In honor of National Quilting Day, which is celebrated each year on the third Saturday in March, we read three quilt-themed books today. Each story stands on its own, but each has at least one key theme in common: the enduring quality of quilts. In each story, a quilt is passed on from one generation to the next, carrying with it the stories of the people and the fabrics used to make it, and providing a sense of continuity and of home.
Little Anna and her family have only recently moved from Russia to New York, a city which is profoundly different from the home they have left behind. Everyone in the big city is in a hurry, and the English that the children speak at school sounds to Anna like “pebbles dropping into shallow water.” All that Anna has left to remind her of Russia is her old blanket (her “babushka”) and her dress – which is almost too small for her. Anna’s mother decides that the family should make a quilt to always remind them of home. She collects Anna’s dress, her babushka, Uncle Vladimir’s shirt, Aunt Havalah’s nightdress, Aunt Natasha’s old apron, and an entire basket of used clothes besides and invites all the neighborhood ladies to pitch in. So begins the story of “The Keeping Quilt” by Patricia Polacco, another wonderful yarm plucked from the annals of Ms. Polacco’s family history.
The book follows the path of the quilt over multiple generations, from Anna – who is Ms. Polacco’s great-grandmother – all the way to Ms. Polacco’s own children. It is a richly detailed story about the circle of life, and true to Ms. Polacco’s style it is steeped in history and emphasizes the importance of family. It is a tale of joyful weddings, newborn babies, birthday parties, children starting new families of their own, and beloved relatives passing on. There is a sense of continuity to the cycle, and to the traditions shared between generations. While traditions change subtly over time, the quilt is constant. When Great-Grandpa Sasha asks for great-grandma Anna’s hand in marriage he presents her with gifts of a gold coin (for wealth), a dried flower (for love) and salt (so that their lives will always have flavor). By the time we reach Patricia’s wedding, four generations later, her bouquet includes gold, bread (so that she will never know hunger), salt, and a sprinkle of wine (so that she will always know laughter). The quilt is present on both occasions – as a picnic blanket under Sasha and Anna, and as a canopy (or “huppa”) over Patricia and her husband as they say their vows. The quilt’s constancy is emphasized by the fact that it is presented in color on every page, while the rest of Ms. Polacco’s illustrations are rendered in shades of gray charcoal.
We love the way in which Ms. Polacco weaves history into her stories, and the way that she draws connections between the past and her family’s life today. It’s a beautiful concept – and it is further inspiration for us to work on creating our own traditions and family culture – like reading aloud together every day.
The titular quilt of Mr. Johnston’s story is sewn for a little pioneer girl by her mother “to keep her warm when the snow came down, long ago.” The quilt is adorned with shooting stars and the little girl’s name, Abigail. It serves not only as a blanket for warmth, but as a tablecloth for tea parties with dolls, as a gown for pretend trips into town on a wooden horse, and as a (rather ineffective) refuge during games of hide-and-seek. Most importantly, however, the quilt serves as a little piece of home to comfort Abigail when her family moves out west to a brand new log cabin.
Eventually, old and well-loved the quilt is stowed away in the attic where over the years it is forgotten by the people who placed it there. It remains well-loved and appreciated, however, serving as a nest and a source of nourishment for a family of mice, as a place for a raccoon to store food, and as a comfy bed for a patchwork cat. Ultimately, the quilt is rediscovered by a new little girl, whose mother repairs the damaged quilt – filling it with new stuffing and stitching new tails on the shooting stars.
I liked this story, but I must admit that I was a bit put off by the fact that the quilt is picked up and used by a little girl after it has served for years as bedding for animals in the attic. However, this quibble notwithstanding, “The Quilt Story” is an endearing tale that benefits from the look and feel of Mr. dePaola’s vintage folk-art illustrations. Our oldest, a quilt-maker herself, actually picked this story out as her favorite of the evening.
Little Karla has a very unique quilt she calls Mooshka. The quilt was made for Karla by her grandmother, who stitched it together from scraps of fabric she calls “schnitz”. While sewing, she tells Karla the stories behind each scrap. The quilt is very special to Karla and it makes her feel warm and safe – but that is not what makes Mooshka unusual. What is remarkable about Mooshka is that the quilt talks to Karla – telling her “sweet dreams” at bedtime or greeting her in the morning when she wakes up. If Karla is unable to sleep at night, she can touch a schnitz and it will tell her its story.
This all changes when Karla’s little sister, Hannah, is born. Mooshka no longer speaks to Karla, even when she touches a schnitz and asks for its story. The only sound Karla hears anymore is a baby crying…until she thinks to drape Mooshka over her little sister in her crib. “Sister” says Mooshka – and Hannah stops crying. Karla puts her hand on a schnitz and begins to tell the story herself – and the book closes with both Hannah and Mooshka quiet, and Karla talking “on and on.”
I loved this book. It’s a darling story; as parents of two girls, we especially appreciated the idea of Karla comforting her little sister (just look at the picture on the cover of the book!). The pages are filled with colorful, charming illustrations, and with words like “Mooshka” and “schnitz” it’s also really fun to read aloud.