Children's story: Helena Writes #40--On counting panes, counting stories, Counting Jennie

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
Date Posted:
12/8/2021

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 40th post, Helena shares another original children’s story, and creative process behind both writing and illustrating it. Enjoy!

 

One third of the population are counters 

Counting Jennie was the counting book I’d waited for. I had a contract with Carolrhoda Books, and a wonderful relationship with my editors there, who were waiting eagerly for my next book. My agent had parleyed one book, Gerald Not Practical (Carolrhoda Books, 1990), into four! I’d done A Dinosaur for Gerald (Carolrhoda Books, 1991). Now I owed two more books to Carolrhoda.

Counting books are a traditional children’s book form. I’d written Miss Hindy’s Cats, an alphabet book, and illustrated it. Carolrhoda had already published Miss Hindy in the mid-eighties. A counting book was out there, waiting for me to find it. I was writing for children, and was fascinated by the form. 

One day, on a walk through my neighborhood with my dear friend Jean, we passed a house with a picture window. The glass seemed old, from the way it caught the light, in striations—it had been cooled on straw. “What a beautiful, antique picture window,” I said to Jean. “Yep,” Jean said, (rather like the messengers on Jennie’s bus to school, Jean uses few words.) 

Here’s what she said next: “Thirty-six panes.”

I stopped in my tracks and looked at Jean. I had not counted the panes of glass in that window. She had! I am greatly interested in the ways people perceive, indications of the shape of someone’s mind. We are all so individual; no mind is the same, none works the same way. And here was the mind of a friend, so close, we are spiritual sisters. In friendship, revelation and knowledge of one another is without limit. Joyous! Isn’t it that that seems to connect good friends? Infinite discovery, infinite admiration.

“How did you know that so quickly?” I asked.

“Oh,” said Jean. “I’m a counter.”

I listened, fascinated.

A counter! I was full of questions. On that walk Jean told me that while she was waiting for the bus to town she passed the time counting cars, bicycles. Anything she saw. And she counted along the bus ride. Sound eccentric? Obsessive? Compulsive? One third of the population moves through time and space counting. I learned that later.

From that conversation came Jennie Jinks’ story, and my counting book. I went home and wrote it in one sitting and sent it off to my editor. It was immediately accepted. Then came the hard part—the illustrations. 

I am not a counter. I am number dyslexic! It was a kind of nightmare to track all I had written, because the writing was spontaneous; I was having a good time. It was funny to me, made me laugh. But deconstructing the numbers I had written was not funny.

The illustrations took fourteen months. Those are months that I did count, because I was two months past my deadline. In the end, everything Jennie counts is in the last two big doublespread illustrations. 

But it was very hard to figure out how I would do those illustrations, and the others, page to page. One night, beside myself with panic and despair, I had a breakthrough. Just draw rough shapes, ovals, circles, and number them to represent each character. My mind was gone, a good place for inspiration to blast through the wall chaos, a mind shutdown. That’s what I did, on thick tracing paper. I numbered the shapes and numbered the characters described in the text. Then I began drawing, carefully, a process that took many weeks. I then transferred those careful drawings to watercolor paper using a light table, illustration by illustration, so I could paint them.

The story of Counting Jennie, the number tallies, are in those pictures—because it was impossible to get them into Jennie’s dialogue and thoughts. The book would have been too long, and tedious. The humor would have disappeared.

This version of Jennie presented here is further edited down, leaving out some of the number passages in the book.

The year of illustrating Jennie, my walls were hung with the illustrations as I did them. I was dazzled by all the figures, and changed the colors from page to page hoping that a long, wordy book would hold the visual interest of the reader. I photographed the originals, and made slides of them, as was the technology in the eighties. 

When the book was published, and I visited schools to speak with children and their teachers I read the book and showed the slides. I really worried it was too long. But children hung with me! That was a wonderful surprise. And at every school, I told the story of Jean and my walk—and I asked the group, sometimes of hundreds of children, to raise their hands if they were counters. One third of every group raised their hands. Every time.

Counting is a mind style. I am not a counter. But maybe you are.

Here is Counting Jennie. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Counting Jenny

Jennie Jinks was a counter. She counted pigeons, crows, cars, and cows.

"Six cows! Six soft, pink noses!"

At Adele's Bakery, Jennie counted pies.

"Three boysenberry, three blueberry." Hmm, I wonder what that one is!"

"Coconut Cream Walnut--just out of the oven!" called Adele.

Jennie counted string beans at the dinner table. She would have liked to count spaghetti, but it was too  hard to figure out, piled in a clump on the platter.

She imagined lining up spaghetti strands  on her plate. She'd likely need a few plates. That would take time. She couldn't imagine her mother, father, sister and two brothers being that patient. But Jennie could count meatballs. She could multiply and divide them.

"Six into twenty-seven..., four each, three extras, cut in half for seconds!"

"What did you say?" asked Sarah.

Jennie had a mouthful of spaghetti. 

"Swallow before you speak, Jennie, dear," said Mrs. Jinks.

"Pass the meatballs!" said Jennie's older brother, Elliot.

"I'm hungry!" said her younger brother, Gerald.

"Please pass the meatballs!" corrected Mr. Jinks.

"In a moment, Ralph, dear," said Jennie's mother.

Jennie counted her sister's scarves and her mother's shoes. Her brothers' caps and her father's ties. On her way to school, she counted cats and dogs and laundry on clotheslines. 

"Thirty-five socks, nine towels, six pairs of pajamas. Four pieces of, uh…underwear." 

She counted trucks and cars, and when the bus to school was late, bicycles.

"Six with baskets, two with babies!"

She counted passengers as they stepped off the bus. "Three men, two women, three children!"

"Good morning, Jennie," said Nancy, the bus driver.

"Good morning," answered Jennie. 

There were ten bus stops to school. Jennie settled into her seat.

"Crown Street!" called Nancy.

One, Jennie said to herself.

Jennie added and subtracted people riding the bus. People getting off, three men, two women. Two children. Seven in all. And people getting on, two teenagers, two skateboards. Plus two...leaves...

The bus was stopping again.

"Cherry Street!" called Nancy.

"Two!" said Jennie. Jennie blushed. She'd said it out loud.           

Minus a woman, three more children, two men—equals six—two hats, two ties.

"Sawyer Square!" The doors opened and Mrs. Riggs got on. Mrs. Riggs lived on Jennie's street. She was wearing a hat. Jennie imagined she had errands to do. Mrs. Riggs smiled at Jennie. Jennie smiled, too.

Three! One more woman, one more hat—with fourteen, uh, cherries, one peach!

"Park Circle!"

“Four!"

"Four what?" asked Mrs. Riggs. 

"Oh, uh, bus stops," answered Jennie politely.

"One more woman, one more hat," Jennie said quietly.  "Where was I....?"

 "...two skateboards and two balloons!" said Mrs. Riggs. 

"Thank you, Mrs. Riggs," said Jennie.

"Zoo!" called Nancy.

Five, thought Jennie. Lions, two. Monkeys, six. Elephants and bears, three each. One camel! Nine children, two women, three men. Jennie looked at Mrs. Riggs. "Three more balloons," she added. Mrs. Riggs smiled.

"Parade Grounds next!" called Nancy.

Six!

"Goodness, what's this?" said Nancy.

"Parade practice at Market Street!" announced a boy with a flag.

A flag, a drum, a triangle, a tuba, Jennie counted. Two saxophones, three French horns, eleven more teenagers, eleven more hats!

The tuba player tuned up. The saxophones practiced "Stars and Stripes" in harmony. The French horns played scales. 

The bus was getting crowded.

"Scudder!" called Nancy.

"..uh..seven..." said Jennie softly. Mrs. Riggs smiled and nodded in agreement.

Two messengers got on at Scudder Street. Each carried a pile of envelopes.

"Joe!"

"Bob!"

"Busy?"

"Yep!"

"Anything going uptown, Joe?"

"Three," said Bob. "Any downtown?"

"Seven!" said Joe.

"Trade?"

"Sure!"

Uh-oh, this is complicated! Jennie thought. "Fourteen minus three, makes...eleven!" she said as softly as she could. "Twenty-one minus seven equals...fourteen!"

"Market Street!"

"Eight!" said Jennie.

"My stop," said Bob.

"Mine, too," said Joe. "Pretty good with numbers!" Joe told Jennie on his way to the door.

"Yup!" agreed Bob.

Jennie smiled.

A woman carrying flowers got on. Another with plants and one with a pie. A man got on with fish, another with hats, one with a crate of ducks, another with a crate of chickens, one more with a crate of geese.  

"Oh, dear!" said Jennie. Now the bus was so getting so noisy Jennie could count out loud. "Thirteen tulips, three plants, one pie. Seventeen fish, seventeen ducks, fifteen more hats, twelve geese, fifteen chickens!"

"Depot!"

"Nine," said Jennie.

Another bus pulled up. A crowd of children rushed off and rushed onto Jennie's bus.

"Ten girls, eight boys!"

"School Street, coming up!"

At South and School Streets, the bus hit a bump. The door of one of the crates flew open.

"B-buck-buck-buck!" squawked chickens, flapping up the aisle. Geese honked. Ducks quacked. Grownups exclaimed, children laughed. Jennie gasped.

"Let's see—eleven hens—four white with gray speckles, four gray with white speckles. One brown, one red, one yellow, two—uh—beige!"

"There will be a short delay!" cried Nancy.

The schoolchildren rushed off, zig-zagging through the chickens.

Jennie followed. Then she stood on the pavement. "Let me see," she said, "what does all that come to?"

Jennie ran. Forty-three squares in the sidewalk, fifty-seven bars in the iron fence, fourteen steps to the front door, nine bulletin boards to her classroom.

The classroom door was closed! She could hear Mr. Maxwell counting children.

"Christopher, Joshua and Michael.  Katherine, Beverly, Rachel and Joseph. Twenty-four...where's Jennie Jinks?"

"...Twenty-Five!" called Jennie opening the door.

"Good norning, Jennie! Bus to school slow again?" asked Jennie's teacher.

"Mr. Maxwell, there were ducks and geese! AND FIFTEEN CHICKENS...!"

"Fifteen chickens...?" repeated Mr. Maxwell. "Find your seat, Jennie, you're just in time for arithmetic!" he said. Then Mr. Maxwell smiled. He knew it was Jennie's favorite subject. "Please take out your arithmetic workbooks," he told the class.            

"We're twenty-five chickens—uh—children—today, counting Jennie Jinks!”

Are you a counter? Do you know someone who is? What did you think of Helena’s counting story for children, and her creative process for both writing and illustrating it? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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