Fuse 8 n’ Kate: The Mitten by Jan Brett
Since the entire premise of my podcast with my sister is to take well-known books and determine whether or not they continue to deserve their “classic” status, it probably behooves me to do a couple books everyone has actually heard of. And since the last book I did was, at best, obscure and, at worst, completely forgotten, I figured today we should go all in and do something out-and-out famous. To my surprise, we’ve never tackled a Jan Brett book before. That said, I have to admit that it’s possible that Kate and I are not the world’s most impartial critics. You see, our mother instilled in us an appreciation for fiber arts. and can you think of a single illustrator who has ever depicted the knitted stitch better than Ms. Brett? We consider the woman’s best-known book and how it has held up over all this time as well as the timeliness of doing a Ukrainian folktale in this day and age.
Rant Alert: We don’t bring this up, but after the recording I decided to look into what exactly won Caldecotts in 1990 (the year this could have gotten something). The winner that year? Lon Po Po, and I can’t argue there. In fact most of the Honors were great and include books we’ve featured on the podcast (Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins). So here’s my controversial call. I would have been happy to lose either Bill Peet by Bill Peet or Lois Ehlert’s Color Zoo (really, judges?) in favor of THIS book getting an Honor instead. And I stand by that statement. Jan Brett has NEVER won a Caldecott and, by this point, she probably never will. Somebody look me in the eye and tell me friggin’ Color Zoo was better than this. My theory is that the committee determined that the realism of this book was too similar to Trina Schart Hyman’s and Jerry Pinkney’s (who won an Honor for The Talking Eggs that year) books and they wanted to have a variety of styles. Still doesn’t justify the snub.
I do mention at one point during the show that this isn’t the only picture book version of the mitten out there. Traditionalists may enjoy this previous title by Alvin Tresselt and Yaroslava:
Or this Jim Aylesworth/Barbara McClintock beauty:
The first indication that this book honors the fiber arts? Behold! A spinning wheel. Is accurately rendered? Ah… kinda? I mean, she’s sort of purposefully hiding a key part of it, but we’ll give her a pass. It’s not Paul Zelinsky level good, but it’s up there.
In the course of my research for this podcast I read a fair number of interviews with Jan Brett about her work on The Mitten. My favorite? This one with TeachingBooks.net. In it, Jan really leans into the research she did for the title, as well as the Ukrainian ex-patriots who suggested, “I make Nicki’s clothes too big for him because his family would have made them by hand and passed them down from father or older brother. He’d wear a belt to make his jacket fit closer around his tummy. The boots, too, might be a little big. He might stuff some newspaper in them or wear an extra pair of socks to make them fit.” In that light, this book actually makes so much more sense.
A couple things to point out about this next image. First off, 100 points to Jan Bret for the correct positioning of knitting needles in this image (a problem some of you may recall I have with a LOT of picture books in a given year). Second, sometimes grandmothers will complain to me about how they’re depicted in children’s literature. Too often they’re seen as decrepit old nannies, barely toddling along on their last legs. This grandma? First off, she’s living just with her grandson here, and I don’t think anyone’s visiting her today, but LOOK at her! She’s vibrant. She’s energetic. Her hair is incredibly perfect (to say nothing of her clothing and accessories). I should look so good on my normal days at work! This is something to aspire to, people. This is class.
Choose to agree or disagree with me that this should have won a Caldecott something, but the fact that the hedgehog’s prickles are visible through the incredibly accurate stitches in this image . . . right there, the book just blows me away.
It’s a little difficult to tell, because the fox has just stuck its head in the mitten, but that nose on the far right? I think it’s pretty clear that that has to belong to the badger that arrived a page before. Case closed.
And the winner of the silent final spread in a picture book goes to . . .
Betsy Recommends: Triangle of Sadness
Kate Recommends: Playing a game of D&D (and the podcast Tales from the Stinky Dragon).
Filed under: Fuse 8 n' Kate
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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