Seven Golden Rings: A Tale of Music and Math
By Rajani LaRocca, illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan, Lee & Low Books, 2020
This book has been an instant hit with both my children. It’s a seemingly simple story of a young man seeking his fortune in ancient India, but it’s jam-packed with big concepts and ideas. The illustrations are delightful, capturing the countryside Bhagat travels, the city and court, but particularly the people who convey so much with their wonderfully expressive faces. I’m cheering for Bhagat, of course, and I love his mother’s expression as she listens to him singing, but my secret favourite is the innkeeper’s wife as she realises what Bhagat is doing with the golden rings.
Because it is so clever, and yet so simple. This is a book introducing binary numbers to young children. And it does so with a story and a song. The Author’s Note on decimal numbers, binary counting and computers is a bit beyond my son at the moment – but I can see myself digging this one out again and again as a beautifully straightforward illustration of the principle.
The way music is represented is another moment of joyful understanding, the whole, half and quarter notes are presented much as my son’s music teacher does in class. For this really is a book about music and maths. Not just the enjoyment of Bhagat’s singing, but the understanding of numbers through rhythm. Grandad John will like this one, I tell the kids; when coronavirus is over, he can read this one with you.
And in amongst the numbers are the characters. We have debates about the innkeeper’s wife. She’s abrupt, rude, unyielding about paying for his stay, and yet she speaks up for him to the rajah. How does she change, my son asks? We discuss the rajah too. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? The book says he is kind, but that ‘his people suffered’ from his poor management. Does that make him a bad guy? It’s a complex idea, that people can be well-intentioned, kindly, but cause suffering. And we talk about how few people can be described as all good or all bad.
At this stage, my children only understand a small part of the maths in this book, but I feel that, as they’re enjoying the story and Bhagat’s cleverness, a seed is being planted – there is beauty and joy in both maths and music, and the two are not all that far apart.