The following review of 2018 Mathical Honor Book Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant by author Songju Ma Daemicke was submitted by Mathical Selection Committee member Betsy Bird.
As many a teacher will tell you, a good way to make mathematics comprehensible to small kids is to place it in a realistic context. Using pizza slices to discuss fractions, say, or fingers for counting. And then, every once in a while, a kid’s gonna want to know how to weigh their elephant. Happens to the best of us. You have a great big elephant and no way of knowing how heavy it is. How to best solve this problem?
In Songju Ma Daemicke and Christina Wald’s downright delightful Cao Chong Weighs and Elephant, the principles of buoyancy and patient pachyderms come into play. There aren’t a lot of child prodigies in history, but Cao Chong is one of the few. Alive during the Han dynasty, the boy genius encounters a unique problem. The prime minister’s elephant is in need of a weighing, but how do you go about it without a scale? In this fictionalized retelling of the story, kids get a front row seat to a sticky situation. Better still, the math of this book isn’t relegated solely to the storyline. Turn to the end of the book and you can take advantage of such back matter as ideas for teachers and parents using inquiry-based learning. There are 30-page Teacher Activity Guides online and even translations in Spanish and Chinese. Rounding out the telling are Wald’s cheery illustrations which ditch the rote, dull art of math books of yesteryear and opt instead for a sleek, engaging entry for kids coming across this material for the first time. The cherry on the top of the cake? Well, in addition to coming in as a Mathical Honor Book, Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant also managed to snag such honors as the NSTA’s Best STEM Book, NSTA’s Outstanding Science Trade Book, and a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People Award to top it all off. Not too shabby for a 2,000+ old tale.
I can say with complete and utter certainty that this won’t be the last picture book you see explaining the principle of buoyancy, but it may well be the best. Now I’m going to let you on a little children’s literary secret here. The bulk of children’s book authors? Yeah, they’re scared of math. I mean it! They’re positively petrified by it. Chalk it up to too many scary math teachers in their youth (and too little Square One television). Historically, people who go into the creative fields of literature and art have a fraught (at worst) or complicated (at best) relationship to the field. This means that the bulk of math books for kids out there are… well… I’m going to level with you. They’re dull. Boring. Stultifying. Their intentions are good but as the great writer Walter de la Mare is often quoted as saying, “Only the rarest kind of best is good enough for the young.” What sets the Mathical Award apart from others is this acknowledgement that you can have great math AND great literature in one book. And that’s what we’re seeing here in Cao Chong. It’s more than just the book’s good intentions, which it wears on its sleeve unapologetically, but also the writing (which is actually interesting to kids), the art (which the review journal Kirkus described as “lush… with royal characters in long robes and bejeweled crowns”), AND there’s an interesting math concept at work. My confusion isn’t why this story became a book with kids. My confusion is why it has never been a book for kids before!
For the mini mathematically minded and their elephant-loving kin.
Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant
By Songju Ma Daemicke, illustrated by Christina Wald
Arbordale Publishing, 2017
2018 Mathical Honor Book, Grades K-2
Mathical selection committee member Elizabeth Bird is the collection development manager at the Evanston Public Library system, former youth materials specialist at the New York Public Library, and reviewer for Kirkus and The New York Times.