Patricia Polacco’s ‘The Keeping Quilt’ Beguiles a New Generation of Kids
As her classic children’s book marks its 25th anniversary, the author tells more immigrant tales in a new prequel, ‘The Blessing Cup’
I burst into tears while interviewing Patricia Polacco.
I couldn’t help it. Her books have meant so much to me. Shortly after my dad died in 2004, I started reading Mrs. Katz and Tush to 3-year-old Josie. In it, an elderly Jewish lady and a young black boy come together to care for Tush, a tailless cat—like so many of Polacco’s children’s books, it’s a multicultural, intergenerational story full of both sadness and joy. As I read it, I thought about my father, who I missed so much, and about the way love and loss go hand in hand. Before long, I had two children demanding that I read Mrs. Katz and Tush to them at bedtime. They loved the story and the kitty, and they also loved seeing me struggle to make it through the ending without getting weepy. Sure, they got a sick thrill from seeing me lose my composure over and over again, but they also understood that the story is about the power of human connection and love being stronger than death.
I also cried (I’m a crier, deal with it) when I read Thank You, Mr. Falker to Maxine. Like many of Polacco’s books, it’s autobiographical, about the wonderful teacher who figured out young Patricia was dyslexic, helped her learn to read, and proved to her that she wasn’t dumb. Maxie has had her own challenges with school, and I’m so grateful that my quirky kid has had educators like Mr. Falker in her life. Maxie, too, loves this book beyond all measure. Even though it’s been years since I last read it to her, when I told her I was interviewing Polacco, she gasped, “Oh! Tell her how much I love Thank You, Mr. Falker!”
I started crying when I tried to tell Polacco how much solace I’ve found in her books. (She was patient while I regained some measure of self-control.) When I finally stopped sniveling, I asked her why she doesn’t shy away from such heavy issues.
“I don’t know if my work is a concerted effort to make kids sad!” she told me. “But life and death go hand in hand. It’s our condition as human beings. When I was growing up, we never had much money, my parents were divorced young, but I was always surrounded by loving individuals. They couldn’t give us riches, but they gave us their stories, their hearts, and their time. My stories are fundamentally about the love of family.”
Indeed. Some of Polacco’s books are based on her own life, some are retellings of folktales, and some are pure imaginative fiction, but many are about the triumph of an underdog and the power of love to defeat prejudice. And there are so many to choose from! Polacco has written and illustrated more than 50 books, all in her characteristic visually sophisticated, uncuddly, uncute style.
This has been a banner year for her, with the release of an updated, 25th-anniversary edition of the much-loved The Keeping Quilt and a new prequel, The Blessing Cup, that adds detail and resonance to the story of Polacco’s great-grandmother Anna’s immigration to America. In the new book, little Anna’s family is expelled from their shtetl near Tver in tzarist Russia. Soldiers come to burn the shul, and the family flees with only a few possessions, among them a beautiful china tea set. You’ll have to read the book—to kids or to yourself—to find out why only one teacup makes it to Ellis Island, what happens to the rest of the set, and how the one surviving cup serves successive generations of Anna’s family.
The babushka Anna wears in The Blessing Cup appears in both editions (old and new) of The Keeping Quilt—it’s transformed into the border of the quilt Anna’s mother makes with the neighborhood ladies. (In these books, significant material objects like the quilt, the babushka, and the cup are rendered in brilliant, electric color, while the people are realistically drawn in soft black pencil.) The quilt serves as the chuppah at Anna’s wedding, then at her daughter Carle’s, then at her granddaughter Mary Ellen’s, and then at Patricia’s. At each wedding, there’s more evidence of acculturation: men and women dancing together, non-Jews as guests. The quilt presides over the weddings, wraps each new baby in the family, and warms Anna’s legs when she gets old. Polacco writes in The Keeping Quilt:
The quilt welcomed me, Patricia, into the world … and it was the tablecloth for my first birthday party.
At night, I would trace my fingers around the edges of teach animal on the quilt before I went to sleep. I told my mother stories about the animals on the quilt. She told me whose sleeve had made the horse, whose apron had made the chicken, whose dress had made the flowers, and whose babushka went around the edge of the quilt.
In the newly updated, revised version, we learn what’s happened to the quilt in the last two and half decades: It was the chuppah at Polacco’s children’s weddings—one straight and one gay. It went with Polacco to school visits around the country. It got increasingly worn. As a surprise, her children took digital photos of the quilt and emailed them to Polacco’s sister-in-law and her quilting guild. The quilters replicated the original, using vintage fabrics when they could, removing one heart patch from the original (“we think of it as the pulse of the original quilt,” Polacco told me) and sewing it into the new version. Polacco’s children presented it to her for her birthday, and she donated the original to the Mazza Museum, an Ohio institution that celebrates children’s book artwork, where it’s now on display.
The Keeping Quilt is far from Polacco’s only Jewish-themed book. The Trees of the Dancing Goats, Tikvah Means Hope, Someone for Mr. Sussman, Chicken Sunday, and more have dealt with Polacco’s mother’s background. But this winter she’ll be publishing her first book about her father’s Catholic family. “They were Shanty Irish, and it’s their story of immigration to the United States,” she told me. “They were lacemakers, and it’s about how Fiona’s lace survived the Great Chicago Fire.”
The ‘Monday Morning Cooking Club’ cookbook gathers more than recipes. It collects Jewish stories from around the world.