Phoebe's Sweater Unit Study by Joanna Johnson

Shortly after we published Phoebe's Sweater, people began asking us if there was a unit study to go along with our book.  I had a lot of ideas for a unit study based on the interesting details in Eric's illustrations for the book, and have been dreaming up this study ever since.  Eric put a lot of beautiful details into the illustrations as he created the artwork for the story.  At one time, we even considered doing this as a "wordless book" where the story is told entirely through the illustrations.  Although, in the end, we did not follow this model, the echoes of this concept remain in the richly detailed drawings.  

Eric and I both  recognize the rare blessing it is to be able to do as adults what we loved to do best as children.  For Eric, drawing was a most favorite childhood activity.  And I have loved books, reading, and writing from my earliest years.  So I would like to thank each of you who has encouraged us on our path of creating this book, pursuing our dream, (getting a rejection letter or two), and ultimately creating our own publishing company to get this special book out into the hands of knitters and readers.  We thank you deeply!

and Joanna

Phoebe's Sweater Unit Study
Overview and Use

All you need to do this study (in addition to a copy of the book) is a computer, a library card, a way to get around town, general household objects, and a love of learning.  This study is perfect for parents, teachers, family, and friends to use with children ages 2-8 years old.

By doing an art study of the illustrations, we will be studying the following five topics:
*traditional folk music
*bread baking
*botany and entomology (plants and bugs)

We will have five different kinds of activities for each of the five topics.  You could spend a week on each topic, doing the study over a five week period, or, you could spread the activities out over a season or semester, however you prefer.  You do need to plan ahead for field trips and certain outdoor activities so it is good to plan ahead accordingly.  By the way, you do not need to know how to knit to do the study, although learning how would be fun!

Do not feel like you need to do every activity!  These are just ideas to get you started; they are some of my favorite books and resources, please feel free to substitute your favorites.

Lastly, the reason I chose to publish the study on the blog is that it allows for you to share with each other in the comments section your favorite books and resources, and even your own blog write ups about the study.  So go ahead, comment and share!

Unit 1
Traditional Folk Music

Discussion Ideas
Look at the wedding scene on page 21.  What instruments are the band members playing?  They are playing a violin, which is also called a fiddle, a banjo, and an upright bass.
Can you see that the upright bass is a much larger version of the violin?
Do you see that the violin player has a bow? A bow is made of long pieces of horsehair and is brushed against the string to make a pleasant sound. The bass player is just playing with his fingers. Sometimes a bass player uses a bow, also. Some other instruments that use a bow are the viola and the cello.

Do you see the little pegs at the top of the instruments? They are called tuning pegs and are used to tune the strings to the correct pitch or note.
Have you ever seen anyone play these instruments?
Which one would you most like to play?
What song would you like to hear this band play?

Here are some great books and resources for studying traditional folk music:

Dance at Grandpa's by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Illustrated by Renee Graef
This is a sweet storybook for young children based on Laura's first book, Little House in the Big Woods, and it tells the fun story of an in-house holiday dance!

Meet the Orchestra by Ann Hayes
Illustrated by Karmen Thompson
This book is a great introduction to the various instruments in an orchestra.

Wee Sing Fun 'n' Folk by Pamela Conn Beall
and Susan Hagen Nipp
This is a great basic songbook of traditional songs to sing with children.  The children will likely know many of them already!

Frog Went A-Courting by Johns Langstaff
Illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky
This is a classic storybook about the traditional folk song.  The illustrations are fun and colorful!

Be sure to check out Elizabeth Mitchell's version of this song, found on her album You Are My Sunshine.

Also, watch this cute animated video of the song:

The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night by Peter Spier
Peter Spier playfully illustrates and retells the traditional song about the fox and the goose.
Nickel Creek Band's first album (self-titled) has a great version of this song performed on guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and bass.  Click here to see a live version of this song:

This band has been playing together since childhood- click here to see a video of them performing "Turkey in the Straw"- a very recognizable traditional folk tune!

Go Somewhere!
Find a nearby music shop or museum and explore some musical instruments.  Bring along a book (like Meet the Orchestra) as a guide as you study the many different instruments there are to play.  Be sure to ask for advice and demonstrations from the shopkeepers or guides. 
Also, see if there are any concerts or music festivals to attend in your area.  Many towns and cities offer concerts for children- check out schools, libraries, and churches for music festivals and concerts for children.

Make a few musical instruments of your own at home.  An oatmeal container can become a drum.  And small plastic container can become a shaker with beads or rocks inside.  Play along with a favorite song, clap your hands and sing along! 
For some good internet resources to make your own simple handmade instruments,

Does anyone in your family or neighborhood play an instrument?  Consider having a little recital.  You could make invitations and invite friends or family members over to hear you pay your new instruments and enjoy some refreshments.

Or, have a special music listening time.  My favorite album of traditional songs for kids is Elizabeth Mitchell's You Are My Little Bird.

Unit 2
Bread Baking

Discussion Ideas
Look at the illustration on page 13.  Phoebe's mother is taking some fresh bread out of the oven.  Have you ever tasted freshly baked bread?
Can you tell me what bread is made of?
What are some other grains besides wheat?  What about oats, rye, millet, etc...
What is good to put on top of bread?
What is your favorite kind of bread?

Bread is for Eating by David and Phillis Gershator
Illustrated by Emma Shaw-Smith
This is a vibrantly illustrated book about a boy's hunger for bread and its journey from a seed to a loaf.  It includes lyrics and music for a song at the end.  Reading Rainbow did an episode based on this book in 1996- it is a must see if you can track it down!

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russel Hoban
Illustrated by Lilian Hoban
This is my top favorite and most dog-eared childhood storybook.  It is just a classic storybook with a bread theme that I couldn't skip!

The Baker's Dozen by Aaron Sheperd
Illustrated by Wendy Edelson
Have you ever wondered where the phrase "baker's dozen" comes from?  This is a neat story about a baker who learns a lesson in generosity.

The Little Red Hen by Diane Muldrow
Illustrated by J. P. Miller
Of course we all know the story of the Little Red Hen and its moral of hard work and its reward.  But it is also the tale of the steps required to turn a grain of wheat into a loaf of bread.  This is another current family favorite at our house!

Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola
This is another great story that shows the process of creating a meal from scratch.  It is also a good way to introduce the idea that there are a lot of other kinds of bread that are not in loaf form: think pretzels, tortillas, crackers, flat bread, and so forth.

Great Whole Grain Breads by Beatrice Ojakangas
This is the most complete and accessible book on whole grain breads I have ever seen,  The author goes into detail about each kind of grain she uses and possesses a deep understanding of how each grain should be handled to produce the tastiest breads.  I have used nearly every recipe in this book and they are all delicious and worth every bit of the time it takes to bake bread from scratch!

Go Somewhere!
Of course, the place to go is a bakery!  Many bakeries give tours to students and school groups- call ahead to see if you can schedule something.  We did this last fall and had a great tour at our local German Bakery and were even given a cake to share at the end of the tour!

Find a cookbook with some good bread photos and look through it together.  Select a favorite recipe and make some wonderful homemade bread.  This is fun to share with friends- either invite some along to help you bake, or, double the recipe and surprise a neighbor of friends with your delicious fresh bread.

This is a simple activity you can do at home if you have a variety of grains in you pantry.  If not, you can go to the store and buy some or or just explore the various grains available at your local health food store.  See how many different grains you can identify.  Here is a list for starters, but feel free to study as many as you like.  Another idea would be to classify and label the grains in jars, cups, a notebook, or glued to paper or cardboard.
wheat, wheat berries

Unit 3

Discussion Ideas
Study the illustration on page 23.  Phoebe and her grandfather are looking into the night sky.  They are studying the pictures in the stars which are called constellations.  Can you tell what constellation they are looking at?  It is Leo.  Can you guess why Eric chose Leo as the constellation for this drawing?  He thought it would be interesting (and a little funny) if the mice were looking at a great big cat in the sky!
Can you name some other constellations?
Have you ever noticed how bright the stars are when you are camping or in the country far from the city lights?
Do you have a favorite constellation?

Find the Constellations by H. A. Rey
This is the best book about the stars that I have ever seen.  Written by the original author of the beloved Curious George books, it is a great overview of the constellations and it is peppered with activities and quizzes for the kids.  This one book is solid enough for a semester's worth of study, yet engaging and fun for the youngest preschoolers.
Spend time going through this book and follow the simple prompts and activities with the children.  It is really worth finding this gem of a book!

Go Somewhere!
Do you have a planetarium or observatory nearby?  We were able to schedule a field trip to an observatory at a local high school and it was worth the trip- the children really enjoyed seeing a planet or two through the telescope.  The planetarium is also a worthwhile field trip.  The panoramic view of the night sky "inside" is a very memorable event for young and old alike.

A simple way to make your own book of constellations at home is to use black or blue construction paper as the sky and have the children use white chalk or pencils to create the stars.  Using a constellation book or guide, have the children create six or eight pages with a constellation and its name on each page.  This is a fun craft, a great hand-eye exercise, and the perfect way to begin learning the names of the constellations.

Another fun idea (thanks, Meg!) would be to make constellation cookies.  Bake cookies, ice them with dark chocolate frosting, and then make constellation patterns on the cookies using white chocolate chips.  Yum!

Pretend you are Phoebe and her Grandpa!  Find a place to lay down outside at night and look at the stars.  We call this activity, whether watching beautiful clouds, a stunning sunset, or stargazing, "Sky TV" at our house and the children love it.  It is a great time to relax and talk with children about... anything!

Unit 4

Discussion Questions
Study the illustration on page 11.  Phoebe's mother is knitting the sweater for Phoebe.  This is the sweater shown in the knitting pattern section of the book (pages 29-37). 
Do you see where the mother is storing the yarn?  It is in a thimble.  Explain what a thimble is used for (to protect the fingers while sewing) and see what other sewing and crafting items are in the drawing.
The wooden table with the coffee mug on it is for sewing.  Do you know what it is?  It is a treadle sewing machine and doesn't run on electricity- you power it by pumping the pedal with your feet.
Do you see the wooden wheel?  It is a spinning wheel.  It is used to spin yarn out of wool or other fibers like silk or alpaca. 
Do you see the knitting needles the mother is using to make the sweater?  Knitting needles do not have an eye in them like a sewing needle.  They are more like a tiny smooth stick with a pointed tip.


The Mitten by Jan Brett
This is a classic story beautifully told and illustrated by Jan Brett.  A must read for anyone looking for a knitting storybook!

Socks for Supper by Jack Kent
I will tell you upfront that this is a tricky book to come by- it is out of print and commands a high price when available, but see if you can find it at the library.  I have found a copy or two second hand, also.  This is my most favorite knitting story- about a poor woman who knits socks in exchange for food.  The very clever ending is my favorite part!

Knitty Kitty by David Elliot
Illustrated by Christopher Denise
Just a sweet simple story about a knitting cat!

Pelle's New Suit by Elsa Beskow
Although Pelle's suit is woven, this charming tale by a very gifted illustrator shows the progress of lamb's wool from shearer, to carder, spinner, dyer, and finally the weaver.  It is a first class book and it is a true "sheep to suit" tale.

Kids Learn to Knit by Lucinda Guy
If you or any children are interested in learning to knit, this is a very excellent "learn to knit" book available at most libraries.  The illustrations very simply demonstrate how to perform the correct movements to make the stitches.  This is a great learning book for aspiring knitters of all ages.

Itty-Bitty Toys by Susan B. Anderson
This is the very best knitted toys book I have seen.  Even if you do not want to knit anything, it is worth looking at for the great photographs of Susan's clever and playful toy designs!  The patterns range from simple to quite advanced and are a treat for the eyes.

A First Book of Knitting for Children by Bonnie Gosse and Jill Allerton
This is a great book of beginner knitting projects for children.  Simple garter-stitch toys and animals make for a great series of easy projects for children to knit.  The Waldorf style of teaching new techniques using stories and rhymes make for a very teachable knitting method.

Go Somewhere!
The best place to go for this part of the study is an independent yarn shop.  There are hundreds and hundreds of them across the county.  A great resource for finding a shop is this website:
Go visit a local yarn shop and enjoy all of the textures and colors available to see.  Most yarn shops have knitted samples out, take time to see the wide variety of things people can knit!  If you are really eager to learn, ask if they have classes for beginning knitters.  Otherwise, just look around and see what inspires you!

There are a wide variety of things you can make for this part of the study.  Of course if you knit or crochet or weave, by all means get started with the children!  A simple weaving project is the faithful loop woven potholders.  We have put miles on my old Fisher Price Weaving Loom- they are still available on ebay and a very good beginner loom.  Most craft shops carry knitting looms also.

Another fun idea is to have the children make their own knitting needles.  This can be done very simply using wooden dowels, sandpaper, and beads or fimo clay.  Here is a great tutorial on making knitting needles.

If you are unsure about yarn and crafts, here is a fun and simple project:
Using paper and crayons or markers, create knitted items.  Socks, scarves, hats, gloves, sweaters, legwarmers, jackets, toys, and cut out the shapes.  Using some string as a clothesline and clothespins to pin them up, hang out your knitting laundry.  This would be a great decoration for your child's room, laundry room, or playroom!

See if you can find a Fiber Festival, sheep or alpaca farmer, or living history museum where you can observe a sheep shearing.  A local rancher where we live invites people to her annual sheep shearing and it is a great place to go and see where our wool comes from.  If you can find a way to attend such an event, it will be well worth your time!

Unit 5
Plants and Bugs

Discussion Questions
Look at the illustration on page 9.  Do you see the ant carrying something?  He is carrying a sunflower seed.  This ant is called a harvester ant.  Why do you think he is called that?  What season is it?  What is he doing?
Look at the illustration on page 15.  Do you see the purple flower, and do you know its name?  It is a crocus, one of the first spring flowers in many parts of the country.
Do you see Phoebe's umbrella?  What is it made of?  It is called an umbrella leaf.  Eric knew that would be the perfect leaf for this drawing!
Look at the illustrations on page 23.  What is on the blade of grass in the lower right corner?  It is a lightning bug.  There are a lot more lightning bugs throughout the meadow.
Another fun thing to do is to go through the whole book and see how the tree's leaves go through the seasons- from falling leaves, to emptiness, to spring buds, summer leaves, and fall again!


The Very Hungry Caterpillar
The Very Quiet Cricket
The Very Lonely Firefly
all by Eric Carle
This trio of bug books by Eric Carle are classic early readers for children with a bug theme.

 Fireflies in the Night by Judy Hawes
Illustrated by Ellen Alexander
This is an excellent companion for our unit study- not only does it teach about fireflies, but it does so in the context of a young girl visiting her grandparents in the summer, just like Phoebe!

The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion
Illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham
This is just a fun plant book by the creative team behind the "Harry the Dirty Dog" books.  There are a variety of houseplants in the book which you could identify with a guidebook if you would like to!

Pets in a Jar by Seymour Simon
Illustrated by Betty Fraser
This is a really neat book that teaches how to care for outdoor insects and other critters.  It is nicely illustrated and full of great information about the little everyday creatures around us.

Go Somewhere!
There are a lot of wonderful places to go for this portion of the study.  We are fortunate to have a Butterfly Pavilion nearby- this would be a perfect field trip.  Of course the zoo always has bugs and little critters to look at, and a Botanical Garden or Museum with a garden would be an excellent idea.  Look around and I am sure you will find lots of places to study plants and bugs outdoors!

I think this would be the perfect time to begin a nature journal.  Children can use anything from a basic notebook to a handcrafted book or journal.  If you bring it along with you on nature walks, or just keep it handy when you are playing outside, children can add pressed leaves and flowers and drawings and sketches of bugs, birds, leaves, and flowers to document their enjoyment of creation.  This is a lifelong activity that can be enjoyed forever!

Let's plant something!  It could be as simple as starting an avocado pit in a glass or planting wheat grass on a sponge in the kitchen, or as elaborate as planting a vegetable or wildflower garden.  Marigolds started in egg cartons are always an excellent reliable planting project for young children to enjoy the wonders of plants.
Also, there are a lot of ideas for care taking for bugs in the Pets in a Jar book, as well as ways to care for a caterpillar and watch is transform into a butterfly.  This is the time to enjoy the wonder of living things, mostly small ones!

In Closing
I hope you have enjoyed our Phoebe's Sweater Unit Study.  Please comment and let us know what your favorite resources and activities for this study have been!
All of our best to you,
from the Johnson family at Slate Falls Press!


  1. To Phoebe's Mother & Father,

    Awesome verbal/visual, multi-layered tender story - for kids big or little. A great springboard of ideas into your thoughtfully composed Unit Study. Bravo.


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