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Patricia Reilly Giff, children's author and former Elmont teacher, dies at 86

Patricia Reilly Giff, a longtime Elmont teacher who

Patricia Reilly Giff, a longtime Elmont teacher who went on to write over 100 books whose characters were relatable to young readers, died on June 22 at home in Connecticut. She was 86. Credit: J. Pszenica

When Patricia Reilly Giff was a girl — roughly the age of the millions of children who would one day devour her books — she did not join in schoolyard games of hide-and-seek. Instead, she would take shelter under a cherry tree, an open book in her hands.

Giff had "wanted to write from the first time I picked up a book and read," she later said. But only in her early 40s, when she was established in her career in the 1970s as a reading teacher in Elmont and after her three children had reached school age, did she act on her abiding ambition. As she carved out the necessary time in her day to write, her husband carved out the necessary space in their Elmont home, combining two adjacent closets into a tiny studio.

"I dragged myself out of bed in the early-morning darkness to spend an hour or two at my typewriter before I had to leave for school," Giff recalled. "Slowly and painfully, I began to write."

The author of more than 100 books for young readers, Giff died on June 22 at her home in Trumbull, Connecticut. She was 86. The cause was cancer, said her son William Giff of Fairfield, Connecticut.

In one of several popular series she penned, Giff delighted younger readers with the adventures, misadventures and high jinks of the fictional Polk Street School. Writing for older readers, she animated historical events in volumes such as "Lily’s Crossing" (1997), a novel set on the homefront during World War II. That book, like the subsequent "Pictures of Hollis Woods" (2002), about a foster child in search of belonging, received the Newbery Honor, one of the highest awards in children’s literature.

Giff said she began writing with the desire to brighten the lives of children such as her students. As a teacher in public schools — first in New York City in the late 1950s and then in Elmont from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, according to Publishers Weekly — she encountered children set back in their learning by issues including substance abuse and delinquency. Others, recent immigrants, struggled to read in English.

"I had worked with so many children who had terrible problems that I wanted to say things that would make them laugh. I wanted to tell them they were special," she once said, according to the reference guide Authors and Artists for Young Adults. "I wish I had started sooner."

Many of her early books fell in the humor genre. Notable among them were the many installments in the Polk Street series, which opened in 1984 with "The Beast in Ms. Rooney’s Room." "Beast" — a nickname for the protagonist — is humiliated to have been held back a year, but with the help of his reading teacher, begins to find his way in the second grade and in life.

"The Polk Street series became double-edged," Giff told The New York Times. "Teachers would use it with older kids as humor, to teach remedial reading, whereas the younger ones would read about these little kids and were very serious about it. You know, it’s their lives."

Giff’s other series included "Polka Dot Private Eye," "Lincoln Lions Band," "Ballet Slippers" and "Friends and Amigos." In the last, she incorporated elements of Spanish.

According to Publishers Weekly, she credited an editor with encouraging her to confront heavier topics. "Lily’s Crossing," her first venture into deeper territory, centers on a girl, missing her widowed father during his wartime service in Europe, who befriends a Hungarian refugee.

"For today’s children, to whom World War II must seem as remote as the Civil War, Lily’s story places history in real time," Jane Langton, a children’s author, wrote in a review for the Times.

As in many of her works, Giff incorporated her own life and memories into that story. She told Publishers Weekly: "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 wanted to tell my readers that even though the times are different now, people have always worried about the same things," she told the Post-Standard of Syracuse, "loss and separation, the future, and sometimes war."

Patricia Jeanne Reilly was born in Brooklyn in 1935 and grew up in St. Albans, Queens, according to the Times. Her father was an NYPD officer who rose to inspector, and her mother was a homemaker.

She graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in 1956. Two years later, she received a master’s degree in history from St. John’s University. She married James A. Giff, a World War II veteran who went on to become an NYPD detective, in 1959.

Giff’s early books included "Fourth-Grade Celebrity" (1979). Although she stopped teaching in 1984 to pursue writing full time, her students and their challenges remained ever-present in her books. She said "Wild Girl" (2009), about a young Brazilian immigrant, was inspired by her work with new speakers of English. Giff recalled being haunted by the shame of a student who did not speak English and so could not tell Giff that she needed to use the restroom.

"I remembered that incident for the rest of my teaching career," she told Publishers Weekly. "I felt it was my fault that she had had such a terrible embarrassment. In the novel, the same thing happens to Lidie. I put that incident in as a little, gentle reminder to teachers."

She also took time to speak with youngsters, including Kidsday reporters for Newsday in 2004. In that interview, she told fourth-graders from Paumanok Elementary in Dix Hills: "It’s very unusual for me not to write every day. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to write every day, even if only for 15 minutes."

Giff continued writing until shortly before her death. Her most recent titles included the animal adventure "Zebra at the Zoo" (2021).

For many years, she and her family operated a children’s bookstore in Fairfield, Connecticut. Its name, the Dinosaur’s Paw, was drawn from a Polk Street title.

Her husband, James, died at age 90 in 2017. One of their two sons, also named James, died in 2016.

In addition to son William, Patricia Reilly Giff is survived by daughter Alice O’Meara of Fairfield; a sister; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. She was buried Monday in Fairfield.

With Newsday staff

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