by Polly Alakija
(Janetta Otter-Barry Books, Frances Lincoln, 2014)
Inside the cover of Counting Chickens you find a mesmerising collection of overlapping nests containing a varied number of eggs, all waiting to be counted. Immediately expectations are raised that this is going to be a treat of a counting story – and you will not be disappointed.
Narrated in simple language, Counting Chickens nevertheless packs an emotional punch, while taking young readers through both cardinal and ordinal numbers. Tobi dearly loves his hen, but he finds it hard not to feel slightly let down by her just sitting there on her nest, when all his friends are enjoying their animals’ new offspring.
We follow Tobi’s hen through the days of the week as she lays an egg a day. Meanwhile, Tobi’s friends are celebrating – on Monday, a calf; on Tuesday, two lambs; on Wednesday, three kids, and so forth. While they enjoy playing with the baby animals, with plenty of antics shown in the illustrations, Tobi is left waiting and waiting. The image of him sitting beside his hen is heart-rending, conveying perfectly the blend of staunch loyalty and disappointment he feels.
But of course, the waiting is worth it in the end; and Tobi perhaps has the last laugh because the situation the following year, as shown in the final double-page spread, is very different. In fact, there are chickens everywhere, and the story ends with an invitation to readers to count them all, thereby setting a challenge beyond the usual 1-10 scope of a child’s counting book. Indeed, the stunning illustrations are so packed with detail that throughout the book there is plenty of opportunity for counting beyond the immediate narrative.
Counting Chickens, as a title, conveys an echo of the proverb ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch’: a gentle tease of Tobi, who spends three weeks doing just that. By the end, however, Tobi’s family is running a thriving business offering eggs and chickens for sale. Once the story is known, children will be able to follow its development through the illustrations: for in the background of Tobi’s disconsolate waiting, his family is busy setting up the new enterprise.
The book’s creator, Polly Alakija, divides her time between the UK and her family’s farm in Nigeria. Counting Chickens has a finely observed, firmly contemporary setting, with plastic bottles hanging alongside the traditional gourds, for example, or Tobi’s friend Dapo on his mobile phone to spread the news of his new piglets. The book is also a good introduction for young children to the notion of the potential of one chicken: indeed, Counting Chickens would be an excellent precursor to One Hen: How One Loan Made a Big Difference, by Katie Smith Milway (Kids Can Press, 2008), which introduces middle-grade readers to micro-financing.
On all levels, Counting Chickens is an excellent picture book.