New children’s book finds magic in numbers

Jim West's new adventure books are aimed at getting girls to enjoy maths. The Dubai resident tells us why his young readers find them more appealing than princess tales.

Jim West's book has topped a user-review list on Amazon, which had been dominated by Harry Potter for 10 years. Silvia Razgova / The National
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The Dubai-based Jim West meant for his first e-book in the Magicae Mathematica series to inspire girls to study mathematics – but his friends hope it will take down Harry Potter.

Libellus de Numeros, published less than three months ago, topped Amazon's children's e-books chart. It also hit No 1 in the ranking of children's e-books and No 2 among all e-books, based on average customer reviews. So far 104 people have reviewed the adventure story, aimed at kids between the ages of 9 and 15, and all have given it the five-star thumbs-up.

"This week has been moving faster than a rocket in space," says the 37-year-old Texan. "Of course, I am ecstatic. My author friends messaged me saying: 'You just did something that we all wish we could do, which is take down Harry Potter.'"

West’s day job makes him sound like the star of a ­thrilling page-turner himself – he’s a ­cybersecurity sleuth for the United States military. But when he’s done in one virtual world, he immerses himself in another – the world of his imagination.

West frequently commutes to Kuwait to defend the world from cyber crooks, while his wife, Eman, and their 12-year-old daughters Mya and Tia live at Dubai Marina.

In Libellus de Numeros, West's young heroine, Alex, gets transported to a strange world where Latin and maths combine in formulae and equations with magical consequences. A cruel council leads the only safe city of its kind in this world. Two evil wizards seek to destroy the city and in order to save it and get back home, Alex needs the help of the greatest mathematician of all time – the ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes.

West based Alex’s character on his own daughters: “She is really both my girls rolled into one. My eldest went through a couple of years with a lot of anger problems and this was something that added another layer to Alex, who immediately gets angry when things don’t go her way. Archimedes is always saying: ‘Hey, you need to focus and try to re-engage to move forward.’ That’s a lesson I’m trying to instil into my kids.”

West thinks his story particularly resonates with expat kids.

“We’ve been living in different countries overseas since 2005, and this fed into my story. Alex’s dad is always busy with work and the family have to move around a lot. It’s something expat kids can relate to.”

Despite his choice of topic, West couldn’t see the point in maths when he was growing up. “I always told my teacher: ‘How is this going to help me in the real world?’”

When he was 16, West began building computers in his bedroom. Despite having never finished college, he has now ticked off almost every top-level certification in his field.

When his daughters were born, West decided to write ­stories to keep them engaged in maths as they grew up. “Girls do so well up to a certain point in math, then they tend to fall off,” he says. “Usually around puberty, girls stop being all they can be and begin thinking you need to start wearing a dress, putting on make-up and being more ­‘feminine’. That’s sad.

“Yes, the Disney princesses are represented as strong-willed and independent, but they’re still princesses. My goal is to somehow inspire a generation of girls to study science, technology, engineering and maths. So they can be a part of solving big-world problems like world hunger and the energy crisis.”

West uses the hashtag #mathismagical to promote his book. “I really do think math is magical. When we talk about art and symmetries, it’s usually based on maths geometry. Beauty is about the symmetry of a face, and symmetry is a mathematical expression.

“When we send signals out into space, we figure any ­advanced form of life would be able to interpret math. It’s just another way of talking.”

West has dug deep into his own pockets to publish and promote his book, so far spending over US$10,000 (Dh36,670).

“Each review is egging me on to push this as far as I can. My daughters have been the biggest push for me. I want them to learn that they have to work at something and ­really follow it through,” he says, adding, “These days it’s too easy to just give up and my kids are guilty of that, too – if they can’t get the ball through the hoop in basketball then they’re done. But I say no, you’ve got to keep trying.”

Libellus de Numeros is ­available on Amazon (paperback, Dh50; Kindle, Dh4)