Extra Yarn: Our Favorite Picture Book Ever Made
What makes any work of art somebody’s favorite is not an exact science - and picking a favorite book is certainly going to contain some subjective criteria. For me, in order to rise up to the very top, I think a book has to make me love it for more than one reason. Inevitably it’s going to have to make me feel lots of different feelings in order to stand out from the crowd. But even so, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind what my favorite picture book is.
As a parent, when I’m trying to pick my favorite picture book, it’s an interesting thought to consider whether I would lean towards the books of my own childhood, or whether I would prefer the new stories I am discovering with my own children. Traditionally, I think it’s safe to say that I’m a sucker for nostalgia, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a new book which awakens all of those old childhood feelings.
Seeing as how it’s currently wintertime, it also seems like an appropriate opportunity to write about our favorite picture book of all time - Extra Yarn. Extra Yarn is set in a snowy, winter landscape, and it’s written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen. This partnership has brought us some pretty amazing picture books. If you are unaware of their collaborations, I’m jealous of you, because you’re guaranteed a wonderful day of discovery ahead of you. Go ahead and check them all out at once. Toss in all of the picture books they’ve worked on separately as well. You can’t go wrong.
In a world full of amazing stories and many talented authors and illustrators, Barnett and Klassen have both entered into that mythical realm of must-read creators - at which point we will preorder their works with absolutely no knowledge of what’s in store for us. I mean that literally. I’ve even preordered several chapter books with just a handful of Klassen’s illustrations inside, without knowing what the book is about, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. It’s still a relatively exclusive list to be a part of, and it’s the best way I can describe how much we enjoy their creations.
The first exposure I had to the illustrations of Jon Klassen was in his picture book I Want My Hat Back, as it was a purchase we made before the birth of our first son 6 years ago. We even brought the book along for his baby photoshoot for birth announcement cards, which happens to make it remarkably easy to remember when I first read a Jon Klassen book, in case anyone cares to ask. After that we read The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Klassen, which is by far one of our favorite scary picture books. I certainly think that our previous exposure to the artwork of Klassen made Extra Yarn even more special. Particularly since the animals’ familiar faces show up like little Easter eggs to discover - like a very short-term nostalgia trip.
Extra Yarn was our first book by Mac Barnett, and the story is just perfectly crafted. It’s framed like an old-fashioned fairy tale with a little bit of magic and complete with an evil archduke as the antagonist. A girl named Annabelle finds a box with yarn inside, and she discovers that, through some sort of magic, the yarn never runs out. She then basically starts handing out gifts to every person and animal in town, and she even starts wrapping inanimate objects in yarn as well. The archduke hears word of this magic box and wants it for himself. He first tries to buy the box from Annabelle, and when Annabelle refuses to sell it he decides to steal it from her.
Just the presence of this antagonist - along with his castle and his ship - was an excellent creative decision, because in the back of my mind it completely changes the setting. Now all of the sudden, instead of just having this quiet, snowy little town, I’m getting vibes of things like The Princess Bride and Robin Hood - both always good things to be thinking about.
Now the real magic in this book all comes from Annabelle and her decisions. She is definitely one of the best role models in all of literature. Everything from how she decides to use her yarn to her interactions with grumpy people to her refusal to sell the thing that makes her happy, it’s all simply amazing. It touches on so many of my favorite themes as a teacher and a father. Annabelle shows empathy to others, and demonstrates great Zen, and she does not engage in their grumpiness in any way.
She simply continues to give and give as she knits her yarn gifts for absolutely everyone, regardless of how they treat her. It’s like she’s using her gift to transform the gloomy world around her. I like to imagine her as Michael Jackson from Captain EO using his music to transform the bad guys, except she’s slinging yarn out of her wrists like Spider-Man and wrapping everyone in happiness. She even makes a sweater for Nate, the mean bully in the alleyway - who always makes me think of the bully in the alleyway from A Christmas Story. (Evoking feelings of other things I love is apparently a surefire way to win me over.)
And then Annabelle ultimately refuses to sell her magic box of yarn for the archduke’s enormous final offer of ten million dollars. Of course this drives home the point that Annabelle has found something that makes her truly happy, something truly magical, and money can’t buy her happiness. You’re supposed to be blown away that Annabelle had the confidence in herself to turn down such an incredible amount of money. Then you’re supposed to reflect on why she made that decision. And for me it all boils down to one of my favorite feelings and themes - an indictment on growing up and losing your sense of childhood wonder.
So what we have here is a beautiful amalgamation of many of my favorite things. I’m being bombarded from every side here. As I’m reading I’m thinking of some of my favorite movies. I’m thinking of Christmas, snow, and simpler times. I’m thinking of fairy tales, fantasy, adventure, and the Brothers Grimm. I’m thinking of empathy, kindness, and childhood innocence. And to wrap it all together we get this perfect message for our kids about following our hearts and doing what makes us happy. Those are a lot of feelings to be hit with, and it’s really no wonder that Extra Yarn is my favorite picture book.
Have you read Extra Yarn? Obviously it’s number one on our list of the best picture books of all time. What’s your family’s favorite picture book? Do you tend to gravitate towards books from your childhood, or do you enjoy the new stories you’re discovering with your kids? Tell us in the comments!