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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Wallmark

What Would a Picture Book Be Without Pictures?

I hope I never have to find out. For my latest woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) picture book biography, Numbers in Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics, the pictures by Yevgenia Nayberg are an integral part of the book.

Let’s start with the cover. Many children are afraid of math, so they would not be inclined to pick up a book about a mathematician. Yet, Yevgenia Nayberg’s whimsical style pulls them in. Sure, there are equations in the background of the cover. But there’s also a woman spinning a top and looking off to the side. This brings up several questions for children. What does a top have to do with mathematics? What has caught Sophie’s interest that the child can’t see? Is it mathematical or something else? Questions like these pique children’s interest, causing them to open the book.

Once they do, the illustrations serve to amplify the words of the text. For example, on one spread, the words say, “pages and pages of math problems covering her walls from floor to ceiling.” That’s certainly a striking mental picture. But to see the illustration of Sophie in her bedroom surrounded by mathematical equations and functions really brings it home.

On another spread, the text tells the reader that Sophie was “the only woman in her classes.” These words don’t have the same emotional impact as seeing her in a lecture hall surrounded by men.

My favorite spread pictures a low point in Sophie’s life. This is when she finds out that although she had done the original research needed to receive her doctorate, someone else published his findings first. “She had to start over again.” This spread has two pictures. On the left, two men are congratulating the mathematician on his publication. On the right, Sophie, arms crossed across her chest, gives them the stink eye. She knows she has to start over again with a new research problem. Again, the illustration really brings out the emotion of the scene.

The book ends with the text, “Sophie had always known that women plus math added up to a powerful equation. Now the rest of the world knew it, too.” The illustration shows her teaching in a more modern setting, with one student using a laptop. Clearly this is not a realistic portrayal of a mathematics classroom in the 19th century. But it serves to bring the book to the present time, making it relevant to today’s children.

So back to my original question. What would a picture book be without pictures? The answer–so much diminished. It’s this combination of words and illustrations working together that has kids reading (or being read) picture books over and over again.

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