Mad about Plaid…and Houndstooth and Ikat and Argyle
A Pattern for Pepper – Julie Kraulis, Tundra Books, 2017
The title of this blog entry is an homage to the late Jill McElmurry, illustrator of many wonderful children’s books, including Alice Schertle’s Little Blue Truck series. Her first picture book, Mad About Plaid, is a funny fantasy about a girl who is initially thrilled by a certain fabric pattern, only to be overwhelmed when it takes over her world.
When I first found A Pattern for Pepper on the website of Canada’s Tundra Books, I could not help but remember McElmurry, although Julie Kraulis’ heroine Pepper has a much more intentional experience in this story. She wants to learn about different fabric patterns and, if you read the book, you will, too.
The boldness of the book’s project really impressed me. After all, it would not seem like the most likely candidate for a children’s illustrated work of fiction.
A Pattern for Pepper becomes something of an informational book, at the same time that it is the story of a girl who needs “a dress for a very special occasion.” Not satisfied with merely accompanying her mother to buy one, she approaches the project as a way to learn from Mr. Taylor about the origins of different patterns, what their names mean, and how to construct a garment from this kaleidoscope of choices. I will admit that I was interested in the subject to begin with. Young readers might need a cue from a parent or teacher to build some enthusiasm. Her special day turns out to be tea with her grandma, a slender and elegant white-haired woman in herringbone and reading glasses.
By the time she gets there, Pepper has found out that that herringbone looks like a fish skeleton, ikat means “to bind, to knot, to wind around,” and the origin of paisley is the seventeenth century Scottish Highlands. I hope I am not discouraging you, because the book is absolutely beautiful, and Pepper’s curiosity about something a bit atypical is thoroughly endearing.
Mr. Taylor does not patronize Pepper. He takes seriously her goal of finding a fabric that will match her personality:
“’Not to worry, Pepper,’ Mr. Taylor says. ‘Your perfect pattern is in here somewhere! So let’s see…your pattern has to be pretty and strong. It has to be warm and fun. Not too plain, but not too complicated either. Colorful but not too busy…”
Pepper has definite opinions and she is perfectly comfortable expressing them to Mr. Taylor, an expert. When she turns down his suggestion of houndstooth because she needs more color, and toile because the scenes of the French countryside are “too busy,” some adults might be put off, but the back and forth between expert and novice in design give the book its purpose.
Kraulis’ illustrations are both wildly imaginative and carefully constructed. The pages on which she meets Mr. Taylor set the objects in his shop at an angle. The viewer feels as if she is inside the store watching Pepper and her mother. A Tiffany lamp is in the foreground. A toile-upholstered armchair rests on a herringbone rug and bolts of other fabric seem artfully placed on the floor. Other pictures include a wedding portrait in which the bride’s dotted Swiss dress is set against a dotted Swiss page and a cat whose fur appears to match a page’s ikat background.
On the last page, Pepper is seated with needle and thread, dressed in argyle tights and a striped dress. She is sewing for her doll, proving that perfectionism and persistence are valuable, not a bad lesson for young readers. It’s not only what you look like, but what you are looking for.