Not surprisingly, beloved author Patricia Polacco's latest book for young readers, When Lightning Comes in a Jar revolves around the theme of family. "Family means a great deal to me," notes Polacco, speaking from a hotel in Virginia where she is visiting schools to share her books with children. "It's the cornerstone of my writing." Polacco has explored the theme of family in many of her award-winning titles, which include The Keeping Quilt, Pink and Say and Chicken Sunday. As a child she was close to her grandparents and feels these relationships had a strong influence on her life and her work.

When Lightning Comes in a Jar takes readers to a magical, loving family reunion, complete with zillions of meatloafs and gazillions of Jell-O salads. And then there are the baseball games, lively croquet rivalries and quiet times with family photo albums. The book celebrates not only Polacco's memories of her own family reunions, but the strong ties of love that make families so special. (A heartwarming twist to the story is sure to bring tears to every adult reader's eyes.) Polacco describes When Lightning Comes in a Jar as "a simple story evoking a simpler, dearer time." And she hopes the book will inspire readers to hold their own family gatherings.

As a matter of fact, the reunion Polacco describes sounds like so much fun it will make you want to be part of her family. The astonishing thing is, you can. Several years ago Polacco moved back to Michigan, where she had spent summers with her father as a child. She now lives in a historic home nestled in Union City, a village of less than 2,000 people. "When I bought the house, which sits on 18 acres, I had in mind that we could open it up to teachers and librarians for retreats," said Polacco. "Well, one thing has led to another, and this summer we're going to have an open house, a family reunion of sorts."

Teachers and community members are helping to plan it. "We'll have tours of the historic house I live in as well as my studio. There will also be horse and buggy rides, contests, a book sale, storytelling and old-fashioned, fun games," Polacco says. "Oh, and we'll have 'Halloween in July,' complete with a haunted house and costume contest!" The inspiration for the open house and for When Lightning Comes in a Jar was a family reunion Polacco herself attended two years ago, after a gap of more than four decades. She had always cherished the memories of the reunions she went to as a child, but at this reunion she realized that now, "My brother and cousins and I are the elders."

Polacco is also sensitive to how families are changing and evolving. "A number of our family members have adopted children internationally," Polacco notes. "And so now, not only are the faces more diverse, but so is the food!"

Polacco feels it is especially important to pass on family love and stories to the next generation: "We need to put the lightning of our stories and our heritage into the jars of our children's minds so that they in turn can pass them on to future generations. We need to put the lightning of our stories into the jars of children's minds."

Deborah Hopkinson's newest title for children is Pioneer Summer, Book One of the Prairie Skies Series, a historical fiction trilogy set in Kansas.

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