Patricia Reilly Giff, 1935-2021

Lily’s Crossing – Patricia Reilly Giff
Delacorte Press, 1997

Patricia Reilly Giff, who died in June, left an unforgettable body of work for young readers.  Her funny and engaging series about the Polk Street School kids, her historical novels, many about Irish and Irish-American children, and a broad range of other works, are her legacy.  One of my favorite books by her, and, in fact, by any author of middle-grade fiction, remains Lily’s Crossing. This story of a motherless girl, Lily Mollahan, who befriends a Hungarian refugee boy, Albert Orban, takes place in Far Rockaway, New York, in 1944.  Lily, her father, and her grandmother live in St. Albans, Queens, but spend the summers in a seaside community where both year-round and summer residents make their homes.  Her best friend has moved to Detroit, and her father, an engineer, leaves to serve in the military.  Lily is devastated.  This beautiful, elegiac, look back at a specific time and place in American history is also a sensitive picture of childhood, relevant to anyone who has ever struggled with loss.

Life is hard during wartime.  Mrs. Sherman’s bakery has been affected by rationing, now selling mainly cookies which “would be hard by now, the juice drained out overnight.”  The local letter carrier is kept busy, but still has time to let Lily know when he has a letter from her father overseas.  Lily’s days are filled with swimming and rowing, practicing the piano, attending church, and feeling sad.  Giff captures both the nostalgia for an era when Americans were largely united in a feeling of sacrifice, but also lived with the daily anguish and anxiety of absent fathers, brothers, and husbands.  Many Americans, like Lily’s neighbors, the Orbans, had relatives in Europe whose fate was uncertain, or worse.  When Lily meets Albert, at first she projects her anger at him, finding his serious, almost adult, demeanor, to be irritating.  But gradually the two children form a bond based on their grief, as well as their need to be normal, rule-testing, kids.

Lily feels guilty because she sometimes tells lies. Imaginary accomplishments or famous distant relatives make her feel important, and creative untruths can sometimes keep her out of trouble. When she suggests an unrealistic plan to reunite with her father, Albert desperately tries to follow her lead.  Both Lily and Albert figure out that motives matter when people make mistakes, even nearly disastrous ones. They also learn that telling the truth is hard, but that they have built up a level of trust with one another where it is much better than the alternative.

Lily has a collection of paper stars which remind her of her mother. Each summer, she brings up with her from St. Albans to Far Rockaway. When she explains the practice to Albert, he understands:

“I bring one with me to Rockaway every year,” she said. “I counted. There are dozens of them left on my ceiling. I’ll be thirty or forty before they’re all used up,”…

She took a breath. It was nice to tell someone about the stars. It was so nice to talk about her mother as if she, Lily, were like everyone else, like everyone who had a mother…

Lily squinted a little, looking out at a curl of smoke from a freighter far away.”

Patricia Reilly Giff has so many books to share with children, but you might want to begin with this one. It will be so nice to tell someone about the stars.

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