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Check It Out

Courier Article by Carol Banks
Sunday, July 2, 2006

Theme of Family, Tradition Runs Throughout Tales

The first thing you notice about author/illustrator Patricia Polacco is her eyes. Bright, twinkling, full-of-mischief eyes. Then you notice her smile. It never fades or wavers. Talk with her two minutes and you're ready to start sharing secrets. Polacco is a diminutive bundle of energy with a million stories to tell. She is also one of the Public Library's featured authors for July. Come share her remarkable family stories with your own family.

Thunder Cake, one of Polacco's most endearing tales, focuses on her childhood fear of thunderstorms. Wise Grandma (Babushka) knew that an approaching thunderstorm was the perfect time to make "Thunder Cake." "Don't pay attention to that old thunder a when you see the lightning, start counting a real slow. When you hear the thunder, stop counting. That number is how many miles away the storm is a " Tricia's first count ends at 10 miles. At eight miles, eggs and milk have been gathered. At six miles, all the dry ingredients have been procured from the storehouse. At five miles Babushka's secret cake ingredient has been picked.

While the cake is baking and the thunder rattles closer to the farm, Babushka reassures Tricia that she is indeed a very brave girl. When the cooled cake is frosted Babushka and Tricia each sample a wedge as the thunderstorm booms overhead.

Babushka tells her fretful grandchild that "brave people can't be afraid of a sound," and Tricia knows she will never fear the "voice of thunder" ever again, as long as there is Thunder Cake to enjoy. (And what is Babushka's secret ingredient? Shhh, don't tell anyone -- it's tomatoes!)

Pink and Say is the true story of Sheldon Russell Curtis, Polacco's great-great-grandfather, who fought for the Union during the Civil War. When he was 15, Sheldon (Say) was wounded and lay for days somewhere in Georgia until another Union soldier -- Pinkus Aylee -- found him.

"Lord have mercy, child. You as bad off as I am. I'll tote ya." Pink "pulled and carried" Say, "slogging through streams, haulin' up small bluffs and belly-crawlin' through dry fields" until they reached the cabin of Pink's mother, Moe Moe Bay, who would nurse Say's wound.

As Union soldiers behind enemy lines, they put Moe Moe Bay in grave danger, but even so she was happy with her "boys." Wanting to share something Say told them, "I done something important. I touched Mr. Lincoln's hand. Touch my hand, Pink. Now you can say you touched the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln."

Confederate marauders found the cabin. Quickly Moe Moe Bay urged the boys into the root cellar, while she ran from the cabin, trying desperately to draw the invaders away. Pink and Say heard the cabin being ransacked overhead a and then a single shot ran out a .

John Philip Duck comes from Polacco's many visits to the famous Peabody hotel in Memphis, Tenn. It's a fact-based story about Edward Pembroke, the first official hotel "Duckmaster," originator of the twice-daily Parade of Ducks.

As a young boy, Edward worked at the Peabody, returning to his rural home for the weekends.

Finding an orphaned mallard on the family farm, he cared for the duckling and even took it to the Peabody.

Fellow employees shared in the ruse, hiding the tiny quacker from Mr. Schutt, the hotel manager.

No one wanted to put Mr. Schutt in a fowl a uh a foul mood. Edward taught his ducking a variety of tricks, including hopping in and out of the celebrated lobby fountain.

"He marches as proper as John Philip Sousa himself," someone remarked. And so John Philip Duck was christened. It was inevitable that John Philip's existence would be discovered, but his antics proved to be such a favorite with the guests assuring his permanent place in the posh hostelry.

Through the years Edward Pembroke trained generations of ducks to parade to and from the lobby's marble fountain to the delight of thousands.

If you're in Memphis, stop in and say hello to John Philip's feathered descendants. You'll surely make ol' Edward smile. By the way, Polacco dedicated this book to Robert McCloskey, a man who knows a fair amount about ducks himself. Confused? Just ask your favorite librarian for the reason. It's another great story.

Carol Banks is supervisor of the READ Center, Central Library's children's Department. Contact her at (812) 428-8222. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of the library.