Storyteller charms kids with tales of family
By STEVEN A. SIMON
LUTZ -- Patricia Polacco comes from a family of storytellers, and became one herself.
"I just didn't start writing them down until I was 41," she told children at McKitrick Elementary School.
As if making up for lost time, the writer and illustrator now has 54 books to her credit.
The 58-year-old Michigan native, who spent three years of her youth in Coral Gables, kept fourth- and fifth-grade students mesmerized during her visit Friday.
She opened by telling about her first book, Meteor, based on the true story of a chunk of space rock that fell in her grandparents' yard. She showed the assembly a piece of that meteor, and allowed them to touch it at the end of her presentation. The rest of the rock serves as the family headstone in Union City, Mich., she said.
Polacco also spoke movingly about her battle with dyslexia, confessing that she didn't learn to read until she was 14. One of her most popular books, Thank you, Mr. Falker, is about the teacher who recognized her learning disability and got her the help she needed.
Using herself and Albert Einstein as examples, Polacco encouraged those with learning disabilities to continue trying their best, telling them they are unrecognized geniuses. She also expressed her concern with the school budget-related cutting of creative arts programs and deplored the effect television has in stifling individual creativity.
"We didn't have television when I was growing up," she said. "We had my grandmother, and that was better than any TV show."
The author of My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother also spoke of the importance of families and family history. The Keeping Quilt tells the story of her great-grandmother Anna who arrived at Ellis Island from Russia. To combat her homesickness for those who did not make the trip, Anna's mother sewed parts of outgrown and worn-out clothing together to remind her of loved ones.
Polacco pulled the quilt from her case and showed it to the assembled students, saying it still plays a central role in every family wedding and birth.
McKitrick was one of some 14 stops the author made during her weeklong stay in the Tampa Bay area. McKitrick Media specialist Jackie Hanlin first heard Polacco at a Reading Renaissance conference in Nashville four years ago, then again the following year in Las Vegas. Hanlin, herself a noted storyteller, was thrilled when Polacco agreed to visit the school.
"She writes of things that kids need to be taught: acceptance, respect, being nice," Hanlin said. "She's my hero."
Many of the 300 children in her audience were already familiar with one or more of Polacco's books. To prepare for her visit, they familiarized themselves with more of her works.
Polacco had harsh words for those who bully others, relating painful incidents that happened to her and a classmate named Frank Ozkewitz. While many such stories don't have happy endings, theirs did. She became a successful author, while her friend, now known as Frank Oz, became a puppeteer, creating such memorable characters as Star Wars' Yoda and Miss Piggy from Sesame Street.
Remarkably, the prolific writer didn't publish a story until 1985. Until then, she was involved in restoring museum pieces and raising her two children.
Today she is sought out highly as a public speaker. She limits her appearances to September through mid-November, and then March through June. The rest of the time, she said she "is working, playing and spending time with family, friends" and a menagerie of "critters" that includes cats, horses, goats and a lamb.
In an attempt to allocate her time fairly, Polacco opens her scheduling book one day each year, first come, first served. If you are interested, get moving, because that day for the fall 2003 and spring 2004 semesters is Oct. 1.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times