Author Patricia Polacco’s good luck story

Jan. 16, 2017

Patricia Polacco was in her 40s when she took a trip to New York City, bankrolled by her mother, to try to sell her first children’s book. By day, she would meet with publishers. By night, she and her mother would walk to the stables in Central Park, touch the horses and even collect their manure — a Russian custom for good luck.

On their walk back to their hotel they would pass a bookstore, and her mother would say, "Oh, Tricia, do you think we’ll see one of your books in that window?"

And by the next year they could.

It’s all part of Polacco’s unlikely path to being a book author and illustrator. She struggled throughout elementary school with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, not really learning to read until she was 14.

Polacco’s picture books are poignant vignettes often derived from her childhood, imbued with the traditions and customs of her Russian ancestry.

"The Keeping Quilt" shares the story of an actual quilt made by her family generations ago, using the clothes that they wore as they immigrated to the United States from Russia. Over the years it was passed down, used as a baby blanket, huppah and tablecloth.

In "Thunder Cake," she shares how her grandmother helped her conquer her fear of strong summer thunderstorms on their Michigan farm — by baking a cake while they counted seconds between thunder and lightning to track the storm.

And in "Thank You, Mr. Falker," she writes a tribute to the teacher who identified her learning disabilities, finally teaching her how to read after years of frustration. Mr. Falker also recognized her artistic talent, something she says she developed in part because the reading was so difficult.

"I’ve been told when one side of the brain shuts down, the other goes into full speed ahead," she said on a phone interview from her farmhouse in Michigan. "The drawing was always there."

Polacco is a fierce advocate for students with learning disabilities and a critic of the No Child Left Behind program and its resulting emphasis on testing in schools.

"To learn differently does not equate to being dumb," she said. "All children are gifted — we don’t open our gifts at exactly the same time. When some young people just can’t do it, they feel like failures."

Polacco, 72, earned college and graduate degrees, had two children and became an expert in Greek and Russian iconography, restoring icons for museums. When her son, Steven, was 8 years old, he was diagnosed with diabetes and sent home from the doctor with shopping bags full material to read about managing his disease. Deeming it overwhelming for a child, she drew a simple picture book of the steps he had to take every day to stay healthy.

When his doctors at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., saw the book, they asked to buy it from her and published it — for use even with adults. A friend of hers, Thacher Hurd, a children’s book author and illustrator whose father, Clement Hurd, had illustrated "Goodnight Moon," saw the pamphlet and urged her to consider writing and illustrating books of her own.

She started going to local meetings of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and made up some dummy copies of book ideas. On the trip to New York with her mother, she met with 16 publishers in one week and submitted everything she had. She sold every single story.

Her stories now, as then, are largely nonfiction, based on happenings in her life or passed-down family stories.

"I’m the queen of personal narratives — that’s what I feel most comfortable doing," she said. "My family were extraordinary people — quite ordinary in reality in that they were not senators or presidents or queens or kings, but there was something so majestic and beautiful about them."

She came from families of storytellers, she said — Russian on her mother’s side and Irish on her father’s side — and when her parents divorced when she was young, both moved in with their parents.

"Every evening, instead of watching television, in my family we would sit at the maze of elders — in both households — and listen to grandparents and great aunts and uncles talk about life as it was," she said. "I was fascinated by it."



McClatchy-Tribune Information Services