A Fun Universal Language for Kids
By Lu Yu-Shiou (Editor) ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver
Jan 16, 2024

Mathematics is probably the most despised and misunderstood subject among elementary school students. It’s the “most despised” because as far as kids are concerned, it’s just solving problems over and over again, and it’s the “most misunderstood” because it’s always equated with numbers and formulas.

A Source of Inspiration: Math Problems in Japanese Shrines

Author Lai I-Wei discovered the answer to this conundrum while on a trip to Japan. Japanese shrines have a culture of mathematics that goes back several centuries. There used to be mathematicians who traveled across the country drawing elaborate calculations on ema (small wooden plaques) and presenting them as offerings to the gods. This made him realize that he could actually reverse how children dislike and misunderstand math by getting them to interact with the cities they live in, both in the present and by looking at the cities’ long histories.

By looking at the various metropolises he’d visited and their architectural histories, Lai managed to unearth how math can shape the character of a city. Take Barcelona for example, which you could say was the most mathematical city. The neatly arranged octagonal buildings of manzana and Avinguda Diagonal in the Eixample district weren’t the result of a sudden flash of inspiration by passionate Spaniards, but the work of the rational architect Ildefons Cerdà who used math to overturn the discrimination and injustice of the Old Town.

The same thing happened in Paris, Kyoto, and London. These cities used to represent filth, riots, danger, disease, and get-rich-quick schemes, but through mathematics they have become the charming and livable global metropolises that they are today.

The Creative Challenge: Balancing History and Math

Although the history and mathematics of these cities were both very interesting, it was a challenge to strike a balance between them and make it relatable to children who had never traveled abroad. We decided to start with the history of each city and how its appearance is widely recognized today, then look back at the various problems it had in the past and use these contrasts to create a sense of fun and disbelief. How has the city changed so much? It turns out, it’s math! We ended each chapter with a short story about history and math. For example in Paris, we looked at how Napoleon wasn’t just a politician, he was also a mathematician which is why the math of the city became so integral and balanced.

“Is this really math though?” was the most common question I kept asking Lai as I read about the mathematics behind each city. I think I had a deep-rooted negative impression of math, but editing this book was like taking a math class all over again. It turned out that math could be demonstrated through curves, colors, shapes, time, religion, medicine, and all sorts of other elements, so I stopped obsessing over this need to include more numbers and formulas in the book just to conform with this this so-called idea of mathematics.

This diversity was also great at sparking creative inspiration for illustrator Chen Wan-Yun. In addition to math that needed to be present in the book, there were written words that didn’t look like math and there wasn’t any stereotypical math in there, instead the illustrations were filled with more room for imagination. Chen created her illustrations directly from the feelings she had while reading the text, which frequently produced the best results.

Not Just Numbers: The Benefits for Young Readers

Many cities around the world have such long histories that even local residents struggle to grasp the whole picture. The hope is that this book can make residents and visitors not only appreciate the city as it currently is, but also learn why and how it has changed throughout history.

City planning isn’t just a huge mathematical puzzle, it’s also tied to the planners’ heartfelt desire to make the place where they reside more thoughtful and livable. By including his own city, Taipei, at the very end of the book, Lai hopes that it’ll make young Taiwan readers care more about where they live, or even be inspired by other cities around the world to make their hometown better.

Math isn’t actually that difficult after all. Anyone who understands numbers and mathematical symbols can communicate with each other across different countries and ethnicities, just as Lai was able to understand the ema by the ancient mathematicians despite not knowing Japanese. By the end of the book, not only is Lai already looking for math in other fields such as art, science, and technology among others, but also anticipates that this common language will help children realize once again just how fun these subjects can be.