Beloved award-winning children’s-book author and master storyteller Patricia C. McKissack died near her home in Chesterfield, Missouri, on April 7. Born in Smyrna, Tennessee, and raised in Nashville, she was 72.
Her death was first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 10.
McKissack, alone and with her late husband, Fredrick McKissack, published over 100 fiction and nonfiction books for children of all ages, including picture books, biographies, story collections, and beginning readers. Earlier this year she published Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs, & Stories from an African American Childhood, an exuberant collection of African American childhood folklore, which mined the memories of the music, stories, poetry, and rhythms of her own childhood and which Fredrick had assisted in researching before his death in 2013.
Just three weeks ago, she spoke with Chapter 16 via telephone about this acclaimed collection: “I grew up in a family where the oral tradition was very strong,” she said. “It was the same way with my children—and now my grandchildren. The best sound I can hear is, ‘Mum’—they call me ‘Mum’—‘tell us a story.’ I’ll get out a book or something, and they’ll say, ‘No, no. Tell it with your mouth. Don’t read it.’”
McKissack’s books drew on the rich tradition of storytelling her family fostered while she was growing up in Nashville, and many of her books center upon African American history. “I grew up in Sunday school where black history and regular history and Bible stories all were interwoven,” she told Kirkus Review’s Jessie Grearson in January of this year. “I understood Harriet Tubman because I understood Moses.”
The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, for which she won the Coretta Scott King Author Award, also received a 1993 Newbery Honor. Mirandy and Brother Wind, which was awarded a 1989 Caldecott Honor, was inspired by an old photograph of her great-grandparents. Goin’ Someplace Special, published in 2001 and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, draws upon her childhood in the racially segregated Nashville of the 1950s.
Readers learn at the book’s close that the someplace special of that book’s title is the Nashville Public Library, which had integrated its facilities by 1950. One of Pinkney’s original paintings from the book hangs in the Nashville Public Library in the activity room of the main branch’s children’s department, a gift from the Nashville chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. Hanging just under it is another Pinkney piece that didn’t make it into the book’s publication. The image includes the words “Nashville Public Library: All are welcome.”
After graduating in 1964 from what is now Tennessee State University, the McKissacks moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Patricia taught English to junior-high and college students and then worked as an editor. She was first published (under the name L’Ann Carwell) in 1978, and her first picture book, Flossie and the Fox—which has been translated into at least a dozen languages, her son told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—was published in 1986.
Along with Fredrick, Patricia was the 2014 recipient of the prestigious Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, given by the American Library Association, which stated that the couple’s award-winning books “have given children and young adult readers a penetrating perspective into the culture and history of African Americans.” She was also the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King Awards; the 1993 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in the category of Nonfiction for Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman?, written with Fredrick; and the 2001 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award.
McKissack’s death occurs just four years after Fredrick’s. “In a way,” their son Fredrick McKissack Jr. told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I think my mother died of a broken heart. When Dad died, the life drained from her. She tried to keep her spirits up and was coming up with ideas for new books, but she wasn’t the same.” He added that his parents’ prolific writing and long list of published books, adored by readers all over the world, did much to champion diversity in children’s literature. Long before “diversity” became a hashtag, the McKissacks were telling the stories of African Americans and broadening in far-reaching ways what their son calls the African American experience.
The children’s-book world has lost one of the great champions of the power of literature to change hearts. McKissack once stated that her goal as a writer was to improve the self-image of African American children, as well as encourage children of all races and cultures to have an open attitude toward people who are different from them. Today we take comfort in the fact that McKissack far exceeded her aim, producing a beautiful, joyous body of work that will live on in generations of readers.
[To read Chapter 16’s 2010 profile of Patricia C. McKissack, click here.]
Julie Danielson, a former school librarian, blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and writes about picture books for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage. Her first book, Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, was published in 2014.