I’ve never tried to write historical fiction, much less tried to squeeze it into the 32-page picture book format, but I can’t imagine it’s easy. In her newest picture book, Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story, illustrated by Steven Guarnaccia, Deborah Hopkinson brings readers “historical fiction inspired by real events” (as explained in her closing author’s note), and it’s good, solid storytelling. It’s accompanied by Guarnaccia’s warm watercolors, which successfully reflect the period clothing and evoke the early 20th-century American setting.
To boot, the story gives gender stereotyping a brief run for its money, which I always like to see in picture books.
It’s circa 1917, and the United States has just entered World War I. A young boy is watching his father leave for combat, telling him sadly that he’s brave and he’d like to join him. “I know, Mikey,” the father says, but “it takes just as much courage to stay behind.”
Later, his mother starts to knit, noting that the soldiers will need warm clothes, come winter. Mikey’s little sister begs to help. “What about you, Mikey?” his mother asks. “No way! Boys don’t knit,” he responds, reiterating later that knitting is altogether a girl’s domain. He also stubbornly, and erroneously, believes that only something monumental will constitute assisting with the war efforts. Knitting socks or hats? Too trivial. Pshaw.
Despite his sister showing him (by grabbing a local newspaper) all the varied ways in which people are helping—President Wilson, for one, keeps sheep on the White House lawn in order to have wool handy—Mikey obstinately sticks to his guns. (Guarnaccia goes far with character expression via simple eyebrow lines. When Mikey’s annoyed, the assured, swooping-downward lines of his eyebrows say it all.)
When the boy's teacher suggests a Knitting Bee to help soldiers in need, Mikey and his friend reluctantly agree, primarily since the teacher dares them: “I bet you’re scared you can’t learn.” (Smart woman, that one.) Thusly the teams form—the Purl Girls versus the Boys’ Knitting Brigade. The boys get right to work, learning how to knit.
At the Knitting Bee in Central Park, the boys are still unsure about their masculinity: “Mikey, we’re the only boys,” Nick whispers to him, fearing they’ll get laughed right out of the park. Cast on, though! The competition must begin! The children knit for days, and though I don’t want to ruin the entire story for you here, suffice it to say that just when Mikey is sure that knitting is “stupid,” he’s reminded of the gravity and meaning of their efforts, whether boy, girl, man or woman. And Hopkinson pulls it off with poignancy, not schmaltz.
Guarnaccia, who is an associate professor in the illustration program at Parsons The New School for Design, brings to the tale uncluttered, unfussy cartoon illustrations with ample white space that bring focus to the characters and the action. His sunny palette—lots of greens, yellows and oranges—cheers. And the borderless illustrations invite readers in and put us right in the center of the action, as if we’re knitting right there with the children.
The informative Author’s Note provides readers more information about the American Red Cross’ “Knit for Sammy” efforts, circa 1917, in which men, women and children stitched and purled away for American soldiers in Europe, who were suddenly facing the winter months ahead. Hopkinson also describes the real-life 1918 “Knit-In” at Central Park, and she closes with a note about how knitting for soldiers overseas still continues today, providing information for those interested in learning more.
A lively story from start to finish.
KNIT YOUR BIT: A WORLD WAR I STORY. Copyright © 2013 by Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Steven Guarnaccia. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin, New York. Illustration used with permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.