Boy, I tell you. You get a kid and suddenly you find yourself scheming all these crazy schemes. "I'm going to get my kid to like vegetables!" "I'm going to get my kid to appreciate classical music!" "I'm going to get my kid to like math!" Crazy, right? I mean the first two seem doable, but the third? I'm an English major, guys. What are the chances that I'm even capable of instilling a math love in my offspring? To the rescue comes a new generation of picture books for kids with math-centric concepts. I'm not talking about books that take a math problem, turn it into a story, and somehow that's going to magically get kids excited about integers. No, I'm talking about math books that practically dare kids to deny the pleasure of counting, estimating, etc. Such books most certainly exist, though it takes some digging to locate them. Now at long last we've a book that not only encourages kids to count on their own, but hits them over the head with a number they may hear all the time but could never quite comprehend. Until now.
Emma and Aiden. They like their jelly beans, they do. When Emma is asked how many she'd prefer she opts for a standard "Ten!" Not to be outdone, her brother Aiden asks for "Twenty!" So naturally Emma asks for twenty-five, and Aiden sees her twenty-five and raises the number to fifty. At a certain point, of course, Emma points out to her bro that when it comes to numbers like five hundred jelly beans (and you can see all five hundred on the table in front of them) there's no way a person could eat that many. Aiden points out that in a year he could eat as many as a thousand. Up and up and up the numbers go, with more and more jelly beans filling the pages until at long last you reach the thrilling conclusion. Turn the page and you find some folded pages. On one side the kids are suggesting a MILLION jelly beans. Well, as it just so happens, that's how many fill these folded pages. And finally, at long last, Aiden concedes that maybe a million, just maybe, might be too much.
It's nice when you can imagine how a book's going to be used. Author Andrea Menotti also happens to be a Senior Editor at Chronicle Books (whatta coincidence!). Her goal here was to give the book the barest outline of a skeleton of a plot on which to hang the art and those images of copious delicious colorful sugar bombs that appear on every page. The ending, I'll tell you right now, relies on the shock of the number rather than the interaction between the two kids. Basically the dare at the end of the book that one number or another is "too many" is finally accepted. So there you go. When you first open it up you come to a two-page spread where Emma is being offered ten jellybeans. At this point a certain strain of child is going to insist on counting those beans, just to make sure the author and illustrator got it right. They'll probably be the same kids that count the twenty and there's a chance they may make it to fifty, seventy-five, or a hundred. After that, it's anybody's guess. Due to the nature of the book the beans are shrunk down more and more until you get to the end and the miniscule jelly dots sprinkled all over the pages. Even so, I like to imagine the kid who will sit down on the floor and begin the process of counting to a million. I wonder how far they'll get. I wonder if anyone will congratulate them on their progress.
The trim size of the book is going to be a problem, I'll tell you that right now. Where most picture books are around a cheery 10" X 9" or so, this book stands at an impressive 14.5 by 11 inches. Undoubtedly this is to accommodate the massive poster-like gatefold in the back of the book. A million jellybeans don't appear without a little help, after all. For personal and home libraries this shouldn't be a huge problem. You just turn this puppy onto its side and slide it onto your shelf that way. Libraries may have a bit more difficulty, of course, but it's not as if this is the biggest book they've ever seen or anything. My hope is that a lot of them tackle the problem by putting this book out on display more often than not. Then everybody wins. As for the gatefold in the back, I won't lie to you. It'll get ripped. Absolutely it will. Unfolding it carries all the potential disaster that comes when you unfold a map on a road trip. You know there's only one way to fold it back up that'll fit in the back of the book and you also know that the odds of getting it right are stacked against you. That said, I still say it's worth it. Because right now I'm imagining the expression on the face of the kid that reaches the end of the book and doesn't realize what's coming. And that right there makes all the difference.
Illustrator Yancey Labat has a sweet inked style that looks like nothing so much as LeUyen Pham crossed with Chris Raschka. Or, put another way, it's super cute. A former penciler for Marvel, it shouldn't surprise much of anyone that Labat's art in this particular book is of the digital persuasion. Before the era of computers I shudder to think how else you could possibly cram a million jelly beans in the back of a book (though I suspect maybe Peter Sis could do it). The beans themselves do look rather digital even at the start. They're just a little too smooth. A little too perfect. The kids and their dog, however, look completely hand drawn. They're not, I suspect, but I like how their natural lines and brushstrokes contrast with the seeming perfection of the jelly beans in their midst.
We live in an era of millions, billions, and trillions. When our government officials discuss these large numbers they're so huge that we can't even wrap our heads around them. In this light How Many Jelly Beans? fills a desperate need. Our kids have to understand how big something like "a million" really is. They have to feel the heft and the weight and the scope and the power of the amount. Sure, there are books like How Much Is a Million? which attempt to make the case by putting the number into distances, but there's a lot to be said for a book that actually physically shows you what you're dealing with. This book brings numbers home to kid readers. And after they go through it I can guarantee that they'll never write off the idea of a million anything ever again.
For ages 4-8.