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.
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
by the next year they could.
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
picture books are poignant vignettes often derived from
her childhood, imbued with the traditions and customs of
her Russian ancestry.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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
stories now, as then, are largely nonfiction, based on
happenings in her life or passed-down family stories.
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."
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.
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."