“Extra Yarn” by Mac Barnett weaves in the many things I find necessary in a good children’s book.
It prioritizes a story over teaching a moral: The purpose of any book should be to tell a story. If a lesson is embodied in that story, great, but let it begin with a story to tell, not a moral to teach. Stories form cultures because of the people in the stories (and some adventure).
The illustrations by Jon Klassen are creative, beautiful and facilitate the telling of the story. That everything was gray and plain creates a visual for how “things began to change in that small town.”
The features are not distorted. Some distortion in animation is used to say something about a character. Mr. Incredible in “The Incredibles” is enormous and super strong. His wife had a willowy silhouette as she can super-stretch. Her plumper features after childrearing not only show the reality of how women’s bodies change with motherhood but also that she has lost her flexibility in life. Too much distortion, on the other hand, is no longer useful but destructive to the beauty of the human person represented. Too many picture books engage that approach. “Extra Yarn” simplifies the human form without distorting it. The painting is soft, repetitive and as quiet as the story it has to tell.
It practices the golden rule of writing, show don’t tell. In the turn after the climax, only one sentence, spread out over three pages tells us of the triumph of good over evil. The villain has no power over her.
The characters are inclusive without a spotlight. Annabelle makes sweaters for everyone, persnickety Mr. Norman, a large-statured Mr. and Mrs. and “Little Louis” a smiling man with a beard no taller than Annabelle. That is how disability and different-ness work. We just live together. More books should include differently abled people as normative, without dwelling on it.
There is insight into the characters that make up small communities. Mr. Crabtree wears shorts in the snow! Yes, and so would my dad. I have found, men who never get cold are often rather cheerful, happy with their internal temperature. The author captures this.
The protagonist is not a stereotype; she is a person. She doesn’t need in-your-face girl power. “Take or leave it,” the villain says.
“Leave it,” she says.
Neither damsel in distress nor girl-on-a-mission, Annabelle is just a girl. If we represented girls as just as human as boys, as normative, then maybe girls would learn they deserve just as much respect and have just as much right to speak as anybody else.
The prose is simple, rhythmic and reads aloud beautifully. No clunky sentences here. This is essential in storybooks which will be read aloud. It teaches good language skills to children. Because children pick up what they read and hear, story books should use proper grammar and sentence structure.
Virtue is practiced in the book, and only the villain is villainized. I want my children to know tricky people exist in the world. What I do not need is an illustration that every adult and every institution is a villain, because this simply isn’t true. People can be wrong, narrow-minded, or jealous, but it does not make them part of the bad guys. Annabelle’s good deeds help bring people together instead of put people to shame. Not even the villain is put to shame at her hand, but from his own choice to steal the box.
Stories tell us something about people and reality.
Form Annabelle, we learn about simple acts of kindness, in this case, knitting sweaters, can have a great impact on our community, change the world in a sense.
From the villain, we learn crime doesn’t pay. And he has no power over those who are good.
The truth about the world in this story is that we can make a difference by touching the lives of those around us with simple acts of kindness. A smile and our kindness are things we always have at our disposal. And that is why there is always extra yarn.