Sprinkles reviews mathematical biographies for children (the Mathematical Lives series) by Robert Black

Sprinkles reviews the Mathematical Lives series by Robert Black. From left to right: Pascal and Fermat: The Probability Pen Pals (2019), Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Diagrams (2019), David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019), Ada Lovelace: Programming the Future (2020), Benoit Mandelbrot: Reshaping the World (2021), and Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies (2022).

Last summer Sprinkles got a hold of a few mathematical biographies, written by Robert Black and published by a small publisher focusing on the homeschooling and educational enrichment market named Royal Fireworks Press. She was planning to at least skim through the books herself before sharing them with the younger bunnies of the household, but once she began reading, she could not put them down. She ended up reading all the books pretty fast, and earlier this year, when she learned that the series had a sixth book, she decided to read that too. In this review, she writes about the whole series, sharing her thoughts on what young bunnies might get out of them (quick hint: a lot!). She also explains why curious adult bunnies might want to read these books, too, whether they like math or not. The quick summary is that the books show us very clearly that people who come up with some of the most fanciful and powerful mathematical theories are all human, with human challenges, human dilemmas, human desires and concerns. And their mathematics is much more interesting in the context of their lives.

Read on for the long version.

Sprinkles reviews the Mathematical Lives series by Robert Black. From left to right: Pascal and Fermat: The Probability Pen Pals (2019), Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Diagrams (2019), David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019), Ada Lovelace: Programming the Future (2020), Benoit Mandelbrot: Reshaping the World (2021),  and Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies (2022).
Sprinkles reviews the Mathematical Lives series by Robert Black. From left to right: Pascal and Fermat: The Probability Pen Pals (2019), Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Diagrams (2019), David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019), Ada Lovelace: Programming the Future (2020), Benoit Mandelbrot: Reshaping the World (2021), and Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies (2022).

Mathematics is a common topic of discussion in the book bunnies household, and the book bunnies have reviewed many mathematical books written for children for the book bunnies blog. I have personally reviewed Women Who Count: Honoring African American Women Mathematicians by Shelly M. Jones as well as several books written about Ada Lovelace. More generally, you can check out all posts we published that are tagged “math“. So when I got a hold of a neat collection of mathematical biographies, written by Robert Black, that are aimed for a young but curious audience, I thought I could write a review of them all for the blog, too. After all, the young bunnies have been complaining nonstop about how I have not reviewed anything for a long time now.

So in this review, I’m talking about Robert Black’s Mathematical Lives series, currently composed of six books: Pascal and Fermat: The Probability Pen Pals (2019), Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Diagrams (2019), David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019), Ada Lovelace: Programming the Future (2020), Benoit Mandelbrot: Reshaping the World (2021), and Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies (2022). Most of these names are not household names. One might wonder why the author chose these particular people to write about. (I will get to that at the end of this review.) Even though I had heard of all six of them, and reviewed several books written about one of them, in most of the cases, I did not know the specifics of the lives and achievements of these people. And reading these books, I learned a lot. A lot of mathematics as well as a lot of interesting facts about the lives of six fascinating people.

Let me begin with the first book I read from the series: Pascal and Fermat: The Probability Pen Pals (2019). This is the story of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) and Pierre de Fermat (1607-1665), and how through letters, they developed the foundational concepts of modern probability theory.

The book, like all the others in the series, is divided into ten short chapters. We start with Blaise Pascal, more specifically his family. The author portrays the general setting in which Blaise finds himself, both historically and culturally. Along the way, we learn of the specifics of a question a friend asks Blaise about gambling that gets the ball rolling and leads eventually to the correspondence between Blaise and Pierre de Fermat that in turn leads the two, Blaise and Pierre, to the modern constructs of probability.

The math is sprinkled here and there, always written in an accessible manner, in digestible chunks. The author is writing for a young but curious audience and it seems to me that he knows well how to keep them interested, how to zero in on the crux of the issue at hand, and how to impart significant amount of math accurately all the while keeping things still manageable.

The ten chapters of the book also include a solid narrative on Fermat’s own life story, and the stories of several other mathematicians whose ideas and earlier attempts formed the background to the mathematics the main characters of the book ended up extending, enhancing, and building upon. The author is especially skilled at making connections and finding contexts for the math he is talking about that would be comprehensible to a young bunny, or a curious adult bunny.

Next let me tell you a bit about Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Diagrams (2019). This is the story of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the lady with the lamp, as she was called by many who wanted to remember her role in modernizing the world of nursing (and along with it, updating the whole medical establishment of her times) during and after her service as part of the British corps of nurses in the Crimean War of 1853-1856. In this book we learn about her other (but related) heritage: the statistical work she did to bring attention to the many challenges of hospital care during the war.

After a short prologue that quickly brings the reader up to speed about the general outlines of Nightingale’s life and how her work related to the modernization of nursing (“The Lady with the Lamp”), the book starts with a chapter titled “Misfit in an English Lady’s World”. We learn about Florence as a young girl, her family background, and the general societal expectations from a young woman of her upbringing. We follow Florence as she grows up, learn more about her interests and concerns, and eventually, arrive at the path that takes her to the military hospital in Scutari (today’s Üsküdar, which English-speaking folks might know from this rendition of a classic Turkish song by Eartha Kitt).

Soon math, or more specifically statistics, comes up as Florence looks for a way to help the data tell the right story about the problems she has observed during the war time: how poor sanitary conditions were leading to significant loss of life and how certain standards of care could improve the situation. Florence develops novel and creative visualization methods that finally allow her to tell the whole story clearly to the public as well as the folks in power who can, and eventually do, make the necessary changes.

The math content of this book, just like in all the other books in the series, is distributed among many chapters, showing up in digestible chunks. Some of this content is directly related to what Florence herself did, and some of it is provided as background for the reader to understand how her work fits in with the main history of the development of the field. All in all, the reader gains a solid understanding of the life and times of Florence Nightingale, as well as her significant mathematical contributions, all within about a hundred pages. The book, just like all the other books in the series, concludes with an appendix titled “Doing the Math”, where the author offers some concrete problems for the interested readers to play with and take their understanding further.

The third book from Black’s Mathematical Lives series that I read was David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019). David Blackwell (1919-2010) was a mathematician who made significant contributions to game theory, probability theory, information theory, and statistics. He was a brilliant theory builder as well as a problem solver, a great communicator as well as an educator.

David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019) is organized in a way similar to all the other books in the series. The life story of David Blackwell is intertwined organically with some of the most curious problems that Blackwell worked on and the theories he made significant advances in. We learn about the mathematical study of games, and duels in particular, which Blackwell thought deeply and productively about. We also learn about Bayesian probability theory, which approaches the problems of probability in the background context of what we know and what we believe. These topics could get very hairy and pretty incomprehensible very quickly, but the author skillfully manages to give us exactly what we need to get a a general sense of the theories, only focusing on a handful of concrete situations that clearly display the mathematics without making things too complicated.

David Blackwell had an illustrious career, spanning several decades, and today he is remembered as a brilliant mathematician. There is a well-known theorem and an annual award named after him. However, his story also reflects many instances of how things were a lot more difficult for a black person in the United States, no matter how brilliant. Robert Black, the author, does not shy away from this dimension of Blackwell’s life story, and I believe that young bunnies will be able to appreciate Blackwell’s achievements even more, given this background.

All books in the series include a “For Further Reading” section at the end, right after the “Doing the Math” appendix. In David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019), this section includes a link to a video recording of a special lecture Blackwell gave many years ago titled “Predicting at Random”. The link provided did not work for me, but luckily, I was able to find it at https://www.maa.org/david-blackwell-predicting-at-random. If you are at all interested in seeing this great mathematician in his element, sharing some math he likes with a wider audience and doing a great job with it, check it out. But even if you are not such a math fan, the book is worth reading, as it tells a unique tale, involving math, sure, but also a whole lot of humanity. A crisp snapshot of the whole twentieth century comes along as a bonus.

Incidentally this book made it to the 2021 Honors List of the Mathical Book Prize. I’d say this was well deserved!

I approached Ada Lovelace: Programming the Future (2020), Black’s book about Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the woman who is today recognized as the first computer programmer in the world, with some unease. I read a lot about Ada Lovelace. And as I mentioned above, I have reviewed several books about her written for a younger audience. I have also read a lot of books about her written for a more mature audience. In short, I already knew a lot about her and her work, so I was wary. I was also a bit worried that I would find something I did not agree with in Black’s presentation, something that would not sound right to me, and that would taint my positive opinion of his meticulous work, which so far seemed to me to be not only accessible and engaging but also mathematically accurate to a surprising level (I say “surprising” because it is often really difficult to explain sophisticated technical content to a young audience, and Black has done an outstanding job with it).

Let me quickly say that my concerns were unwarranted. I liked the book a lot. Black does an excellent job telling the story of Ada, as well as the technical work she contributed to. The many mathematical ideas presented in the book are accurately described, and Black does not withhold from his reader the historical debate about exactly what parts of the work credited to her actually belongs t0 Ada. All in all this is a well-written, well-balanced account of Ada Lovelace and her achievements.

Once again Black develops the life story of his main character within the broader historical, cultural, and social context of her time. The mathematical context is presented clearly as well. Black is also an excellent storyteller. Even though I knew almost everything in the book (having already read over thirty books on Lovelace myself), I enjoyed reading it page by page, line by line, eagerly looking forward to seeing how he would tie things up.

The fifth book in Robert Black’s Mathematical Lives series is Benoit Mandelbrot: Reshaping the World (2021). The book tells the story of Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010), who is known as the father of fractals. Even if you have not engaged with theoretical mathematics in the past, you must have seen or heard of fractals. Even Elsa mentions them in her famous song “Let It Go”.

Here is the amazing fractal called the Mandelbrot set (named after the guy this particular book is about, because he is the one who discovered its construction and explored some of its complex features):

Mandelbrot sequence new.gif
Public Domain image from Wikipedia, from Link

You can read more about the Mandelbrot set here. But let us get back to the book.

We start with a prologue as always. This one is titled “Clouds Are Not Spheres”, a quote from Mandelbrot himself, whose work offers us an alternative way to think about the world around us, different from the standard one we are taught at school geometry classes, with their emphasis on Euclidean geometry (triangles, circles, spheres, and so on). The prologue whets our appetite, but as usual, the first chapter begins with the childhood of young Benoit and his early life with his family. We travel with the Mandelbrots as they move from one place to another, trying to find a place that is safe for their Jewish family (which, given the time period, was exceptionally difficult to do in Europe). We see Benoit thrive mathematically nonetheless.

The mathematics incorporated into this book, as I expected after having read the previous four books, reflects its main character, and is as eclectic as the person who created said mathematics. One of Mandelbrot’s main strengths seems to have been bringing together seemingly disparate ideas and seeing the connections between them in the form of certain simple rules describing complex systems. And the disparate ideas he brought together are really diverse. The book tells a fascinating story, and shows us some of the connections Mandelbrot does make, and overall, Benoit Mandelbrot: Reshaping the World is a very satisfying read.

The most recent book in Black’s Mathematical Lives series is Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies (2022), which is about Edward Lorenz (1917-2008). Some of the adult bunnies reading this review might know that his name is closely associated with that of Benoit Mandelbrot from the previous book. The longer story is told exquisitely in a 1989 book which has now become a classic Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. But the shorter story, as told in the two volumes by Black, is still fascinating.

Lorenz and Mandelbrot did not really work together, but their work complements one another. Lorenz began in the world of meteorology and his explorations to understand and predict weather patterns took him from computer modeling to the more general exploration of dynamical systems which are extremely sensitive to changing initial conditions. He discovered various contexts where simple tweaks on the settings of a given system led to drastically different behavior. This in turn led him to the theory of chaos.

Black once again tells his story within a completely developed context. We read about Edward Lorenz, and his childhood days. We read about how he found his way into meteorology, and how his interest in weather modeling was influenced by the Second World War. We learn about other pioneers of weather modeling and how Lorenz built upon their work. And here and there, we get a good number of glimpses into the actual math involved.

Sprinkles thinks that the books in the Mathematical Lives series by Robert Black make for excellent reading, both for young bunnies and the adult ones. From left to right: Pascal and Fermat: The Probability Pen Pals (2019), Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Diagrams (2019), David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019), Ada Lovelace: Programming the Future (2020), Benoit Mandelbrot: Reshaping the World (2021),  and Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies (2022).
Sprinkles thinks that the books in the Mathematical Lives series by Robert Black make for excellent reading, both for young bunnies and the adult ones. From left to right: Pascal and Fermat: The Probability Pen Pals (2019), Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Diagrams (2019), David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019), Ada Lovelace: Programming the Future (2020), Benoit Mandelbrot: Reshaping the World (2021), and Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies (2022).

Overall I think that each of the books in the Mathematical Lives series by Robert Black make for excellent reading, both for young bunnies and the adult ones. Young readers should probably already be somewhat curious about math to be able to get much out of the books, but once they are interested enough to pick up a book about “some guy who seems to have done some neat math” or “some lady who apparently did some cool math”, these books will definitely carry them along all the way to the end. They are well written and engaging enough to keep the reader’s attention, for sure.

Now for the adults: I am not sure anyone who is not already somewhat curious about math or mathematicians would be picking up a book of this sort, but I wish they would. These books show that math is not a stuffy subject, that math is alive, and that the people who create it, who live their lives filled with it, are fully human, with human challenges and human concerns. The historical, cultural, and the social contextualization provided in each of the books also allows us to see where we are today and how we got here from where the characters of the book were when they lived. Furthermore, the books make so many concrete connections with the real world that it is almost impossible for anyone to say math is a useless game of pure abstractions.

In some ways, these concrete connections may be a bit disturbing. War plays a significant role in the lives and the mathematics of at least three of the mathematicians in these books: Florence Nightingale in Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Diagrams (2019), David Blackwell in David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019), and Edward Lorenz in Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies (2022). (Especially in Lorenz’s story, we read about some pretty terrible war acts though Lorenz himself is not directly connected to them in any way whatsoever.) War also shows up in Ada Lovelace: Programming the Future (2020), when Alan Turing and the story of the breaking of the Enigma code come up, and in Benoit Mandelbrot: Reshaping the World (2021), when we see how significantly the Second World War impacted Mandelbrot.

But I still very much appreciated reading each and every one of these books. The war connections did not undermine the achievements of these amazing people for me. The problems they solved, they believed they were solving to help humanity. And for the thrill, the curiosity, the challenge of the problems themselves, which is itself such a human thing! (Of course it should also be acknowledged that mathematicians and others who work in problem-solving oriented disciplines like engineering and technology should always keep in mind to what use their efforts are being put to.)

In the end what is my answer to my original question of why the author might have chosen to focus on these six people? Without actually asking the author himself, my answer would merely be a conjecture, but here it goes: I think the author is writing about people and mathematics that he himself finds interesting and important. I am saying this because while reading these six books, I could distinctly sense the tangible, genuine interest of the author in his characters, as well as his fascination and excitement about the math he was writing about.

Also mathematically there are common themes among the works of the mathematicians in these six books. In each book, the math never stands alone; there are always clear real-world connections, both in the origins and the eventual applications of the problems they involve. And the author’s focus on these connections make the books and the math extremely engaging. The probability theory first developed by Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat described in Pascal and Fermat: The Probability Pen Pals (2019) finds its fruits in some of the statistical work done by Florence Nightingale in Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Diagrams (2019), and the game theory and probabilistic modeling done by David Blackwell in David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel (2019). The theories of computation that Ada Lovelace’s work is a natural foundation for as described in Ada Lovelace: Programming the Future (2020) eventually allow Benoit Mandelbrot in Benoit Mandelbrot: Reshaping the World (2021) and Edward Lorenz in Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies (2022) to see patterns and emergent phenomena that could not be easily seen without computers.

I recommend these six books to anyone willing to check them out, with no reservations, and with the strongest enthusiasm. You will learn some cool math, you will meet some very interesting people, and you will understand our current world so much better.

Sprinkles reviews children’s books on gender identity

This week Sprinkles reviews a few books about gender identity written for children.

Marshmallow and Caramel have been complaining that Sprinkles has not written a post since last Halloween (when she had reviewed a handful of children’s books about zombies). So she decided to write another one before the anniversary of that post came around. This is the post that resulted.

This week Sprinkles reviews a few books about gender identity written for children, with a nod to the International Pronouns Day, which was just this past Wednesday.

Sprinkles reviews children's books on gender identity.
Sprinkles reviews children’s books on gender identity.

There have been a range of children’s books about gender identity written recently. In this post I would like to share some of my thoughts about eight of them: Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love; Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall; Neither by Airlie Anderson; Pink Is For Boys written by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Eda Kaban; The Gender Wheel by Maya Gonzalez; Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity, written by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff; It Feels Good To Be Yourself, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni; and They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez.

I begin with a review of a handful of them that aim to emphasize the point that being different is alright, and there is a place for all of us in this world.

Sprinkles is posing with four books that emphasize that being different is okay: Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love, Red: A Crayon's Story by Michael Hall, Neither by Airlie Anderson, and Pink Is For Boys written by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Eda Kaban.
Sprinkles is posing with four books that emphasize that being different is okay: Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love, Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall, Neither by Airlie Anderson, and Pink Is For Boys written by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Eda Kaban.

In Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love we meet a little boy named Julián who wants to dress up as a mermaid. He finds acceptance in an unexpected place. The book ends as a celebration of differences. The colors of the book are pastel and lively at the same time, inviting us to Julián’s beautiful world.

Sprinkles is reading Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love.
Sprinkles is reading Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love.

In Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall, we meet a little crayon who is blue but is in a red covering paper. He has a difficult time at the start trying to fit in. But in the end he finds that he can be who he is, and life is good again. The color scheme used is simple and reminded me a bit of the book series about crayons by Drew Daywalt. (Caramel reviewed The Crayons’ Christmas, the third book of that series, for our blog.) The illustrations are not intricate but they do exactly what they are meant to and give us a sense of this crayon’s inner world and the world around him as well.

Sprinkles is reading Red: A Crayon's Story by Michael Hall.
Sprinkles is reading Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall.

In Neither by Airlie Anderson, we learn of a land of This or That, where every creature has to be this or that, and when there is an individual who does not fit either, they are mocked and excluded from the two groups formed around being This and being That. Eventually we see our outcast, who sees themself as a Both but is called Neither by the two groups, finds themself in a land where they are accepted, along with everyone else. The colors are bright and cheery, and the little creatures are simply drawn but pretty cute.

Sprinkles is reading Neither by Airlie Anderson.
Sprinkles is reading Neither by Airlie Anderson.

All three books remind me a bit of a fascinating little book Caramel reviewed a while ago for this blog: From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea by Kai Cheng Thom. That book had a dreamy atmosphere, and the main character was a child though magically different from others. Julián from Julián Is A Mermaid is also a little child, and I can see a little boy being comforted by reading about him and his dream of being a mermaid coming true. In some ways though, Neither and Red: A Crayon’s Story might be easier for parents who want to broach the subject of being different without explicitly bringing up gender identity. It is easy to identify the perceived and assumed boy-girl gender binary underlying the stratification of the land of This and That in Neither, though it is never explicitly stated. Similarly, the Blue Crayon in Red: A Crayon’s Story is also suffering from his peers’ expectations about how he should behave given what he looks like, but there is no explicit discussion of boyhood or girlhood.

On the other hand, Pink Is For Boys, written by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Eda Kaban, brings up the boy-girl binary right up front. The main point here is that boys can like pink just like girls can like blue. Similarly boys can enjoy bows on dresses and girls can like baseball. The binary is not really questioned here, but instead, children are told that the boundaries of the two categories are porous in many ways, that boys and girls can enjoy all sorts of things and still be themselves.

Sprinkles poses with Pink Is For Boys, written by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Eda Kaban.
Sprinkles poses with Pink Is For Boys, written by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Eda Kaban.

The first three books I described above were stories and could easily be viewed as fictional, though obviously the authors were writing with a particular goal and an intended moral. The fourth book was more an advice book, a nonfiction text that openly tells the child reading it (or being read to) what to think about the topic.

The next four books fit this mold as well. They are more like an adult talking to a child who is maybe a bit concerned about being different or simply curious about gender identity, even if they may not be asking explicitly to talk about the topic.

Sprinkles is posing with four books that explain pronouns and gender identity to children: The Gender Wheel by Maya Gonzalez, Who Are You? The Kid's Guide to Gender Identity, written by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff, It Feels Good To Be Yourself, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni, and They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez.
Sprinkles is posing with four books that explain pronouns and gender identity to children (and possibly also the adults who are reading with them): The Gender Wheel by Maya Gonzalez, Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity, written by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff, It Feels Good To Be Yourself, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni, and They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez.

Let me start with They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez. Among the four books explicitly about gender identity, this one is perhaps the simplest though definitely not oversimplified. The book starts with page after page of pronouns and pictures of people, and the pictures are pretty amazing.

Sprinkles is reading the page in They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez that display various ways of being a "she".
Sprinkles is reading the pages in They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez that display various ways of being a “she”.

The emphasis of the book is on pronouns, but the main text that starts after the pronoun depictions is quite extensive. Though organized under headings of Pronouns, Freeing Pronouns, Claiming Pronouns, Creating Pronouns, Using Pronouns, and Playing With Pronouns, the text touches upon the uniqueness of each individual, the creative possibilities of pronouns, and the freedom to be who you want to be. Creators of this book share a bit about themselves too and then have a few words for the grownups. They summarize the main goal of this book really well in their personal introduction:

As parents we want our kids to feel fully free to blossom into their maximum magnificence.

They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez

The Gender Wheel is written and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, too. This book is a bit broader in its coverage of gender identity, and is beautifully illustrated, with lyrical language that explores the implications of thinking of the world and our identities as parts of a circle. I loved how the author kept coming back to the circle as a metaphor and a reflection of the world as well as our own inner lives.

However, the book is very U.S. centric, and explicitly asserts that the boy-girl gender binary was brought to North America by European settlers, who had “linear and rigid” beliefs and so they “boxed people in and kept nature out”. Though I sympathize with the author’s perspective, I see it as quite limited in the global context, as the gender binary is alive and well all around the world, without direct need for any seventeenth-century European influences. And though some native peoples of this continent may have had more fluid perceptions of gender than the ones we are living with these days (according to this Berkeley website for example, “more than 150 different pre-colonial Native American tribes acknowledged third genders in their communities”), this was definitely not always as freeing as some might imagine, and may not have meant what we might think it does. (The same website asserts that “By no means did all pre-colonial Native American communities accept or celebrate gender and sexual orientation diversity.”) So I saw this pass at colonialism as an unnecessary distraction.

Sprinkles is reading The Gender Wheel by Maya Gonzalez.
Sprinkles is reading The Gender Wheel by Maya Gonzalez.

The gender wheel in the title of the book is extremely useful as a tool however. It is a beautiful way to visualize and understand the complexities of the construct of gender and it allows the reader to be able to distinguish between physical and biological bodies, how one feels inside their body, and how one chooses or needs to engage with the outside world. While scholars of gender studies dig deep into the nuances of their constructs and appreciate all their complexities, for the rest of us these very same intricacies might be barriers in understanding ourselves and our loved ones. Gonzalez and her wheel make the ideas quite transparent and very much easier to understand (and even discuss with young ones in our lives).

A similar idea is used and offered as a tool in Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity, written by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff. This book, too, explicitly describes gender as made up of three layers; these are called Body, Identity, and Expression. (In The Gender Wheel, Gonzalez labels the layers as the body circle, the inside circle, and the pronoun circle.) Having read the two books together, I now find both sets of labels making a lot more sense to me. Unfortunately it seems that the latter book (Who Are You?) does not acknowledge the source of their own wheel construction, and as a result, it is highly likely that this is a case of plagiarism (see Maya Gonzalez’s blog post about the issue here.)

The illustrations in Who Are You? are in some ways a bit less whimsical than those in The Gender Wheel, which definitely reflects its creator’s particular style (as also seen in her book with Matthew Smith-Gonzalez, They, She, He, Me: Free To Be!). But they are definitely not boring or unattractive. Actually they occasionally reminded me very much of the style of the If You Give … series written by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond, and could sufficiently capture a young reader’s attention.

Sprinkles poses with a copy of Who Are You? The Kid's Guide to Gender Identity, written by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff.
Sprinkles poses with a copy of Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity, written by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff.

Who Are You? also comes with a few pages of advice for the adult reader. I think the author makes the (probably correct) assumption that an adult who shares this book with a young person will likely want to have as much support and ideas for resources as they can. So there are resources about how to use the wheel tool provided, how to engage with particular parts of the book with a young person, and where to find other resources (books and films) that can help support a conversation with a young person exploring these issues.

Finally let me say a few words about It Feels Good To Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni.

Sprinkles is posing with It Feels Good To Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni.
Sprinkles is posing with It Feels Good To Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni.

It Feels Good To Be Yourself introduces the reader to a few different children who have different gender identities and sexual expressions. Terms like “transgender” and “non-binary” are explicitly defined in child-friendly language, and the book depicts all gender identity-related difference positively and ends with the main moral:

No matter what your gender identity is, you are okay exactly the way you are. And you are loved.

It Feels Good To Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni.

This book too ends with some followup resource suggestions. And the color scheme in the book reminded me a bit of the book I mentioned earlier that Caramel had reviewed: From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea by Kai Cheng Thom. But the listing of different people one by one, and how we all are different but belong together reminded me a bit of Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor.


Having read these eight books, what can I tell the reader who probably already regrets diving into such a long blog post?

First I have to admit I am grateful. I am grateful that our children today have these types of books. I am also grateful that we the parents, too, have access to these types of resources to help support our kids in finding and growing into the people they want to be, despite prejudices and oppressive social models of being a boy / man or a girl / woman in the world. I have found each and every one of the books I mentioned in this post to be helpful, and I think there are little people out there that could very much benefit from reading any of them.

Secondly I think these books would be great conversation starters, with all young people. If your child is not comfortable with the gender binary and its impositions on their life, then pick up one or more of these books and let them read it and then discuss. Or why not curl onto a couch or into a bed together and read them together? Depending on how you usually choose to broach various issues with your little one, there is definitely a book out there that will open the right communication channels for you.

Even if your child is already comfortable in their gender identity, it makes sense to bring these books and topics up for conversation. Sometimes children can be rigid adopters of social assumptions without questioning, and their reactions and comments can be hurtful to other people. If you want to raise children who are open-minded and flexible, and who can respect and love people of all ways of being, then these topics do belong, if not at your dining table (and then again why not there?) then definitely somewhere.

Finally I will add that Caramel told me his two favorites among these were Red: A Crayon’s Story, by Michael Hall, and Neither, by Airlie Anderson. I can see how the less openly didactic texts might be easier to share with young ones. At some point, though, especially for the slightly older crowd, the books with more explicit discussion of gender identity might be more appropriate. These books can easily introduce these growing readers to the correct terms and constructs to think about, understand, and express their own gender identities as well as to learn about other people around them.

Sprinkles enjoyed and very much appreciated reading each one of these eight books (Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love; Red: A Crayon's Story by Michael Hall; Neither by Airlie Anderson; Pink Is For Boys written by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Eda Kaban; The Gender Wheel by Maya Gonzalez; Who Are You? The Kid's Guide to Gender Identity, written by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff; It Feels Good To Be Yourself, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni; and They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez), and thinks that there is definitely at least one book among these that will work for you and your little one.
Sprinkles enjoyed and very much appreciated reading each one of these eight books (Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love; Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall; Neither by Airlie Anderson; Pink Is For Boys written by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Eda Kaban; The Gender Wheel by Maya Gonzalez; Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity, written by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff; It Feels Good To Be Yourself, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni; and They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez), and thinks that there is definitely at least one book among these that will work for you and your little one.

Sprinkles reviews children’s books about zombies

Given that it is Halloween in the United States today, the book bunnies thought about doing something different. Today Sprinkles reviews a handful of children’s books about zombies! VERY SCARY!! And to be honest not all of these are appropriate for children, even though they are published in a children’s book format. But hey, it is Halloween, and we’ve got to try to be scary, right? So here goes.

Sprinkles reviews children's books about zombies.
Sprinkles reviews children’s books about zombies.

As adult bunnies go, I am pretty much a scaredy cat. I do not much enjoy horror movies or novels or short stories. I avoid the genre altogether if I can. Zombies are the one exception. I find them fascinating. From its historical Caribbean and possibly African origins, to the intriguing role it plays in the philosophy of the mind, the zombie is not merely a popular culture icon with a pathological obsession for human brains, but in my opinion an enduring concept that raises significant questions about what it means to be human.

The little bunnies in our household do not yet share my fascination with zombies. However, this has not stopped me from collecting through the years a handful of zombie books that at least seem to be intended for young readers. In this post, I will share my candid opinion about these five books: That’s Not Your Mommy Anymore: A Zombie Tale by Matt Mogk and Aja Wells, The Girl’s Guide to Zombies: Everything Vital about These Undead Monsters by Jen Jones, Zombies Hate Stuff by Greg Stone, Ten Little Zombies: A Love Story by Andy Rash, and Pat the Zombie: A Cruel Spoof by Aaron Ximm and Kaveh Soofi.

Sprinkles is reading That's Not Your Mommy Anymore: A Zombie Tale by Matt Mogk and Aja Wells: "If she doesn't seem like she did before, Maybe that's not your mommy anymore."
Sprinkles is reading That’s Not Your Mommy Anymore: A Zombie Tale by Matt Mogk and Aja Wells: “If she doesn’t seem like she did before, Maybe that’s not your mommy anymore.”

Let me begin with That’s Not Your Mommy Anymore: A Zombie Tale by Matt Mogk and Aja Wells. This is a book written in rhyme and starts sweet:

Mommy has the kindest eyes.
Mommy likes to bake you pies.

And then something happens to mommy and she is transformed into the scary zombie from the standard zombie movies. We do not see how she is infected, but we discover with the boy, how she becomes a mindless zombie. The book is a picture book really, but the pictures get gorier and more disturbing on each page. Reading this with young bunnies could possibly be traumatizing; especially if the child is already worried occasionally about losing a parent, it would be probably parental malpractice to read it to them. However if you have a young bunny who finds horror fascinating, they might actually enjoy this little gem. Otherwise this is likely more appropriate for the teenage crowd who might have fond memories of having read rhyming picture books but also have a budding interest in zombies and other gory stuff.

Sprinkles is taking the "Which Type of Zombie Are You?" quiz in The Girl's Guide to Zombies: Everything Vital about These Undead Monsters by Jen Jones.
Sprinkles is taking the “Which Type of Zombie Are You?” quiz in The Girl’s Guide to Zombies: Everything Vital about These Undead Monsters by Jen Jones.

Next on my list is The Girl’s Guide to Zombies: Everything Vital about These Undead Monsters by Jen Jones. This is a slim hardcover book published in the Girls’ Guides to Everything Unexplained series, which contains books on vampires, werewolves, and wizards. This one is full of pop culture references (though some, like the one about Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, might be somewhat too old for contemporary readers), and offers a lot of information about zombies both in history and in the media. As most books directed at girls assume girls like quizzes, this one, too, has a quiz: Which Type of Zombie Are You? To make sure you are a human, you apparently need to like geometry and California (I am good with both of those!) and strawberry lip gloss (not sure about this one…) All in all, though, this one would really be suitable for the age group it seems to be intended for: the young reader who wants to know what the fuss is about these things called zombies.

Sprinkles is reading Zombies Hate Stuff by Greg Stone; apparently zombies hate giant purple monsters and penguins.
Sprinkles is reading Zombies Hate Stuff by Greg Stone; apparently zombies hate giant purple monsters and penguins.

Next up is Zombies Hate Stuff by Greg Stone. Readers of this blog might recall that Caramel has already reviewed a book by Greg Stone: Penguins Hate Stuff. Zombies Hate Stuff is a book in exactly the same spirit. Each page has a detailed illustration and a simple word or phrase which describes something else that zombies hate. We learn for example that zombies hate sheep, re-gifting, cliffs, and archery, but they do not mind wigs, celery, teddy bears and Canadians. Zombies Hate Stuff is, just like the penguin book, good for quite a few chuckles. Each illustration is simple yet carefully thought out, and you might find a new page more interesting to you than the others every time you open up the book. The book is likely not directly aimed toward young readers, but seeing how Caramel enjoyed Penguins Hate Stuff, I can see how young ones who like horror stuff even in small doses might also enjoy this one, which adds a good deal of humor into the mix.

Sprinkles poses with Ten Little Zombies: A Love Story by Andy Rash, and Pat the Zombie: A Cruel Spoof by Aaron Ximm and Kaveh Soofi.
Sprinkles poses with Ten Little Zombies: A Love Story by Andy Rash, and Pat the Zombie: A Cruel Spoof by Aaron Ximm and Kaveh Soofi.

Finally let me say a few words about Ten Little Zombies: A Love Story, by Andy Rash, and Pat the Zombie: A Cruel Spoof, by Aaron Ximm and Kaveh Soofi. These two are modeled after a well-known children’s rhyme in the case of Ten Little Zombies (I first heard about it while reading a novel by Agatha Christie; readers might want to follow the evolution of this rhyme in the relevant Wikipedia article) and a well-known children’s book in the case of Pat the Zombie.

The Ten Little Zombies follows the steps of the Ten Little Soldier Boys. Just as that poem is itself quite gory, the book is quite bloody and would likely not be great for really young bunnies. As you read further, the story gets more and more violent, but the end surprises the reader with a sweet twist. So even though zombies and blood and gore are all over this little book, I still smile when I think about it. Among the five books I’m reviewing here, this book is my favorite. I can see The Ten Little Zombies be appreciated by middle grade readers and older bunnies who are not terribly offended by gore and blood but also find love in the midst of gore at least somewhat endearing.

Now Pat the Zombie is another story. My best guess is that readers who grew up with Pat the Bunny, the 1940 touch-and-feel classic, are the main target audience of this book. Apparently there have been other parodies of the book: Wikipedia mentions “Pat the Politician, mocking contemporary political figures, and Pat the Yuppie, which includes activities like touching the sheepskin seatcovers of their new BMW and rubbing the exposed brick of their new condominium’s wall.” This is a good parody, and a cruel one, as the subtitle “A Cruel Spoof” implies. All standard parts of the original Pat the Bunny are here, there is a zombie bunny, Pat, and the two children start by touching it (or rather “gutting” it, as the book suggests). And step by step, we learn that the parents are also zombies, and things get closer and closer to the reader, as the reader eventually needs to read a survival manual and scream. So yes, this is definitely not for little ones, unless the little ones involved have a morbid sense of humor. But horror fans who can appreciate some cheekiness and who are open to messing around with their own pleasant childhood memories of reading the original Pat the Bunny with a loved adult might find this book amusing. It is really well done, but definitely only for its own audience.

Alright, now here we are, having talked about five zombie books published for children or at least published in the format of standard children’s books. Some of you may wonder about just who writes or publishes these kinds of books. And others might wonder why people even read them. But I will end this review with a full endorsement of cheeky adult humor messing with children’s books. As long as we always know our own children’s boundaries and resist the temptation to share some of these books with them unless we are sure they can handle them, these types of books can offer us a fresh memory of our own childhood mixed with some good load of laughter. (I even pushed away some happy tears with The Ten Little Zombies, I must admit. But then again I am a softie.) Some little bunnies will find some of these books really entertaining, and The Girl’s Guide to Zombies: Everything Vital about These Undead Monsters by Jen Jones is indeed perfectly suitable for the 8-12 year old crowd, so there is that, too.

Oh, and yes, Happy Halloween everyone! May you only be spooked by made-up monsters!

Happy Halloween, with cats! Image from http://wordofsean.blogspot.com/2015/10/blog-update-5-halloween-november-event.html.
Happy Halloween, with cats! Image from http://wordofsean.blogspot.com/2015/10/blog-update-5-halloween-november-event.html.

Sprinkles reviews children’s books about Barack Obama

As the United States is approaching another presidential election, Sprinkles thought that it could be a good idea to review children’s books about a recent president: President Barack Obama. Here Sprinkles shares her candid opinions on five books about him, with the goal of informing parents of young bunnies. Perhaps other young bunnies (and their parents too) will find one or more of these books worth the read to learn from and get inspired by.

Sprinkles writes about Who Is Barack Obama? by Roberta Edwards and John O'Brien, President Barack Obama by A.D. Largie and Sabrina Pichardo, Barack Obama by Stephen Krensky, Barack Obama by Caroline Crosson Gilpin, and Barack Obama: Out of Many, One by Shana Corey and James Bernardin.
Sprinkles writes about Who Is Barack Obama? by Roberta Edwards and John O’Brien, President Barack Obama by A.D. Largie and Sabrina Pichardo, Barack Obama by Stephen Krensky, Barack Obama by Caroline Crosson Gilpin, and Barack Obama: Out of Many, One by Shana Corey and James Bernardin.

School-age bunnies often need to find people to write about for school reports. Most of the books I review in this post found their way to the book bunnies household as the younger bunnies were writing reports about their personal heroes, about well-known world leaders, and about past presidents. And occasionally young readers get their paws on books about inspiring people and just read them on their own. The five books I review in this post are all suitable for both kinds of reading goals. If your little one is curious about president Barack Obama, just keep reading to see which of these five books might be the right one for them!

In what follows I organize and present my thoughts in the order of reader level. By that I mean that the youngest bunnies will likely find it easier to read the books I mention first, and the older ones, those that are more independent readers and those that can handle more challenging sentences, might get more details and all around just more out of the books that come up later.

In this photo, Sprinkles organized the books in this review in the order of reader level: President Barack Obama by A.D. Largie and Sabrina Pichardo, Barack Obama by Caroline Crosson Gilpin, Barack Obama: Out of Many, One by Shana Corey and James Bernardin, Who Is Barack Obama? by Roberta Edwards and John O'Brien, and Barack Obama by Stephen Krensky.
In this photo, Sprinkles organized the books in this review in the order of reader level: President Barack Obama by A.D. Largie and Sabrina Pichardo, Barack Obama by Caroline Crosson Gilpin, Barack Obama: Out of Many, One by Shana Corey and James Bernardin, Who Is Barack Obama? by Roberta Edwards and John O’Brien, and Barack Obama by Stephen Krensky.

The first book I will describe for this review is President Barack Obama, written by A. D. Largie and illustrated by Sabrina Pichardo. A slim and mid-size paperback, this book is aimed at younger readers. It can be read out loud, as there is some basic rhyme built into the text on each page. I wished that some of this rhyming was made more visible by formatting of the text or by punctuation. For example the text “Barack Obama proved that you can can (sic) do anything that you believe as long as you hope for the best and focus you can achieve.” would be easier to read if it were written more visibly in two lines and / or with more punctuation:

Barack Obama proved that you can do anything that you believe,
As long as you hope for the best and focus, you can achieve.

Still, a parent used to reading books out loud for their little ones will probably figure out the rhythm soon enough.

There was also a small factual error in the book. Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1996, and to the United States Senate in 2004. But again it is not a big enough deal; a parent can easily correct it while reading.

Despite these two minor issues, I would say that this can be a good book to teach young ones about President Obama. A part of a “Boys Grow Up To Be Heroes” book series, the book emphasizes that Obama was teased for his name when he was young but he persevered; he worked hard on his classes and on building community; and he wanted to bring people of many differences together. And after all that, he was the first black president! This can certainly be an inspiring read.

Next, I will describe Caroline Crosson Gilpin’s Barack Obama, published by National Geographic Kids. Rated Level 2 by the publisher, the book is meant for transitional readers who are getting comfortable reading on their own. The font size is large and the pictures are colorful. After a brief introduction starting on January 20, 2009, the day of the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, most of the rest of the book is organized chronologically, and ends the story with a quote from Obama himself:

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”

President Barack Obama

The book ends with a seven-question quiz, and a one-page glossary describing terms like “civil rights lawyer”, “community organizer”, and “multiracial”. All in all, this is a good book, telling the story with just enough details, and besides the facts, you also get a little dose of the inspiration that Obama’s presidency offered for many.

Barack Obama: Out of Many, One, written by Shana Corey and illustrated by James Bernardin, is also aimed toward the same level of readers, I believe. The book’s publisher Random House ranks it “Step 3: Reading on Your Own” and this is still written for the young reader, who is not yet quite ready for the chapter book. President Obama’s story is told in simple and clear language, from the beginning up to the time of writing of the book, during Obama’s second term. We start with:

We all have stories–each and every one of us. This is one of those stories. It is the story of a skinny little boy with a funny name and how he became part of America’s history.

and end along similar lines:

But the story is not complete. In fact it’s just started. Where does your story fit in the American story? You could help your neighbor or your school. You could even grow up to be president! Anything is possible–what happens next is up to you!

The illustrations are appealingly hand-drawn, and are peppered with actual photographic images. My favorite was the last one, right under the words I quoted above, where President Obama is looking at some school kids through a ginormous magnifying glass. And luckily due to copyright laws that say “a work of the U.S. federal government” will be on public domain, I can insert it right here:

United States President Barack Obama visits a pre-kindergarten classroom at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Georgia on 14 February 2013. Source Wikimedia via White House, accessed at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barack_Obama_through_a_magnifying_glass.jpg on September 19, 2020.

Next I will share my thoughts on Who Is Barack Obama? by Roberta Edwards and John O’Brien. This book is clearly directed towards readers who are comfortable with chapter books, as it is one, and at over one hundred pages, it is actually quite an informative read. Its twelve chapters tell a chronological story, with a great many details, including a description of the Democratic nomination process and the competition between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton at the time before the 2008 presidential elections. The author seems to trust that her reader can handle both details and large-picture connections; I always appreciate authors who respect their readers! The book ends with two timelines, one for Obama’s life and the other noting some world events relevant to the narrative of the book.

I believe that this would make an excellent choice for the young reader who is curious to learn about President Obama. Illustrated in simple black and white sketches by John O’Brien, the book tells the story of one of the most inspiring political figures of our times, and situates his story within the wider American context.

The last book I will describe in this review is Stephen Krensky’s Barack Obama. This book also targets a similar audience but perhaps expects a little bit more from the reader. The font size is much smaller, the sentences are a little bit more complex, and the book overall has more the flavor of a historical biography than that of a children’s book. This is not particularly a disadvantage, however, and should definitely not deter any young reader wishing to learn more about the first black president of the United States. The details and the historical conextualization that were strengths for the previous book are also a strength for this one, and the photographic images add a lot to the book’s appeal.

The longest of the books reviewed in this blog post, at 125 pages, Krensky’s Barack Obama is a good text for those young bunnies writing reports or essays about the president, and it can be a good resource for learning more about his life and accomplishments. (Among other things, it contains a neat timeline and several references for further reading and study.) However, it does end on the inauguration day of 2009, and we do not learn much about his accomplishments as the forty-fourth president of the United States. Still, I would recommend it for those bunnies looking to learn more.

Sprinkles thinks that if you or your little ones want to learn about President Barack Obama, there are a lot of great resources out there!
Sprinkles thinks that if you or your little ones want to learn about President Barack Obama, there are a lot of great resources out there!

But perhaps those same young bunnies are up to learn even more about this man? Then I’d urge them and their parents to consider diving into one of Obama’s own books. Many parents will likely think Obama’s 2006 book The Audacity of Hope might be too political (or politically motivated) for their young ones, but his first book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, written in 1995, tells this man’s tale up to that time in lyrical but not overly dramatic language. This is a beautiful coming-of-age story, and it is perhaps uniquely American. Obama tries in it to open up, understand (for himself–and to our benefit), and come to terms with his own multicultural multiracial heritage. It can be a challenging read for preteens, but for tweens and teenagers, it is bound to be inspiring. And I’d say, it can be especially so, knowing that this young man narrating his own story would become the forty-fourth president of the United States in a little less than fifteen years from the end of the book.

After spending all this time reading about books about president Barack Obama written for younger audiences, Sprinkles proposes that you also consider Obama's own book Dreams From My Father as a possible next step.
After spending all this time reading about books about president Barack Obama written for younger audiences, Sprinkles proposes that you also consider Obama’s own book Dreams From My Father as a possible next step.