Literary Guide for Patricia Polacco’s “My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother”

My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother
by Patricia Polacco

Beloved children’s author and illustrator Patricia Polacco has written countless classics, covering everything from dyslexia to raising chickens. In My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother, Polacco shares a story of sibling rivalry infused with aspects of the Ukrainian culture in which she was raised. Set in Michigan on Polacco’s grandparents’ farm, the story follows Patricia through a variety of older-brother-related frustrations, mostly based in his habit of challenging her to contests that he always won. In the story, Patricia endures intense frustration and anger – the special kind unique to childhood. Eventually, Patricia beats her brother at something, but it involves riding the carnival merry-go-round for so long that she faints and falls off! Her determination to win the contest is obvious when her brother discovers what has happened, and their relationship is forever changed.

My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother is a story about family – and siblings, in particular. Growing up alongside siblings who are much older or much younger (Patricia’s brother is four years older) can be difficult – patience can wear thin when children are constantly waiting for younger ones to catch up, and frustration can be intense when children try to keep up with older brothers or sisters. However, learning how to handle such situations can help children learn to love and appreciate their siblings, and can help them to see them as unique individuals with different skills and interests than their own.

Like a great many of Polacco’s books, My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother provides a glimpse into a family whose life is strongly dictated by the landscape in which they live and the culture that her immigrant grandparents brought with them from Ukraine. While reading the story, work to identify the aspects of Patricia’s childhood that are different from your own family’s, and discuss how and why they’re different, if you’re able to. The names that Patricia calls her grandparents and the contests that she engages in with her brother are all derived from the context in which her life takes place, and there are lots of clues (both in the story and in the accompanying illustrations) throughout the story that help to teach us about her family life and the place where she lived.

Though Polacco’s childhood took place in the Midwest, it certainly has similarities to the childhood experience of many people who live here in western Massachusetts. Our communities are filled with people descended from eastern European immigrants, and some of our cultural traditions are derived from the culture that they brought with them. Egg-decorating workshops at Easter, cultural festivals during the summer, and traditional community meals throughout the year help to remind us of our community’s ties to cultures from around the world.

Designed for use amongst a full study of Polacco’s work, the literature guide for My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother suggests learning activities that involve in-depth looks at a number of her books. Visit your local library in order to gather copies of a few of her books, and dig deep into Polacco’s re-telling of her Ukranian-influenced childhood, her beautiful and thought-provoking illustrations, and the beautiful truths that she tells about life. While the accompanying guide is designed for use with third grade students (8- and 9-year-olds), her books can appeal to audiences of all ages. To adapt the suggested activities for use with children who are older or younger than the intended audience, simple adjust the amount of depth with which you discuss your observations from the pictures, your thoughts about the story, and the connections that you make between the book and your own life and/or Polacco’s other works.

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