She didn't learn to read until she was nearly fourteen, but today Patricia Polacco is the author of more than fifty books for kids and a recipient of three Parents' Choice Awards and two Commonwealth Club certificates of excellence. Growing up in Oakland's Rockridge district in the Fifties and Sixties, she said, "I wasn't a very good student. I had a terrible time with reading and math." In school, where classmates teased her, "I thought I was dumb. ... I felt trapped in a body that wouldn't do what everybody else could do."
But it was also at school that a teacher — about whom Polacco wrote her 1998 book Thank You, Mr. Falker — "reached into the most lonely darkness and pulled me into bright sunlight" by finding specialists to confirm and assess what he suspected was a learning disability. Polacco describes herself as "dyslexic, disnumeric, and disgraphic."
"Of course, now that I am an adult, I realize that being learning-disabled does not mean dumb at all. ... As a matter of fact, most learning-disabled children are actually geniuses," declared Polacco, who will discuss her latest book, January's Sparrow, at both A Great Good Place for Books (6127 La Salle Ave., Oakland) and Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, January 16. Set in the 1840s and also illustrated by Polacco, who holds a Ph.D in art, it's the tale of a family of escaped slaves fleeing the Kentucky plantation where a beloved relative was beaten and killed by a boss. Willing to risk everything for freedom, they head for Michigan via the Underground Railroad.
Told from children's points of view, Polacco's books address diverse cultural milieus. Boat Ride with Lillian Two Blossom is a Native American tale. In Tikvah Means Hope, a Jewish family's Sukkot celebration is disrupted by the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. In Enzo's Splendid Gardens is set in an Italian restaurant. Several books, including Babushka's Mother Goose and Babushka's Doll, reflect Polacco's Russian heritage.
A longtime art restorer, she was 41 when she began this part of her career. "Mind you, the 'art' has always been there for me," Polacco explained. "Apparently, one of the symptoms of my disability in academics is the ability to draw very, very well. So drawing, painting, and sculpture have always been a part of my life, even before I started illustrating my books. The books were quite a surprise, really."
Yet even if the tales told in her books weren't also inside her all along, the skill for recounting them was. And this, the author explains, is because she grew up without television in a family of yarn-spinners.
"When you are raised on hearing stories — not seeing them — you become very good at telling stories," said Polacco. She lives by this still. When seeking ideas for new books, "I turn off my TV and listen to my inner voice." 11 a.m. (A Great Good Place for Books); 2 p.m. (Mrs. Dalloway's), free. GreatGoodPlace.Indiebound.com; MrsDalloways.com