Patricia Reilly Giff weaves family tales into award-winning historical fiction
Many a fiction writer will demur when asked if their work is autobiographical. Not so Patricia Reilly Giff, who deliberately and gracefully combines elements of her family history with fictional threads of plot, people and place.
In an interview from her Connecticut home, Giff, who has written more than 60 books for children including the Kids of the Polk Street School series, as well as Newbery Honor winners Lily's Crossing and Pictures of Hollis Woods, says, "My biggest thing is family, and I love to write about family." Thus, her characters are based on everyone from youngsters she encountered during her teaching career (Giff began to write full-time at age 40) to her own family. "I warn my children," she says, laughing, ”'If you do something I don't like, you'll appear as a villain in one of my books.' "
This is apparently an effective disciplinary measure, as Giff's children have grown into well-behaved adults who get along quite nicely. In fact, her son operates a Fairfield, Connecticut, children's bookstore called The Dinosaur's Paw (named after one of Giff's books), and the whole family pitches in on the endeavor. "We all own a piece," Giff says. "It's been there since 1990, and it's a wonderful thing for us."
In keeping with the author's focus on family, the life of Giff's beloved great-grandmother, Dina, was the inspiration for her latest book, A House of Tailors. The central character is a talented young seamstress named Dina. Just as she was in real life, the fictional Dina is a spirited, vibrant girl who emigrates from Germany to 1870s Brooklyn. Although she possesses incredible skill as a seamstress, Dina hates sewing and looks at the move as an opportunity to start a life devoid of needles and thread.
Says Giff, "Dina died a few years before I was born, but everyone would refer to her as the heart of our family. When I knew I wanted to write, I would say, 'Dina, if I get a book published I will write about you someday.' "
Nearly 30 years later, Giff did write about Dina. A House of Tailors is the fascinating result: a story rich with history and family love, with a focus on the ways in which children can be strong and creative in unusual situations. Dina survives a difficult crossing from Germany to America, not to mention incredible homesickness. That fortitude serves her well as she adjusts to life in America and the realization that, rather than escaping the sewing she dreads, she has moved into another house of tailors. Dina's irrepressible character enables her to turn the bad news into a positive situation and she eventually finds her own sewing-centric place in the world via humorous, memorable situations.
Key elements are drawn from Dina's real life and from the history of the era. "I did research about Brooklyn and read what it was like in 1870," says Giff, who has herself lived in Brooklyn. "The story of the smallpox was true . . . plus, Dina really was a beautiful seamstress."In fact, says Giff, "Dina's sampler, which she did at age eight, was the only thing that survived her trip from Germany to Brooklyn. It hung over my bed throughout my childhood, and even now hangs in my bedroom." This notion of family bonds that remain strong through the years and of history's influence on each one of us is a central element in Giff's work. "This book will be great for my grandkids. Dina was born in 1855, and this will be there for them and [will] go into the next century." Inspiring and guiding children is what compels Giff to keep writing.
Says the author, "I have a very strong memory of childhood and a very strong feeling about writing for kids. I think about the kids I worked with [as a teacher] all the time when I'm writing I always say they dance in front of my typewriter." Their arabesques and dips must surely be inspiring - Giff has another book, Willow Run, due out in 2005.
Linda M. Castellitto lives in Rhode Island, where she writes and occasionally sews.