Author Patricia Reilly Giff is a former teacher who now incorporates the lessons that she learned about children through her occupation into her writing. Giff spent more than two decades as a full time teacher, mostly in elementary schools, and so it is not at all surprising that the majority of her written texts have to do with life at school, the many difficulties of children, and the problems that many adults have in trying to communicate with a population in which they no longer take part. According to Giff, she did not even begin writing until the year 1975, when she had reached the age of 40 (La Gorce). Many people would consider this rather late in life to set about on a whole new career, particularly one like novel writing where so few people are able to be successful and to make a living with it, but Giff believed in herself and she had a supportive family to encourage her, a factor which would contribute heavily to her literary perspective.
She is most famous for having written a series of texts called the Polk Street School Series. Second grade teacher Ms. Rooney leads a classroom full of characters starring pupils Richard Best and Emily Arrow. Both of these students have characteristics which make them appealing and problems which make them relatable to children who may be reading the stories. The first volume of the series was published in 1984 with the novel The Beast in Ms. Rooney's Room. The story deals with Richard "Beast" Best having to repeat the second grade and experiencing ridicule from the other students in his class. He also has to deal with the guilt and shame of not being as quick to learn as the children his own age. The other volumes of the series deal with other mundane problems that many children would likely face, such as having an item stolen at school, having trouble with an assignment, trouble in physical education class, having to attend Summer School, having fights with classmates, and needing to take responsibility when a child does something wrong. The final volume of the series, Next Stop, New York! from 1999 deals with a class field trip to the city of the title. Although Giff has professed that she has not necessarily stopped writing Polk Street stories, it is unlikely given that her interests have shifted to more adult themes.
After the series was finished, author Giff decided to take on some more adult themes with her last two novels. Both Lily's Crossing from 1998 and Pictures of Hollis Woods from 2003 were honored with Newbury Awards for literary excellence. Subsequent books, including Nory Ryan's Song, Maggie's Door, and Willow Run have been written to appeal both to adults and to those in their early teens or late pre-teens. The literary work are designed to explore different views of childhood and the process of growing up, ideas which were inappropriate to her successful series. Each story is intended to teach a lesson about the human condition and about how even the smallest kindness that a person can perform can have an enormous impact on the life of another person.
Perhas Giff's most famous piece of literature was The Picture of Hollis Woods. The novel The Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Giff tells the story of a young, mistreated girl who only understands the world in terms of the pictures that she draws. Initially, she can only associate with the world by the using her drawings as she has not developed language and communication skills due to the neglectful manner in which she has been brought up. One of the recurring motifs of the novel is the letter "W" and how it is incorporated into the character's art, and subsequently how she sees the world around her. As Hollis Woods evolves as both a person and a character, so too does the meaning of the "W" that she incorporates into her work of art. The artwork itself is the real symbol of the story. Each piece of art is reflective of the artist and her emotional state.
When the reader is first introduced to Hollis Woods, she is in her first grade class talking about words that begin with the letter "W." It is clear that even though this young girl has had a hard life, she is still hopeful. She says the "W" could stand for wish, want, or "Wouldn't it be loverly" (Giff 2002,-page 1). This is evidence that the she is aware that her life is unpleasant, but she is not yet jaded beyond the hope that things can become better. The W. picture is a family and that is something Hollis does not really have. As years go by, she keeps the W. picture with her as a constant reminder of all she does not have but wants. At the end of the novel when Hollis finally does have a family, she is reluctant to compare it to her W. picture (page 166). This is because things have turned out so that the reality actually surpasses the ideal she had before; her reality has become better than the wish.
The structure of the novel is mostly chronological. However, the narration of the story is mixed between present and past tenses. When the book is in standard text, the reader is more within a single moment and witnessing it more closely to how it actually occurred. When the text is italicized, then the reader is more heavily influenced by the first-person narrator, Hollis. The events seem to be taking place in the past and the present-tense narrator is reflecting on incidences that had happened to her a long time ago. This gives a story with a lot of emotion distress some authenticity and gives the narrator veracity. She is a survivor of these events and it becomes easier to believe her.
One of the more important characters in the novel is Beatrice. Her cousin Josie has taken in Hollis, who is an orphan. At one point in the story, Beatrice says, "Sometimes we learn from our drawings, things that we thought we didn't know" (Giff 2002,-page 150). What this means within the context of the story goes back to that W. picture. For each artist, they put something of themselves into their works. It is a part of the artistic eye which allows them to share their soul on the paper or canvas on which they work. For Hollis, her art is all a kind of request for something better than she knows now. It shows everything she truly wants without being confused with what she believes she wants.
Beatrice's words are reflective of Hollis's character. At first, she feels unhappy in all situations. She has been mistreated for her entire life and it is no wonder that she has reached a point in her life where she trusts no one. Everyone she has depended on has eventually let her down. When this happens too frequently, the child learns that they can only truly depend on themselves. Over the course of the story, Hollis chooses to ignore her own art, forcing that W. picture into the bottom of a large pile of drawings. Yet, although she tries very hard to forget about it, she finds that she cannot. Nor can she destroy it or throw it away. When she is finally ready to embrace other people is when she is also ready to see the picture again and appreciate it rather than regret it. Her picture showed her what she wanted all along, which was to be truly loved and to love back. Admitting this before she was ready was something too painful to accept.