Books and Numbers: To Infinity and Add One

Numbers by Denise Krebs (Flickr Creative Commons)
Category: Bookbug

How do you describe infinity? Well, think of the biggest number you can and then add one. I’ve long been pleased with this answer, and recently discovered how it got into my head. 

I reread the wonderful The Phantom Tollbooth and was transported into being ten again and remembering the impact of chapter 15: ‘The way to infinity’. My own wondering (and fear) about the never-endingness of the universe had a kind of answer in the familiarity of numbers. It was reassuring and intriguing at the same time.

Books and stories are full of numbers, maths and problems - but they’re not always obvious.


Start singing

Numbers are a big feature in songs and rhymes for young children. Of course, that’s no mistake - adults are sensibly keen for children to learn the sounds of numbers and learn their order. Using fingers to signal and count out numbers helps children get a sense of how two is different from one, and that there are five fingers on one hand.

Children who are familiar with the sound and order of numbers get the hang of the number system with more ease than those who’ve had less exposure to numbers in their early years. But reciting numbers in the right order, even up to 100, doesn’t mean you understand them. ‘1,2,3,4,5 Once I caught a fish alive’ is great for the rhythm and rhyme of numbers, but it doesn’t help with understanding what number are symbols for.

Books and stories are full of numbers, maths and problems - but they’re not always obvious.

It helps to connect numbers to real life. The actions in Five Currant Buns in a Baker’s Shop have a lot in common with what really happens when you share a plate of little cakes. Hopefully there are none left when everyone has had one.


And books?

So what role can books play in children’s experience of numbers? There are certainly plenty of number books about - Julia Donaldson’s One Mole Digging a Hole is whacky and colourful, each picture providing plenty to count and wonder about.

Other books use narrative to count down from 10, as with 10 Little Pirates in the Bookbug Pirate Bag or the beautiful illustrations of Penny Dale’s Ten in the Bed, with its resourceful and resilient toys.

Ten Tiny Tadpoles is one book in a series aimed at babies and toddlers with raised tadpoles to count and holes to insert and count your own waggly fingers. Of course the classic Very Hungry Caterpillar is firmly in the tradition of counting food.

In a review of How Many Legs by Kes Gray and Jim Field, a parent comments: ‘You get so distracted by the laugh-out-loud and quirky illustrations that you forget about counting’.

Some books about numbers take the concept a bit further - what about 0? The Hueys in None the Number has comedy, surprise, oddity and plenty to talk about. It’s a book that should work for the 3-7 age group spanning hat counting and ‘sleeps’ counting to thinking about how none gets the same status as other numbers when there’s nothing there. Mysterious.

Try to look beyond numbers. Go for entertaining stories and illustrations that intrigue.

And some books don’t even mention numbers. The classic Mr Gumpy’s Outing has a predictable cumulative sequence of events that illustrates quantity. How many animals can get in the boat before they all fall in? When will disaster strike? We don’t count the animals in, but growing numbers are matched by a fantastic range of vocabulary as Mr Gumpy allows every animal to climb aboard. He never says the same thing twice but the meaning is the same each time as the tension and the animal head count rises.

If you’re looking at picture books and thinking about how they support maths then numbers are certainly important, but try to look beyond numbers. Go for entertaining stories and illustrations that intrigue. Look for stories that solve problems and address children’s interests and concerns about the world.

How would you get things out of a tree when they’re Stuck? Would you do what Duck does in Hit the Ball Duck?

The concept I remembered as a 10-year-old had an impact because of the fantastic story it was set within. So start with the story, then do the maths.

Image credit: Numbers 0-9 by Denise Krebs