Obituary: Famed children's book author Patricia McKissack offered positive images
With the death of Patricia McKissack on Friday, the world lost the surviving partner of one of the most prolific duos in literature.
McKissack suffered a heart attack and was taken to an area hospital, where she was pronounced dead. She was 72.
Patricia McKissack and her husband, Fredrick McKissack embarked on their collaborative literary lives nearly 35 years ago, with the intention of being the change they wanted to see. The couple decided that little black boys and girls deserved positive images of themselves and a broad scope of their people’s rich history as they turned the pages of books.
The McKissacks knew that these words would be critical in shaping what those children think, feel and know about who they are and where they come from.
Patricia McKissack was an English teacher. Her love of the written word and storytelling led her to work as a book editor for Concordia Publishing House in St. Louis. Fredrick McKissack was an engineer. His research helped frame her writing. Together they produced more than 100 titles – and captured the black experience, both real and imagined, for the sake of reading audiences.
“It was like a missionary thing for them,” son Fredrick McKissack Jr. told The Washington Post. “There was a whole history and set of experiences that weren’t being taught, discussed or examined with the gaze of a writer.”
Patricia L’Ann Carwell was born on Aug, 9, 1944, in Smyrna, Tennessee. She spent several years of her childhood in Kirkwood before her family returned to her birth state and settled in Nashville.
“Before I was a writer, I was a listener,” Patricia said in a video interview on her website. “I grew up sitting on the front porch listening to my mother and my grandparents tell stories. They told wonderful family stories about people that I knew only by name, but I knew very well because of the stories that influenced my life.”
As an adolescent in Nashville, she met Fredrick McKissack and became friends. They both attended Tennessee State University, where their friendship blossomed into romance. They were married in 1964. The couple moved to St. Louis, where she worked as an English teacher for the Kirkwood School District.
While teaching for the district she once attended, Patricia was compelled to write her first book to share the story of one of her mother’s beloved authors, 19th century African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
She and Frederick based their books on their own childhood experiences, raising their children, incidents they observed and history. “Sometimes, it’s just overhearing a comment and saying, ‘Oh, wow, that sounds like a
good book,’” Fredrick told Reading Rockets.
Their works featured biographical sketches of historical figures like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth, A. Philip Randolph and Jesse Jackson. They also wrote about folklore and fairytales, like “Precious and the Boo Hag.” Their work was digestible for young readers, yet managed to encourage readers to learn more about themselves – and share with others the rich legacy of African Americans as integral to our nation.
They didn’t shy away from detailing the traumas of slavery, segregation, oppression and systemic racism.
“It is not designed to point a finger or to make some child in a classroom feel responsible for all that happened back then,” Patricia said. “But we can't shovel it under the rug and say that those things did not happen – they did. But let's tell it by telling an even-handed, well-researched, well-documented story.”
They wrote three books for Scholastic’s “Dear America” series: “A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl,” “Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North” and “Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, a French Slave Girl.”
Their stories about the sources of their inspiration were captivating narratives in their own right.
“Ideas are of two different natures,” Fredrick said. “One is of the instant idea that just seems to come to you and doesn’t take any time whatsoever. The other type is the type that you work on and work on.”
“We even named them,” Patricia said. “The ‘Athenian’ idea is one that kind of pops in your head, like with the birth of Athena. And the ‘mustard seed’ idea kind of grows over time.”
The work garnered some of the field’s most coveted honors. “The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural” won the Newberry Honor and the King Author Award in 1993. Other awards included the C.S. Lewis Medal, the Caldecott Award, the Jane Addams Peace Award, the Coretta Scott King Award and the Regina Medal.
Their earthly marital and creative partnership ended when Fredrick died in 2013 at age 73 after complications form kidney disease.
Patricia was devastated by Fredrick’s death, but she carried on with the work they began together. Her latest book, “Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out,” was released in January.
Over the years, she often relied on stories passed down to her from her family. Her grandmother told ghost stories. “She could just make up a story that would scare you to death,” Patricia said. Her grandfather, called “Daddy James” by her family, “told wonderful stories about little girls who could outrun the wind and outsmart a fox.”
“I hear their voices, I remember their stories,” Patricia said, “and I pass them on whenever I can to young readers everywhere.”
In addition her son Frederick Jr., Patricia McKissack's survivors include two other sons, Robert Lewis McKissack and John Patrick McKissack, a brother and a sister. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Kenya Vaughn is a writer with the St. Louis American.