April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Fredrick McKissack, Half of Award-Winning Writing Team, Dies at 73

Fredrick L. McKissack, who with his wife Patricia wrote more than a hundred books for children capturing the black American experience, died on April 28 from heart failure. He was 73. The McKissacks’ collaboration led to numerous awards, including the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Award and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.

“The McKissacks, Fred and Pat, made my life more difficult by setting amazingly high standards of research and knowledge about African American history and culture,” Walter Dean Myers, noted author and current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, tells School Library Journal. “It is a difficulty for which I will be forever grateful.”

Librarians echo this praise. “Fredrick McKissack was a valued and venerable contributor to the body of nonfiction literature for children,”  Starr LaTronica, outreach and youth services manager for New York’s Four County Library System and president-elect of ALSC, tells SLJ. “His scrupulous research and an eye for specificity and detail blended seamlessly with the narrative composed by his wife Patricia to bring the period or the person to life.”

In these times when nonfiction literature plays such an important role in meeting the Common Core State Standards, the McKissacks’ books play an important role, librarians tell SLJ.

“McKissacks’ titles inspire further inquiries by their breadth, depth, and accuracy,” says Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota.  “As librarians we often speak of the serendipity of interest, the stumbling across a book then being captured by the story. I am certain that I had no prior knowledge or interest in a history of African-American whalers between 1730 and 1880, yet the Mckissacks were able to weave the threads of abolition, seafaring, economics, and sociology into a riveting history.”

The McKissacks’ book A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter (Walker, 1989), won both the CSK and Jane Adams awards, and it was also named an ALA Notable Book and recognized on the New York Public Library “Books for the Teen Age” list. The couple won a second CSK Award in 1995 for Christmas in the Big House (Scholastic, 1995).

Many other titles by the couple were well received and reviewed over the years. African-American Inventors (Millbrook, 1994), was praised in School Library Journal by reviewer Margaret Hagel, who said, “This title fills a real need; its readable text gives information not often  found in books on inventions or on U.S. history.”

In 1999, Fred went solo with Black Hoops: The History of African Americans in Basketball (Scholastic, 1999). At the time, Richard Luzer said in his SLJ review that McKissack “did not shy away from controversy,” noting that the book “makes a unique and important contribution for this age range and should not be missed.” He also praised it for its candor and historical coverage.

When contributing to the Exquisite Corpse Adventure for the Library of Congress, the pair discussed their collaboration process:

According to Fred, “There is no magic formula. Pat and I talk all the time.”

“After talking through a project,” Pat continued, “We outline it. Then Fred does most of the digging and the research, and I write it up on the computer and run off a hard copy. Fred fact-checks and refines it, and then gives it back to me to make his changes and any more of my own.

“Then we run off another hard copy and keep doing that until it satisfies us both,” Fred added.

He was born Fredrick Lemuel McKissack on August 12, 1939, in Nashville, TN. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, he attended Tennessee State, where his romance with Patricia Carwell blossomed. The couple married in December,1964. They moved to St. Louis, MO, after he accepted a job as a civil engineer, and they resided in the area until his death. In 1982 he sold his contracting business and became a full-time writer with his wife, who survives him.

He is also survived by three sons, Fredrick McKissack Jr. of Fort Wayne, IN, Robert McKissack of St. Louis, and John McKissack of Memphis, TN; and five grandchildren. Donations in memory of McKissack can be made to the National Kidney Foundation and the United Negro College Fund.

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.