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Author Shares Life Lessons And Lessons Of Love



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Author Shares Life Lessons And Lessons Of Love

By Nancy K. Crevier

Patricia Polacco shared two of the nearly 80 children’s books she has written and illustrated over her 27-year career, Thursday, September 15, during three sessions throughout the day, at Sandy Hook School, as well as a very personal story of triumph over difficulty.

“When you look at me,” she asked the attentive crowd of students Thursday afternoon, “do you know that I was a disabled student?” As a learning disabled student whose reading disability was not diagnosed for years, Ms Polacco did not learn to read until she was 14 years old. Reading in front of the class was a dreaded assignment for her as a child, she said, and she felt “stupid.” Nonetheless, “I tried,” she said, not knowing that her brain changes everything it tries to read. Once she did learn to read and to write, though, she powered forward to become the huge advocate of reading and the arts that she is to this very day.

“Kids would laugh at me when I couldn’t read,” she recalled. As an adult, she now realizes that it was because they were feeling as uncomfortable as she was, and were not intentionally cruel. “Please,” she implored the Thursday audience, “don’t laugh at someone who is struggling.” Addressing learning disabled students directly, Ms Polacco said, “You think you are going for help and you feel dumb and embarrassed. You are not there because of that, but because you are so drop-dead brilliant, they don’t know what to do with you! You all have gifts,” she told the mesmerized crowd, “and we open our gifts at different times.”

Once Ms Polacco began writing, at the age of 41, “The books came out of me so fast, I could barely keep up,” she said.

Ms Polacco employed her skills as a storyteller — “My whole life, I’ve listened to stories. We did not even own a television,” — and credited her family members, mainly her Russian grandmother, for passing on the enchantment of stories. Snuggling up to her grandmother after a storytelling session, said Ms Polacco, she and her “rotten, redheaded older brother” (who often appears in her illustrated children’s books) would ask her, “Is that a true story?” Of course, her grandmother would reply, “But it may not have happened.” That, said Ms Polacco, is how she learned that every story is true.

“The truth of a story, is the journey you take through it,” Ms Polacco told the children.

The very first book she ever wrote was a wordless book for her young son, newly diagnosed with diabetes, on how to care for himself. Urged by friends to take her stories and drawings around when they saw that book, she did so, and that began her long career as a children’s author and illustrator, said Ms Polacco. The first book she actually published, though, was one of two she shared with the Sandy Hook kindergartners, third and fourth graders, Meteor! Both books emphasized values of caring, respect, and responsibility, attitudes that Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung reminded the group before the program were an integral part of the Sandy Hook School and Newtown communities.

Meteor! is a “true” story, even though it happened to her mother, and not herself, as the first person writing style indicates, Ms Polacco said. Then, providing her own sound effects that brought the “Whoosh!” of the meteor plummeting into her grandfather’s front yard to life, she told the story of the meteor and the legend that came with “the glowing, steaming, hissing piece of red-hot star.”

The meteor attracted curiosity seekers, and after one man touched the meteor with his bare hands and then returned to tell her grandfather that the wish he had wished as he had done so, had come true, more and more people came to see and touch the fallen star. That worried her grandfather, said Ms Polacco, who feared people might make ill wishes. So he devised a three-question test he required everyone to take before touching the meteor, to find out if the person was unselfish.

“What a delicious thought,” exclaimed Ms Polacco, to reach out and make a wish come true. But every legend comes with a warning, she cautioned her audience. “Be careful what you wish for — it just might happen. Wishes spill out of you, and affect people around you,” she said.

Her grandfather demanded three things of those hoping to touch the meteor: “You cannot wish for money. Money wishes are never wonderful. They always have a price. Two, you may not change other people,” she said of his commands. “You change people by the way you treat them. You were born with the power to change other people,” she told them.

The third thing, accompanied by Ms Polacco’s admonition that television programming and inundation of advertising aimed at children, in particular, is frequently offensive and unfair, was that toys should not necessarily be wished for. “Your wish must first be for someone else. Think about what you can do for someone else, how you can give the gift of love and friendship,” she clarified her grandfather’s third request.

The Keeping Quilt, the story based on her grandmother’s life after she left Russia for America, leaving everyone she loved behind, was the second book Ms Polacco used to illustrate her program of positive attitudes and family love. The keeping quilt, a genuine stitched blanket that she displayed for the children, is a family heirloom pieced together by her great-great-grandmother, using pieces of the red babushka scarf and blue dress her grandmother wore when she arrived in her new country, and scraps from clothing of family members they had had to leave behind in Russia.

“If you touch the quilt, it keeps people in your heart,” her grandmother’s mother tells the little girl in the story.

The quilt became a part of her family’s history, Ms Polacco said, and regaled the Sandy Hook students with adventures of what she did with that quilt as a child — from playing super hero with the quilt as a cape, to a brief interlude as a quilt-waving toreador that ended up with her begging her “rotten, redheaded older brother” to get help to call off the bull that had treed her.

Ms Polacco took time at the end of her presentation to take questions from the crowd, including the question “What did you wish on the rock?” Her wish, she said, was to become a famous artist. “I never dreamt I’d become a children’s author and illustrator. So you see, wishes work in strange ways,” she answered.

Ms Polacco is currently working on a book about cyberbullying, she said, and The Art of Miss Chu is soon to be published. “She is the teacher who identified that last piece of why I couldn’t read,” Ms Polacco explained to the children. “I see negative space, the space between letters, which is a big piece of art. It is one of the reasons I work to keep art alive,” she said.

The hourlong presentation, with only one intermission in which Ms Polacco guided the group through a few clapping, stomping, waving moments that left them wiggling and giggling before they settled down again, ended with an opportunity to touch a piece of the wondrous meteor, the wishing rock, as they left the auditorium. “But you will,” she quizzed the crowd before they stood to leave, “remember the three rules, right?” Especially, she reminded the children, remember to be a friend to someone else.

Find out more about Ms Polacco and her books at patriciapolacco.com.

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