Pat Brisson: Stories Within Stories, by Becky Rodia
This author's sensitive books explore the connecting, healing power of stories
The little girl sings to herself as she walks home from school, not caring if anybody hears her. Caught up in the show tunes she loves, she dances up and down somebody's front stoop the way she saw Gene Kelly do in Singin' in the Rain. Suddenly, a blurred shape rushes by her – it's her brother. He's caught her dancing in the street! As he runs homeward laughing, he hollers back to her, "I'm telling Mom!"
"That was me," children's author Pat Brisson said with a chuckle. "That little girl. That little bubble of joy."
Anyone who talks with Pat Brisson or reads any of her books can see that she's still a bubble of joy. She speaks rapidly; her enthusiasm seems to make her nearly breathless at times. Her books are filled with that same enthusiasm, optimism and sensitivity.
"I see the bright side of things," Pat told us. "I fail to see any ulterior motives in anybody. Ithink that has helped me as a children's book writer."
Pat's books frequently star hopeful, unsinkable children. In Wanda's Roses (Boyds Mills Press, 1994), little Wanda believes with all her heart that a bare, thorny bush in a vacant lot is a rosebush that just needs some care. She cleans up the trash in the vacant lot, to give the bush more sunlight. Before long, neighborhood adults are drawn to Wanda's pet project, and help her turn the vacant lot into a lush neighborhood garden.
Pat's books feature kids who make the best of whatever situation comes along. Pat makes "the best of things," too – The Summer My Father Was Ten (Boyds Mills Press, 1998) won a 1998 Christopher Award.
In The Summer My Father Was Ten (Boyds Mills Press, 1998), a group of boys thoughtlessly destroys an old man's garden. One boy (who grows up to be the "Father" of the title) is wracked with remorse and offers to help the man replant the garden. He and the old man become friends and the wrecked garden becomes a memory; a valuable, unforgettable memory that the boy – when he has reached adulthood – recounts to his daughter every year, as they're planting their own garden.
And, of course, there's young Emily in Sky Memories (Delacorte, 1999), who knows that, with the help of family, friends and the "sky memory"ritual she shared with her mother, she will get through the pain of her mother's death from cancer.
Even though worries never last long in Pat's books, no one could ever accuse her of being unrealistic. The hope and joy readers feel in Pat's books is real because she takes care to show what the characters are up against; we feel their pain as well as their happiness.
Experience plus imagination.
Pat Brisson's life experiences inform and color her work. The main character in her upcoming book The Star Blanket is nicknamed "Caboose," because she is the family's youngest child. "Caboose" was also Pat's childhood nickname – until her brother was born, making him the youngest sibling. Sky Memories was written after Pat lost two friends to cancer. Another upcoming book, Mama Loves Me From Away, which features a young girl whose mother is in prison, was inspired by a visit to a friend.
"We go to Maine every summer," Pat told us. "A friend of ours in Maine has a psychology practice in a Maine state prison, and I got to thinking, 'What must it be like to have a parent in prison?' Initially, I was thinking in terms of a father, but then I thought, "What would it be like to have your mother in prison?"
"I really wanted to address that issue. It got to a point where I could hear the little girl – the character in the story. Iheard her voice. I wrote the story over a summer when my kids were still at home. There was lots of activity, total chaos with everybody going in and out of the house all the time, and yet I could still hear that girl's voice so clearly. That doesn't usually happen to me."
That persistent voice resulted in a sensitive tale about a mother and daughter who love stories. When the mother is sent to prison, it looks like their daily storytelling ritual will have to end, until she comes up with a special gift for her daughter – a notebook in which she has written and illustrated seven of her stories. The daughter is to read one every night at 8 p.m., and know that her mother is whispering along with the story.
The making of a writer.
Several of Pat's published and forthcoming books include traditions and rituals, especially traditions that incorporate storytelling. "Storytelling wasn't a big thing in my family," Pat admitted. "Maybe Iwrite about storytelling because Iwanted to be told stories. Ithink we do impart our values through the stories we choose to tell. Storytelling is magical, it's a mystery. You can understand and acknowledge the mystery, but it's so hard to put it into words."
Pat's powerful storytelling ability lay dormant for a number of years; she didn't write as a child. "My father brought home a typewriter when I was in fifth grade," she recalled, "but I didn't really do any creative writing until high school, for a writing class Iwas taking.
My teacher, Miss Martine, wrote on one of my stories, 'Great beginning for your first novel.' I thought 'Wow! I could write a novel!' That had never occurred to me before. I will cherish Miss Martine's remark forever."
Pat and her family: son Benjamin (top left), husband Emil, (top center), son Gabriel (bottom row, second from left) his wife Vanessa (bottom left), and son Noah (bottom row, third from left), and son Zachary (bottom right).
It wasn't until Pat had children (she and her husband Emil have four sons) and began reading them a lot of picture books that she decided to try her hand at writing. The rest, as they say, is history. Pat currently has 11 books to her credit (with more on the way) a 1998 Christopher Award (for The Summer My Father Was Ten), she's active in three writing groups and she visits an average of 30 schools every year.
Pat remarked that school visits require great performances. "I've learned that you have to be bigger than life,"she said. "That's how to get your message across –especially with kids. Even if it feels strange, try not to worry, because it doesn't look strange."
Pat likes to use a microphone at school visits, so she can talk and read with a full range of expression, from her bright, excited voice right down to a tiny whisper that puts kids on the edge of their seats. We wouldn't expect anything less from a woman who's been "singin' in the rain" since she was a child.
Becky Rodia, senior editor Teaching K-8 magazine.