanding DNA and many of the issues surrounding genetic research, perfect not only for learning about this branch of science, but also for generating discussion.

    Extracting DNA is what the kids wanted to try after sharing What makes you YOU?. In the interest of scientific exploration we tried two different techniques to see which one we found easier and which gave the best results.

    Method 1: Extracting your own DNA

    What you’ll need:


  • A tablespoon
  • Salt
  • A measuring jug
  • Water
  • Washing-up liquid
  • A small bowl
  • A teaspoon
  • A small clean cup
  • A tall and narrow jar (or a test tube)
  • Clingfilm or a stopper/lid
  • A stirrer eg a plastic straw
  • Rubbing alcohol (surgical spirit – in the UK you can buy this easily in a chemists such as Boots)

  • dna4

  • 1. Dissolve 1 tablespoon of salt in 250ml of water to create a salt solution.
  • 2. Dilute the washing-up liquid by mixing 1 tbsp of washing-up liquid with 3 tbsp of water in your small bowl. We’ll call this the soap solution.
  • 3. Swish 1 teaspoon of tap water around in your mouth vigorously for at least 30 seconds. Spit this into the small cup. We’ll call this spit water.
  • 4. Put 1/4 teaspoon of your salt solution into your tall jar/test tube.
  • 5. Pour your spit water from the cub into the tall tar/test tube.
  • 6. Add 1/4 teaspoon of your soap solution to the test tube.
  • 7. Cover the top of your tall jar/test tube either with clingfilm/a stopper/a lid and gently turn the jar almost upside down several times to mix everything together. Avoid making any bubbles.
  • 8. Take the covering off the jar and dribble 1 teaspoon of surgical spirit down the side of the tall jar/test tube. Watch for the surgical spirit forming a layer on top of the spitwater/salt solution/soap solution mix.
  • 9. You should now see a white stringy layer forming between the two layers – this is your DNA (and a few proteins, but mostly it’s your DNA)
  • 10. You can use the stirrer to pull out the white goop to get a closer look at your DNA.
  • dna5.jpg

    We learned this method for extracting DNA from Exploratopia by Pat Murphy, Ellen Macaulay and the staff of the Exploratorium. Unfortunately it’s out of print now, but it is definitely worth tracking down a copy if you are interested in doing experiments at home.

    Method 2: Extracting strawberry DNA

    This second method is detailed in What makes you YOU? and involves strawberries, fresh pineapple, warm water and ice as well as washing-up liquid and salt. It also calls for methylated spirits but we swapped this for surgical spirit, as that’s what we had to hand.


    This method is a little more involved than the first method but is a all round sensory experience: There are lots of strong smells (from crushed strawberries and puréed pineapple, as well as the surgical spirit), colours make it visually very appealing (perhaps this is why methylated spirits are called for in the original recipe as the purple of the meths adds another dimension) and there is also lots to feel, from the strange sensation of squishing the strawberries by hand, through to the different temperatures of the warm water in which the DNA-extracting-mix gently cooks followed by the ice water in which it cools down.




    Look! Strawberry DNA!


    Both methods were fun to try. We liked the first method because the result was seeing globs of our very own DNA, but the second method was a much more stimulating process, appealing to all the senses. Indeed this DNA extraction recipe alone makes it worthwhile seeking out a copy of What makes you YOU?.

    Whilst extracting DNA we listened to:

  • GENEticS, a rap by Oort Kuiper
  • The DNA song

  • The Galaxy DNA song By Eric Idle and John Du Prez (a re-worked Monty Python song)

  • Other activities which might go well with reading What makes you YOU? include:

  • Checking out this list of children’s books I previously compiled on genetics and DNA – with something for everyone no matter what their age.
  • Listening to an interview with Gill Arbuthnott
  • Watching this animation which helps explain how Mendel’s pea plants helped us understand genetics

  • What do you and your family look for in science books to really hook you in? Do share some examples of science books which you’ve especially enjoyed over the years.

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of What makes you YOU? from the Royal Society.

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