What is there to do when you can't sleep? Why, count sheep of course!
Reviewed by Helen Mulligan
I Can’t Sleep is about a little girl who can’t go to sleep; her head is too full of thoughts and she can’t settle. So she tries counting sheep but this doesn’t work (they just start jumping in big groups right?). So she tries again, going slower this time. And incredible things start to happen.
We’ve all been there. Head full of thoughts, panic growing as sleep defies us and desperation sets in. This brilliant picture book offers us a funny and imaginative solution. Counting from 1 to 10, each new sheep does something different. The first grazes on the rug, another snuggles under the bed, another gets out a guitar and sings a sweet-sounding tune. As you focus on each sheep (which you can’t help but do given the humour of the ideas, the clever text play and the gorgeous, eye-catching illustrations), your brain slows down until, by the end, you are ready to drift off into the world of slumber. The whole process is cleverly aided by rhyming couplets and a rhythm that almost rocks you off to sleep. The spacing and layout of the text nudges you to vary the pace as you read and focus on certain, often soporific, words and phrases (for example ‘floating gently above my head’ or ‘and gently we sway’ and ‘my eyes slowly close’), mimicking the activity of a brain as it moves from wide awake to sleep. I was particularly amused by sheep numbers 5 (an excitable ram who bleats from my wardrobe) and 6 (a dancer who goes round in circles) who imitate that thought that pops into your head just as you are beginning to drift off. That is so often my experience! Luckily sheep numbers 7 , 8 and 9 are more helpful and by 10, those eyes are tight shut.
This a book which would be brilliant as a wordless picture book or an unillustrated poem. Both the text and the illustrations are in themselves a joy. And they have been magically woven together by Gracia Iglesias. The retro-style illustrations use bold block colours and simple geometric shapes and patterns, which perfectly mirror the text, while text-positioning echoes back the shapes in the illustrations. Block background colours have been carefully chosen to suggest state of mind (black for despair, shades of blue for calm, red stripes for alarm and back to black for deep slumber).
The counting book format provides a reassuring and familiar framework for children. While it will support the recognition of the numbers 1-10 in a sequence, there is only one sheep on each page (as opposed to eight sheep for the number 8 etc.) so you wouldn’t use it if you wanted a book to match numbers to quantities like many counting books do. The counting is more of a frame through which to weave the concept.
This feels like a particularly good book to share with your classes during these times. Not only is it full of colour and fun but it could work as a great springboard for discussing things that might be keeping people awake and sharing ways they might have learnt to help themselves get good sleep. I’ve found myself returning to it a lot lately.