I’ve been reviewing books in various genres for the last few decades, and I can say without reservation that You Can Count on the Prairies, the hot-off-the-press illustrated, children’s counting book by Leila J. Olfert, has been my quickest read yet. What can one say about a twenty-nine page book that contains only seventeen words, and sixteen numbers? Well, as it turns out, rather a lot.
Olfert, a former preschool teacher and avid textile artist and photographer, has taken a prairie icon – the grain storage bin – and used it as the central image in this finely-produced SK-based book for youngsters. Beginning with zero, the first page features a close-up photograph of golden grain stalks against a blurred field and sky backdrop. The next page reveals a single grain bin, as perfectly round and centred on the page as the field surrounding it is flat. Four birds are perched at the top, where an auger would pour the grain in.
As the numbers on each page climb, so do the number of grain bins in each of the photographic illustrations. Winter scenes reveal sculptured snow, the pale blue sky almost mirrored in the snow. While grain bins – across the seasons – are the vocal point on each page, we see how each image also tells a little story. On the page for number four, tall Westeel bins behind a barbed-wire fence are reflected in a spring ditch. Another image reveals wooden bins painted with colourful Pacman-like images (or big-eyed ghosts). Westor, Twister, Westeel-Rosco – there’s a wide representation of bins here, including some that have seen better days!
This book feels like an homage to grain bins yes, but also to Saskatchewan’s rural landscape where field and sky loom large, and one can see, as the song goes, for miles and miles. Fence posts, telephone poles and lines, stately grain bins, leafless winter trees … there’s a haunting beauty to these people-less images which adults, especially, may appreciate.
But this is also a counting book, meant for the youngest of children. I can imagine a small finger pointing to the shining fifteen bins featured on page fifteen, and even hear a little voice: “One … two … three …” as that finger moves across the page.
Many children’s books I’ve read contain a surprise on the final page, and You Can Count on the Prairies follows that tradition. I won’t specifically reveal it – you’ll have to read the book yourself – but I will say that whenever I pass a scene like that on the prairie, I say “That is a big operation!” to whomever I’m with.
On the bio page we learn that Olfert, a Saskatoon resident, previously “handmade several copies of this book for the children of friends”. Obviously her efforts were well-received, as the story’s been “diversified” into this beautifully-bound Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing edition – and you can pick up a fresh copy for the price of a few good loaves of bread.
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM