The children’s author who championed black heroes
Patricia McKissack 1944–2017
Patricia McKissack often said she first turned to writing out of necessity. While teaching eighth-grade English in Kirkwood, Mo., in the 1970s, she searched desperately for a book to introduce her students to her favorite African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Finding nothing, she wrote the Dunbar biography herself and published a revised version in 1984. More than 100 books for young readers followed—profiling black luminaries, retelling Southern folk tales, and chronicling major events in African- American history. “When children don’t see themselves in books, they aren’t motivated to read,” the award-winning author said. “And soon that translates into failure.”
Growing up in the segregated St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood, McKissack was one of the only black students at her mostly white school, said The Washington Post. After graduating from college in Nashville, she taught middle school and later “honed her writing skills in six years as a children’s book editor.” In the early 1980s, her husband, Frederick, closed his engineering business to collaborate with her on books.
McKissack’s stories “wove the back-porch fables she remembered from childhood together with her own personal anecdotes,” said The New York Times. Goin’ Someplace Special was inspired by memories of sitting in the back of the bus on rides to a local library. The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, was a collection of spooky stories titled for the half hour just before midnight; it was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1993. McKissack wrote, she said, out of a desire to tell stories overlooked “by mainstream history.” And she encouraged other blacks to put pen to paper, too. “Writing,” she said, “is a kind of freedom.” ■