Obituary: Patricia Reilly Giff

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Prolific children’s book author Patricia Reilly Giff, widely known for her Newbery Honor-winning novels Lily’s Crossing and Pictures of Hollis Woods, as well as humorous series including the Kids of the Polk Street School, died on June 22 at her home in Fairfield, Conn., following a long illness. She was 86.

Patricia Reilly Giff was born April 26, 1935 in Brooklyn, N.Y., to William J. and Alice Reilly. As a child she was surrounded by stories, some told by her relatives or read to her by her father, as well as the ones she read on her own. “I spent most of my childhood with a book in my hands,” she told Something About the Author in 1983. “After school, I’d sit in the kitchen, leaning against the warm radiator, dreaming over a story,” she recalled. “And I always wanted to write.”

Following high school, she enrolled at Marymount College where she initially majored in English and then changed to history before receiving her B.A. in 1956. Giff has said she “fell into teaching” when her college dean suggested it might be a “good place for me.” She began teaching in the New York City public school system and also continued her studies at St. John’s University, earning an M.A. in history in 1958. Giff then married James A. Giff, a detective, in 1959. The couple would eventually welcome three children.

In 1964, Giff accepted a position as a teacher in the Elmont Public Schools in Elmont, N.Y. She taught reading and was a reading consultant in grades three through six at various times and also expanded her credentials when she received a professional diploma in reading from Hofstra University in 1975.

It was that same year, at age 40, that Giff first tried to write a book of her own. She said that her experience working with remedial students, who often faced difficult circumstances and had “unhappy faces,” was a big inspiration for her. “With my husband’s encouragement, I decided to say something to all these children. I began to write,” she told SATA. Giff also wanted to make her students laugh. Her husband spurred her on and even converted two adjacent closets in their apartment into a small writing studio where she could work. For several years she snatched time to write before school and “slowly and painfully,” Giff recounted, she crafted her first book, Today Was a Terrible Day, which was discovered in the slush pile and published by Viking in 1980.

Giff had found her writing voice, and clearly had much more to say to the students she was addressing in her books; she had published 10 books by 1984 when she stopped teaching and decided to write fulltime. That change coincided with another new chapter, when she and her husband moved to Weston, Conn.

For years she often produced multiple titles annually, creating the Kids of the Polk Street School series and two spin-off series, and a number of humorous novels. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when she had already written more than 60 books for young readers, that Giff embraced a shift in tone. “The wonderful publisher Craig Virden [then publisher of Delacorte Press] said he believed I had a serious book in me,” Giff said in a q&a for Scholastic.com. “And so I began, tentatively at first, and soon loved writing seriously. Lily’s Crossing (Delacorte, 1997) was my first, which Craig ended up publishing!” Lily’s Crossing chronicles the experiences of a girl on vacation in the Rockaways during the summer of 1944 as her best friend moves away and her father goes to war overseas. Giff has said that she drew from personal memories for this story and that it took her four years to finish. The book received a 1998 Newbery Honor citation, the first of two that Giff would win. The second came in 2003 for Pictures of Hollis Woods (Random House/Wendy Lamb).

In all, Giff produced more than 100 books for young readers. But in addition to her writing, Giff combined her expertise and love of books to reach people in other ways, too. She served as educational consultant for Dell Yearling and Young Yearling Book and was an adviser and instructor to aspiring writers. In 1990, she and her husband and children opened a children’s bookstore in Fairfield, Conn., called The Dinosaur’s Paw, a name taken from the title of one of Giff’s Kids of the Polk Street School books.

Giff’s surviving children, William and Alice, honored her this way: “Our mom was a warm, loving mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. A mentor to a generation of writers, she inspired everyone with her humor, positivity and friendship. She made everyone feel special.”

Mary Cash, v-p and editor-in-chief at Holiday House, was a longtime editor of Giff’s books, including her most recent works, which included the novel A Slip of a Girl (2019) and the Mysteries on Zoo Lane series. She paid tribute to Giff with these words: “One of the things that made Patricia Reilly Giff’s work extraordinary was how thoroughly she understood the emotional lives of children—what they loved most, what frightened and troubled them, and what truly mattered to them. She was also able to give her characters the compassion and forgiveness they could not yet give themselves, and I think that this is why readers often found her work reassuring. The lovely thing is that she was just as generous and compassionate in her personal relationships, which is part of what made it such a joy to work with her.”

Kathy Dunn, director of publicity at Random House Children’s Books, recalled a favorite anecdote about the author she had worked with for many years. “Pat Giff was a true one-of-a-kind. She was the first author I ever traveled with as a publicist 20+ years ago, and when I mentioned that my mother still asked for my flight numbers and hotel info (at age 25), she made sure she walked me to my hotel room door and that I was safely inside. Her love and kindness radiated from within and I will forever remember all of the laughter, phone calls, emails, and desserts (Pat’s favorite) that we shared together. She solidified my love for books, authors, and the children’s publishing world.”

And Wendy Lamb, Giff’s longtime editor at Delacorte and the Wendy Lamb Books imprint, offered this remembrance: “Pat Giff has been a shining presence in our community for generations. I met her at Viking in 1978, when an editorial assistant found Pat’s first book in the slush. What a hilarious, loving, generous spirit she was. How deeply she understood children, and her readers. She cared about other writers, and gave a mountain of blurbs. Today, her books move young people to enter our field, and so, Pat will continue to inspire us.”

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