It has been over 15 years since I first heard of this book, and have read it countless times since. Now when rereading the original book, the story and message that the book conveys to m, resonates even more strongly today than it did when I was younger.
Narrated in the first person by Patricia Polacco, The Keeping Quilt, tacitly links six generations of women, one to the other, in a story that celebrates the importance of continuity. The story begins with Polacco’s Great Gramma Anna who emigrates as a child with her parents from Russia to New York. Life is different in America, but for Anna it becomes her new home. As she quickly learns English, her dress and red babushka are the only things that connect her to her Russian past. Determined to not let Anna forget where she came from, her mother, with the help of the women in the neighborhood, craft a quilt using Anna’s own blue dress and the fabric from pieces of clothing belonging to Anna’s family back home. They border the quilt with Anna’s red babushka. This quilt represents more than pieces of old clothing brought over from Russia. Rather, the quilt embodies the spirit of connection of recent immigrants, coming together to sew a history, a memory, a family heirloom, a timeless gift and to help young Anna as she acculturates in a new country to remain connected and “always remember home.”
Not surprisingly, the quilt becomes more than simply having “the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night.” The quilt assumes an integral place in the traditions of the author’s family, showcasing for the reader that although circumstances do change, customs can continue. The quilt became the tablecloth at the weekly Sabbath dinner of Anna’s family, at Anna’s 98th birthday and at the author’s first birthday party. It was also used as the blanket on which Anna sat when she fell in love and became engaged, to keep her warm as she grew older, and to foster the author’s creativity as she played or told stories. From the wedding canopy under which Anna, and later her daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter were married to the blanket in which new lives were wrapped. The quilt becomes a beautiful link between generations of women, mother and daughter – a reminder of their past as well as the promise of the future. The original edition of the book ends with the author Patricia holding her own daughter in the quilt, but the story of the quilt does not end there. The last image suggests that the quilt will continue to be an integral part of future generations.
Not only is Patricia Polacco an engaging story teller, but an exceptional artist whose realistic drawings are true to each generation. Her original illustrations enhance the captivating story and capture the family’s spirit, character and mood as the circumstances demand while detailing the past and present culture of the family even with the passing of time. The quilt is the focus of her story and the quilt remains the focus of her drawings and the only part of her illustration that includes color, amidst the brown pencil illustrations that take up much of the pages. In every illustration there is the quilt, a symbol of her family’s heritage and of the love and the value the family place on their past, helping them deal with the present and the hope for the future. Although it is a picture book written primarily for children, I feel the book will resonate with readers of any age and every religion because traditions, even when adapted to changing times as it does from generation to generation in the book, allows memories to be triggered and tthe value of memory and tradition is timeless.
On the 25th anniversary of the books original publication, a revised edition was released, continuing to share the story of the quilt. I desperately wanted to see this edition but could not find it in the library-somebody else must have been enjoying reading it. Shamefaced I admit the only place I could find the additional images was online, but at least my curiosity was satisfied. It was the wedding canopy at each of her children’s weddings, and accompanied Polacco when she visited schools. After so many years, the quilt, not surprisingly, was extremely fragile and, as a surprise, Patricia’s children had an exact replica of the quilt made for their mother as a birthday present. The original quilt now hangs in the Mazza Museum in Findlay, Ohio which houses a vast and diverse collection of the original artwork of children’s book illustrators. Now, the public too gets to enjoy the quilt, a wonderful reminder that tradition creates memories and strengthens the bond of family from one generation to the next.
I feel this book can successfully be used to expose students to a variety of topics, including family ancestry, family bonds, research on family history, family trees, intergenerational connections, immigration at the turn of the 20th century and customs and traditions in different religions and cultures. So the next time you’re looking for a book to share with your class consider The Keeping Quilt. It will not matter if it is the original or the new publication- the message is the same in both.
– Michelle Sandler