Featured Author and Illustrator: Mitsumasa Anno

Cover Art

This month, take a look at the work of an intriguing and challenging author/illustrator: Mitsumasa Anno. Although he has a large body of important books for young people, many people are unfamiliar with his work.

Be warned, however. Anno's books are not the sort that will appeal to most casual browsers. Anno's picture books use a minimum of words or none at all. At first glance, his small figures and objects set against large expanses of white space make the books something less than attention grabbers when compared to those which shout loudly for the reader's attention. Anno's books take careful examination and thought to appreciate. So here's an opportunity for parents and teachers to introduce students of all ages to the mind-expanding experience of perusing a book by Mitsumasa Anno. You can use some of them with pre-schoolers and all of them all the way to high school students.

Anno's precise and detailed watercolors have the air of Japanese elegant simplicity. Most have a gentle humor waiting to be spotted. Not only that, but Anno's books almost always have a strong mathematical connection. Don't work them too hard, however. Leave some things for readers to discover on their own.


Born in 1926 in Japan, Mitsumasa Anno was a mathematics teacher for ten years before turning his attention to the art of picture books. His interest in how children learn and in the subject of mathematics was not abandoned, however. All of his books are mind-expanders, sometimes focusing on mathematical concepts, sometimes on puzzles or non-mathematical concepts.


Anno's Alphabet. HarperCollins, 1975. ISBN 0690005407. Order Info.
Grades 1 and up.
Rating 2 stars
This is a book of optical illusions as well as an alphabet book. The letters appear to be made of wood but closer examination shows them to be impossible structures. The viewer's eye is tricked into sliding from one plane to another in a way that defies logic. Even the objects for each letter are impossibilities. On the anvil shown for the letter A, for instance, a piece of wood glows with red heat instead of bursting into flame and ash.

Possible Activities:
Place a stack of blocks and three-dimensional letters of the alphabet next to the book so that students can compare the illustrations in the book to the letters on the table.
Ask students to place a letter of the alphabet on each line of a piece of paper. Next to the letter, they can write down what's wrong or puzzling about each letter and object in Anno's book.

Anno's Counting Book. HarperTrophy, 1986. ISBN 0064431231. Order Info.
Grades K and up.
Rating 3 stars
This is the sort of book that needs far more than the quick thumb-through to intrigue the reader but a careful examination will put this small book in the highest ranks of counting books. The barren snowy landscape on the first page shows us zero and, yes, we can argue about that. On the next where we might have expected to see one thing, we see three things. What's going on here? Turning the next page may help the reader see that Anno is building sets here, for now there are two buildings, two trucks, two trees, two children, two adults and two dogs. Furthermore, Anno illustrated the numeral two with two blocks at the side of the page. The sets and the village continue to grow and it may not be until the last page that the reader discovers that Anno has also been taking us through the calendar here. More Info.

Possible Activity:
Go through this book with a small group of children, carefully examining each page together. Keep asking, "What's Mitsumasa Anno doing here?" "What does he want us to notice?" Write down the children's responses without comment. Then work with another group of children. When all the students in the room have had a chance with the book, talk about the various responses. Did any one figure out the seasons and months before getting to the last page?

Anno's Counting House. Putnam, 1982. ISBN 0399208968. Order Info.
Grades PreK and up.
Rating 2 stars.
Ten children living in one house are about to move to another. Peekaboo windows add to the fun as the reader determines how many have moved and who is left. Because we only see some of the residents through the windows, we can deal with various number combinations of ten. And, because the opposing page shows the other house, we can add and subtract and count and recount. More Info.

Possible Activities:
Use ten markers to keep track of the children in the book.
Describe each page spread as a number sentence or equation.

Anno's Flea Market. Philomel, 1984. ISBN 0399210318. Order Info.
Grades 2 and up.
Rating 2 stars.
Categories and sets are Anno's game here in a story set in an old European town. The flea market is an eclectic one. There are a great variety of items for sale that we can talk about, make generalizations about, sort and resort. Don't forget the history that is all around us at the flea market and in the items for sale as well.

Possible Activity:
Compare this flea market to the one in Yard Sale by James Stevenson (Greenwillow, 1996 ISBN 0688141277). More Info.

Anno's Hat Tricks. Harcourt Brace, 1993. ISBN 0153003499. Order Info.
Grades 4 and up.
Rating 2 stars
This one's hard. The hat tricks start out simply enough with an engaging figure called Shadowchild and should engage the reader's interest enough to pull him or her into the greater and greater complications. It takes binary logic and other problem solving skills to explain these tricks.

Anno's Journey. Paper Star, 1997. ISBN 0698114337. Order Info.
Grades 3 and up.
Rating 2 stars.
In this wordless book, a traveler buys a horse and starts through Europe. Along the way a careful reader will see references to fairy tales, great works of art, and history. Careful examination will reveal Riding Hood, Beethoven, Sesame street characters and many other icons of civilization. Younger children will need some help, perhaps in the form of a display of the grand masters to which the illustrations often refer.

Possible Activity:
Make a list of a few of the things you've spotted in the book. Put that list and a pencil beside the book on a table. Next to them, put a sign saying: "What else can you find?" Later, let those who found things point them out to those who did not.

Anno's Magic Seeds. Philomel, 1995. ISBN 0399225382. Order Info.
Grade Level 1 and up.
Rating: 2 stars.
There's a slight story here in a twist on the tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk." A wizard gives Jack two golden seeds with the instructions to eat one and bury the other. The promise is that he will have two more magic seeds in the fall. Jack follows that direction for several years, getting the promised seeds each time. At last inspiration comes and Jack plants both seeds getting four seeds this time. He plants more and more seeds, eating some and planting some with the yield increasing each time.
Jack's life expands as well. He marries and has children. A flood washes out the crop, but they have seeds enough to plant again.
The reader is asked questions: "How many seeds grew that year?" "How many seeds did they bury?"
There are mathematical concepts, to be sure, but there is also the development of agriculture in this seemingly simple book.
The illustrations are delicate watercolor. Anno's use of white space gives the book a clean and precise appearance.

Possible Activity:
Compare this story with information on actually growing crops. How many corn seeds does it take to grow enough corn to feed a family? What information do you need to figure this out?

Cover Art

Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar. Paper Star, 1999. ISBN 0698117530. Order Info.
Grades 2 and up.
Rating 3 stars.
Here Anno graphically explains the concept of factorial numbers. We start with an elegant covered jar. Inside the jar is an ocean in which there is an island. On the island are two countries. In each country are three mountains and so on building to the number 10 -- ten jars just like the first one. The reader is then asked how many jars there are. The answer: 3,628,800, far too many to show as jars, but Anno very kindly uses red dots as symbols so that he can show us just how those jars multiplied. More Info.

Anno's Upside Downers. Philomel, 1988. ISBN 0399215220. Order Info.
Grades 1 and up.
Rating 2 stars.
This is one of Anno's earlier books and it deals with space. Mirror images and different surfaces combine with other optical illusions to make the reader question which way is up and which is front or back. Jokers emerge from a pack of cards to tell the slight story about the confusion of the king's soldiers. It's another wiser king who explains the concept of point of view.

Possible Activity:
This is a great time to do traditional perspective drawing lessons (see link at the bottom of this article). They are fun in their own right but will also help students understand how Anno broke the rules to create the illusions. Continue the exploration of point of view with the story of the three blind men describing an elephant. Next turn to picture books to show examples of literary points of view.

Cover Art

Anno's USA. Putnam, 1989. ISBN 0399210601. Order Info.
Grades 2 and up.
Rating 3 stars.
As a child, he heard about the United States, of course, as the enemy during World War II and as the conquerors after the war. Images from TV and newspapers gave him flashes of information about the American culture and were mixed in with his knowledge of history. He uses that mixture in this book.
As in Anno's Journey, we see the traveler approaching. This time it is the west coast of the US. As he crosses the country on horseback, the geography is pretty much standard. It's chronology that is a bit mixed up. The Pilgrims are here; so is Superman. More Info.

Possible Activities:
Do the same list making activity that you did with Anno's Journey (above).
With older students, make a time line of the events in the book.

Mori, Tsuyoshi. Socrates and the Three Little Pigs. Illustrated by Mitsumasa Anno. Putnam, 1986. ISBN 0399213104. Order Info.
Grades 3 and up.
Rating 2 stars.
Here's a chance to play with probability and game theory. In the familiar folk tale, there are three pigs, three houses and one wolf. But what if there are five house, three pigs and one wolf named Socrates and a helpful frog named Pythagoras. He wants just one pig for his wife's dinner. The problem is to find the various ways those pigs could be distributed so that no two are in the same house. By the time we get the whole thing figured out, Socrates' wife has lost her appetite but, we hope, the young math student has not.

Possible Activity:
Do some other combination problems such as dice rolling probability. Test your predictions against actual roles of the dice.


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