Transcript from an interview with Patricia Polacco

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Patricia Polacco. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Patricia Polacco

Family stories

I would have to say all of my books are probably based on family stories. But remember, I was raised in a household where the old members of my family lived with us. And there was something wonderful about sitting at their knee and listening to how things were. And now it's interesting – that's what I've become in my family. I'm the one who now tells them how things were. It gave us a sense of our place. It gave us a sense of our birth order. It gave us a sense that we were loved long before we were ever born.

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My grandmother was the penultimate storyteller. She was from Russia, actually from the Ukraine, Byelorussia. She had a thick accent. And every night she used to tell us tales, because when I was young, televisions had been invented, but they were very expensive. And our family was poor. We couldn't afford one.

So she used to do what she called "fire-talking" every night. She put a fire in the fireplace. She'd pop popcorn. She would make fudge if we were really lucky. She picked snow apples fresh off from the tree outside of the kitchen. My brother and I would go in with our little bowls and she put wedged apple and popcorn and fudge in the bowl. And then she'd say, "Go in living room – because now I'm going to come in and fire-talk to you!"

And we did. We'd go in and sit down and she would explode into story. And we heard her stories thousands of times. And the beauty of telling, or even reading for that matter – but telling especially, is watching the person's eyes that you're telling the story to. And if their eyes get bigger, you add stuff to the story – and she certainly did.

I do know whenever she finished a story, my brother and I would learn in to her and say, "Okay, that story you just told – is that a true story?" And she'd look at us over her glasses and say, "Well, of course it's true story! But it may not have happened."

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Multicultural citizens

Our family was multicultural. Even within our own household, we had people of different belief systems and different countries of origin. And then of course I grew up in a city, in Oakland, where my neighbors came in as many colors, ideas, and religions as there are people. So if this is a part of your life, and my case it was, I think it was pretty natural to write from that point of view.

It's interesting. I've moved back to rural America. I've moved away from the city. And I didn't realize that not every child has the glory of growing up in a neighborhood where people are different than they are. And they don't have the glory of understanding why other people do what they do and say different prayers and eat different food, and perhaps even dress differently or look differently.

So I think that's another thing that literature, especially multicultural literature, does: it gives them an understanding that they otherwise are not going to have. They're not going to hear it in their own homes. So if they can read authentic stories and understand that the heart of humanity is the same – it doesn't matter how we're packaged on the outside, we're all the same – I think that does a great service to molding a child to be a citizen of the world.

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Finding commonalities

I thought I would like to write a story where the issue of the color of someone's skin is truly an issue. And in Mr. Lincoln's Way, that's the issue. So they had to find something that was common between them. Mr. Lincoln is the black principal and the white child comes from a white supremacist family. That's his point of view. And he really loves this principal, but he does not dare have any interaction with him. So what they find that is common between them is their love of birds. And it happens that their school has this atrium that is empty because they apparently didn't have the right bushes and things to attract a population of birds. So that's what they work on together.

And I guess what I'm trying to say is, it doesn't matter how different we are. There is something we can find that we have in common. And that should be the place that we start from, our commonality. And then from there, we celebrate our difference instead of having difference be a cause for a feeling of isolation.

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The teacher who changed everything

I remember one day he asked me to stay after to wash blackboards. Now this wasn't a punishment. This was a pleasure, because we all adored him. And while I was washing the blackboard, I'll never forget this, he put on My Fair Lady and he asked me to make numbers and letters with this wet sponge. And I did. And I think that is where the code showed up. That's when he realized I couldn't do it. And that I wasn't translating and reading, that something was wrong.

I remember he came up to me. His hand went in the center of his back. And as I'm telling you this, I swear to God, I can still feel the warmth of his hands. And he slid down next to me and said, "Oh, honey! I think you have something that has a name." He said, "You feel dumb, don't you?"

And I remember just bursting into tears and wanting to run away, because of all people, I wanted him to like me, and I thought if he knew I was dumb, he wouldn't like me anymore. And instead, he opened the world up. He paid out of his own pocket for a specialist to work with me – and this was before we had reading specialists like we do now.

And I can't tell you what method worked. We did colored acetates. We did balance boards. We did literally physical exercise, M.C. Escher paintings. You name it, we did it. But I will never forget the day that I could look at something on a piece of paper or in a book, get a mental image and something would come out of my mouth that was the same thing. This was a miracle! So I said one word and it was right. Then pretty soon it was a sentence – it was right. Pretty soon a paragraph. And then finally, an entire page. So he changed everything for me.

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More contrast

I love black and white photography. I personally feel you get more color in black and white photography than you do in color photography. If a photographer is hearing this, they'll understand what I mean. It's the contrast. Contrasts in black and white, I think, are rich and beautiful. And sometimes I like to draw the faces with these contrasts and half tones, because to me it actually can bring in more detail than if you put it in color. So that's deliberate. I will do it as if this is a photograph. And then the patterns of their clothes are almost an independent art that has to do with the overall composition. But their faces are these wonderful black and white images.

The Keeping Quilt, for instance, was done entirely in black and white, except for the quilt. And the origin of the quilt – anybody's clothes that went into that quilt – their clothes were in color, so the children could understand that this is what eventually ended up in this quilt. Sometimes I will do it for a reason. In Betty Doll, the entire book was in black and white, except for the doll. So I guess I use it as a technique to say to a child, "This is the focus, but here's the story around it."

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Thunder is just a noise

Well, I'm from the Midwest. You don't have thunderstorms in California, not like you do in the Midwest. I think people in other states don't understand. Our thunder in the Midwest is so loud it shakes the windows, shakes the house, shakes the floors, almost like an earthquake. As a young person, of course this terrified me. And I'd go dive under the bed.

One day my grandmother kind of pulled me out from under the bed and said, "Well, you know it is perfect day to go make thunder cake." And I kind of said, "What's that?" And she got the ingredients out and this meant we had to do different things to get the ingredients. The chocolate and the flour were kept out in the dry shed which really wasn't that far from the house. But to a child, this is the last mile of your life to go out there and get that, especially when all those clouds are coming in and we hear the thunder and see the lightening. She would have me do it. I did it anyway. Did you know it's scientific that when you count slowly, when you hear the thunder, that's actually how many miles away the storm is? So, we would do the countdown as the storm was getting closer.

So, she had me go in that shed. She stood there. I mean, she didn't leave me alone. I was afraid because there were spiders and things in there and I just didn't want to go in there. But I'd get the little bag of flour and grab the little thing of chocolate and she had me climb a trellis to get some tomatoes and go get milk. And we had a cow that kicked. She didn't make me milk the cow but I stood there while she was milking and I was afraid of her. I went to get eggs from a hen. I don't know if you can see it, but I still have a scar right here. Because that hen one day grabbed me right here and then they hit you with their wings. I was afraid of that chicken.

At any rate, when we got into the house and put all the ingredients together, she said, "Well, you know, all of the things you did today means you're very brave." And I said, "No, I'm not. I'm scared to death." She said, "Yes, but you faced all your fear." And that's when she made me realize that thunder was only a noise. That's all it is.

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"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book." — Coolio