What Sane Person Writes a Novel about Fractions?

“Mathematics is boring. Why do we have to study it anyway?”

“Do I REALLY have to finish all my Math homework? It’s just the same stuff over and over, and it makes no sense to me.”

“I hate doing these algebra exercises. They are SOOOOO boring.”

“I don’t understand this. It’s stupid. Why can’t I do something useful with my time?”

If you are a parent or teacher, then you have probably heard it all. The whining. The complaining. The angry outbursts. For a logical and emotionless subject, Mathematics has an uncanny ability to draw passionate responses from young people. It’s seldom a “YAY, I have Math homework” kind of response. No, it’s more like “ARGHHHH, I HATE Math!”

So why would anyone choose Mathematics as a starting point for a youth novel? And note that we are not talking about some mystical and captivating mathematical subject like String Theory or Equations of Relativity. No, sirree! We like a challenge, don’t we? Out with the exciting stuff, so we can sink our teeth into a common, garden-variety subject: fractions. Yes, you read that correctly. FRACTIONS. Not eye-popping fractal mathematics, mind you. Just regular fractions with numerators and denominators: those little number beasts you encountered way back in grade three of four.

Fractions in all their simple glory were the starting point for “Fractonia”. So is this a story about fractions? (Are you yawning and shaking your head in disbelief?) Yes, but probably not in the way you think. When I was at school and fractions were introduced to the class, the teacher talked about picking apples from a tree. (That was in the days when children actually went outside and climbed trees, so students could relate to the image of apples hanging from a tree.) More recently, while doing research for a new project, I took a look at some junior school materials focused on fractions. The apples were gone from the chapters about fractions. In their place, the reference to pizza slices appeared more often than anything else. (It seems the “an apple a day” phrase has been replaced with “a slice of pizza a day“.) Imagine this pizza being cut into pieces. Your friend eats one slice. You eat five slices. What percentage of the pizza is left? Is this stimulating your imagination and encouraging learning, or is it just making you think that you are hungry? Is there a different way to visualize fractions?

I set out to create a story that would give readers an entirely new perspective on fractions. Why? So they could better understand fractions? No – so they could know it is possible for something as “boring” as fractions to become interesting just by changing our perspective. I wanted to paint an imaginative picture over those sad pizza slices with no story to tell – a picture so unexpected that it would encourage readers to create their own imaginative ways to view subjects they found “boring”. In my experience, an interested student is more likely to learn and overcome learning difficulties than a student who is bored with the topic they are studying. In her article entitled, “How the Power of Interest Drives Learning“, Annie Murphy Paul says the following: “When we’re interested in what we’re learning, we pay closer attention; we process the information more efficiently; we employ more effective learning strategies, such as engaging in critical thinking, making connections between old and new knowledge, and attending to deep structure instead of surface features. When we’re interested in a task, we work harder and persist longer, bringing more of our self-regulatory skills into play.” If we learn better when we are interested, why not find a way to make what we have to learn interesting and engaging? It seems like a simple, common-sense way to ensure we learn more and enjoy doing it.

At its core, “Fractonia” is less about Mathematics and more about attitude. Yes, fractions are part of the story, but no, the story is about exploration, discovery, and possibility. It’s about taking responsibility for our own learning. Our learning is not our parents’ or our teachers’ responsibility – it is OURS: yours and mine. We don’t have to wait for our teacher to make the subject exciting or justify why we should study it. We don’t need to be entertained before we can learn something. No, the process of learning is an adventure that can be created and hosted inside your very own imagination. Go on the adventure, or stay home and mope about how boring everything is.