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A Storyteller Shaped by History

In a recent interview with The Children’s Book Review, celebrated children’s book author Patricia Polacco spoke about her gift of storytelling. When asked if it was a gift she was born with, the author replied: “I don’t know that story tellers are born. I think I was shaped into one by being raised by amazing story tellers. My dad was a wonderful story teller, his family was Irish. My mother’s people were Russian and Ukrainian, natural story tellers. So I literally, inherited it from both sides.”

Polacco has certainly nurtured the talents her ancestors passed on to her, as is evident in her numerous awards and the impressive list of over 50 picture books that she has written and illustrated, including Bun Bun Button, The Art of Miss Chew, and The Keeping Quilt. But it is not only her personal history that inspires her stories, but also cultural and folkloric history as well. Her latest book, Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln, takes two young boys on a trip through time to meet President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. While the beloved story Babushka Baba Yaga, was based on Russian folklore.

When approaching the story of Baba Yaga, the author decided to take a different path than the traditional story of the mean old woman. “I took 50 American school children one summer with me to Russia. We were doing an art camp in a small village about 60 miles north of St. Petersburg. These children ranged in age from 9 to 17 years old. They had preconceived ideas, as most Americans did, about what Russians are like. So in a real sense, they believed all Russians were like the original Baba Yaga that appears in so much folklore. I took these kids for a walk through a dense forest and we started talking about the legends of the Baba Yaga. I put the notion to them, what if everything we read about her is a lie? Just as everything they had heard about Russians, they were discovering was quite untrue. This inspired a version in my heart of a Baba Yaga who had been completely misunderstood and demonized by vicious rumors and untruths,” Polacco explained.

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