Review of the Day: The Patchwork Quilt
Got an oldie but a goodie for you kids today. Since the Ezra Jack Keats judging will be taking place next week, I felt it appropriate to review the very first recipient of the award. That would be this book. I remember it as a Reading Rainbow title, personally, but I'm sure there are others with different associations.
The other day a teacher came into the library where I work and explained to me that she was doing a unit with her kids on quilting. She already had some non-fiction titles on the subject, but what she really wanted was picture books that talked about the craft. Immediately I thought of "Show Way" by Jacqueline Woodson, "Goha the Wise Fool", by Denys Johnson-Davies (a quilted picture book), "Oma's Quilt" by Paulette Bourgeois, "Tar Beach" by Faith Ringgold (another quilted picture book), and "Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt" by Deborah Hopkinson. But even before any of these book jumped to my mind, before I'd even stopped to consider a one of them, there was a book that I thought of first. "The Patchwork Quilt" by Valerie Flournoy is (I would dare say) the best-known quilting picture book of them all. A winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and the very first winner of the prestigious Ezra Jack Keats Books Award, this 1985 production and Reading Rainbow Book has remained a classic well past the time when most book lie on shelves forgotten.
Grandma has an idea. When she was a little girl her own mother made her a beautiful patchwork quilt. Now Tanya, her granddaughter, is showing some interest in Grandma's quilting. Therefore, she's going to make a quilt of her own. A "masterpiece" is what it's going to be. So when any family member has a special outfit made or has to get rid of a beloved set of pants, Grandma's always there, handy with the scissors. Slowly everyone in the family gets his or herself added to the quilt, until one day Grandma gets sick. There her quilt sits on the back of her old chair, gathering dust. Fortunately, Tanya knows she can take charge. Her mother agrees to do the sewing and Tanya cuts fabric. Even her brothers get in on the act. Soon enough Grandma is well again, the quilt is finished, and everyone is now a part of it.
Flournoy has written a book that has a great deal of dignity to it. The words are not necessarily easy ones, but they come off as natural when written on the page. Flournoy sets up emotional plot points, like Tanya's mother coming to accept why the quilt is really important. Grandma's recovery, I should point out, isn't presented as something miraculous or out of place. It works within the framework of the narrative. There's really only one moment in the plot that gave me pause. When Tanya starts working on the quilt herself, she feels that there's a piece that's definitely missing. She ponders and ponders this until finally she realizes what that piece might be. Grandma. Grandma is missing from the quilt. So while Grandma is asleep Tanya sneaks into her room, goes to the old patchwork quilt under which her grandmother sleeps, and then proceeds to cut it up without asking anyone for permission. I don't know about you, but if I woke up and found that my quilt had been lovingly vandalized in this way I might get a little bit tetchy. Tanya never gets in trouble for it since her motives were pure. Still, it's an odd little addition. I mean, couldn't she at least have asked permission?
Jerry Pinkey, artist extraordinaire, was the man responsible for the illustrations. I'm not a huge fan of his work, but he does a lovely job with this book. The quilt looks very real. My grandmother made me one back that was very similar to the one presented on the cover. I'll admit right here and now that since this book was written in 1985, it's swimming in nostalgia for me. I love the 80s hair and clothes that people wear in it. From Grandma's gigantic glasses to Mama's shirt/vest combinations and shoulder pads, children of the eightiese will find themselves swimming in memories. Remember polo shirts that had collars that were different colors from the fabric of the shirt themselves? Remember shirts that had ruffles for no particular reason at all? It's all here. But for kids, this won't serve as a distraction since they won't recognize the era. Plus, Pinkney cleverly included some dated elements, but not a lot. If I didn't point out to you that it was written over 20 years ago, you might never notice it yourself.
The children who grew up with this book are having kids of their own these days. I dare say that for some, "The Patchwork Quilt" will be the first title they purchase for their children and the children of their friends. Arresting and emotional without playing those same emotions for cheap, Florunoy's book is her best known work. If you should be particularly fond of it, be sure to check out its sequel, "Tanya's Reunion", written ten years later. A necessary read.