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Extra Yarn

Extra Yarn

Written by Mac Barnett; illustrated by Jon Klassen
Published by Balzer & Bray, 2012
ISBN #9780061953385Grades preK and up
Book ReviewA young girl and a seemingly ordinary box of yarn become the catalyst for a remarkable transformation of a bleak and sleepy small town in this year’s picture book winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. Written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Geisel Honor Award winner Jon Klassen, Extra Yarn knits a warm tale of imagination and inspiration. Annabelle stumbles upon a box in the middle of her dreary little town, a box filled with yarn of many colors. She does the next logical thing—knits a sweater for herself—but finds that there’s some yarn left. So, she knits one for her dog, only to discover that there’s still more yarn. As she continues her day, various townspeople stare and scoff at her colorful clothes. Annabelle’s response? Why knit sweaters for them, too, of course! But when a vain and villainous Duke offers Annabelle immense wealth for her amazing never-ending box of yarn, events become more astounding. Barnett’s storytelling is both straightforward and lyrical, enveloping readers in the magic and figurative warmth of the tale. Klassen complements the text with mixed media illustrations that display his mastery of texture, muted colors, light and shadow, and depth through detail. Read this book with younger students to share a tender tale, or use it with older grades to engage them in deeper meaning-making about issues such as community and greed. Either way, there’s much to be said and found in all the book’s layers.Teaching Invitations

Grades K-2

  • The Power of the Refrain. Barnett employs refrain (e.g., “But it turns out he was.”) as a storytelling device throughout Extra Yarn. Refrains are not only effective for emphasizing prominent themes in stories; they also bond audience and storyteller when read aloud. Using a document camera or chart paper with excerpts of the text, lead students in a shared reading activity in which the refrain is read chorally aloud by all. Afterward, read aloud the book again, signaling to students when you get to the refrain so they can say it with you and join in the storytelling themselves.
  • Insights into Bullying. When Annabelle first begins knitting colorful sweaters, her peers stare at and tease her. However, Annabelle correctly perceives their reasons for doing so and comes up with a constructive response. Explore the events of these scenes carefully with students, challenging them to think more deeply about why kids tease and bully one another. Then have them consider Annabelle’s response and how effective it might be in different situations. Tie this inquiry into any examples your students might want to share from their own lives to make these activities work toward social justice, too.
  • Creating with Yarn. Of course, many of us already know what amazing things can be created out of yarn besides clothing. To further illustrate the wonder that came from a seemingly ordinary box of yarn, try some of the craft projects and activities listed in below in the Further Explorations section.

Grades 3 and up

  • Illustrations as Metaphors. Klassen shows off his impressive talent as an artist by creating illustrations that serve as metaphors for the themes in Barnett’s story. For example, the detailed weave of the sweaters to show their warmth and the string of yarn that connects each one of the next can be said to represent the kindness and tenderness that begins to unite the townspeople. Challenge your students to identify other illustrations in the book that metaphorically represent the story’s themes. It might be helpful to start them with identifying the themes, brainstorming ways those themes can be represented through objects or symbols in the world, and then seeing which of those representations Klassen includes in his illustrations. Alternatively, your students might need to go from the concrete to abstract by examining objects first and then thinking about what they might represent metaphorically, such as seeing a picture of the sun and connecting it to the concepts of nature, growth, light, hope, or happiness. For this approach, pass out objects to small groups and have them brainstorm what such objects might be able to represent.
  • Genre Study. Literary genres tend to follow certain patterns regarding their character archetypes, story arcs, settings, and themes. In many ways, Extra Yarn can be called folklore due to the common literary elements it shares with the genre. In fact, there’s a bit of word play in the title of this book, since “yarn” can also mean a story, usually a tall tale. Read a few other examples of folklore, such as the ones available on the folklore websites listed below. Invite students to compare and contrast the kinds of literary elements they find across the stories. Then have them write folk stories of their own to share with others.
  • Mentor Text for Writing with Purpose. Barnett’s writing style for this story employs many incomplete sentences, especially those that begin with the conjunctions “and” and “but.” However, he does so purposefully to infuse emphasis, humor, and rhythm in his writing. Some of your students may be ready to take these kinds of risks in their writing, while others still need more support understanding what makes a sentence complete in the first place and why it’s necessary to show mastery of certain grammar and syntax rules before given permission to break them. With students, highlight the sentences that are technically incomplete and discuss why Barnett decided to use them at those particular points in the story. For students who are able to try doing this in their own writing because they’ve mastered the skill of writing complete sentences, encourage them to use Extra Yarn as a mentor text. For students who still need more support with their written grammar, help them rewrite Barnett’s sentences so they are technically correct and complete.
  • Light and Darkness in Illustrations. Klassen’s use of light and darkness highlight particular themes and points in the story, many of which are not explicitly written in the text. Share a variety of other picture books that effectively use light, darkness, shadow, and a rare splash of color to help readers make inferences about the meaning of the printed text. Some good books to use include the Olivia series, by Ian Falconer, and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg. As your students read more picture books throughout the year, suggest that they keep an eye out for more illustrations that effectively use light and dark to enhance the meaning of the text.
  • Community Transformations. Extra Yarn also focuses on the transformation of an entire community due to the generosity and determination of a single citizen, but similar stories have actually occurred in real life. One is the story of William Kankwamba, who brought electricity to his drought-stricken Malawian village (see our entry at Another is the amazing account of the Danish island of Samso, whose citizens have reduced their carbon emissions by 140% and are virtually energy independent (see the book Energy Island listed below in Further Explorations). Another is the ongoing story of the Kalamazoo Promise, which pledges that every child in the Michigan town will receive full tuition to go to an in-state college and has kept its vow thus far (see the links to this story in Further Explorations). With your classes, design an inquiry unit that investigates how these community transformations began, what challenges the faced and support they received along the way, and what inspires them to continue. Perhaps there is a community issue that your students want to address and will be able to learn important lessons about how to begin doing so.
Critical Literacy
  • The Question of “Selling Out”. One can make the case that Annabelle’s resolute rejection of the Duke’s offer of tremendous wealth resembles an artist’s rejection of big production contracts to stay true to his or her artistic integrity. However, one can also argue that such tenacity borders on the verge of foolishness. Annabelle is certainly depicted and positioned as wholesome, admirable, satisfied, and triumphant for turning down the Duke. But does that always happen in reality? What if Annabelle’s family was impoverished, or someone close to her was sick and needed help paying for medical treatment? What if Annabelle could use the Duke’s money to pay for college? In other words, when does staying true to your art or craft make sense? When does it not? How do such decisions position artists in the eyes of others, especially their peers? And how much does one’s artistic integrity really matter? Pose questions such as these to your class to engage them in deeper meaning making of the text, and invite students to research and discuss a diverse range of examples of real people who faced such decisions—from authors J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer to the rock band Aerosmith and even to comedian Dane Cook.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Mac Barnett’s website

Jon Klassen’s website

Artists Helping Children: Yarn Crafts for Kids

PBS Kids & Parents Activities with Yarn

Team Building Activities with Yarn

Yarn Craft Activities for Elementary School Children

TLC – Yarn Craft Activities for Families

Folklore Commons – American Folklore Society

American Folklore

The Folklore Society

Folklore and Mythology collection

New York Time article about Samso

Scientific American article about Samos
Visit Samso

Baker, Jeannie. (2004). Home. New York: Greenwillow Books.

  • In this wordless picture book, an urban neighborhood undergoes environmental renewal, as viewed through a bedroom window.

Baker, J. (1991). Window. New York: Greenwillow Books.

  • In this wordless book, a boy’s window frames the development of the Australian bush outside into a crowded city over time.

Catchpool, M. (2012). The cloud spinner. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

  • A boy with the magical ability to weave cloth from clouds is pressured by a demanding king to weave glamorous clothes for all the town.

Cleminson, K. (2009). Magic box. New York: Hyperion.

  • A picture book about a young girl, a deceptively ordinary cardboard box, and the joyous gathering that she produces with it.
Drummond, A. (2011). Energy Island: How one community harnessed the wind and changed their world. New York: Frances Foster Books.
  • The amazing account of the Danish Island of Samso, whose citizens reduced their carbon emissions by 140% and have become virtually energy independent in just 10 years.

Ericsson, J. A. (2007). A piece of chalk. Ill. by M. Shapiro. New Milford, CT: Roaring Brook Press.

  • A picture book about the world of possibilities that a child discovers within a single box of chalk.
Hutchins, H., & Herbert, G. (2008). Mattland. Ill. by D. Petricic. Annick Press.
  • A picture book about a childhood, friendship, and community’s response to a young boy whose creative work is threatened.

Johnson, C. (1955). Harold and the purple crayon. New York: HarperCollins.

  • The classic picture book celebrating the imagination of a child armed only with a single crayon.

Portiss, A. (2006). Not a box. New York: HarperCollins Children’s.
— (2008). Not a stick. New York: HarperCollins Children’s.

  • In these two picture books, imagination and creativity are celebrated as the main characters prove that a box and a stick are much more than they appear to be.
Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.