Patricia C. McKissack, a children’s author who chronicled African American history and Southern folklore in more than 100 early-reader and picture books, including award-winning works about chicken-coop monsters and a girl’s attempt to catch the wind, died April 7 at a hospital in Bridgeton, Mo. She was 72.
The cause was cardiac arrest, said a son, Fredrick McKissack Jr.
Mrs. McKissack was diagnosed several years ago with myotonic dystrophy, a muscle disorder, her son said, and was “really weakened” by the death in 2013 of her husband and frequent collaborator, Fredrick L. McKissack. She lived in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield.
With Fredrick McKissack handling the historical research and Mrs. McKissack focused on the writing, the couple crafted nonfiction works that sought to expose elementary- and middle-school readers to varied aspects of African American history.
Their books included “The Civil Rights Movement in America” (1987) and “A Long Hard Journey” (1989), about the organizing efforts of black Pullman railroad porters, as well as short biographies of black luminaries such as historian Carter Woodson (1991) and educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1985).
“It was like a missionary thing for them,” said Fredrick McKissack Jr. “There was a whole history and set of experiences that weren’t being taught, discussed, examined with the gaze of a writer.”
Mrs. McKissack, who once told her publisher, Random House, that she wrote “because there’s a clear need for books written about the minority experience in America,” recognized that need firsthand.
She had grown up in Kirkwood, Mo., and was one of the only black students at her white suburban school. By the time she returned to teach eighth-grade English, she yearned for a book that could introduce her students to African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
His work mixed conventional English diction and usage with Southern dialect, swapping “the” for “de” and employing frequent contractions and unusual spellings to mimic the contours of spoken language.
Mrs. McKissack, who received a master’s degree in early-childhood education and honed her writing skills in six years as a children’s book editor, wrote the Dunbar book herself and ultimately published a revised version in 1984.
Like Dunbar, she frequently used Southern dialect in her picture books and short works of fiction, and often drew on memories of her childhood and stories told by her grandmother’s parents on their porch in rural Tennessee.
“Flossie and the Fox” (1986), which featured watercolor illustrations by Rachel Isadora, was based off a story her grandfather told her about a black Little Red Riding Hood who encounters an “ol’ slickster” fox while carrying a basket of eggs through the forest. Kirkus Reviews called it “a perfect picture book.”
“Mirandy and Brother Wind” (1988), which won a Caldecott Honor for its illustrations by Jerry Pinkney, was inspired by a photo of Mrs. McKissack’s grandparents after they had won a cakewalk dance contest as teenagers. The book told the story of a young girl named Mirandy who attempts to capture the top-hat-wearing Brother Wind — the perfect dance partner in the upcoming cakewalk — despite her grandmother’s warning: “He be special. He be free.”
Her most acclaimed work of fiction, “The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural” (1992), was awarded a Newbery Honor, the runner-up to a medal that is considered the Pulitzer Prize of children’s literature. The book was an anthology of spooky stories named for the half-hour period just before night — as Mrs. McKissack’s grandparents told her — when the ghosts of former slaves are prone to walk the Earth and mayhem is never far away.
“When you feel fear tingling in your toes and zinging up your spine like a closing zipper,” she wrote in the book’s opening pages, “you have experienced the delicious horror of a tale of the dark-thirty.”
Patricia L’Ann Carwell was born in Smyrna, Tenn., on Aug. 9, 1944, but spent most of her childhood in Missouri. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was a civil servant whose jobs included a stint as an assistant superintendent at the St. Louis jail.
Mrs. McKissack’s upbringing in segregated Nashville, where she graduated from high school, inspired picture books such as “Goin’ Someplace Special” (2008). The book tells the story of a girl who takes the bus — sitting in the back behind the white passengers — to the library downtown, one of Nashville’s few integrated buildings. Mrs. McKissack described it as a second home.
In 1964, at 19, she was awarded a bachelor’s degree in English from Tennessee State University. That same year, she married Fredrick McKissack, an engineer whose grandfather was among the first licensed black architects in the South.
Survivors include three sons, Fredrick McKissack Jr. of Fort Wayne, Ind., John McKissack of Memphis and Robert McKissack of St. Louis; a brother; a sister; and five grandchildren.
Mrs. McKissack received her master’s from Missouri’s Webster University in 1975, and she was an editor at Concordia Publishing House, an arm of the Lutheran Church, before turning to writing. Her husband soon left his engineering job to become her collaborator. Many of their books covered religious themes or retold stories from the Bible.
Her most recent work, “Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!” (2016), included folk tales and songs such as “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
“I still to this day love that song,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in February. “It helps me to see God not as the vengeful, smoking, angry God who could disintegrate the whole world in a minute. No, God is loving, gentle and even though huge and powerful, could just hold you in the palm of the hand, and you’re safe. As a child I could just visualize this.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Mrs. McKissack’s upbringing in segregated Kirkwood, Mo., inspired her picture book “Goin’ Someplace Special.” The book was inspired by her childhood in Nashville, not in Kirkwood. The story has been revised.
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