The Doorbell Rang (Pat Hutchins) and Other Math Friendly Picture Books to Play With

by Luna Dara Kelondra

Several weeks ago, during my bi-weekly Crafternoon program, we shared the book The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins and managed to learn some math concepts along the way.  Crafternoons are programs for school-aged children (and their parents when they want to participate) where usually I offer participants several books from which to choose for me to read, then we will do crafts or activities related to the stories.  Participation varies from week to week, as is usually the case with programs in public libraries, and the children who come vary a great deal in age, economic level, and experience with library programming.  I often have unattended children stop by, as well as those who have to bring along pre-school siblings or wards in order to participate.  Some come with their full-time nannies, and others are home-schoolers whose parents have made my programs part of their regular routines.  As a result, flexibility is my mantra.

This particular week, I had just the one story, which was unusual, but then we had a lot to do with that story.  For those who aren’t familiar with The Doorbell Rang, it is the story of one afternoon with Victoria and her brother Sam, and their unexpected guests.  Their mother had just baked cookies, and allowed the children 12 to divide between the two of them.  When the dividing had been done, and they were ready to eat, the doorbell rang.  They had 2 guests, so the cookies were rearranged to allow everyone now there to have an equal amount.  Just as they were ready to eat, the doorbell rang again.  Two more guests came in.  The cookies were again reapportioned.  Each time the cookies have been evenly divided among the children sitting at the table, the doorbell rings and more guests arrive, requiring them to start all over again.  Finally, when there are so many people there that each is allowed only one cookie, the doorbell rings yet again.  But this time it is Sam and Victoria’s grandmother, who has brought a big tray of cookies to share.

Before the program I got a cookie tray and twelve plastic toy chocolate-chip cookies.  I also had construction paper cut-outs for each of the children in the story.  I had a small group that day, so we sat in a circle on the floor around the cookie sheet.  When I got to the part where Sam’s mother offers them the cookies, I laid them on the tray, just like real cookies would be as they came out of the oven.  Then I laid out the cut-out of Sam and Victoria.  Then I waited while my participants decided amongst themselves how many cookies each child would get.  A three year old was in my group that day, so he got to move the cookies around as the others instructed, which allowed him a way to participate in the program, as well as to feel important.  When all was set, I read the next piece of the story, and stopped when the cookies needed to be reapportioned.  I laid out the construction paper guests and allowed my children to figure out how divide the cookies now that there were more people to eat them.  The youngest member of the group moved the cookies around just as we showed him.  When we were happy with the results, I read the next bit of the story.  Each time more people arrived, I pulled out more construction paper characters and allowed the children in the circle with me to discuss and decide how to divide the cookies so that everyone got the same amount.  By the end of the story, they’d had to re-allot the sweets several times.  It was a puzzle they’d all mastered.  The three year old had been the “handler of the cookies” and was quite proud of himself for being a part of the program.  They were each given a sugar cookie, allowed to ice it with various colors and flavors of icing, and top it off with sprinkles.  Most of all, they’d had a great time with a book and at the library.

None of the children who came to the program, other than the pre-schooler, would have considered allowing that particular story to be read to them for a regular storytime program.  It is far too simple for straightforward reading to children who can read for themselves.  But, when it was turned into an interactive puzzle for them to solve themselves, everything changed.  That made it fun.  It also gave them the chance to learn some math concepts while seeing how they apply to the real world.  Anchoring “school learning” in real life gives it more significance and makes it easier for kids to grasp.  Unlike the word problems they’re given at school, this problem was presented as a story rather than as a math problem, so no math phobias were brought into play.  To the kids it was a story with a puzzle embedded in it.  In other words, it was a fun game.

There are plenty of picture books that lend themselves to such programming.  Many organizations have created lists and suggested activities to promote the math and literacy connection.  Some of these include:

The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s List of Math-Related Books – This annotated list divides pictures books up by the math concepts covered, using the standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics – namely, numbers and operations, patterns and algebra, geometry and spacial relations, measurement, and data analysis and probability.

Best Math Books for Kids – This website, created by teachers, covers a multitude of subjects beyond math.  The math page of the site has lists of books arranged by the math concept the book covers.  There are annotations, images from each book, and links to  There’s an e-mail newsletter, and a place to suggest titles to be included on their site.

Scholastic’s Teaching Math With Picture Books – This blog post by third grade teacher Alycia Zimmerman offers examples of methods for using picture books to teach mathematical concepts, as well as some of the books she’s used with her students. She divides math oriented picture books into three groups:  fundamental math picture books, embedded math picture books, and connected math picture books.  Then she offers ways of using the picture books in the classroom.

Peggy Gisler and Marge Eberts’ Website Dear Teacher – This site includes quite a bit of educational information, divided by grade level and subject.  On their math page they have an annotated list of books originally compiled by Dr. Patricia S. Moyer-Packenham, the Director of Math Education Center, George Mason University.