Patricia Reilly Giff: “She Began Writing to Brighten the Lives of Children”

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Patricia Reilly Giff, popular and prolific children’s author, dies at 86”:

When Patricia Reilly Giff was a girl — roughly the age of the millions of children who would one day devour her books — she did not join in schoolyard games of hide-and-seek. Instead, she would take shelter under a cherry tree, an open book in her hands.

Mrs. Giff had “wanted to write from the first time I picked up a book and read,” she later said. But only in her early 40s, when she was established in her career as a reading teacher and when her children had reached school age, did she act on her abiding ambition. As she carved out the necessary time in her day to write, her husband carved out the necessary space in their home, combining two adjacent closets into a tiny studio.

“I dragged myself out of bed in the early-morning darkness to spend an hour or two at my typewriter before I had to leave for school,” Mrs. Giff recalled. “Slowly and painfully, I began to write.”

Mrs. Giff went on, over nearly half a century, to write more than 100 books for young readers. She delighted younger ones with the adventures, misadventures and high jinks of the Kids of the Polk Street School, one of several popular series she penned.

Writing for older readers, Mrs. Giff animated historical events in volumes such as “Lily’s Crossing,”  a novel set on the home front during World War II. That book, like the subsequent “Pictures of Hollis Woods,” about a foster child in search of belonging, received the Newbery Honor, one of the highest awards in children’s literature….

Mrs. Giff said she began writing with the desire to brighten the lives of children such as her students. As a teacher for 20 years in the public schools of New York City and the Long Island hamlet of Elmont, she taught children who had been set back in their learning by substance abuse and delinquency. Others, recent immigrants to the United States, struggled to read in English.

“I had worked with so many children who had terrible problems that I wanted to say things that would make them laugh. I wanted to tell them they were special,” she once said, according to the reference guide Authors and Artists for Young Adults. “I wish I had started sooner.”

Many of her early books fell in the humor genre. Notable among them were the many installments in the Polk Street series, which opened in 1984 with “The Beast in Ms. Rooney’s Room.” “Beast” — a boy whose proper name is Richard Best — is humiliated to have been held back a year but, with the help of his reading teacher, Mrs. Paris, begins to find his way in second grade and in life.

“The Polk Street series became double-edged,” Mrs. Giff once told the New York Times. “Teachers would use it with older kids as humor, to teach remedial reading, whereas the younger ones would read about these little kids and were very serious about it. You know, it’s their lives.”

Mrs. Giff’s other series included “Polka Dot Private Eye,” “Lincoln Lions Band,” “Ballet Slippers” and “Friends and Amigos.” In the last, she incorporated elements of Spanish….

“Lily’s Crossing,” her first venture into deeper territory, centers on a girl who is whiling away a summer in Queens, missing her widowed father during his wartime service in Europe, when she befriends a Hungarian refugee.

“For today’s children, to whom World War II must seem as remote as the Civil War, Lily’s story places history in real time,” Jane Langton, a children’s author, wrote in a review for the Times. “With Ms. Giff’s usual easygoing language and swift, short paragraphs, the impact of the war on an American child is brilliantly told.”

As in many of her works, Mrs. Giff incorporated her own life and memories into the story.

“When I sat down to write the book,” she told Publishers Weekly, “I wanted to see what I remembered. I made a list of everything I could think of — posters I had seen, the banner in our church with names of who was missing and who was dead.”

Mrs. Giff’s later works of historical fiction included “Nory Ryan’s Song” (2000), set during the Irish potato famine, and “A House of Tailors” (2004), about a teenage seamstress who immigrates to Brooklyn from Germany in the 1870s. “Storyteller” (2010) led a contemporary American girl into an ancestor’s experience during the Revolutionary War, and “All the Way Home” (2001) touched on the polio epidemic. “Genevieve’s War” (2017), a companion to “Lily’s Cross,” took readers across the ocean and into the French resistance during World War II.

Commenting on “Lily’s Crossing,” Mrs. Giff said she could not bring herself to think of it as historical fiction, as it in many ways reflected the events of her own life.

“I wanted to tell my readers that even though the times are different now, people have always worried about the same things,” she once told the Post-Standard of Syracuse, N.Y., “loss and separation, the future, and sometimes war.”

Patricia Jeanne Reilly was born in Brooklyn. Her father was a New York City police officer, and her mother was a homemaker.

Although she loved reading, Mrs. Giff said she was cowed by the classic works she was assigned to read as an English major at Marymount Manhattan College, where she eventually settled on a history major and graduated in 1956. Two years later, she received a master’s degree in history from St. John’s University in Queens.

Mrs. Giff’s early books included “Fourth-Grade Celebrity,” about a fourth-grader desperate to distinguish herself from an older sister. It remains in print more than four decades after its publication in 1979.

Mrs. Giff continued writing until shortly before her death. Her most recent titles included “A Slip of a Girl,”  a novel written in verse and set during the Irish Land War, and the animal-on-the-loose adventure “Zebra at the Zoo.”

For many years, Mrs. Giff and her family operated a children’s bookstore in Fairfield, Conn. Its name, the Dinosaur’s Paw, was drawn from the title of an installment in the Polk Street School series….

Although Mrs. Giff stopped teaching in 1984 to pursue writing full-time, her students and their challenges remained ever-present in her books. She said that her book “Wild Girl” (2009), about a young Brazilian immigrant to the United States, was inspired by her work with new speakers of English. She was haunted, she said, by the shame of a student who had an accident at school because she did not speak English and could not tell Mrs. Giff that she needed to use the restroom.

“I remembered that incident for the rest of my teaching career,” she said. “I felt it was my fault that she had had such a terrible embarrassment. In the novel, the same thing happens to Lidie. I put that incident in as a little, gentle reminder to teachers. Sometimes I put things in my stories for more than one reason.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections.

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