Authors Fredrick McKissack and Patricia McKissack
How would it feel to be part of a family brimming with storytellers? Tennessee native Patricia McKissack grew up listening to her grandfather’s stories rich in Southern dialect, her grandmother’s spine-chilling ghost tales, and her mother’s dramatization of Paul Dunbar’s poems. These childhood experiences would greatly influence her own storytelling. Throughout her career, McKissack has explored both familiar and lesser known topics, bringing African-American history to life through family-based folklore and biographies.
The past three decades have produced a broad array of fiction and nonfiction titles, including Flossie & the Fox, The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, and Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Poet to Remember. McKissack’s work was made possible thanks to her late husband, Fredrick McKissack, who helped make her dreams of becoming a writer come true.
Pat and Fred McKissack were honored in January with the 2014 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Library Association (ALA). The couple began their writing/research partnership in the 1980s, a collaboration that would yield more than 100 books and make an important contribution to children’s literature.
“Pat McKissack is a prolific storyteller,” notes award chair Loretta Dowell. “I can’t express how important it is to have the old storytelling tradition translated into printed work.”
Memphis Parent had the opportunity to congratulate Patricia McKissack and learn more about her journey, told to us in a most loving and tender voice.
“Reading opened up a world for me,” she begins. “So, as I write, I think of a child that I used to be and write to build bridges with books for children.” It was her family’s rich storytelling heritage that sowed the seeds for McKissack’s writing career. She fondly calls her family members as “fun porch tellers.”
Teachers also inspired her. She pays credit to her first-grade teacher Evelyn Glore-Ashford in particular for encouraging her to read and use her imagination. “For a parent-teacher meeting, we first graders were asked to share about our museum field trip with a simple one liner: My name is so and so and I saw this. When it was my turn, I said in my best storyteller voice, ‘Well, when I got to the museum, a mouse and a rabbit showed me around, and I saw…’, Mrs. Glore-Ashford could have stopped me, but she didn’t. I remember her always for allowing me to have my own voice — the storytelling voice. I kept up with her until she died a few years ago at the age of 93.”
Like many girls of her generation, McKissack grew up reading The Bobbsey Twins. But her other favorites included Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird and Langston Hughes’ Simple Stories. Later as a teacher, she learned what kids liked to read and came to better understand their language. She firmly believes there should be an element of fun or humor in every tale.
Growing up in Segregated Nashville
“I grew up loving the library and librarians,” continues McKissack. During segregation, the Nashville Public Library was one of the only places downtown where African-Americans could go.
She talks about how her families, neighbors, teachers, and friends loved and sheltered children from the harsh realities of the segregated South. Then came the Civil Rights Movement. She was still in high school when the protests began, and her mother, fearing for her safety, didn’t let her take an active role. So McKissack worked behind-the-scenes, passing out flyers and stuffing envelopes for people involved in the movement. Despite the unrest, the Nashville Public Library remained open to all.
Years later, she wrote Going Someplace Special, an autobiographical account of the important role the library played in her life. “I didn’t want to tell the story with anger in my heart. I wanted it to be a story about overcoming and rising above negativism and being proud of who you are, where you want to go. It meant the world to me to get the story out, and share it with young people.”
Teamwork with Fred McKissack
Joining hands with her husband Fred McKissack, the couple set out to fill the gap in the African-American experience. During 1992-1993 alone, they had as many as 18 biographies published. They laughed and giggled like kids most of their 50 years together, but were deadly serious about their work. McKissack says her husband was one of the best researchers in publishing. He possessed a brilliant, analytical mind, forever inquisitive, introspective, and thoughtful.
“Our favorite book together was A Long Hard Journey – The Story of Pullman Porter,” says McKissack. “It was our first book that won the Coretta Scott King award and we enjoyed learning about the brave men who formed the first black union.” Their travels took them around the world in search of stories.
“Our journey was full of adventures that I may write about one day. Did I say how much I miss him? Well, I do.”
Stories that Speak to Children
“The McKissacks’ books teach about the love of family, African-American history, and embracing diversity,” points out Crenshaw Branch Library Manager Inger Upchurch, who recalls meeting the couple years ago. Upchurch talks passionately about using their books during story times at the library because of the valuable lessons they teach.
Touching on the McKissacks’ nonfiction, Upchurch admires their skill in presenting historical figures ‘in a way not too far removed from ourselves.’ They made it relatable by describing how people like Dr. Martin Luther King had a childhood, went to school, and faced adversity. “Their legacy lies in continuing to encourage children to love literature and history,” observes Upchurch.
A Legacy that Lives On
Although McKissack is now 70 years old, she continues to write. “I am working on several titles scheduled for publication in 2016,” she says. With her partner gone — Fredrick died in 2013 — she’s leaning more towards works of fiction, though her next title will be a nonfiction book she was working on just before her husband passed away. Their son Fred Jr. helped to complete the book. She has also written books with her other two sons, John Patrick and Robert.
Carefully placed in each of McKissacks’ books is the idea that it isn’t necessary to pass judgment on people for what they do or don’t do, or for what they believe or don’t believe. She hopes her voice touches the heart and mind of young readers everywhere: “Different is not a synonym for wrong. Different is something we celebrate and that’s what writing has done to me.”
Curl Up with a Good Book
by Jane Schneider
What we discovered reading Patricia McKissack’s books is how rich and diverse her storytelling is. She writes lyrically, in dialect at times, retelling African-American history and folk tales by breathing new life into old events. She creates warm, gentle worlds where children are inventive, resourceful, and clever, surrounded by helpful family and friends. Writing together with her husband, Fredrick, the McKissacks co-authored many books, winning numerous prestigious writing awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award and Newberry Medal runner-up. Here are a few titles to get you started.EDITOR’S NOTE: Titles are written by Patricia McKissack except where noted.
Flossie and the Fox • Pictures by Rachel Isadora Young Flossie must deliver a basket of eggs to a neighbor, so Grandmother warns her to watch out for the wily fox. Unafraid, Flossie uses her own powers of observation to outsmart the trickster. McKissack’s first picture book, beautifully illustrated by Rachel Isadora.
Mirandy and Brother Wind • Illustrations by Jerry Pinkney, Caldecott Honor & Coretta Scott King Award winner Mirandy is convinced if she can just catch Brother Wind, he’ll do her bidding and help her win the junior cake walk. But how? Her clumsy friend Ezel is amused by her various attempts to solve this riddle and ultimately, his patience is rewarded. Illustrator Jerry Pinkney conjures up wonderfully detailed images of a gentle Southern landscape, and the mischievious wind, pictures young children will enjoy pondering.
A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter • by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, Coretta Scott King Award winner The history of the Pullman Porters is as life changing as the advent of the railroad itself. Pullman car porters, originally freed slaves hired to serve passengers in the sleeping cars, made train travel comfortable, elegant, even memorable. The job became highly coveted and brought financial security and prestige to its men. Moreover, this group would eventually forge America’s first black union in the 1920s, thus gaining national recognition and better working conditions.
Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters • Illustrations by Andre’ Carrilho African Americans have a rich history of storytelling, featuring gifted tellers who often held court on front porches. Their tales, while woven around kernels of truth, were often embellished and funny. Here, McKissack adds to that genre, drawing from myths and legends to create a clever collection of tall tales. Andre’ Carrilho’s expressive, amusing illustrations will leave you wanting more.
The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural • Illustrations by Brian Pinkney, Coretta Scott King Award winner In this Newberry Award winner, McKissack again taps African-American folklore, reminding readers of the storytelling tradition that often took place at dark-thirty, when twilight settled. Creating a treasure trove of spooky stories, she weaves many from memories of tales heard growing up. Some are scary, others poignant, but all remind the reader of a history that’s come before.
Never Forgotten • Illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, In her research, McKissack ould find no history of African stories about the millions of people taken into the slave trade. Yet surely they were remembered. In elegant prose, she creates such a tale, telling the story of Dinga, a blacksmith raising his son Musafa to work beside him at the forge. Until one day, when the boy disappears. Distraught, the father calls upon the four great elements — Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind — to discover his son’s fate. Dinga’s comfort comes in learning that Musafa and others survived and carry on the traditions of their mother country in America. Beautiful illustrations work in concert with the prose, making this a memorable book.
Messy Bessey series • Good for early readers developing their vocabulary and becoming familiar with sight words.
The Miami Jackson series • These easy chapter books introduce Miami, a clever boy who frequently discovers that by using his smarts, he can achieve anything.