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Stuart J. Murphy (1942-)


Stuart J. Murphy is an education consultant whose "MathStart" books for HarperCollins have helped kick-start a new approach in teaching math skills. At more than fifty titles strong, the series is graded in three levels and aimed at young children. Murphy's idea is to present math concepts such as comparing, counting, matching, sequencing, fractions, adding, and subtracting, among dozens of others, in the context of stories. His stories deal with circuses, vacations, birthdays, shopping, gymnastics, food, and just about any other situation that a young child will encounter in real life. The math concepts are also presented visually through diagrams and illustrations. "I think that most people understand things best when they can see them," Murphy once told Something about the Author (SATA). "It's often better to draw a map then to try and explain where you're going to meet someone. Family trees help to show how people are related to one another. And graphs are usually the easiest way to demonstrate comparisons between two or more things. . . . I also found that stories helped kids to see how math is used in everyday, real-life situations. . . . This is how 'MathStart' was born."

Murphy served a long apprenticeship before inaugurating his popular math series. Graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1964, he served as the art director for the magazine The Art Gallery for three years before joining the textbook company Ginn and Company as a designer. In 1971 he became art director for Ginn, a position he held until 1980. In that year he co-founded Ligature, Inc., an educational research and development firm that worked with publishers to conceptualize and prepare high quality books for U.S. schools. During these years he worked on social studies projects as well as math books.

Combining his background in visual arts with his work in educational publishing and research, Murphy began working on the books that would become "MathStart." He took as his starting point two principles: first, that many kids are visual learners, and second, that students do not study math the same way they experience it. That is to say that while they study mathematics in terms of word problems or operations symbols and numbers, they experience it directly by telling time, buying things, keeping score, and hundreds of other real-life situations. Murphy put these two principles together and come up with the concept for his narrative and visual approach to teaching math. When he pitched the idea to HarperCollins, they contracted an initial three, then twenty-four books in the series, later expanding it to sixty-three.

Written on three levels from preschool through second grade and up, "MathStart" deals with beginning math concepts such as counting, comparing, and ordering in Level 1; in Level 2 basic math skills such as adding and subtracting are introduced; and in Level 3 multiplying and dividing are demonstrated. As Ian Elliot noted in Teaching K-8, "It's easy to see why Murphy is so successful in getting young children turned on to math." Elliot pointed out the "lively but simple story lines," "delightful illustrations," and "visual representations of the math that's involved."

The first three books in the series were some four years in the making, and covered each of the three levels in the "MathStart" program. The Best Bug Parade is aimed at Level 1, Give Me Half! is geared for Level 2, and Ready, Set, Hop! at Level 3. The Best Bug Parade deals with size comparisons, with a red ladybug parade marshal as a constant referent, while a sibling squabble over pizza is the story line in Give Me Half! and two frogs debate their estimated length of jump in Ready, Set, Hop! Reviewing the first title in School Library Journal, Diane Nunn noted that concepts such as long/short and big/bigger/biggest "are presented by an assortment of cheery insects marching through a colorful environment of flowers and grass," and concluded that "teachers and parents will all find this a useful book, and youngsters will be attracted to the lively illustrations." Reviewing Give Me Half!, Carolyn Phelan noted in Booklist that it is "one of the few math concept books with realistic dialogue, authentic emotions, and genuine humor."

While the initial "MathStart" books did not impress all reviewers, critical reception improved as the series continued. Reviewing the next three books in the series—A Pair of Socks, Get up and Go, and Too Many Kangaroo Things to Do—for School Library Journal, Marsha McGrath noted that each "focuses on a simple math concept: matching, time lines, or multiplication." McGrath went on to comment, "Bright hues of acrylic paint and collage are used in the cartoon illustrations" while the end pages provide "helpful hints about using the books to teach additional concepts." Booklist reviewer Carolyn Phelan felt that Murphy's A Pair of Socks might be the only picture book story "told from the point of view of a sock." Phelan also commented, "Short, snappy rhymes and Elhert's brilliantly colored collage illustrations combine to make this tale from the MathStart series an entertaining book."

Publication of six further titles came in 1997: Every Buddy Counts, The Best Vacation Ever, and Divide and Ride, followed by Just Enough Carrots, Elevator Magic, and Betcha! Reviewing the first three titles in School Library Journal, Christine A. Moesch pointed out that they dealt with concepts such as counting, collecting data, and dividing, and concluded that the books present students with an "entertaining approach to progressive levels of math concepts." Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman, reviewing the same three books, remarked that "these stories use everyday situations and lively line-and-watercolor illustrations to teach math concepts at various levels of difficulty." Noting in particular Divide and Ride as "the most sophisticated in math and story," Rochman felt that kids "of all ages will be drawn into the story" of how eleven children at the carnival need to divide up into twos and threes and fours for various rides.

Rochman also had praise for Murphy's second group of 1997 titles, noting that Betcha! "is a real winner that will entertain kids with the buddy story and the causal dialogue and with Schindler's bright, active pictures of two boys having fun in the city." Commenting on how the boys in Betcha! play at estimating the number of people on the bus as they ride to the city and the number of jellybeans in a window display, a writer for Kirkus Reviews noted that all the while readers would be introduced to concepts and techniques such as "rounding off and how to count a small number and apply that to the great, uncounted whole through the use of multiplication, fractions, and simple geometry." The same reviewer concluded that "Murphy's success is in beveling the sharp, unforgiving reputation of math and in showing how numbers can be toyed with."

The new millennium saw the introduction of broader math concepts into the series. In Treasure Map, Murphy explores a basic understanding of mapping. When a group of kids find a map that leads to a time capsule, they work together to follow the map to its treasure. Although Lauren Peterson wrote in her review for Booklist that "The mapping concepts are not presented as effectively as they could have been," she concluded that the book offers teachers and parents a good start for teaching these ideas. Similarly, a Kirkus Reviews contributor remarked that the activities in the back of the book are useful, but "as a stand-alone story, this one is weak."

Another unexpected subject is presented in Earth Day-Hooray! Here, the Save the Planet Club hosts a can drive to make money recycling so they can plant flowers in a local park. As Murphy teaches about conservationism and teamwork, he also teaches about sorting and place value. A Kirkus Reviews critic declared this book a "marvelous addition to the series," making special note of the "excellent activity suggestions." Kay Weisman of Booklist wrote that this would be a "good choice for jazzing up a routine math lesson or as a springboard for Earth Day activities."

Traditional counting concepts provide the basis of 100 Days of Cool and Sluggers' Car Wash. 100 Days of Cool is about a class who tries to meet the challenge of staying "cool" for one hundred days. As they come to school in sunglasses, sequins, dyed hair, and other looks, they also decorate their bikes and form volunteer groups. As the days pass, Murphy reinforced counting ideas with a number line and comments from kids about fractions. In Booklist, Rochman praised the "lively classroom scenario," and noted that the "play and socializing dramatize the math." Gloria Koster, in a review for School Library Journal, wondered about the age-appropriateness of the book, commenting that it offers "reinforcement for one-by-one counters, [but] it won't dazzle children who are ready to investigate numbers in groups." Even less impressed was a Kirkus Reviews contributor who warned that the "cool/school wordplay wears thin quickly" and the "efforts of the group aren't particularly novel."In Sluggers' Car Wash, a baseball team earns money for new team shirts by holding a car wash. One player, CJ, is in charge of the money, but his teammates make sure he gets as soaked as the rest of them at day's end. As CJ takes customers' money and makes change, readers learn counting and keeping track of sums as the team approaches their goal. Phelan, writing in Booklist, was impressed by the variety of concepts presented in this simple story, commenting that learning to make change is a confusing task for many adults. A reviewer for Kirkus Reviews also noted that "lots of math/money games can be spun off from this story."

Double the Ducks and The Sundae Scoop offer lighthearted stories for young readers that are learning the basics of subtraction, multiplication, and combinations. In Double the Ducks a young farm boy must feed his five ducks with three bags of food, four bundles of hay, and only two hands. When he discovers that his ducks have invited friends, he realizes he must now feed twice as many ducks. Rochman commented in Booklist that this story makes "preschoolers' first steps into addition and multiplication more fun," while a Kirkus reviewer concluded that "Readers will delight in all the fun they're having on the farm while they're learning some new math." The Sundae Scoop is about a picnic where a group of kids are making sundaes. The ingredients they have enable them to make eight kinds of sundaes, but after the sprinkles are spilled, the caramel is tipped, and the chocolate ice cream melts the possibilities decrease. "Murphy easily folds the math concepts into a lively story that will capture young readers," wrote Helen Rosenberg in Booklist. A Kirkus Reviews contributor remarked that "Murphy plays the concept like a slide trombone," increasing and decreasing the number of sundae possibilities for the picnic.

Captain Invincible and the Space Shapes uses an outer space setting for a story about three-dimensional shapes. Captain Invincible and his dog, Comet, use various three-dimensional shapes from their spaceship to solve problems they encounter on their journey through space. According to Shelley Townsend-Hudson of Booklist, "The story gives the math lesson an out-of-this-world appeal." Wanda Meyers-Hines of School Library Journal concluded that the "reinforcement strategies and activities are very good," and deemed the book a "good choice as a read-aloud or for independent reading."The "MathStart" series has continued at the primary level, with twenty-seven titles that have earned general praise from reviewers, teachers, and students alike. Reviewing the first group of 1998 titles—Circus Shapes, A Fair Bear Share, and Lemonade for Sale, a Publishers Weekly contributor praised Murphy's "disarmingly chipper stories," a writer for Kirkus Reviews describing Lemonade for Sale as a "lively entry" demonstrating the use of bar graphs. The same reviewer called the series "a winning way to make some basic concepts and techniques less intimidating." Reviewing the 1999 entries—Henry the Fourth and Jump, Kangaroo, Jump!, Booklist critic John Peters felt that the former title has "the more complex story line," but that both titles follow "a winning formula." Writing in School Library Journal, Jane Claes reviewed a further 1999 addition to the series, Super Sand Castle Saturday. "Murphy does a good job of imparting the math lesson while delivering a natural story," Claes noted.

Murphy expounded on his methodology and writing technique in a Booklist interview. Noting that "most people don't see math as part of their daily lives," he explained that the driving force behind his "MathStart" series is "to draw kids into a story based on their own experiences sorting socks, rushing to get ready for school, fighting for a fair share of a pizza." He explained that his books begin with a concept and that he then searches his mind for a story to fit. "For example, I wanted to do a book on division. I was looking for a model in the daily experiences of children, but I kept coming up with things that were more like fractions. Then I remembered going to the carnival with my kids." At the carnival, Murphy and his children always had the problem of how they were going to divide up to go on rides, and employing this in his story Divide and Ride, he provided a very realistic approach to the concept of division.

In an interview for TeachingBooks.net, Murphy revealed his vision and motivation for the work he does. "One of the things that's really important to me is helping our kids become more fluent in the language of mathematics," he explained. "Children are visual learners, and I really want to make sure that kids understand that math is relevant to their lives." Talking about the approach he takes to his work, he added, "I've spent a lot of my life in classrooms talking with real kids—we talk about what they're having for lunch, we talk about what their favorite things are—all of those kinds of things that kids really care about, and then I find ways to build them into my stories. And that's what MathStart is—it's pictures, words and math—pictures, words and math coming together to tell a story."

Murphy, a trained artist, also oversees the early versions of artwork, supplying roughs for the artists to work from. His end-of-the-book suggestions for further reading and extended activities come from his own experience and are also added to and checked by three teachers in the field. Finally, each title is tested in the field with children's workshops at schools. Murphy remarked that kids in these workshops "end up having so much fun giggling and participating and explaining their work that I almost have to remind them that this is math."

"The 'MathStart' series is designed to help children become more fluent in the language of mathematics," Murphy concluded in SATA, "be more comfortable with match concepts, and make math part of their system of communication. By presenting math concepts in stories, supporting those stories with high-quality illustrations and carefully constructed math diagrams, and providing easy-to-accomplish activities that extend the learning of the story at the end of each book, children will realize that math can be easy—and fun!"

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, May 1, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of Give Me Half!, p. 1510; October 1, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of A Pair of Socks, p. 355; February 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of The Best Vacation Ever, p. 943; April 1, 1997, interview with Murphy, p. 1347; October 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of Betcha!, p. 336; April 15, 1999, John Peters, reviews of Henry the Fourth and Jump, Kangaroo, Jump!, p. 1534; November 15, 2001, Shelley Townsend-Hudson, review of Captain Invincible and the Space Shapes, p. 578; January 1, 2003, Helen Rosenberg, review of The Sundae Scoop, p. 899; February 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of Sluggers' Car Wash, p. 999; March 15, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Double the Ducks, p. 1328; January 1, 2004, Kay Weisman, review of Earth Day-Hooray!, p. 868; April 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of 100 Days of Cool, p. 1367; September 1, 2004, Lauren Peterson, review of Treasure Map, pp. 127-128.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1996, Elizabeth Bush, review of The Best Bug Parade, p. 310.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1997, review of Betcha!, p. 1460; November 15, 1998, review of Lemonade for Sale, p. 1711; July 15, 2002, review of Sluggers' Car Wash, p. 355; November 15, 2002, review of The Sundae Scoop, p. 1700; December 1, 2002, review of Double the Ducks, p. 1770; January 1, 2004, review of 100 Days of Cool, p. 39; January 15, 2004, review of Earth Day-Hooray!, p. 87; August 1, 2004, review of Treasure Map, p. 746.

Publishers Weekly, January 19, 1998, review of Circus Shapes, pp. 379-380.

School Library Journal, June, 1996, Diane Nunn, review of The Best Bug Parade, pp. 106-107; June, 1996, JoAnn Rees, review of Ready, Set, Hop!, pp. 117-118; December, 1996, Marsha McGrath, review of A Pair of Socks, p. 116; March, 1997, Christine A. Moesch, review of The Best Vacation Ever, pp. 179-180; July, 1999, Jane Claes, review of Super Sand Castle Saturday, p. 88; October, 2001, Wanda Meyers-Hines, review of Captain Invincible and the Space Shapes, p. 144; March, 2004, Gloria Koster, review of 100 Days of Cool, p. 198.

Teaching K-8, January, 1998, Ian Elliot, "Murphy's Magical MathStart," pp. 43-44.


Stuart J. Murphy Web site, http://www.stuartjmurphy.com (April 23, 2005).

TeachingBooks.net, http://www.teachingbooks.net/ (February 3, 2005).

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Barbara Barbieri McGrath (1953–) Biography - Personal to Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) BiographyStuart J. Murphy (1942-) Biography - Career, Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Writings