In 1980, there were few books about African Americans—and even fewer written by African Americans themselves. Into the void stepped Patricia McKissack, who died yesterday at age 72, four years after her husband and co-author, Frederick. In her St. Louis Post-Dispatch obituary, McKissack’s son noted that his parents had “a missionary zeal to write about African-American characters where there hadn’t been any before.” They wrote more than 100 (!) titles across genres and age groups: biographies, histories, picture books, poetry, and fiction that featured characters from both the past and present. The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural was a Newbery Honor book in 1983, the year McKissack also won the Coretta Scott King author award. In 2014, the couple received the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The McKissacks were always looking for new ways to tell their stories. Let My People Go (1998) retells the Old Testament in the voice of Price Jefferies, once a slave, now a free black abolitionist in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early nineteenth century. In Never Forgotten (2011), McKissack, using accessible free verse, writes the slave story from the viewpoint of the Africans left behind, who can only imagine what happens to those who are taken and never heard from again. That year, McKissack also published Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn it Out, a collection of childhood rhymes and songs.
Though the McKissack’s fiction books usually had just Pat’s name on them, these works were almost always a collaboration. Frederick would do the research, she the writing. When meeting the couple, one of the first things you’d notice was how happy they always seemed to be in each other’s company. And they were always excited about their next project. Losing her husband, was something McKissack’s son said she never got over. “In a way, I think my mother died of a broken heart,” he told the Post-Dispatch. It’s hard to imagine the hole that would be left in children’s literature if the McKissacks had not decided to chuck their careers (she and editor, he an engineer) and turn to writing. They informed, educated, and entertained legions of young readers, opening minds and hearts. They will be missed.