Picture books are an engaging way to reinforce math concepts for young children. There are six foundational math skills that young children are working on: number sense, representation, shapes and spatial relationships, measurement, patterns and problem solving. Most children’s books about math fall into the counting book category, which is all about number sense and representation, so I’ll first list counting books, and then list other books that focus on more specific skills.
Counting Books – Number Sense and Representation
Ten Little Fish by Wood and Wood. Age 2 – 5. A counting book with cute illustrations, simple text. Nice rhythm and rhyme to the text (it’s a classic counting game rhythm that goes as far back as Ten Little Injuns from 1868): “Ten little fish, swimming in a line. One dives down and now there are… ” and as you read it, the children will, of course, shout “nine!” It counts down to one, then there’s an interesting twist at the end. “One little fish. What will he do? Along comes another fish, and that makes… two little fish in love with one another. Soon one is a father, and the other is a mother! But mother and father don’t count. Just ten little fish – swimming in a line.”
Ten Black Dots by Crews. Age 2 – 5. “What can you do with ten black dots? One dot can make the sun or a moon when day is done… eight dots can make the wheels of a train carrying freight through sun and rain…” Each page has an illustration featuring big black dots woven in to an illustration. Then at the end there are just black dots to count. This book is a classic, but not my favorite.
Fish, Swish! Splash, Dash!: Counting Round and Round by Suse MacDonald. Age 3 – 6. A terribly clever design for a counting book. As you read forward in the book, it counts up from one to ten. Then when you reach the end, you flip it over and count down from ten to one. Nice illustration style, with cool see-thru die cuts that are intriguing in both directions.
Roly-Poly Puppies by Moore. Age 2 – 5. Sweet little rhyming story with adorable puppies: “one roly poly puppy sleeps in the hay, here comes another puppy, he wants to play.” Counts 1 – 10.
Five Little Ducks by Raffi. Baby to 3. The words from the song in a book with illustrations. Counts down from 5 – 0. And 10 Rubber Duckies by William Winburn. 2 – 4 years. Starts with 10 rubber ducks, and one-by-one they fall in to the tub. These are both countdown songs/stories where kids are introduced to the idea of zero, and they have a really great rhyme and rhythm – easy for kids to predict what will happen next and easy to memorize! Try acting these songs out with rubber ducks or handmade duck puppets.
One Duck Stuck by Phyllis Root. (Be sure to get the full version, not the board book – it’s abridged, and you miss some of the great language.) Fabulous rhyming, rhythmic words and fun marshland creatures. “Two fish, tails going swish, swim to the duck. Splish, splish. No luck – the duck stays stuck. A counting book, from 1 to 10.
The Stephen Cartwright 123. This was once sold through Usborne books, but you can sometimes find used copies via Amazon and other booksellers. My favorite counting book of all time. Great rhyme and rhythm for reading aloud, and LOTS of details to reward repeat readings. For example, on the number 7 page, there’s seven of everything… 7 characters, 7 windows, 7 vases, etc. At the bottom of each page, there’s a picture of all the characters we’ve met so far so you can review who’s who. On each page, there’s a hidden rubber duck to search for. Also has a British flair. Counts 1 – 20.
Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef by Berkes and Canyon. This is an absolutely delightful book – perhaps one of my favorite kids’ non-fiction books ever. It’s so good that I wrote a whole post all about it and other books by the same author. There’s text set to a familiar tune you can sing, amazing illustrations, nice collection of facts, fun counting book. Highly recommended! Age 3 – 7.
Old MacDonald’s Farm (Poke-A-Dot!). The Old McDonald song combined with a counting book – “and on this farm he had eight chickens.” This book has a “gimmick” where you poke at these little plastic dots and they “pop.” (Like bubble wrap you can use again and again.) It is a fabulous book for teaching one-to-one correspondence in counting. They can pop each bubble only once, counting as they go, and can see if they miss one.
There are several books with a similar gimmick, where’s there’s textured objects to touch – on one page you can feel all ten, but on the next page one disappears and you can only feel nine, and so on. Books include Ten Little Ladybugs, Ten Playful Penguins, Good Night Sweet Butterflies, and more
Mouse Shapes by Walsh. Age 1 – 5. Kids love the mouse books. This one tells of mice who assemble shapes together to scare off a cat.
The Shape Of Things by Dodds. 3-6 years. How shapes combine to make objects. Fun way to both learn about and recognize shapes, and also learn how to construct pictures from shapes.
Color Zoo by Ehlert. Shows animal faces made up of basic geometric shapes. This is a book with just one word per page, so if you need an example of how you might share it with a child, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1y_vvetTZk.
Circle Square Moose. Age 3 – 5. Nice presentation of examples of shapes (pizza slice or pie slice are a triangle) interspersed with silliness from a moose. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDa54gGrk0U
When a Line Bends . . . A Shape Begins by Greene. Ages 4 – 7. “An octagon has many sides. All counted, there are eight. You see it at the corner. It tells the cars to wait.” This is a nice tie-in between art and science concepts as it talks about how a line is just a line until it “closes” to make a shape.
The Greedy Triangle (Scholastic Bookshelf) by Burns. 4 – 8 years. A greedy triangle goes to the shapeshifter to add another angle, and poof he’s a quadrilateral. He keeps adding angles and becoming new shapes.
Inch by Inch by Lionni. A story about an inchworm who saves himself from being eaten by a robin by saying “I am useful. I measure things.” And he goes on to measure the robin’s tail, flamingo’s neck, toucan’s beak, and onward, until the nightingale demands he measure her song. He inches away. Nice illustrations, nice engaging story. Ages 3 – 6, nice read-aloud.
Super Sand Castle Saturday by Murphy. Age 4 or 5 to 7. Three kids are in a sand castle competition to see who can build the tallest castle, the deepest moat, and the longest wall. They measure the castles with their shovels, but the shovels are different lengths, so the one that’s 3 shovels tall is really about the same height as the one that’s 2 other-shovels tall. They measure the moats with spoons, and the walls with feet / paces. All inaccurate measurements. Then judge for competition uses tape measure to measure each. Engaging story (for older kids) and pictures, and illustrates both how to measure and why standardization matters.
Mighty Maddie by Murphy. For kindergarten age. Story line talks about Maddie cleaning her room, and noticing that some things are heavy and some things are light. Semi-engaging story, good illustrations. But there wasn’t as much focus on measurement as I wanted. If I was teaching a class just on weight, it would be a better option.
Millions to Measure by Schwartz. Ages 6 – 7. Talks about history of measurement: how if one person measured how many feet (paces) from one place to another, they might come up with a different answer than someone with bigger or smaller feet. Then talks about standardized measurements.
How Tall, How Short, How Far Away? by Adler. Ages 6 to 8. Talks about measurements in ancient Egypt and Rome. Talks about how standardized measures developed, the imperial system, and the metric system. It’s a good discussion of the history of measurement, but over the heads of kids 5 and under. (Even if the cover of the book looks like it’s aimed at young kids… )
The Long and Short of It by Nathan. Age 5 – 6. Compares things to other things. I like the idea, but don’t like the execution, because the items it compares with are too obscure and abstract. Saying an orangutan has fingers as long as hot dogs makes sense. But saying a giant panda’s fingers are shorter than yo-yos is just odd. So is “Could you fit an aardvark’s snout in your lunch box? … a pig’s snout would fit. It’s shorter than your thermos.” And a “chameleon’s tongue is … longer than a fire hydrant.” Who lays a hydrant on its side as a measurement device? Great illustrations, and probably engaging to read, but I just don’t like it.
For Good Measure by Robbins. Best for 8 to 10-year-olds, I think… The pictures are beautiful to adults – not sure whether or not they would appeal to kids. Covers things like miles, furlongs, rods, leagues, acres, sections, fluid ounce, bushel, peck, etc. Great discussion of all the units of measurement, but far beyond our age group.
Quack and Count by Baker. Age 2 to 3. Each pair of pages shows 7 ducklings, divided between left and right page in various combinations: “7 ducklings, 3 plus 4. Quack-quack-quacking on the shore” has 3 ducks on the left page, and 4 on the right.
12 Ways to Get to 11 (Aladdin Picture Books) by Merriam. Age 5 – 6. I like some pages “At the circus, six peanut shells and five pieces of popcorn.” But I think “six bites, a core, a stem, and three apple seeds” is confusing. Yes, the numbers involved add up to 11, but they are all parts of a single whole apple.
One Is a Snail, Ten is a Crab: A Counting by Feet Book by Sayre. Age 5 – 6. A counting book with a STEM twist where they count how many feet appear on the page. Sample pages: “5 is a dog and a snail.” “10 is a crab. And that means 20 is two crabs. 30 is three crabs or ten people and a crab.” “100 is ten crabs…. or, if you’re really counting slowly… one hundred snails!” I like that they illustrate that there are different combinations that yield the same results.
Ten for Me by Mariconda. Two children try to catch butterflies. On each page, the total number caught adds up to ten. At first, the boy catches 10, and the girl 0. But then she reads a butterfly field guide and starts adding items that will appeal to butterflies, like tucking a few flowers into her hat, and some brown leaves for camouflage. Soon, they’re each catching five. By the end of the book, he catches zero and she catches 10. Engaging way to show all the ways you can add different combinations of numbers to get ten. And teaches about butterflies in the process.
Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Dean. A counting down from 4 to 0 book, as Pete keeps losing buttons. “One of the buttons popped off and rolled away. Now how many buttons are left? 4 – 1 = 3.”
Elevator Magic by Murphy. From the cover “When the elevator goes down, the subtraction starts and so does the magic. Ben sees crazy things every time the door opens.”
Ten, Nine, Eight by Bang. A “Ten small toes all washed and warm,” begins the story, and then young readers journey toward tuck-in time, counting down along with the story’s Black father and daughter.
Splash by Jonas. Video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUg_DEw_GVA. Count how many animals are in the pond. The dog jumps in. Now how many are in the pond? The turtle climbs out, now how many are in the pond?.
More Math Skills
I work with young children, so I haven’t done as much with these skills, but wanted to share the books I have seen recommended.
Multiply on the Fly by Slade. 6 to 8 years. Scientifically accurate and appealing illustrations of a wide variety of bugs fill each page. “Six sturdy soldier ants march around the yard. Each uses five small eyes. How many eyes stand guard? 6 x 5 = ?” Extensive collection of related resources in the back of the book and online include info on insect anatomy, a matching quiz, info on life cycles with a compare and contrast section, coloring pages, and teaching activities.
Other ideas: Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar by Masaichiro. The 12 Circus RIngs by Chwast. Each Orange has 8 Slices by Giganti.
Betcha by Murphy. Counting on Frank, Counting Jennie by Pittman, How Much is a Million by Schwartz.
The Doorbell Rang by Hutchins. Fraction Action by Leedy. Eating Fractions by McMillan.
The MathStart series of books
Stuart J. Murphy has written over 60 books for the MathStart series on every elementary math topic. They are all worth a read, with engaging stories and effective teaching of math skills. The books feature diverse storylines designed to appeal to the age of the children likely to be reading this book, with a very wide variety of illustration styles. For example:
- Level 1 books are for ages 3 and up. Monster Musical Chairs is about subtracting one, and features rhyming text telling about goofy monsters in a game of musical chairs. Circus Shapes is about recognizing shapes, and shows colorful circus animals building shapes.
- Level 2 is for ages 6 and up. Captain Invincible and the Space Shapes features comic book style illustrations and a plot where a space captain and his dog use shapes to combat interplanetary hazards. A Fair Bear Share tells of a mama bear sending her children out to gather nuts and berries. As they count them, we learn about re-grouping.
- Level 3 is ages 7 and up. The text and plot are more complex and often feature older kids the reader can relate to. Betcha! Estimating is about estimating, ad tells of two kids on a bus ride where one issues a question, the other estimates the answer and the questioner takes the time to count it out. The estimates are never perfectly right, but they’re close each time. Dinosaur Deals is about equivalent value, and shows how a boy and his brother trade lower value dinosaur trading cards (stegosaurus) for high value cards (t-rex). (Note: a few of the level 3’s are more “childish” in plot and style, like Jump, Kangaroo, Jump! and Too Many Kangaroo Things to Do! Those may not appeal as much to older kids.)
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Covers a wide range of math skills, not just those listed above, but also odds and evens, matching, probability, re-grouping, capacity, and more.
Each book also includes a two page section at the back with ideas for parents/teachers on how to extend the learning – questions to ask as you go through the book together, activities to try with everyday materials to practice the skills, and ways to look for places to use that math skill in their everyday travels. (Note: you can find many of these activities on the MathStart website at Activities www.mathstart.net/free-activities.html.) Also, each book includes recommendations for three other books on related concepts. I love this! (Many publishers only want to promote their own books by their own authors, and I appreciate that Murphy and his publisher Harper Collins prioritize connecting parents and teachers to other great learning resources for kids.)
Find the full list of MathStart books here: http://www.mathstart.net/.
I’m looking forward to checking out this series, which shows children solving everyday challenges with math. Features diverse characters, including Native American, Indian American and more.
Also check out 10 books to spark a love of math.
My post on the developmental stages of math learning includes links to LOTS of other great sources of ideas for getting kids engaged with math learning. Also check out my posts on number sense, representation, shapes and spatial relationships, and measurement. And this one about doing Bedtime Math, just like you do bedtime stories, and other ways to incorporate math learning in your day.
Note: the links to books are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on those and then choose to purchase anything on Amazon, I do receive a small referral fee.