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Oakland children's book writer/illustrator finds inspiration in Midwest

June 12, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Patricia Polacco is a study in extremes.

She lived in Oakland for 37 years before moving to a tiny farming community in the Midwest. Her mother's family was from Russian and Ukraine, her father's family from Ireland. She suffers from learning disabilities but is a talented writer and illustrator with a Ph.D. in art history. She didn't write her first book until she was 41 and has since published 34 or 35 books - she isn't exactly sure how many.

The special ingredients that have created Patricia Polacco have resulted in an award-winning children's book writer and illustrator.

Her latest book is "Betty Doll" (Philomel, $16.99). The publisher recommends this book for children age 4 to 8 but it's appropriate for anyone who appreciates a family story accompanied by line-and-watercolor paintings.

The fact that Polacco has become a successfully published writer, she says, is a kind of a miracle.

She has many learning disabilities, but comes from a family of story-tellers and her drawing talent has always been with her.

The combination, she says, has made her almost a savant.

And her family history has become an endless source for the many stories she writes.

Polacco's mother, Mary Ellen Gaw Barber, was originally from Michigan. But she moved to California in the 1950s and taught in Oakland for nearly 30 years. She wrote the Head Start Project for Oakland schools. The family lived in the Rockridge area for many years during a time in which it was not the high-fashion district that it is now.

But during those years, Polacco would return to Michigan every summer to visit her maternal grandmother, her babushka, in the village of Union City outside Battle Creek.

"Oakland was never home," she said in a recent phone interview. "Mother's teaching job took us to Oakland but it was never home. When she died and I got divorced there was no reason to stay."

In 1994 (or was it 1995? Polacco's not too good with numbers and dates) Polacco moved back to Michigan, to Union City, population 2,500.

Fortunately, Polacco had achieved some success as a writer by that time. She remembers her first trip to New York in 1989, approximately.

"My mother bankrolled the trip," she recalled. "I'd joined the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and learned how to format books to show to publishers. I made appointments and showed all my stories with original artwork. I was a Michigan farm girl too stupid to be scared."

On that trip, Polacco sold all seven stories she'd brought with her. She was off and running on a career that was to prove satisfying and lucrative and enabled her to return to Michigan.

She bought and renovated a home and also recently bought a Victorian firehouse, which she saved to keep from being demolished to make way for a parking lot. The firehouse is now the Gaw Center for the Arts with a concert hall, theater and art gallery.

Polacco has taken her small town to heart. But if visions of an idyllic, American small town way of life are dancing in your head, dismiss them.

Polacco found the social problems facing families in Union City to dwarf problems in Oakland.

"When I moved to this small, white, rural farming village I found people bereft of hope. I found third-generation families on welfare," she said.

She described Union City as a town made up of beautiful Victorians and trailer parks.

"My hope is to inspire the young people to think differently through the arts," she said.

She has another plan to put Union City on the map, too.

"I would like to do a series of stories totally based here in Union City," she said. "My hope is that children will get their families to visit this magical little town after reading these books."

Several of her books take place in and around Union City including "Meteor!", "Mrs. Mack" and "Welcome Comfort."

Her latest book, "Betty Doll," is a tribute to her mother.

A year after her mother's death, Polacco found a small box wrapped in brown paper and marked "for my dearest little Trisha." She opened the box and found that it contained her mother's childhood doll, Betty, along with a letter from her mother.

"When I opened the box, I reached in and pulled out a small handmade doll," said Polacco. "I instantly remembered her as being the doll that my mother made when she was 6 years old. Each little stitch was still in place and formed Betty Doll. Wrapped around her was a handwritten letter tied with a blue satin ribbon. When I opened the letter, I realized that Mom knew I would be reading it after her death."

In "Betty Doll," Polacco tells the story of her mother's adventures with her doll during fierce blizzards, thunderstorms, a farmhouse fire, tea parties and train trips.

Polacco says all families have or can create a family treasure, an heirloom that can act as a focal point in retelling their history.

She can't imagine life without stories.

You'll find her stories, including "The Butterfly," "Babushka Baba Yaga," "Thunder Cake," "Thank you, Mr. Falker," "Chicken Sunday," and "Pink and Say" at bookstores and libraries.

For more information, you can visit Polacco at www.patriciapolacco.com

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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