Lizzy Rockwell on the Magic of Collaborating with Children

Lizzy Rockwell on the Magic of Collaborating with Children

Our Balanced Learning® curriculum includes many books that encourage children to feel a sense of “belongingness” and possibility. One of those books is “The All-Together Quilt” by Lizzy Rockwell. Rockwell is the author and illustrator of nine books for children; working with other authors, she has illustrated more than 30 books in all. She worked frequently with her mother, children’s author Anne Rockwell; her father, Harlow Rockwell, also created children’s books.

In 2008, Lizzy Rockwell started the Norwalk Community Quilt Project in Connecticut, a community program that continues today and inspired “The All-Together Quilt,” published in 2020.

We talked to her about collaboration and connection between children and grown-ups.

How did “The All-Together Quilt” become a book?

I’ve been making books since 1989. “The All-Together Quilt” is the first book I’ve done that is about real people in my real life. The characters are based on friends I have made over the years, actually just a small percentage of people I have worked with in community quilting. I started the Norwalk Community Quilt Project because I thought it would fill a social need, to create more opportunities for young people after school and for elders with too much free time and not enough social interaction. We have been meeting at least once a week for more than 14 years in a community room in a public housing complex for seniors. Our eldest participant is 93 years old, and we’ve had children as young as 7. The thing we have in common, from many different backgrounds and generations, is that we’re working together to make a quilt.

Why is creating a community quilt so powerful?

Many quilts are made by a single person, but they can be made in a communal setting, by people who didn’t know each other before. You combine talents and effort and time to make a complex work of craft. The benefits of this, for both the children and the adults, are profound and far-reaching. I thought, this really should be a book. Maybe if more people knew this was a thing that could happen and they get to the end of the book and find it did really happen, perhaps it could inspire people to take a leap and organize around a work of art. And that’s happened, in schools and scout troops and places of worship.

This book is also for preschoolers, even though they may be too young to make a quilt, yes?

Yes, absolutely. The mind of a preschooler is a good place to live. Their brains are as elastic as they will ever be, and their social brain is just starting to explode. They’re totally ready for what goes on in this book. My friend’s then-3-year-old child had all the characters memorized, in order. She’d say their names: There’s Ernestine and Zach. Preschoolers love that each child has a grown-up who is their friend and is not necessarily helping them with something, but just doing something with them. That nonhierarchical relationship is very appealing to children, that the children have roles that are just as important as the adults’.

How can children who are too young for sewing needles and fabric scissors get in on the fun of quilting?

You can make a paper quilt with small children. Everybody gets a square of patterned paper, or you can cut triangles and put them together to make a square. Ask the children, in what order should we put these squares together? What if we put this one over here? It’s a constantly evolving quilt where we can keep trying new possibilities. It’s also an introduction to geometry. If you count three blocks across and then you count three more to make another row and another three for a third row, suddenly you’ve got a square made of nine smaller squares. And it’s not a lesson, it’s just a cool discovery. I love that inherent, hands-on numeracy that is so fun to teach to preschoolers.

Why did you highlight intergenerational friendships in your book?

There is a lot to be gained by children having interactions with grown-ups, and a lot of the grown-ups available are retirees who are craving time with people. It’s a natural symbiosis. Ernestine, who is depicted on the cover of the book, moved out of town to be near her son in March 2021. I put the word out that we were going to have an outdoor going-away party for her, and so many kids from the quilting project who hadn’t seen her in years came. We gave her one of the communal quilts she really loved and a photo album of memories. She died this August, and at her service, the photo album, the quilt and the book itself were all at the altar with her.

The book tells a story, and then at the end there’s practical how-to information about making a quilt. Why did you include that?

Well first, because my editor explained that a lot of quilting terms, such as basting, would be a mystery to people, and we thought it would be good to explain. The technical details fulfill another purpose, though. I knew this book had a powerful emotional story, but I have such an aversion to sentimentality. I thought I could do this book about pinning and cutting and sewing and measuring and layering and stitching, and the social-emotional stuff is happening in the artwork. I wanted this book to be about community collaboration, and you don’t need to tell people that that is a beautiful thing. You just need to show them.

Given the divisiveness in our world, is it more important than ever to teach children about cooperation?

I think children are doing great, actually. They know so much inherently and have such a natural instinct to be loving. I have a 13-month-old grandson, and he is so naturally curious, socially engaged, affectionate. I would like us as adults to step back and observe these natural proclivities in children. Books can help us start conversations with kids — and let them lead the conversation, and they can remind us that people are meant to have that give-and-take with their fellow humans and it’s more natural than we seem to think it is.

I don’t make books with the intention of improving children; I think they’re really awesome. I think they’re some of the best people on the planet. I just want to make books they’ll like and come back to, where they’ll see themselves and feel liked and respected.

Belongingness Discussion Questions

At Primrose, the books in our classrooms help teach children that everyone belongs and that differences are to be celebrated. After you read “The All-Together Quilt” with your child, ask them these questions to reinforce these important concepts.

  • Why is cooperation important?
  • What can you learn from your friends?
  • What talent do you have to share with the world?
  • For older children: How can different people make a project better?

For more on teaching positive character traits through literature, check out:

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