I have a friend. Not just any friend; I hope we all have a fair few friends. But I hope everyone also has a friend like my friend: when I was pregnant, this friend brought me a baby present. This present was a book, which is already a good start. The book was called Extra Yarn, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen. What this demonstrates is that my friend Knows Me, with those uppercase letters used consciously. It’s wonderful when people provide you with good and useful things before you have a baby– soft blankets, sturdy burp cloths, pretty clothes. It’s lovely, and I’m touched and grateful. But when someone looks around and says, “Deborah would not want to bring her baby into a house without a charming new book about yarn and knitting for that child,” then? Then you know that you should make that person the executor of your will (thanks, lady!).
Have you ever knit something? Let me tell you: there’s nothing quite so terrifying as the moment when you’ve been knitting merrily along, feel your ball of yarn, and get an “uh oh…” feeling, as in, “That feels a bit… small?” Maybe you weigh it to see if you have enough left. Maybe you knit faster, trying to outrun the yarn. Maybe you knit more slowly, on the basis that “haste makes waste.” But there’s nothing like the sinking feeling when you’re sure, oh so sure, your yarn is going to run out! But way on the other side of the spectrum is the placid security that comes with an assurance that you’ve got Extra Yarn. Maybe enough for a matching hat? Or matching socks for your baby? You feel peaceful, at ease, even a little smug. And that’s the peace we see in Annabelle, one of the most confident protagonists I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet in a book. Let me tell you: I want to be Annabelle when I grow up.
The story is one of the most engaging I’ve written about here: Annabelle lives in a colourless town, but one day she finds a box filled with yarn of every colour. She knits herself a sweater, but has extra yarn. So she ends up knitting sweaters for everyone she knows. Then for the animals, then for buildings and cars, and, through it all, she never runs out of yarn, she just carries on placidly knitting. It’s a knitter’s fantasy. Then an evil Archduke comes and steals the box! Only, when he gets to his castle, he opens the box… and it’s empty. He throws it out the window with a curse, but the box ignores the curse and goes back where it was always meant to be– with Annabelle.
I think this marks the first time I’ve written here about a book where the plot and character were the driving force in what made me fall in love. (OK, yes, and the yarn.) Annabelle, throughout the book, runs into mild to forceful opposition. And yet she never talks back. She never whines. She never raises her voice. She never caves. She just carries on knitting. You can see in Jon Klassen’s wonderful drawings: her face maintains a slight smile, and perfect repose. To put it in a somewhat more blunt fashion, she shares John Scalzi’s Christmas gift from this year (I promise you want to click the link). When her friend Nate laughs at her sweater, she says, “You’re just jealous,” and knits him one, too. That shuts him up. At school, her teacher scolds her for distracting the other students with her colourful sweater, so she just knits them all sweaters, too (and, I hope, teaches Mr. Norman a lesson– dude, don’t tell your students “You can’t.”). And when the Archduke tries to buy her beloved yarn, she just calmly turns him down, over and over again, and sends him away. As my sister would have said when she was little, Annabelle is a “big strong girl.” More than that, she’s tough. She’s resilient.
And that’s where I truly love this book. Annabelle is the model here. The adults don’t teach her; she teaches them, if they care to learn. Some of the adults she meets are fun and give you a good chuckle (“Mr. Crabtree […] never wore sweaters or even long pants, and […] would stand in his shorts with the snow up to his knees. ‘No sweater for me, thanks,’ said Mr. Crabtree. So she made Mr. Crabtree a hat.”), but more often they’re minor obstacles. I’ve mentioned Mr. Norman, the teacher who tells her off for distracting the class by quietly wearing her sweater, and who, when she proposes to rectify the situation by knitting everyone sweaters, expostulates, “Impossible! […] You can’t.” Annabelle doesn’t answer back; she just does it. And as for the spoiled, petulant, domineering Archduke? Annabelle quietly carries on doing her own thing, sticking up for herself, and the yarn chooses her in the end. He throws a temper tantrum, but she just carries on carrying on, and is happy.
This is just a story about a girl doing her knitting. From Annabelle’s perspective, I think the world around her is just full of big opportunities and minor nuisances. I picture her, if the book were turned into a movie (Oh my God, Mac and Jon? Can you make that happen??? This would be such a good animated short!), occasionally sighing, or flashing that slight smile at Mr. Norman as she casts on a new sweater. Perhaps the Archduke would elicit so much as a little shrug, as thought to say, “Dude, just leave me alone, OK?” But her focus is on what makes life fun for her, not on the nuisances, and, in the end, she gets more of what she pays attention to: knitting.
The Changeling took to this book immediately. “Read me Extra Yarn,” she’ll beg. Or she’ll add it to the pile of books to take with us when we travel. One of my very favourite moments was when she took it over to my friend, now her friend, too, and clambered onto her lap. “Read it to me, please?” And, as they went through the book, the Changeling did what she always does: “And she knit a sweater for the doggie! And that’s a cat! I see a bunny, and a bird, and is that the birdie’s house? They all have sweaters!” It’s enthralling.
I love seeing her admire Annabelle’s handiwork. I hope, as she grows up with Annabelle, she’ll also learn just to do, and keep on doing, awesome things, no matter who tries to persuade her that she can’t or shouldn’t. Just go for it, kiddo!