Sprinkles reviews children’s books on Ada Lovelace

Sprinkles reviews children’s books about Ada Lovelace and suggests a few other books on women in STEM.

Ever since the launch of the Book Bunnies blog, Sprinkles has been thinking about what she should post here as her first review. Finally she decided to share a review she had written about several books on Ada Lovelace for a different outlet. Below is a revised version of what first appeared as “Reading About Ada: Children’s Edition” in the Association for Women in Mathematics Newsletter (Volume 49 Number 1 (January-February 2019), pages 9-13). This is long and will be the only post for July 2019; the book bunnies will be back with new reviews in August 2019.

A black-and-white woodcut-style portrait of Ada Lovelace, based on the nineteenth century A. E. Chaton portrait, created by Colin Adams for the Ada Initiative.
A black-and-white woodcut-style portrait of Ada Lovelace, based on the nineteenth century A. E. Chaton portrait, created by Colin Adams for the Ada Initiative , Creative Commons licensed Public Domain image available at
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ada_Lovelace.svg

We’re living at a time of many opportunities for people who can code. Today children of privilege begin playing with computers as toddlers. Attempts at leveling the playing field can involve coding camps as well as more traditional STEM-focused enrichment activities. Yet the computer science and engineering workforce remains heavily male-dominated. So proponents of women in STEM grasp at any loose end they can find to help alleviate the dearth of female role models. This is why we’re seeing book after book written about Ada, the first woman who wrote a computer program. And she is not only the first woman who did that, but actually the first person ever. A neat win for the Girls Team!

I completely empathize with this desire to share Ada’s story with younger people. And more generally I’m always on the lookout for books that can open up worlds of opportunity for girls of all ages. Hence I appreciated the opportunity to review several recent books on Ada written for the under-ten age group. The first three books I read belong to special series of books intended to encourage children to learn more about scientists and innovators and their contributions:

Ada Lovelace by Virginia Loh-Hagan (my itty-bitty bio) (illustrated by Jeff Bane)

Ada Lovelace and Computer Algorithms by Ellen Labrecque (Women Innovators: 21st Century Junior Library)

Programming Pioneer Ada Lovelace by Valerie Bodden (STEM trailblazer BIOS)

Sprinkles writes about Ada Lovelace by Virginia Loh-Hagan, Ada Lovelace and Computer Algorithms by Ellen Labrecque, and Programming Pioneer Ada Lovelace by Valerie Bodden.
Sprinkles writes about Ada Lovelace by Virginia Loh-Hagan, Ada Lovelace and Computer Algorithms by Ellen Labrecque, and Programming Pioneer Ada Lovelace by Valerie Bodden.

Loh-Hagan’s book is for the youngest in the crowd. The book is narrated through Ada’s perspective and the plain Ada illustration on the cover appears throughout; there is also a range of images from Ada’s life. Though reading a sentence such as “I died in 1852” feels weird, the open-ended questions throughout try to connect the child reading the book (or being read to) to Ada’s story. Though the story is much simplified, perhaps to the extent of not being com- pletely accurate (Ada Lovelace didn’t “invent” the first computer program, she “wrote” it, and Charles Babbage didn’t “invent the computer” as his work didn’t connect with the actual historical development of computers), it is told in an age- appropriate way to inspire and intrigue.

Labrecque’s book presents itself in a similar vein. Printed in a very large font, it could be read out loud with a new reader, and the occasional prompts to the reader sprinkled throughout can make this reading session more fun and engaging. This book goes into more detail about Ada and her contributions, and the reader is offered a clearer idea of what her life’s work was about. Several color photos and images accompany the text and enrich the reading experience. A few follow-up resources and activities are suggested, and I could see an enthusiastic parent or summer camp instructor turning the book into a cool afternoon full of learning and fun.

At 28+ pages Bodden’s is a book one could (or should!) find in any school library. This hardcover chapter book would be a neat resource for elementary school students trying to learn about Ada and her contributions; it could also be a great story to share with that special shy niece interested in mathy stuff. Many images throughout bring Ada’s story to life. The section titled “Thinking Like a Man” openly brings up gender issues and could make a good conversation starter for pre-teens. This, I believe, is the most detailed and accurate account of Ada’s story for the under-ten crowd.

Next are larger-format storybook-style books on Ada. Each of these would be great to read to or together with a young child; their beautiful illustrations will add much joy to the experience.

Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer written and illustrated by Fiona Robinson

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark (illustrated by April Chu)

Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? The Story of Ada Lovelace by Tanya Lee Stone (illustrated by Marjorie Priceman)

Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer by Diane Stanley (illustrated by Jessie Hartland)

Sprinkles writes about Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer by Fiona Robinson, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark, Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? The Story of Ada Lovelace by Tanya Lee Stone, and Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer by Diane Stanley.
Sprinkles writes about Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer by Fiona Robinson, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark, Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? The Story of Ada Lovelace by Tanya Lee Stone, and Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer by Diane Stanley.

None of these goes beyond Bodden’s Programming Pioneer Ada Lovelace in terms of technical details, but the technical details that are included are dispensed in perfectly digestible amounts. This makes the books not only fun to read but also intellectually stimulating. Interestingly, they all seem to be fascinated by nine-year-old Ada’s efforts to design and construct a flying machine; this plays an important role in each of the four books. The sheer beauty of illustration in each book also makes these great gifts for young children and the adults who enjoy reading with them. The expert illustrations range from the realistic (in Wallmark and Chu’s Thinking Machine) to the whimsical (Stone and Priceman’s Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers?). Most play with the contrast of the poet’s imagination with the mathematician’s strict discipline, and all successfully combine the two in the end.

But what to do with that special little person who read several of these books and wants to know more about Ada? Here let me tell you one thing: Whatever you do, don’t jump into any random book about Ada with your youngster, without first reading it yourself (or skimming over my review of it in the next issue). Otherwise you just might find yourself, like I did, in some very awkward territory, where you need to either explain, or explain away, or simply skip through large portions of exposition, which go beyond PG-13. Yes, Ada’s life is inspiring to children, but it also contains a lot of messy bits for the adults.

Indeed, it saddens me to acknowledge that children only get to hear part of Ada’s story. Ada’s life is complex, and as you immediately discover when you dig into the juicy details, she certainly didn’t do everything right. She was ambitious and confident. She had vision and she had sass. She was also the person who wrote the very first computer program. But Ada is an ideal role model for more than just the above. Yes, she was brilliant. But she was also a failed genius, and this time, she is on our team. Except for her gender, Ada’s story resembles the stories of any of those wild geniuses appreciated not only for their achievements but also for their larger-than-life personalities. And how many such stories do we have with female protagonists? How many others like her can you count? A female genius, who was brimming with potential and yet was mostly misunderstood and unappreciated during her time? An extraordinary figure, one who saw farther than her peers, one who basically squandered her voluminous talents because she was just interested in way too many disparate things?

The standard simplified Ada story tells us that she was a genius who wrote the first computer program. A similarly simplified story could tell us alternatively that she ended up doing nothing impactful, that her work and that of Charles was not what led to today’s computers, so that overall, she was a failure. Another simplified story could badmouth her mothering, her wifely skills, and her “loose attitude” with other men and tell us a tale of immorality in the grandeur of Victorian England. (Valerie Aurora in her amazing talk explores these different stories about Ada and encourages us to accept the complexities of her life instead of trying to fit her into a straitjacket.)

The story most people would choose to tell their children is the first one. However, for those children ready to take on a more complex persona and engage with her fully, some grownup books might help. The one I’d recommend for people who might also enjoy reading along to learn some of the math Ada was engaged in is Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin, and Adrian Rice. The authors are historians of mathematics and computer science and have dug deep into the archives and brought us a mathematically rich and yet a most readable account of Ada.

But maybe you don’t want to go there. Then, why not expand your little ones’ horizons and introduce them to other amazing women? Here are three of my other favorites if you want a break from Ada:

Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe (illustrated by Barbara McClintock) – about Sophie Germain

The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague by Julia Finley Mosca (illustrated by Daniel Rieley) – about Raye Montague

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker (illustrated by Dow Phumiruk) – about Katherine Johnson

Sprinkles also recommends Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe, The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague by Julia Finley Mosca, and Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker.
Sprinkles also recommends Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe, The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague by Julia Finley Mosca, and Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker.

And for neat collections of short bios, you will not go wrong with either of the two volumes of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo; if you’re especially rooting for math, don’t miss the second volume, with its portrayal of Maryam Mirzakhani.

Caramel reviews Life on the Infinite Farm by Richard Evan Schwartz

Caramel has been reading a very colorful math book recently. Below he talks about what he thinks about this book, Life on the Infinite Farm by Richard Evan Schwartz. As usual Sprinkles is taking notes and asking followup questions.

Caramel reviews Life on the Infinite Farm by Richard Evan Schwartz.
Caramel reviews Life on the Infinite Farm by Richard Evan Schwartz.

Sprinkles: So Caramel, what is this book about?

Caramel: It’s about infinite stuff. There are infinite animals.

S: Do you mean to say there are infinitely many animals?

C: No. I mean there are animals with infinitely many things, like infinitely many feet. There is a cow with infinitely many feet, and she loves shoes! There’s also an infinite sheep, and an infinite donkey, and an infinite gopher. Oh and there’s an infinite shark named Nelson. Guess what he can do?

S: Hmm, I don’t know. What can Nelson do?

C: He has infinitely many teeth. And wait, I’ll find it.

“Nelson is a shark whose head extends in both directions. [His] head can swing open like a door in some places.”

Isn’t it kind of creepy Sprinkles?

Caramel is pointing toward Nelson's scary (and infinite) teeth.
Caramel is pointing toward Nelson’s scary (and infinite) teeth.

S: Hmm, yes, kind of. But it also looks like he’s smiling, friendly like. No?

C: I’m not so sure. Anyway in this farm chickens have teeth too!

S: Interesting! So what else happens in this farm?

C: There is a pond and a crater and these are infinite from the inside but look finite from the outside. They are “enclosed infinite spaces”. Whatever that means.

S: It is kind of confusing, isn’t it?

C: Very!

S: Yes infinity is a confusing concept. But it is also a fascinating one. There are so many strange things happening in this farm, right? Don’t you find them fascinating?

C: Yes. I keep finding new parts of the book to read.

S: Yes, this is not a short book. And it is not quite a book to be read in one sitting, is it?

C: No, not always.

S: How do you read it then?

C: I pick it up every now and then, and read a few pages. I find new and strange things every time. But once in a while I do read the whole book. And then I read it again some other time.

S: So you have read the whole book?

C: Yep.

S: So how does it end? What happens in the end?

C: In the end the book answers the question:

“Can we VISIT the infinite farm?”

S: So can we? Can we visit it?

C: Anybody can. But they have to read the book to visit it. The farm is the book.

S: And you might find more of it in other geometry books, perhaps?

C: Yes!

S: Would you like to live in the infinite farm?

C: Nope.

S: Why not?

C: Because I’m fine being finite.

S: But are you really finite Caramel? You have a big imagination, don’t you?

C: Yes, my imagination goes on forever.

S: That’s some kind of infinity too, no?

C: Yep I suppose so.

S: Do you think this is a good place to end our review?

C: Yes! Let me say my last words as usual: Stay tuned for more reviews from the Book Bunnies!

Caramel enjoys reading and rereading bits and pieces of Life on the Infinite Farm by Richard Evan Schwartz.
Caramel enjoys reading and rereading bits and pieces of Life on the Infinite Farm by Richard Evan Schwartz.

Marshmallow reviews Funville Adventures by A.O. Fradkin and A.B. Bishop

Marshmallow reviews a recent book published by the good folks at Natural Math: Funville Adventures by A.O. Fradkin and A.B. Bishop.

Marhsmallow reviews Funville Adventures by by A.O. Fradkin and A.B. Bishop.
Marhsmallow reviews Funville Adventures by by A.O. Fradkin and A.B. Bishop.

Marshmallow’s quick take: If you like books that are secretly about math, then Funville Adventures might be the book for you. It is basically an adventure book about a sister and a brother, so that, too, might be of interest to some readers. 

Marshmallow’s Summary (with spoilers): When an evil slide (yes, an evil slide) kidnaps the fourth grader Emmy and her five-year-old little brother Leo, they find themselves in a world full of what I will call Mathamagic.

The evil slide and Marshmallow stare at each other! Marshmallow is thinking of trying not to fall down the slide...
The evil slide and Marshmallow stare at each other! Marshmallow is thinking of trying not to fall down the slide…

In this world, called Funville, they first meet two people named Harvey and Doug. Together they play Hide-And-Go-Seek in a very unusual way. While playing, they find out that the people in this world have super powers. Harvey’s power is to halve objects in size and Doug’s power is to double objects in size. Then they go and eat lunch with Harvey and Doug’s friend Blake. Blake’s power is to erase and clean stuff. Blake applies his power on Emmy’s notebook and the outcome is not very good. 

Emmy and Leo travel through Funville and come across problems. They make new friends and are invited to a birthday party. At the birthday party they recognize some familiar faces that they have met before in the time they have spent at Funville. At the birthday party, they have a good time playing Hot Potato and Musical Chairs, and eating ice cream. As you can expect the games are not the same as they are in our world. Musical Chairs needs a referee because everyone tries to cheat by using their powers. Hot Potato also is a game in which everyone attempts to cheat by either making the potato heavier or doubling the potato and ending up with two potatoes. 

There is a lot more happening in Funville Adventures, but I don’t want to spoil it all for you. Why not just read it yourselves?

Marshmallow’s Review: Funville Adventures is an easy book that you can read quite quickly. It’s a chapter book, more or less, about one hundred pages long, and it is a fun book to read. 

Marshmallow, intently reading Funville Adventures...
Marshmallow, intently reading Funville Adventures

There are no big conflicts, no bad characters trying to hurt the people involved, and once Emmy and Leo find each other, the main story consists of the two of them exploring this new place. As the reader, it is also amusing to try and figure out the math going on. 

Marshmallow’s rating: 90%

Marshmallow rates Funville Adventures by A.O. Fradkin and A.B. Bishop 90%.
Marshmallow rates Funville Adventures by A.O. Fradkin and A.B. Bishop 90%.

Caramel reviews The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat

Caramel always enjoyed reading the Elephant and Piggie books of Mo Willems, and so he was very excited when he saw the book series Elephant and Piggie Like Reading. Below he shares his thoughts on the first book he read from the series: The Cookie Fiasco, by Dan Santat. Sprinkles is taking notes and asking followup questions.

Caramel reviews The Cookies Fiasco by Dan Santat.
Caramel reviews The Cookies Fiasco by Dan Santat.

Sprinkles: Tell me about this book Caramel.

Caramel: This book is about four friends who love cookies, and they have some chocolate chip cookies, but there are only three cookies, and they want to share equally.

S: Who are the four friends?

C: Hippo, Croc, and two squirrels. The hippo is pink and purple, the croc is green, and the squirrels are orange and blue. The book is very colorful. And at the very end there is a cow who joins them.

S: What does this have to do with Elephant and Piggie?

C: They’re reading the book with us. So we see them only at the beginning and at the end of the book. But they are as funny as usual!

S: I agree! And the book actually feels quite similar to the Elephant and Piggie books, right? The back cover and the binding even have the same color scheme and design style… So it’s pretty familiar to someone like you who read so many of the Elephant and Piggie books, right?

C: Right!

S: So how do the four friends resolve the problem?

C: The hippo breaks the cookies in half and then in smaller pieces. Till the three cookies become twelve cookie pieces. And then each friend can get three pieces. That’s fair!

S: Our family could use this trick too, right? If we wanted to share three cookies among the four of us bunnies, then we could split each cookie into four and then each of us could take one piece from each cookie.

C: Yeah! Then we could all eat yummy cookies!

S: Yes! Looking at the book again, is there a character you liked more than others?

C: I liked the crocodile most.

S: Why is that?

C: Because I really like his answer when the others try to get him to give up his share:

-I heard crocodiles do not like cookies.

-Maybe YOU should not get a cookie!

-Huh?! I eat cookies! I love cookies! I could eat a whole plate right now!

And he’s looking really worried on that page. He’s funny!

Caramel is reading one of his favorite pages in The Cookies Fiasco by Dan Santat.
Caramel is reading one of his favorite pages in The Cookies Fiasco by Dan Santat.

S: Yes he is! The whole book is quite fun to read. Do you like reading it with me or do you like to read it alone?

C: It’s always more fun to read with somebody else.

S: Yes! I enjoy reading it with you too. We can make funny voices when we do that, right?

C: Yep! But in the end I always agree with Gerald the Elephant. This book makes me hungry and thirsty! Especially for chocolate chip cookies and some milk!

S: Yes, some cookies and milk would be nice. Maybe this is a good time to end this review. Or we will get hungrier and hungrier.

C: I WANT TO EAT COOKIES NOW!!!

S: Ok, let’s see what we have in the kitchen…

Caramel really enjoyed reading The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and is looking forward to reading other Elephant and Pigggie Like Reading books.
Caramel really enjoyed reading The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and is looking forward to reading other Elephant and Pigggie Like Reading books.