Joanna Johnson’s book Phoebe’s Sweater is a beautiful gift to girls and boys alike. A tale of a special handmade sweater, and the place that it has in a child’s heart, Joanna and her husband Eric do a wonderful job of reminding us all about the value of living a handmade life.
We are pleased to share a glimpse into Joanna’s vision and life with you in this interview.
Your book combines a beautiful story for young children, as well as three knitting patterns for adults. What was the inspiration behind the book?
Phoebe’s Sweater was inspired by a simple memory from the summer I was expecting our second child. I knit a sweater coat for our daughter, Laurel, that summer, and finished it one very hot day. She was playing in the sprinkler in her swimsuit, and I called her over to try on the new sweater. There was just something so rich about that simple event, of the great changes that were happening in the seasons of our little family, of fall soon approaching and this new life coming into our home, that the story grew up out of that single moment. The idea of including the knitting pattern for the sweater in the book seemed like a very natural concept for me, as knitting is such a central theme in the story. Also, it is a wonderful way to bring the story literally into the hands of the reader. Our three children love great picture books, and we read a lot. Once in a while, they will ask for the toy character from a most favorite book. You can’t just go out and buy a toy from any storybook (unless it is a licensed character!), and so, by including a knitting pattern for the toy in Phoebe’s Sweater, knitters and children can share the story together on an entirely different level.
You are a husband and wife team who both wrote and illustrated the book. Tell us what your creative process looks like.
Eric and I worked very closely together during the entire Phoebe’s Sweater project. In general, the author and illustrator of a children’s book have little (if any) contact with one another during the book making process, as this is generally handled through an editor or an art director. We, on the other hand, collaborated on each step of the project. I wrote Phoebe’s Sweater first, and we brainstormed for a long time about what kind of characters would work for the book. Eric did some character studies, and then I rewrote the story a few times before he developed a sketch form of the book. Having the real knitting projects as references was important to Eric to keep artistic continuity in the project, so I designed and knit the projects from Phoebe’s Sweater before he created the illustrations in their final form as you see them. Phoebe’s Sweater was kind of like a creative ball we passed back and forth and refined until it was finished. It was so rewarding creatively to do this together, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. It was really a very holistic design process, as we literally had oversight of every detail, from the yarn colors to the project photos, from the page layout to the cover designs. As a writer, to have your illustrator ask you what color your character’s dress should be or what flower should be drawn in the foreground is a dream come true.
In a world where storytelling is becoming increasingly obsolete, how do you keep the tradition alive in your family?
Our house is full of stories… we read aloud a lot at our house, which is always a great place to start. Some favorites are the Thornton Burgess books, the Beatrix Potter stories, and so many of the beautifully illustrated picture books of the last century. We make blank paper books for the kids to fill in with picture or word stories, and we do draw, paint, and color a lot. We do like to hear their stories as a family, whether they are just sharing an event from their day at the dinner table, or they are narrating back a story they heard or read during the week. Children love stories in all formats. Whether they are doing little puppet shows, playing with their toy animals, building with blocks and legos, their minds are constantly creating stories.
How has your family life changed you as a writer and an illustrator?
Our family life is such a part of what we do creatively I don’t think I could separate it. Being around children just helps you see things in a different way. The events and observations that are important and meaningful to children are so different than the things we focus on as adults. Having our children as a part of our home life really helps us focus on experiences that we would normally overlook. On a side note, Eric and I both grew up in homes where our parents were creative professionals- Eric’s dad and mom own a graphics studio and my dad and mom ran a custom home building business for decades- so we as children were raised in an environment where creative ideas were worked out in a very practical format. Maybe that is why it is so natural for us to work this closely together- our parents were great role models for us from an early age.
What do you think are the most important reasons to read to our children?
Reading is a wonderful way to unlock our imaginations, to develop our use of language, and to open the doors of a child’s mind to new people and places. There’s something special about taking time out of our busy lives to sit and read to our children, to share new ideas, and to just enjoy a great story, sometimes for the seventeenth time, it seems. Hearing a story over and over is comforting to a child, and it a true test of a great book. Reading together is also a good way to discuss character, decision-making, and life’s difficulties, too.
I’m sure many of you have read Strickland Gillilan’s poem, “The Reading Mother,” but I wanted to share the closing stanza anyway because it is so appropriate here:
“You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be–
I had a Mother who read to me.”
Is Phoebe’s Sweater going to be a part of a series? If not, are there other books that you have in the works?
We are actively working on our second book, which will launch in 2011. Phoebe’s Sweater has been so fun to create, we hope to write many more knitting picture books in the years to come. The next book will be similar in scope to Phoebe’s Sweater, but will introduce a new family of characters and knitting patterns and will be more of a “boy” themed book. We have several more stories and designs in draft form that we are eager to make into books as well, including more ideas for other Phoebe books down the road.
You not only created a book together, you also began a publishing company. How did that come about, and what are your plans for its future?
Starting a publishing company was definitely not on my list of things to do this year! Slate Falls Press came about after Phoebe’s Sweater was rejected by a knitting book publisher and a children’s book publisher. Even though it was rejected, we saw what a strong response both knitters and non-knitters had to what we had created. A few people we really respect encouraged us to go ahead and do this on our own. Every door we knocked on, from Brown Sheep Company offering yarn support to the craft book companies wanting to distribute it, opened up for us. It has been a lot of hard work, but so rewarding that we have no regrets. Our plans for now are that Slate Falls Press would continue to publish our knitting picture books, yet we are remaining open to what may develop in the future.
What advice would you give to parents for creating stories out of their own experiences to share with their little ones?
For parents who want to share their own experience with their children, my best advice is to just start doing it! It can be as simple as recording yourself reading favorite books to your children and letting those stories become a part of your family’s listening library. Maybe you are musical and you want to tell stories by playing the guitar or by singing. You can bake cookies or bread from a favorite story. If you aren’t ready to write your own, tell someone else’s story in a new way. Of course, keeping a journal or a blog is wonderful. I try to write down the neat things our children say and do because the days slip by so quickly! Read, write, sing, share, in whatever way you can.
If you could impart one piece of wisdom to your children, what would it be?
Creatively, we encourage our children to do what they truly love. It has been so gratifying to stay true to our passions and watch them develop into this project that we can share together as a couple. We hope our children will enjoy that same sense of accomplishment in whatever dreams they pursue.
Joanna Johnson is the author of knitting picture book, Phoebe’s Sweater, which was illustrated by her husband, Eric Johnson. They live on the Front Range of Colorado with their three children, who offer constant inspiration for their stories. Joanna is an avid knitter, reader, and is the owner of Slate Falls Press.