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Blog: The Power of Excellent Illustration

Blog: The Power of Excellent Illustration

Mathematics Comes Alive

Martha the Mathemagician was conceived as a story long before the vision was complete. She, and her companions, came to life with the superb illustrations of Johanna Amos. Jo managed a tightrope between attractive and appealing for children and fascinating and amusing for adults. Here I explore some of those aspects and how it sets off the story in a way that provides a unique way for parents and teachers to enjoy mathematics with children.


If you think of a typical mathematics or numeracy book for younger children, you will think moreoften than not about number or shape. Traditionally the focus of books and teaching materials has been on "anthropomorphising" the numbers or shapes so they are friendly and memorable. There's nothing wrong with that of course, except that the resulting content focuses on an object that is not itself. See that shape or number in its pure state and it is different, and perhaps less friendly.

So we've taken a different approach and one that is much more like traditional storytelling for children. We've created loveable characters who do things in stories - that are driven by mathematics. Here's Martha, Oscar and Martha's grandfather

Aspects to note:

Oscar is accident prone. As the stories progress the sticking plaster cross on him becomes understandable.

Martha, with her friendly face and red shoes, is an ordinary girl. She's not that different to the children around - she just happens to like numbers. Her dress and the calculator tucked in her pocket might not even be noticed at first.

Grandfather is demonstrably a wizard with echoes from many other "wizarding" books... long white beard, magician's hat and cloak and so on. As with Martha, the mathematical operations on his coat are incidental to his role in the story.

Inhabiting a Mathematical World

The other aspect of the Martha stories is that the characters are placed in a magical, mathematical world called Calculation Island. This is slightly surreal world, but a recognisable one from fairy stories and other magical worlds. Here there is a magical and curious house. There are odd and yet familiar plants and animals. And household chores like washing up and making toast take on peculiar properties.

The flora and fauna for example:

Young children know their animals...but now quite like this! They might also notice that he's a skateboarding crocodile though that is not part of the story. 

It's unlikely that children will notice the flora is mathematical too. But adult readers might. Did you? Roman numerals in the reeds?

Adult Amusement

The greatest children's books amuse and uplift the adults who read them with the children they read to or with. We make no claims that these books are among the greats of children's literature. others can be the judge of such things. But we are delighted that Jo has managed to insert little visual jokes for adults and older children like the roman numeral reeds above. There are plenty of them... here's another from Martha in the Medieval Castle:

Perfectly OK to read the book and see a plate of biscuits. But if you know your Set Theory you see something else...


The genius of great children's books is to keep them amused and entertained on reading and rereading. And the truly great ones will provide that same level of amusement and entertainment for the parent or teacher after the cries of "again again" have been given in to.

You might think that's not going to happen with a mathematical story book. But you'd be wrong! 

See more about Martha and her adventures here

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