The Keeping Quilt

by Patricia Polacco. Picture Book. 32 pages. Grades K-3.
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Teacher's Guide

cover art

A Russian immigrant mother and family arrive in the United States. She plans to make a quilt from a basket of old clothes, telling her daughter, "It will be like having the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night". The quilt is passed along from mother to daughter for four generations. It becomes a Sabbath tablecloth and a wedding canopy. When it becomes a blanket for new generations of children, it really tells a family's story of love, faith and endurance.

Sepia colored figures are carefully drawn on textured off-white paper. The effect is one of recollection, or perhaps of fading diary pages. When color is used, it serves to highlight or focus on the fabric worn by the central character and on the quilt itself. The texture produced by conte crayon or pencil on rough-surfaced paper replicates the feeling of fabrics. The illustrations contain a variety of smooth and course textures, as well as varied prints and patterned fabrics.

Most of the compositions are contained on single pages. The exceptions are double page spreads that serve to highlight the story's theme. Since the shape of the book is rectangular and it is bound horizontally, the double page illustration showing the large gathering of quilters captures the spirit of cooperation. When seen together, these caricatures, colors and quilts produce the feeling of comfort associated with folk art.

Author Information:

Patricia Polacco was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1944. Her parents divorced when she was three but both parents were very much a part of her childhood. She spent the summers with her father in Williamston, Michigan and the rest of the year with her mother and grandparents on a farm. Both families spent a great deal of time sharing stories and memories with Patricia and her older brother, Richard. When she was seven, the children moved with her mother to Oakland, California where she still lives, but they continued to go every summer to Michigan.

She had great difficulty learning to read because of dyslexia, a condition about which very little was known at the time, but a seventh grade teacher discovered her problem and helped her with it. Once she could read, she read voraciously.

Patricia Polacco published her first book in 1987. She loves the racially mixed neighborhood in which she and her husband live in Oakland. Every morning she sits in a rocking chair (she has lots of them) and collects her thoughts and plans for the day as she rocks. Sometimes she thinks through an entire story as she rocks and only later transfers it to paper.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • Besides the obvious uses for the quilt, what unique things did it become for this family over the years?

  • What were the traditional gifts given on special occasions and what did they signify? How do they compare to the gifts in your family?

  • From memory, draw a small replica of the quilt. Explain the designs and their origins.

  • What things in the story would have changed if:
    Anna's family had not emigrated to the US?
    The family had not stayed in New York?
    Anna had not learned to speak English?
    The family had returned to Russia?

  • What things have been handed down in your family? Search out the oldest thing in your household that has been handed down from one generation to another. If possible, bring it to school and tell its story.

  • Find Ellis Island on the map and think about the twenty million or more people who came through that station. What things in America would be different today without them?

  • Anna's family had been dirt farmers in Russia. Does that mean they raised dirt? What employment did they find in New York? Were they richer or poorer in each succeeding generation?


  • List the materials (old clothes) used to make the quilt. Match them up with the people they belonged to.

  • Reread the book and find the foreign words: babuska, challah, huppa, kulich. Which ones are translated for us and which ones can we figure out the meaning of from context?

  • Find the many traditions portrayed throughout the book. Compare the early ones with the modern ones. Which ones continued through the generations. Which ones changed? Make lists to show your findings.

  • The Statue of Liberty is shown on the title page of the book. Find and read the sonnet "The New Colossus" some of which is inscribed on the statue. Why do you think they chose those lines? Are immigrants still encouraged to come here?
    The New Colossus

  • Compose a letter from Anna as she arrives in New York to friends back in Russia. Describe the scene of her arrival and her first home.

  • Change the letter to one from Anna after the birth of her daughter Carle. Include the changes in her life.

  • Investigate your classroom's heritage. Make charts, maps and graphs to show where the different families originated. Put immigration dates if possible into your graphics.

  • Why did they come? Various large immigrations to the US were caused by specific factors. Find out about those and then look again at the activity above. Which of those immigrants were part of the large groups of immigrations?

  • What jobs are available for new immigrants in your area? Are they available for non-English speaking people as well as those who do speak English? What help is available for new immigrants? Who provides those services?

  • Read some of the other books about quilts in the subject area Quilts.

  • Patricia Polacco often writes about things that really happened in her family. Read more of her books. Have similar things happened in your family that you could write about?

  • Arrange a quilt display in the classroom with paper designs for quilts as well as real quilts.

  • A good fund raiser for a class is the creation of a quilt to be raffled or auctioned off.

  • You'll need to do a lot of research first about quilts. Quilt squares are the easiest to put together and will allow each person in the class to contribute.

  • Class quilts can be simple or elaborate. It might be fun to have each person in the class design one square for a quilt.

  • Quilting takes careful planning. Remember, the designs on it will have to be possible to recreate in cloth. Have someone who knows a lot about quilting talk to the class before, during and after the designs are created. Children may be able to translate their own squares into cloth. If not, parents may be able or willing to help. Piecing the quilt will take some expertise, but children can do most of that stitching with guidance. Whether you tie or sew the quilt to its backing is a matter of the amount of time, skill, equipment or expertise available. Don't forget grandparents in the quest for quilt know-how. Parent groups may be available to run the actual raffle or it can become a total class activity.

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Related Books


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    A young girl learns of her family's heritage from her bed-ridden great grandmother. In this book it's a samovar that is handed down through the family. The feelings it creates are similar to those in Keeping Quilt. More Information including activities, related books and links.

  • Love, D. Anne. Bess's Log Cabin Quilt. Holiday, 1995. ISBN 0823411788. Grades 4+. Order Info.
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