Most counting books are content to stop at 10 or 20. You might even find one that goes up to 100. A new, large-format picture book from a husband-and-wife team has blown past the competition by taking readers up to 1,000,000 – and showing them exactly what that number looks like. But a project that ambitious is not without design and production challenges.
How Many Jelly Beans?, just out from Chronicle, is the brainchild of Andrea Menotti, a former children’s book editor at the publisher who is currently working on her MBA at Cornell University. When Menotti, who also used to be a teacher, had the idea of creating a counting book that would cover (and depict) big numbers, she didn’t have to look far for an illustrator: she turned to her husband, Yancey Labat, who has worked in the comics and children’s book industries for years, most recently illustrating the Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure series for Chronicle.
From the start, jelly beans were the vehicle the pair wanted to use to explore the counting concept. “It started off as a typical ‘Guess how many jelly beans are in the jar’ kind of thing,” said Labat. That idea morphed somewhat when they realized that using a jar brought in the idea of volume, which was not their goal. In the book, a pair of children, Emma and Aiden (joined by a dog, Murphy, based on a pet Labat had for 13 years), debate how many jelly beans they can eat. The numbers escalate quickly: “In a whole year I could eat A THOUSAND JELLY BEANS,” shouts Aiden. Emma realizes that works out to “only two or three jelly beans a day” and ups the ante to 5,000.
“We knew it had to be a giant book, that that would be part of the appeal,” said Chronicle designer Amelia May Mack, who designed How Many Jelly Beans? along with Lauren Michelle Smith. In addition to the large trim size (11" x 14"), the book features a 10-panel foldout, which was needed to display the final tally of 1,000,000 jelly beans. “That was the trickiest part, figuring out how it would fold so that there was an unveiling of the million jelly beans,” said Mack. “We had several dummies from the printer before they got it to fold just right.” For the pages to fold correctly, each page had to be slightly smaller than the preceding page, adding complexity to an already challenging task. The result is a giant spread that trumpets “ONE MILLION JELLY BEANS!” (the words are made up of jelly beans) next to candy-colored circles (also made of jelly beans) against a backdrop of (you guessed it) jelly beans, which by that point resemble TV static.
While Labat copied and pasted large swathes of jelly beans after crossing the 100,000 mark, the book still “came down to a lot of moving individual jelly beans around,” filling in seams and creating smooth, organic shapes with the jelly beans (see below for some spreads from the book). Labat initially sketched out layouts for the black and white spreads, which are drawn digitally in a loose, cartoon style that leaves the jelly beans as the main source of color in the book. “I wanted to keep the illustrations really simple, fun, and playful,” Labat said. “I wanted the kids to work together with the jelly beans without one overpowering the other.”
As might be expected, the large numbers of jelly beans posed a bit of a problem for copyeditors at Chronicle. “A fact checker was counting individual jelly beans,” said Mack. “When she got to one million, she was trying to section [the spread] off into grids.” The tactic didn’t last. Luckily, since Labat had created the artwork in Adobe Illustrator, a free counting script made it easy to confirm that no jelly beans were lost along the way.
When the book was complete, there was some concern that the large trim size might pose problems for booksellers or librarians, but according to Chronicle publicist Lara Starr, that hasn’t been much of an issue so far. “It was definitely noted that it stretched beyond standard shelves. But the librarians were so enthusiastic about the book and its ability to demonstrate big numbers in a visual way, that we haven’t had any resistance to it.” Starr even spotted a copy of How Many Jelly Beans? “in the field” during the recent International Reading Association conference in Chicago – at a candy store.
How Many Jelly Beans? by Andrea Menotti, illus. by Yancey Labat. Chronicle, $18.99 May ISBN 978-1-4521-0206-1