What We Learn About Patricia Polacco in her Books
The Early Years
We can learn much about Patricia Polacco just by reading her books, since most of them are inspired by her experiences and the people in her life. She was born in Michigan in 1944, and lived in many towns there until her grandmother, with whom she and her mother had been living, died. (Her parents had divorced when she was three.)
She recalls that living on a farm with her Babushka (grandmother) in Union City was a magic time, and that her Babushka and her other grandparents were some of the people who inspired her most in life. We peak into some of Patricia’s life on the farm in the books Meteor! and Thunder Cake.
After they divorced, her parents each moved back in with their parents. During the school year, Patricia lived with her mother, but she spent summers with her father. This arrangement kept her in constant touch with her grandparents as a young child, and her work shows the influence of these inter-generational relationships. Many of her books, if not almost all, show a special relationship between an elderly person and a child. You will see this in Chicken Sunday, Babushka’s Doll, Thunder Cake, Mrs. Katz and Tush, Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair, and The Bee Tree.
Patricia’s Polacco’s World Becomes More Diverse
In 1949, after her Babushka’s death, Patricia, with her mother and her brother Richard, moved to Coral Gables, Florida. They remained there for almost three years before moving to Oakland, California. It was here, while living on Ocean View Drive, that Patricia began to interact with people from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Her neighbors, Stewart and Winston Washington, and their gramma, Eula Mae Walker, treated her like a relative. She sometimes attended the Baptist church with them, even though she was Jewish. She would then stay for Sunday dinner with Eula and her family after church. It was usually fried chicken, and this became part of the book Chicken Sunday.
Patricia Polacco’s Learning Disabilities
Patricia mentions that she was a poor student in elementary school and had a tough time with reading and math. She didn’t learn to read until she was almost 14. She then discovered that she had a learning disability called dyslexia. Until then she had feared she was just dumb, and those who had cruelly teased her just reinforced that fear.
Finally a teacher ( whom she wrote about in Thank You, Mr. Falker, discovered what was wrong, and after she learned to read, Patricia caught up with the other students academically. That enabled her to go on to the University with a Fine Arts major and , in addition, to earn a PhD in Art History. Between the time she finished her studies and started writing books, she worked at restoring art pieces for museums, and then spent some years raising her two children, Steven and Traci.
Patricia Polacco Begins to Write Her Stories
At the age of 41, Patricia Polacco began to write her children’s books. She says she listened to many stories as she grew up. Between her mother’s family from Russia and the Ukraine, her father’s family from Ireland, and Eula Mae’s family, she heard the stories from many different cultures. Soon she began to tell stories herself. Since she had always been good at art, it was natural to illustrate the stories she began to write.
She has enjoyed her career as an author and artist. She she drew upon her vivid imagination to think up her stories. She believes the stories she heard while growing up fed that imagination, but also believes it helped that her family did not have a television. She believes television voices and pictures overpower one’s desire to create one’s own pictures and develop one’s own stories. When Ms. Polacco talks to children and aspiring writers, she encourages them to turn off the TV and develop their creativity by using their own imaginations.
Teaching Aids for Studying Polacco Books
Teaching with Favorite Patricia Polacco Books: Creative, Skill-Building Activities for Exploring the Themes in These Popular Books by Immacula A Rhodes. This book includes a profile of the author, before and after reading discussion ideas, and lots of hands-on activities and reproducible worksheets to build skills in reading, writing, math, art, and more. This guide covers six books based on Polacco’s family and personal experiences and six that are fiction, fantasy, or folktales. The book includes Correlations to Language Arts Standards. 64 pages. For grades 1-3.
The book above and other out of print books by Patricia Polacco can also be found here at eBay
Thank You Mr. Falker (5 scripts): This script is based on Patricia Polacco’s autobiographical story about the teacher who recognized that her inability to read after several years of school was due to dyslexia, and he helped and encouraged her to overcome her reading disability. BTH-4565. Amazon does not carry this.
Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair: In Triple Creek, TVs were so popular that almost everyone in the town had forgotten how to read. People loved their TVs more than anything and watched them all the time. That is, everyone but Eli’s Aunt Charlotte. He called her Aunt Chip, and she was the only person in town who did not have a television and had never owned one. She had been the town librarian until no one used the library anymore, and after a while people even forgot what the library was for. Finally the city fathers tore it down and replaced it with a giant TV tower. Aunt Chip then took to her bed and vowed to stay there.
Eli loved his Aunt Chip and visited her often. She told wonderful stories, and when he asked where she got them, she said from books. That puzzled Eli. It was then that Aunt Chip discovered that not only Eli, but the whole town, could not read. They used books as building materials for fences, walls, doorstops, plates, and even to shore up the dam. For almost anything but reading. Aunt Chip shows Eli the inside of a book and explains about writing:
‘Now look at this. Those are words. They tell about ideas, dreams, and feelings. They take you to places far from here. They show you how to be fair and just, and sometimes show you what happens when you’re not. Books are a treasure. All you need is the key.’
‘The key?’ Eli asked.
‘The key! Knowin’ these words and their meanings,’ she answered softly. ‘It’s called readin.’
Eli begs Aunt Chip to teach him to read, and she does. Soon his classmates discovered that he could “hear” things that they couldn’t. He explained that he wasn’t “hearing,” but reading. They wanted him to read more.
He took them to Aunt Chip, who taught them to read, too. Soon there weren’t enough books to go around, so the children started retrieving them from the places they had been stashed. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon your point of view) one book was pulled from the wall of books holding up the dam. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination, but by the end the children have taught their parents how to read again and Aunt Chip lived to preside over the new town library. This book is featured in my blog “It’s All About Reading”
Babushka’s Doll: Natasha wasn’t really naughty. She just had no patience when it came to waiting for things. She was always nagging her Babushka (grandmother) to stop her own activities to cater to Natasha’s desires. When Babushka finally finishes her chores and gets lunch on the table, Natasha notices a doll on the shelf she had never seen there before. She asks, “Is that your doll, Babushka?”
Her Babushka replies that it had been her doll when she was a little girl, but she had only played with her once. Just once. When Natasha asks to hold the doll, Babushka says Natasha may play with the doll while she goes to the store to buy groceries. As soon as Babushka leaves, the little doll comes to life and begins to make demands: She wants to play. She wants Natasha to push her in the swing until Natasha is tired. And then push some more.
Natasha takes the doll for a ride in the goat cart and the doll tells her to keep going and not to slow down. When Natasha is too tired to keep pulling and sits down to rest, the doll insists she wants to eat now. So Natasha struggles to fix lunch. The doll spills the tea, throws the food around, and then demands that Natasha wash and iron her dress — now. Natasha tries her best, and the doll complains she didn’t do it right. At this point Natasha bursts into tears and says: “I’m just a little girl…I wish you were just a doll.”
At this point, Babushka returns to find Natasha in tears and hears her story. Babushka says she must have just had a bad dream and puts the doll back on the shelf. And after that, we get the impression that Natasha did not nag her Babushka quite so much.
The Bee Tree: When Mary Ellen (who happens to be Patricia Polacco’s mother) gets tired of reading and wants to run and play outside, her Grandpa decides it’s just the right time for the two of them to go find a bee tree. Grandpa traps some bees in a glass jar, and lets a bee out. They chase it to see where it goes.
As they run after the bee, one by one people they meet start following the bee with them. Everyone considers finding the bee tree a great adventure. And so it is. They find the tree, build a fire to make smoke so grandpa can get some of the sweet honeycomb, and then everyone enjoys biscuits and honey with tea.
But Grandpa draws Mary Ellen away from the crowd and back into the house. He puts a spoon full of honey on one of the books and asks her to taste it. As she savors the sweetness of it, her grandfather tells her: “There is such sweetness inside of that book too!….Such things…adventure, knowledge, and wisdom. Just like we ran after the bees to find their tree, so you must chase these things through the pages of a book!” And after that, Mary Ellen found her books as exciting as the chase to find the bee tree.
Casey at the Bat, by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, illustrated by Patricia Polacco. If you have read or heard a dramatic reading of this famous poem, you will notice that Patricia Polacco’s visual interpretation of the “Mighty Casey” may differ from the one you always had. This is my favorite version of this old baseball tale.
Out of print books by Patricia Polacco can also be found here at eBay
Chicken Sunday: Patricia and her neighbor friends Winston and Stewart, are hoping to get the boy’s gramma, Miss Eula, a beautiful Easter bonnet they have seen in Mr. Kodinski’s store window. They counted the money they had saved and headed toward Mr. Kodinski’s store, but just before they arrived, some bigger boys were pelting the back door of the shop with eggs and yelling. They ran away just before Patricia and her friends arrived, and they got blamed for it. They knew they’d have a tough time getting the hat for Miss Eula now. But Patricia’s mother helps the children solve their problem and win Mr. Kodinski over with some very special Easter eggs. Miss Eula got her hat. It turned out to be a very special Easter for all.
G is for Goat, Penguin Puffin, 2006. This is a goat-related alphabet book. Here are some examples of what you might expect in a two-page rhyme: “E is for Ears, some floppy, some not. F is for Flowers, which goats eat a lot.” The book ends with calling the vet, a long wait, and finally three new kids (goat babies).
I Can Hear the Sun: A Modern Myth: This is an eerie tale of a sad and lonely orphan boy named Fondo and his relationship with Stephanie Michele, who cares for the geese on the shore of Lake Merritt, in Oakland, California, where many homeless people congregate. As Fondo helps Stephanie Michele day by day, he learns the routine of the park better than all the other workers, and he becomes especially fond of a little blind goose, who begins to follow him everywhere. When people notice the geese following him around, they tease that he will turn into a goose. “I wish I could,” Fondo answered softly.
I’d give the story away if I told you the end. Or where the title comes from. And then you might not read this beautiful book about the woman who has learned the secret ways of animals and hurting souls and who “listens to the sun.” And you must not miss reading it.
Out of print books by Patricia Polacco can also be found here at eBay
Just Plain Fancy: Amish Naomi looks after her family’s chickens with the help of her little sister, Ruth. One day the girls find an abandoned egg in the tall grass near the road. This egg seems almost fancy. Naomi takes it home to hatch, and when it does, it’s no ordinary chick. As it grows and becomes more beautiful (for it’s a peacock) Naomi is afraid the church leaders will shun both her and the peacock for being too fancy. Then when all the elders come for a frolic, the peacock spreads its tail and Naomi is sure her fears will be realized. When she expresses them, the elders reassure her that God made the peacock fancy, and it was O.K.
Meteor! Polacco’s childhood memories also inspired this story . She remembers all the commotion that occurred when a meteor fell right on her grandma and grandpa’s farm one summer in Michigan when she and her brother were visiting them. Word spread all over the town of Union City and folks came from all around to see the meteor. Even a medicine wagon, a circus, and the high school band turned out, and people almost made a fair of the event, auctioning off meteor-related items. The meteor seemed to have a magical effect on the people of the town. It finally became Polacco’s grandmother’s headstone when she died.
Mrs. Katz and Tush: This book shows the growth of a warm relationship between a lonely Jewish widow and an African American boy who gives her a kitten to keep her company, and visits her everyday to help care for it. As the visits progressed, Mrs. Katz and the boy, Larnel, began to realize how much they had in common.
Both had ancestors who were in slavery at one time. Mrs. Katz shares the story of the Passover, when God freed her people from their slavery. Knowing that Mrs. Katz dreads spending Passover alone, Larnel asks if he can spend it with her. He helps her prepare the table, and all during the preparation and meal Mrs. Katz explains the different traditions associated with the Passover.
The day after the shared Passover Feast, the now young cat, Tush, has a litter of kittens, and Mrs. Katz considers herself finally a “bubee.” As the years pass, and Larnel grows up to have his own family, Mrs. Katz is part of it. And when Mrs. Katz dies, Larnel and his family say kaddish at her headstone. This is a delightful story of inter-generational, inter-racial friendship, and shows that people of every culture have similar human needs and feelings.
Mrs. Mack: Like many young ladies of ten, Patricia yearned for a horse of her own. And during the summer of her tenth year, which she was spending with her dad, she was just sure the dream was about to come true. After all, she had just heard him tell her that this was the summer she would learn to ride.
The next day Patricia was wearing new riding clothes her mother had gotten her when she and her dad started on a drive. She got a rude awakening when her dad drove her to the roughest part of town and stopped in front of a very shabby stable. She felt immediately that she didn’t belong, and it was not reassuring in the least when the instructor, Mrs. Mack, asked two rough-looking boys show her around. They made fun of her outfit and teased her. And then she met Penny — the most beautiful horse ever, that no one had ever ridden. She then determines that someday she will be good enough to ride her.
Out of print books by Patricia Polacco can also be found here at eBay
Thunder Cake. Putnam Paperstar, 1990. This is the story of how the author’s grandma helped her overcome her fear of thunderstorms by having her help make a thunder cake. Her grandma first taught her to measure the number of miles the storm was from them by counting from the time of seeing lightning to the time of hearing thunder .
Then they walked together through the farm, gathering the ingredients– eggs from the hens, milk from the cow, staples from the dry shed, and then, finally, the secret ingredient, overripe strawberries and tomatoes. While the cake baked, she talked with her grandma about fear and bravery. And then they ate the cake, and she knew she wouldn’t be afraid of thunderstorms again. The pictures, of course, help to tell this story of a special relationship Patricia shared with her grandmother. The recipe for the thunder cake is included.