More than thirty-five years ago, Japanese illustrator and elementary school teacher Mitsumasa Anno created a children’s counting book that continues to be an excellent introduction to the decimal number system. Born out of the author’s fascination with mathematics, Anno’s Counting Book is also a wordless picture book that engages children in the details of everyday life with a timeless intelligence and grace.
In the first double paged spread, the viewer looks through a simple frame into a barren winter landscape; a blue-gray watercolor wash divides the expanse of the empty white page, suggesting the sky, river and snow. A large numeral zero fills the right margin. Turn the page and a small house, a solitary fir tree, a child building a snowman, a skier and a fox appear in the same landscape. The numeral one has replaced the zero. In each succeeding picture, an additional house, tree, adult, child and animal expand the scene. As roads and bridges are built and the little village grows, adults tend farm animals, hang laundry, or gossip, while children play games or swim in the river. At the same time colored blocks in the left margin stack up, reinforcing the concept of addition.
Once a child understands the real meaning of numbers, he or she will delight in discovering new relationships in the pictures. Like a medieval book of hours, each page also marks the progression of the months through the year (snow melts, flowers bloom, autumn foliage appears), as well as the time of day indicated by the clock on the church steeple. In the last image, the villagers gather around a trimmed Christmas tree at midnight, just as Santa’s twelve reindeer fly across the sky, the unseen sleigh still outside the frame. The scenes are calm, orderly, and reassuring; the style is reminiscent of American primitive folk art.
Anno’s Counting Book was honored by the American Library Association (Notable Children’s Book), Horn Book (honor list) and the New York Academy of Sciences (Outstanding Science Book for Children).
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