I’ve learned that we are all libraries, each carrying in us the stories that make us unique. And yet, there are those who are more than that; they’re the people who create the stories that express our shared identities, that inspire us to be more than we’ve planned for ourselves and who question. Their work is as spiritual as it is political. They are the foundation of libraries and of communities.
Particia McKissack was such a person. Her stories spanned decades. They evolved from her heart: her African American southern roots. Her stories were often flavored with the dialect with which she grew up.
Language is wonderful. We can do much with it, and if we free our kids up to express them- selves in many different ways, their school experiences with language will be so much more meaningful to them. They will not be inhibited about putting things on paper, or in their talking. Let them express joy and exuberance, the joy of living; and then when it’s not there, we can clean it up – decide whether to write “I am” or “I be.” And if “I be” fits the story better, leave it alone. When I’m choosing a word, I never choose the right word; I choose the best word, and the best word is not always Standard English. That’s what we need to teach our children – to find the best way to express their thoughts.” (Smith)
She was born Particia L’Ann Carwell, in Nashville TN and there, she grew up with the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, her grandfather’s storytelling and with the Nashville Public Library.
The Nashville Public Library was not segregated. “It was,” says McKissack, “one of the few public places where I felt welcome. Maybe that’s why I learned to love reading. (McElmeel)
She’d know Fredrick McKissack in high school and married him in 1965. Their life long partnership included their business, All-Writing Services Inc, based in St. Louis where they lived. They published their first book in 1984.
McKissack’s fiction and non-fiction work often advocated for civil rights. I remember reading Mirandy and Brother Wind and Flossie and the Fox to my children. I remember recently discovering Goin’ Someplace Special and sharing the story along with it’s artwork by Jerry Pinkney’s in presentations. This was one of her most personal book.
“I did not want this to be an angry book and I did not want it to be a mean-spirited book. I wanted it to be a book of personal triumph, so that a young person reading it would not just see me as a black child in the South dealing with segregation, but as any child dealing with a challenge–a learning disability or physical challenge or anything that sets them apart. I wanted them to be able to read this book and say, “I can triumph over this outside adversity, too.” I hope I’ve achieved that.” (Frederick)
McKissack’s career began as a teacher and as editor for Concordia Publishing . She wanted to write, but was not encouraged. Rather, she was told that she should limit herself to teaching. She began teaching at the university level and refused to give up her passion. She couldn’t give up because she wanted all children to find themselves in books.
The reason I wrote Flossie , Mirandy, and Nettie Jo is that I wanted black kids to see a book with a picture of a beautiful black child on it – be it male or female – and say, “Oh, there’s me in a book.” And feel good about it. I wanted to have a little girl who was sharp and smart, learning a little bit about her history and a little bit about our language. That’s why I wrote those books. (Smith)
She believed firmly in the power of children’s literature.
It can give us different visuals. Words do not hurt you, but they can cripple your spirit. We get images from using words, and words we find in books. We need to give our children different images of different people, so they don’t think different is wrong. (Mitori)
Our libraries are greater for their presence. Patricia McKissack passed away on 7 April at the age of 72.
The list below represents the prolific work the McKissacks contributed to children’s literature.
1990 Coretta Scott King Author Award
- Patricia C. & Fredrick L. McKissack, authors of A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter (Walker)
1990 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter (Walker)
1993 CSK Author Award
- Patricia C. McKissack, author of The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Knopf)
1993 CKS Author Honor
- Patricia C. & Fredrick L. McKissack, authors of Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman? (Scholastic)
1993 Newbery Honor book The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Knopf)
1995 CSK Author Award
- Patricia C. & Fredrick L. McKissack, authors of Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters (Scholastic)
1995 CSK Author Honor
- Patricia C. & Fredrick L. McKissack , authors of Black Diamond: Story of the Negro Baseball League (Scholastic)
1997 CSK Author Honor
- Patricia C. & Fredrick L. McKissack, authors of Rebels Against Slavery: American Slave Revolts (Scholastic)
1998 Patricia C. & Fredrick L. McKissack Regina Medal: literary award conferred by Catholic Library Association for continued contribution to children’s literature
1999 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Children’s
Let My People Go: Bible Stories Told by a Freeman of Color
2000 CSK Author Honor
- Patricia C. and Fredrick L. McKissack, authors of Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers (Scholastic Press)
2004 CSK Author Honor
- Patricia C. and Fredrick L. McKissack, authors of Days of Jubilee: The End of Slavery in the United States (Scholastic)
2012 CSK Author Honor
- Patricia C. McKissack, Never Forgotten, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc.)
2014 Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement; awarded by the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT)/CSK Committee
BISHOP, R., & McKissack, P. (1992). Profile: A Conversation with Patricia McKissack. Language Arts, 69(1), 69-74.
FREDERICK, H. V. (2001, August 6). PW Talks with Patricia McKissack. Publishers Weekly, 248(32), 90.
McElmeel, S. (1999). Patricia McKissack: Wordsmith and Avid Reader. Book Report, 18(3), 36.
Mitori, Jody. (19 Feb 2017). Beyond Patty-Cake: Patricia McKissack Collects Games, Songs From Childhood, St. Louis Post Dispatch, pg. D1.