Patricia Polacco’s childhood friends received “fat cards” for special occasions. Polacco’s family had no extra money for presents so she drew a wordless story featuring her friend as the main character. The edges of Polacco’s fat cards were bound and sewn like real books. Years later when Polacco sold her first children’s stories, she realized she’d been making picture book dummies or mock-ups all of her life.
Polacco descends from a family of storytellers. “I loved family reunions,” she says, “sitting and listening to the older people talk about the old country, their lives, and their stories.” From an early age, Polacco knew she didn’t learn the way other children learned. Polacco remembers sitting at her grandmother’s knee, listening carefully to her words. “I drew pictures to keep a memory in my head if I knew this was something important to remember.” Even today, Polacco does not usually write out her stories in long hand. She prefers to sit in her rocking chair in the sunroom of her Victorian home in Union City, Michigan. “I was a head-banger and a rocker as a child,” she says. “Rocking is part of my process.” It helps flesh out the details after she picks up what she calls “the scent of the story.” Only after she addresses many of the problems in her mind does she sit at the typewriter and tap out a first draft.
Unlike other illustrators, Polacco sketches her characters only after the text is finalized with her editor. At the dummy stage, Polacco says, “Characters insinuate how they will look.” The page turns and the pace of the book is determined. When her editor and art director approve the rough images for each page, Polacco uses a light box to enlarge each image to 25% larger than the finished book. After transferring each image to larger paper, she refines, edits and adds color with color pencils, Pentel markers, and acrylic paint.
Many of Polacco’s books have an autobiographical thread. Thank You, Mr. Falker is Polacco’s tribute to a special teacher that not only taught her to read, but also made her feel worthwhile. Polacco visits several schools each year. “I love talking to the learning disabled kids because they think they are nothing and can never be anything.” Polacco’s personal struggles with learning disabilities and subsequent rise to fame give them hope.
During a visit to her editor, Polacco related a story about her great-great-grandfather during the Civil War that had been passed down through the generations. Polacco’s editor knew there was a picture book in the making and encouraged her to start writing on the train ride home. Although Polacco usually kept a pad of paper and a pen by her rocking chair at home, she had no paper with her on the train. She begged paper bags and scraps from the passengers around her. Perhaps the train provided the rocking motion that allowed the details to resolve themselves and the story to gel. A Civil War story about a soldier from the North and a slave from the South might not be standard children’s fare, but as Polacco wrote Pink and Say, childhood themes of friendship, trust and hope emerged.
Critics have said Polacco’s work is long on text and involves subjects with which children are not concerned. Polacco admits, “I never write with a child in mind.” She writes her story the way it presents itself to her, even if the topic might not seem child-friendly at first glance. Polacco believes children are aware of more than we give them credit for. “I was alone in the room with my grandmother when she died,” says Polacco. “I was a five year old taking it all in.” Sixteen of Polacco’s books feature her grandmother or older people modeled after her grandmother. “I love writing about my grandmother,” she says. “She was one of my heroes.”
Still other Polacco books were created during a sad time in her life. Polacco’s mother was her greatest champion. Her mother bankrolled Polacco’s first trip to New York City to meet with editors and art directors. Together, they scheduled 16 appointments—four portfolio reviews per day—and sold everything Polacco brought with her. Polacco’s mother acted as a sounding board when Polacco waffled between staying at her tedious but secure day-job restoring antiquities and jumping off into the rewarding but financially murky land of children’s books. Over the course of her mother’s nine year illness and subsequent death, Polacco says, “I would steal away to my imagination where the world wasn’t so unpleasant.” Although her books do not reflect her sadness at the time, Polacco drew to ease her pain.
After her mother died, Polacco lifted Betty Doll from its shelf—a doll Polacco’s mother made at the age of five after a house fire had destroyed all of her toys. As a child, Polacco remembers cuddling the doll as a cure for what ailed her, and she reached for it again in her time of need. Wrapped around Betty Doll was a letter from her mother. That letter became the bones of Betty Doll, Polacco’s tribute to her mother.
Through her books, Polacco shares with her readers her passion for living and encourages them to follow her example. “Our world has become so steely and desensitized that we better get a hold of our hearts.” She’s the first to admit that her books are “sappy and sentimental” and designed to evoke emotion from her readers—sympathy, hope, outrage, and love. “Humankind has anesthetized itself from hurt,” she says. “The price you pay for extreme love is it really hurts when you lose it. But the beauty of taking the risk is the wonderful memories you’re left with.”