August Books: Numbers Can Tell Stories

By on July 31, 2011

If you’re looking for summer way to engage your brain, these books are absorbing and entertaining

by Meribeth C. Shank

Mary’s Penny
by Tanya Landman, illustrated by Richard Holland.

In this feminist retelling of a traditional tale, award-winning author Landman sets her story in the “long, long ago, golden, olden days.” A farmer father devises a clever plan for determining which of his two sons will inherit the farm. He does not intend to include his daughter, Mary, in this competition, since “everyone thought girls couldn’t run farms.”

In this long past era, the value of purchases is quite different from today and each of the sons uses a penny gift from their father to purchase something to fill the entire house. The eldest, Franz, buys a load of straw, but it’s not enough. Neither is the load of feathers, bought by the second son, Hans. The family sleeps in the barn each night. And the farmer becomes sad and anxious about what to do and what will happen to the farm when he is gone.

Holland’s mixed media illustrations supply important information; worried, relieved, happy facial expressions, bright red and yellow accents to contrast with greys and tans, background details especially at the market, and a comedic sense of timing. Adding to the book’s folkloric quality is the simplicity and lack of clutter in the double page spreads and the use of multiple font stylings, including a strategic use of capitalizations, lower case letters and cursives.

Finally when Mary asks, her father reluctantly gives her his “very last penny.” After her trip to market and when dark falls that night, she lights a candle and plays a melody on her knife-shaped river reed. The farmer takes her hand, speaking quietly, “You have filled the house many times over . . . . You shall run the farm . . . .”

While this book makes use of simple math and money ideas, it also communicates that intelligence and wisdom require a different measure. Text and art together craft a satisfying ending in this beautifully cadenced storybook with a “nugget of old wisdom” at its heart. Candlewick Press, $15.99, Ages 7-10

How Many Donkeys? An Arabic Counting Tale
retold by Margaret Read MacDonald and Nadia Jameel Taibah, illustrated by Carol Liddiment.

Jouha, the famous wise fool or trickster beloved in many Middle Eastern cultures (called Goha in Egypt, Hodja in Turkey, and the Mullah in Iran), is the main character in this retelling from Saudi folklore. Taibah, and well-loved master storyteller MacDonald, collaborate to shape this tale from Taibah’s family. Although variants of this folktale can be found in cultures as widely spread as Syria, Romania, Spain, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, India, and Indonesia, this Saudi version is especially amusing.

Before leaving for a market trip, Jouha asks his young son to help him count his donkeys loaded with dates to sell. The Arabic words for the numbers from one to ten are included along the bottom of several double page spreads, reading from right to left, perfect for children in a storytelling circle to count along with the storyteller/reader. (A pronunciation guide is included on an early page.)

Enroute Jouha forgets to count the donkey he is seated on, especially when he stops for water, for lunch, at the market itself, and sleeping on the way home. Someone is always there to remind him to “Count again, Jouha!” Especially his son when he gets home and thinks he’s lost a donkey on the return trip.

Artist Liddiment uses bright colors in her sunny paintings, capturing the light and shadows as Jouha crosses the desert and arrives at the shady oasis and later, the tree covered marketplace. It’s a silly tale, but one which young children love because, unlike Jouha, they can see the dilemma in the illustrations, as Jouha gets on and off his donkey. Albert Whitman, $16.99, Ages 5-7

Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature
by Sarah C. Campbell, photos by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell.

First written about in India, the pattern of numbers found in nature and featured in this book is actually named after an Italian mathematician, Fibonacci. Starting with a small photo of a seed, the text gradually leads readers into a beginning understanding of patterns formed in the natural world. As this nonfiction book unfolds, the author and her husband make intriguing and careful use of photos of plant and animal life to expand the text, featuring the famous chain of numbers as spiraling shapes of building blocks.

Using blocks of boxes to demonstrate the pattern of increasing numbers, this compelling book shows spiraling shapes in pinecones, pineapples, sunflowers and more. Campbell’s text shows the different number effects created as parts of plants spiral first in one direction and then in a different direction.

Demonstrating the pattern using the outside sections of a pineapple, the author shows how these sections actually grow in three different directions and can be counted as 5,8, and 13 in the familiar sequence. The author/photographer invites the reader/listener into her exploration and discovery of the literal building blocks in creation. Boyds Mills Press, $17.95, Ages 5-11

Meribeth C. Shank works in the Media Center at Miami Country Day School, an independent school in Miami Shores, Florida, teaches classes on Writing Books for Children, and earned her MFA in Writing for children from Vermont College. You can also find her on the web:

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