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It's not always as easy as ABC

Elaine Williams rounds up counting and alphabet books for the early years

Rooster's Off to See the World. By Eric Carle. Hamish Hamilton Pounds 9.99. My Granny Went to Market: a round-the-world counting rhyme. By Stella Blackstone. Illustrated by Bernard Lodge. Barefoot Books Pounds 7.99. Let's Play 123. By Francoise Audry-Iljic, Thierry Courtin and Tony Mitton. Let's Play ABC. By Marie-Agnes Gaudrat and Thierry Courtin, verse by Tony Mitton. Orion Pounds 8.99. African Animals ABC. By Philippa-Alys Browne. Barefoot Books Pounds 8.99. Michael Rosen's ABC. Illustrated by Bee Willey. MacDonald Young Books Pounds 10.99. F-Freezing ABC. By Posy Simmonds. Jonathan Cape Pounds 8.99.

Where alphabet books can fail, carelessly-produced counting books can be no less counter-productive. The very abstract nature of numbers combined with the very particular and unimaginative quality of accompanying illustrations can hinder rather than stimulate a child's progress in numeracy.

It is 25 years since Eric Carle produced The Very Hungry Caterpillar, with the forceful but simple designs and finger holes that have helped generations of children to enjoy learning to count. Rooster's Off to See the World has that same powerful, primitive quality. The pictures - painterly, haunting and archetypal - are created with the child in mind who has difficulties with numbers as specific symbols. One fine morning Rooster decides he wants to travel. Joined by two cats, three frogs, four turtles and five fish, he runs into difficulty when the moon rises, night falls and the band becomes cold, hungry and homesick. As the animals gradually forsake the expedition Rooster finds himself alone and dreaming. Carle seems to penetrate the primeval essence of each animal with his mark-making and encompasses the emotional as well as the abstract quality of number.

My Granny Went to Market has that same frenetic quality as Angela Banner's Ant and Bee books. Bernard Lodge's delightfully busy pictures provide a nice accompaniment to Stella Blackstone's debut into children's writing. Granny goes on a round-the-world shopping spree on a magic carpet, taking young readers on a counting adventure through the products of different countries, introducing them to maps, entertaining them with rhyme and some very fine illustration.

Let's Play 123 and Let's Play ABC are big and beautiful with delicious illustrations that invite physical involvement in the story, encouraging little readers to use fingers, toes, feet, eyes, nose and sight to count, take away and think about number shape: "4 looks like a boat at sea. I've got four paws. Look at me." The alphabet book suggests making letter shapes with their bodies: "Big C's got his bedtime book. 'I'm the moon,' says small c, 'look!'." Both these books engage the child in a clear and imaginative way while some alphabet books can be confusing.

African Animals ABC by Philippa-Alys Browne is full of undeniably stunning watercolour illustrations, weaving richly-coloured tribal patterns into the animal shape and providing a useful glossary at the back with "nature notes" on less familiar beasts such as the Xoona moth and the Dassie. However, the illustrator's concern with abstract design sometimes detracts from the image. The lion, for example, is most un-lion-like, so much so that my son had to ask what it was. Confusion of this sort can reduce a child's confidence in a book and detracts from its purpose.

English is a very visual language. Words become recognisable as much for the pattern made by letters as for their sounds. Children learn to read as the words take on visual resonance and the sounds become familiar shapes.

Michael Rosen's ABC takes all this on board masterfully. We are led through the alphabet with rich alliteration and musical rhythms, Rosen's witty, pithy and jubilant rhymes combining with the Chagall-like illustrations of Bee Willey to build up a sense of the exciting possibilities of the written word.

Alphabet books are tricky. Many lack clarity, illustrations and letters failing singularly to inspire or instruct. Though Bee Willey's pictures are arty, they also relate directly to the text as well as providing limitless possibilities for exploration.

Alphabet letters are written in various styles of lower case and upper case, providing a structure for the composition of pictures and text. Rosen combines his own versions of familiar verse, including archetypal characters such as King Arthur and Humpty Dumpty, with wholly original passages, weaving them together with a sharp, cheeky humour. In the case of the E words, for example:

"That elm tree is really an elk in disguise.

Everything else that you see is enchanted.

Even the trees were magically planted.

Electric? Wow!

That eagle! The beak!

Elastic? Incredible!

Those eels! Eeeek!" Willey's pictures combine the weird, the wonderful and the wicked, very much in the spirit of nursery rhyme. This is a truly wonderful book that children of different ages would enjoy together.

Posy Simmonds, with her usual wit and verve, has produced an ABC story that takes us on a frenzied wintry search. F-Freezing ABC is funny, dreamy and snowy. A band of frost-bitten animal friends seek some seasonal warmth, driven this way and that by skunks and ghouls. My one reservation is that all alphabet letters are highlighted in upper case only.

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