Phyllis: Two sticks and some string. That’s the most basic definition of knitting. The sticks might be metal or wood. The string might be yarn or flax. But in the hands of a knitter, even an unskilled one such as I, they become magic.
In the chilly months, we bundle up in cozy sweaters, snug mittens, hats that hug our heads. And what’s better than a book on a cold day or night to help keep us warm, snuggled up with a little listener or reader or even a cozy cat? This month we’re looking at a few of the picture books that celebrate knitting and yarn.
In Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen (Balzer and Bray, 2012), a little girl in a cold, drab town finds a box filled with yarn of every color. She knits herself a colorful sweater and still has extra yarn, so she knits her dog a sweater. But she still has extra yarn. She knits a sweater for a boy Nate (who laughs at her sweater but is really just jealous) and one for his dog, and so it goes. She knits sweaters for her whole class, including her teacher, for her parents, her neighbors (except for Mr. Crabtree who never wears sweaters, who get a knitted hat), sweaters for dogs, cats, birds and “things that didn’t even wear sweaters”—houses, mailboxes, birdhouses. And still she has extra yarn. When an archduke hears of the magical box of yarn and demands to buy it for ten million dollars, Annabelle, who is knitting a sweater for a pickup truck, politely declines. The archduke hires robbers who steal the box for him, but when he opens the box it is empty. He flings it out the window along with a curse, “Little girl…you will never be happy again!” The box floats back across the ocean straight to Annabelle, who finds it full of extra yarn and who is indeed happy as she continues to knit a more colorful world. I love how her generosity makes her world warmer in more ways than one.
Jackie: I love this book, too! I love that knitting stands for love, and, as you say, her knit objects bring color to the town, as love is the color in our lives. I also love the pairing of the mundane—knitting—with the magical, the unending supply of yarn.
Phyllis: Feeding the Sheep by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Andrea U’Ren (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) begins with a little girl asking her mother “What are you doing?” “Feeding the sheep,” the mother replies. This structure of question, answer, and rhyming couplets continues through shearing the sheep, washing the wool, carding the wool, until finally the mother has knit a gorgeous blue sweater for her daughter. At the end of the book the mother asks, “What are you doing?” and this time the little girl replies, “Feeding the sheep.” Each stanza ends with a rhyming line: “Snowy day, corn and hay,” “Soft and deep, sheepy heap.” Such fun to say.
Feeding the Sheep has the elegant simplicity of beautiful language, repetition, rhyming couplets, and an ending that echoes the beginning and resonates with love between a mother and her daughter through the everyday activities of their lives. I love this spare and tender story more every time I read it.
Jackie: This tender story makes me want to have a sheep, or even better, be a part of this loving family. Andrea U’Ren’s illustrations extend the story. The girl is doing something in each spread that resonates with what the mom is doing. When Mom is shearing the sheep, the girl is playing with the fleece. When the Mom is washing the wool, the girl is washing the dog, Mom carding the wool, girl brushing the dog.
And at the end, we have the lovely twist. The girl the one feeding the sheep. The love is passed on.
Phyllis: Too Many Mittens by Florence and Louis Slobodkin (Random House Children’s Books, 1958) was written at a time when picture books often had many more words than today (and when most service people were men). When Donnie loses a red mitten while Grandma is staying with him and his twin Ned while their parents are travelling, word about the lost mitten goes around the neighborhood. Neighbor after neighbor helpfully bring over red mittens they have found. “Is this yours?” they ask, and Grandma replies, “I guess so,” stashing the mittens in a drawer. When Donnie and Ned’s parents return from their trip with a present for the boys—red mittens—Grandma opens the mitten drawer, which explodes with red mittens. Ned’s solution: hang the red mittens on a clothesline outside and post a sign for people to claim them, which they do, all but one. The neighborhood likes the mitten solution so much that each winter the family strings a mitten clothesline for lost red mittens to be reclaimed. Anyone who finds a red mitten anywhere brings the mitten over to the twins’ house to hang on the clothesline. Who knows? You might find your lost red mitten there! The mittens themselves are vivid spots in the art.
Jackie: The art in this book is so wonderful. I love the red mittens appearing on the pages. They remind me of the joy of cardinals in winter. And I enjoy the neighborhood feeling of this story. A sign of how much we have changed since 1958 is that I miss the women who might carry mail, or deliver packages, or pick up garbage. But we can add them in as we read and talk about this story.
Phyllis: In A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story about Knitting and Love by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2016) a little girl finds her own solution to providing her generous and beloved neighbor a hat to keep her head warm. When Sophie was born Mrs. Goldman knit her a tiny baby hat to keep her keppie (head) warm. When Sophie grows bigger, Mrs. Goldman teaches Sophie to knit, but what Sophie likes best is making the pom-poms for all the hats Mrs. Goldman knits to keep other people’s keppies warm which, Mrs. Goldman says, is a mitzvah, a good deed. Sophie worries because Mrs. Goldman is so busy knitting for others that she has no hat to keep her own keppie warm when they take Fifi for a walk. Sophie sets out to knit a hat as a surprise for Mrs. Goldman. Sophie knits and knits and knits, but the finished hat is lumpy and bumpy with “holes where there shouldn’t be holes.” Sophie remembers Mrs. Goldman saying that Sophie’s pom-poms add beauty “and that’s a mitzvah,” so Sophie decorates Mrs. Goldman’s hat with 20 pom-poms covering the lumps and bumps and holes. Mrs. Goldman loves her surprise and wears Sophie’s hat to keep her keppie warm.
Jackie: This is such a rich story, rich in emotion, rich in creative solutions, rich in vocabulary. I am glad to learn “keppie,” and that a good deed is a “mitzvah.” And I am so glad for the instructions that Michelle Edwards included in the book, so we can all make hats to keep the keppies of our loved ones warm.
And so, skills, and love, are passed down to new knitters. Knit one, purl two. A hat a scarf a sweater, pom-poms—what two sticks and some yarn are really knitting is love. And that’s a mitzvah.