New counting books for the very young are being published all the time. While they can be a useful vehicle for illustrators short of a text, what about the maths? Can they help small children learn to count? And if so, what aspects of counting should they cover? Sheila Ebbutt considers what makes a counting book have lasting value.
What makes a good counting book? Counting books come and counting books go. So many of them are published despite the fact that it is actually very hard to create a good counting book, that is, one where the impetus to count is built in. One where the story drives the motivation. For very young children the action rhyme, Five Little Ducks , does it nicely. It’s a simple story, with one duckling fewer coming back each time, and mother duck needing to keep track. It’s a bit scary, too, because where are her ducklings?
With Lucy and Tom’s 1 2 3 and Alfie’s Numbers , Shirley Hughes puts the counting into context and her illustrations keep you engaged. Hughes builds in problems: are there the same number of people at the bus stop going home in the evening as went off in the morning? Most importantly, she doesn’t forget the adult, and keeps us amused with her drawings of domestic chaos.
When you’re little, you need to be able to count backwards too, so getting in your rocket and counting down to blast off is good fun. Lifting flaps is great too, but you only do it more than once if there is something hidden that catches your interest: a really scary monster for example, or those fabulous insects in How Many Bugs in a Box?
Getting to grips with complications
Once you’ve got beyond counting to five, then ten, and back again, there are other complications to counting with which to get to grips. Counting the same things neatly drawn in a straight line is easier than counting those same things all muddled up. More difficult is counting a mixture of different things all muddled up. There are these aspects of counting to consider:
· saying the number names to 5 then to 10
· counting pictures of things
· reading the numerals
· reading the words
· one more and one less
· two more and two less
· counting in twos
· counting up and counting back
· counting position: first, second, third
· counting in groups: in fives and in tens
· counting to 20, to 30, to 50, to 100
· counting larger numbers
· comparing numbers of things
· saying how many more, how many altogether
· sharing out
· odd and even numbers
· doubling and halving
· saying how many left over
At the moment there just aren’t enough new counting books that go beyond counting pictures of things to ten. We have to fall back on old favourites such as Pat Hutchins’ The Doorbell Rang , which presents children with the problem of sharing out the biscuits to an increasing number of visitors or Diane Johnston Hamm’s How Many Feet in the Bed? which is a counting in twos book. In Stuart J Murphy’s Monster Musical Chairs there is one fewer chair each time, and one of the monsters has to drop out. It’s clear what Harriet Ziefert’s Bears Odd, Bears Even does.
Narrative and illustration
Good illustration is, of course, vital to counting books. Clear illustrations help the young reader to sort things out, but also help when things are in a heap. They need to be child-friendly but not patronising. They should be well drawn and complex enough to have interest. They should avoid stereotypes in people, in animals, and in contexts. It’s the illustrations that can drive the desire to turn the page. What will Mister Magnolia do next? Children (well, actually, all of us) love surprises, jokes, and the inversion of expectation. Illustrations can do this, and make us laugh and take our breath away.
There needs to be a narrative that drives the book forward (yes, even in a counting book), and the language should be interesting and lyrical. ‘One duck, two ducks.’ is accurate, but doesn’t beg for a second or third or fiftieth reading. Just think of how delicious Mister Magnolia is, how the Ahlbergs’ The Baby’s Catalogue make us all laugh, and how Mick Inkpen engages us with the story of The Great Pet Sale .
New counting book titles
So, how do some of the latest publications match up? One Little Farm and One Little Home are sweet, endearing, small format, landscape board books. The pictures are nice and the colours soft and warm. The worlds are cosy and safe: the old fashioned farm, and the comfy home with cushions and pretty flowers and jolly mugs which we count from one to ten. But these books don’t beg to be read and re-read.
My First Counting Touch and Feel is a lavishly produced large format board book, with glorious cut out photographs of everyday objects, and the occasional shiny or furry or crinkly or sticky novelty insert. It’s very much aimed at the parent-as-teacher: ‘How many pairs of socks are sparkly?’ ‘How many red cars are in this traffic jam?’ Children may enjoy the pictures the first time around, but it’ll be the adult who decides to read this book with them after that.
‘When you can’t sleep, you need to count sheep,’ says mum in Sleepytime Kittens , a picture book set on a nostalgic farm (I bet young children would be shocked to see a real farm, so far would it be from the picture book convention). All the farm animals love each other. You count the animals and find the missing sheep. It’s all comfortingly sweet. I don’t know why it is that publishers veer so much towards the sentimental in picture books, when children thrill to surprise and conflict and humour and unconventional discomfort.
Russell the Sheep has surreal, interesting, and quirky illustrations and an unusual take on sheep counting. Russell lives in Frogsbottom Field, which is funny in itself, and counts the stars to six hundred million billion and ten, and still can’t sleep. Then he decides to count sheep and by the time he gets to ten (including himself) he’s asleep. This is a good-natured book that is worth a few repeats.
One More Sheep is yet another book about counting sheep but it has a quite delicious story and idiosyncratic illustrations. While counting his sheep, the farmer falls asleep. Not surprisingly, the sheep are affronted by this. Then the wolf arrives, dressed in sheep’s clothing. The sheep won’t let him in, but the farmer says, ‘Remember who’s boss. Let the little bleater in at once, before I get cross.’ The sheep make the farmer count them again, but this time they put on a show to make sure he stays awake. He does, and finds out just in time that the ‘sheep’ outside is the wolf. This book has a strong storyline, dynamic illustrations and interesting counting.
One Yak Called Jack is fun, in rhyme of sorts, with unusual things to count – ferrets, crabs, snails – although numbers aren’t mentioned until the last page. The illustrations complicate the creatures to count, which is an interesting challenge, especially at the end, when all the animals are on Jack’s back. The use of language is unusual: ‘in a tad’, ‘in a tick’, ‘just a sec’, ‘we’re making hay’. This is a book worth going back to a few times.
10 Little Rubber Ducks is a story Eric Carle invented after reading a newspaper article about a shipwrecked container of bathroom toys. In the story, the rubber duck machine churns out rubber ducks, and they are packed ten to a box, five boxes to the ship. One box is washed into the sea: ‘Ten rubber ducks overboard!’ We find out what happens to the first, the second, and the third rubber duck. The tenth one finds and joins a real family of ducks, and finds happiness. You can press on and squeak the rubber duck on the back page. It’s nice to have a book about ordinal numbers. The language in the book is interesting and challenging. This book is worth space on the bookshelves.
Don’t Count Your Chickens has a storyline that hinges on twice as many. Ruth-May is given two chickens. She so loves them she wants twice as many. Her parents oblige. They keep on obliging until Ruth-May has sixteen chickens. But Ruth-May is ‘too busy cuddling and coddling and counting’. The unhappy chickens run away to the park where they each lay an egg. We get to count these too if we want. It’s a bonus having a ‘twice as many’ counting book especially as the storyline is fun, the illustrations cheery, and the language interesting. This can go on the bookshelf too.
Some of these counting books will survive for a bit, and some will sink without trace. Russell the Sheep and One More Sheep are definitely worth keeping on the bookshelves at home, while the rubber ducks and the chickens will be both amusing and useful in schools because of the specific maths they deal with.
Sheila Ebbutt is director of BEAM Education, a former LEA mathematics advisor, and a member of the Early Childhood Mathematics Group.
Alfie’s Numbers , Shirley Hughes, Red Fox, 0 09 940792 2, £4.99 pbk
The Baby’s Catalogue , Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Picture Puffin, 0 14 050385 4, £4.99 pbk
Bears Odd, Bears Even , Harriet Ziefert, ill. Andrea Buruffi, via Amazon
Don’t Count Your Chickens , Simon Puttock, ill. Ross Collins, Macmillan, 1 405 03452 1, £9.99 hbk
The Doorbell Rang , Pat Hutchins, via Amazon
Five Little Ducks , Zita Newcome, Walker, 0 7445 8917 7, £3.99 pbk
The Great Pet Sale , Mick Inkpen, Hodder, 0 340 70381 4, £6.99 pbk
How Many Bugs in a Box? David A Carter, via Amazon
How Many Feet in the Bed? Diane Johnston Hamm, ill. Kate Salley Palmer, via Amazon
Lucy and Tom’s 1 2 3 , Shirley Hughes, Picture Puffin, 0 14 050795 7, £4.99 pbk
Monster Musical Chairs , Stuart J Murphy, ill. Scott Nash, via Amazon
Mister Magnolia , Quentin Blake, Red Fox, 0 09 940042 1, £5.99 pbk
My First Counting Touch and Feel , Dorling Kindersley, 1 4053 0730 7, £5.99 board
One Little Farm , 1 85714 320 5, and One Little Home , 1 85714 319 1, Dubravka Kolanovic, Ragged Bears, £3.99 each board
One More Sheep , Mij Kelly, ill. Russell Ayto, Hodder, 0 340 80586 2, £5.99 pbk
One Yak Called Jack , Darcia LaBrosse, Jonathan Cape, 0 224 04685 3, £10.99 hbk
Russell the Sheep , Rob Scotton, HarperCollins, 0 00 720622 4, £5.99 pbk
Sleepytime Kittens , Joanne Partis, Oxford, 0 19 272568 8, £4.99 pbk
10 Little Rubber Ducks , Eric Carle, HarperCollins, 0 00 720242 3, £12.99 hbk