Math Girls

by Izzy Aguiar

This article was originally posted on SIAM News.

For a mathematician, perusing the exhibition hall of the 2017 Joint Mathematics Meetings feels a lot like trick-or-treating at Halloween. The vast ballroom is swarming with mathematicians, publishers, software companies, and t-shirt booths handing out fliers, stickers, and even candy. The tables start to blur together once the initial excitement wears off and the chocolate begins to set in, but amidst the haze, one booth sticks out. The table belonging to the publishing company Bento Books champions brightly colored books adorned with striking illustrations whose captivating title, Math Girls, inspires curiosity.

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Cofounders of Bento Books, Joshua Reeder (left) and Tony Gonzalez (right) at their booth at the 2017 Joint Mathematics Meetings. Photo credit: Izabel Aguiar

Two of the founders, Tony Gonzalez and Joseph Reeder, sit behind their booth at the JMM exhibition hall glowing with pride and enthusiasm about their company. Reeder is the CFO for Bento Books, and is humble about his role as editor of Math Girls. Gonzalez, the translator of the series, earned his master’s degree in mathematics education and taught high school mathematics for two years before founding Bento Books. As a high school teacher he incorporated books like Edward Abbott’s Flatland into his curriculum to get his students more personally invested in the subject. Although he laments not having the chance to incorporate Math Girls into his curriculum as well, he has confidence in the series’ ability to attract unconventional students to mathematics.

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Math Girls Manga Volume I. Illustration by Mika Hisaka

Bento Books is a publishing company started by four translators and editors whose mission is to make the novels and manga of Japan accessible to the English-speaking world. The publishers find, edit, and translate Japanese texts that they believe could have the power to influence and benefit our culture. One such text is their translation of Hiroshi Yuki’s Math Girls: a series of four novels that introduce advanced mathematics in an accessible format. The series follows three students through romantic, social, and mathematical adventures. A quick flip-through of the novel yields explanations of mathematical theorems cleverly integrated into conversations between the characters. The first book in the Math Girls series has also been developed into a two-volume manga comic illustrated by Mika Hisaka. In classic manga-style, characters with big eyes and bigger speech bubbles ponder such questions as, “Do you know absolute values?” and face conflict in the form of complex numbers and trigonometry. The format of the manga trumps the perception of high-level mathematics as intimidating and unapproachable. The story’s main plot line of romance and friendship, accompanied by beautiful illustrations, motivates the reader to read, understand, and ultimately engage with the underlying technical concepts.

Unfortunately, mathematics is often advertised in high schools as being “black and white” with answers that are “right or wrong”. These stereotypes are not only wrong, but dangerous, and contribute to the lack of diversity within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. It’s painful to imagine the slew of talented, bright, creative young students who are turned away from mathematics because it isn’t relatable. Bento Books is changing this by making mathematics accessible to students who may otherwise be too intimidated, and in doing so, showing the inherent beauty and creativity of the subject we all know and love.

Feature Photo: Math Girls manga (left, center) and novel (right) by Hiroshi Yuki, translated by Tony Gonzalez, and published by Bento Books. Cover Art by Kasia Bytnerowicz. Photo taken by Izabel Aguiar.

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