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It won’t surprise regular readers of this column that we are returning to author Patricia Polacco once again. We last visited her in November, 2012, with Bully (2012, G.P. Putnam & Sons). Aside from being one of my favorite authors and illustrators, she always seems to be right “on spot” when it comes to so many issues, especially the subject of disabilities.
Polacco, herself, is dyslexic. She told her personal story in Thank You, Mr. Falker (2012 reissue, Philomel Books), the well-known and very important picture book. In it, she tells how one teacher recognized her potential and taught her how to read.
Polacco bases many of her books on real-life events and narrative histories from her childhood. Our book for this issue began that way as well. It’s Clara and Davie, The True Story of Young Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross (2014, Scholastic Press). What makes this story even more poignant is to learn that Polacco is related to Clara Barton through her mother’s family and that she is telling the true family stories about the young Clara.
Clara was the fifth child born, on Christmas Day, 1821, to a family of two sisters and two brothers. She was ten years younger that Davie, her youngest brother. Soon after Clara’s birth, her mother died. She was basically raised by her oldest sister, Dolly, and most especially by her brother, Davie. Davie adored his little sister, and it was he who “… taught her to climb trees, to chase fireflies, to jump deep furrows and throw clods of earth.” (p. 4) It was also Davie who taught her to love nature and animals. Soon it became common knowledge that Clara had a special way with hurt and sick animals. Even the neighbors brought their animals to “Clara’s healing hands.”
But there were problems. Whenever Clara talked, she struggled. “Her words just didn’t come out right. Horse was “horth.” Snapdragons were “thnathdargonth.” (p. 5) Since others teased her about her speech, she became very shy. School, where she was both teased and bullied, was a disaster. Finally, Polacco tells how Clara runs away from home. Davie finds her in the barn with her animals and persuades their father that she should be taught at home. He agrees and the whole family helps out. Then this bright little girl begins to blossom.
Clara’s healing powers are finally and fully realized when Davie, her beloved brother, falls from the barn and is seriously injured. While the doctor does not expect Davie to live, Clara begins the long, slow process of nursing her brother back to health. Eventually, she inspires him to learn to walk again. On the first day that he begins to walk, Davie tells her, “You do have the gift of healing. It’s in your heart — and your hands…. Some day you are going to be a very great lady, Clara.” (p. 24)
Clara and Davie will more than satisfy even the most critical of readers. Polacco has told a family story with warmth, humor, and wonderful sensitivity. The details of the story, the depth of the emotion, the theme of loving and caring sing out in this beautiful book, which Polacco also illustrated in her imitable style. The language flows; her illustrations move the plot forward; and the fact that it is a short biography will meet and please the many gifted readers who favor this genre. (An added feature of this book is historical notes at the end that are quite good.)
I always keep my eye open for books that inspire. Especially, those that deal with the issues that our wonderful 2e learners share. Clara and Davie will not only inspire and please, but the book could easily lead to a more in-depth study of Clara Barton and the work she accomplished that changed the medical profession forever.
Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. At conferences, he often presents a session titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” Reach him at email@example.com.