Patricia Polacco is an acclaimed author/ illustrator and storyteller. Her beloved and classic books include Babushka’s Doll, and The Trees of the Dancing Goats. Her new book, The Blessing Cup, is a companion to her earlier story, The Keeping Quilt. It has just received the prestigious Sydney Taylor Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to interview Ms. Polacco on the wonderful occasion of this honor.
Congratulations on your Sydney Taylor Award for The Blessing Cup. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a couple of questions about it.
-Like many of your other books, The Blessing Cup has strong Judaic themes. Was Judaism a part of your upbringing? In what ways is it a part of your life today?
My mother’s family was part Jewish, they were not extremely observant , yet we respected and honored the sacrifices that were made by family members back home in Russia and Poland as these sacrifices are still being made today back there for civil rights and basic human rights.
-I noticed that your illustrations in The Blessing Cup seem to depict your great-grandfather as Hassidic, with long payot near his ears, and a black hat. Was your family originally Hasidic? What was their Jewish life like?
They most probably were Hassidic according to legends and stories I heard growing up as a child..….they changed when came to state of Michigan. They found countryman here but they were not Jewish. Family felt compelled to honor the traditions but started to take on new ones as they married countrymen who were Christian.
-Of course this story has been a part of your family lore. But did you have to do any additional research when writing it to add details? If so—did you discover any information about your family that you didn’t know before, that surprised you?
I did research to some degree, What surprised me was that there were some regions in Poland and Russia where the Jews were more discriminated against than in other parts of that area.
-Your drawings of the Shtetl have beautiful details, and character. Did you base the drawings on reality, or is it more of a symbolic, folk depiction of how a shtetl looked? How did you choose what details to include?
The drawings of the shtetle were more governed by my heart than anything researched. My aim was to depict their lives that were being lived and that they had hopes and dreams even as meager and poor as they were , the horror of their lives being tragically interrupted by the programs. I am never ceased to be amazed at mankind’s inhumanity to mankind at times.
-I love how you chose to draw this story in black and white, and only highlight a few objects with color, such as the tea set, and Anna’s kerchief. Why did you choose to use that technique for this book—is it meant to be symbolic in any way?
The symbolism I guess is to draw the readers eye to her babushka scarf to the tea set to the orange violence of fire and to simply point out in the story the importance of these objects that were carried so many miles to preserve their heritage. And the sacrifices that the families made to bring them here and the connection that they still have with our family today.
-At the end of the book, you tell how the blessing cup broke into two, and that you hope to share it with your two children. Have you had the opportunity to pass your two pieces of the blessing cup onto your children? If so, on what occasion? If not—when do you hope to pass them on?
I still possess the two pieces and I would imagine as my life ends they will be passed on to each of my children. I hope to put it in some sort of container so my children can display them without having to worry about them breaking again.
-What other traditions/ objects have you received from your parents, and given on to your own children?
Keeping Quilt, Betty Doll, Pieces of silverware, Lace that came down through my father’s Irish family.
Talliet shawl and a yarmulke belonged to great grandfather. These will all be passed down to my kids and grandkids and/or on display in museum as the Keeping Quilt is today at the Mazza Institute in Findlay Ohio.
Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions. It is a lovely book, and I hope many families will have the opportunity to enjoy it.
(Like this interview? You might also like the one I did with Eric Kimmel as well.)