The Mystery in the Math Books

by Shirley Murphy Branan, Birmingham Southern College

Published in AWM, Volume 25, Number 4, July August, 1995

Twenty years ago when I was desperately pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics and simultaneously struggling with full time teaching, marriage, motherhood, and housekeeping, I found a dusty book in the back of my closet. It was The Haunted Attic,1 book #2 of the Judy Bolton juvenile mystery series written by Margaret Sutton. Heady with guilt, I let semigroups simmer on my desk and settled down to read the book from cover to cover, time traveling to the ten year old self I was when I first read the book in the 1940's.

Judy Bolton was a contemporary of the better known fictional girl sleuth Nancy Drew; she solved at least 38 mysteries (the number of books in the series) between 1932 and 1967 before the books finally went out of print.2 With her astonishing aptitude for deductive reasoning, was she good at math?

Early in the story, her mind busily processing the clues she has uncovered, Judy must nevertheless do her homework. She asks her older brother for help: "... I wish you'd help me with this algebra too. I can't understand what X stands for." But later in the story she tells a friend's grandfather, "Languages aren't so easy, but I love English composition and math."
Apparently she did figure out what X stood for!

From that point on I was hooked, not only with curiosity about the math references I may have read before I even knew I loved math, but with a desire to read, just for fun, all the Judy Bolton books as well as other series books featuring girl sleuths: Nancy Drew, Dana Girls, Beverly Gray, Penny Parker and Trixie Belden, for example.

Fortunately I did manage to finish the Ph.D. first, but for years my favorite shopping hours have not been spent in fancy malls, but in musty old book stores and flea markets, pretending I am looking for reading material for my nieces, devouring the "young adult" sections.

I stopped being embarrassed about my book buying habits when I dignified them by becoming a “collector," and a few years ago I found out that I am definitely not alone. Through several newsletters3 I learned that my fellow collectors are grown men and women who are engineers and lawyers and teachers and homemakers ... in other words, normal people.

I wrote to one of the newsletters asking for help in finding math references, As an aside, I also asked female correspondents to tell me about their own early attitudes toward math. I believe the references and the responses are equally interesting and informative, and I will include both here. I learned things that I can use in my teaching, particularly in "liberal arts" math classes, often populated with book lovers.

A teacher and author of young adult fiction wrote, "I can tell you that the last time I took a math class was 10th grade Geometry. I always hated math (though unlike Trixie, I did learn fractions!) and found that I wasn't especially encouraged to try, since my talents clearly lay elsewhere. I wish now I weren't such a math bimbo!" She went on to say she has made sure that her fictional  heroine is a top student who has no difficulty whatever with math.

The reference she sent me was from Trixie Belden and the Mystery in Arizona.4 Trixie is flunking math, and she and her friends Di and Honey are discussing her problems with Trixie's brother Mart.

Mart threw up his hands in disgust. "How dumb can you women get? What was this nightmarish problem anyway?"

Honey giggled. Imitating the others, she masked her face with her yellow cardigan and intoned, "One train was traveling at the rate of forty miles per hour; the other at the rate of fifty miles per hour. And their starting places were one hundred and forty miles apart. Question: What will happen and when?"

Di unmasked her face and narrowed her eyes. "Simple, huh? The next one was even more simple. So simple in fact that I ignored it completely. Any time I see the word single track…”
"For pete's sake," Mart exploded, "single track isn't a word, dopey. It's a phrase."
Di groaned more loudly than ever. "Must we bring grammar into this horrible conversation? If there is one thing Trixie and I hate worse than math, it's grammar. Right Trix?"

Trixie, of course, agrees. Trixie's aversion to math might not seem so strange if we could forget that this same girl who covers her face with a cardigan rather than look directly at a math problem constantly manages to deduce the solutions to complicated mysteries!

Three more women sent me the Trixie reference. An elementary school teacher wrote, "I remembered it immediately, probably because at her age math was a problem for me too. During my grade school years (I am 37) my impression was 'girls don't need math.' ... I really believe I had 'math anxiety' and try to avoid that attitude while substitute teaching."

Another Trixie submitter also claimed math anxiety, though she said she did fairly well in Geometry because "Geometry is different from Algebra. It is about puzzles, puzzles you can see. I actually found it kind of fun." She then added:

I guess I am confused about my feelings about math because I love numbers. What I mean is, numbers form patterns for me, to the point that I have memorized, without trying to, all of my friends' addresses, zip codes, telephone numbers, all of the license plate numbers we've ever owned, all of my credit card and utility account numbers, and my husband's driver's license number.... This is not something I consciously do, either! However, without a calculator I am paralyzed.

A woman who loves puzzles and patterns and numbers and yet is convinced she has math anxiety? Now there is a real mystery for Trixie to solve!

Along with yet another Trixie anti math submission, I read: "Personally, I hated math, until I got to college, that is. The teacher there made it much more interesting, using word problems, useful types of calculation like how to determine odds. I even got to write two essay papers in the classes, based on girls series books!" The books she mentioned were Lewis Carroll's Alice books, which indeed could be considered an early girls series.

We love Good Math Teacher stories, but we know that Monster Math Teacher stories unfortunately abound. A woman who, because of her high math ACT, was encouraged by a counselor to take more math courses wrote:

I did that for most of my first two years, getting through beginning calculus. I was one of only two girls in each class every quarter. I got lots of attention from boys and loved it until I aced a test and the professor got up and denounced the male students for letting me get a higher grade unthinkable for a girl. From then on I received no good attention from the boys and quickly got a real lesson about male female competition.

Her mother's reaction was the last straw:

She questioned what I was doing taking college math classes what did I think I'd end up being an engineer? Certainly I'd have a hard time finding a husband if I did that! I switched to a Home Economics major and taught kindergarten. How feminine!

A woman who told me her collecting tastes run to books written long before Trixie Belden mentioned early 1900's books in which the girls did well in math. She added:

... from my own experience, I speculate (strictly superficially) that the idea of math phobia being a particularly feminine failing is a product of the June Cleaver era. As Trixie's contemporary, I know that I, myself, bought into it for too long.... I realize that my relationship to math is on an intuitive level, and it's not taught that way. I do much better at mathematical concepts if I don't think about them too much. I wonder if this might be, in fact, a gender linked trait?

Her theories may well have merit, but in Grace Harlowe's Plebe Year at High School,5 definitely written prior to the June Cleaver era, I met a Monster Math Teacher who would have given Hypatia herself math anxiety.

Certainly Miss Leece was the Most unpopular teacher ever employed in the High School as far back as memory could reach. She was cruel, strict and sharp tongued, Often her violent, unrestrained temper got the better of her in the class room; then she gave an exhibition that was not good for young girls to see.

The faculty "convened in secret session" to discuss whether to keep her. (Was this an early version of a Promotion and Tenure Committee?) They decide to let her stay at least through the year because she has a contract and is "moreover an excellent instructor in mathematics."

As an example of her "excellent" instruction, we later find Miss Leece choosing the shyest girl in class and then reading aloud "in a disagreeable voice" a problem "well in advance of what they had been studying." As you may have guessed, it's another railroad problem, these trains barrelling along at the phenomenal speeds of 30 and 35 miles an hour.

When the poor girl can't do the problem, our Miss Leece thunders, "Stupidity and inattention are not to be supported in any student, and I must ask you to leave the room."

Well, that was only fiction, wasn't it. Surely, you think, real teachers don't act that way! Then read what I got from a collector who said up front that she loathed math. She named a seventh grade teacher who caused her fear and frustration and said:

He expected everyone to know without being taught. I can still recall a math quiz where he yelled out numbers and expected us to translate them into Roman numerals. He didn't explain that he wanted us to write the numbers first, then take our time figuring them out. When I struggled along, he snatched the page from my hand and began screaming that I was stupid, etc. To this day I freeze up if someone hands me change and asks me to count it.

He apparently didn't manage to ruin mathematics completely for her, however, since she added that she did enjoy algebra because "it was like a puzzle."

I have my own Monster Teacher story to relate, but mine is about a Monster Physics Teacher. In college I braved a 95% male physics class only because it was required for the math major. I had absolutely no background. No girls took physics in my high school. I'm not sure it was actually forbidden, but successfully "integrating" a trigonometry class was all I had managed.

The first time I tried to explain a physics problem on the board, I bungled it, and tried to cover up by saying, "Well, this part is so ... just because it's so!" The professor roared with laughter and said, "Isn't that just like a woman?"

But the following candid confession made me reconsider my MT story. This woman wrote:

I never liked math. Actually I can honestly say I hated it ... but not for the reason you might assume ... that as a "girl," I was discouraged from pursuing an interest in math. Quite the opposite! ... The reason I dislike math? I'm lazy. I have no ambition. I take the easiest way out and math can't be rushed; it needs to be figured carefully or errors result. English and History I was able to whiz through without thought or much effort. I always preferred writing stories or drawing pictures to doing "real" schoolwork.

Could it be that I blamed that professor for all my trouble with physics when deep down I was really too lazy to put in the time and effort to make up for my poor background?

A woman who seemed to be relatively neutral about math said that she doesn't believe that her math ability was affected by any of the stories she read when she was young. Nevertheless, she wrote, "I was impressed by the fact that Nancy Drew could do everything (swim, fly a plane, etc.), and I wanted to be able to do everything too."

The next excerpt is from By the Light of the Study Lamp,6 the first book in the Dana Girls series.

She was deep in the adventures of the famous x and his inseparable companion y who were engaged in a walking contest which was more perplexing than their usual activities, when she heard a gentle tap in the hall. Looking up, she saw a man standing in the open doorway of the room. He was in overalls, wore spectacles and a small but ambitious mustache, and looked timid and inoffensive. He carried a monkey wrench.

I find that passage intriguing, not just because 1934 algebra problems sound so much more graceful than they do today, but because Jean Dana lets this monkey wrench carrying stranger into her room (I don't care how timid and inoffensive he looks!), and no bloody head bashing scene follows! He merely claims to be a plumber and snoops around.

Later she does have second thoughts about what she has done, and says to her sister, Louise:

... if any [worker] comes sneaking around here while we're away, chase him out. Throw a book at him. Use my algebra if you like. I'm often tempted to throw it out of the window myself.

The woman who sent me the Dana reference had a positive math story to tell:

I have always been math deficient and now resort to advice given to me by my father, who suggested I look at a problem as a puzzle to be solved or a quest to be won. The change of outlook from a "hard chore" to a "difficult quest" (only I could solve!) may not have made me a better mathematician. But I tried harder and longer, which usually ended up in a better result and better grades!

Math people don't like to generalize on scanty evidence, so I am not going to try to make any sweeping conclusions about relationships between series book heroines and readers and math, but I will report one correspondent's hypothesis.

"Have you considered," she wrote, "the possibility that girls who hate math or find it difficult do not represent women as a group, but rather girls who read the books? Generally, girls who love reading hate math, and vice versa.... A female reading (or writing) a book is likely to dislike math; therefore the heroines reflect the attitudes of the readers and authors, not the attitudes of/towards all women in the world.

Yes, I have considered this possibility, and quickly rejected it because I didn't want to believe it and because I myself am a counterexample. But I must admit that my series book heroines and their readers/collectors do appear more likely to dislike math than to love it.

I plan to keep this in mind in all of my math classes. I'll reveal my love of books to them, try the "puzzle/quest" approach, and most definitely avoid any Monster Math Teacher tendencies.


1. Margaret Sutton, The Haunted Attic, Grosset & Dunlap,
New York, 1932, pp. 49 50, p. 75.

2. Girls Series Books: A Checklist of Titles Published
, Children's Literature Research Collections,
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1992, pp. 110-111.

3. The Whispered Watchword, 4 100 Cornelia Way, N. High
lands, CA 95560. Yellowback Library, P.O. Box 36172,
Des Moines, IA 50315. The Judy Bolton Society, 4402
Prasse Road, Cleveland, OH 44121.

4. Julie Campbell, Trixie Belden and the Mystery in Arizona,
Western Publishing Co. Inc., Racine, Wisconsin, 1958,

5. Jessie Graham Flower, A.M., Grace Harlowe's Plebe Year
at High School
, Henry Altemus Co., Philadelphia, 19 10,
pp.77 78,pp.84 85.

6. Carolyn Keene, By the Light of the Study Lamp, Grosset &
Dunlap, New York, 1934, p. 84, p. 110.