Stories in Stitches


I may have become obsessive during the recent Making the Australian Quilt exhibition at NGV Australia. (Getting nods from the visitor services staff is a clue that you’re there too often.) It was completely worth it to get to know my favourite quilts intimately.

Co-curators Katie Somerville and Annette Gero did a wonderful job, and I was fortunate to be invited to the opening.

A woman stands in front of a colourful quilt hung on the wall of an art gallery
Margaret Robson Kett in front of Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes NGV Australia

In Perth, about 2004, I went to a presentation by Dr Gero with my friend Sue, exquisite quilter and sister children’s librarian. The evening was hosted by WAQA  and meeting the Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes (pictured above) was the highlight of it. This splendid array of applique and embroidery looks like 42 covers in a picture book display. There are 32 nursery rhymes represented in 34 of the squares – Jack and Jill and The Queen of Hearts are depicted twice – and the eight remaining are popular stories and books.

The books were an important factor in dating the unsigned quilt – publication dates being more exact than the older nursery rhymes and stories. During that evening, I helped identify a block labelled ‘Amelia Ann’ as a book by Constance Heward, first published in 1920. (The title is actually Ameliaranne and the Green Umbrella.) Here she is.

Pictures from children's nursery rhymes on an old red quilt hanging on a wall.
Amelia Ann and her Green Umbrella at centre top of this detail from Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes.

The other books were Bambi, Brer Rabbit and a mysterious gem called The Forgetful Elephant which is peeping out from behind a dressing gown in this picture.

My increasing impatience with people exclaiming ‘Look! There’s Babar!’ (have I mentioned I saw this exhibition many times?) led me on a mission to identify this story. After a false (but charming) lead, I found it at State Library Victoria.

A children's story book with a red cover and the title The Forgetful Elephant.
Cover of the mystery children’s book depicted on Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes.

Unfortunately the book, like the quilt, is undated, but the noble cataloguers at SLV have estimated it as 1944. It was called ‘garish and vulgar’ by a leading Australian children’s literature critic  but that’s a bit harsh. Here’s the title page, which the unknown quiltmaker has used as the block design.

Black and white illustration of an elephant with pants on in a children's book
Title page and inspiration for block of the same name in Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes

There was another ‘story’ quilt close to this one in the exhibition : Child’s Nursery Rhyme Quilt by Amy Amelia Earl, signed and dated 1923.

A glass case with a appliqued and embroidered quilt depicting animals and people
Child’s Nursery Rhyme quilt by Amy Amelia Earl

These weren’t the only quilts made for, or used by, children – Mary Jane Hannaford’s delightful Good Night quilt, made for her grandson, was another. No doubt many a bored Victorian girl amused away a Sunday looking at tiny embroidered names and figures – some designed by book illustrator Kate Greenaway –  in a crazy quilt.

I began looking really closely at the nursery rhymes depicted on both of these quilts, which were companions in the exhibition, and wondering how and why particular ones were pictured. I was intrigued to see those from my childhood that my children never heard or don’t know (Dick Whittington), and to not see the most wellknown Anglo-Celtic one of their generation (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star).

I’ll be examining some of the rhymes, and how these quiltmakers represented them, in upcoming blogs. I won’t be talking about what the rhymes ‘mean’ – that’s covered by the excellent scholarship of the Opies –  but I will be looking closely at how their transformation into needlework has elevated them beyond the ditty.

I did say I may have become obsessive.







Pure Gold

I’m one of those waiters… I can’t just wait. I have to read.

Forget New Idea – my doctor’s waiting room has these beauties.

Books for children lying on a chair in a doctor's waiting room
Little Golden Book Library as found in doctor’s waiting room

I was particularly pleased to see them because I was shortly to depart for Auckland for the International Board of Books for Young People Congress. One of the Congress’s chief attractions was the opportunity to hear and see Leonard Marcus, author of the comprehensive history of Little Golden Books (A Golden Legacy).

It’s fascinating to read the history of these often maligned books.

Here’s one from my childhood, which plays into the broad perception of them as Disney retellings. I can’t remember seeing the film as a child but was given a Bambi toy made of bright red felt by my grandmother’s neighbour.  The toy maintains just this pose. (I still have it but he has requested not to be photographed in his present moth-eaten condition.)

Children's book with golden spine titled Walt Disney's Bambi
Not my childhood copy but close.


But here’s the one that was my real favourite, from one of the surgery volumes. As Marcus tells in his book, many fine children’s illustrators worked on these books. The pictures for this one were signed J. P. Miller. His experience working (for Disney, as many talented artists have) shows in the excellent design and layout of this tale.  As the story opens, he kills the flies attracted to his meal and embroiders ‘Seven at One Blow’ on a belt. This leads to a tactical advantage over a giant, which he exploits with characteristic folktale hubris to free his town.

Page from a children's illustrated book shows a man sitting crosslegged with cloth and scissors, taking a bite of bread and jam
The brave little tailor tucks in

The artist who worked for Little Golden Books that I most admire is Feodor Rojankovsky. The colour in all of his books is beautifully saturated, especially the deep reds and yellows which are truly golden, recalling woven and embroidered textiles of his native Russia. His interpretation of Frog Went A’Courtin’ won him the Caldecott medal two years before I was born. I encountered it at the St Kilda Public Library during my first job as a children’s librarian. I instantly loved his crayonned evocation of inter-species courtship and feisty Miss Mouse standing her ground – “Without my uncle Rat’s consent, I would not marry the President!” 

Here’s a page from his Goldilocks, for Little Golden Books.

Illustration from a children's book shows a little girl sitting on a bed piled high with quilts and pillows
Goldilocks shows her discriminating taste in bedding

In researching my recent Instagram homage to Dorothy Butler’s work (@babiesneedbooks) I came across his alphabet, also published by Golden Books but in a picture book format called Big Golden Books.

Cover of a children's alphabet book showing a toy horse made of letters
Feodor Rojankovsky’s Alphabet of Many Things

As a picture book critic, I’m forced to say that I think there’s evidence on some pages that Golden Books pushed Rojankovsky into this project. The quality of reproduction is not great, several illustrations are little more than roughs, and the usual miscellany that vocabularies result in makes for a jumpy read. All is forgiven for the rapturous endpapers.

Open pages of a children's book showing letters of the alphabet represented in many different styles
Rojankovsky demonstrates his versatility in the endpaper of his alphabet book

Since I read Marcus’s book, I’ve collected the Golden Geography and a few other titles, which there’s no space here to share.

I ran out of time in the waiting room and had to leave the books behind for child patients. As the photo shows, they’re well used.

There’s been a certain nostalgia-driven upsurge in interest in these books – the regrettable Everything I Need to Know I’ve Learned from Little Golden Books – and they’ve become fashion. Recent illustrators such as Dan Yaccarino have worked for Little Golden Books too.

Read the history, cast your mind back and let me know your favourites.