It’s a good thing there are children in our lives—not just to round out our families or the human race either. It’s a good thing because, without children, adults would not voluntarily pick up a picture book for reading pleasure. But, thanks to reading to children, the essential and beautiful things of life come into sharp focus with the succinct tales that turn us right-side up, reminding us of the essentials of life we easily forget.
One of my favorite children’s authors is skilled in this art. No doubt it was inevitable that Patricia Polacco would grow up to be an exceptional storyteller since she spent most of her childhood in company with one or the other set of grandparents, one Ukrainian, the other Irish. And what other nationalities can rival the storytelling power inherited in those ethnic traditions? When not with them, she grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood, another influence that has added color and flavor to her books as she weaves in experiences of her own adventures with children of different heritage from her own.
Her sympathy with children and ability to portray the humor in life refresh hope while gently piercing the reader with the truth of the mixed joy and sorrows of ordinary situations. Once convinced she was a “dummy,” due to profound dyslexia undiagnosed till she was in her teens, she is more surprised than anyone that she went on to earn a Ph.D. in art history, not to mention becoming an author and illustrator of more than 50 children’s books. The struggle with dyslexia and story-rich upbringing helped shape a compassionate soul.
Particularly during this Lenten season, I think of the first book of hers I read, Mrs. Katz and Tush, the tale of an unlikely friendship between a young black boy and an elderly Jewish widow. He keeps her company and, in return, is rewarded with snacks and stories, stories of the Jewish people and Passover that resemble those of his own people’s heritage. My adult daughter has valiantly and unsuccessfully attempted to read this story aloud without tears at the touching ending to children and adults on dozens of occasions.
Chicken Sunday is one of my own favorites, about three children who love Eula with her “voice like soft thunder and sweet rain,” her laugh that “flowed from a deep holy place inside her,” ” whose chicken soup and wisdom for dealing with difficult people nourishes them. Their efforts to repay her kindness end up touching many other lives, including the reader’s.
Other stories are just pure fun, some simple, like Emma Kate, about a little girl whose pretend playmate is an enormous elephant, or For Love of Autumn about a kitty cat that brings about the marriage of two lonely adults.
In every book of hers I can think of, the characters are young and old, yet have something to give and receive from one another—a valuable picture for our age-segregated culture. If you have any reluctant readers, The Bee Tree will inspire them as a Russian grandfather creatively demonstrates the joy of reading not with words, but with the pursuit of honey that takes the children on an unexpected and hilarious journey.
I could go on and on mentioning titles and lessons that have stuck with me from the pages of Polacco’s stories. When asked where in the world she comes up with them all, she matter-of-factly states, “Children and adults alike ask me where I get my ideas…I get them from the same place that you do….MY IMAGINATION.” Just as the stories of her childhood sparked her imagination, hers will spark your children’s, and even yours.