Long before she was a writer,Patricia McKissack listened and observed the world. Her mother, Erma, and her grandfather, James Oldham.
From James, his rich voice and colorful dialect, she heard tales that ran from what he called “the piney woods,” to the Nashville’s streets, places where tricksters, hucksters, villains were often bested by ordinary folk with extraordinary wit.
From Daddy James, the girl nicknamed “L’il Sista,” heard Bible parables and family history. Patricia’s love of poetry came from hearing her mother recite Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes.
It’s here where Patricia learned the basics of storytelling, whether on paper or in front of an audience. The writer’s duty was to weave a tale that respected the time and intelligence of the listener and reader.
At age seven, Patricia discovered reading. “So began my lifelong love affair with the printed word,” she said. “Reading is like breathing—both are essential to life.”
Patricia spent her childhood in both Nashville and Kirkwood, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. She graduated Tennessee State University in 1964 at the age of 19 with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature. It’s there that she met the love of her life, Fredrick L. McKissack. He, too, graduated from TSU with a degree in civil engineering. The two married in December 1964, and moved to St. Louis in early 1965.
In 1970, the McKissacks and there three sons established themselves in the city’s west end. Pat worked as an eighth grade English teacher in Kirkwood, and tried her hand at writing manuscripts. There were a lot of rejections. Her frustration was tempered by the perseverance she heard from the tales she heard and read as a child, as well as the support from, Fred.
Patricia finished her master’s degree in early childhood education in 1975. A chance meeting with an editor led Patricia to her first job in publishing, leading the children’s division of Concordia Publishing.
Six years later, Patricia and Fred sat in Forest Park, near there home. She’d had enough of working as an editor. Fred asked her what she wanted to do. He knew, but he wanted her to say it out loud.
“I want to write books for children,” she said.
“OK, do it,” he said, having been from an entrepreneurial family of engineers and architects.
Patricia left Concordia and began to freelance, as well as teach writing at local colleges and universities. A year later Fred resigned from his job with U.S. Army to join her.
People thought they were nuts, particularly Fred. An ex-Marine, a civil engineer who’d helped build lock-and-dams on the Mississippi, and large structures around the United States, was now writing “kiddie books.” He didn’t care. As their children told incredulous family members and so-called friends, this was the happiest they’d seen them in years.
There were lean years for the family. There were cracks, pangs of regret, but the partnership held firm. It was about faith.
“I write because there is a clear need for books written about the minority experience in America—fiction and nonfiction,” she would say later. “I also write for the love of it!”
And children, parents, librarians, and teachers loved them. Together, the McKissacks authored 100 books, won numerous awards, including a Newbery honor, three Coretta Scott King medals, and an NAACP Image Award. They were invited to numerous conferences and speaking engagements, including two visits to the White House. (She reluctantly had to forgo her second visit due to illness.)
The partnership that started by faith alone on afternoon spanned 30 years, until Fred’s death in April of 2013. It was an unexpected and devastating blow to the entire family. She received an outpouring of condolence and support from the publishing world. Exploits of his kind and gentle ways were delivered in person, phone, and letters. His obit appeared in the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and numerous trade magazines and newspapers.
Still, as Daddy James would’ve put, Pat was “real low inside.” The joy was gone. With the death of Fred, she’d lost a partner, a confidant, a husband and her one true love.
“I remember, a few months after his death, sitting in bed one morning, crying,” she said. “I heard his voice. I know it sounds strange, but I heard his voice say, ‘Come on, Pat-Pat. Enough of this, now. You’ve got promises to keep, and miles to go before you sleep.’
“Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ was one of Fred’s favorite poems. So I got up. I had to keep going. I had to keep the faith.”