The following was written as a submission for the module ‘Form and Genre 2’ in my Masters in Children’s Literature.
A Personal Link to Wales & Welsh Quilts
Like many Pembrokeshire children, I was born in Wales to English parents. My Mum’s Dad was proudly Welsh, and her Mother devoutly Scottish. Due to me being very close to them both, I grew up immersed in Celtic traditions. Living in West Wales we are predominantly, and somewhat sadly, a very English part of Cymru. Despite having been loosely taught the Welsh language from the age of 4 up until the age of 16, I know very few people (myself included) who are fluent in speaking the language of our forefathers.
I suspect that it’s this feeling of cultural lacking through my failure to speak my mother tongue that means I cling onto the more physically tangible aspects of my Welsh heritage; the Welsh Lady costume on St. David’s Day, the perpetual display of Daffodils in vases as soon as they begin to bloom in late February, the gifting of Clogau Welsh gold jewellery between our family members to keep the tradition and history of our ancestors alive.
This innate understanding of holding onto material odes to Welsh history drew me to French-born Valériane Leblond’s 2020 children’s picture book ‘The Quilt’, available to read in both English and Welsh. In her acknowledgements, Valériane credits Jen Jones, who owns and runs the Welsh Quilt Centre in Lampeter, home to a vast collection of historic Welsh quilts and blankets. Jen herself is a fountain of knowledge on all things relating to the history and craft of Welsh quilting, having made it her passion for the last 30 years to preserve and champion this unique craft.
‘The Quilt’, or ‘Y Cwilt’ in Welsh, is the tale of a little girl living in rural West Wales with her Mother and her Father. One Winter, the family falls on hard times, and makes the life changing decision to sell all of their belongings to move across the pond for a new life in the USA.
One of the few remaining items from the child’s familiar life in Wales is a traditional Welsh quilt, handmade by the child’s Mother. Set in the beginning of the twentieth century, when the creation of Welsh quilts was at its peak (Jones, 2016), Valériane captures the essence of what it is to be Welsh and to feel the pull of Wales from wherever you are in the world. ‘The Quilt’ is a delicate and gentle tale of hope, of how one little girl rediscovers happiness and comfort after dark times of bleakness and despair, and challenges the reader to rethink what the word “home” really means.
The opening scene on pages 4 and 5 of ‘The Quilt’ depicts a golden clifftop, covered in hawthorns, dotted with rocks and sheep, with a cold turquoise sea visible in the background, the outstretching headland curled alongside it. In this illustration we can see a little girl crouching beside a stream, and a man stood beside her. It isn’t clear what exactly they are doing; it almost appears as though the girl has a snake or an eel in both hands while the man, who the reader can suppose is her father, picks up a rock dripping with water from the shallow waters. The girl wears a white pinafore and has bare feet, and her father is in jacket and trousers, patched at the knee, with a neck scarf and a flat cap. The woman behind them can be seen hanging the washing on the line outside a white stone cottage with a thatched roof. She wears a pinafore over a long red dress, the same colour as the front door and the neck scarf of the girl’s father. We can see that the wind is blowing, and the trees, washing, and smoke from the house all lean outwards, towards the sea, where there is a flock of birds flying over the ocean. The phrase “The winds of change” comes to mind, and the reader feels as though they are on the precipice of an adventure.
The closing line on page 5 says “We inhabited the moor and the moor inhabited us”. This spine-tingling introduction to the story suggests that Wales is a country which is alive, it possesses those who live there and has its own form of autonomy and power. Wales is far beyond a place in which any person can simply just live and then leave. Once you inhabit Wales, Wales inhabits you wherever you go. This all-consuming inference could be sinister, but instead it is comforting and reminds the reader that our home leaves a permanent mark upon us, and as such we carry it throughout our lives with us.
Following on from this introduction, we turn to page 6, and we see the family working together to shear the sheep in the Springtime evening. The little girl stands with a wool covered sheep, the father cuts wool from another sheep, and the mother packs the wool into a bag. The little girl smiles as she watches her parents, but her mother and father look sombre. The image of the sheeps wool being removed and stored is a precursor to the creation of the Welsh quilt; Welsh quilts were historically filled with sheeps wool to aid in their ability to keep families warm during cold Welsh Winters. As a reader, when you consider the timeline of the book in hindsight, you realise that this must be the wool which the girl’s Mother fills the quilt with, and is a foreshadow of what is to come. We see two swallows flying overhead, towards the ocean, and we learn as we continue to read that these birds become a symbol for home.
I cannot go further with my analysis without addressing the beauty of Valériane Leblond’s illustrations. The muted colour palette is calming and serene; there are no jarring, cartoon-like colours or images. Leblond creates her images of Wales in hues of sage, mint, grey, maroon, and burnt orange, and her characters are softly rounded at the edges. Even the house itself is gently curved, invoking a sense of comfort and safety.
According to Potter and Haynes (2000), illustrations that are of a high quality results in children gaining an increased ability to label and recognise objects in pictures. ‘The Quilt’, despite being set in a world that existed a century ago, still shows the reader a number of instantly recognisable objects and scenes within its pages. Animals, trees, the sea, boats, and houses are all much the same as they are today, and as such easy for children to recognise and name. The only difference with the objects we see today, and the objects featured in ‘The Quilt’, is that the furniture and clothing are of its time. The illustrations could appear to be old-fashioned, but rather than appearing boring and “out of touch”, the environment within ‘The Quilt’ is pleasantly simplistic and homely.
Leblond’s illustrative style is in itself a type of comfort blanket, wrapping the reader in familiarity and cosy reminders of home. The artwork within ‘The Quilt’ works harmoniously with the content and message of the story, a parallel to the comfort the little girl feels from being wrapped up in the Welsh quilt which her Mother lovingly made.
Realism and Relatability in Picture Books
‘The Quilt’ is the first book which Valériane has both illustrated and written; primarily she paints artwork depicting windswept Welsh scenes, focusing on the traditional cottages and villages that populate the country, highlighting the roots of Welsh culture and heritage. She clearly resonates with Welsh history and folklore, having also illustrated Welsh books such as ‘The Four Branches of the Mabinogi’ by Sian Lewis (2019), ‘Wales on the Map’ by Elin Meek (2018), and ‘Little Honey Bee’ by Caryl Lewis (2019).
There is a similarity in Leblond’s’s illustrative style to that of American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Sendak is the creative mind behind the evocative and unique ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, published in 1963.
Sendak is considered to be the originator of realism in children’s literature, the contents of ’Where the Wild Things Are’ focusing on relatable and accessible real-life troubles, such as children being punished for their misbehaviour and arguments occurring between family members. Similarly, Leblond also addresses issues which children can relate and identify with. In ‘The Quilt’ the little girl is moving from the comfort of the home she grew up in and going into the unknown. It is common for children to move home, and it is a life change which can hold great enormity for them. For children who are immigrating from Wales or another country, or who are simply moving house, ‘The Quilt’ provides an opportunity for discussion between the child and their parents, enabling them to work through their real-life problems through the pages of Leblond’s book, with a child which they can easily relate to.
Sendak’s artistic style is interesting in that it depicts surrealist imagery with a realistic lens; the colours are muted and Earth-toned, a tertiary palette for an obscure world. Although she does not dabble in surrealism, Valeriane’s illustrative style can certainly be compared to Sendak’s with her realistic portrayals of the everyday world and her similar colour palette; there are no brightly coloured chocolate box houses, or streams of sunshine blazing obscenely through the Welsh skies. Leblond’s illustrations are muted and calming, the images easily identifiable, and consequently hitting a resonating note with the reader. Leblond’s illustrative style is almost photographic and supports ‘The Quilt’s purpose as a book of historical fiction, as you could very well imagine this family and their struggles were real.
Comparisons to Leblond’s paintings can also be made to French realism and impressionism artist Édouard Manet, in particular his piece ‘The Old Musician’ (1862), and more modern American artists such as Edward Hopper and his painting ‘Nighthawks’ (1942).
Leblond’s illustrative style lends itself to the story which she is telling and the scene which she is setting. It would not be suitable to represent ‘The Quilt’ with garish cartoons, as this would instill a feeling of excitement, over-stimulation, even panic. The gentle realism of Leblond’s painting style supports and enhances the narrative behind the story, rather than detracting from it, it highlights and works cohesively beside the text. Reeve and Nespeca (2003) state that picture books serve as an excellent way to introduce children to a variety of different artistic styles and to develop a real sense and understanding of fine art. This is a sentiment also echoed by Dickinson and Keebler (1989), Elster (1995), and Snow and Ninio (1986). These researchers all agree that as adults read through picture books with children, they make comments about the artwork, including what they find aesthetically pleasing about the pictures to pointing out artistic styles and inquiring with the child as to how they feel or what they think about the illustrations. Leblond’s illustrative style is therefore contributory to children’s knowledge and understanding of the world and enhances their creativity, as it lends itself to building an environment around the child which appreciates and nurtures creative pursuits.
Symbolism in Animals and Mother Nature
Throughout ‘The Quilt’, flying or running animals are repeatedly pictured in the forefront or background of the scene. This casts the readers’ eyes across the landscape, from one side of the illustration to the other, and implies the underlying theme of movement and change. On page 6, where we see the family working together to shear sheep – a prelude to the sheep’s wool that will ultimately create the foundation of the family’s Welsh quilt – there are birds flying across the Spring sky, a symbol of change and new life. On page 7, we see a wild hare dashing across the snow-covered ground from right to left, creating a feeling of anxiety and urgency within the viewer.
It is during this time, in the depths of Winter, that the family began to struggle with their life in Wales; “The moor shrunk. The animals were hungry. And we were too.” (Leblond, page 8). The double page spread on pages 8 and 9 depicts the family cottage, isolated in the depths of the night, the rain lashing down, and leafless trees leaning towards the house as though trying to grab hold of the family. It is the most moody and fear-inducing illustration of the book, filled with black and dark green and blue, the only bright spot in the image coming from the cottage and a smattering of stars over the sea. Yet even here, in a scene so desperate and desolate, we can see the smoke from the chimney floating pointedly across the sea, signifying the emotional pull that is taking hold of the girl’s parents which will ultimately lead to them travelling across the ocean.
Page 10 and 11 invites us into the cottage for the first time, and it is a double page spread filled with warm browns peppered with pockets of powder blue and maroon. On page 11 we learn that the quilt is being made out of the same flannel fabric used for the father’s Sunday clothes and for the mother’s dress. There are familiar items which I’ve seen in my own childhood home; the blue and white plates and traditional Welsh milk jug. The simplicity and warmth of the family sitting around the fire invokes a sense of longing for one’s own family and childhood.
The illustration of the child’s Mother on page 12, head bent as she hand-sews the Welsh quilt, is an image of Motherly love. You can hardly see her face, but her facial expression appears to be troubled and etched with sadness. This illustration is a snapshot of how hard the girls’ mother is trying to provide security and safety for her child in the only way she knows how; by creating a warm embrace in physical form, made of Welsh wool and in a Mother’s love. You could almost view this illustration as somewhat biblical, the Mother’s head bent in Christian reverence and prayer, as though the quilt is an omnipotent symbol of hope and the promising potential of what could be.
The colours and patterns of the quilt are traditional in red, black, and grey, with triangular and square shapes creating the base of the quilt, and delicate red stitching overlaying the bold pattern to create lines which are curved and soft, a juxtaposition to the straight lines of the fabric. The quilts form is reminiscent of a cloud with a silver lining; initially it looks dark and severe, but on closer inspection you can see the glimmer of joy. The design of the quilt appears as a representation of the family’s desire for a better life free from harshness and despair. The quilt itself is a representation of the child’s identity and the comfort that her home and her heritage brings to her in times of desolation and uncertainty. It keeps her “warm”, both literally and figuratively, in her travels over the seas.
As the little girl is held by her mother on page 22, on page 33 we see the squares of the quilt changing to form swallows flying home to Wales, symbolising the child’s pull to the cottage she grew up in.
Feeling at Home Wherever You Are
Bizarrely and unexpectedly, after having already chosen ‘The Quilt’ as the main focus for this blog, I found myself in a position where I too was looking at the reality of leaving Wales for a new and unknown country. I’ve found myself reflecting on the anonymous little girl in ‘The Quilt’ and seeing myself in her journey, resonating with the anxiety and uncertainty she would be feeling, because I have been feeling it, too.
Throughout my childhood I remember Welsh quilts filling drawers and airing cupboards in my grandparents house, as well as my own. There was always a Welsh quilt on hand for power cuts or particularly frosty nights to keep tiny toes warm. The memory of being snuggled up warm underneath a Welsh quilt is an evocative one, it jolts all of my senses to life at once; I recall the smell, the texture, I’m almost certain I can even conjure up the taste!
It cannot be denied that one of the wonderful qualities of a picture book is the simple fact that you don’t need to be a reader in order to enjoy them, or to gain deep meaning from their pages. Leblond’s illustrative style is relatable, calm, and almost photographic in the way it feels like you could be flipping through a family album rather than a child’s picture book. The realism of the illustrations in ‘The Quilt’ lends itself to supporting young children’s literacy, even if they are not currently able to read. According to Kümmerling-Meibauer (2015), “Toddlers are distracted from word learning when books are in pop-out form or if they feature abstract pictures; they learn new words best from picture books that use realistic images, such as photos or realistic drawings”. Learning is optimised during picture book reading.
Despite the sombre and somewhat melancholy imagery, there is a comfort to be had from the final illustrations of ‘The Quilt’ which show the family settled in their new home, the Mother hanging clothing on the line as she did in Wales and the swallows flying overhead, a parallel to the illustration on the first page. The reader feels the sense that the child and her family are once more happy, and that this new place is now “home”.
We never know the name of the girl in ‘The Quilt’, or even the specific region of Wales she lived in; she exists to the reader as a canvas, a character which we can easily put our own face and experiences onto. Arguably, the very nature of Valériane Leblond’s illustrative and storytelling style makes ‘The Quilt’ a picture book which is ageless, and indeed timeless.
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Wikipedia, ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper, 1942. [Accessed: 1st May 2021].Available online at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nighthawks_(painting)#/media/File:Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg. Manet.org, ‘The Old Musician’ by Edouard Manet, 1862. [Accessed: 1st May 2021]. Available online at: https://www.manet.org/the-old-musician.jsp.