NOTE: The PJ Library book event featuring Jennifer Rosner and her book, The Mitten String on Feb. 8 at 10:30 a.m. at the Springfield Jewish Community Center, 1160 Dickinson St., has been cancelled. For more information, contact Jdanishevsky@jewishwesternmass.org or Dcohen@jccspringfield.org.
By Stacey Dresner
NORTHAMPTON – In 2011, Jennifer Rosner of Northampton wrote the moving memoir If a Tree Falls, about her two daughters being born deaf, the subsequent discovery of deafness going back generations in her family tree, and her family’s journey into the world of deafness.
Now she has written The Mitten String, a children’s picture book with close ties to her own family’s story.
The Mitten String tells the story of young Ruthie Tober and her family of sheep farmers who reside in an Eastern European shtetl. The Tobers shear their sheeps’ wool, dye it, spin it into yarn, then knit it into colorful mittens.
When the Tobers encounter a woman with her baby, whose wagon has broken down, they invite her to stay the night with them. Her mother explains to Ruthie that the woman, Bayla, who does not speak to them but rather writes on a slate to communicate, is deaf. That night Ruthie observes a blue string linking Bayla’s arm with her son’s. When the baby cries and moves his arm, Bayla wakes and takes the baby into her arms to comfort him.
Inspired by this heartwarming vision, Ruthie knits a large mitten for Bayla, then a tiny mitten for the baby, connected by a red string. Delighted by the gift, Bayla shows Ruthie the sign for mittens.
Rosner based The Mitten String on family lore – her great-great-aunt Bayla Wertheim, who was deaf and who lived in Austria in the 1800s, was said to have tied a string to her infant’s wrist so that she would know when the baby needed her.
“I thought that the message of connection and mothering would be nice to share with children,” Rosner said. “It was very innovative of this ancestor of mine to find a way to connect to her child. I thought it would be a little wondrous and heart-warming to see the story from a child’s perspective. I thought it would raise a lot of issues that would be interesting to kids.”
Rosner, a native of Connecticut, graduated from Columbia, then received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University. She and her husband Bill lived in California for 12 years before moving to Northampton to be near the Clarke School for the Deaf. Their daughter Sophia had been born with a severe sensorineural hearing loss, and they were looking for a school with an early infant program for babies and parents.
After arriving in Western Massachusetts, Rosner taught philosophy at Mount Holyoke for a time. She left to tend to Sophia and her second child, Juliet, who was born with profound hearing loss. Rosner began writing If a Tree Falls to document her family’s journey. She had never considered writing a children’s book before, until she came up with the story for The Mitten String.
“I hadn’t really dared to think about it. Every new writing project is essentially a new genre for me. I am really somewhat new to writing,” Rosner explained. “I was a philosophy professor and I did academic writing, but when my daughters were both diagnosed with deafness, I think I was drawn to creative writing to express and kind of understand what was going on for us. So I wrote the memoir and that was very new for me – I had never done creative writing before and I loved it. I loved it so much that I decided to step out of my teaching career to raise my kids and also to give myself a chance to write more full time.”
A friend suggested that she try to write a children’s book based on If a Tree Falls.
“I thought about it and thought about the string, and I thought it would be a good thing to focus on,” she said.
Illustrator Kristina Swarnter actually carved the illustrations onto linoleum tile, then they were printed with water colors. “It was unexpected, but it gave the book a wooly feel,” Rosner said. “It was kind of a perfect yarny kind of feeling. The carvings give it a lot of texture.”
Two of Rosner’s most important critics are her daughters. Sophia, 14, is a graduate of Lander-Grinspoon Academy and is now a student at The Academy of Charlemont. Juliet, 10, is a fifth grader at LGA.
“They love it. My daughter Juliet did an initial set of illustrations, which was so cute. But she wasn’t selected [as illustrator] in the end,” Rosner laughed.
The Mitten String has been chosen as a PJ Library selection by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and will be sent to PJ Library’s 6-year age group this month.
“The Mitten String is a beautiful and, in many respects, timeless story,” said Chris Barash, a member of PJ Library’s book selection committee. “It depicts Jewish values seamlessly and organically while telling a gentle, engaging tale of individuals caring for each other and for the community. It shows kindness, resilience, resourcefulness, and creativity through its characters – and all this through a clear but subtle lens of natural and respectful interactions with a young mother who is deaf. In the story, Ruthie’s mother tells her that she ‘make[s] our world a bit better with every stitch.’ Jennifer Rosner accomplishes the same thing with every word of The Mitten String.”