Monday, October 4, 2010

Book Review: Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese

While I was searching the picture books section of my local library for a pornographic Eric Carle book (see this blog entry for more info), I found this wonderful book:  Blockhead:  The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese.  Earlier this year, I met Joe and his partner (in writing, sometimes, but in life, always), Denise Kiernan, when they came to talk to our homeschool group about their fabulous book, Signing Their Lives Away:  The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence.  (Not to get off topic, but this is a great resource for middle schoolers who are studying the American Revolution, because it has interesting child-oriented stories about all 56 signers of the Declaration--the famous and the forgotten. )

Anyway, I knew this book was coming out from talking to Joe, and knowing the quality of his work, I expected it to be good.  And now that I've seen it, I'm happy to report that I was not disappointed.  It does a great job of presenting the Fibonacci sequence of numbers in a way that can be easily understood by elementary students.  But I think it is so well written, and the illustrations are so glorious, that I believe it is still appropriate to middle schoolers, especially those who are visual learners who have not yet learned to love the the numeric precision of mathematics.

The illustrator is John O'Brien, whom I don't know, but now would love to, because I think he did a great job.  He managed to create beautiful and modern pictures that evoke the feeling of medieval wood carvings (at least to me).  But most of all, he fills his pictures with all sorts of subtle depictions of Fibonacci numbers--Fibonacci curves and swirls, Fibonacci numbers captured in leaves, fruits, animals, and even landforms.  This is part of the reason I think the book also works for older audiences; if they are already familiar with the Fibonacci sequence, they can be engaged in searching out the patterns drawn on each page.

However, there is another message in the book.  In D'Agnese story (admittedly, a fiction based on scanty information about the real man), Fibonacci is called a "blockhead" by his contemporaries because he is so fixated by numbers--and so, doesn't see things like everyone else.  The book also provides a supportive commentary to other children who are different, telling them to follow their passions, even if their peers don't understand them.   As Fibonacci's mentor counsels him, after the child mathematician tells him that numbers are what make him happiest, "Then you should learn all you can about them.  That way you will always be happy."  What great advice that is for all of us!

My middle school son and I read it today, and at first he thought it was simple.  But when he looked at it again, he found more and more layers to the pages.  Then, when we went to spend time with my dear friend, math educator extraordinaire Miss Maria, we found ourselves searching out Fibonacci numbers in the rows of the pine cones we were throwing.

However, don't take my word for it.  See the video that Denise created for the book at the book's website.  Also, if you happen to use the book in a class or group setting, I can attest that Joe is a great speaker to students--engaging them at their level while still providing valuable content.   Even if you don't have a budget to have him come speak in person, he does Skype visits for even nominal tax-deductible contributions to Heifer Internation (a charity that I have given to personally) as part of the Fibonacci Giving Project.

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