Children’s book author-illustrator Patricia Polacco says she’s a believer in the ”unbiased common good we have for each other as human beings.” That’s not just easy sentiment. When her Oakland, Calif., neighborhood was devastated by fire last October — the blaze raged within a block of her home — Polacco was heartened by the way the community pulled together and by the sight of ”strangers…hugging in the street.”
Polacco’s exuberant artistry has the same spirit-lifting effect on her readers. Awards and honors have showered down on her 13 picture books (Just Plain Fancy, Rechenka’s Egg), most of them celebrating with unforced authenticity and warmth the deep-rooted storytelling traditions of ethnic Americans, from Amish to Jewish.
This spring, Polacco — a devotee and creator of Russian ”babushka” (grandmother) stories and of brilliantly decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs — has pulled a real double-yolker out of her basket, with both Easter and Passover stories published almost simultaneously.
The autobiographical Chicken Sunday springs directly from Polacco’s Oakland childhood and is one of her most vigorous and lovable stories. The young Patricia is the narrator. Her best friends are two African-American boys in her neighborhood, Stewart and Winston, whose wonderful ”gramma,” Eula Mae Walker, welcomes Patricia to join them at church on Sundays and to the family’s delectable fried-chicken dinners afterward.
Eula Mae is a stupendous character. Her skin glows, her language sparkles, her lap is wide, and when she sings in the church choir, her voice is like ”slow thunder and sweet rain.”
The three children, hearts full of love, plan to surprise Eula Mae with the most gorgeous Easter bonnet in the window of cranky old Mr. Kodinski’s shop. But before they can earn enough money to buy the gift, Mr. Kodinski mistakenly accuses the children of vandalizing his shop.
”Baby dears,” Eula Mae tells the children when she learns of the accusation, ”if you say you didn’t do it, then I believe you.” But she doesn’t leave it at that. She reminds them that Mr. Kodinski has suffered too much in his life (a concentration camp tattoo is visible on his arm) and urges them to prove to the shopkeeper that they are ”good people” so he will believe them too.
Patricia has an inspiration: The children make a basket of dyed Ukrainian Easter eggs to take to Mr. Kodinski as a peace offering. Touched, he invites them in for tea, suggests they sell the beautiful eggs to his customers — and eventually gives them the bonnet as a gift for Eula Mae, even though they’ve earned more than enough money to pay for it.
Polacco’s characters resonate with rich color against wide, white backgrounds. They’re surrounded by telling details: Russian icons, the flowery clutter of Mr. Kodinski’s shop, and Eula Mae’s family photographs, including real ones of Patricia and Stewart, who are friends to this day. But it’s the gawky, tender, expressive humans who fill the foreground with their strong presence and spontaneous emotions. Eula Mae’s rock-ribbed integrity and her huge laughter (from a ”deep, holy place inside”) make the story ring with credibility. Tolerance and generosity suffuse the narrative like a deep harmonic undertone.
Another new Polacco story that unites generations and races is Mrs. Katz and Tush. Larnel, a small African-American boy, brings a runty, tailless kitten to the lonely widow, Mrs. Katz, thinking to do them both a good turn. And it works. Mrs. Katz falls in love with the kitten, named ”Tush” (Yiddish for its all-too-visible rear end).
Friendship blooms between Larnel and Mrs. Katz as they care for Tush together, play scratchy old records, tell stories, weather crises, and discover the many similarities between their respective peoples’ past sufferings. At the end, they celebrate a happy, kitten-ful Pass-over together.
Mrs. Katz and Tush is a shade less compelling than Chicken Sunday. Mrs. Katz, though endearing, is no Eula Mae, and quiet little Larnel doesn’t get much chance to emerge as a distinctive character. But the pictures brim with Polacco’s customary loving observation of human foibles and sweetness. To read her is to experience the simple, rewarding warmth of ”strangers hugging.” Chicken Sunday: A+ Mrs. Katz and Tush: B+