When I heard about this lovely book from fellow bookblogger Kerry Aradhya from PictureBooks and Pirouettes, I knew I had to look it up in our community library. Not surprisingly, I was able to find it and to my great delight I learned that the book was actually based on real life events of the author/illustrator herself, Patricia Polacco – thus, a perfect contribution for Nonfiction Monday which is being hosted today by Practically Paradise, the official blog of School Library Journal.
What does it mean to be “special?” Being a lecturer in Early Childhood and Special Needs Education, I often ask my teacher-students about their perception of what it means to be ‘different?’ What qualities do you need to possess in order for you to be considered “special?” It is the prefect segue to introduce ‘special needs’ education and an entire discussion devoted to inclusivity and celebration of diversity and need for differentiation. This picture book then is special to me in quite a number of ways since it reminds me about why I do what I do. I have also been on the lookout for picture books such as this that would introduce the concept of ‘different-ness’ without being preachy or cloying.
In the first page of the book, we are introduced to a young girl who is staying with her father and Gramma in Michigan – she was pretty excited about going to school there because according to her:
In my old school in California, the kids all knew that I had just learned to read… that I used to be dumb. Everyone knew that I was always in special classes. Here no one would tease me.
Little did she know that she would be grouped alongside students who are perceived to be outcasts or rejects – in Mrs Peterson’s class in Room 206. The fact that the author/illustrator, Patricia Polacco, herself is the main protagonist in the story renders an even more poignant voice in the narrative.
The Genius in all of us. Mrs. Peterson, the Teacher of Room 206, is truly a force to contend with.
Short and stout, she seemed a little scary, brusque. But her eyes… her eyes were friendly. I was sure of that.
Instead of greeting her students a warm ‘hello’ or ‘how do you do’ she immediately began with a ‘definition of genius’ – of course, my academic training kind of kicks in and sees the different theorists and the contending view points in each of the line but ’twasn’t loud enough to limit my appreciation of this lovely picture book nonetheless:
“Genius is neither learned nor acquired. It is knowing without experience. It is risking without fear of failure. It is perception without touch. It is understanding without research. It is certainty without proof. It is ability without practice. It is invention without limitations. It is imagination without boundaries. It is creativity without constraints. It is… extraordinary intelligence!”
It was only after reading those lines that Mrs. Peterson introduced herself and she asked the students to write the definition of genius in their little notebooks and to post it in front of their mirrors because according to her: “The definition describes every one of you.”
While I have my reservations and my own ideas about ‘ability without practice’ and ‘understanding without research’ – I feel that the primary intention of Mrs. Peterson is to inspire these young children who feel alienated and rejected by their peers and are unhappy about their school performance. Given their limited sense of self-efficacy and self-worth, words like these are little treasures that provide hope and convey faith in their abilities and capacities to overcome.
All it takes is One. I have often said that it only takes one teacher who can recognize a child’s gift, a student’s potential, or hidden talent – to have this wonderful seed within each of us blossom. Mrs. Peterson was that teacher in Patricia Polacco’s life. She divided the class into four tribes based on scents placed on small glass bottles (vanilla, almond, cinnamon, lemons) and gave them purpose. She built this community of young and bright individuals who started seeing past their so-called deficits and oh-so-gradually, they started aiming for the stars.
Mrs. Peterson empowered them into believing that their weaknesses do not define them and that they have the world within them. What is amazing is that while others may see a dyslexic child, or someone with elective mutism, or a disorder – Mrs Peterson was able to glean the genius in each one of them and gave each of them opportunities to shine. It’s beautiful to see that most of the kids in Patricia’s tribe went on to become pretty distinguished in their chosen careers:
Thom went on to become the artistic director of the American Ballet Theater Company in New York. Ravanne became a textile designer and was eventually invited to Paris to design for the fashion industry. As for Gibbie, well, he went on to become an aeronautical engineer for NASA! He helped design the lunar modules for the Apollo missions. And me? I became a creator of books for children.
This book is a reminder that even amidst the broken bits and pieces of things we discard – what we consider as junk – there may be wonders and treasures we can discover.
Patricia Polacco started writing children’s books when she was 41 years old and has written and illustrated around 40 books in all. Her PhD is in Art History and she majored in Fine Arts while in the University. In her bio she also spoke about having dyslexia as a child and how it has affected her learning. Click here to know more about her and to be taken to her official website.
The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco. Philomel Books, An Imprint of Penguin Group USA, Inc., 2010. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos were taken by me.