After using the 26 letters of the alphabet as a way of exploring Sydney in Alphabetical Sydney, with our next book we wanted to play with a counting structure to look at the everyday shops and businesses you find in Australian suburbs and country towns. We took photos and notes of shops all over, from Leura to Botany to St Kilda to Perth’s Northbridge.
While Numerical Street isn’t set anywhere particular we wanted the street to feel familiar and local, as if it could be in your neighbourhood. The shops are designed to be as specific as possible in terms of the details – we have a great affection for these shops, which little by little are being replaced by malls, supermarkets and convenience stores. So the book is also a tribute to them.
To start, we made a list of all the kinds of places it would be fun to draw and write about: tropical fish aquariums, chemists, upholsterers – and some that didn’t make the final cut, like optometrists and greengrocers. Because you ‘count your way up the street’ with each new page, we needed to start with businesses that had fewer, larger objects (the panel beater has two cars, two mechanics, etc.), and end with ones that had lots of little things: shoe repairs, with its many keys, shoelaces, trophies. We rejected the optometrist because there wasn’t much more to draw than glasses.
We knew from the start that the counting aspect would be in the background, rather than the book’s focus. It’s possible for someone to read ‘Numerical Street’ several times before they realise it’s a counting book at all! The numbers are there to thread Numerical Street together. There is also a visual story about a dog, missing from its leash on page one, and waiting for us at home at the book’s end.
The numbers are never mentioned in the text (except for some allusions to ‘half’ on page 6), and the counting is made deliberately tricky in the pictures. Look for the quirky numerical clues hidden in the illustrations. And can you find the runaway crab on page 10? It makes you look a bit harder, and in the process, discover hidden surprises. And this is what the two of us, as a writer and illustrator, love to do: look around us and see things that are often overlooked or ignored, and find something remarkable, even beautiful, in them.
Maybe it will make you look at the world with fresh eyes, too: while you’re counting the Textas in your pencil-case, or the jars in the fridge, or the cars along your street, you might notice ordinary things that will make you want to get out those Textas and draw.
© Hilary Bell & Antonia Pesenti, December 2015