Can you count the counting books?

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One of my children choose a counting book at the library the other day, and I thought about how my youngest was just about able to start counting and maybe I should find another counting book too. So we came home with a collection of them, with me rejoicing in the differences between each book. Some books count different things – five oranges, six apples, for example, while other groups count one group that grows and shrinks. Some books start with one, others with zero. Some start to move into multiplication, grouping things together.

I’m describing them here starting with the ones involving the easiest math to the hardest. borrowed most of these from the library. One of them I already owned. I’m linking here with an Amazon affiliate link so if you do happen to buy one from Amazon I will be paid a tiny percentage. I highly recommend you don’t use Amazon though. Check libraries before ever buying any book, and then checking used bookstores like Better World Books or Book Depository first, with Amazon as a last, last resort. I’m not writing this to sell books but to think about the way in which books present numbers.An exploration of the different ways in which counting books present numbers.

When I was a teenager I read a fantasy book series that included a species of dwarves that for the most part could not count higher than two, though one of their group did manage to count as far as three. I thought the idea that someone could count only to two or three silly. If a person understood numbers why not count higher? Then years later I laughed to realize there is a stage where a child only understands one and two, and maybe, sometimes, three, with the higher numbers inserted randomly. If your child is in that early stage, they might enjoy Ones and Twosby Marthe Jocelyn and Nell Jocelyn. It is a counting book that doesn’t go higher than two. Most pages or two-page spreads have only four words on them. “One _______, two __________.” The illustrations appear to have been made by cut out paper and cloth, and they show two girls and a robin out and about a park.

Ones and Twos doesn’t have a written story the way adults understand stories with plot and details or even words prewritten but the story as a progression of pictures from which one could look and tell one’s own story might be closer to how a young child “reads” anyway. If you are willing to sit down and talk with a child about what they see, and about what they think could be happening, then this becomes a really good book.

According to this article at science daily, children don’t really learn to count until they are dealing with numbers greater than three. So how do other books portray higher numbers?

Jane Eyre: A BabyLit® Counting Primer, and Pride & Prejudice: A Counting Primer are board books written with the parents in mind. Each lists objects from their respective books but without regards to whether a child would have any frame of reference for the object or note. “One governess” or “four marriage proposals” are hardly countable items for a child learning to count. That said, the books can provide an interesting point of discussion for the child’s older siblings if they are acquainted with the featured story. Like Ones and Twos there is no story, but in this case the pictures do not provide much for making a story out of, only references to a story an older person would know and the younger person not.

Counting in the Garden is a board book written by Emily Hruby and illustrated by Patrick Hruby. The thing I dislike about this book is the improper use of upper and lower case letters. The front cover contains no capitals, even for the names, while the inside of the book is written entirely in capitals. The strength of the book is its slow leisurely pace. One page says “one onion” and shows a close up of an onion, the next page zooms out to show the onion in the garden. The next page zooms in on something of which there is two of, and the page after that shows the two turnips and the one onion.

Counting on Snow introduces a number on the right hand page, starting with “10 Caribou Crunching.” Flip the page and there is on the left hand side a picture of those animals leaving, and on the right hand side the next group of animals, counting down from ten and getting snowier and snowier. The logical question to keep asking a child is “Which is there more of?” to allow the child to compare any two pages open together. Cover up one of the animals from the higher number and discuss how without that one there is the same number of each.

My Arctic 1, 2, 3 by Michael A. Kusugak and Vladyana Krykorka is another counting book based in the arctic. It has a nice intro page about life in the arctic and four extra pages about arctic life in the back, as well as a glossary. The counting part starts at one, counts up to 10, then jumps to 20, 100, and 1,000,000. Side by side pages reflect predator prey relationships such as “Nine snowy owls, beginning their hunt, take to the air…. Ten lemmings scurry among the dwarf willows.” For anyone with an interest in the arctic, this is the counting book I would recommend.

One Gorilla: A Counting Book by Anthony Browne features a different type of primate on every page. There’s little text except the simple “1 gorilla,” “2 orangutans,” etc until you get to the end of the book where it veers off with “All primates. All one family. All my family… and yours!” As far as counting goes, the book is great. I like the fact it introduces some lesser known primates. I have trouble with that end bit. I understand that we are all primates, all related, and I believe in evolution. Yet saying we are all one family in that way makes me think of the Answers in Genesis video  where the host shows pictures of primates to kids and asks “does your grandma look like this?” as though evolution implied people’s grandparents were apes. What does “family” mean to a child the age of this books target audience, and is the parent reading the book willing to discuss what those last few lines mean?

None the Number by Oliver Jeffers is part of a series of books about the Hueys, blob shaped characters with stick arms and legs. The book starts with a question of how many lumps of cheese are on a page that has none, and one character explains how there is none, and that is one less than one. If you have one and you add another one you get two, and from then on the book resembles the majority of counting books, where each number is represented by something of which there is that number of. Pages are largely white with no background. Only right at the end of the book does it veer off again from the average counting book with a little explanation about zero in mathematics.

The One and Only 1, 2, 3 Book by R. O. Blechman focused a child’s attention on the numerals. The characters of the story are block numerals with hands, feet and faces. One wants to be the One and Only, but all the other numbers (dragging appropriate numbers of objects) start crowding him out. Eventually he escapes to a blank page to celebrate his uniqueness. A great follow-up activity to the book would be playing with magnetic numbers and possibly paper pictures of the objects the numbers carry. Where are the three cows for 3 to carry? After playing with those for a while the real test would be to then give a child a separate picture of two cows and see if it gets matched with the 3 or the 2.


One Bear Lost by Karen Hayles and Jenny Jones counts down from ten with a rhyming story about bears. Each illustration shows which bear is about to head off to do something separate from the group so I could count the bears together, cover up the bear that is leaving, count them again and talk about how many there will be on the next page. Unlike in Counting in the Garden, The One and Only 1 2 3 Book or either of the Little Miss books, there aren’t different types of objects assigned to each number but rather one group that shrinks and grows.

Each two-page spread has two rhyming lines, and on most pages there is one or more words written in some special style. For example, a page with the words “high and low” has “high” a little bit raised and “low” a little bit lower. Besides adding a decorative touch, I suspect the writing is meant to help draw a child’s attention to the collection of black marks that can be interpreted as words.

How Many Cats by Lauren Thompson is similar to One Bear Lost in that it deals with a growing and shrinking group of creatures. It goes up to twenty, and in doing so it does not devote a full page to each number. Sometimes it gets a bit confusing as the text on the left side will at times specify the number of cats on the left, and then more cats will counted off and shown on the right side, and yet it is one picture spread across both pages. The neat thing though is that the cats leave in groups, so while the cats are counted individually as the group grows, on the way out they are counted as groups – twenty in four rows of five, twelve as three groups of four, etc. This book also starts and ends with zero, and the full pictures provide lots of background details to discuss with a child.

Dog Loves Counting by Louise Yates gets a little confusing, as far as the numbers are concerned. Dog is unable to sleep and looks through his book for animals to count. He counts a baby dodo as #1 and himself as #2 saying “together we are two.” The next animals all have something in connection with what number they are assigned. A three-toed sloth is #3. Is he #3 because he’s the third animal they found, or because he has three toes? The crab has ten legs, and he is the 10th animal they find, meaning that by the time they find him they are a group of ten. If a child can keep those different details straight (or is young enough to just ignore them) the book is great with dreamy sort of illustrations.

100 Animals on Parade! shows a long continuing parade of animals, starting with 100 bears, followed by 100 pigs, and so on. Little black bubbles above certain animals (such as every twentieth bear) helps counting children know they are on track and small type directs children to look for specific objects. At the back of the book children are alerted that each two page spread had a ladybug, an ant and a snail. The last page shows all the animals crowded together at the animal festival and serves as a little Where’s Waldo? style game with twenty some objects to find, though unlike in Where’s Waldo? books the objects aren’t puns to interpret, the children just have to match up the pictures.

David Carter’s 100 has ten two page spreads on different topics (busy city, shady forest, garden, etc, etc). On side of the page there are five flaps to lift up, down or to the side. The flaps are hidden under one another, sometimes in ways that make them awkward to fold back into place once you have them all unfolded. Each flap is numbered, 1 – 100 with the name of whatever object it is.

When I first opened it 100 felt a little awkward to me because of the lack of connection between the things. Some of the flaps have collective nouns on them “a bunch of surfboards” and yet that flap has just one number (66) attached to it. Are we counting things? Why count those things and not the background things in the picture? In the busy city page most of the flaps have vehicles on them including small ones like a bicycle and scooter, but we don’t count the stroller or the other background bicycle with two kids on it. When we count normally, we try to count all of something, so that bothered me a little. Once I recognized that what we are counting is flaps, I could relax and enjoy playing with the book with my three year old. I like that the flaps are divided into groups of five and two groups of five paired together as a theme. We count in terms of fives, tens and hundreds normally.

Each Orange Had 8 Slices by Paul Giganti, Jr. and Donald Crews is a counting book that moves into being a multiplication practice book. Each two-page spread starts with “On my way to….” before naming an object that has or holds or includes a different number of things, which in turn are each connected with some other number of things. For example, “On my way to school I saw 3 little kids. Each kid rode a tricycle. Each tricycle had 3 wheels.” The next page then asks three questions. “How many little kids were there? How many tricycles were there? How many wheels were there in all?” The illustrations show the objects so it is possible to just count them all but naturally the grouping leads an older child or adult to want to explain multiplication.

Hat Tricks Count: A Hockey Number Book by Matt Napier and Melanie Rose uses numbers (1 – 12, then 15, 20, 25, 30 and from then by 10s up to 100) as a method of introducing different bits of history, rules and lore about hockey. It is a number book, but not necessarily a counting one and older children might enjoy being challenged to think about in what way the number is being used.
What does it mean to say Wayne Gretzky is “The Great One” or that Jean Beliveau wore Number 4? Each page contains three different sizes of type. Large letters spell out the number (with an even larger numeral below it), tiny letters make up the sidebar with lots of information in it and in midsized type is a little verse that includes the number and a bit of an explanation connecting it with hockey. If a person is reading the book with a very young child, it might be useful to just read the verses.

Zero the Hero by Joan Holub and Tom Lichtenheld is the number book my children loved best for its keen adventure, comic illustrations and more complicated math. Strictly speaking, it is more of a math book than a counting book. Like The One and Only 1 2 3 Book this book uses big block numbers with legs, arms and faces as its characters. Zero wants to be a hero, but instead he’s left out of all the counting games, considered boring in addition, and subtraction and is so bad at division others won’t let him play that game. Multiplication is where he finds his superpower: he can make numbers disappear. The story continues with the introduction of roman numerals (not well explained, so a parent would have to do that job) and Zero having the chance to be a hero!

I was surprised my three year old was as amused by the book as she was, and we played a few games to try to help her understand bits of the math in it. We spent some time holding out hands and naming what we had in them – one pencil, two marbles, but zero elephants. On the page about addition we talked about how if we have one marble and we add another marble we have two, but if we have one marble and add zero marbles the number of marbles stays the same.

Zero the Hero has several little details parents and children could discuss, in order to strengthen math skills. For example, at one point the numbers talk about playing the rounding game and at another point the numbers are divided into even and odd numbers. Parents looking to discuss the concept of even and odd might enjoy the Empowering Parents to Teach blog post about teaching odd and even.

Writing this post became an excuse to read a rather large number of counting books with my kids, and to watch closer at how my youngest is learning to count. As she improves her counting we’ll be moving into playing more math games. I love math games.

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2 thoughts on “Can you count the counting books?

  1. What a great list!! There are many we haven’t read before and I look forward to reading them with my boys. Thank you so much for including the Empowering Parents Teach blog post on teaching odd and even 🙂

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