Counting Lions

posted in: Katie Cotton, Stephen Walton | 0

countinglionsCounting Lions written by Katie Cotton, illustrated by Stephen Walton is a book where things are not quite what they seem.

It features illustrations which look so incredibly lifelike that you think they must be photos. They are in fact hand drawn with charcoal – and lots of patience. It’s a counting book and is of course about numbers, but not only the first ten digits we learn. Rather it makes readers reflect on when numbers mean the difference between life and not just death, but extinction. It’s a remarkable book.

It’s a book to make you look, and think, and wonder in awe. Ten animals are introduced, each with a double page spread featuring Walton’s breathtaking and moving illustrations and a short poetic text giving the animals a context, introducing a few judiciously chosen facts about their lives. A tiger is described as “a flash of fire and night“. The elephants don’t just migrate, they “travel the dust paths of memory.

Counting Lions can be read as a learn-to-count book – one lion, two gorillas, three giraffes and so on. Young children will love the scale of the illustrations (this is an out-sized book), and I’m sure many a small hand will end up stroking the pictures, reaching out and feeling an emotional connection with the animals depicted. But don’t be fooled. This book will also capture the imagination of a ten year old who’s long past the 1,2,3 stage. The quiet, powerful language, the addition of fact files on each animal(including its status on the list of endangered animals) in an addendum, as well as links to further reading make this a springboard for anyone curious about and appreciative of the natural world.

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Inspired by Walton’s remarkable use of charcoal we decided to explore this medium ourselves. I found this guide, this introduction and these tips very helpful background information.

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We explored smudging, drawing fine lines, shading, removing charcoal with a rubber, “painting” with charcoal and a wet paint brush and more. Pretty soon we were quite dirty!

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Charcoal is a very expressive medium to draw with – it makes such a satisfying mark even when pressing lightly. I’d definitely encourage you to use the largest possible sheets of paper if you try this out yourself as the ease with which such a juicy black line appears made us all want to make large movements whilst drawing.

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We tried drawing in the dark, with just one light beaming on a “still life” (hence the lamp on the table in the picture above); this idea came from the rich darkness of the charcoal, and the sensory experience of drawing in the gloom was quite exciting! Here’s our final gallery:

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Whilst we explored making art with charcoal we listened to:

  • The Lion by Benjamin Scheuer (do check out the video – it’s very lovely)

    "The Lion" by Benjamin Scheuer & Escapist Papers from Radish Pictures on Vimeo.

  • A Counting Error from John Upchurch and Mark Greenberg

    A COUNTING ERROR by John and Mark from Barry Phipps on Vimeo.

  • Animal Friends by Frances England


  • Other activities which might work well alongside reading Counting Lions include:

  • Reading Animal Rescue by PatrickGeorge – another book where things aren’t quite what the seem, and ideal for the crowd who are at the stage of learning their first numbers.
  • This prompt to create “an art agency and try to secure the job of creating a children’s book about endangered species” – I can imagine this working really well in classrooms.
  • Doing a stock-take of your kids’ soft toys/plastic animals. Can they find out which ones (in real life) are endangered? What could they do to help? This resource from Wonderopolis might be useful.
  • Making your own charcoal pencils. I think kids will really enjoy this activity – Tools! Fire! Smoke!


  • If you liked this post you might like these other posts by me:

  • Cave Baby by Julia Donaldson and Emily Gravett – lots of cave painting, including the use of charcoal.
  • An interview with author and illustrator Katie Cleminson, who uses a lot of willow charcoal in her work.
  • Counting up to VERY large numbers. Using smarties.
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    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.

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