Barbara G(arland) Polikoff (1929–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1929; Education: University of Michigan, B.A., 1950; University of Chicago, M.A., 1952 Hobbies and other interests: Back-packing, gardening, photography.
Agent—Jane Jordan Browne, 410 South Michigan, Chicago, IL 60605.
Von Steuben Public High School, Chicago, IL, teacher, 1951–52; Chicago Natural History Museum, Chicago, associate editor of museum bulletin, 1952–55; writer. Sullivan House (alternative school for poor and troubled inner-city kids), board member, 1970–90; Chicago Public Schools, volunteer teacher for writing workshops, 1973–93.
Society of Midland Authors, Amnesty International, American Civil Liberties Union, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy.
Best Books citation, School Library Journal, 1992, and Maryland Black-eyed Susan Award nomination, 1995–96, both for Life's a Funny Proposition, Horatio; Carl Sandburg Award for best children's book, Friends of the Chicago Public Library, 1993; Notable Book citation, American Library Association.
(And photographer) My Parrot Eats Baked Beans: Kids Talk about Their Pets, Albert Whitman (Niles, IL), 1987.
James Madison: Fourth President of the United States (biography), Garrett Publishing Company (Ada, OK), 1988.
Herbert C. Hoover: Thirty-first President of the United States (biography), Garrett Publishing Company (Ada, OK), 1990.
Life's a Funny Proposition, Horatio (novel), Holt (New York, NY), 1992.
Riding the Wind (companion novel to Life's a Funny Proposition, Horatio), Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
With One Bold Act: The Story of Jane Addams, Boswell (Chicago, IL), 1999.
Why Does the Coquí Sing?, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2004.
Barbara G. Polikoff is a writer of biographies and novels for young adults. Though her first book was not published until 1987, she once told Something about the Author (SATA) that "I can't remember a time that I wasn't writing something: poetry, articles, stories, or memoirs. I have been happiest writing books." Polikoff's first novel, Life's a Funny Proposition, Horatio, first gained her critical acclaim, winning awards and best-book citations. The novel tells of twelve-year-old Horatio, whose father has died from lung cancer. Horatio has been adjusting to his new life in Wisconsin with his mother and his ill grandfather, but his efforts are now complicated by his mother's new boyfriend; the death of his grandfather's dog soon makes his grief resurface. Turning to his friend Erik and Erik's sister, Angie, Horatio finds ways to deal with his sadness.
Polikoff once explained to SATA: "Life's a Funny Proposition, Horatio grew out of a conversation I had with my neighbor in the tiny town of Palmyra, Wisconsin. My husband and I have backpacked in the wilderness with our children since they were very young. Five years ago, we built a house in the Wisconsin woods, just one hour and forty-five minutes from our Chicago suburban home, so that we can enjoy living out in nature every weekend. Horatio lives in a town patterned after Palmyra, and the woods he loves are the woods I love. He has a beloved Siberian husky, Silver Chief, and I also have two of those dogs. Horatio's father died when Horatio was very young, as did my father when I was young. Part of his struggle is to accept death and move on with an open heart to what lies in the future. I understand his struggle and I wrote about it because I feel that many children today have to learn to live with loss and grief. The book is serious, but filled with humor, because I believe humor is one of our best tools for survival. Laughter is a great healer."
"Effervescing with humor … this little book packs quite a wallop," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer of Life's a Funny Proposition, Horatio. Brian E. Wilson, reviewing the novel for School Library Journal felt that Polikoff's book "provides a worthwhile look at grief." Popular with readers, protagonists Angie and Horatio reappear in Riding the Wind, in which Angie nurses an abused Arabian horse back to health. "What's best here is the sense of connection between friends and the woods around them," commented Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist.
Returning to biography with her next title, Polikoff focuses on a noted nineteenth-century social worker in With One Bold Act: The Story of Jane Addams. Polikoff told SATA: "The book is about Sadie Garland Dreikers, my ninety-three-year-old aunt, who first went to Hull House as an eleven-year-old child of poor immigrant parents to take painting lessons. She remained at the settlement house, training in social work under Jane Addams until Addams's death in 1935. With the training she received at Hull House as an artist and social worker, she went on to pioneer the field of art therapy worldwide. Much of the book is based on recorded memories of my aunt that I made over an eight-year period." Previous to the publication of Polikoff's biography, very few books had been written on Jane Addams's earlier life, and Polikoff's broad biography offers perspective into Addams' younger years without going into the philosophies underlying the noted reformer's liberal programs. A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded, "this illustrated account is a useful introduction to Addams's life."
Why Does the Coquí Sing?, Polikoff's next novel, is a different type of coming-of-age story than her novels about Horatio and Angie. Luz, who was raised in Chicago, has to move with her family to Puerto Rico, where both her mother and stepfather are from. However, the place doesn't feel like home to a Chicago-born girl, and she and her brother, Rome, both feel like outsiders. As Luz begins to adjust to her new life, however, she also learns to deal with issues that have been troubling her since before the move: her hatred of a long scar on her face, and the knowledge that her birth father did not seem to care about her. "Polikoff makes the sights, smells, and sounds of Puerto Rico come to life," praised a Publishers Weekly reviewer. A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that "this unique coming-of-age story is comforting without becoming predictable." Gillian Engberg, writing in Booklist, complimented Luz's "sensitive, sometimes lyrical voice that's always true to her age." School Library Journal reviewer Carol A. Edwards considered the novel "useful emigrant fiction that shows some of the adjustment required" in moving to a new country.
Polikoff once told SATA: "I've always loved language. When I was very young I collected pretty words the way some children collect rocks or shells. I remember thinking that 'chartreuse' was a particularly beautiful word and that 'porch' was quite an ugly one. As I grew older I collected funny names—a dairy bar called 'The Udder End' and a florist called 'Plant Parenthood.' I began spoken wordplay with my children when they were three years old. By the time they were five, they began putting words on paper. They haven't stopped. Each of them, two daughters and a son, went on to college and earned degrees in literature. My youngest daughter, upon completing a poem, confided that the only feeling comparable to the pleasure of writing a good poem is falling in love. 'Or writing a book that comes out the way you wanted it to,' I responded.
"After teaching English in a Chicago high school for a year, it became clear that if I were to be the kind of teacher that I wanted to be, I would never have time for my own writing. I resigned as a teacher and did editorial work for awhile, and then I began working as a volunteer in a Chicago public elementary school, teaching writing one day a week. I've been doing this for twenty years. At first, I taught because I loved it, but during the last decade an urgency has been added to that love and now I teach because I want to help innercity children gain the full and exciting use of language. In so doing, I want to help them find the key to who they are, and also to help them become literate, productive adults.
"I write books that I hope children will want to read because they will involve them emotionally in things that matter to them: family relationships, the struggle to find and be oneself in spite of social pressures, and love and respect for the natural world and for each other.
"Some people ask when I'm going to write a novel for adults, as if books for children were not as important or as difficult to write. Right now, I know that I derive great pleasure from writing for children. Who loves their favorite books the way children do, hiding them under their pillows and re-reading them? Who lives with the characters in books as passionately as children? When my grown daughters come home to visit, they will often pull a book off the shelf that they loved as children and read it from cover to cover. If grown children do that with my books, I will be content."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, September 15, 1988, p. 164; June 15, 1992, p. 1826; June 1, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Riding the Wind, p. 1772; April 15, 2002, Anna Rich, "Award Winners," p. 1424; May 15, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of Why Does the Coquí Sing? p. 1620.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1988, p. 82; September, 1992, p. 21.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1988, p. 1155; July 1, 1992, p. 853; March 15, 2004, review of Why Does the Coquí Sing? p. 275.
Publishers Weekly, June 22, 1992, review of Life's a Funny Proposition, Horatio, p. 62; July 26, 1999, review of With One Bold Act: The Story of Jane Addams, p. 72; May 10, 2004, review of Why Does the Coquí Sing? p. 59.
School Library Journal, November, 1988, p. 121; August, 1992, p. 156; April, 2002, Brian E. Wilson, review of Life's a Funny Proposition, Horatio, p. 85; June, 2004, Carol A. Edwards, review of Why Does the Coquí Sing? p. 148.