The Quilt Story – by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Tomie dePaola

A friend of mine mentioned the other day that there seems to be a dearth of picture books with female protagonists. Even animals and otherwise inanimate objects, she said, seem to be personified as mainly boys. She has both a boy and a girl, and was on the hunt for girl-oriented books.

I thought about it, and came up with Harry (the Dirty Dog), Clifford (the Big Red Dog), Little Pea (the boy pea), Nate the Great (the boy detective), Barbapapa (the boy blob), and so on, and so on. On the girl’s side, I came up with Amelia Bedelia and Olivia (the spunky girl pig). And Angelina Ballerina (I don’t like ballet, ribbons, pink, or girly things…so never gave these books much thought). And Lucy, the heroine of The Wolves in the Walls. In other words, not a ton.

I decided that, in 2012, I will: (1) blog more regularly and (2) find little girls in picture books and “out” them. I went to our local library today (a mere month later) and randomly selected eleven of the many books I found.

I am starting this mini-series of blog posts with The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Tomie dePaola. I’ve done this for several reasons:

a) My friend quilts.

b) She also occasionally hears about or reads this blog. So she may read the post and would appreciate a quilt-based book.

c) It’s illustrated by Tomie dePaola (more on this later).

The Quilt Story has a lot of concrete action-based sentences (ex. “A raccoon came and loved the quilt. She dug a hole in a corner with her black paws and hid an apple there”) that would keep a child interested, but I do think that the story moves a bit slowly for restless children. It would still be good for naptime or bedtime reading.

Practicalities aside, it’s hard to explain what The Quilt Story is about. The back of the book reads: “Long ago, a young girl named Abigail put her beloved patchwork quilt in the attic. Now, years later, another young girl discovers the quilt and makes it her own, relying on its warmth to help her feel secure in a new home.”  Yes, well…kind of. But this description barely scratches the surface.

The Quilt Story is really about a mother’s love for her daughter made into a quilt. It’s about moving to a new place and feeling lonely and strange until the quilt/mother holds you and you feel at home. It’s a bit about pioneers and a bit about what animals do when they find an unused quilt. It’s a bit about how things are forgotten and then refound. It’s a bit about how the basic themes of family, home, and warmth, don’t change even over a century.

If that sounds too complex for a picture book, all I can say is: but that’s what the best picture books do!  They take a piece of complexity out of life, distil some part of it into a smattering of sentences, and mesmerize children!  Lucky them, and lucky us.

But my real love is for the illustrator, Tomie dePaola, who has his own magic. Who, you ask, is Tomie dePaola? Only an illustrator of over 200 children’s books, including Strega Nona, (which won the Caldecott award in 1976 and also happens to be written by Mr. dePaola), and The Quicksand Book (which I read while I was researching quicksand for a speech for grade seven English class). Mr. dePaola and The Quicksand Book saved me when I finished my speech a minute below the minimum time, had to rack my brain for additional facts (ex. horses – but not cows – sink in quicksand), and was able to stretch my speech out for an extra ten seconds. But I digress.

The Quilt Story has lovely illustrations. The palette is saturated but also soft, and I love the series of animals cozying up to the quilt as it sits in the attic (adorable family of baby mice, anyone?). I like the way the mother and daughter of yesteryear are both like and unlike the more modern mother and child, each in their pose and dress. I also very much like the quilt, with its shooting stars, and how the quilt changes colour over time, from a deep blue to a faded turquoise. And I have always liked the way dePaola draws cats.

Favourite Illustration: The pioneer family, wrapped against the cold in blankets, gazing at the crescent moon. I love the deep blue of the sky and the quietness of the prairie that is captured in this simple drawing.

Reading Ages: 3+

Rating: A-.  The minus is because it is not an essential must-have.  But it is a solid book.

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5 thoughts on “The Quilt Story – by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Tomie dePaola

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