The Kitchen Pantry Scientist Math for Kids: An Interview with Rebecca Rapoport and Allanna Chung

The Kitchen Pantry Scientist Math for Kids by Rebecca Rapoport and Allanna Chung, Illustrated by Kelly Anne DaltonThe latest installment in the Kitchen Pantry Scientist series by Quarry Books has perhaps the most underwhelming title for a children’s book I’ve ever come across. Math for Kids does indeed include a wide range of fun and interesting math activities for children, but it pairs each activity with a brief biography of the mathematician who inspired that activity. These biographies are fascinating, profiling mathematicians throughout time and from a wide variety of cultures, countries, and backgrounds. Reminiscent of biographical anthologies such as Bygone Badass Broads by Mackenzie Lee (illustrated by Petra Eriksson) and She the People by Jen Deaderick (illustrated by Rita Sapunor), this book gives kids a peek into the intriguing and complicated lives of mathematicians. 

Along with some well-known historical figures such as Grace Hopper (female rear admiral and promoter of the COBOL programming language) and Florence Nightingale (popularized infographics), there’s J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., a black mathematician who worked on the Manhattan Project and refused to move with the project to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, because he and his family would be subject to discrimination. And Maryam Mirzakhani, who was both the first woman and first Iranian to win the Fields Medal. And Ron Graham, who not only investigated the mathematics of magic but was also a talented juggler and trampoline champion with a connection to the authors. 

To find out more about this unusual and understated book, I went straight to the authors, mother-daughter team Rebecca Rapoport and Allanna Chung, who are long-time friends of mine.

Illustration and biography of mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani

Dianna Sanchez: What prompted you to write this book? And why pair biography with activity?

Rebecca Rapoport: Quarry Books published my first book, Math Games Lab for Kids (cowritten with J.A. Yoder). Looking through their catalog, I came across the Kitchen Pantry Scientist series created by Liz Lee Heinecke, and I immediately thought they should do a math book. I pitched it to them, and they agreed almost instantly. 

We changed the format slightly. Science concepts are pretty familiar to kids from school, but the math we put in our book is all the fun stuff they never teach you in school. We had to include more explanation of the cool math concepts and simplify the instructions for young children, which took up more space than the publisher expected. Unfortunately, this meant we had to reduce the number of biographies to 22, down from the series standard of 25. 

In my first book, we started with math activities I’d already developed or been working on. This time, we started with the mathematicians, and that meant having to discard some of the projects (and biographies) we’d wanted to do.

Allanna Chung: Also, we had to aim our bios at kids, which meant leaving some things out, such as high-level math even we don’t fully understand and some more emotionally challenging biographical material.

As a recent high school graduate and a tutor at many levels, I’ve encountered so many kids who don’t think they like math. They don’t understand that it’s not just a ladder you have to climb, it’s a beautiful branching tree that you can wander through and play with. I spent an hour-long tutoring session explaining some of these concepts to one of my students, and she developed a whole new perspective on math, becoming fascinated by fractals. Graph theory and statistics are other things kids can easily get into.

RR: The idea that calculus should be the end point of math education is really a historical accident. It’s just one branch of many.

DS: Rebecca, you’ve previously written another math activity book, and you and your husband, Dean Chung, also a mathematician, produce Mathematics: Your Daily Epsilon of Math, an annual calendar of daily math problems. What draws you to writing about mathematics? 

RR: I come from a family of writers and teachers. Although I was drawn to math and have a master’s degree in mathematics, I developed good writing skills thanks to my mother, who taught me grammar through elementary school. Then eventually I turned to my dad and said, “You’re the journalist, you teach me.” Which he did, and he’s done the same with Allanna. 

AC: I love commas. We’re working on that.

RR: I’m interested in math education. I was co-owner of a STEAM education company, Einstein’s Workshop, when I was approached by Quarto Books to do Math Games Lab for Kids. And then a colleague at Quarto Group, the parent company of Quarry Books, came to us because she was interested in commissioning a daily math calendar after the previous writer of a similar calendar retired. Last year, the Quarto Group discontinued all their calendars, so we partnered with the American Mathematical Society to continue producing it.

DS: Allanna, this will be your first published book. At 18 years old, that’s quite an accomplishment. How did you get involved with this project?

AC: I’m primarily a fiction writer. I enjoy writing difficult, complex topics for readers. I finished cowriting a novel when I was fifteen. While that was never published, it demonstrated to my mom that I was able to perservere through to the end of a long writing project, so she asked me for help with this one.

RR: Allanna is also very good at math.

AC: And I tutor math a lot now, too. I thought this was the perfect challenge – it’s not comfortable non-fiction, it’s explaining difficult concepts in a way that kids will understand and enjoy.

DS: As you both know, I also have a teenaged daughter who is also a writer, and I cannot imagine collaborating with her. We’d drive each other insane! How did the two of you work together? Did you divide up the work and each do your own thing, or did you collaborate closely?

RR: I thought it would be a good project to work on together instead of the usual contentious last high school years before Allanna goes off to college.

AC: It wasn’t an easy decision. Cowriting is notoriously disastrous. We figured out ways to work together, and it was really amazing. I advocate for collaborations like this because instead of just having two views, mine and hers, we got a third perspective on the book, which was both of us together, compromising and brainstorming and adjusting.

RR: We went about our work very differently. I started with activities I already knew well and then modified them and found good mathematicians to profile in conjunction with them. But Allanna made up almost all her projects. 

AC: It was great for writer’s block because we’d go to each other for help or trade bios or projects if we got stuck.

RR: One or two bios got seriously edited. Allanna would write the bio, but then I’d rewrite it because I knew more about those particular mathematicans. On the other hand, Allanna having less math experience pushed for simpler language that would be easier for a young audience to understand.

DS: How did you choose the mathematicians portrayed in this book, out of all the many mathematicians throughout history? I noticed that your mathematicians come from a wide array of backgrounds: male and female, white, black, Chinese, Iranian, Egyptian, and so on. Did you deliberately try to select diverse people to portray?

AC: As a mixed-race person, I’ve struggled to find historical figures to relate to. I want kids to see people they identify with doing amazing things. I also wanted to shine a light on people whose work was historically credited to white males. Gertrude Mary Cox, for example, was running the Statistics Laboratory at Iowa State College. The president of North Carolina State College wrote to her department head, asking him to recommend people as potential professors for North Carolina State. When Cox saw that he had made a list of five men, she asked why she hadn’t been included. He didn’t add her to the list but recommended her specifically, saying, “If you would consider a woman, I know of no one better qualified than Gertrude M. Cox.” Not only was Cox hired, she became head of the department.

RR: We felt Cox’s story was an especially good one for young girls who are often socialized not to ask for things. I learned early in my career that you very rarely get what you don’t ask for. We did try very hard to select a diverse group of mathematicians, and to demonstrate that the general perception that math is done by old white men is false. It’s just that work by more diverse mathematicians is rarely reported or celebrated. That said, the last person we added was Martin Gardner, another white male. But his work was so instrumental that we felt we really had to include him. There were so many other mathematicians we wanted to include. On my Twitter account, I celebrate the anniversaries of the births and deaths of important mathematicians by posting brief bios and related math problems.

DS: You have two direct family connections to people in your book: Fan Chung, who is one of the foremost female mathematicians in the world today and who is Allanna’s grandmother; and Ron Graham, Fan’s husband and Allanna’s step-grandfather, who recently died. What was it like to write biographies about people you know so intimately?

RR: When Allanna was little, I took her to the Boston Museum of Science, and in the math section, there was a poster showing modern mathematicians, where Allanna found a picture of her grandmother. She was so excited! As we left the museum later that day, a stranger asked Allanna what her favorite thing in the museum was, and she told her about the poster. 

What was really interesting is that we learned things about both Fan and Ron that we hadn’t known before. For example, Ron had worked with NASA on the Apollo moon landing. They were worried about the precise scheduling and were concerned they’d missed something or miscalculated. He did a worst case analysis for them and determined they were within 2% of optimal conditions. I had never heard that story!

Fabulous Folding Flexagons math activity

DS: You’ve worked a lot with children and extensively tested the activities before you published them. What were some of the challenges that arose when you tested them?

AC: The projects ran pretty smoothly. It just so happens that my siblings (12 and 8) are the perfect ages to test our activities out on. I also asked some of my tutoring clients to test the activities. And sometimes we’d come up with easier ways to do things. For example, for our project on probability, we found that it was easier to do the activity with playing cards – just shuffle and pick a random card.

RR: To be fair, many projects didn’t survive their first encounters with our testers. But we never threw anything out, we just edited, revised, and rebuilt.

DS: Rebecca, you mentioned being delighted with the illustrations by Kelly Anne Dalton. How much input did you have into the process of creating those illustrations, and did your family members have any input on their own portraits?

RR: We love our illustrator! She did the illustrations for the previous books in the series so we had already seen her work. We specifically requested that she do the illustrations for our book too. She asked for pictures of the mathematicians; we gave her drafts of the bios and sometimes pictures relevant to their work. We contacted many of the mathematicians still living and family members of those who have died, and they were quite gracious and helpful. Maryam Mirzakhani’s widower loved the illustration of Maryam. Kelly Ann did a lot of her own research and added in little easter eggs. For example, she added ping pong paddles to the illustration of J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. because he was a table tennis champion!

DS: Do you have any plans for future books? 

RR: The book I’ve always wanted to write is an introduction to higher math for high school students and adults. There’s a vast amount of cool math that’s completely accessible that’s never taught in schools: graph theory, number theory, etc. My first book was a simplified version of this concept aimed at elementary school students. Hmm… but I never thought of putting biographical information in the high school book. That could be interesting.

Math for Kids will be released on September 27, 2022, but if you pre-order now, you’ll receive a free poster with all the illustrations of the mathematicians in the book, a great addition to any classroom, library, or bedroom wall.

Photo of Rebecca RapoportRebecca Rapoport holds degrees in mathematics from Harvard University and Michigan State. From her first job out of college, as one of the pioneers of Harvard’s Internet education offerings, she has been passionate about encouraging her love for math in others. As an early contributor to both retail giant Amazon.com and Akamai Technologies, the number one firm in cloud computing, Rapoport played a key role in several elements of the Internet revolution. She then returned to her first love, education, as an innovator of new methods to introduce children and adults to the critically important world of STEAM education as COO of an enrichment center dedicated to helping kids explore the creative side of science, technology, engineering, art, and math, and is currently developing and teaching innovative math curricula in the Boston area. She has an Erdös number of 2. Learn more at DailyEpsilon.com.

Photo of Allanna Chung, co-author of Math for KidsAllanna Chung is an aspiring screenwriter with a deep passion for math. One of her favorite pastimes is to show just how fun and beautiful math can be to those who have learned to dislike it. She works as a teacher of STEM and as a personal tutor to help students learn math in ways that work for them.


Portrait of Dianna SanchezDianna Sanchez is the author of the Enchanted Kitchen series, including A Witch’s Kitchen, A Pixie’s Promise, and An Elf’s Equations. A Hispanic geek originally from New Mexico, she now lives in the Boston area with her husband and two daughters. Learn more at www.diannasanchez.com.

3 comments

  1. Wow, I HAVE to get this for my almost-ten-year-old son. He loves math, I love (and write) nonfiction biographies, and I think we will have oodles of fun with this one.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s