Working together in a creative partnership, African-American children's book writers Patricia (1944–2017) and Fredrick (1939–2013) McKissack created a rich body of nonfiction books exploring black history and culture. In addition to her focus on young readers, Patricia McKissack produced highly regarded fiction for children and young adults.
Patricia and Fredrick McKissack were husband and wife in addition to creative collaborators, and they wrote more than 100 books during their long career. Turning to writing during a challenging point in their lives, the McKissacks crafted books that filled a void in the marketplace and in schools. Often they took up biographical subjects after looking for biographies of famous African Americans and finding that none existed, and they focused their biographies on blacks in a range of vocations, from athletes to whalers. As a fiction writer, Patricia McKissack also won a Newbery honor, one of the most prestigious awards in the world of children's literature. The couple's writing “was like a missionary thing for them,” as their son Fredrick McKissack, Jr., told Harrison Smith of the Washington Post. “There was a whole history and set of experiences that weren't being taught, discussed, examined with the gaze of a writer.”
A native of Nashville, Fredrick McKissack was born on August 12, 1939. His father and grandfather were both architects; his grandfather was among the first African Americans to earn a license in that profession, and both men worked on the design for the U.S. Army airfield complex in Tuskegee, Alabama. Growing up in Nashville during the civil rights era, Fredrick participated in lunch counter sit-ins. “Life actually changed,” he was quoted saying by Michael D. Sorkin of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We went from segregated schools to integrated situations.” McKissack eventually served in the U.S. Marine Corps and then enrolled at Tennessee A&I State University (now Tennessee State University in Nashville), studying engineering.
At college, Fredrick reconnected with Patricia Carwell, whom he had known casually as a child. She asked him for help in a math course she found challenging, and after meeting at a party three weeks later, they began dating. The McKissacks wed in 1964 and moved to St. Louis: Fredrick was 25 and Patricia was 20 and their friends expressed concern about the impulsive marriage. “For 50 years, we've never stopped talking,” Patricia McKissack later told Sorkin. “We were best friends. And we were lovers. He was the love of my life and he still is.”
Fueled by the optimism of the mid-20th century, the McKissacks embarked on separate careers, Fredrick as a contractor and Patricia as an English teacher, after earning a master's degree from Webster University. She worked for a time in Kirkwood and then, from 1976 to 1981, became a children's book editor at Concordia Publishing, which was associated with the Lutheran Church's Missouri Synod.
The McKissacks settled in St. Louis's Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood and raised their three sons, Fredrick as well as twins Robert and John. In recognition of her work at Concordia Publishing, Patricia was awarded a Helen Keating Ott Award in 1980. The award was timely, as Fredrick's contracting business was floundering during an economic downturn. When he asked Patricia what she would do if she had the wherewithal to do anything, she replied that she would write. Fredrick shuttered his business for what he assumed was a temporary interlude, and the pair began working together, eventually investing in two identical writing desks for the library of their home. Their first book, a biography of Dunbar, was reworked from a text Patricia wrote while working as a teacher when she was unable to find a book about Dunbar for her students. Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Poet to Remember was published in 1984.
As things developed, Fredrick McKissack never returned to his contracting business. Establishing a focus, the couple had no difficulty in finding publishers for their books, initially working with Chicago's Children's Press and by the late 1980s courted by major publishers such as Alfred Knopf, Scholastic, and Dial. Biographies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Jackson, and educator Mary McLeod Bethune quickly followed. The McKissacks did not restrict themselves to profiling African Americans, producing a 1984 study of the Apache tribe as well as nonfiction books on the Aztec, Inca, and Maya people of Mexico.
Part of the reason for the McKissacks' productivity and consistent quality lay in their teamwork. While producing nonfiction books, they worked closely together, with Fredrick doing much of the research and Patricia writing the text. Instinctively curious, Fredrick was also a stickler for accurate detail, going so far (in the pre-Internet era) as researching the weather for a specific date described in one of their books. After they made the transition to computer research, Patricia would leave blank spaces in her manuscript and allow Fredrick to fill in the relevant details. Even works of fiction that were credited solely to Patricia included contributions by her husband. “We were a team,” Patricia explained to Sorkin.
Although the McKissacks' annual production varied according to the demands of their life, they remained busy into the 2010s, and they took time to travel to Turkey, Africa, and the Baltic countries. They continued to write biographies, producing works on abolitionist leader Fredrick Douglass; civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson; songwriter James Weldon Johnson, author of Patricia's favorite hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”; and inventor Booker T. Washington, among others. Several of their biographies were published as part of the “Great African Americans” series issued by publisher Enslow. The McKissacks also wrote about African-American life and culture: A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter appeared in 1990, and Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues was published four years later. They also produced encyclopedia-type books about black scientists and inventors, a book about life in the kingdoms of medievalera Africa, and the history overview Rebels against Slavery: American Slave Revolts.
The couple's nonfiction output appeared in conjunction with Patricia's award-winning folkloric and historical fiction. Her 1988 novel Mirandy and Brother Wind describes a teenage romance that blooms during a cakewalk dance contest and was inspired by a photo of Patricia's grandparents. The book's illustrations by Jerry Pinkney won a Caldecott honor. McKissack won the 1992 Newbery Medal for The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, a book of ghost stories inspired by folktales told by her grandparents. “When you feel fear tingling in your toes and zinging up your spine like a closing zipper,” she wrote in the book's preface, “you have experienced the delicious horror of a tale of the dark-thirty.” In 2004 she collaborated with Democrat political strategist James Carville on Lu and the Swamp Ghost, a children's story based on a folktale Carville recalled from his Southern childhood.
During their long career, the McKissacks won numerous other awards. A Parents' Choice Award was earned in 1989 for Nettie Jo's Friends; a Coretta Scott King Honor Award and a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award were bestowed four years later for Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People honored them in 1999 for their book Let My People Go, and they received a Notable Children's Book selection nod from the American Library Association for two books published in 2007: The All-I'll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll and Porch Lies. The McKissacks were honored with a Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014.
The final award received by the McKissacks was posthumous in Fredrick's case; he died on April 28, 2013, in Chesterfield, Missouri, having undergone kidney dialysis and suffering poor health. The McKissacks sustained their working collaboration until just before his death. In 2012, Patricia collaborated with son Fredrick Jr. on the graphic novel Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love, and she died on April 7, 2017, in Bridgeton, Missouri.
New York Times, April 13, 2017, Sam Roberts, “Patricia McKissack, 72, Who Opened Children to Black History,” p. B17.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 2013, Michael D. Sorkin, “Fredrick McKissack Dies”; April 11, 2017, Jane Henderson, “Patricia McKissack, Honored Children's Author, Dies at 72,” p. A1.
Washington Post, April 11, 2017, Harrison Smith, “Patricia McKissack, Children's Author Who Brought Black History to Life, Dies at 72.”
African American Literature Book Club, https://aalbc.com/authors/author.php?author_name=Patricia+C.+Mckissack (November 3, 2017), “Patricia C. McKissack.”
Houghton Mifflin Reading, http://www.eduplace.com/kids/hmr/mtai/mckissack.html (November 3, 2017), “Meet the Authors: Patricia and Fredrick McKissack.”□