Do your Math Books Spark Joy?

With her new Netflix special premiering in the resolution filled frenzy of January, Marie Kondo and her Life Changing Magic of Tidying upThe Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is everywhere. For those unfamiliar, one main piece of Kondo advice is too collect ALL of a particular item in your home (e.g, all clothes, all books, all papers), hold up each item and ask, Does this spark joy? If no, donate or throw away. If yes, keep and enjoy. Above is a pre-tidying image of ALL my math books from last year.

While I can’t say that I only kept books that sparked joy, for most part the books I kept were magical to me for one reason or another.  This post is about one magical math book that remained after my Marie-Kondo-inspired tidying.

The Books

Theoni Pappas’ The Joy of Mathematics: Discovering Mathematics All Around You was published by Wide World Publishing in 1991.  Theoni Pappas is a passionate mathematics educator who taught high school and college mathematics for nearly two decades. She’s written numerous books that aim to make mathematics more approachable. Her books have been translated into Japanese, Finnish, French, Slovakian, Czech, Korean, Turkish, Russian, Thai, simplified and traditional Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, Vietnamese, and Spanish.

the joy of mathematics cover image

I became familiar with Pappas from working her daily calendar problems.  Recently, I came across the bittersweet news that 2019 is her farewell calendar (you can find it here).  

The Joy of Mathematics contains  problems, puzzles, historical facts, tidbits, and stories that aim to spark curiosity and invite the reader to experiment with a wide variety of ideas and topics.

The Math

Recently mathematics educator Ilana Horn (@ilana_horn) posted a phrase on twitter that I am borrowing whenever I meet a frustrated student wondering why they need to trudge through exercise set after exercise set of mixed practice and mindless algorithms void of any meaningful problem solving, connection seeking, or call for creative thinking:

“Well, that is the kind of math smarts school values but there are other kinds of math smarts.” (Ilana Horn, tweet from January 2019)

The Joy of Mathematics invites readers on a curious, wondrous mathematical journey along a path that is different from the one some students find themselves led down in school.  It invites both children and adults to explore an “other kind of math smarts”.  As you can see from the TOC below, The Joy of Mathematics poses problems and shares stories that touch the edges of many different mathematical domains and connects mathematics with a wide-range of objects, historical figures, phenomena, and situations.

screen shot 2019-01-29 at 8.50.18 amscreen shot 2019-01-29 at 8.50.26 amscreen shot 2019-01-29 at 8.50.33 am

Did a topic in the list peak your interest? Spider and Spirals… What’s that about? Have you ever wondered how an abacus worked? What’s the deal with prime numbers, why are mathematicians interested in them?

The problems and situations Pappas poses provide a spark and a start down a math path of your choosing. The reader decides where to walk and how far. Resources like Youtube, WolframAlpha, and Wikipedia pages are there to help along your journey.   For example, page 219 talks about Soap bubbles and mathematics, which led us to explore more by watching this video and experiment on our own.

The Magic

In December, I searched The Joy of Mathematics for problems/puzzles to share with my 6 year old daughter and 9 year old son over winter break.  Here are three puzzles we did.

We did two dissection puzzles.

Puzzle 1:

screen shot 2019-01-29 at 8.59.49 am

After posing the problem, here’s a bit of what happened.

L (9 year old) started making the square (which turned out to be the easier shape to make for both children).

L: Can a square be any square? Like a diamond. [We talked about what he meant and through this he noted that he needed right angles and equal sides.]

My daughter played for a bit, tangram-style.

S (six year old): Look what I made. I made a tweeting bird. [Sorry no pic of tweeting bird]

L: How did you do that? Did you flip them upside down?

S showed him. Then after a few minutes more.

L: Mom, I’m stopping. This is very hard. I’m trying a triangle instead. This is so hard. I feel like I have it but at the same time I don’t have it.

S: I made a square!

L: She did. Faster than me!

Siena went on to to find the triangle as well. There was quite a bit of persevering on her part.  When she got the triangle, she shrieked with the joy.  I smiled. She was so proud and raced to tell her brother.

As they worked on this dissection puzzle (Puzzle 1) and Puzzle 2 below, they decided to make templates to help them. Siena found the template helpful finding the triangle.

S working on Equilateral Triangle
use 2
L working on T


Problem/Puzzle 2:


screen shot 2019-01-29 at 9.02.28 am

When the T problem says it was frustrating, they weren’t lying. I did end up solving this as we all worked for quite awhile on separate days. My daughter was sitting next to me when I did.  We did a happy dance and raced to tell her brother. Problems like these and puzzles in general are great ways share in and show your children the power of perseverance.

Puzzle 3:

The third puzzle was The Penny Puzzle. We had a few sets of the coins arranged on the kitchen counter and my son, daughter and husband worked along side each other. It was a beautiful thing to see my husband problem solving with them. It made me wonder how many opportunities parents have to problem solve in front of their children.  This book provides opportunities for that.


screen shot 2019-01-29 at 9.08.38 am


Recently, mathematics educator Sunil Singh tweeted his own math book stack to highlight title differences between curricular and non-curriculum math books. Notice Pappas’ books in the middle and Funville Adventures, which we wrote about here. If the words Sunil circled in these titles do not describe your students’ and children’s mathematical experiences, I hope you’ll show them there is a different kind of math out there. A math that can be discovered by reading and exploring magical books. Magical math books like The Joy of Mathematics. And if you need help with suggestions, I’m happy to help if I can.


Have a magical math book you’d like share? Please go to the Shared booklist to find out how.  If you’d like to receive these magical math book posts every month, be sure to follow this blog in the side bar of this page.

Thanks and see you next month!  Touch #mathbookmagic, pass it on.

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