MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Sticks (2002)
Joan Bauer
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Fifth grader Mickey Vernon gets help from his "math whiz" friend in beating a bully at pool in this novel for children. Some reviewers complained that the plot was slow and that the harping on mathematics too "preachy", but some young readers (and some adults) have enjoyed it and found it to be good advertising for mathematics. For instance, Barbara Montgomery who first brought this book to my attention writes:

Contributed by Barbara Montgomery

Sticks by Joan Bauer is appropriate for ages 10 and over. Mickey Vernon's dream is to be a championship nine-ball player like his father was before he did when Mickey was a baby. Mickey's quest is aided by his best friend Arlen who is a math wiz. Together they realize that the secret of winning is understanding the geometry of angles, vectors and Newton's Laws of Motion. The book also includes an interesting chapter about how understanding basic statistics and probability can help Mickey achieve his dream. This book is an excellent example of mathematics applied to real life situations.

My own opinion is that the proselytization of mathematics is a bit heavy and is likely to turn off some readers. And, on the other hand, the mathematics presented is too light, and not exciting enough to turn on the readers who will be interested in mathematics.

That is not to say that there is nothing I like about the book. The prose itself is well written and the characterization is nice as well. Even as far as the mathematics goes, there are two places where I think it hits the mark. At one point, Arlen (the "math whiz") paraphrases Galilleo's quotation about mathematics being the language of the universe and I think he is able to make a good point later when he remarks later that some pool players (including Mickey's father) can do pool but can't talk about it because they lack the language. Also, the first introduction of mathematics/physics in the form of the rule that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection when a pool ball hits the wall works well.

However, there is a lot more to the mathematics of billiards than this one fact and the notion that mathematics allows communication. I think the book could have been both more interesting and more effective as a promoter of mathematics if this was taken just a bit farther. For example, the term "vector" is introduced, but the power of vectors is not utilized. The thing that makes a vector a vector (as you learn in a good course on linear algebra) is not that it is a line segment, but that they can be scaled and added. These two operations are pretty simple and could easily be explained at the elementary school level. Then, there is a lot more you can do to predict the behavior of billiard balls than simply a single ball bouncing off a wall. With vector addition you can handle many balls moving and colliding and predict the result.

Similarly, I would like to warn readers not to expect too much from the "statistics and probability" that Barbara Montgomery mentions in her comments above. If I understand which part of the book she means, it is merely a reference to the expected lifespan. Mickey should expect to live many more years and so he shouldn't worry, is the basic point. Unfortunately, one doesn't need math to know that a fifth grader should expect to live much longer, and with math one knows that the standard deviation (and not only the mean) is needed to have a good idea of how likely it will be that he will not.

Perhaps I am being unrealistic about what can be achieved in a book for children. (Disclaimer: I am a college professor with training in advanced mathematics. I do not have a degree in childhood education.) However, I cannot help but feel that the book would be better and stronger if the math was taken to the next level.

Another work of fiction that uses billiards to illustrate "real world" applications of mathematics is the popular animated short film Donald in Mathmagic Land.

Also, although this is a much more advanced area of mathematics, I'd also like to point out that billiards forms a branch of pure mathematics as well. In mathematical billiards, one considers the affect of the shape of the "table" on the dynamics of the balls. Although this does not help people play pool better, it has provided some useful information about chaos and quantum physics!

Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com. Amazon.com logo
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Sticks
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Hannah, Divided by Adele Griffin
  2. Pythagoras Eagle & the Music of the Spheres by Anne Carse Nolting
  3. Sophie's Diary by Dora Musielak
  4. The Number Devil (Der Zahlenteufel) by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
  5. Jayden's Rescue by Vladimir Tumanov
  6. Number 9: The Search for the Sigma Code by Cecil Balmond
  7. Lost in Lexicon: An Adventure in Words and Numbers by Pendred Noyce
  8. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
  9. Math Curse by Jon Scieszka / Lane Smith (illustrator)
  10. A Little Mathematician - Katie by Tadashi Miura
Ratings for Sticks:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
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Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)
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Categories:
GenreDidactic, Children's Literature,
MotifMath as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry,
MediumNovels,

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Your Help Needed: Some site visitors remember reading works of mathematical fiction that neither they nor I can identify. It is time to crowdsource this problem and ask for your help! You would help a neighbor find a missing pet...can't you also help a fellow site visitor find some missing works of mathematical fiction? Please take a look and let us know if you have seen these missing stories anywhere!.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)