Storybook Quilts: Gifts that Keep on Giving by Jane Miller

What are storybook quilts and why are they so special? Let’s take a step back first and talk about quilts and books. They both things that are placed on laps. Both have a way of transporting us, as if by magical flight, to places of memory or imagination. Both are filled with memories of home — the fabric of our lives.

Memories of summer evenings spent eating ice cream and pretending she was at a beach instead of a rooftop inspired quilt artist Faith Ringgold to add words and illustrations of her story-art quilts to create her first children’s picture book, Tar Beach. Since then — for nearly two decades — children’s books with quilts and quilters have flourished. One of the best known books — even to non-quilters — is The Quiltmaker’s Gift, in which a king needs to give away his possessions in order to obtain the one thing he desires the most: a quilt. It’s a lesson in giving.

For one group of quilters, a collection of quilts to go along with beloved books — and their quilted bags — has been a gift to a community, one that can touch anyone who holds a library card. It’s a gift from the quilters that grew for more than a decade.

Over 10 years ago the TriCounty Quilters, inspired by a guild member’s idea to make storybook quilts — small quilts to go along with children’s picture books with stories based on quilts — decided to give the collection to a library.

“I had thought of quilts as only related to a bedtime story. You aren’t just holding a quilt. Children — and everyone — experience these quilts,” says Kay Howard, the children’s librarian/curator of quilts and books that travel throughout Western Pennsylvania to educate the public about quilts — and so much more.

Initially, the librarian had reservations about taking storybook quilts on the road. “After all, what if a quilt has an encounter with chocolate ice cream? I was told, ‘They wash,'” she says.

The storybook quilts project started in 2002 when guild member Nancy Forsythe read a quilt-magazine article about making quilts for children’s picture books. She took the storybook quilts idea to her guild, the Tri-County Quilters. The group of about 25 women, representing the sparsely populated Western Pennsylvania counties of Beaver, Butler and Lawrence, embraced the project.

Guild members felt it would be an interesting challenge to their creativity. Some of the storybook quilts came from published patterns, The Quiltmaker’s Gift had its own line of fabric, but most books, only offered illustrations.

“In some of the books, you didn’t even have the entire quilt pictured,” says Sue Mallen, former president of the Tri-County Quilters. “The challenge was to work from a picture, when you don’t have a pattern,” said Mallen, who did online research on picture book quilts to get ideas for the Hawaiian-inspired quilt she created.

The storybook quilts are stored each in its own portable, pieced bag along with the children’s picture book that inspired the quilt, ready to be checked out to individuals or groups ranging from preschools to senior centers. There is no requirement, except possession of a library card.

The guild’s original purpose had been to educate children about quilts. A half dozen storybook quilts were exhibited at a guild show. But the quilts kept coming in. “We keep finding great children’s books with quilts in them,” says Mallen. Two new storybook quilts were added this past year. “Every year we’ve added to the collection. We still have 14 more books that still need quilts. We’ve slowed down, but we keep finding great new books with quilts in them.”

“We want children to know that you don’t go to the grocery store and buy a quilt. A quilt may be made by your grandmother, and it is a work of art,” says librarian Howard, now a quilt enthusiast.

Each quilt has a story about the special ways it has been used. For instance, high school art teachers use the storybook to teach fabric art. “Most high school art teachers aren’t quilters,” explains Mallen. Spanish teachers use the quilts in connection with books that teach Spanish words. There are books and quilts that teach Hawaiian and Native American words and culture. Middle grade history teachers use Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt to teach about the Underground Railroad; The Log Cabin Quilt teaches about a pioneer family in the Midwest and their efforts to create a home.

One of the librarian’s favorite experiences was an afternoon of reading and reminiscing when a senior-citizens group came to the library for a program. It wasn’t just to see the storybook quilts. Howard read the books aloud to the group.

“They enjoyed the storybooks, and they told stories, sat and listened to everyone talk. It was wonderful,” says Howard.

The storybook quilts never stop giving back a sense of appreciation to the quilters. Mallen says, “We know from the stories we have heard that these quilts have been greatly appreciated. It has been great fun to give back to a library, a place that has given so many of us good memories.”

Quilts in Zelienople Public Library’s storybook quilts collection are based on the following books, listed in the order that the quilts were completed from 2000–2010:

  • Grandpa’s Quilt by Betsy Franco
  • The Josefina Story Quilt by Eleanor Coerr
  • Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
  • Reuben and the Quilt by Merle Good
  • No Dragons on My Quilt by Jean Ray Laury
  • The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
  • Shota and the Star Quilt by Margaret Bateson Hill
  • Dan’s Pants: The Adventures of Dan the Fabric Man by Merle Good
  • The Log Cabin Quilt by Ellen Howard
  • The Tortilla Quilt by Jane Tenorio-Coscarelli
  • Who’s Under Grandma’s Quilt by Rachel Waterstone
  • The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brumbeau
  • Quilt of Dreams by Mindy Dwyer
  • Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet by Ann Whitford Paul
  • The Quilt by Ann Jonas
  • Luka’s Quilt by Georgia Guback
  • Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst

Additional Children’s Books with Quilt Themes

You’ll find your library as a resource for other books, both old and yet to be released. Here’s a compilation of other quilt books that are loved by librarians:

  • A Quilt for Baby by Kim Lewis
  • Canada Geese Quilt by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock
  • Moonwatchers: Shirin’s Ramadan Miracle illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien
  • Papa and the Pioneer Quilt by Jean Van Leeuwen
  • Pieces: A Year in Poems and Quilts by Anna Grossnickle Hines
  • Oma’s Quilt by Paulette Bourgeois
  • A Quilt of Wishes by Teresa Orem Werner
  • Selina and the Bear Paw Quilt by Barbara Smucker
  • Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt by Patricia C. McKissack
  • Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
  • The Christmas Wishing Quilt by Karen Carr
  • The Handkerchief Quilt by Carol Crane and Gary Palmer
  • The Kindness Quilt by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace
  • The Mountains of Quilts by Nancy Willard
  • The Name Quilt by Phyllis Root
  • The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy
  • The Patchwork Path: a Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud
  • The Promise Quilt by Candice F. ransom
  • The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston

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