MEET ROBIN HANSEN
NEW BOOKS FOR KIDS & TEENS
Robin Hansen talks about her newest picture book,
Ice Harbor Mittens. Here is her exciting story.
thinking behind Ice
Harbor Mittens came to me, I think, one day when
I was gardening and working on a knitting book that included
Fox & Geese Mittens. A local historian active
at the Maine Maritime Museum had recently told me a pair of
these mittens was found in a old sea chest in an attic in
Bath. I had thought of the Fox & Geese mittens as an inland
tradition, but there they were in a sea chest, and that got
me to thinking. The same pattern is knitted in coastal communitie
like Harpswell Maine and Yarmouth Nova Scotia and called Compass
Mittens.The thinking behind Ice Harbor Mittens came
to me, I think, one day when I was gardening and working on
a knitting book that included Fox & Geese Mittens.
A local historian active at the Maine Maritime Museum had
recently told me a pair of these mittens was found in a old
sea chest in an attic in Bath. I had thought of the Fox &
Geese mittens as an inland tradition, but there they were
in a sea chest, and that got me to thinking. The same pattern
is knitted in coastal communitie like Harpswell Maine and
Yarmouth Nova Scotia and called Compass Mittens.
lot of patterns on the coast are called compass or mariners
compass— patchwork patterns, weaving patterns, hooking
patterns— and knitting patterns. But mittens: they're
something intimate that goes with you out onto the water,
something you lose at your peril.
I thought of a young fisherman lost in a fog at night, seeing
the lines in his compass mittens light up to show north. And
they lit up because they were knitted by someone in his community
who was taking care of the village fishermen — who else
but the village knitter.
I like making up stories for children, particularly stories
that sound like folk stories. They're fun to tell and fun
to write, because they have some serious thought behind them
that you are bringing to children in a digestible form. They're
true, but not necessarily real.
When I started to write, about 20 years later, the story grew
on its own. Of course, teenagers like something new and fashionable,
but maybe new and fashionable doesn't serve the purpose of
old, tried and true. Not only did Sam’s handsome inland
mittens not get them out of a fog, but they didn't even work
as fishermen’s mittens, because wool mittens soaked
in cold salt water and dried on a hot engine manifold shrink
— a lot, and Sam’s had been made to fit his hand.
When they inevitably shrank, they were too small for him.
There’s a lot of research behind the mitten part of
the story, but fun research, talking with knitters in their
own kitchens or at workshops. After my first article on old-time
mittens, letters poured into the publisher, several hundred
over a few months, many telling about mittens they remembered
from childhood, patterns they knit or their grandmothers knitted,
traditions in the family: one family only let the person shoveling
snow use their single pair of Maine Mittens; another family
stored their mittens over the summer in a cookie jar—I
would think they might have gotten moldy, but apparently not.
Often mittens have stories associated with how they are made,
or how to use them. Many have survival stories connected to
them, and the compass mittens showing the way may be one of
them. Another time, the survival story was of a group of fishermen
in the water overnight who passed their only pair of wool
socks (this time, socks) around, sharing them through the
night. Another story was of two sailor lost in a fog who spent
the night lost on the water, sharing a pair of mittens in
the pattern called "Safe Return," made by a wife.
They credited the mittens with keeping their spirits up and
their minds calm and bringing them home safely.
The language? We've lived on the Coast of Maine for most of
our lives, and have been around boats even longer. I grew
up partly in Cape May, New Jersey, with a boating grandfather
from a seafaring family. Our speech was full of nautical images
and old fashioned expressions. I noticed that Maine coastal
speech had some of the same turns of speech, and I treasured
them. Josie’s hopes “sliding out the scuppers
and into the bay” was one of these. "Fetching up”
— on the rocks,” say — was another I had
always heard. They flowed into the story, available wherever
they were needed. They are my native language.
And Josiah and Sam Eldredge, Aunt Agnes—the names. I
didn't want to intrude on coastal Maine families in the communities
around me, so the names are mostly from my own family. My
grandfather was a Sam Eldredge, as was one of my cousins.
Eldredge is fairly common New England/South Jersey name, but
is my family, and so available to me. Josiah and Sam are the
names of two of my grandsons. Aunt Agnes—I never had
an Aunt Agnes, so her name was picked from the air, a name
of a distant cousin in Bowdoinham, but specifically not the
name of any village knitter I know.
The most amazing thing for a writer writing a picture book
is just what you would think—the pictures. Jamie Hogan
took a story I had set in a make-believe place, something
like a combination of West Point and Sebasco villages in Phippsburg
Maine, and brought it to life—on Peaks Island, Maine,
and peopled it with Peaks Island faces and boats. Quite marvelous!
And thereby, it also became much more a make-believe, magical
place, which can only be good when you're writing about magic.
The story could as well have begun "Once upon a time
in a galaxy far away—” because it happened in
a magical, make-believe world in a timeless place but rings
true to life in small coastal communities.
You can find out more about Ice Harbor Mittens on
my blog, http://robinlynnscott.blog.com.