Island of the Unknowns by Benedict Carey

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Island of the Unknowns by Benedict Carey, an award winning Science Journalist for the New York Times, is just like it sounds: a mystery.  Even better, this mystery weaves mathematics throughout and is an engaging read for grades 6-8!   Follow Lady Di and Tom Jones, two friends on the outskirts of town and their school's social circle, as they band together to help solve the mystery of their teacher's disappearance.  Purposely left clues have the misfits solving equations along the way as they discover something sinister going on in their hometown.  


First off, I would not have expected a New York Times Journalist to be able to write to middle school students SO WELL.  His storyline was captivating and he wrote with a voice so indicative of kids' real conversations.  I was fairly blown away!  I was also very impressed with the amount and quality of mathematics in this fictional work, and would recommend it for teachers and students alike.  


Some of the math skills touched on throughout this book were:

  1. Pythagorean Theorem
  2. Formula for slope
  3. Right Triangles
  4. X and Y-axis
  5. Creating Charts and Graphs
  6. Circles: The radius, diameter, and circumference
  7. Transcendental Numbers
  8. Problem Solving (for example: Simplify.  Take the simplest version of the problem and solve that.  Then try the harder ones.)
  9. Probability
  10. 30 degree angles
  11. Multiplication
  12. And more!


If I were a middle school instructor who was about to introduce the Pythagoream Theorem, this would be an absolute genius way to get the students hooked on the subject first.  Why not read this aloud in class, or assign it to be read at home and then complete some of the problems together in class?  Benedict Carey must have felt the same way, as he included a teacher's guide at the end of the book, complete with problems to be solved.  

Here is an excerpt from the book to show the quality of math instruction:

"...He explained the at the slope in math is a lot like the slope of the hill.  It's a measure of steepness.  A slope of five is steeper than a slope of 1;  a slope of 1 is steeper than the slope of 1/2.  The closer you get to zero, the closer you get to level ground: no steepness."  -page 85, Island of the Unknowns  

Along with solid math instruction, a gripping mystery, and humorous and likable characters, this book also includes plenty of inspiring quotes that can be attributed to life, and to problem solving:

"...searching for a solution is the best reminder that there is one."

This book has such a catchy story line that it can get away with a heavy dose of mathematics, and I dare say that anyone reading this book should be fair warned:  You may decide you like mathematics after this!  Here is some more information about Benedict Carey.  Also, read Carey's other book centered around a murder, science and logic: Poison Most Vial: A Mystery.   Want to know more about the Pythagorean Theorem?  Try this great explanation by Math is Fun, and this one by Mathx.net.  Kahn Academy has a great introduction video for the Pythagorean Theorem:

But, if cartoons are more your thing, I've found that Donald gets it right every time in this oldie but goodie, "Donald in Mathmagicland"!

Also, try Math-Aids for some fantastic customizable worksheets that will have your students acing the Pythagorean Theorem in no time!