'The Blessing Cup': Polacco And Her Family Of Storytellers

Aug 24, 2013
Originally published on August 25, 2013 11:17 am

Patricia Polacco has written and illustrated more than 90 picture books. Her young readers are drawn to her stories about family and growing up. She has won many awards for her illustrations, which are done in gorgeous, full watercolor. Polacco's latest book is called The Blessing Cup.

Polacco tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that early life had a profound effect on her work. Many of her books feature her grandmother, called "Babushka" in Yiddish, and take place on her grandmother's farm in Michigan.

She and her mother moved there after her parents got divorced. But Polacco would spend her summers with her father and his Irish parents.

"So in both households I had these amazing storytellers," she says. "Show me an Irishman who can't tell a story — I don't think they exist."

Polacco says her closeness with her family was helped by the fact that they didn't have a television growing up. "So our evenings were spent listening to glorious tales being told by the grandparents," she says.

Her latest story takes readers back to the times of her grandparents, to the shtetls, or towns, of Russia.

The story follows a young girl, Anna, as her village is going through the pogroms, or persecution aimed at the Jews. Anna doesn't understand why this is happening to her family.

Polacco's children's books do not shy away from tradition and history. Take her book, Pink and Say, for instance. Say, whose full name is Sheldon Russell Curtis, was Polacco's great-great-grandfather, and fought in the Civil War at a young age.

In the story, Curtis runs away from his camp, is taken in by an African-American boy, Pink, and is cared for by Pink's mother, Moe Moe Bay, whom he comes to love. When she is shot and killed by marauders, the boys make a run for it, back to their regiments.

"Which, Sheldon really didn't want to do. He was a little boy, and he was terrified. Pink was brave and strong and Sheldon admired him. So, he went with him," Polacco says.

Polacco says that her great-great-grandfather shook Abraham Lincoln's hand in the Battle of Bull Run. She heard this from her great-grandmother, Curtis' daughter, who would tell her to touch her hand, and then tell her: "You've just touched the hand that touched the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln."

Polacco weaves that into the end of Pink and Say, as Pink touches Say's hand: "We stand only six people away from Lincoln."

Though Polacco has written dozens of children's stories, she did not begin writing until she reached her 40s. Partly, she says, because of her struggle with many learning disabilities growing up, including dyslexia.

She struggled with her disorders for a long time, though she says she was always good with spoken word, having come from a family of great storytellers. "But as far as reading them or writing them down, that was an enormous struggle," she says.

Nearly three decades ago, Polacco's mother financed a trip for her to go to Manhattan to try to get a publishing deal. Polacco set up 16 meetings in one week, bringing seven or eight of her books with her. By the end of that week, she had submitted every one of them, and her career was about to begin.

"Every one of them grabbed a book," she says, "And the rest is history."

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Patricia Polacco has written and illustrated more than 90 picture books. Her young readers are drawn to her stories about family and growing up. She's won many, many awards for her illustrations, which are done in gorgeous, full watercolor. Patricia Polacco's latest book is called "The Blessing Cup," and she joins us from WMUK in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Welcome to our program.

PATRICIA POLACCO: Well, thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

LYDEN: Your early life had a profound effect on your work, Patricia. Many of these books feature your grandmother who you call Babushka, and they're set on her farm in Michigan. Tell us about your relationship with her, would you, please?

POLACCO: Well, in actual fact, my parents were divorced when I was very young. And both of them moved back in with their own parents. So in my mother's household, I lived with not only her but both my grandmother and grandfather, my babushka and my dadushka. My father moved in with his parents who were from Ireland. So as a little girl, we literally shared households. I would spend the school year with my mother and the summers with my dad.

So in both households, I had these amazing storytellers. Certainly, people that are Eastern European, I mean, they can't help it. They burst into story at absolutely nothing. And, of course, the Irish - show me an Irishman that can't tell a story. I don't think they exist.


POLACCO: So my relationship with them was especially close and wonderful. You know, I'm of an age where we didn't have television when I was little. And even if we could've afforded one, I don't think it would've happened in our household. So our evenings were spent listening to glorious tales being told by the grandparents.

LYDEN: It's so intimate and personal. This latest book, "The Blessing Cup," the tradition here that features in this book is definitely East European, Jewish, a very poignant story. Tell us a little bit about its point of origin, would you?

POLACCO: Well, the point of origin is from a very small shtetl in Russia. And, you know, at the time that this story was even told or retold to the family was during the pogroms, which were - where persecution happened from the Czar's soldiers. They would come into villages and roust people out. And this is from a child's point of view, this story, and she doesn't understand why this is happening.

So I set it in their village, and it began with the pogroms. But it also begins with the mother who gets out this beautiful tea set that's been part of Anna's life since she was a baby. And Anna asks her mother: Tell me the story of the tea set.

LYDEN: You write a great deal about tradition and family, but you don't shy away from larger histories, American histories, and including painful ones. One of your books, which I've recently enjoyed very much, is the one called "Pink and Say." And this shows a white boy and an African-American boy reading a book. It's obviously a 19th century depiction. Tell me about "Pink and Say."

POLACCO: Well, Say - his name was actually Sheldon Russell Curtis - was my great-great-grandfather. He fought in the Civil War, and he went into the army. He saw, you know, death and destruction and eventually ended up in Andersonville prison in Georgia. And this story is about a young man who finds him in a field. He was left for dead. He was shot in the leg. And the young man is an African-American lad, and he rescues Sheldon, takes him to what's left of his home in Georgia, and Sheldon meets this boy's mother. Her name is Moe Moe Bay.

So he fell in love with them, of course. How could he not? And eventually, marauders strike, and Moe Moe Bay is shot and killed. And the boys go on the run to go back to their regiments, which Sheldon really didn't want to do. He was a little boy, and he was terrified. And Pink was brave and strong and, you know, Sheldon admired him, so he went with him. Sheldon Curtis shook Abraham Lincoln's hand at Bull Run. So he would ask - well, I never knew him. I knew his daughter, and that's how the story came to me.

My great-grandmother would say: Touch my hand, Patricia, and I would. And she'd say: You've just touched the hand that touched the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln. So that's at the end of the book. It is saying how many generations - we stand only six people away from Lincoln.

LYDEN: It took you a long time to begin writing books, Patricia Polacco, and illustrating them. You struggled with dyslexia as a child. Tell me a little bit about that struggle, why it took so long to become a children's book author.

POLACCO: Well, I actually have four disabilities. I have dyslexia, dysnomia, dysgraphia and something called failure of sensory integration, which probably was the most devastating of all because it's very hard to hold still, still is. I mean, if you could see me now in the studio, my foot underneath the counter here where you can't see it is jiggling away because it just makes me feel better.

I, in my own skin, didn't know what was wrong, but I started to get the impression that I'm dumb and that I'm stupid and I'm not like other people. So it was a horrible struggle. Always good with the spoken word. I could certainly tell stories because I come from storytellers. But as far as reading them or writing them down, that was an enormous struggle.

LYDEN: How did you come upon the idea that you would write a children's book?

POLACCO: Twenty-seven years ago, my mother, God bless her, bankrolled a trip for me to Manhattan. She and I flew in, and I had made 16 appointments to see 16 publishers in one week. So that was like four portfolio reviews a day. I had swatted up maybe seven or eight books, and by the end of that week had submitted every one of them, and somebody took them all. Every one of them grabbed a book.


POLACCO: And the rest is history.

LYDEN: Fabulous, fabulous story. Patricia, these days, you've been really successful, and I have heard that you have given a significant portion of the money that you've earned from these books to charity. Would you mind sharing a little bit about why that's so?

POLACCO: I live in a community where they have seen better times. And the children there who are needy, they have my heart. So I bought an old Victorian firehouse in town, turned it into a center for art, music and drama for the kids. And we distribute clothes and food. We do all sorts of things there. My biggest kind of claim to fame is we do a huge Christmas program every year. Santa himself shows up, and he brings a reindeer or two. Very unpleasant animals. They bite.


POLACCO: I'm part of art programs that are literally around the world. I've been to Russia many, many times, and I've gone there and done art camps. And I just think - one of my big issues, too, very much an advocate for the American classroom teacher. I think, you know, teachers, in my opinion, are the last standing heroes we have in our country. And I don't say that lightly.

LYDEN: Well, you have given us so much to think about here. And I just so want to thank you for that. It's been just wonderful. Patricia Polacco is the author and illustrator of over 90 books for children. Her latest is called "The Blessing Cup." Patrician Polacco, thank you so much.

POLACCO: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much for talking to me today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.