May 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Easy as ABC, 123 | Focus on


Are those red or blue? Which is the biggest? Let’s count them! As young children encounter the many sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures around them, they need help grasping the basic concepts people use to put the world in order: colors, shapes, letters, numbers, and sizes. Well-designed books can serve as ideal spaces for children and adults to engage with and practice these first concepts together. Many of the best concept books have become classics, including Molly Bang’s Ten Nine Eight (Greenwillow, 1983), Bill Martin Jr.’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (S. & S., 1989), Donald Crews’s Freight Train (Greenwillow, 1978), and Tana Hoban’s stunning photographic works. Like these well-known standards, the best new additions to the concept book canon work because of their strong combination of rich art, text, and design. They range from titles for toddlers just beginning to learn simple concepts to those for children who are ready to explore the concepts more deeply. Apps are taking concept-learning to new places as well, and with gentle guidance, preschoolers and kindergarteners can interact creatively with both books and tablets. Most importantly, our youngest learners can take their knowledge out for a walk to discover the shape and size of a building or an insect, to count everything they see, or to notice the letters on signs, all of which set the learning-to-read process further in motion. For young children, these small steps are very big indeed. The following titles feature new takes on the classic concepts that will strengthen and brighten any collection.


BAKER , Keith. LMNO Peas. illus. by author. S. & S./Beach Lane. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781416991410; board $7.99. ISBN 9781442489783; ebk. $11.99. ISBN 9781439159040.
PreS-Gr 1–From A to Z, colorful capital letters dominate each page, setting the stage for a swarm of tiny, industrious…peas. In lively rhymes, the peas use the alphabet to celebrate all that they are: “We’re listeners, miners, and neighbors right next door.” Amusing details bring fun to letter recognition. See Little Green Peas: A Big Book of Colors (2014) and 1-2-3 Peas (2012) for equally cheery presentations.

ESCOFFIER, Michaël. Take Away the A. illus. by Kris Di Giacomo. Enchanted Lion. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781592701568.
K-Gr 3–For those who have a handle on how the alphabet goes, this text shows how it works. With one example per letter, clever design and engaging art vignettes help new and pre-readers grasp that “Without the G the GLOVE falls in LOVE” and “Without the N the MOON says Moo.”

JEFFERS, Oliver. Once upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters. illus. by author. Philomel. 2014. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780399167911; ebk. $12.99. ISBN 9780698196322.
K-Gr 3–This madcap collection of 26 concise stories hinges on the alphabet. Jeffers uses one or two sentences per page and advanced vocabulary and alliteration, and his plots veer theatrically from sweet to dark to funny to strange, occasionally connecting everything together. Entertaining pen-and-ink art deepens this exploration of letters (capital and lowercase) and words.

SIERRA, Judy. The Sleepy Little Alphabet: A Bedtime Story from Alphabet Town . illus. by Melissa Sweet. Knopf. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780375840029; board $6.99. ISBN 9780385754002; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780449819302.
PreS-Gr 2–Rhyming text tells how the capital letters struggle to put the lowercase letters to bed: “m is mopey, n is naughty. Ooops! o and p upset the potty.” Warm, colorful illustrations allow the letters to stand out while providing fun details to catch on revisits, making for great alphabet practice.



APPELT, Kathi. Counting Crows! illus. by Rob Dunlavey. S. & S./Atheneum. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442423275; ebk. $12.99. ISBN 9781442483323.
PreS-Gr 1–A dozen sharp black crows sporting red-and-white stripes frolic on white backgrounds. Through the pages, they count themselves and their snacks (mangoes, spicy ants, slimy snails) up to 12—until they encounter the cat. The text’s jazzy rhythm suits the movement in the illustrations and encourages repeat readings.

COUSINS, Lucy. Count with Maisy, Cheep, Cheep, Cheep! illus. by author. Candlewick. 2015. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9780763676438.
PreS-K–Mommy Hen needs to get her 10 chicks to bed, but first she must find them. Maisy and readers go along to help, locating one behind every flap on the bright, lively pages. Clear numerals label each chick, allowing for plenty of counting until all 10 are snoring in the coop.

FLOCA, Brian. Five Trucks. illus. by the author. S. & S./Atheneum. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481405935; ebk. $12.99. ISBN 9781481405942.
PreS-K–“Five drivers for five trucks.” Readers count using ordinal numbers from first to fifth and back down again while exploring the trucks on the airport tarmac. Bold visuals in soft watercolors complement the purposeful text, which with few words skillfully conveys all the preparation that goes into the last page’s “takeoff!”

LIGHT, Steve. Have You Seen My Dragon? illus. by author. Candlewick. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763666484.
PreS-Gr 2–One dragon is loose in New York. Though the creature is hard to miss, its owner searches through the graphically pleasing pages while readers find other objects from one to 20 (two hot dogs, three buses). In the black-and-white illustrations, bright color unifies and highlights the countable objects within the busy city.

MALONEY, Peter & Felicia Zekauskas. One Foot, Two Feet: An EXCEPTIONal Counting Book. illus. by authors. Putnam. 2011. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9780399254468; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781101643372.
PreS-Gr 1–From one to 10, this book features irregular plural nouns. “One foot. Two feet. One mouse. Three mice.” Bright, sturdy pages with cutouts turn one object into more with every page turn—count and find the number. A progression of the previous items and numerals along the bottom offers opportunities for recounting.

OHMURA, Tomoko. The Long, Long Line. illus. by author. Owlkids. 2013. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781926973920.
PreS-Gr 2–Why are all these animals standing in line? Starting at the end with “#50 Frog,” the book counts backward while bright cartoon art shows hilarious line-behavior along the way—pushing, whining (“I’m tired of waiting!”), and other antics. When sophisticated counters get to one, they are in for a treat worthy of repeat trips through the line.


Endless Alphabet. Originator, Inc. 2015. Version 1.9. iOS, requires 5.1.1 or later. Compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. $2.99. (Accessed 5/26/15).
PreS-Gr 1–Funny monsters and wiggly, dynamic letters encourage children to learn letter names and sounds. While navigating letters to proper places, users can also absorb a bit of spelling and vocabulary.

Metamorphabet. Vectorpark, Inc. 2015. Version 1.03. iOS, requires 7.0 or later. Compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. $3.99. (Accessed 5/26/15).

PreS-Gr 2–Playful letters respond to the coaxes of users’ fingers in this graphically enticing and engaging alphabet and vocabulary exploration. The “A” sprouts antlers, becomes an arch, and ambles around the screen until users elect to try another letter.

Press Here: The App. Chronicle Books. 2012. Version 1.0. iOS, requires 3.2 or later. Compatible with iPad. $1.99. (Accessed 5/26/15).

PreS-Gr 2–Inspired by Hervé Tullet’s popular interactive concept book, this app allows users to learn through the exploration of color, shape, and sound. Each session can be a unique experience driven by the user’s own creativity.

Spot the Dot. Ruckus Media Group. 2013. Version 1.1. iOS, requires 5.1 or later. Compatible with iPad. $2.99. (Accessed 5/26/15).

PreS-Gr 1–David A. Carter’s app supports those gaining familiarity with colors and shapes. Users find the dot in each challenge by tapping, sliding, and interacting with the device and the other shapes and colors.
10 Fingers +. Marbotic. 2014. Version 3.9. iOS, requires 4.3 or later. Compatible with iPad. $1.99. (Accessed 5/26/15).
PreS-Gr 1–While children naturally count on their fingers, this app connects that practice to numerals and math. Users manipulate the program by putting the correct number of fingers on the touchscreen or using separately purchased wooden blocks.

Shapes and Colors

BINGHAM, Kelly. Circle, Square, Moose. illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. Greenwillow. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062290038; lib. ed. $18.89. ISBN 9780062290045.
PreS-Gr 2–A sandwich is a square, until Moose turns it into a triangle with one big bite. Humorous full-color drawings follow Moose and his buddy Zebra as they disrupt a carefully planned presentation on shapes. When the frustrated narrator calls it quits, the rambunctious stars of Z Is for Moose (2012) steal the show.

HALL, Michael. Perfect Square. illus. by author. Greenwillow. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780061915130.
PreS-Gr 2–The book starts with a happy red square. On Monday it is cut to pieces. On Tuesday it is torn into scraps. The square always rebounds and turns into something amazing. Seamlessly integrating concepts of color, shape, and days of the week, this story inspires both resiliency and art projects.

SEEGER, Laura Vaccaro. Green. illus. by author. Roaring Brook. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781596433977.
PreS-Gr 2–Lush, textured double-page spreads offer readers an in-depth study of the color green. Small cutouts deftly tie page turns together so that “forest green” leads to “sea green” to “lime green.” What defines green becomes more and more thought-provoking throughout until the penultimate wordless spread of a boy planting a seed leads finally to “forever green.”

TULLET, Hervé. Mix It Up! illus. by author. Chronicle. 2014. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781452137353.
PreS-Gr 1–This brilliantly executed participatory look at color theory by the author of Press Here (2011) starts with a small gray spot. Touching the spot brings colors to life on the white backgrounds. Physically interacting with the sturdy pages of textured paint splotches as directed demonstrates how to make primary colors into secondary colors and manipulate color with white and black.

WOLFF, Ashley. Baby Bear Sees Blue. illus. by author. S. & S./Beach Lane. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781442413061; board $7.99. ISBN 9781481415033; ebk. $11.76. ISBN 9781442449893.
PreS-Gr 1–As Baby Bear explores with his senses (“What smells so good, Mama?” “Those are the strawberries,”) he notices the associated color (“Baby Bear sees red.”). Hand-colored linoleum block prints work with the gentle narrative to evoke the sounds, smells, sights, and tactile pleasures of spring along with its bursts of color to identify and enjoy.

Size and Perspective

BOYD , Lizi. Inside Outside. illus. by author. Chronicle. 2013. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781452106441.
PreS-Gr 2–An intriguing wordless book done in gouache on kraft paper explores the concept of inside and outside of a boy’s house through the seasons of the year. Window cutouts in the pages tie the rooms inside to the yard outside, allowing for contrasting viewpoints. There are stories to discover on every page with small details to notice and follow throughout.

COLE, Henry. Big Bug. illus. by author. Little Simon. 2014. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9781442498976; ebk. $12.99. ISBN 9781442498990.
PreS-Gr 2–Like a camera zooming out, this absorbing concept book of scale and perspective shows the relative nature of “big” and “little” with a subtle visual narrative. In the rich, painterly illustrations, a big ladybug looks little compared to the leaf, which then looks little compared to the flower. The big sky flips the idea, zooming in so that little becomes big.

KLAUSMEIER, Jesse. Open This Little Book. illus. by Suzy Lee. Chronicle. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780811867832.
PreS-Gr 2–Within the covers of this normal-size picture book, readers find a smaller red book about a ladybug opening an even smaller green book about a frog. Klausmeier uses shrinking pages opened by bigger and bigger creatures to demonstrate size and color. When the giant needs help with his tiny book, the plot turns, reversing the order to a book-loving conclusion. White space showcases the pencil-and-watercolor art.

SHEA, Susan A. Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? illus. by Tom Slaughter. Blue Apple. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781609050627.
PreS-Gr 1–In rhyming, interactive verses, the title’s general question is parsed out in many ways. “If a duckling grows and becomes a duck, can a car grow and become…a truck?” A bright, clean design with painted paper collage features sturdy flaps and cutouts that reveal the answers and keep the guessing game visually rewarding.

All Together Now!

FLEMING, Denise. Shout! Shout It Out! illus. by author. Holt. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780805092370; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781466812857.
PreS-Gr 1–Getting confident with basic concepts becomes more fun with a little noise. This bright book energized with rich patterns and colors encourages children to shout out what they know—numbers 1 through 10, letters, colors, animals, and modes of transportation. This diverse cast of characters makes basic concept practice a wonderfully boisterous event.

Julie Roach is the Manager of Youth Services at the Cambridge Public Library, Cambridge, MA.

This article was published in School Library Journal's July 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.