Subscribe to The Horn Book

Visit the Boston Globe–Horn Book website.

Extra Yarn

extra yarnThe stack of books stares at me. Where to start?  So, I did what I always do when struck with the paradox of too many choices: close my eyes and grab. So I will start this year’s discussion with a book I have admired for a long time. As a knitter, it was natural that I would be attracted to this story of knitting and giving. But would everyone? When the Boston Globe-Horn Book Committee announced it as their picture book winner, it was clear that this story had more universal appeal.

The Caldecott Committee will look at each book through the lens of the criteria. Here are the key words that each committee member will commit to memory before the process is over: 

“In identifying a ‘distinguished American picture book for children,’ defined as illustration, committee members need to consider:

  1. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
  2. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
  3. Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
  4. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
  5. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.”

Each committee member will write formal nominations of his or her favorite books and the nominations will be written with the criteria in mind.

Starting right with the cover, Extra Yarn is a stunner. The title is made of stockinette knitting, each letter carefully connected by yarn and painted by the illustrator. Klassen creates his art by hand and then digitally manipulates it. Hints of Things To Come are right there in that mysterious box sitting quietly on the lower left. When Annabelle finds that box filled with yarn of every color, she commences knitting. Here the grey/brown palette adds color as Annabelle begins to knit. Soon, she has knitted something for everyone, every animal and even every building. And still she keeps knitting, enjoying the act of creating and giving. One day, an archduke arrives, hellbent on getting that endless box of yarn for himself. Annabelle won’t sell it, so the cad steals it and finds out that the magic does not transfer and he throws the box into the sea, where it floats back to its rightful owner. The quiet story is told in few words and the illustrations gently extend the text without unnecessary duplication. Colors set the mood both of the little town, so nicely knit together, and the closed-eye archduke, forever bathed in sepia tones, even his overdone scarf.

There is something of Tomi Ungerer here, and it’s not just the three robbers reference. Repeated shapes (triangles for the iceberg, the round full moon, the homey rectangles of the houses and churches) hold the illustrations together and set the mood. The final spreads, with the girl happily sitting in a tree, are free of these shapes, a signal to the reader that something big has happened.

Is the message there? Yes. Is it heavy handed? I think not. What do you think?

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. As I knitter, I can’t discuss this book objectively. I love it, with no reservations. Easily one of my favorite books of this year. My 2.5yo enjoys it as well. I’m really excited that it’s getting good recognition beyond knitters!

  2. I read this one all the way back in February, so I had to look back at my Goodreads review to remind myself what my reactions were. I find it interesting to note that I call out the humor/sensibility as being very dry and therefore possibly a hard sell to others – I say interesting because I didn’t remember that at all until I reread my review. I also noted how impressed I was with the soot effect he uses throughout and that I was pleased the soot didn’t disappear at the end. The town is still itself, just brighter and cozier thanks to Annabelle. Apparently I also noticed that some sweaters are connected and some aren’t and now I’d like to grab a copy again and see if I could see a theme/meaning to the connections or lack thereof.

  3. I wish there were more than one image of Annabelle actually knitting something, though. She seems to be holding the needles wrong, too (my pet peeve).

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Yes, Anamaria, you are right about the needles in the one scene where she is actually knitting. I saw that. I normally flip out with this sort of thing, and maybe I should have this time. However, the story is not realistic and the illustrations aren’t either, so I didn’t mention it.
    But you are completely correct in bringing that issue up–I am quite sure the committee will! (There are many knitters in the library world and it’s likely the committee will have a knitter or three around the table.) The (k)nit picking around the table will go places none of us can even begin to imagine!

  5. Why do so many artists depict knitting upside down? And why is this ok?

  6. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Oh, Alison. Such a big question. Why do they depict knitting upside down?I don’t know, but sometimes it bothers me too. I have actually sent pictures of my second graders knitting to authors who want pictures for their illustrators. Sometimes they take the hint and sometimes they just go on and have the characters hold the needles upside down. If it’s a realistic book (think Chalk) and the needles are upside down, it takes the reader out of the visual narrative and would be a huge problem. If it’s stylized art, I notice it, but it doesn’t bother me so much.
    The committee does talk about issues like this. I have no idea where they will come down on this one.
    I will say that most of the images of people and animals in this book are far from realistic. Annabelle, when walking the dog, is not grasping the string. Her hand is splayed open. The “joined together” scene shows everyone posed in an rather unnatural way, but it works. Dr. Palmer’s hand with the clipboard is not what we would call natural either.
    So, to me, it’s a pretty consistent illustration style.

  7. I looked at this book a while ago. I loved it. I do remember noticing the needles being wrong. I was won over by the gift of the little girl’s knitting bringing color and beauty in such a funny, sweet way to the town and everyone and everything in it. Also, what a great message for children – every contribution of art we make is significant even if we don’t intend it to be.

  8. I really like Extra Yarn. I think Jon Klassen’s illustrations — and his use of browns and greys — are a perfect match for the story. If the illustrations were too pretty, the story would be ruined. I agree with the Tony Ungerer comparison. The archduke jumps unexpectedly into this story without explanation. The sudden and absurd plot twist absolutely reminds me of Ungerer.

  9. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    In real-life knitting, are the needles below the yarn? Maybe it’s too hard to make out what’s going on?

  10. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Oh, do let me go on…
    If a knitter is knitting with straight needles, as our little girl in this story is, the needle tips (pointy ends) should be pointing up and the other ends (knob ends) pointing down toward the lap. For some reason, when illustrators depict this act, it is almost always wrong, causing knitters to strike out with their sharp needles at the nearest passer by. It is physically impossible to knit if one’s tips (and, therefore, thumbs) are pointing down.

  11. For reference, the cat on the hardcover edition of David Elliott’s Knitty Kitty (ill. Christopher Denise; Candlewick, 2008) is doing it correctly.

    Now I’m wondering if the illustration of Annabelle knitting bothered me more because Extra Yarn is precisely about knitting–does Klassen not know how it works?–or if it should in fact bother me less, because as Robin pointed out, the illustrations aren’t exactly realistic. And it’s a magical box of yarn.

  12. Susan Dailey says:

    Klassen uses line/shape very well in this book. Before Annabelle starts knitting and in the spreads at the Archduke’s kingdom, he uses hard edges, which soften when the knitting starts. I find the hard edges on the pages where the box floats away to be very effective. The page turn shows a return to softer edges and shapes when the box returns to its rightful owner.

  13. Extra Yarn is one of my favorites this year. Charming is exactly the right word for depiction of the characters and their town, and I am continually impressed with the style of the knitted items. Klassen manages to pack so much personality into relatively simple people and animals. The use of color as the magical yarn is introduced to their monochrome town enhances the softening of the hard edges and bolsters the accompanying coziness.

  14. Megan Lambert says:

    This was my Picture Book class’s Medalist in our Mock Caldecott discussion during our final class meeting. The ten graduate students also chose the following books as Honors:

    And Then It’s Spring
    Red Knit Cap Girl

    I’m admittedly biased toward Extra Yarn and And Then It’s Spring since these were choices that my BGHB Committee made when we honored picture books this year, but I like the others very much and my students helped me to see things in all of the books that I hadn’t considered before. Although I didn’t vote in the class’s mock debate and tried very hard to just keep my mouth shut and let my students duke it out, it was a lovely mini-return to committee work.

  15. Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend the Mock Caldecott at Dayton Metro Library (facilitated by the fabulous Floyd Dickman), and we discussed the knitting conundrum. According to one of the Dayton CLs, who is a major knitter, that’s the way they hold them across the pond (or maybe she said something about them holding them that way in the old days… I don’t remember, but it definitely had something to do with the U.K.). Any thoughts on this? The story has always had a vaguely British feel to me, for some reason, so this would sort of tie in to that.

  16. Robin Smith says:

    I don’t think so, Sam. What does you mother in law say? I grew up knitting in Europe and knit both Continental and American. (I know, so showy.) However, these are not realistic illustrations and I did not find myself jarred by them at all. I am unabashedly a fan.

  17. J. Marie Hicks says:

    Interestingly, when I was visiting Tennessee I found someone knitting a project while holding the needles points down, or “upside down”. She had knit all her life this way, and taught others this technique. So, who is to say the illustration is wrong because the needles are points down… Not only was this normal for this individual, but I would be interested in learning that style if I could find an instructional page illustrating that technique… To each their own, eh?

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.


  1. […] the comments about Extra Yarn, someone brought up a small mistake. There’s one in Green, too, and I wonder if this will […]

  2. […] hers and rushed to claim it when we were divvying up titles. I couldn’t let her have both Extra Yarn AND this one. As you can see, we love This Is Not My […]

  3. […] book has been mentioned as a possible contender for the Caldecott Award, which is given to the best illustrated book each year. The winner will be announced in January. […]

Speak Your Mind