Stories that teach … and delight

The best picture books often accomplish a lot of things. They can:

  • Tell a story readers will want to hear more than once.
  • Help readers feel something — and understand what they’re feeling.
  • Introduce readers to new concepts and information.
  • Make readers feel seen and understood.
  • Encourage readers to wonder.

But, as picture book creators know, doing some or all of these things in 32 pages and a limited number of words is difficult.

Where should the focus be? What’s the right balance? How do all these elements hang together properly and actually become a book and not, as a bookstore owner once said to me with disdain, “a book-like product”?

It’s not easy.

But, the best books do some or all of these things very well. (I think GRACE FOR PRESIDENT by Kelly DiPuchhio and LeUyen Pham and HOW MANY SEEDS IN A PUMPKIN by Margaret McNamara and G. Brian Karas hit every point perfectly if you’re looking for mentor texts.)

Today, however, I’m going to talk about COUNT THE STARS by Raewyn Caisley and Gabriel Evans (2023, Walker Books). Your first thought might understandably be of Lois Lowry’s classic, Newbery Award winning, middle grade, historical fiction NUMBER THE STARS, which is absolutely worth reading.

But, this book is not that. This book is a picture book, and it’s about math. And how you can find math everywhere in your everyday life.

Because my sister and her husband both have doctorates in math, I’ve read a lot of math picture books. Many are good, but others struggle to balance the math they’re trying to teach/share with an engaging story. I understand that. It’s easy to get caught up in the skill and have that take over the book.

But, COUNT THE STARS doesn’t let that happen. It’s the story of Maddie, who looks at the world differently than some of her friends. It opens with these lines:

Maddie liked the shadows the blinds made on her wall early in the morning. Dad said they were parallel. It meant lines that would stay the same distance apart, even if they went on forever. Maddie loved thinking about things like that.

The story then shows other things Maddie loves thinking about. Like how music and baking are made up of quarters, halves and wholes. How some flowers are symmetrical and some garden paths contain tessellations. (On a personal note, I didn’t learn what tessellation was until I was a fully formed adult helping my second-grader with her homework. Unsuprisingly, I called my sister who explained it to me.)

Maddie takes all her observations and uses them to figure out things like how many flowers and petals there probably are in her garden and how to make change when she helps her dad at the school lunch table.

Maddie’s family and teacher encourage her mathematical thinking, but Maddie sometimes feels out of place at school when her classmates aren’t as interested as she is in how circles can become cones or rectanges can become cylinders.

Until, one day, a new classmate arrives who also gets stars on her math worksheets and is happy to talk about angles, degrees and the speed of light.

The book explains all these math terms — along with others — but those explanations serve the story of Maddie finding a friend whose head works the same way. And, the explanations help readers who might not naturally be as mathematically inclined understand why Maddie finds all these facts so fascinating. That’s important because the best picture books support empathy and help us understand and appreciate people who aren’t just like us.

The book also has a lot of heart with the grown-ups in Maddie’s life who support her, Maddie feeling like she might not fit in with her friends, and Maddie’s ongoing wonder at all the things that are still out there to think about and discover.

And, now, a related personal story: As you might expect, my sister and her husband passed their mathematical thinking on to their two childen. When their youngest was in kindergaren, the teacher asked the students to go sit on the square rug for story-time.

Riley pointed out that the rug wasn’t actually square, it was a rectangle, because squares have four equal sides and this rug did not. The teacher — bless her heart — listened to Riley and suggested that they measure the rug to find out for sure. So, the class measured each side and discovered Riley was correct. The rug WAS a rectangle.

I could write a picture book about this called RILEY AND THE RUG THAT WAS REALLY A RECTANGLE. But, that’s a project for another day. Anyway, COUNT THE STARS would have been a great book for Riley and the class to read afterward. If it had existed then.

If you decide to look for this book — and you should — you might find that there are two versions with the same text and interior illustrations but different titles and covers.

In addition to 2023’s COUNT THE STARS from Walker Books, which is pictured at the top of this post, there’s IMAGINE COUNTING ALL THE STARS coming from Candlewick in June. I think this might be the U.S. version of the orignal Australian publication. But, I am not sure.

Either way, it’s a lovely book.


  1. Thank you for this lovely post, Pat, and for introducing Count The Stars. Sounds like it goes a long way toward normalizing math concepts that can seem out of reach for many.

  2. Debra Kempf Shumaker

    Wow, I love the sound of this book. My two oldest kids have been mathematically inclined from day 1. My oldest, at 2 1/2, could count in the hundreds, read numbers in 1000s and 10,000s, tell time on an analog clock, and in Kindergarten bought in the Electoral College Map on Election Day for show and tell and proceeded to explain how the numbers would work for Obama or McCain to each win. So he and your niece sound like kindred spirits! He would have loved this book!

  3. Claire W Bobrow

    This book sounds wonderful, even to a math-phobe like me! My local library system doesn’t have it, so I suggested the title. I look forward to reading it!

  4. Asking my library to purchase this one, right this very minute!

  5. danielle hammelef

    I loved the kindergarten related story! I really hope the teacher started calling the rug the “Rectangle Reading Rug” from that point on.

  6. I’ll have to read this one for sure. Sounds wonderful!

  7. This sounds fantastic, Pat! What an engaging way to show math concepts. I’m going to do a purchase request as my library doesn’t carry it, but needs to!!

  8. I agree Pat, the story has to come first. Counting the Stars looks perfect!!! Thank you for shining a light on this.

  9. Oooo I love a kid who sees parallel lines through blinds. Looking at the two books on Amazon, they appear identical storylines. But we get it here in the US! Yea!

  10. I wish these books had been around when my daughter was young. They would have made a big difference in helping her understand math.

  11. Sounds like a great book! I’ll keep my eyes open for it! Thanks, Pat!

  12. Thanks for featuring this book Pat. It’s so hard to bring kids information in an engaging way. Fabulous!

  13. Becky Adamski Krische

    This book sounds wonderful! I love the idea of understanding and conceiving of math and science in this child-focused manner. I can’t wait to ask for this book at my library!

  14. I am not in the math club, but this sounds wonderful. An introduction to practical math concepts in a story about feeling alone and finding a friend. I’m adding this to my list of books to read.

  15. Thanks for spotlighting this book, Pat! I will suggest it for the local library. When my daughter was young, she was very math-oriented, and I would’ve loved a book like this for her.

  16. This looks like a great book to share with kids at storytime. I’m already in love with the main character!

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