By Lauren A. Mills
November 2015/ $17/ Ages 8-12
Ebook ISBN 978-0-316-40622-2
In this charming historical novel, acclaimed artist Lauren A. Mills reimagines her beloved picture book, The Rag Coat, with fifty delicate pencil illustrations and an expanded story about a resilient little girl, her patchwork coat, and how the two bring a community together.
Minna and her family don't have much in their small Appalachian cabin, but "people only need people," Papa always reminds her. Unable to afford a winter coat to wear to school, she's forced to use an old feed sack to keep her warm. Then Papa's terrible cough from working in the coal mines takes him away forever, and Minna has a hard time believing that anything will be right again...until her neighbors work tirelessly to create a coat for her out of old fabric scraps. Now Minna must show her teasing classmates that her coat is more than just rags--it's a collection of their own cherished memories, each with a story to share.
A Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People
A Children's Book Council Hot off the Press Pick
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An expanded, middle grade version of the author’s picture book The Rag Coat (Little, Brown, 1991). Minna’s family has it tougher than other people living in their Appalachian mountain region. Her papa, sickened from his job in the coal mines, stays home more and more frequently. Minna’s one wish is to go to school where she can make friends, but the family is too poor to afford a coat—a necessity for the harsh winter months. Her only friends are “Aunt” Nora, a Cherokee healer, and Nora’s mixed-race grandson, Lester. Aunt Nora teaches Minna about the curative powers of plants, along with lessons of Native American wisdom. In return, the eight-year-old teaches shy Lester how to read. There are no schools for people of color in the area, so it’s a risky venture. Minna’s friendship with Lester exposes her to prejudice and cruelty from the same children she hopes to befriend at school. Sadly, her beloved papa dies, and soon after, her mother must make ends meet by joining the Quilting Moms.
The women create a patchwork coat for Minna, made out of scraps from everyone in the area. While they sew, they tell stories connected to each piece of fabric, describing the sorrows and joys of the locals. From these tales, Minna learns much about the children in the town. But friendship eludes her when she starts school—she is teased about her ragged clothes and her relationship with Lester. Minna hopes that bringing her new, treasured coat on Sharing Day will turn things around—her acceptance doesn’t come easily, though. Readers can immerse themselves in a culture and time where things moved at a slower pace and common sense values created from warmth and love are given room to exist and thrive. The delicate, ethereal pencil drawings provide an additional lens into this story. The emotions of the characters are sensitively rendered, and one can almost smell the pine-scented air and wood-burning fireplace.
VERDICT A cozy, leisurely peek into a turn-of-the century Appalachian family.
Writers are often advised, “Write what you know,” but I would first advise people to write what they love. After all, I can’t know what it was like to be an eight-year-old girl living in a log cabin in the Appalachian Mountains in 1908. But I love this time period, this setting, and Appalachian culture, and I can know and share many of the same feelings as that eight-year-old girl because they come from similar experiences in my own life.
I spent part of every summer of my childhood at my grandparents’ home in West Virginia. I will never forget the scent in the air, the sound of the cicadas, the misty views of the rolling hills, and visiting my grandmother’s friend who lived in a log cabin with handmade baskets hanging from the beams. Nor will I forget the awe I had for Chuck, the handyman of the neighborhood, who once worked in the fearsome coal mines that took so many lives.
Other memories of my childhood in different parts of the country found their way into the story, too, like trying to earn a girl’s friendship by sacrificing a beloved doll, being teased about the bold and modern clothes that my mother used to sew for my sister and me, and spending the summer with my brother at our aunt and uncle’s farm in Kalispell, Montana. My aunt Marcy was a delivery nurse and an exquisite quilt maker who taught me how to make my first quilt. I spent hours quilting, and using the embroidery skills my grandmother had taught me to sew flowers all over my denim shirt that summer. I also began to collect antiques, one of which was a patchwork jacket made from an old quilt.
That fall I began attending a new school in Oregon, but at the time only polyester dresses were worn, a far cry from my quilted jacket and embroidered jean shirt. I was a prime target for teasing and came home in tears, but I remember finding refuge in my patchwork quilt, a place where I had begun building the world in which I wanted to live.
In my early twenties I continued to create the world I wanted by living in a log cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, where I raised goats, chickens, a faithful dog named Jessie, and a garden filled with rabbits. Like Minna, I also sang to one of the goats when she was in labor and saw the little hooves sticking out, so I finally just pulled on them and delivered a kid!
While living in California, I heard a country song on the radio called “Coat of Many Colors,” sung by Emmylou Harris and written by Dolly Parton. The song struck a chord in me, reminding me a bit of my own experiences, but nothing came of it until I moved to Massachusetts. There I happened to share what I vaguely remembered of the song with my editor, Maria Modugno, who encouraged me to create a new story of my own. So I wrote and illustrated a picture book called The Rag Coat, which was published in 1991.
The Rag Coat has remained in print since its publication, and over the years I have received letters from schoolchildren asking for another book that shows Lottie becoming “nicer.” The Rag Coat was performed as a ballet at the University of Utah and has also been considered for treatment as an opera and as a screenplay for film. Encouraged by all of these requests and interest, I thought it would be a wonderful challenge to delve deeper into Minna’s world and expand the story into a novel, one where I could write all about what I love.
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Lauren A. Mills has won national acclaim as a book author and illustrator and as a sculptor and painter. She was greatly inﬂuenced by the 19th century artists, especially the Pre-Raphaelites for their focus of the natural world as well as their sense of mythical wonder. The fourth of five children, Mills grew up playing and pretending in the woods of Connecticut and spent her summers at her grandparents' in West Virginia.
In her teens she moved to Oregon and Minnesota and later lived in Colorado, California and Massachusetts where she resides now. She and her husband, author/illustrator Dennis Nolan collaborated on several projects, most notable, their daughter...read more