By Jasmin Chua

A Queens Childhood Remembered:Bestselling author teaches “the importance of friendship”

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After 20 years teaching children to read in the classroom, it’s reasonable to expect an educator might try her hand at children’s books. Patricia Reilly Giff goes one step further. The bestselling author and Newbury Honor recipient says her passion lies in reaching out to young readers. “I’m particularly interested in kids who are displaced; kids who have no friends; kids who feel as if they are alone,” says the author, who now lives in Weston, Conn., but grew up in St. Albans, Queens. Reilly Giff returns to the theme of childhood alienation in her latest novel, Pictures of Hollis Woods (Wendy Lamb Books, $15.95), for which she was recently awarded a 2003 Newbery Medal. The heroine is a 12-year-old girl who is tossed from one foster home to another. “Hollis is a fictional character,” Giff says. “But as a public school teacher, I had worked with many foster children so I was very aware of how difficult life is when you switch from house to house; always looking for home.” When the possibility of belonging to a real family is offered to Hollis in the form of the Regans, she is suddenly compelled to run away. Then Josie, a retired art teacher, enters her life — or rather, Hollis storms into hers. Creating the character of Josie, according to Giff, didn’t take any huge leap of imagination. “The old woman, Josie Cahill, is based on my mother in real life,” she says. In fact, Giff adds, the characters and settings in the book all have something to do with her mother’s life — Hollis Woods, for instance, is a place near where she grew up in Queens, and Beatrice, another character in the book, was her mother’s best friend when she was a little girl. The house that’s featured in the novel, in Branches, was an actual place that her mother loved in East Branch, N.Y., on the Delaware River. “My mother had Alzheimer’s and was dying when I was writing that book,” Giff says. “It was a tribute to my mother, because just like Josie, even though she was beginning to forget things, she still had an innate sweetness and knowledge of what to say and do for other people and how to make them feel like they had value.” That same message — that people have value — is a key message Giff hopes to bring to her readers. “I want to tell children that they are not alone,” she says. “That quote from C. S. Lewis: ‘We read to know that we are not alone’ really sums it up so much for me.” She also presents her readers with another charge: go out and make a friend. “Friendship is very important,” Giff says. “Any situation will be better and not half as terrible if you have a friend. So many children are isolated either because they’ve moved, or because they’re angry or sullen or they don’t do as well in school. So I want them to reach out to make friends; to make a friend.” It is for this reason that Giff deals primarily in happy endings. “In most situations, you can find something to pin your hope and your expectations on,” she says. “For children, it’s really important to give them that hope.” Her own three children and six grandchildren often find themselves in her books — in a name here or a secret message there. The baby in Pictures of Hollis Woods, for example, is named for her granddaughter, Christine.