by Sharron L. McElmeel
UPDATE: November 2014

Patricia McKissack is noted for candor and thoroughness, whether she is writing biographies of important African Americans or telling about the slaves and the plantation owners on an 1859 Virginia plantation, as in Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, or creating a story based on her own great-grandmother's experiences as a domestic worker, as in Ma Dear's Aprons. Her writing is lyrical and often instructs while conveying a pride in African American heritage and in being a strong and independent thinking female.

McKissack was born Patricia L'Ann Carwell on August 9, 1944, in Nashville, Tennessee. She grew up in the South, where she often listened to her mother reading poetry and her grandparents telling stories, and where she gathered images and stories. Her grandfather would often use Patricia's and her brother's and sister's names in the stories. All the characters were smart, brave, daring, and clever. Pat, Sarah, and Nolan grew up believing they, too, were smart. Patricia fondly remembers the hot summer nights when her mother read poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Her favorite was Dunbar's "Little Brown Baby."

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." She also enjoyed word-smithing--she became an author of books for children and young adults, using the stories and poems she heard in her childhood as her springboard.

Patricia renewed her friendship with a teenage acquaintance, Fredrick McKissack, while both were students at Tennessee State University. She graduated with a degree in English, he with a degree in civil engineering. They married in 1965, began to raise a family, and pursued their careers, Patricia as a junior high school English teacher. By 1971, she was writing. Her first book was a biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar. During the next few years she wrote several more biographies.

McKissack says she "started writing professionally" in 1975. She wrote more nonfiction and often tackled controversial topics, such as racism. Her books were considered evenhanded in both the writing and the presentation. She wrote 20 nonfiction books before writing a picture book. She sent the manuscript of Flossie and the Fox to Ann Schwartz, then an editor at Dial, who found the manuscript in the slush pile. It was 15 pages, too long. McKissack didn't want to "give up any words." Schwartz told her, "We can do that in the illustrations." McKissack said it was "hotter than a usual Tennessee day...." Rachel Isadora's warm palette did the rest. When the Flossie and the Fox manuscript was finally accepted, it was just six pages long.

McKissack used her memories of childhood stories to create the collection The Dark-Thirty. The term "dark-thirty" refers to the 30 minutes before dark comes on a summer evening. During those 30 minutes storytellers often sat on their front porches and spun tales. McKissack wrote stories that might have been told during the dark-thirty. The stories have an edge of the supernatural and a ring of reality. Although the stories in The Dark-Thirty are fiction, one, "Boo Mama," grew out of an event that occurred while McKissack was growing up in Tennessee. A boy, lost in the woods for several days, was found well cared for. Investigation revealed that the boy's grandmother designed the hoax to keep the child to herself. Asking "what if ...?" helped McKissack enlarge the incident to create the full story.

Other ideas, says McKissack, come from many places and people. McKissack keeps a diary and usually creates characters from composites of two or three people--friends, acquaintances, or family.

In the 1980s, after she began to write full-time, McKissack established a writing service in St. Louis, where the family was living. Over the years, Fredrick McKissack has gradually become involved in the writing and researches much of the material for the nonfiction books. He has co-authored several books with Patricia. Although one of their goals has been to introduce children to African and African-American history and historical figures, they have also written accounts of Native-American tribes and have ventured into writing about the Holocaust. The McKissacks have no magic formula for their collaborations. They talk about an idea and outline it as they talk. Fredrick most often digs into the research and Patricia writes up the research on the computer and runs off a hard copy. Research takes the McKissacks to libraries and if possible to primary sources, such as playwright Lorraine Hansberry's sister Mamie, who provided much information for the McKissacks' Young, Black, and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry.

Fredrick fact-checks and refines the hard copy and then gives it back to Patricia, who makes his changes to the computer file and adds changes of her own. They repeat the process as long as it takes to generate a manuscript that satisfies them both. Together they are said to make history come alive for children and to write books that make readers aware of the contributions of African Americans.

Today, Fredrick and Patricia McKissack are partners in All-Writing Services, in St. Louis. Their office is a three-room suite in a high-rise office complex. One room is their library, one is Fredrick's office, and one is Patricia's. They begin work between 9 and 9:30 a.m. and continue until they have finished what they have to do that day.

The McKissacks' twin sons, Robert Lewis and John Patrick--subjects of a simple early-to-read book, Who Is Who?--are now grown. Their older brother Fredrick Jr. is a writer and journalist; he collaborated with his mother on an award-winning title for older readers, Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues. For many years the McKissacks lived in a large remodeled inner-city home. Now they make their home in Chesterfield, Missouri, where they enjoy visits with their grandson and spend leisure time gardening and growing roses.

Patricia McKissack continues to share her heritage with readers through the stories she tells. Although she focuses on bringing an awareness of African-American culture to readers, she says she "is not a black writer but rather a writer who happens to be black--I write for children of all races."

 Picture books can be effectively used in secondary classrooms to develop an awareness of story elements. Compare Flossie and the Fox and "Little Red Riding Hood" with Virginia Hamilton's "A Wolf and Littel Daughter" in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, illustrated by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon (Knopf, 1985), pages 60-63. A. Delaney's The Gunnywolf (HarperCollins, 1988) has many of the same story elements as "A Wolf and Little Daughter."

For More Information About the Author

Reading Rockets Video Interview with Patricia and Fredrick McKissack.

Selected book titles by Patricia McKissack

Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball League. Co-authored by Fredrick McKissack Jr. (Scholastic, 1994)

Can You Imagine? Illustrated with photographs by Myles Pinkney. (Richard C. Owen, 1997).

Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters. Co-authored by Fredrick McKissack. Illustrated by John Thompson. (Scholastic, 1994)

The Dark-Thirty. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. (Knopf, 1992)

Flossie and the Fox. Illustrated by Rachel Isadora (Dial, 1986)

A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter. Co-authored by Fredrick McKissack. (Walker, 1989)

Mary McLeod Bethune: A Great American Educator. (Children's, 1985)

Mirandy and Brother Wind. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. (Knopf, 1988)

Paul Laurence Dunbar, A Poet to Remember. (Children's Press, 1984)

Rebels Against Slavery. Co-authored by Fredrick McKissack. (Scholastic, 1996)

Red-Tailed Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War H. Co-authored by Fredrick McKissack. (Walker, 1995)

Taking a Stand Against Racism and Racial Discrimination. Co-authored by Fredrick McKissack. (Watts, 1990)

The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Live in Medieval Africa. Co-authored by Fredrick McKissack. (H. Holt, 1994) W.E.B. DuBois. Co-authored by Fredrick McKissack. (Watts, 1990).

Who Is Who? Co-authored by Fredrick McKissack. Illustrated by Elizabeth M. Allen. (Children's, 1983)

Young, Black, and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry. Co-authored by Fredrick McKissack. (Holiday House, 1998)

UPDATE: Fredrick McKissack (Aug. 12, 1939 - April 28, 2013), Patricia's frequent co-author died on Sunday after being ill, and on kidney dialysis for four years. Together the two of them wrote over 100 books. Patricia McKissack indicated that she expected to complete the couple's last book, tentatively titled Jump Rope, it appears that the book has not yet been published (as of November 2014).
The couple's three sons live in Indiana, Tennessee, and Missouri. Fredrick McKissack Jr. in Fort Wayne, Ind., Robert McKissack in St. Louis, and John McKissack in Memphis, Tenn. The couple has five grandchildren. Read Fredrick's obituary in the St. Louis Displatch May 1, 2013.


Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books.

This article first appeared in Book Report (first publication rights only) Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel.  The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use. First appeared:  Book Report, Nov/Dec99, Vol. 18 Issue 3, p36, 2p  Current Source:

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