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One Some Many

by Marthe Jocelyn, Tom Slaughter, illus.

There is not a whiff of underpants or cute-bunnykins anthropomorphism about One Some Many, the first picture-book collaboration between the husband-and-wife team of author-illustrator Marthe Jocelyn (Hannah’s Collections) and visual artist Tom Slaughter. Indeed, this book, which doesn’t underestimate its very young readers, is a curious and rare example of preschool highbrow.

The aim of One Some Many is to illustrate the slightly abstract concepts of quantity named in the title, while subtly introducing certain visual touchstones of modern art. In that, it is almost identical in style and approach to this past October’s One, Two, Three, Slaughter’s first book for children. Slaughter, whose work is collected in the Musuem of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, uses Matisse-like paper cuts and bold colours in both books.

As beautiful as Slaughter’s illustrations are, they work much better when he keeps the concepts simple: “one” is a single yellow pear; “some” is three pears; “many” is a tree full of pears. The rows of striped flags are less successful in illustrating simple addition.

Jocelyn’s spare text is similarly prone, even at only 40-odd words, to over-reaching: any toddler can follow “one, some, many,” but the book’s pseudo-Zenlike final pages (“is ten many?/ is ten some?/ one is only one”) veer close to obscurity.

The field of intelligent preschool books is not a crowded one. Both this and Slaughter’s previous book are as smart as they are interesting to look at, but older readers should be forewarned that One Some Many may provoke as many questions as it answers.