Jean Mills: A Yarn About Yarn – And More

March 10, 2023

Bliss Adair and the First Rule of Knitting by Jean MillsWelcome to Cantastic Authorpalooza, featuring posts by and about great Canadian children’s book creators! Today’s guest: Jean Mills. Take it away, Jean!

I don’t know about other writers, but every story I write has a connection to something in my own life and experience. Music, sports, the Nova Scotia shore and, in Bliss Adair and the First Rule of Knitting – yarn!

My relationship with yarn began in childhood. My mom was a knitter, but she was so busy juggling a full house and a full-time job, she didn’t have much time to indulge. Her sister, my Auntie Jean, certainly did, though. My dolls were well-clothed and there was no shortage of mitts, scarves and hats for my brothers and me.

For Christmas one year, my hockey-playing brother was excited to receive the yarn, pattern, and needles to make himself a blue and white (Maple Leafs, right?) stocking hat. We watched and marvelled. And then, in Girl Guides, I begged my mother to teach me, too, so I could earn a badge for knitting a square. Okay, it was a somewhat geometrically challenged square, but I did get my badge, and I loved the process – and the feel of the yarn, and the needles in my hands.

Over time I progressed to crocheting, and stitch graphs, and Fair Isle and Cowichan sweaters, baby blankets and little animals, and “Nan blankets” – you know, those multicolour granny square throws hanging over the back of the couch. And building a yarn stash because there isn’t a knitter or crocheter anywhere who can walk into a yarn shop without buying something…

Made by mother, using scraps of yarn to crochet granny squares. This is a classic “Nan blanket”.

Yes, I was hooked.

So, no surprise, when the character of Bliss Adair started to take shape in my head – a girl with a gift for math and problem solving – it just seemed right to make her a knitter, too. She runs the Help Desk at her parents’ yarn shop (String Theory – more on this later), which means she helps people fix their mistakes. She leads the Crafting for Community Care club at her school, teaching her peers how to create and give back. But her life is also complicated by the relationships she has with her friends, some of whom are going through life-changing challenges, and who rely on her for support. Sometimes, when she needs to escape for a while, she retreats with yarn and needles, because knitters know that working with yarn and needles or hook is soothing, meditative, and calming. And productive, too.

(An interesting fact: World War I soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress – known then as “shell shock” – were taught how to knit, to aid them in their recovery. There’s a reason for that.)

Writing Bliss Adair and the First Rule of Knitting also allowed me to call up so many memories from my own yarniac life:

Like the Christmas Eve when I was just finishing a baby blanket for my new great-niece and realized I’d dropped a stitch a few rows back. Panic! Frantic calls to find someone to help me keep the whole thing from unravelling. My knitting-wiz niece, Katie, rode to the rescue and saved the day, just like Bliss and her Help Desk.

Katie saves Christmas by finding a dropped stitch!

It was Christmas Eve and this baby blanket was supposed to be a gift. I was panicking – until my niece Katie took over and fixed my big mistake. Katie saved Christmas!

Or the time I attended a workshop that involved knitting a monkey from a highly complicated pattern, a pattern that nearly defeated me. I call the finished beast, “My Precious”. (Yes, say it just like Gollum does…). The frustrated beginners in the Crafting for Community Care club might be an echo of this experience.

It was supposed to be a fun workshop to knit this little monkey. It was hard work! I call this evil little guy “My Precious”.

And the fun coincidence when a new yarn shop opened up in Fergus, about 15 minutes away from me, while I was well into writing the novel, a shop bearing the same name – String Theory – as the store that Bliss’s parents own. Because string theory and math and yarn kind of go together, don’t they?

Yes, it’s true: I am proud of my overflowing yarn stash, and my crafting basket includes a huge collection of needles and hooks. I have four projects in progress as I write this.

What is The First Rule of Knitting? Sorry! I’m not going to reveal it here. Bliss’s faith in this rule may be tested, but it all works out in the end. And I knew it would – because I was writing from experience.

Jean Mills lives in Guelph, Ontario. Her YA novel, BLISS ADAIR AND THE FIRST RULE OF KNITTING, will be released by Red Deer Press in March 2023, and WINGMAN, her Hi-Lo YA novel in the Orca Soundings series, will be released by Orca Books in April 2023.

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