Picture Books

Five new counting books all share one essential strategy: to start a conversation.

A counting book is tricky to write, for it must inspire readers to do two things at once: to count and to read. The latter task is, of course, what all books must do — create enough intrigue to charm us into turning the page and then turning the next one, and so on until the end. But this going forth page by page, one by one, suggests that counting and reading have something deep in common. After all, we count with numbers and we recount tales. We tell stories and, long ago, shepherds told their sheep, an archaic word for counting members of a group to make sure each one is there. Still, the task of writing a counting book is daunting, for counting is active, whereas listening to a story, especially when we are little and someone else is turning the pages, is passive.

Five new counting books solve this puzzle in different ways, but they all share one essential strategy: to start a conversation. Conversation was the original context and form of stories, but even more important, conversation has the power to grab a reader and make two appeals at once: Listen to me. Talk to me.


From “How to Count to One.”
Credit...Matt Hunt

In HOW TO COUNT TO ONE: And Don’t Even THINK About Bigger Numbers! (Nosy Crow, 32 pp., $17.99, ages 3 to 6), written by Caspar Salmon and illustrated by Matt Hunt, the conversation is sparked by an irresistible dare. It starts out in the standard way. See one apple, count one apple. But as the number of fancifully drawn objects and animals begins to mount, things get dicey. Two enormous whales and three bowls of soup practically beg to be counted, yet we are admonished to notice just one sausage, perched atop a whale’s spout, and one tiny fly in the soup. “Ignore all the other worms, please,” the author-narrator cries on a subsequent spread, “and count that ONE worm!” — the only one (out of 10!) that is “in disguise.” Just as we once screamed at a pigeon not to drive the bus, we now, with similar glee, take on Salmon as he commands us not to count past one. Counting (and reading) become acts of both hilarity and rebellion, prompting the reader not only to turn the page and talk back, but to count with more gusto and cunning.

Salmon also manages to get to the heart of counting, for it really is all about counting to one. To go higher, just adopt a beginner’s mindset and count one more, then one more again. But this suggests a pitfall of counting, that it can make numbers all seem the same. In some sense, they are indeed the same, each number just one more than the previous one. Yet each integer has its own fascinating properties.

THE FLOCK (NubeOcho, 40 pp., $17.99, ages 3 to 7), by Margarita del Mazo, beautifully dramatizes this quandary: that numbers are at once alike and wildly different. The numbers One through Nine enter as sheep who usually jump single-file over a hurdle while a sleepy boy named Mike counts. One night, Four refuses to jump. It is a numeric and a narrative crisis, which the illustrator Guridi animates with humor and urgency. Mike lies in a blue-black room, his eyes huge as clocks, and way up on top of his round head (which doubles as a world) sit a lone hurdle and a not-jumping, recalcitrant Four. All fates are linked, and a frantic conversation ensues.

“You’ll be branded a wayward sheep!” the other sheep plead. It’s only when Mike enters the conversation himself that the crisis is resolved. But instead of getting back in line, Four jumps right out of that lined-up, sheep-filled world and into Mike’s arms. Four becomes a number unlike all others to him. It is left to readers to discuss what properties might make each number (starting with Four) so distinct.

The ultimate training guide for counting-book writers and readers is Christopher Danielson’s “How Many? A Different Kind of Counting Book,” first published in 2018. On each spread, Danielson pairs a sumptuous yet deceptively simple photograph of objects with the question, “How many?” At first it seems easy. For example, count one dozen eggs. Done. Until the next spread reveals a partly empty carton, four sunny-side-ups in a pan (one with a double yolk) and several cracked shells. Again, “How many?” Answers abound. Conversation is inevitable, ranging perhaps over parts and wholes, addition and subtraction, and the central, profound question: What counts as one? Danielson demonstrates that counting is not merely enumeration but a way to open up a world of interest.


Credit...Emily Gravett

Emily Gravett’s 10 CATS (Boxer Books, 32 pp., $16.99, ages 3 to 5) presents one mama cat and nine kittens, so bright and various as they frolic in spilled cans of red, yellow and blue paint that the standard hunt-and-count will be an immediate joy. But Gravett’s deeper idea, that 10 breaks down in many ways, will lead alert readers into a discussion of how addition can separate numbers into parts (six cats with yellow dots, four without, or nine with green dots, one without).


Credit...Emanuele Benetti

TOO MANY RABBITS (Red Comet, 28 pp., $17.99, ages 4 to 7), written by Davide Calì and translated by Angus Yuen-Killick, is also a hunt-and-count romp, this time with Emanuele Benetti’s cantaloupe-colored rabbits, playfully scattered in a Gorey-esque world. But Cali’s overarching plan — that you can rid yourself of a whopping 210 rabbits by first losing one, then an additional two, on up to 20 — is a grand subtraction (or addition!) problem, which might inspire a general discussion of summing consecutive integers.

Riding that addition and subtraction seesaw even more vigorously is David LaRochelle’s 100 MIGHTY DRAGONS ALL NAMED BROCCOLI (Dial, 40 pp., $19.99, ages 3 to 7), which will keep readers laughing and tallying as Lian Cho’s adorable cartoon dragons leave and reappear.

All these counting books offer the hope of moving past the illusion of sameness — of seeing complexity where we had thought things were simple — or finding unity within multiplicity. Numbers become moments in a story or, like the pages of a book, doors we can open to a fascinating, infinite world.

Amy Alznauer is the author of three picture books, including “The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan.” She teaches calculus and number theory at Northwestern University.

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