An Ukrainian Folk Tale
Retold and Illustrated by Jan Brett
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1989
The Mitten is perhaps Jan Brett's most popular book, although her The Twelve Days of Christmas is a very close second. It is a richly illustrated Children's picture book based on a traditional Ukrainian folktale, and has been one of the stars of children's picture books for more than two decades now.
BUT WAIT! Being a very popular folktale, Jan Brett was not the first person to publish a retelling of the story. The first picture book that I can find was The Mitten: An Old Ukrainian Folktale,
by Alvin Tresselt and Yaroslava; it was published by HarperCollins in 1964. (It is interesting to note that HarperCollins republished an edition in 1989, the same year as Brett's book came out). It is a classic 1960s-style picture book, with simple pictures, a very simple palette of bright, primary colors, and an uncrowded background. I find the overall effect pleasing, but it is rather old-fashioned.
And Again! In 2009 Scholastic Press published a version of the tale by Jim Aylesworth and illustrated by Barbara McClintock. This edition has somewhat more cartoonish illustrations, but quite frankly strikes me as a definite attempt to rip of Jan Britt's illustration style, with a central illustration surrounded by a rich edging of vignettes.
Other reviews report that these books have pretty much the same story; the original Tresselt and Yaroslava's is said to have a bit more text, including more dialog for the animals. But I have not read either of these books; all I have is the most popular version, Jan Brett's. So I shall review that.
The story itself is pretty straightforward. A young boy named Nicki asks his grandmother to knit him a new pair of snow-white mittens. His grandmother warns him that snow-white is a bad color for mittens -- if he drops them in the snow, he may never find them again. But she knits him the mittens anyway, and sure enough, he drops one in the snow and loses it.
A small mole comes across the mitten, and burrows inside, happy to have a warm place to rest. But before long, a snowshoe rabbit comes along and decides to join the mole. Then a hedgehog wants in. Then an owl. Larger and larger animals wedge themselves into the crowded mitten, until finally a bear comes by... And amazingly, manages to squeeze in. And then comes a meadow mouse, no bigger than an acorn. Her whiskers tickle the bear's nose, making him sneeze, and the mitten explodes off of the animals and into the air! The mitten drifts through the air until it falls back into the hands of the boy, who takes it home to his grandma.
As a children's story, this is pretty good. It builds slowly but steadily, it's humorous, and the funny bits of the story are supported by the illustrations. I am very much in the minority in that I do not like the illustrations; primarily because I find the illustrations of the humans a bit creepy, but also because the pages are very crowded. This is generally seen as a good thing by most readers; the drawings are very richly textured and detailed, with every piece of fur on each animal and every stitch of yarn in the mittens carefully drawn in. There is a full palette of realistic colors (which, if you read many children's books, is not as common as you might hope). The illustrations are full of action, and work hard to show action; they do this effectively, although a bit clumsily at times.
And perhaps most important for the book's popularity, the illustrations are arranged in a unique manner. Every page has a large central picture surrounded by a decorative frame (drawn to look like stitched birch bark with fine embroidery patterns in the corners), with two smaller side panels showing events parallel to the story. On most pages, this means one picture of the boy hunting for his mitten, and one of the animal that will find the mitten next. This being a Ukrainian folktale, there is plenty of brightly-colored, complex patterns on the clothes, the walls of the house, and anywhere else that it might be appropriate.
The Mitten has received a number of minor awards/mentions, including entry onto the American Library Association's Booklist Magazine Best Children's Books of the 1980s and New Yorker Magazine Best Children's Books 1989. Building on the success of The Mitten, her book The Hat builds on the theme of woodland animals in a Scandinavian country stealing human clothes, and is considered a 'companion story' to The Mitten.
The Mitten is pegged for children from grades K-2, and has a reading level of grade 3.2; as such is it generally considered a read aloud book. Lexile Measure®: 800L. DRA: 24. Guided Reading Level: M.