That is one of the entries from Patricia C. McKissack’s latest picture book title, Stitchin’ and Pullin': A Gee’s Bend Quilt (Random House, October ’08), illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera. What a beautiful book this is, McKissack having been inspired to share the story of the famous quilters of Gee’s Bend in Alabama, whose quilts have been exhibited across the country since 2002. Part of McKissack’s research involved a trip to Gee’s Bend, where she spent some time watching the quilters and then learning to do a bit of it herself.
These are a series of what the publisher calls “lyrical vignettes,” in which McKissack takes a young child, named Baby Girl, and shows us the quilts through her perspective and her training to make her own first quilt (in “Where to Start?”, her mama tells her, “Look for the heart . . . When you find the heart, your work will leap to life . . . strong, beautiful, and independent”). Before this, Baby Girl plays beneath the quilting frame and the “Nine Patch” quilt her great-great-grandmother and her sisters made “when Great-Gran was herself Baby Girl.” Her mama, grandma, great-gran, and other “warm brown faces . . . sewed, talked, sang, and laughed above my tented playground.” As Baby Girl herself learns to quilt, McKissack uses her fabric choices and experiences to weave together the stories of her family’s past and the struggles of the black community in their isolated town over the years. Or, as McKissack writes in her Author’s Note:
It didn’t take long for me to realize that a quilt is more than fabric and thread. A work shirt, an apron, a suit, or a dress becomes a record of a marriage, a birth, a baptism, an illness, a new house, a special event. Or the fabric might be selected because it’s a historical reminder, the memory of going to vote for the first time at the age of fifty, a hurricane, the closing of the ferry to stop blacks from voting, or a visit by a prominent civil rights leader. These diary quilts are filled with the makers’ personal experiences.
Indeed, Kirkus has written that the book is “an outstanding way to introduce aspects of African-American history and explore the power of community.” Cabrera’s paintings are warm and textured and glow from the pages (don’t miss the “Progress” and “Colors” spreads, in particular).
A stirring anthology, which honors the lives of the women of Gee’s Bend with vibrant art from Cabrera and poetry as only Patricia McKissack can render it. Highly recommended.
Illustration from STITCHIN’ AND PULLIN': A GEE’S BEND QUILT by Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrations © 2008 by Cozbi A. Cabrera. Published by Random House, New York. All rights reserved.