71 SHEEP TRY SOCCER
by Pablo Albo, illustrated by Raul Guridi – Berbay Publishing, 2017
ages 2 to 8 years / funny, picture books
Here’s a brilliantly engaging and amusing story about 71 sheep, a ball of wool, and a wolf.
With a superbly developed sense of the absurd, the storyline follows the sheep and their attempt to play a game of soccer:
The sheep count themselves and realise that with 71 of them, they have the perfect number for a game of soccer! They have 35 per side plus a referee.
It’s a ridiculous notion presented with absolute conviction.
Following all their mishaps and adventures leaves readers with a well deserved feeling of conspiracy with the storyteller—there’s a sense that reader and storyteller know better than the sheep—but they still want to be there enjoying every moment.
The game doesn’t go to plan, first the ‘ball’ gets stuck in a tree, then one of the sheep (so the sides aren't 'even' anymore). And then the wolf appears!
After a full day of comic mishaps the sheep are simply exhausted and go to sleep with plans to play soccer tomorrow.
This is a quick, sharp story that brilliantly reflects the best of the nature of communal playgrounds. But, tied up in its lightheartedness are some really important ideals. Here are a couple:
The importance of the one is nicely illustrated. When one sheep, who has been used as a kind of sheep-catapult to dislodge the ball, gets stuck up a tree, the game can’t go on. Never mind that there are 35 players on each team! Every player matters, even numbers matter and so the remaining 70 sheep ‘try again, one way or another’ to get the sheep down. The wolf arrives and brings more important concerns but finally all the sheep get down from the tree—and the game can go on ‘ … or maybe not.’
The value of community is integral to the story. One sheep alone would be hopeless against the wolf, but together they manage to scare the wolf away.
Some small reading hints:
Younger readers might need a bit of help to recognise the funny moments, so it’s worth laughing or sighing in exasperation at those bits. That tips them off and helps to develop a healthy sense of the absurd, which makes life so much easier.
For slightly older readers, there are all sorts of fun maths games to play with. On the first reading it might take a moment to work out why 71 is such a perfect number for a soccer game—and on subsequent readings it could be fun to come up with ways to divide the sheep. Like even-v-odd jersey numbers, split down the middle, random assortment.
The fact that there's one lone black sheep in the herd and it becomes the referee could be an interesting conversation starter about whether that is actually necessary. If the sheep can tell by jersey numbers which sheep is on which team, they could identify the referee the same way.
Books like this help children develop their sense of humour by presenting a slightly ridiculous situation and mixing it up with life-threatening events (the appearance of the wolf). There’s a terrific build up of tension here, followed by a funny break. That’s often the way life goes, if we have the perspective to see it, isn't it?