Alison Jay’s 123 is a marvel. It’s a counting book, yes, but the illustrations are magical. The more Owen grows the more he can seek and find the numbered treasures lurking on every page.
The story is framed as a dream, beginning with “one little girl sleeping” and ending with the same little girl waking. In between, we count up to ten and back again as the girl dreams of her involvement in familiar fairy tales (“three little pigs”; “four frog princes”; “seven marching dwarfs”). Images from the little girl’s room recur as well – a piggy bank on her windowsill becomes the three little pigs, her stuffed goose toy an avenue into adventure (“two soaring wings”) as well as the goose who lays “nine golden eggs.” Owen was on a goose kick for a while and at that point the story was not about counting but about “goose! goose! goose! no goose [shrug], no goose [shrug], goose!”
In every image, in addition to the main item to count (four royal mattresses), there are several other objects and animals in the same multiple (four deer on a tapestry, four cushions, a four poster bed). These are rich drawings, full of detail and imagination. The girl’s dream is also a journey through these fairytales, which Jay links geographically in the dream landscape. Before we turn the page to the three little pigs, we can see the big bad wolf peeking in their window in the distance. We see a sign to Hamelin Town before we encounter the pied piper and his “eight running rats.”
The journey aspect of the book reminds me of a story told to my sister and me by our live-in neighbour Duffie, when we were small. Duffie and Debbie lived in an apartment attached to our house and since they were good friends of my parents, they parented us a little as well. Duffie was (and likely still is) a phenomenal storyteller. For one tale in particular, Erin and I would rush into his apartment before bedtime and he would pull out the map (that he expanded as the story grew). I can’t remember the details of the story at all, but I do remember the anticipation every night to hear another installment. It was a Tolkienesque story with cottages, trees, mountains, bridges, and strange creatures. Erin and I were adventurers through that world. When the narrative ended (as all stories must), I was deeply saddened, and though Duffie told us others, none took on the weight of memory as that one, in which our adventures spread across a blank sheet of paper.
I wish I still had that map.