Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Written by Andrew Clements

Illustrated by Mike Reed

(Simon & Schuster, 2006)

For young children, waiting ten minutes for the cookies to bake can be agonizing. The forty candles on a birthday cake is unimaginable. Picking up fifty-two scattered playing cards after an abandoned game of Go Fish is an arduous task that may require a few breaks before completion. How do they make sense of bigger numbers? How do they understand one million?

Kids do like big numbers. They just need some support in making sense of them. (When I taught math, I often put a dollar sign in front of a larger calculation task. Suddenly, a task that seemed too hard became an exciting challenge for future bankers.)

Popular children’s book author Andrew Clements has decided to give more meaning to larger numbers in A Million Dots, a nonfiction picture book beautifully illustrated by Mike Reed. He starts with one dot, easily overlooked unless pointed out at the center of a page. “One dot is not very many. It’s only one, and that’s just one more than none.” After showing arrays of dots to represent 10, 100, 500 and 1,000, the book takes off on a journey to 1,000,000. Dot grids are superimposed on Reed’s digital illustrations. At the bottom of each page, Clements highlights a numbered dot on the page. With a splash of yellow surrounding a fact box for the number 1,860, he informs us that, “A person must climb 1,860 steps to walk to the top of the Empire State Building.” If you scan the picture, Dot Number 1,860 is circled in yellow.

The dots accumulate from page to page. Some facts are informative. “More than 265,000 different kinds of moths and butterflies live on Earth.” Others are seemingly randomly constructed, but the illustrations complement the contrived fact. “It would take 464,000 school-lunch cartons of chocolate milk to fill a 20-by-40 swimming pool. (Please pass the straws.)” Clements knows what topics will appeal to kids. In addition to chocolate milk, he imagines loading baseballs onto semitrailers, weighing a group of T-rex dinosaurs and hauling cars to junkyards.

As this is an American publication, there are no Metric figures but that is not a major issue. The book is intended to give children some sense of seemingly gigantic numbers. It is not a tool for teaching pounds or kilograms.

Since the facts are not connected to one another, children may lose interest unless supported while reading the book. I would suggest reading each fact aloud and having children try to visualize the fact topic on their own before repeating the statement while showing the illustration. Allow time to talk about each fact. Jot down each number on a pad or on a blackboard so the reader/listener can track how the numbers are growing.

As a teacher, I would bring out the book on another occasion during math class. Help students create number lines from 0 to 1,000,000, marking every hundred thousand. Assist them in estimating where each featured number falls on the line and then mark each line with a key word from the trivia fact (e.g., moths for 265,000; toothbrush for 839,500). This will help them get a better sense of scale while also allowing the facts to stick a little longer.

I also loved teaching pointillism in art classes. Sometimes students would feel overwhelmed in painting or drawing so many dots. (Tip: Snipping off the cotton end of a q-tip and dipping the remaining straw in paint had more appeal.) A Million Dots would be a wonderful resource to pull out when introducing pointillism and for “comforting” students with the assurance that their finished work needn’t have nearly as many dots.

In sum, A Million Dots is a great literature connection to mathematics and to random, yet interesting trivia.

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