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Let's use Ellen Howard's new book The Log Cabin Quilt with illustrations by Ronald Himler (Holiday House, 1996 ISBN 0-8234-1247-4) as the inspiration for a quilt theme. From there we can go to art, history, or math and that's just for starters. The Log Cabin Quilt itself is a delightful addition to books about Westward Expansion. Elvirey tells us about how, after her mother died, Pap just announced they were leaving and began piling everything into the wagon for the move to Michigan. Granny got a dirty look when she heaved the bag of quilt scraps on, but she said she aimed to sit on it and no more was said. Pap had said little and smiled not at all since his wife died. Winter was nearly upon them by the time the log cabin was built. The children chinked the logs with mud and grass while Granny worked on her quilting. Then Pap left to hunt food and, while he was gone the cold, the wind and the snow came, and the chinks froze and dropped out. They were worried sick about their father out in the storm and they nearly froze themselves before Elvirey thought about the quilt pieces. She began stuffing them into the spaces between the logs and soon the others helped. By the time Pap came back, nearly frozen himself, the cabin had been transformed with the pieces and colors of their past into a true log cabin quilt, and Pap smiled.
You can, of course, go from the book into other homes on the prairie, but let's go to the quilt books instead. Ann Paul's alphabet book of quilting patterns and their history, Eight Hands Round (HarperCollins, 1991 ISBN 0-06-024704-5) might be useful at this point. Let the kids browse through it and through Raymond Bial's With Needle and Thread: A Book About Quilts (Houghton, 1996 ISBN 0 393 73568 8), a wonderful photographic study of the craft. For the math and art connection, encourage children to look at some patterns as clever ways to break up a square. They can categorize patterns as those that are self contained within a square and those that involve several squares to make one pattern. Brainstorm for other ways of categorizing.
Encourage the kids to get as involved in quilting as their interests will take them. Some will be content with designing paper quilts, others may want to quilt some real squares. It's not impossible to make it a community project. One school I know of sent out word that they needed quilting help from anyone in the community willing to come to the school for an hour or two. They had so many volunteers that they decided to create a community quilt, asking the kids to design the squares and then getting adults to transform it into a beautiful work of art. They sold tickets and had a drawing for the winner and, in so doing, raised a lot of money.
It's time to get out the stories now, in which quilting plays an important part. Each of them can lead you farther into quilting or along an interesting by-way. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson with illustrations by James Ransome (Knopf, 1993 ISBN 0-679-87472-0) is one of my favorites. Clara is a slave and is taught to sew in order to work in the big house. When she hears about the Underground Railroad which could carry her to freedom, she begins to stitch a quilt which is really a map of the area around the plantation so that, when she gets a chance, she'll know where to run. You can run to other books about the Underground or stick to your quilting.
Patricia Polacco's quilt book The Keeping Quilt (Simon & Schuster, 1988 ISBN 0-671-64963-9) (Grades 2 -5) is a good choice because here it's the heritage and culture represented by the quilt that takes center stage. The quilt is an heirloom that began when Great Gramma Anna created it out of an old dress and her babushka from "backhome Russia". After its creation it was used and treasured at all the important family occasions to remind them all of where and whom they come from. The divergent path here is to traditions and cultures represented in your classroom. More information including activities, related books and links.
For comic relief with a tender twist, try Eleanor Coerr's The Josefina Story Quilt with illustrations by Bruce Degen (HarperCollins, 1986 ISBN 0-06-444129-6) in which we meet Josefina the elderly hen who is taken on the trip west under protest, but in spite of many misdeeds, she proves a heroine with her literal last gasp and is commemorated in the memory's quilt constructed by her owner.
Natalie Kinsey-Warnock's The Canada Geese Quilt, illustrated by Leslie Bowman (Dutton, 1989 ISBN 0-525-65004-0) has grandmother's stroke destroying the plan that she and Ariel had to make a quilt for the new baby based on Ariel's sketch of the return of the Canadian geese. Not only that but, after her stroke, Grandmother seems to have given up. Ariel attempts to complete the quilt herself and that work causes Ariel and her grandmother to reconnect. By the time the geese are ready to go again, the new baby is here and so is the quilt and Grandmother is back to her feisty self. The stress here is on the love of nature and on the intergenerational love.
Tony Johnston and Tomie DePaola's The Quilt Story (Putnam, 1985 ISBN 0-399-21009-1) has one quilt comforting two little girls generations apart. Created first by Abigail's mother, it helped Abigail adjust to the long trek west. Much, much later a little girl is also moving west under very different circumstances but comforted by the same quilt.
In many of these books the quilt is a symbol of many other things and this symbolism is quite strong in Ann Turner and Thomas B. Allen's Sewing Quilts (Simon & Schuster, 1994 ISBN 0-02-789285-9). Here a frontier mother and her daughters stitch on a quilt and every stitch brings forth a memory they share. Mama ties it together when she compares their days to a quilt in which you sometimes see no pattern until it's all laid out for you.
Enjoy your quilts.
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