When author Kate Hosford decided to tackle the concept of infinity in her most recent children’s book, she found there were possibly an infinite number of ways to even approach the subject.
In Hosford’s book, “Infinity and Me,” a little girl works to conceptualize the real meaning of infinity. The book has garnered all kinds of high praise and honors, including being named an American Library Association 2013 Notable Children’s Book and a 2012 Junior Library Guild Selection.
Hosford began as a children’s book illustrator who took up writing and then completely abandoned drawing books once she weighed her work.
“I was actually so much better at the writing than I was at the illustration that I switched,” Hosford said. “It took me years to have one idea, and then once I had one idea, I had two and then suddenly I had a hundred.”
One of those hundred ideas was to do a book about infinity, which Hosford was shocked to realize had not already been done.
“It was odd to me because kids love to talk about infinity and they start to do it really young,” she said. “Whenever I would talk to a parent, inevitably they would say, ‘My child loves to talk about infinity,’ and then they would recount an anecdote about something their child had said, and oftentimes the child wasn’t 9 and 10, they were 4 and 5, young, picture book age.”
Hosford began working on the idea by writing verse, but said she thought it ended up “stupid and trite,” and went through a few other formats before settling on the idea of asking different people to offer their conception of infinity. She enlisted her old friend, Gabi Swiatkowska, and together they put together a dummy book to shop around.
“When editors saw that, they were interested,” Hosford said, “but almost all of them, except for the ones who published, had a hard time convincing their publishers, who were saying things like ‘This isn’t really a topic for kids’ and some people would say things like ‘When is infinity introduced in the math curriculum?’ and I would think to myself, ‘At the same time you introduce love and justice.’ It’s an idea, so it’s not going to be a unit in the math curriculum.”
The book was eventually picked up by Carolrhoda Books, which also published Hosford’s previous picture books and who didn’t have such reservations.
“They immediately got it and immediately wanted to do it,” said Hosford.
Primary in Hosford’s preparation to try and sell the book, and the source of her confidence that her story was perfectly age appropriate, was a series of interviews she did with the kids in her children’s classes and her friend’s children for confirmation. This gave her the evidence she needed and also the energy to keep pursuing the project.
“I’m bowled away every time I meet with a group of kids,” said Hosford. “They have some new fascinating thing to say about infinity and I think it’s one of those topics where you just really want to master it because, if you can get a grip on that, you’ll have a grip on everything.”
“I think kids feel that and feel the urgency around understanding infinity to the extent that they can, although they get pretty immediately that they also are not going to be able to fully understand it, and it’s that paradox that is so interesting to them.”
Hosford has been putting together a curriculum that she can present to schools, with the idea that infinity can be not just expressed through numbers, but anything, really, and having kids write about their own conceptions. She will also provide options for math-oriented activities to the same end.
Writing about math concepts, and then writing guides to help children learn them, was not what she expected to end up doing in her life.
“I was very interested in philosophy from a very young age and ended up majoring in it in college, but I wasn’t the world’s most stellar math student,” said Hosford.
Math is too often thought of as boring or labor intensive, but Hosford’s story manages to meld her primary interest by exploring the philosophical side of a math concept and showing there is more to math than memorizing times tables. In her research on infinity, she became fascinated with concepts like fractals and tessellations that informed the enthusiasm of her text, and cemented also the work that illustrator Swiatkowska provided for the book, taking the philosophical elements and turning them into visual ones to make the concepts even more clear.
“One really cool thing that she did was she has these birds, and in particular this chicken, that appears over and over, throughout the book,” said Hosford, “and she works very intuitively and, to me, the chicken is brilliant because it’s a symbol of infinity in its own way — which came first the chicken or the egg. She may or may not have been thinking that, but it doesn’t matter because a lot of other people can look at it and think that.”
Hosford’s main goal has been communication and connection, and math concepts are just the unexpected way she has ended up pursuing those passions. It was suggested to her early on by one publisher that she should scrap the story of one girl connecting the book and instead make it a collection of what various kids think about infinity. Hosford felt this would undercut an important aspect of the book that coincides with her own world view. It just wouldn’t service the same message without the core character.
“Part of the point of my book is that thinking about this idea can completely flip you out, and in the end, the only thing that grounds us is love and connection to other people,” said Hosford. “Otherwise, if you are lying out in the grass looking at the stars and you feel alone and that’s it, it’s scary to anyone, let alone a child, so the emotional component of the book is actually what makes it work.”