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, Missouri. She was 72.
The cause was cardiac arrest, said a son, Fredrick McKissack Jr.
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 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.
ON A MISSION
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.”
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, Missouri, 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.
McKissack, who received a master’s degree in early-childhood education and honed her writing skills over 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.
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.