All of a sudden, Stuart Murphy, a 57-year-old Evanston, Ill., resident and an art director who has spent most of his life designing textbooks and study programs for elementary and secondary schools, has become one of the country's more successful and prolific authors, an overnight star in an innovative new field of publishing.

In just over three years into this fledgling career, he has turned out 24 books, and three more are due off the press in September. He's in great demand as a speaker, and he spends much of his time making appearances from coast to coast at which he talks about his writing, reads from his work and signs his books.

And in his spare hours, he concentrates on the additional 18 books he's under contract to write for his publisher, HarperCollins.

If there's a downside, it's that his books don't bring the kind of fame and riches that can flow to other fiction writers such as Stephen King, Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy.

Murphy's books won't show up on newspaper best-seller lists or get bought by Hollywood or be transformed into made-for-TV movies.

This is because he writes for a literary set whose members are barely literate.

That is to say, his books are written for children from 3 to 10 years of age.

In a nation where everyone plans to sit down someday and come up with a movie script or a children's book that is sure to produce a nice financial windfall -- maybe even a fortune -- it's possible that some people will look at Murphy's books and decide that what he does isn't all that hard to do and that they could do the same thing if they could only find the time and knew somebody in publishing.

His books are only 32 pages in length and made up mainly of drawings, which he has other people do. Plus each contains only between 200 and 500 words, and the vocabulary, it goes without saying, is not especially advanced.

For example, here's an excerpt from "Just Enough Carrots":

Mother Rabbit (addressing her young son as they observe the items in the shopping baskets of other customers at a supermarket): "Yes, Elephant has fewer worms, but Frog has the same amount, and Bird has even more."

So, yes, Murphy is not writing "War and Peace" or, for that matter, "Cujo."

What he is doing, though, is extremely challenging, and certainly more important than trying to write a blockbuster novel: He is teaching math to young Americans.

If you've paid any attention to those comparative performance surveys among countries, you're aware that mathematics is not the strong suit of our students, who regularly do more poorly than young people from most other countries.

The fact is, generations of Americans have grown up despising math.

Many teaching professionals are sympathetic. When you look at how math traditionally has been taught in schools, they say, it's no wonder a lot of kids think it's confusing and boring.

But things are looking up, thanks to Murphy and a number of other writers, artists and teachers who are taking a fresh approach to what has been called "the trickiest of the three R's."

Indeed, Murphy is one of the leaders in a growing new movement that seeks to change attitudes by making math fun and accessible for the very young through stories, geared to different age-appropriate levels.

"In recent years there's been a proliferation of picture books explaining math concepts for young children," says Diane Roback, the children's book editor of Publishers Weekly. "I consider this an encouraging development. When math is presented in an entertaining context, it's a lot more interesting than learning through a textbook or workbook."

The guru of the movement, Roback says, is educator Marilyn Burns, who started everything in 1974 with "The `I Hate Mathematics!' Book" for children, which was a bestseller and still is in print.

"There are a couple of trends helping this phenomenon," Roback says. "One is an effort by teachers to include more trade books in the classroom as supplements to textbooks. Trade books is the term for books published for the bookstore. The other trend is the growth in home schooling, and these math trade books are perfect for this, especially in the younger grades."

Barbara Elleman, distinguished scholar of children's literature at Marquette University, says Murphy's MathStart and similar series achieve what they attempt.

"Stuart's books tell students a story they enjoy and which also has a basic math concept ingrained in it," she says. "What I especially like about Stuart is that his books include a list of other supplementary books, often by other publishers. That's very generous of him and his publisher."

Murphy, who is married and the father of two grown children, is not surprised by the success of his books. (They are $4.95 in paperback, $14.95 in hardcover; total sales, he says, have reached almost 1 million.)

"Kids are visual learners," he said during an interview. "They learn from visual stimuli -- charts and graphs and pictures and things like that. We used to talk about how kids were growing up in a visual society. That was 20 years ago; our society is even more visual. Yet somehow educators are far more interested in what the words on the page are communicating than they are in visuals."

And it's not only the young who are responsive to visual messages; we all are. "Advertising knows the value of communicating through pictures," Murphy says. "Catalogues are masterful with visuals. Problem solvers often make diagrams and sketch out solutions. And the science section of the New York Times has become almost 50 percent visual."

In Murphy's view, schools not only tend to overlook the value of our innate "visual vocabulary," they also discourage students from expressing themselves in a visual way.

"Drawing, to some degree, is acculturated out of us," he says. "If you ask a kindergarten class how many kids draw, almost every hand would go up. If kids have a visual vocabulary and are accustomed to seeing things, it's common sense that they also would explain things visually.

"By the fourth grade, however, maybe half the kids raise their hands, and most of the boys don't. That's because parents -- and the culture in general -- see drawing as a practice for girls more than boys, and more in younger kids than older kids. The emphasis is on reading, and by the eighth grade, it's just the arty kids who are drawing."

In his hometown of Rockville, Conn., Murphy was among the arty ones.

As a child, he created his own accordion-folded comic books; one of them, he remembers, was about the life of a cough drop.

He took art classes through high school, compiled a portfolio of note and won a scholarship to Rhode Island School of Design, consistently paired with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as the two best art schools in the country.

Upon graduation, he was art director for an art magazine for three years, then joined Ginn & Co., a Boston textbook publisher, staying there 11 years and becoming Ginn's art director.

In 1977, he made another shift, forming a curriculum-development firm with Richard Anderson, an editor at Ginn.

They called it Ligature, signifying the seamless merger of the visual and the verbal. Its headquarters were in Chicago because of the professional contacts there, and the company, which was dissolved three years ago, eventually had 150 employees and offices in three cities.

"Probably our most important product was the social studies program for secondary schools we developed for Houghton Mifflin," he says. "It's used in a lot of places, including the California state system, which is the biggest in the country."

After leaving Ligature around eight years ago, Murphy helped create the McDougal Littell high school mathematics series. "I was the visual learning guy," he says. "Everybody else was a higher-level mathematician, and I was pleased to be named as one of the authors because it was recognition of the importance of the text's visual aspects. This isn't generally done."

He next collaborated on what has become the country's top-selling elementary math text, a program produced by Silver Burdette Ginn, then turned to the idea that has grown into the MathStart books.

The MathStart series is designed for three age groups:

Level 1 (ages 3 and up) "includes beginning math concepts such as counting, ordering, recognizing patterns and comparing sizes." The story in "Just Enough Carrots," cited earlier, deals with the concepts of size, "using the math vocabulary: `more,' `fewer,' `same.' "

Level 2 (ages 6 and up) "introduces basic math skills, such as adding and subtracting, reading time lines, estimating and using fractions."

Level 3 (ages 7 and up) "builds on Levels 1 and 2 with multiplying and dividing, building equations and problem-solving strategies."

Murphy sketches an outline for each book and writes the copy but selects other artists as illustrators.

Marquette's Elleman is impressed with what seems a rapid and widespread employment of these new teaching tools.

"I was recently at a national teachers of English meeting, and I learned that Stuart's books are being used in the schools of education at several universities and by student teachers in their practice teaching."

She also has found that teachers are spending their own money to buy Murphy's books for their classes.

"My principal gave us money for books in my room and the library, but I went out and bought some more out of my own pocket, and I plan to buy Stuart's new ones," says Sherri Lenzo, who teaches first through fifth grades at Robert Frost School in Mount Prospect, Ill., and who heard Murphy speak at a teachers conference in Boston and invited him to visit her school.

"Many teachers I know are doing this. When we review concepts from the textbooks in preparing for tests, Stuart's books are very useful.

"Kids will learn their math and get good grades, but they often can't transfer what they learn to everyday life. I run the school store, and some of the younger kids who help me there can't figure out how to make change. They're used to numbers instead of coins. Stuart's books help them understand the practical applications."

Lenzo is singing Murphy's song.

"We need to think quantitatively in so many aspects of our lives -- everything from making budgets to analyzing statistics to working with calculators and computers in our jobs," he says. "If we see math not as an isolated subject but as an essential part of everyday life and if kids see it expressed that way, they'll be more attracted to it, engaged with it and more successful in using it."

(C) 1999, Chicago Tribune