In this historical picture book set in the 1960s, a family flee Portugal’s dictatorship and end up in Communist Czechoslovakia. They find it difficult to settle into their new home until three balls of wool provide an unexpected colourful solution.
Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) is narrated in the first person by a young girl. On the opening page, we learn that she used to live in a “warm, sunny country”, but her parents live in a constant state of worry and, one morning, they flee. On the next page, they arrive in a new country where they seem to settle in despite the different language and lifestyle. Yara Kono’s illustration reinforces the positive feel; it’s a vibrant image, scattered with words in Czech, showing smiling children climbing and dangling off playground equipment – although I did notice that the characters were dressed solely in grey . . .
And we soon discover that there is way too much grey in the new environment. The school and the apartment building are described as grey shoeboxes, and the sweaters in the shops come in three solid colours, green or orange . . . and grey. This is a land of conformity, where all the children dress the same and march to school like a mini army “almost as silent as the streetlamps”. Gone are the games and laughter; in the accompanying illustration, Yara Kono depicts three rows of almost-expressionless children, like cut-out dolls, dressed in matching sweaters and marching one behind the other. As the uncomfortable realities of their host country sink in, the family in exile experience renewed worry, and homesickness.
Fortunately, the narrator’s mother comes up with a plan. But we are kept in suspense as to what this entails, as the mother unravels one sweater after another and then starts knitting. In fact, it is not until the family walk outside their home – in sweaters sporting a glorious array of stripes, zig-zags and squares in grey, green and orange – that the full impact of the mother’s activity is felt. She has injected some much-needed colour into her family’s lives through her creativity; then she inspires a whole community to do the same. And in doing so, people are making a powerful visual statement against order and conformity.
The afterword provides an additional layer of interest to this picture book. We learn that the unnamed “warm, sunny country” from which the family flee is Portugal, which was ruled by the Salazar dictatorship at the time the story is set (1960s). The family’s home in exile is Czechoslovakia, which was then under communist rule. I particularly enjoyed discovering the symbolism behind the colours of the children’s sweaters. Wool in Czechoslovakia may have come in a variety of hues in the 1960s, but author Henriqueta Cristina restricted the colour choice to grey, green and orange to represent the conformity required under communist rule and shortages that were characteristic of its regime. The US English-language version of this picture book, which was published in partnership with Amnesty International, also includes a full version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) is a visual treat and a fascinating read, especially when the historical context is taken into account. It is also an excellent starting point for discussing basic human rights, such as freedom of expression, and the refugee experience.
Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) by Henriqueta Cristina, illustrated by Yara Kono, translated by Lyn Miller-Lachmann (first published in Portuguese in 2015 by Planeta Tangerina; this edition, Enchanted Lion Books, 2017)
Henriqueta Cristina was born in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal. She has been a teacher for over 30 years. She likes many things, including the sea, music, lilies, mountains, cooking and memories. She also likes to hear and tell stories and share them with children.
Yara Kono is an award-winning illustrator of children’s books. Born in Brazil, she joined the team at Portuguese publishing house and graphic design studio Planeta Tangerina in 2004.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is an author, editor, translator and teacher. She has translated five picture books from Portuguese into English. Lyn is the author of three YA novels: Rogue, Gringolandia, and Surviving Santiago. She and her husband divide their time between New York City and Lisbon.