Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.
~ Albert Einstein
Counting on Math Books
My son has really been into counting lately, so when a counting book came across my desk for review, although “math isn’t a science,” I thought it would be worthwhile to gather up some that I had found and compare them. How do you decide which counting book to choose out of the literally hundreds available? Here are some guidelines.
When looking at counting books, I have two criteria that I think are most important. First of all, I think really great counting books for children go to 12. Why? Because the first twelve numbers are all the truly unique numbers there are. After 12, the numbers start to recycle (until one hundred), that is you can see the origins of the numbers from those first twelve. For example, “thirteen” is derived from “three-ten,” etc. Also, we have 12 months, there are 12 numbers on a clock face, etc. Most books stop at 10 because our math system is based on ten, but I think that makes those last two, 11 and 12, orphans which are harder to pick up later.
The second criterion I look for is that the illustrations allow the child to search for and count objects. Preferably the illustrations are complex enough that a dialogue is generated between the reader and child beyond the text itself. If we spend several minutes on each page discussing the illustrations, then that is a great book.
So, based on those two criteria, what is a great counting book? The winner is: Anno’s Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno. When I first saw this book in a list of math books recommended for children, I went to the library and looked at it. As I quickly thumbed through it, I have to admit that I thought, “What is the fuss about this?” and put it back on the shelf. I didn’t even show it to my preschooler. However, after seeing it recommended again and again, I finally got it out and read it to my son. It is definitely a winner because it goes to 12 and the illustrations encourage children to count and count and question and discuss. The book starts with an empty scene and then more and more houses, trees, people, etc. appear with each turn of the page and change of the seasons. We spent probably thirty minutes on it the first night. The only criticism I had was that the publisher allowed some of the illustrations to disappear into the binding in the center, so in our copy one tree was virtually missing from each page.
Another great counting book with interesting illustrations and numbers that go to 12 is Miss Spider’s Tea Party by David Kirk. This one is available with abbreviated text as a board book and with full rhyming text as a picture book. It is the story of a spider that wants to be friends with insects who are all scared of her. The ending is upbeat and fun. We have read it again and again.
One more favorite insect-related book is The Icky Bug Counting Book by Jerry Pallotta. In it the numbers go all the way to 26. Why 26? Pallotta is known for his fabulous series of alphabet books, and here he has managed to slip the alphabet in backwards. He starts at zero and then proceeds from one Zebra Swallowtail to 26 Army Ants. The only drawback is that the illustrations by Ralph Masiello are a bit dark in color, at least in the paperback version we have. The book would have even better with brighter, eye-catching illustrations.
The only other book I found that went to 12 was a board book called Cats to Count by Mildred Philips. The rhymes are fun and fast, and there are cats to count on each page. This one is pretty simple and would be good for the youngest child.
The picture book Silly 123’s by Joan Gallop did well for the second criterion. My son wanted to look at the excellent illustrations again and again. However, he was more interested in finding what was silly in each illustration rather than counting objects. The book is laid out so that the text is on one set of pages with a list of things to count and then you turn the page to count them. Frankly, after a busy day I was a little too tired to retain all the things we were supposed to be counting after the page turned. So we just counted what we saw and looked for sillies. Looking for sillies is a good way to sharpen concentration and observation skills, as well as critical thinking. The author would do well to forget the counting and make a book with just searches for sillies.
Of all the counting books we read, the only one I really would not recommend is The Best Counting Book in the Wild West by Madeline Bennett. The illustrations have a number hidden in each to make them somewhat interesting. However, the text is full of horribly forced rhymes and insider jokes, such as “diamond bats,” referring to the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. If a friend or well-meaning relative sends it to you, don’t read the text. Just have your child search for the hidden numbers.
My son also has an interest in really big numbers. Once we began reading about things like the solar system he started asking “How many is a million?” “How many is a trillion?” When answers such as “a thousand thousands” left him puzzled, we got some really great books for putting big numbers into perspective. Big Numbers and Pictures that Show Just How Big They Are by Edward Packard, How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz and Can You Count to a Googol? by Robert E. Wells are three excellent books, with superb illustrations.
Some parents might find David Schwartz’s book objectionable because a main character is a magician who invokes magic to create some of the really big things. How Much is a Million? does have one advantage over the others in that it discusses how much time it would take to count to those really big numbers. This came in handy when my son wanted me to count out a million beads. I had purchased Mardi Gras bead necklaces and cut them into lengths of ten beads to simulate a Montessori manipulative called “golden beads.” I was able to create one thousand beads for him to see in a short time. But then he wanted to see one million beads. In David Schwartz’s book I was able to show him that it would take mommy 23 days to count to a million and we were a little too busy to do that!
Counting Board Books
- Keith Baker, Big Fat Hen, Red Wagon Books, 1994; ISBN: 0152013318
- David Kirk, Miss Spider’s Tea Party, Scholastic Press, New York, 1997; ISBN: 059006519X
- Mildred Philips, Illustrated by Sal Murdocca, Cats to Count, Random House, New York, 1984
Counting Picture Books
- Mitsumasa Anno, Anno’s Counting Book, Ty Crowell Co., 1977; ISBN: 069001287X
- Madeline Bennett, Illustrated by Gary Bennett, The Best Counting Book in the Wild West, Arizona Highways, Arizona Department of Transportation, Phoenix, AZ, 2000
- Donald Crews, Ten Black Dots, Scholastic, Inc, New York, 1986; ISBN: 0688060676
- Joan Gallop, Silly 123’s, Courage Books, Philadelphia. 2002
- Jerry Pallotta, Illustrated by Ralph Masiello, The Icky Bug Counting Book, Charlesbridge Publishing, Watertown, MA, 1992; ISBN: 0881064963
- Lynette Ruschak, Illustrated by GB McIntosh, Nature by the Numbers With Pop-Up Surprises, Little Simon, New York, 1994; ISBN: 067188610X
- Rozanne L. Williams, Illustrated by Mary Thelen, A-Counting We Will Go, Creative Teaching Press, Cypress, CA, 1995; ISBN: 1574711121
Picture Books for Counting Really Big Numbers
- Edward Packard, Illustrated by Salvatore Murdocca, Big Numbers And Pictures That Show Just How Big They Are, Millbrook Press, Inc., Brookfield, Connecticut, 2000; ISBN: 0761312803
- David M. Schwartz, Illustrated by Steven Kellogg, How Much is a Million?, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, New York, 1985; ISBN: 0688040497
- Robert E. Wells, Can You Count to a Googol?, Albert Whitman & Co., Morton Grove, Illinois, 2000; ISBN: 0807510610
Copyright August 2002
Originally published in July/August 2002 issue of HELM (Home Education Learning Magazine)