The Fabric of Our Lives: Books About Cloth, Clothing, and More
Books function as the fabric of our lives: warming us, making connections, and helping to define who we are. Here are some of Mia’s favorite books on fabrics, mittens, hats, coats, jeans, and more!
Is this book as silly as it sounds? Yes. Judi Barrett walks us through exactly why clothing would be an impractical nuisance at best, and a disaster at worst, for our animal friends (from porcupines to walruses). This is the perfect book to share with a group of kids, who will laugh uproariously at the realistic illustrations of awkward, uncomfortable-looking animals and enjoy picturing even more implausible animal fashions in their imaginations.
Clothes, like any other commodity, have to come from somewhere, and be made by someone. We don’t give enough thought to the people who make our clothes, and we perhaps think even less about those who made them before the days of mass production. In this excellent biography, Markel weaves (ha!) the story of Ukrarian immigrant Clara Lemlich, who took to the streets to protest the appalling conditions workers dealt with in garment factories. We can learn a great deal from Clara’s activism and bravery, and it is also useful to be reminded of the human beings behind everyday items we take for granted too often.
With absolutely gorgeous illustrations by the incomparable Isabelle Arsenault (you may have seen her work in Jane, the Fox, and Me), this biography of a magnificent artist is like a work of art itself. Novesky’s text is poetic and lyrical (“The river provided flowers and fruit, a lullaby, and a livelihood”) and puts readers in the mood to create. Bourgeois, her subject, is easy to root for and clearly ought to be better known for her remarkable body of work. Give this one to budding artists and crafty kids in late elementary or middle school.
Sometimes it’s hard to let go of a special item of clothing, but this book shows that if you’re crafty, you really don’t have to let go altogether! The titular dress morphs from its initial incarnation through a whole slew of fun and functional transformations, and the little girl who owns it is stylish and confident. A great choice for kids with an interest in repurposing, “maker” spaces, or fashion..
Using her trusty box of colorful yarn, a girl named Annabelle singlehandedly transforms a bleak, colorless town and gives it new life, making everyone there feel loved and cared for. Mac Barnett’s modern fairy tale shows the folly of greed and the mighty gift of bestowing attention in equal measure. You may know Barnett as the author of many funny, light-hearted tales and illustrator Jon Klassen is also associated with comic gems, but this story is dead serious in its espousal of kindness and the spirit of giving.
Once a piece of clothing gets holes in it, you have to throw it away…don’t you? Based on a Yiddish folksong, this story will make you think twice about our throwaway-happy culture and consider what kind of marvelous form shabby items could take if you simply repurposed them in some clever way. Funny how an old tale fits right in with the modern “go green” movement!
Probably everyone has read at least one picture book version of this tale, but this Hyman’s stands out among the very best of the Little Red offerings. With atmospheric, creepy, highly detailed illustrations, I wouldn’t hand this one to anyone younger than seven. It’s scary good!
Milo the magician is a colossal failure who can’t so much as pull a rabbit out of his hat, but his luck starts to change for the better when he makes the acquaintance of a very talented bear. Agee has a fabulous sense of humor, and his illustrations are both funny and appealingly simple. Kids will love laughing at both Milo’s triumphs and his missteps.
So yes, this is based on the same song as Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, but both are definitely worth your time. Although each title celebrates upcycling (before it was a thing), this is also a gorgeous homage to immigrant families who arrived on Ellis Island with little in their possession save for hope and passed down anything they managed to gain through the generations.
There’s so much to love about this book that I have a hard time knowing where to start: it seamlessly stiches together (Ha! See what I did there??) poetry, nonfiction, and biography all in one. The women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama have long quilted to commemorate loved ones, and their artistry and storytelling will inspire kids while also helping them to understand the long trajectory of the struggle for civil rights. McKissack is a national treasure and this is one of her best offerings.
A Dr. Seuss book that isn’t written in rhyme?! Yes, it’s true, but nevertheless, this early work by the good doctor is just as funny, fresh, and relevant now as when it was first published in 1938. It tells the story of a boy with a family heirloom with a mind of its own who inadvertently offends a pompous king and sets off a chain of hilarious and wacky events. It made me want to design a few hundred hats of my own!
No list along this theme would be complete without a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale of deception and arrogance. In this clever twist, simple farmer Henry stumbles upon a whole laundry basket worth of finery which has fallen out of some fancy carriage or other. While Henry briefly enjoys his elevated status and confidence, he quickly discovers the downside of all that splendor. This book will delight kids familiar with the original story, and the illustrations by David Catrow are very funny, if slightly grotesque.
Have you ever failed to stand up for someone and regretted it deeply later on? This oldie-but-goodie has a surpassingly contemporary plot, touching on significant and poignant themes like the bystander effect and the shame children experience in poverty. Many modern children will relate to Wanda, who owns only one faded dress but falsely claims to own a hundred of them when she is bullied and mocked. Here’s hoping this story will inspire a new generation of kids to defend those who are picked on and look deeper than fashion to the character within.
Nasrettin, the clever and lovable hero of this story, is a popular figure in Turkish folklore, and author/illustrator Demi is one of the best tellers of folktales in all of children’s literature, with stunning, lovingly detailed illustrations enhancing her words. Nasrettin is rejected from a feast on account of his shabby, worn coat, but when he returns with a new one, he is welcomed with open arms and starts to feed…the coat. When baffled guests ask him why, he slyly replies, “…[I]t was the coat and not me that you invited to your banquet.”
Quilts are such powerful symbols of disparate parts coming together to make a meaningful whole. That’s certainly the case in this tale of Russian immigrants, whose quilt pieces are made up of clothing from each member of their family and contain a host of memories. It serves a range of purposes as well, from wrapping up babies to decorating a sabbath table for the family. Pollaco is the perfect author for upper elementary schoolers interested in understand themselves and others more fully.
Who doesn’t love the intricately detailed, folkloric art of Jan Brett? This classic cumulative tale is perfect for newly independent readers just starting to find their feet (or should I say hands?) and features an adorable cast of animals seeking a cozy home.
There’s ample reason why this book is so often given as a present: it showcases the power of empathy, compassion, and generosity for its own sake. An old woman sews the most beautiful quilts in the kingdom, but reserves them only for the needy. The greedy king demands one, and she says she will only if he first gives away all of his possessions. Kids will love discussing this touching morality tale and considering their own values.
Picture a pair of magical jeans that you and every one of your best friends can wear. Now imagine that it brings astonishing good luck to anyone who wears them. Such is the enchanting premise of this, the first in a friendship-focused, girl-powered story of a tightknit squad who have a summer replete with accomplishment, tragedy, romance, and creativity.
We really can’t talk about fabric without a nod to the most luxuriant and enchanting one of all: silk! Sobol walks you through the intricacies and history of silk-making, with all the artistry and science that entails. Kids interested in how things are made, even those who aren’t big on fine fabrics, will be fascinated by the process Sobol describes and derive sophisticated understanding from the high-quality photographs.
Who says nonfiction can’t be fun? Or that fashion is trivial? Albee demonstrates that clothes show us who we are and who we aspire to be, and always have done so.