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Soft Spot

Soft Spot

Soft Spot

April/May 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Fiber
Jack and Holman Wang, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn

Tom Sawyer and his rapscallion friend, Huck Finn. Photo: Jack and Holman Wang

Jack and Holman Wang are introducing children to the softer side of literary classics. With meticulously needle-felted characters and artfully constructed narratives, their Cozy Classics board books aim to tell well-loved stories from a more universal – and adorable – perspective.

Since 2012, the twin brothers have felted their way through nine literary classics, including Pride and Prejudice, Les Misérables, and Oliver Twist. Each story is distilled into 12 carefully chosen child-friendly words, such as “dance” and “horse” for War and Peace, and “woman” and “help” for Jane Eyre, each of which takes up one page; the expressive wool figures lend a warm, inviting face to each tale’s characters.

“We were really looking for a new idiom for illustrating,” says Jack, a fiction writing professor at Ithaca College in New York state. He and Holman, both fathers of young children, taught themselves needle felting in order to realize their vision. “Our concept was to appeal to children and adults equally: For children they are warm and cozy, and adults can appreciate the craftsmanship, the time it takes, the likeness you have managed to tease out of wool roving.”

And, he adds, even though needle-felting is a recent popular hobby, “there’s something about the homespun quality of it that seems to go hand in hand with the classics.”

Not surprisingly, felting each book’s cast of characters is the most time-consuming part of the brothers’ process, and each figure generally takes 20 to 30 hours to complete. Holman, a former lawyer who now works full time on Cozy Classics, does most of the felting. Each figure is between 7 and 10 inches tall, and because they appear more than once throughout the course of a book, they are built around wire armature that allows them to be re-posed. Some larger elements, such as the ship from Moby Dick and the horse from War and Peace, are formed around a Styrofoam or wooden core (so there is “a little bit of cheating,” says Holman). 

To keep things simple for younger readers, and to help keep the felting workload manageable, Jack and Holman create only three to seven figures for a given book. (In fact, the number of essential characters is a major limiting factor when they’re choosing books to felt.) To illustrate each word, Holman sets the scene by either building a set or taking the figures outdoors to shoot on location (a grassy park for Jane Eyre, a snowy mountaintop for War and Peace).

Though designed for children, the books have plenty of grown-up fans. “I think adults get a kick out of them, because in some way, the needle felting de-familiarizes the story and makes them see it anew,” Jack says. And the loose narrative structure encourages readers of all ages to do some of their own interpreting – kids included. Jack recalls that when he was reading the Cozy Les Misérables to his daughters, they related a scene of Cosette looking sadly out of a window to another favorite story, Cinderella.

The two newest Cozy Classics, The Adventures of Huckle­berry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, were published this spring, and the brothers are already mulling what to tackle next. Though they’ve focused on literary novels, they are considering spin-offs, including a possible Shakespeare series. “Something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with very elaborate, colorful, magical-looking costumes, and fairies all over the place, would be fantastic,” Holman says.

“We always say that these are characters kids don’t have to outgrow,” says Jack. “There’s no guarantee that kids will go on to read the classics, but we like to think that if Jane Eyre and Lizzy Bennet are in their lexicon,” when the time comes, “they’re not going to be intimidated by these books.”

Danielle Maestretti is a frequent contributor to American Craft.