Today is Patricia Polacco’s 78th birthday. Polacco is an award-winning author and illustrator of 115 children’s books. I enjoy Polacco’s work immensely, so it is hard to pick out just one or two of her most notable titles. However, the favorites in our family are The Keeping Quilt; The Blessing Cup; Thank You, Mr. Falker; and Thunder Cake.
Polacco was born on July 11, 1944, in Lansing, Michigan. Her heritage plays an important role in many of her stories. Her mother’s family is of Russian and Ukrainian descent, and her father’s family is from Ireland. Polacco struggled to read as a child, and it wasn’t until she was 14 that a teacher recognized her dyslexia, and she received the help she needed. However, where her reading skills were slow to develop, she made up for with her artistic abilities. Her high school, college, and post graduate studies revolved around art, and she received her PhD in art history. After graduation, Polacco worked in art restoration. A natural storyteller, Polacco shared stories from her family’s history with her two children, Steven and Traci, and when she was 41, she decided to write and illustrate these stories. Her first book, Meteor!, was published in 1987 and was based on a childhood memory. She now lives in Union City, Michigan, in an old farmhouse that doubles as an art and storytelling center for the community.
Many of Polacco’s books are semi-autobiographical or based on her own family. In The Keeping Quilt, she shared the story of a beloved quilt, pieced together like a puzzle of her family’s history. A shirt from Uncle Vladimir, an apron from Aunt Natasha, her grandmother’s old dress for the border. She illustrates how the quilt has been passed down through the family, used as a tablecloth, a wedding canopy, a cape, a tent. In Thunder Cake, Polacco’s grandmother helps a young Patricia fight her fears of thunderstorms by making a thunder cake. The relationship between grandmother and granddaughter shines through the page. In Thank you, Mr. Falker, Polacco writes a tribute to her teacher who helped her identify and work through her dyslexia. The grief that Polacco felt about her inability to read as a child is evident on the page, and it makes her moment of triumph at reading her first paragraph all the more emotional.
Despite Polacco’s talent to weave and illustrate a story, her books are not always well received. During a school visit, students read Polacco essays entitled “My Family”. One little girl was told her family, which included two mothers and adopted siblings, was not a “real family”. Outraged, Polacco went home that day and wrote In Our Mothers’ House, a story that shares the love and acceptance of a family of two mothers and adopted children of various ethnicities. The book has been challenged several times at various schools, most notably in 2012 by a school district in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Davis School District committee first voted to restrict the picture book to grades 3-6. However, the complainant did not find this action to be restrictive enough. The book was retained, but then placed behind the counter, and students had to have a parent note to check out the book. The librarians in the district were then asked to report any other books in their collections that featured LGBTQ+ families.
In Our Mothers’ House also recently appeared on a list of books compiled by Texas Republican State Representative Matt Krause. The books on the list were supposedly related to the recent anti-CRT legislation that bans any materials in the curriculum that could mean “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” Though many of the books were indeed related to race, over half the books featured LGBTQ+ characters.
It is disheartening to keep seeing these types of challenges. I picture that little girl, so excited to read her essay about her family in front of Polacco, an internationally acclaimed author and illustrator, and being summarily dismissed by her teacher as not having a real family. Every child deserves to see themselves, their families, their lives illustrated on the page. Every child deserves to have their joys, their anxieties, their feelings played out in a story. In fact, In Our Mothers’ House was originally selected for the collections in Davis School District specifically for the students who were being raised by LGBTQ+ parents. DaNae Leu, a media specialist in Davis School District, said that her goal is “to provide literature for my students that encompasses the whole scope of humanity.”
Polacco responded to the challenge in Utah in a statement to the ACLU: “I do believe in any parents’ right to decide what their own child will read, see, or experience. Where it becomes a matter of infringing on the First Amendment rights of others is when a parent takes steps to make sure that no one else’s child will read a book that they object to.”
I’m thankful to authors like Polacco who are committed to sharing stories featuring children, relationships, families, and heritages of all kinds. Our children’s and students’ lives are richer for having her stories in the world.
Happy Birthday, Patricia Polacco!
Rebecca holds an MLIS from the University of North Texas and is a former teacher and school library consultant. Though not currently working in a library, she continues to fight against censorship and advocate for intellectual freedom rights, especially for children’s literature. When she’s not wrangling her three children, Rebecca enjoys reading, running, writing, and roaming the world.