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On the Road with Patricia Reilly Giff
Cindi Di Marzo -- 4/27/98
Audiences give a warm reception to the author and her Newbery Honor book

After 20 years of writing for children and with more than 60 published books to her credit, Patricia Reilly Giff has moved into new territory. Best known for such works as The Kids of Polk Street School, a beginning reader series that has helped many thousands of children develop a love of books, Giff showed her audience a different side of her talent last spring in Lily's Crossing (Delacorte), a tender coming-of-age story that won a 1997 Newbery Honor.

Lily's Crossing features a motherless girl coping with the absence of her father, who joins the Army just after the Allied invasion during WWII. Giff skillfully interweaves colorful details of the homefront situation that lend immediacy to the story, while focusing on a friendship that develops between Lily and a Hungarian refugee boy.

To promote the book, BDD sent Giff on a two-week tour in March. She visited 11 bookstores and gave several presentations for teachers, librarians and booksellers. Although the book had already been named Newbery and Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Books, Giff said she was still gratified by the many positive, heartfelt responses she received on the road.

Giff says she considers Lily's Crossing to be the most personal of her books. While writing the story, she drew on her own vivid memories of growing up amid wartime shortages, swelling patriotism and community sorrow for the loss of local her s. During her appearances, Giff said she heard the same question over and over: "The kids asked me, 'Are you Lily?' " (There are parts of herself in the character, Giff said, but other parts are completely fictional.)

"When I sat down to write the book," Giff explained, "I wanted to see what I remembered. I made a list of everything I could think of -- posters I had seen, the banner in our church with names of who was missing and who was dead. I was surprised by how much I did remember."

At some point when jotting down her memories, Giff said, the character of Lily took over, and then the story began to take shape. During the four years she spent writing the book, in between other projects, the author said she found herself considering new ways to write. "I savored the process. I thought more about description and connecting the story to the main character," she said, adding that this may be why people find the story so compelling.

The author credits then-Delacorte editor Mary Cash with drawing further details from her memory and pushing her to dig deeper into her material. "There were points when I just wanted to end it, but she [Cash] wouldn't let me. She wanted more about the father, for example, and other things."Giff, who was a teacher herself for two decades, noted that educators like the book's homefront setting because it provides ample material for classroom discussion. She added that perhaps kids in the eight-to-12 age range first picked up Lily's Crossing because they remembered liking her earlier books and ended up enjoying it because they related to Lily's loneliness and self-doubt.

Meeting Her Readers

Beginning in Portland, Ore., and moving through Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Dayton, Ohio, and ending in Pittsburgh, the tour included a number of unforgettable moments for the author. For example, there was a woman from New Jersey, now living in Chicago, whose children had learned to read with Giff's books. The woman's children were now grown, but she said she had to meet Giff.

Another high point was when Louise Borden (author of the historical picture books Paperboy and The Little Ships) drove 50 miles to see Giff in Dayton. Borden brought a bottle of Champagne and told Giff she had loved the book.

The most unusual event, according to Giff, was sponsored by the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. The event drew a variety of people -- mothers with babies, many adults and kids from toddlers up through junior high schoolers. Then the young people broke into moderated groups to discuss the book. Giff said she sees this as part of a phenomenon of bringing generations together through literature.

Lily's Crossing is certainly a book that can be discussed across generations, with grandparents contributing their own memories and parents and children learning about an important era of American history. In her travels, Giff said she found this to be true because of the wide range of people who attended her signings. And this, she added, is what made her recent tour so special: it gave her a chance to meet people who had experienced her writing in different ways, by connecting the character of Lily and the details of Giff's life with their own memories and family histories.
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