Kumon Staff Pick: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
Grade/Kumon Level of book: Grades 6-7 / Level G
Why do you personally enjoy this book?
At first glance this book appears to be a historical biography of Nathaniel Bowditch, a mathematician recognized for having founded modern maritime navigation. However, his story is told in an engaging narrative style that gives readers an interesting perspective into what life was like in New England during the Revolutionary War – particularly in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. Nat (as he is called in the book) was an indentured servant from the age of 12 until he was 21 (employed as a bookkeeper because he was good at figures) and was an autodidact, teaching himself math and languages at night. Despite his poverty and long workdays, he fought to give himself an education and career during a time period of great change and turmoil.
Why do you think children would enjoy this book?
When I have recommended this book in the past, I will ask, “Do you want to read a book about a man who saved lives using math?” Bowditch did just that. He lived in Salem, which was one of the busiest ports of call in the American colonies. He worked and traveled with sea captains, showing them the best way to use navigation tables. While doing so, he began to notice many errors in John Hamilton Moore’s Practical Navigator, which was considered the best navigational book of its time. Using trigonometry, he would double-check the calculations and found many inaccuracies. One of the captains, having seen how Bowditch’s calculations made a difference, wrote him a note of encouragement, “Carry on, Mr. Bowditch! Find some more errors!” When the American edition of the Navigator came out, he was able to revise the navigation tables, enabling sailors to make fewer mistakes as they traveled around the world. Fewer navigational mistakes meant fewer shipwrecks and more efficiency (finding the fastest way from one place to the other). Using mathematics, Bowditch saved lives and ushered maritime navigation into modern times.
What skills and/or values might children gain by reading this book?
Children would learn how mathematics can have a significant impact on people’s lives. Sailors depended on those navigational tables, and had it not been for Bowditch, more sailors would surely have perished. They will also learn about the value of education and how Bowditch was able to maximize his own potential under extreme circumstances. Therefore, with the support of school and parents, children also have the potential to make a difference like Bowditch did.