life of fred


I’m starting a new category called “Favorite Things,” and as I promised a post some time back about the Life of Fred math books, I’ll start there.

I kept hearing mention of this strangely titled set of math books by Dr. Stanley Schmidt on the fantastic, wisdom-filled Well-Trained Mind forum.  One poster there said she couldn’t image her child putting Life of Fred on an MIT college application, but I actually think if anyone at MIT ever heard of Life of Fred, he’d love it and laugh outloud with the rest of us.

Back to Fred.  I kept hearing mention of Fred, but I found it hard to take a math book called Life of Fred very seriously.  Yet we gave it a try, and it is an all-time favorite for two of my boys, and my next oldest daughter can’t wait until she is old enough for Fred too.  Why are my children so excited about a bunch of math books, you may ask?  It’s funnyReally, really funny in a Far-side meets Monte Python sort of way.  I will say that the humor is sometimes dark in a way that wouldn’t appeal to some, but it never seems to be impure or violent.  A lot of it makes you say “poor Fred” as you laugh at his capers.

Poor little Fred is  a brilliant 5-year-old mathematician who teaches at a university, and along with the ongoing story of his life are problems where Fred (and the math student) solve problems that come up in his life using mathematics.  And this isn’t just 30-problems-of-the-same-type kind of math.  There are fewer problems than other math books we used, but each one is different and impossible to solve without understanding the concepts that were being taught in that chapter while continuing to use concepts from prior chapters.

The author, Dr. Stanley Schmidt, is a retired math professor who “invented” Fred while teaching university math.  I believe the calculus book was the first one he wrote.  What amazes me is that he is actually available to answer questions by email.  My oldest son has taken him up on this offer several times and has always received a prompt and courteous reply.  I would have to say that these books are single-handedly (if books had hands) responsible for the fact that this son wants to pursue a career in math.

The books now include a full series from kindergarten or first grade through calculus and beyond to statistics and linear algebra.  His website can be found at

At least one person in our family has used each of the following books:  Apples, Butterfies, Fractions, Decimals and Percentages, Prealgebra 1 with Biology, Prealgebra 2 with Economics, Beginning Algebra, Advanced Algebra, and Geometry.  Trigonometry is on order right now.

I have two downsides that I want to mention.  First of all, although my little guys liked Apples and Butterflies, I personally could not see using the elementary series alone without a more typical arithmetic curriculum.  They made a fun supplement, and I get why he created them, but we decided not to continue through the elementary series for the time being.

Before writing those, he said that a child was ready to start the Fractions book as soon as he had mastered adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, and he makes it very clear that he thinks math should be studied with joy and not dread.  I don’t think that he really saw arithmetic books as necessary means to those ends, and I suspect that he wrote the elementary books to save a generation or two of children from dreading math through the use of long, rote arithmetic lessons.  I agree, and I think that for my children, the thought of 50 problems in Saxon would be dreadful indeed (not for some, I realize).  Still, I think there is a happy medium to be had there.  If I had to pick only Saxon or Life of Fred, though, for grammar-aged students, I would probably go for Fred.  Nonetheless, I would tend to recommend either Horizons or, better still, Math Mammoth for elementary arithmetic because they offer enough practice and very clear, step-by-step teaching.  As I mentioned above, we stopped using the elementary books after the first tw0 just because time was short.  We liked them, but I didn’t think they could stand alone.

The other downside is this:  Fred would not be a good fit for a young person who thinks very literally because sometimes Dr. Schmidt makes small leaps from point to point without really making the way clear.  This works well and may even be a good challenge for a some, but for a student who really needs math to be laid out in a very clear, stepwise fashion, this may not be the series to choose.  If you aren’t sure, you might try getting the book for your child’s level during the summer or as a supplement and see if it works for him or her.  My 2nd oldest son did the prealgebra books as his bedtime reading by his own choice, so if you think there’s no way you could get your child to do yet another mathematical task, you might be surprised!

Oh–one other great feature–the books are actually priced reasonably.  As I write this, they range between $16 for the elementary books and $39 for Calculus and Statistics.

If you are searching for a way to help develop students who are both highly capable in math and actually love it, Fred just might be the ticket.