The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity

“Stories can be windows, but also mirrors.”Jacqueline Woodson

The book featured below holds a special place in my heart. I’m thrilled to finally share it here. But first, a bit about my personal connection to the story.

Five and a half years ago, I applied to The Laura Crawford Mentorship with a picture book manuscript about Fiona, a fairy longing to swim in the sea, and Mira, a mermaid wishing for wings. You probably see where this is going. Their wishes come true, they switch places, and in the end realize the seaweed/grass isn’t always greener.

Opening the email announcing the winner, my heart hummed with anticipation. The winner of the Laura Crawford Mentorship is Chicagoan….

Amy Alznauer.

My heart sunk. Not me. I read on.

Amy’s winning manuscript is the picture book biography THE BOY WHO KNEW INFINITY which captures in lyrical prose the creative spirit and thirst for knowledge of a little known South Indian life-changing mathematician with whom young readers will instantly connect.

I gaped at my computer screen. The winning manuscript’s about Ramanujan and math?! Wait. What?!   I instantly connected to the story and hadn’t even read a page.  Transfixed, I reread the description of Amy’s story. My heart beat deepened. It was if I was looking into a mirror at my own dream.  I want to do that too.  I want to write math stories. 

And with that dream, this blog was born.  As you can see, this post is BIG for me and I’m certain is my longest post, so be warned. I owe a lot to Amy and her story. Since then, I’ve met Amy, and we’ve become dear friends and writing allies. Last year, I blinked back tears as I read her entire manuscript the first time. It’s MAGNIFICENT!  I’m over-joyed to share this dream-filled, magical story with you all!

The Book

Amy Alzauner has been holding Ramujuan’s story in her heart since childhood. In 1976, a 5 year old Amy traveled with her mathematician father, George Andrews, to England. During that visit, Andrews unearthed Ramanujan’s lost notebook in Wren Library in Cambridge.  Alznauer created this video describing the backstory. 

The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity

Published in April 2020 by Candlewick, The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan tells the story of Indian mathematician Ramanujan as a boy through young adulthood.  I’d recommend the book for ages 6 and up. Here’s the description from inside the jacket cover: 

In 1887 in India, a boy named Ramanujan is born with a passion for numbers. He sees numbers in the squares of light pricking his thatched roof and in the beasts dancing on the temple tower. He writes mathematics with his finger in the sand, across the pages of his notebooks, and with chalk on the temple floor. “What is small?” he wonders. “What is big?” Head in the clouds, Ramanujan struggles in school — but his mother knows that her son and his ideas have a purpose. As he grows up, Ramanujan reinvents much of modern mathematics, but where in the world could he find someone to understand what he has conceived? [From jacket flap of The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity]

Alznauer’s reverence for Ramanujan and his mathematics shines through in this lyrical picture book biography.  The author artfully weaves rich mathematical questions into her story of Ramanujan, a boy with a curiosity and passion for numbers that glows from deep within. 

Speaking of glowing, let’s talk Daniel Miyares’ illustrations.  Miyares brings the magic with his dreamy, lush, layered watercolor illustrations.  Here’s how Miyares described his connection to this project. 

“Numbers haunted Ramanujan in his dreams. He couldn’t get away from thinking about them and how to find new life within them. That is how I feel about drawing and painting. Once I realized that, then it was a passion project for me. And I am so grateful. I think about visual storying telling differently because of this book.” [Source: Daniel Miyares, from Amyalz website]

Below are two of my favorite illustrations from the book. The book opens with:

Screen Shot 2020-08-01 at 7.28.51 AM
Image: Credit Daniel Mirayes, from Amazon website’s “Look inside” pages

How gorgeous is that!

My favorite spread from this book is Mirayes’ playful image of a joyous Ramanujan dreaming of numbers and mathematics as he tries “to catch the golden thoughts” and write them down. [I apologize for cell phone image. Doesn’t do the artwork justice.]

IMG_1122
From the Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity

Some might recognize the nod to 1729, the famous taxicab number, or what is called a Hardy-Ramanujan number. Here’s the famous story, as told by Hardy, about where taxicab numbers got their name (source: Wikipedia).

I remember once going to see him [Ramanujan] when he was lying ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxi-cab No. 1729, and remarked that the number seemed to be rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavourable omen. “No,” he replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two [positive] cubes in two different ways.”

 

With this book, you get it all. Rich story-telling, exquisite artwork and… MATH! 

The Math

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was a fascinating Indian mathematician who, despite a lack of formal training in pure mathematics, made substantial contributions to the areas of mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. 

The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity poses mathematical questions, problems, and puzzles  sprung from Ramanujan’s interests: prime numbers, magic squares, partitions and sums of numbers, infinity and infinite sums.  Alznauer expertly connects mathematics to concrete experiences for children and reimagines how Ramanujan might have seen the world: 

A mango . . . is just one thing. But if I chop it in two, then chop the half in two, and keep on chopping, I get more and more bits, on and on, endlessly, to an infinity I could never ever reach. (From The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity)

Additional ways for children to connect to Ramanujan’s mathematics are offered on the author’s website.

This book provides a beautiful image of what it means to do mathematics and embodies the idea introduced by mathematician Francis Su that mathematics is for human flourishing. In addition to introducing different mathematical objects and problems, The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity is the story of a child and young adult tirelessly persevering to do what he loved, share his ideas, and to be heard and understood. 

The Magic

I read the book first with my son Liam (10.5 years). Noting Ramanujan’s interest in primes, Liam was inspired to explore and make his own list of prime numbers.

Next I read the book to my daughter Siena (8 years). She asked with wonder  “Is it real?” [She asked a similar question about a Katherine Johnson book.]  After reading, I asked,  “Is there anything you wonder after hearing his story?”

“I have the same… I know what he’s talking about. Because I write math that not that many people know, what I do, from the pictures. So maybe the math I write is what he writes too.” (Siena)

Wow. I wasn’t expecting that reaction.  My heart melted with empathy for her and for all children yearning and struggling to share and explain their ideas. I loved that she connected to Ramanujan’s story in this way. 

I read the book one more time during a physically distanced math meeting I hosted in my backyard for my 10 year old son and five other rising 5th graders. After reading the book,  I posed a task and asked the children to describe what they noticed about different numbers displayed visually.   (Task from a lesson in Mindset Mathematics (Grade 4), Boaler, Munson and Williams). Here’s the image of the number six from that task.  

Screen Shot 2020-08-01 at 8.28.19 AM
Image from an activity in Mindset Mathematics (Boaler et al.), Activity inspired by the work of Brent Vorgey

Liam eagerly raised his hand to share. “I see there are two triangles. One, two.”

Before I could ask him to explain his idea another boy in the group shouted out, “That’s wrong! There aren’t two triangles. There aren’t even sides. You need sides for a triangle.”

Liam’s face reddened, he looked down at his paper, tears welling up.  “I know. But IF there were…” His voice trailed off. 

UGH. His discomfort was palpable. My mama heart was about to break. In the moment, wanting to spare him further embarrassment, I didn’t press him to explain (which I later regretted). After the meeting, Liam and I talked. First we talked about his idea. He explained it to me. Here is a picture of his “two triangles”.

Screen Shot 2020-08-03 at 10.12.14 AM

I told him that made a lot of sense and I asked him why he didn’t say that when he was challenged. He shrugged. Then I asked him what he thought about the rest of the meeting. 

“I really liked how you read that book. Because it was like me. No one understood Ramanujan and they didn’t understand my idea today either. It’s the same.”

I swallowed hard and replied, “You’re right. It was like that. You have good ideas Liam. Keep sharing them.”

And so, for our family, the magical ingredient in The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity was connection.  Both my children saw themselves in Ramanujan and his struggle to be understood.  Here’s one last image from the book. Ramanujan is staring out into the sea, waiting to be heard, waiting to be understood. 

“We are all crying out to be understood.”  ( Simone Weil)

IMG_1124
From The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity

 

I hope you will read The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity and find your own magic. For those interested in learning more about this book, the author will be presenting virtually for MoMath on August 14, 2020 (and second event TBD with her father), to find out more go here. Thanks to the generous support of Two Sigma, this program is free to attendees. 

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

 

 

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