First off, I should confess that I don’t have children or interact with youngsters very often. A second concession I also need to make is that I was never very good at math. Yes, I passed the basic classes but then I avoided anything more advanced once I had met the barest requirements for college. Much of my problem stemmed from poor short-term memory. All through grammar school, my family tried to help by making me their project and ruthlessly drilling me through addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I can still hear the rhythm of “nine plus seven equals sixteen” in my head.
I wasn’t sure why Alan Lau had assigned me this book and why it seemed like he wanted to torture me. Fourteen pages, a children’s book—it should seem simple. Things frequently aren’t what they seem to be, and oftentimes I’ve felt the most basic ideas are the most difficult to understand and explain. I did enjoy Eugenia Cheng’s Art of Logic: How to Make Sense in a World That Doesn’t. Cheng’s quote on the inside cover of Molly and the Mathematical Mysteries made me reconsider my attitude once more: “Math is really about exploring ideas and using our imagination. It’s a way of making sense of the world—or of making seemingly impossible things possible.” With a past with math like mine, it’s a lesson that bears repeating.
Molly’s journey begins in her bedroom and illustrator Aleksandra Artymowska fills the pages with bright colors. Butterflies, plants, books and impossible shapes all hint at what is to come. Artymowska creates full detail in puzzles and mazes. Molly is depicted as a small child with an inquiring look, light brown skin, a black pageboy haircut, wearing a yellow shirt with red polka dots and red pants only to be turned into a paradox of a short blue-haired girl in the same outfit later on. Cheng’s instructor voice is present from page one. Although this children’s book is recommended for ages seven to ten, I believe it is important that an adult read and share the experience. Cheng’s writing is bright and enthusiastic although sometimes the adult me wanted more explanation: “To turn the sock inside out, you have to push the material through the round opening. Now imagine the opening is a window and the material is your room. Turning your bedroom inside out doesn’t seem so impossible anymore…” The reader is given a “Where’s Waldo” task of finding three matching pairs of socks which a child (or adult) can actually accomplish. This is a pop-up book with notes addressed to Molly that are to be opened and offer hints.
The physical dimensions of Molly and the Mathematical Mysteries is 12×10 inches, a comfortable size for two people to explore. The pages are thick, but the pop-up qualities made me concerned about tearing with overuse or frustration. All of the actions from lift-the-flaps to pull-tab elements are inventive, becoming complex tasks as in weaving Latin Squares or in the Counting Combinations Wheel.
The peripatetic story moves from Molly’s room to outside to staircases, gardens, halls, boiler rooms and more. As the journey continues, the concepts become more abstract and difficult. Some ideas like reflectional, rotational and translational symmetry as well as fractals were nicely explained with Artymowska’s artwork. Other ideas like making cubes with possible nets left me scratching my head and stuck in the boiler room. I also haven’t found my way out of the garden maze with its shapes that tessellate. My only recourse was to simply flip up a tab without understanding. This book took my husband and me a couple of evenings to get through. For the most part, we enjoyed the different ways of presenting mathematics, ways that we hadn’t encountered before. Thankfully, homework wasn’t due the next day.
Later, as Cheng introduces worm holes, the fourth dimension, or Albert Einstein’s spacetime, I felt that an adult should be available to (attempt to) answer questions.
At the end of Molly’s journey, five additional pages are provided that review and offer a little more information. Maybe I was fighting my old ideas of wanting correct and concrete answers. I was disappointed that there was no answers page. In one section on Abstraction, Cheng states: “When you spot similarities, you’re seeing through details on the surface and thinking about BIG ideas. This is where math comes from!”
Molly and the Mathematical Mysteries is a fun, interactive book. It emphasizes engagement and opening doors to thinking creatively. Most of the time, my husband and I learned something new through these exercises and imaginative investigations. I’m hoping these ideas and ways of looking at the world will open up doors that my grandnephew and grandnieces will explore even if I have not.