Author Patricia Polacco spoke at the St. Louis County Library the other night. She is the writer and illustrator of about 57 children’s books so far, more in the works. Her books are well loved. The Keeping Quilt celebrates its 25th birthday this year with a republished version of 15 more pages explaining what has happened since to the quilt. The story’s prequel, The Blessing Cup, has just been released. These are family stories she has heard “a thousand times, and each time they got more majestic.”
Patricia’s great-grandmother’s family emigrated from Russia, her father’s side from Ireland. She grew up “watching” her Russian grandmother telling stories, not watching TV since there was none in the house. Sometimes she would ask her babushka if a story was really true. “Of course, it’s true—but it may not have happened.” Patricia said, “Truth is the journey one takes through the story. Did it make you laugh? Cry? Seek justice?” She is working on an Irish story of her father’s family emigrating to Chicago and experiencing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Patricia Polacco did not learn to read until she was about 14 years old. Her learning disability is documented in poignant books: Thank you, Mr. Falker and The Art of Miss Chew. Her story of embarrassment and shame, of being bullied mercilessly, and of finally overcoming the dyslexia she tried to hide brought tears to many eyes. She had teachers who were her heroes. She did not become an author until the age of 41, a fact she says draws gasps from children at school presentations. How old!
Patricia grew up in a family of “amazing” storytellers, and her best friend since childhood is an African-American man whose family of storytellers is from the bayous of Louisiana. Patricia has lots of stories, from her family as well as her own real-life experiences, some with her Rotten, Red-headed Brother and with her friend Stewart. She says almost all her books have a red-headed character in them–“red-heads are magic!” And almost all have both young children and elderly in them because of the wonderful experience she had growing up with her grandparents.
Maybe you have some fun or poignant short stories of your own that can be turned into children’s stories to pass along the branches of your family tree. My mother’s memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, was written with her future great-grandchildren in mind. She has passed on her stories of catching tadpoles in rice paddies and hearing spooky tales of the Old Fox, and she has even left us songs she used to sing as a little girl. Our life stories don’t have to be long memoirs for grown-ups. Think of the young children, too.
The original “Keeping Quilt” is now in a museum,
but Patricia says when she touches this reproduction
she can still feel her grandmother.
(The yellow horse is her favorite piece)