April 18, 2012

Extra Yarn

Extra Yarn
By Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
3-4 Preschool Primary Balzer & Bray 40 pp.
978-0061953385 Hardcover $16.99

Imagine living in an industrial town where "everywhere you looked was either the white of snow or the black of soot from the chimneys." Imagine that, in the midst of this drab existence, a girl finds a box with "yarn of every color." This is what happens to Annabelle, who knits herself a sweater with that yarn. Then she knits her dog a sweater with what's left. But there's still yarn left over after that, so Annabelle knits and knits, systematically outfitting the entire town with sweaters (including pick-up trucks and bears) until everything is covered in the yarn's soft, wooly brightness.

Barnett's story, though entirely original, has a vague fairy tale quality to it, with the mysterious box full of plenty and the girl's generosity being constantly rewarded with a never ending supply of extra yarn. There's even an evil, clothes-loving archduke who wants the box for himself. Annabelle's story follows a predictable progression that is made fresh and compulsively readable by Barnett's subtly integrated flights of fancy and use magical realism. For example, though he archduke does finally get his hands on the box through unscrupulous means, it makes its way back to Annabelle, floating over the ocean on an unlikely chunk of ice, whereupon she knits a sweater for a tree. The story is slyly humorous and touching by turns, (though never sentimental). This is entirely due to Barnett's light handed prose and excellent pacing.

Jon Klassen, who is currently enjoying critical and popular success with his picture book, I Want My Hat Back, supports the narrative with illustrations that perfectly suit the story's fragile balance of realism and whimsey. His expert use of color is as subtle and effective as Barnett's pacing. While many would use black and primary colors for emphasis, Klassen uses dark browns and grays for Annabelle's town pre-yarn, and lovely, rough watercolors in varying springtime shades for the sweaters she knits. It's visually unexpected picture book art and it works. But then, the same can be said for the books a whole. Extra Yarn just works.

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