Author overcomes learning disabilities to become storyteller

Patricia Polacco talks about her books at Literacy in the Park event

By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN

BG Independent News

 

Patricia Polacco, author and illustrator of more than 100 books, remembers the horror of being forced to read in front of her class. She would clutch the book so hard, her nails would break.

“To me, that was like being asked to stand in front of a firing squad,” Polacco told her audience of parents and children Saturday at the Literacy in the Park event at Bowling Green State University.

“I could not read until I was 14 years old. I could not write. I couldn’t do math,” she said. “I felt stupid. I felt dumb.”

Polacco recalled the unintentional cruelty of her classmates.

“The whole class started laughing at me,” when she tried to read aloud. “Please don’t laugh,” she told her audience on Saturday. “You have no idea how much you are hurting that kid.”

Polacco’s life turned around at age 14 when one of her teachers finally realized that she was dyslexic and dysgraphic. She was also unable to learn when sitting still – something that wasn’t understood till years later.

“In my day at school, I had to sit like a rock.”

So Polacco is a big believer in the individuality of children and the way they learn.

“I believe all children are gifted. The trick is, we don’t open our gifts at the same time.”

Large crowd gathered to listen to Patricia Polacco

Polacco, who lives in Michigan, has turned her gifts into beautifully illustrated children’s books. “For me, art is like breathing,” she said.

She didn’t started writing books till she was 41. “Older than dirt,” she told her young audience. In the last 31 years, she has written about 115 books.

“They come out of me so fast, I can barely keep up with them.”

Polacco comes from a family of storytellers – her mother’s people were from Russia and Ukraine, and her father’s people were from Ireland. As she was growing up, her family did not own a television. She asked the children in the audience to guess what she and her brother watched every evening.

“My grandmother, that’s what we watched,” she said of her babushka, who loved to tell stories. “I heard all of her stories over 1,000 times.”

When Polacco and her brother would ask if the stories were true, her grandmother would look over her glasses at them and say in her Russian accent, “Well of course it’s true story. But it may not have happened.”

Many of her beloved babushka’s stories became Polacco’s books. Others found their roots in her “rotten red-headed older brother.” She told her audience to expect more books on her colorful brother. “He’s a never ending source of inspiration.”

As a child, Polacco worried about losing touch with her close knit family. Her mother sewed pieces of clothing from several family members into a quilt, so Polacco would always have home and family with her wherever she goes.

The quilt was named the “keeping quilt,” which became the focus of one of her books.

The quilt became a steady presence of the past at family events – used as a table cloth, picnic blanket, wedding canopy, superman cape, on beds, and to welcome new babies into the family. On Saturday, she held up the quilt and asked for a parent to bring a baby on stage to be wrapped in the “keeping quilt.” As she rocked the baby, she told of her family’s tradition.

Even now, long after her grandma’s death, all Polacco has to do is rub the heart shaped section on the quilt and the stories come rushing back. “I can hear my grandmother’s voice.”

Children work at activity station at Literacy in the Park

In addition to family and children, Polacco also spoke about the value of teachers. Her book, “Thank you Mr. Falker,” talks of the teacher who discovered her disabilities and worked to get her beyond them.

“I hid it from my teachers,” but this teacher finally realized her roadblocks to learning.

Polacco praised educators, who she said are “maligned and dishonored, over worked and under paid.”

She criticized the current educational requirements that put so much emphasis on testing. “That has nothing to do with learning.”

Polacco also mentioned the 26 children and six teachers killed in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where she worked as an artist in residence.

“I lost so many friends,” she said. “I believe teachers are the greatest heroes we have.”

When Polacco wrapped up her talk and gave children in the audience a chance to ask questions, several eager hands shot into the air.

There were questions about her grandma, Russia, dyslexia, the quilt, the cat left on her porch in one of her books, her “ugly pasta” recipe, and her all-time favorite book – which is “Horton Hatches the Egg” by Dr. Seuss.

Then there was the question about why Polacco chose to write children’s books. “I didn’t. It chose me,” she said.

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