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Meet the Creator of "The Beast"!

Meet the Creator of "The Beast"!

Kate Marley

The appreciative reading public will have a chance to meet Patricia Reilly Giff on Tuesday, April 4, 2000 on the first floor meeting room at the Towson Branch of the Baltimore County Libray System. Doors will open at 6:30 for book sales and signing, and the program itself will begin at 7pm.

Kids may not immediately recognize the name Patricia Reilly Giff. But mention Emily Arrow , Casey Valentine , or Richard "The Beast" and their eyes will light up, and they'll tell you about Casey's latest problem or about the time the Beast was held back a grade. Giff has written over sixty books for children, most of them for readers making the transition from picture books to novels, that detail the fun and challenge of normal everyday life.

"All of my books are based in some way on my personal experiences, or the experiences of members of my family, or the stories kids would tell me in school." explains Giff. She was a teacher for 20 years, and "wanted to give relatively new readers 'fat' books, chapter books. At the same time I wanted to give my remedial readers books they could read, laugh over, and, I hope, not be ashamed of. I wanted to give them joy."

That she has. Born April 26, 1935 in New York, Giff has been a reader herself all her life. "While the rest of the kids were playing hide-and-seek, I sat under the cherry tree, reading. On winter evenings, I shared an armchair with my father while he read Hiawatha and Evangeline to me. I read the stories of my mother's childhood, and every book in our little library in St. Albans." Some of her favorite books as a child were Little Women, The Secret Garden and series like Sue Barton, The Black Stallion and Nancy Drew. Too often, she would ignore her homework and read. She dreamed of being a writer. "I thought it must be the most marvelous thing to make people dance across the pages."

In college, she studied such classics as Keats, Poe and Dryden, and was intimidated. Certain she could never approach their genius; she switched majors, and became a public school teacher. She married a police officer and had three children, two boys and a girl. She earned a masters degree in history and had started her doctoral studies when suddenly…she was forty. Patricia Reilly Giff had a mid-life crisis about books.

"By this time 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 that they were special. That we all are. Maybe I didn't have to be a Milton or a Longfellow to do that." So she told her husband that she was going to write a book, and he made her a little workspace. Giff now jokes that she "began her career in a closet." Literally.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

"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 recalls. The demands of family, writing and teaching became too much, and she eventually quit teaching. "When I was young and trying out writing I was very busy--I had three children--so I would go into a closet and I would sit and create a world, and I still love to do that now."

Yet the worlds she's created, such as the Polk Street School kids , are instantly recognizable to young readers…here are children like themselves, struggling with siblings and teachers, trying to be popular or brave, dealing with friends and tests. In short, with all the kinds of situations that most kids face. And she does this with such humor, such warmth, and with a keen eye and ear for what kids really say and feel. Children love to read these books over and over again.

While most of her stories have a contemporary home or school setting, Giff has written a few biographies as well. Then there is Lily's Crossing, a novel for older readers, set during World War II and grounded in her own childhood memories of wartime America. Lily's Crossing was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1998. Encouraged by this new success, Giff is writing a story set in 1941 Brooklyn about kids with polio, and another book due to come out in the fall is about an 11 year old during one of the Irish famines. As a successful writer, Giff also tours schools and libraries around the country (like Baltimore!), talking about her books and writing in general.

"What kids ask me the most is 'Where do you get your ideas?'" says Giff. "And that is so hard to answer really because you get your ideas from somewhere, from anywhere, from something someone says, from something you see, from your childhood. And after a while, the ideas are easy. It's writing about the ideas that are hard and that take the time."

These days, time for writing is easier for Giff…her children are grown with children of their own, her husband retired. They live in the rural setting of Weston, Connecticut, where instead of a converted closet, she has a gazebo away from the house, complete with water and lights. They feed the birds and watch the deer at night. She has two cats that keep her company while writing. She enjoys baked potatoes, movies and popcorn, and chocolate candy. Reading (particularly in the bathtub) is still one of her absolute favorite things to do, but she won't pick favorites because there are so many books to love.

Giff claims "I have no special talent, you know. I never took a writing course before I began to write. It's only talking on paper…talking about the things that matter to us." She says, "anyone who has problems or worries, anyone who laughs and cries, anyone who feels, can write."


1. Something About the Author, vol. 70. edited by Donna Olendorf & Diane Telgen. Gale Publishing, Detroit, 1993. p. 71-72.
2. Fifth Book of Junior Authors & Illustrators. HW Wilson Co., NY, 1983. p. 132-133.
3. Random House Publishing.Patricia Reilly Giff. 1/27/2000.
4. Bookpeople: A Second Album. by Sharron L. McElmeel. Teacher Ideas Press, Englewood, Col., 1990. p. 105-108.
5. Telephone interview with Patricia Reilly Giff,

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