Patricia Reilly Giff, 'Polk Street' children's book writer, dies at 86

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Patricia Reilly Giff, 'Polk Street' children's book writer, dies at 86
Patricia Reilly Giff at her home in Trumbull, Conn., circa 2008. Giff, a prolific children’s book author whose work was driven by the idea that remarkable stories could be spun from the lives of ordinary people, died on June 22, 2021, at her home in Trumbull, Conn. She was 86. Judith Pszenica/The New York Times.

by Annabelle Williams

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Patricia Reilly Giff, a prolific children’s book author whose work was driven by the idea that remarkable stories could be spun from the lives of ordinary people, died June 22 at her home in Trumbull, Connecticut. She was 86.

The cause was cancer, her daughter, Alice O’Meara, said.

Giff, who did not start writing until she was in her 40s, gained prominence with the Polk Street School series — 14 illustrated books, published from 1984 to 1990, about the antics and learning struggles of second-grade students in Ms. Rooney’s classroom. The books drew on Giff’s experience as a reading teacher.

Two of her later books — “Lily’s Crossing” (1997) and “Pictures of Hollis Woods” (2002) — earned Newbery Honors, an important recognition for children’s literature.

Giff said she focused on writing stories “that say ordinary people are special.” In total, she wrote more than 100 books for young readers, ranging from the humorous to the historical.

Her books for middle-grade readers treated historical events with sensitivity. “Nory Ryan’s Song” (2000), tells the story of a girl who helps her family as they endure the 1845 potato famine in Ireland. “Lily’s Crossing,” set during World War II, recounts the story of a girl in Detroit and a Hungarian refugee named Albert who together navigate the war’s effects on the American home front.

Others took on social issues. “Pictures of Hollis Woods,” for example, is about a 12-year-old girl, abandoned as a baby, who is caught up in a foster-care system.

Giff, whose husband was a New York City police detective, began writing for children in the mid-1970s.

“I was 40 and had never written before,” she told The New York Times in 1998. “I had three kids and a husband who had a job where the hours were unbelievable. So I just got up an hour earlier every morning, and I made myself do it.”

Her first writing space was a desk in a closet, she told The Mini Page, a children’s book publication.

After 20 years in the classroom, Giff stopped teaching and pursued writing full time in 1984, after 10 of her books had been published.

Patricia Jeanne Reilly was born April 26, 1935, in Brooklyn. Her father, William Reilly, rose to the rank of inspector in the New York Police Department. Her mother, Alice (Tiernan) Reilly, was a homemaker. The family, which included Patricia’s three siblings, lived in the St. Albans section of Queens.

Patricia grew up an avid reader whose favorite books included Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden.” She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from Marymount College in Manhattan and went on to St. John’s University for a master’s in history and later to Hofstra University for a professional diploma in reading.

She married James Giff, a World War II veteran before joining the police, in 1959. The couple had three children. James Giff died in 2017, and their son James died in 2016. Along with O’Meara, Giff is survived by another son, William; seven grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and her sister, Anne Reilly Eisele.

In writing her stories, Giff sometimes drew on her family and students for material, including names and personality traits. Her daughter, for example, was the basis for the character Emily Arrow in the Polk Street School series, and Giff would borrow sayings from her grandchildren for dialogue.

The Giff household was suffused with books, O’Meara said. She especially cherished the memory of summer days at their country house in upstate New York, when she and her mother would climb into a rowboat with Tab soda and potato chips, books in tow, and spend their day reading on the water.

Even after publishing scores of books, Giff said in the 1998 interview, she still felt that there was plenty to write about. Her most readily available subject matter, she found, was her own life.

“You really have to have a sense of your own childhood, to remember distinctly what it was like to be a child in order to write for a child without being patronizing,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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