Fruitful texts you can count on

13th June 1997 at 01:00
LITTLE MISS MUFFET COUNTS TO TEN. By Emma Chichester Clark. Andersen Press Pounds 8.99.

FRUITS. By Valerie Bloom. Macmillan Pounds 8.99. MY ARCTIC 1,2,3. Annick Press Pounds 3.99 CRAZY CREATURES COUNTING. By Hannah Reidy. De Agostini Children's Books Pounds 4.99

Naomi Lewis samples a crop of colourful books that bring numbers alive

It's odd that so many adults suffer from fear of numbers - the free-range kind you have to do in the head, that is. (Quick - where's the calculator?) Did they miss out on those nursery books where a little basic counting is enclosed in a lure of pictures and tempting text, maybe of fact or verse or story?

Makers of such books, then (artists especially), should not lose touch with their purpose. This is not only to make clear the appearance, names and sequence of our first 10 digits (these, ideally, should come, like the ABC, with such discoveries as walking, talking and nursery rhymes), but to put those numbers into action.

The elegant and engaging Little Miss Muffet Counts to Ten, with its story, summary and detailed double-spread pictures, offers eager readers plenty of chance to play the number game.

The text starts with the verse we all know. But after the third line ("curds and whey") the spider (one) takes over, and in proper rhyme politely begs Miss Muffet to "stay". Thereafter, page by page, the verse is continued by lemurs (two), magpies (three), foxes (four), pussycats, poodles ("with oodles of noodles"), all bringing curious gifts. Finally, crocodiles (10) arrive with a huge pink box. It's a cake. ("Hooray!" all shout. "Don't you know it's your birthday today?") By now the sylvan scene is filled with animal guests. A teacher with stamina and resource could pluck a classroom performance out of it all, the cast supplying occasional extra words. I calculate (in my head, of course) that there are 55 parts, not counting Miss Muffet's. There is something for all - double roles for some.

Fruits, though entirely different, also has story and verse. It is a big friendly book, cheerfully funny, following two young Caribbean sisters (they look about nine and three) through unauthorised feasts of one to 10 native fruits.

The older girl keeps us informed in saucy, spirited rhymes. "Two ripe guava pon the shelf. I know, I hide them there meself. When night come an' it get dark Me an' them will have a talk." Or, if you like: "Four red apple near me chair. Who so careless put them there? Them don' know how me love apple. Well, thank God fe silly people." By nine the going's hard. By ten (bananas) she has given up - "Lawd, ah feeling really sick." Six or seven-year-olds will enjoy this scene. They won't, I trust, still need the counting part. (The detail's here all right for the nursery lot). Full-page paintings, oil on canvas, reflect the story totally.

My Arctic 1, 2, 3, though wholly factual, is not the least interesting of these books. Arctic creatures in their setting (ocean, ice-flow, tundra) provide the counting theme. And how attractive these pictures are - the ringed seals (two), the Arctic foxes (five), the snowy owls (eight), the 20 wolves. At the end a short account is given of each, with good line illustrations. There is not a harpoon or other such nasty in sight. And yet - the harpoon is implicitly there.

The author, a Westernised Inuit, describes his traditional lifestyle. "My favourite food is maktaaq," he tells us. "It's the skin of the whale." The meat, he adds, is given to the dogs. And those seals in the picture? He outlines the manifold uses of seal corpse. "We do not hunt all the time. Mostly we watch their tracks." It forces the question of just how much such practice today is justified as "culture", and how much is based on real need.

Crazy indeed they are, the creatures of Crazy Creatures Counting. Each square page shows its number figure - black, very large, while its numbered ration of weirdies, bulbous, squat, slithy as toves, use it for "nibbling at", skiing down, "timidly touching", or even "contemplating". For example: "Five hefty hairy creatures happily hugging a five." Most likeable, being funny and witty rather than ugly and gruesome, as many of the others are, is ten - a neat chorus-line of grasshopper-ish clones doing the can-can.

Still, beyond the basic matter of supplying larky (though puzzling) items to count, it is hard to see what the book really offers an enquiring under-three-year-old. Are the nameless things worth a longtime lodging in the mind? Is the single large, scrolly number figure (the only figure shown of each) as useful as it should be? The production is fine - so, in current terms, is the hardback price.

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