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Pat Brisson: Stories Within Stories, by Becky Rodia

This author's sensitive books explore the connecting, healing power of stories

Pat Brisson

Pat Brisson

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."

Take-charge kids.
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 Brisson and her books Wanda's Roses, Sky Memories, The Summer My Father Was Ten, and Benny's Pennies

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 Brisson and her family

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.

An Author's Tips for Doing Author Studies

Author studies allow students to read all or most of one author's work, encouraging discussion of recurring themes, writing style and the way biography influences the work. Here are some tips to help make your next author study your best one yet.

  1. Read the author's books. The more you read, the more complete your study will be. If your author has written many books, limit your selections but choose a variety, so students see the breadth of the work. Try different ways for student sharing: reading aloud, listening to the book on cassettes, having students choose memorable lines or draw portraits of the main characters. Challenge your students to identify the books based on their classmates' drawings and selected lines.

  2. Discuss genres. Does your author write picture books, chapter books, novels or non-fiction? Are there fantasies, animal stories, biographies? Do the titles stand alone or are they part of a series? Help students identify what makes a series. Show that books can be grouped according to similar subject or format.

  3. Examine copyright dates. Help your students compile a bibliography by publication date, so they will appreciate the extent of the author's career.

  4. Examine the style. Are there recurring themes, places, characters? Are sentences short or long? Are word choices simple or more complex? If your author works in different formats, help students see that the vocabulary and sentence structure must change to fit the format.

  5. Pay attention to jacket blurbs and dedications. Flap copy often tells where your author grew up or lives now. It may mention if he or she is married or has children or what inspired him or her to write this book. Do any of the facts in the blurb have a connection to the book?

  6. Check Something About the Author, a reference series available at public libraries. An author may be listed in more than one volume, if he or she has been writing for a long time. This is a good source for addresses to reach your author at home, or through an agent or publisher. It also includes a bibliography and citations for articles about the author.

  7. Do a magazine search. A librarian can help you search for articles by or about your author. You'll probably be led to School Library Journal, Book Links, The Horn Book, Publishers Weekly, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Booklist.

  8. Read and compare reviews. You may find favorable and unfavorable reviews of the same book. Help students see that reviewers' opinions are subjective and discuss how a review can affect the sales of a book. Have students read reviews of their favorite and least favorite books. Do they agree with the reviewers? What kinds of things do reviews mention? Have students write their own favorable and unfavorable reviews.

  9. Visit the author's website. Use a search engine like Google or AltaVista to find it. You'll probably also find reviews in smaller journals, as well as parenting and educational sites.

  10. Check the publisher's website for author bios. If your author has more than one publisher, be sure to check each publisher's website.

  11. Contact the publisher to request information on the author. Boyds Mills Press, for instance, publishes a four-page piece called "The Bridge" for many of their books. It includes an article by the author, an interview with the illustrator and comments from the editor about why Boyds Mills Press published the book.

  12. Check Amazon.com for author interviews. You may also find background information in Amazon's entries for individual titles.

  13. Hold a class discussion. What have you learned? What do you still wonder about?

  14. Write to the author with your questions. Mention specific things you enjoyed in the books. Ask thoughtful questions. Try to resist the urge to have every student ask for a personal reply. The author might want to respond to each student, but wouldn't you prefer him or her to spend time writing more good books?

  15. Arrange a conference call with the author if he or she is agreeable. This is best done on a speakerphone with selected students asking questions agreed upon by the class beforehand. Of course, you will have to pre-arrange this so the author is available for your call.

  16. Invite the author to your school. Some authors earn part of their living by visiting schools. Students can ask questions, get books autographed and be inspired in their own writing efforts. Take pictures to help you remember the day.

  17. Do a follow-up class report. A final class report on your author can be published on your school's website. If your author came to visit, publish some photos as well.

Some final advice
Don't be afraid to start an author study; they can be as simple or complex as you make them. They can last a week or extend over the course of the year. If you've never done an author study, start small and aim for a more extended study next year.

Students should do as much of the research as their age and abilities allow. Librarians are a valuable resource and will be even more helpful if they're given some advance notice of your plans.

Most importantly, don't get so involved in the author study that you forget to enjoy the literature itself. Rich language, enduring themes, endearing characters and engaging plots are more important than who wrote the book and where. Think of your author study as a celebration rather than a dissection, and you won't go wrong.

Becky Rodia, senior editor Teaching K-8 magazine.

Meet the Author