Patricia McKissack, the surviving half of an award-winning husband-and-wife writing team, died suddenly on Friday, April 7 in St. Louis, while having dinner with her son, Fred. She and her husband, Fredrick McKissack Sr., wrote more than 100 books for young people relaying the black experience.
She was 72.
The cause of her death was reported as cardiorespiratory arrest. However, “I think my mother died of a broken heart,” Fredrick McKissack Jr. told the St. Louis Dispatch. His mother and father were “best friends and partners. 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.” Fredrick McKissack Sr. died in April of 2013.
“She was lovely and groundbreaking and doing the work that set so many of us in motion,” says Jacqueline Woodson, author of the Newbery Honor book Brown Girl Dreaming, who heard the news while traveling in France. “Too soon an ancestor.”
Through their books, the couple explored African American heritage and culture. In 1993, Patricia McKissack was awarded both a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award for The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural (Random House, 1992). That same year, she and her husband received a Coretta Scott King Honor for Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman? (Scholastic, 1992). They went on to repeat a joint award in 1995 for Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters (Scholastic, 1994). In 2014, the Coretta Scott King Award committee recognized them with the Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award.
Patricia McKissack’s fellow Coretta Scott King honoree, Pat Cummings, remembers her friend’s laugh. “It was raucous and throaty, the kind that made you feel like family…The kind of laugh that made you lean in, ready for one more story.”
Children’s author and another of McKissack’s fellow Coretta Scott King honorees, Andrea Davis Pinkney, is in agreement about the effect of her laugh and how she was able to draw listeners into her stories. “Pat was a class-act. Beautiful, smart, wise, and, at the same time, good folks,” Pinkney told School Library Journal. “And, oh, could she ever laugh! It wasn’t just that she told stories, it was how she lit them up. I can still hear her bringing on the praise-rhythms whenever she recited Paul Laurence Dunbar’s A Negro Love Song, and had us all rejoicing in the refrain: Jump back, honey, jump back!”
Her impact on literature is also being remembered. “Patricia McKissack’s passing has left a void, not only in the realm of children’s literature, but in the overall expanse of African American literature as well,” Christopher Brown, special collections curator, children’s literature research collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia, told SLJ. “Her fictional stories and her biographies are engaging because they welcome a reader like an old friend; there are no grand statements or lectures, there are only thoroughly researched, down-to-earth stories that educate and entertain us.”
McKissack’s first picture book was Flossie and the Fox (Dial, 1986) about a girl who outwits a fox. Anne Schwartz, her picture book editor, remembers calling to tell her that Flossie was going to be published. “There was an ear-splitting whoop, the likes of which I’d never heard before, followed by completely unmuffled words to her beloved husband. ‘Fred, come quick!’ And then she dropped the phone.” Their professional relationship was “filled with phenomenally lively phone conversations—no emails for her,” says Schwartz.
Having worked with her for more than 30 years, Schwartz, who is VP, publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books at Random House Children’s Books, eulogized McKissack. “Pat’s warm, energetic, and caring personality came through in everything she said and wrote, as did her unparalleled ability to spin a story filled with mischief, joy, and the rich cadences of her Southern childhood.”
The most recent book by Mrs. McKissack is Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout: Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood (Schwartz & Wade, 2017), which was released in January. In reviewing the book for School Library Journal, Clara Hendricks of Cambridge (MA) Public Library said “Part songbook, part research text, this work is perfect for families to share together or for young scholars who seek to discover an important piece of cultural history.”
According to Schwartz, Schwartz & Wade will have one more picture book by Patricia McKissack coming out in spring of 2019: What is Given from the Heart Reaches the Heart.
McKissack is survived by three sons, Fredrick Jr. of Fort Wayne, John of Memphis, and Robert of St. Louis, as well as four grandsons and a granddaughter.
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