"They had asked the children, 'What did you see on the way to school?' And they said, 'Oh, nothing.' And someone had the idea to give the children cameras. Once they looked through the camera, they suddenly discovered buildings going up, fruit stands, the river."

Author/photographer Tana Hoban heard this story more than 12 years ago, before the first of her stack of about a dozen photo-concept books for children had been published. She was a free-lance photographer doing advertising work: "Children eating Campbell's soup, talking on the telephone, drinking milk and eating ice cream."

The story, related by Hoban when she accepted the 1982 D.C. Children's Book Guild Award for nonfiction, prompted her to ask this key question:

What is there right on my street in front of my house, right where I'm living, right where I'm standing that I no longer see?

"So I started out to photograph the city, all the ordinary things that people might not ordinarily think to take a picture of," she says. "And one day I saw five very neat trash cans standing in the sun in sharp focus and I counted them and that's how I started the counting book.

"I went around counting the city New York, where she lives in a loft cooperative . It took me a long time to break that habit. I went around counting windows, counting screws on the bus, bolts on the bus." The result was Count the City, later changed to Count and See (Macmillan, $8.95).

Hoban's other books--on colors, shapes, machinery, animals--have germinated similarly: They are "found" pictures. "I find the photograph, then I get the idea or concept. I might just decide to be extra observant, to just walk around and see.

"I think it's very important to be aware," says Hoban, whose Nikon often captures surprising beauty and design in the simplest object: an apple, a grater, a sponge. "We live in such a world of noise that it's very easy to be numbed by all of it."

Many of the things she says she loved as a child are in her books: peas in a pod, jacks, moon things, bottle caps, home-baked cookies. "And balloons, I always loved. When I had to make up stories even in the lower grades I'd always write about a balloon man. I don't know why.

"I draw a lot of my images from my childhood--the way my mother cut an apple into a star, picked petals off a daisy."

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Hoban grew up in the country near Lansdale, Pa. When she thinks of her childhood, "I remember taking long walks, sitting in a tree. We had a very large wild cherry tree. I remember that, and we had a quince tree and white birch. I still love white birches to this day.

"My father always said that you should be independent, so you could be free to choose whatever you wanted to do so you didn't have to depend on somebody. I've been lucky. I've been able to work for myself, working as a free-lance photographer for most of my life."

Hoban attended Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, has one daughter and is "old enough to be a grandmother." (She has two grandchildren.)

Educators point to her books for their importance in helping children and adults discover the art of the everyday in their environment: shape, color, number. Suddenly, everything becomes raw material for "seeing." And for the unexpected.

"What I'm trying to do with children is sharpen their perceptions," says Hoban. By emphasizing such elements as these:

* Strong graphic shapes. "So a child doesn't have to filter out anything. They look at it and can get a direct message."

* Simplicity. Simple images that a child can respond to.

* Involvement. "Where you just don't look at pictures but if you're counting, maybe they're also shapes or if they're shapes then maybe they're also colors."

* Color. Jellybean-colored cars in a parking lot, a rainbow swirl of penny bubblegum balls, a heap of oranges in the supermarket.

* Serendipity. An openness to the unexpected. "You're so busy waiting for the cat to jump over something that you don't take it the photograph when it's sitting there licking its paw, which is equally valid."

In two of Hoban's most popular books, Take Another Look (Greenwillow Books, $7.95) and Look Again! (Macmillan, $10.95), she uses a die-cut circle or square as the interfacing page between photographs to isolate one area of a familiar object.

Strange and unusual designs emerge.

An aerial photograph of strips of farmland? No. A zebra's forehead.

Batik fabric design? No. The belly of a turtle.

"You know that things are not what they seem," says Hoban. "And children love that."

She suggests that parents use the same eye-opening device by cutting a circle the size of a quarter or half-dollar and having a child put it on fabric, an ear, your hair, around your eye.

"Use it on real things. On the tree here, on wood, on the rug. Just isolate a piece of something as the camera does . "And that's fascinating because what it does is draw the child in to focus closely on cat's fur, on anything. It's almost like having a magnifying glass."

Meanwhile, Hoban's delight in the everyday permeates her own work and home environment.

"A friend of mine gave a brunch in my place for 95 people. We made 95 omelets . . . all those beautiful shells. You see one, that's okay. But if you see 95 or 200 broken eggshells, then it becomes sculpture. It's a work of art."