We all agreed that My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald, illustrated by Freya Blackwood, is a very special picture book. It is yet another beautiful example of the skill of Freya Blackwood as an illustrator that perfectly complements Kobald’s text. We felt that it is a book with many layered meanings but what really stood out for us though were the use of metaphors, language, pictographs and colour to convey meaning.
We discussed the idea of language, culture and customs that Kobald explores as a metaphorical blanket. We could all relate to the idea that security, in the form of blanket, comes with the comfort of the known and familiar and the subsequent isolation that occurs when this is stripped away, and we felt that it was a relevant metaphor for even very young children. We talked about how this could be introduced with children: what does a blanket feel like, differences between a warm and scratchy blanket and how you feel when you are under a warm blanket etc.
We observed Blackwood’s separation of the two cultures with her use of colour and shape such as in the first page when Cartwheel is happy her face is open and exposed and she blends into her home environment which is depicted in warm earthen shades, painted in saturated oils. The following pages, that show Cartwheel and Aunty in their new land, show them as bright, orange, undefined shapes in a world of watercolour, cool greys and blues. The colours are extended into the blankets that Cartwheel draws around herself – her initial one from home is an earthen colour of soft, curved shapes, filled with the symbols of the land while her second blanket contains pale, urban images in compacted, squares and diamond shapes. We noted the differences between the representations of the park on various pages. On Cartwheel’s first visit it almost looks like the reader is peering at the scene from between cow or sheep legs and the image is gloomy and the smokestacks are ominous. On the last page, when Cartwheel feels accepted, the scene is light and vibrant and full of the colours from both her worlds.
The repetition of the word “strange” reinforces Cartwheel’s point of view.
Everything was strange. The people were strange. The food was strange. The animals and the plants were strange. Even the wind felt strange
This contrasts the image that shows it is indeed Cartwheel and her aunt who look different from everyone else. The pages that show a tiny Aunty and Cartwheel, out of proportion to everyone else, bombarded by loud noises represented as pictographs, were particularly effective. The introduction of another metaphor, “it was like standing under a waterfall of strange sounds”, emphasizes their dislocation. We discussed Blackwood’s deliberate technique of using scrawls and fragments to indicate a lack of understanding of language. This led into a discussion of Kobald’s background where we learnt that she is not a native speaker of English and was speaking of her own experience of the complexity of learning a new language. We were amazed by Blackwood’s detail, noting even little details such as the pictograph of the half-opened umbrella that becomes a full umbrella once Cartwheel has understanding of the language.
We also discussed the application of difference to other situations; agreeing that a child can feel isolated in many situations – new school, new activity, and new friendship group and that we could easily discuss with children what it means to be different, lonely or an outsider. We also talked about the bravery of the little girl who extends the hand of friendship to Cartwheel and related it to our own experiences of where we have seen examples of kindness. How we go about teaching new skills to someone is also a topic that could easily be explored.
It was felt that this is a book that could be read across many levels and explored in many different ways. It was noted that as some of our schools do have refugee children the issue of asylum would need to be handled sensitively, particularly when discussing Cartwheel’s orphan status and her need to leave home for safety reasons.