Patricia Polacco (b. 1944)
Fans of Patricia Polacco’s children’s books may be surprised to know that the award-winning author and illustrator didn’t learn to read until she was 14 years old. And that life-changing event came about at Willard Junior High, thanks to the efforts of a caring English teacher, George Felker.
Polacco’s adolescence was “grim,” in her words. Although she was artistically gifted, she suffered from dyslexia and other learning disabilities, most of them unrecognized in the 1950s. She was teased for her differences and at Willard a bully singled her out for special torment. Polacco never told anyone about the bullying, but one day Mr. Felker witnessed it and intervened. The boy was expelled. Felker then asked Polacco to help in the classroom after school, where he surreptitiously tested her skills by asking her to write letters and numbers with a sponge while she was cleaning blackboards. He recognized that she needed help, and found Polacco a reading specialist who started her on the path to literacy. “The man was a visionary,” said Polacco. Eventually Polacco would become a successful author and illustrator, writing scores of illustrated storybooks. In 1998 she wrote Thank You, Mr. Falker, telling the story of the Willard teacher who changed her life. Polacco couldn’t find her former teacher at the time to ask permission to use his real name, so she changed it to “Falker” and dedicated the book: “To George Felker, the real Mr. Falker. You will forever be my hero.” Through her books and art, Polacco has consistently conveyed a message of encouragement for anyone who’s ever felt “different” or unloved. Her illustrated children’s books have garnered numerous awards over the years, including three Parents’ Choice awards and the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Jewish children’s literature.