When you grow up as the daughter of a fiber artist (spinning, knitting, weaving, etc.) there are certain things you learn about wool. You know how the tiny fibers hook into one another, making them easy to spin. You know the difference between a gossip wheel and a walking wheel. And when your mother also works in a small bookstore you learn which children’s illustrators also know their wool. Jan Brett probably does, due to the fact that you can make out every tiny stitch on the sweaters she draws. Almost every person who has ever illustrated the story of Sleeping Beauty does NOT understand (wool on a distaff? SERIOUSLY, people!). Paul O. Zelinsky does understand (notice that in his version of Rumpelstiltskin the bobbins on the spinning wheel fill with gold thread). And now we have illustrator Lee Harper. Lee Harper is the kind of artist who goes the extra mile. A guy who’ll learn about wool, study it, subscribe to Fiberarts Magazine, (this is true) and then lovingly illustrate a picture book like "Woolbur" to the best of his abilities. Ostensibly the story of a little sheep that is a "free spirit" (their words, not mine) the book is an extremely palatable tale of sheep, wool, and finding a way to follow the rules without compromising your beliefs. It also stays true to the nature of wool. Pretty complex stuff for a book that’s only 32 pages long.
Basically, Maa and Paa would have preferred a conformist. What they got instead was Woolbur. Woolbur is a sheep that has his own way of doing things. While all the others card the wool set before them, Woolbur cards the wool that’s still on his body. If others are spinning wool in front of a spinning wheel, he’s riding it. If they’re shorn, he’s wooly and free. And every time his parents point out that he’s not doing what everyone else is, his reaction is, "I know! Isn’t that great?" Grandpaa says not to worry but finally, unable to take any more, Woolbur is told that he must herd, shear, card, spin, dye, and weave like everybody else. He ponders the situation. And so, the next morning, EVERYBODY is following Woolbur’s lead by carding their own wool, running with the dogs, spinning crazy wool, and so on. And how will they find their son now that everyone is doing the same things that he is? As he sits on a mat trying out new forms of knitting, Grandpaa is quick to repeat once and for all, "Don’t worry."
I’m going to be the first person to say that if I pick up the book and the bookflap reads, "If you are a free spirit, this book is for you!" I need to surpress my gag reflex. The term "free spirit" actually, physically, causes my skin to crawl. Small children that run around the library tearing the pages one by one out of picture books as their parents look on with bemused expressions on their faces… THOSE children are called "free spirits". Basically any kid who isn’t reprimanded for doing something naughty gets the label of "free spirit" and then some poor elementary school teacher is going to have to be the first one to inform that, in fact, grabbing your classmates food and hitting them with bricks is not socially acceptable behavior. But Woolbur for all that it claims to be a book for such children, does not belong in that category. He’s not a "free spirit". He’s a free thinker, which is entirely different. His methods of attacking a problem are unorthodox, but they are done for a reason. Like a lot of kids, Woolbur likes to experiment with the world around him. He doesn’t really disobey his parents or his teachers at any point. He just finds a more interesting way to card or to spin than the path others would take. Okay, he doesn’t let himself get sheared, and that is wrong, but come the hot summer months he’s going to be the one dealing with the hot sticky consequences of that action. Not someone else.
Helakoski’s writing is pretty darn upbeat. I really did enjoy that whenever someone told Woolbur that other sheep don’t do what he’s doing his response is, "I know. Isn’t that great?" He’s a relentlessly cheery sort of chap. Not the type to brood, really. And I liked his solution to his quandary. He doesn’t break the rules one bit. He just leads the pack. After my first reading I thought that the book used repetition just a bit too much. Yet when I read it through a second and third time, I found that the repetition wasn’t really a problem. The pictures are always interesting and the tale able to support the repeated lines, so really Helakoski is just setting you up for Woolbur’s surprise solution to his parental quandry.
As for the illustrations, it’s clear that Mr. Lee Harper’s research into wool in all its myriad forms has leaked through into his art. One of the ways you can spot Woolbur in a group scene is that he always has two telltale strands of straw sticking out of his wool at all times. Anyone who has ever carded raw wool knows that your average everyday sheep’s ability to work straw deep into their coats is extraordinary. That and the various leaves and flowers also stuck to the little lamb rang magnificently true. Generally, everything Harper has drawn and painted here is right on target. My fiber art knowledge really only extends to carding, spinning, and knitting. I’m not so knowledgeable in the weaving department, but I’m going to give Mr. Harper the benefit of the doubt and believe that he knew what he was doing when he illustrated the loom in Woolbur’s weaving class. Plus I loved the little details spotted throughout the book. Things like the bongos and maracas in Woolbur’s room, and the fact that he has been recently reading copies of Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman and The Dot by Peter Reynolds.
Of course, there are some discrepancies here and there. Due to the nature of the story, the things that Woolbur does should directly affect his appearance or his classmates’ appearances in the next scene. So when Woolbur is the only sheep not sheared, you expect that the other sheep will remain unsheared in the next sequence where they are all carding wool. Instead, they all look fully wooly. Also, when Woolbur dyes himself a brilliant blue his mother says, "It will never wash out!" but in the next scene is a perfectly white Woolbur weaving his forelock in class. This isn’t a huge complaint, but certain kids will definitely notice that one moment doesn’t always carry over to the next in this book.
All in all, though, this is a pretty delightful little tale. Fans of sheep, wool, and unconventional forms of education (Montessori schools should be buying this book in bulk) will all be fans of Helakoski and Harper’s tale. Accurate where it needs to be accurate and amusing where it needs to be amusing, this one stands apart from the pack.
Leslie Helakoski’s website.
Lee Harper’s website.
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