From the first time she picked up a book, says Patricia Reilly Giff, she wanted to write stories—but it wasn’t until 30-some years later that the two-time Newbery Honor–winning author started in earnest. “A snowy day and a husband who built a writing room from two skinny closets made me begin at last,” she has explained. That doesn’t mean Giff wasn’t immersed in books before picking up her pen one wintry day. She was a reading teacher for 20 years—she wrote her first books, the Kids of the Polk Street School series, for her remedial students—and teachers invariably pop up in her stories. Her newest, Jubilee, about a girl who becomes mute after her mother leaves her, features two concerned educators. “In Jubilee, I paid homage to the psychologist in the school where I taught. He was so understanding, so in tune with children. He actually did magic tricks, which we loved. The impact he had on children and teachers was enormous.”
Q | Jubilee’s journey, in which she has to reconnect with her mother before she can come back to those who loved her all along, is not an easy one. Was the story based on children you’ve known?
A | I’ve worked with so many children who have had hard lives and who were angry or sad; I wanted to give them joy through my stories, to show them characters who grow and become happy. I thought about writing Jubilee for a long time. I have taught children who never spoke. Their faces were so unhappy that even after all this time I wonder about them.
Q | Does Jubilee have to save something else (the dog) before she can save herself?
A | I’m not sure about that. My mother used to say, “Everyone has something.” This is what I always told the children I taught, so I focused on Jubilee’s recognition of her own worth. And that worth was to reach out to find friendship, and to savor the love other people had for her.
Q | Both Jubilee and Hollis (from Newbery winner Pictures of Hollis Woods) make sense of the world through drawing. Why did you give two of your main characters this quality?
A | In drawing, as in writing, or love of music, we show our vision of the world. Perhaps I chose art for Hollis because my father was an artist, and I still see him bent over his work, absorbed and happy. I chose cartooning for Jubilee because many of my remedial students loved to draw, and I wanted to give her that joy.
Q | Your books feature both caring and uncaring teachers. Jubilee’s Ms. Quirk is very kind, in contrast to the frustrated, unkind teacher in Hollis Woods.
A | We want to be perfect teachers, yet often we fail. Maybe I wanted to hold up a mirror to show ourselves at our best and worst, and the difference that makes in children’s lives.
Q | What are some of the teaching moments you remember best?
A | I loved teaching! I remember the remedial kids slamming down the hall, so often coming into my room angry. I wanted to make class a haven. One of my fourth graders had to read a book for a report. He chose a book that was totally over his head. Desperate, I agreed. He knew about two words on each page, so I kept supplying more as fast as I could. And then he knew three, then four, and by the end, he knew most of the words, and had a sense of what the story was about. When he finished, he ran down the hall, yelling, “You have the power!” I yelled back, “No, you do!” There was such joy in his voice that I remembered it all through my teaching years. But did I make mistakes? I remember them, too, with sorrow.
Q | How can teachers get kids to tell their stories?
A | My own story: When I taught, a wonderful woman babysat for my children. She did more than that. She made terrific breakfasts for my husband, a coat for my daughter, curtains for the kitchen. She was perfect. Why couldn’t I be more like her? One morning, I took a piece of paper and wrote, “I hate Sheila.” It was so terrible, so satisfying! Of course, I ripped the paper in pieces, but I thought about how much I had loved writing it. So I did something like that with my remedial students. “Write anything you want,” I said, “and no one has to see what you wrote.” “Anything?” a boy asked gleefully. And so that’s what we did. I can imagine what their first writings were like. But later they began to show me their work...just as I was beginning to show my husband mine.
Q | Do you still do readings at schools or work with teachers?
A | Sometimes, though not as often as I used to. But I’ve given writing classes for adults for many years, and plenty of my students are teachers or librarians. I’ve been so happy doing that.
Q | Name three books all early-elementary teachers should have kids read (or have read to them).
A | How could I choose three? What I’d like to say instead is that it is important for teachers to read to their students every day, from a variety of forms and genres. Children will listen to anything we read, and it wonderfully expands their worlds. I recommend Mo Willems, Louise Borden, and Matt de la Peña (Last Stop on Market Street). I remember reading The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes, and thinking what a lovely story it was. Please don’t forget poetry.
Q | And middle-grade books?
A | I’d like to see shelves filled with a variety of books: fiction, history, biography, and, again, poetry, please. I’d hope that picture books are part of the selection, and that teachers wouldn’t specify books be more than 100 pages. Authors I love? Richard Peck, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Patricia MacLachlan, and Katherine Paterson, of course.
Q | Can you talk about various stages of your writing life?
A | I wanted to make my students laugh, and from that came the Kids of the Polk Street School series. But then the wonderful publisher Craig Virden said he believed I had a serious book in me. And so I began, tentatively at first, and soon loved writing seriously. Lily’s Crossing was my first, which Craig ended up publishing!
Q | What is your next book?
A | There’s always a book in my head or on the computer. Writing is as necessary as breathing to me. Sometimes I play with two [ideas] at once. My love is historical fiction, so that’s where I’m going right now.
Photo: J. Pszenica