At first glance, Everybody Counts by Norwegian illustrator Kristin Roskifte [most recent English edition: Wide Eyed Editions, 2020. ISBN 9780711245242] is a typical wimmelbook for the youngest grade-schoolers. The book could well be “one of many,” if it weren’t for its unusual topic, which becomes clear in the book’s final pages.
As with any wimmelbook, illustrations take center stage, and the text is little more than a brief commentary. Books like these invite long, careful examination, revisiting newly beloved characters week after week. What makes Roskifte’s story unique is that you must read it completely, start to finish, without splitting it up into individual pictures, without stops or breaks. That may not be easy with a first-grader, but the result is worth it.
On the first page, we find a boy lying in bed and gazing pensively out the window. Could this be our protagonist? On the next, the same boy is sitting in a forest, with a man who looks to be his dad. Page three finds our boy and two others on a sports podium. With the fourth page, the characters and situations begin to undergo a rapid transformation: men, women, and children appear, seemingly out of nowhere and seemingly unrelated. In this confusing kaleidoscope of characters, events, and scenarios, the number of proganists on the page always perfectly and inexplicably corresponds to the page number.
You get the feeling that each new spread lives a life of its own—a small, rounded out story. The reader stumbles into the conflicts of many different people. But suddenly we notice that the fates of the characters start to intertwine. One character’s mood on page 23, say, connects with what someone does on page 93. A boy who didn’t hide well enough during a game will suddenly change the fate of an elderly man in the next twist of the plot. With every page the chain of events speeds up until they almost converge in a clear and logical story. And then...suddenly...there are neither people, nor objects, nor story. Just the number 7500000000 (7.5 billion!) sinking into a background of endless stars in open space. “What does it all mean?,” the reader can’t help but blurt out. The understanding that the finished story is dedicated to social inequality, comes suddenly, like an explosion—and it stuns you, stops you in your tracks.
These days, children run into social inequality and racism very early on, almost as soon as they start interacting with other kids. It’s not that the problem is new or somehow unique. Obviously, in any group, whether it’s children or adults, there will always be stronger, smarter people, people who are more beautiful, more capable, more wealthy, or simply more lucky. One could cite Darwin’s theory and argue that to preserve and develop our kind, the weakest representatives of the human race are somehow less “valuable.” But the history of human civilization, at least its spiritual side, unequivocally proves the contrary. That’s what the author hints at, without stating it outright. Aggressive preachiness will neither educate readers nor solve the social problem. Instead, by weaving together moods, events, and the characters’ actions, the author shows us that there are no people with greater or lesser worth in society. Roskifte allows the child to find that out for himself, as he follows and thinks through unexpectedly entwined fates and makes sense of earlier easter eggs. The illustrations become a gripping quest. On the one hand, there’s the almost cartoonish simplicity, on the other—an elaborate study of the author’s chosen theme.
It’s interesting to note that the artist chose to depict only people, the acting characters, in color. You could offer a child to fill out the picture and color in the blank elements in the background. It’s the perfect opportunity to speak about how we “color” our own lives, build our own story lines.
All the pictures in the book work great as a classic game of finding and identifying things. Since the number of characters on each page corresponds to the page number, children can practice basic counting with parents. The book is full of other such finds, useful for parents and teachers.
On the last page, we find a list of questions along with the depictions of certain characters. It’s not all that easy to find the answers. These are the riddles that challenge a child to travel back through the logic of the book’s events. The author’s questions include ones that are unexpected, complex, and invite serious discussion: What do all people have in common? Who knows the most about you? Does everyone share the same truth?
As she looks through the pictures, jumping from one series of events to another, solving the puzzles, the child sees for herself how amazingly interconnected our human paths are, and she comes to an understanding of how important even our seemingly insignificant actions, thoughts, and words might actually be. Taking responsibility for your actions, the ability to look back on what is happening with a future-based perspective, recognize possible consequences—these are important skills the book gives a child. In this chain of events, emotions, and deeds, there is nothing superfluous or unnecessary, nor, as the author maintains, any inherently good or bad links.
The lack of a clear story line or protagonist is a rare occurrence in children’s literature. A children’s story is essentially impossible without at least one acting main character. Interacting with the book, the child always relates to its hero, his actions and behavior. That’s precisely why Kristin Roskifte, even as she set out to show the equality of every member of our society, couldn’t do away with a central character altogether: you’ll find the boy with blue hair and a red t-shirt more often than others on the book’s pages. Giving children a chance to be inside the story, feel like they’re a part of what’s happening, is another way to connect with young readers.
Many people believe that a “proper” children’s book should have a clear moral. It’s great to see new books breaking past stuffy preachiness. Rather than offering ready answers, today’s authors give readers the chance to explore, experience, and feel those answers out in a living, evolving dialogue. As Kristin Roskifte says: “Seven and a half billion people on the same planet. Every single one of them has their own unique story. Everybody counts. One of them is you!”
Follow us on Facebook.