Patricia C. McKissack
Patricia C. McKissack
(Full name Patricia Carwell McKissack; has also written under the pseudonym L'Ann Carwell) American author of juvenile biographies, juvenile fiction, juvenile nonfiction, juvenile short stories, and picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of McKissack's career through 2007. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volumes 23 and 55.
McKissack has written over one hundred titles under her own name, as well as in collaboration with her husband, Fredrick L. McKissack. The author of historical fiction and biographies for children, McKissack focuses on religious as well as African-American themes. Regularly using the stories of her own family's history in the United States as inspiration, McKissack's works seek to invigorate the underrepresented canon of African-American literature for young readers, particularly through her biographical accounts of great persons of African descent. The recipient of a 1993 Newbery Honor award for the short stories gathered in The Dark-Thirty (1992), McKissack has also won several Coretta Scott King awards, as well as a Caldecott Honor for her picture book Mirandy and Brother Wind (1988). Teaming with her husband, she has contributed numerous titles to Enslow's "Great African Americans" series, as well as many non-series books on little-known aspects of African-American history, including Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues (1994), Red-Tail Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (1995), and Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers (1999).
McKissack, the daughter of Robert and Emma Carwell, was born on August 9, 1944, in Nashville, Tennessee, though she spent much of her early childhood in Kirkwood, Missouri. However, after her parents' divorce, McKissack moved back with her mother to Nashville. A strong student, McKissack enrolled at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University (now Tennessee State University), where she was reunited with a man five years her senior, Fredrick L. McKissack, whom she had known from her childhood. The couple was married in 1965 and have since collaborated on a prolific canon of juvenile literature. After graduating in 1964 with a B.A. in English, McKissack became a junior high school English teacher in Kirkwood, Missouri. Noticing the dearth of literary works and educational materials for African-American children, McKissack began work on a planned biography of the noted poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, a book that would eventually be published in 1984 as Paul Lawrence Dunbar: A Poet to Remember. In 1975, after McKissack graduated with a M.A. in child education from Webster University, she took a position as a children's book editor for a religious press, Concordia Publishing, in St. Louis. While at Concordia, McKissack published her first two books, Good Shepherd Prayer (1978) and God Gives New Life (1979), writing under the name L'Ann Carwell, a combination of her middle and maiden names. After leaving Concordia in 1981, McKissack became a writer full-time, submitting manuscripts to various large publishers. One such manuscript found its way to Ann Schwartz, an editor at Dial Publishing, who, after convincing McKissack to shorten the story, published the book as Flossie and the Fox (1986). In 1984 McKissack's husband, Fredrick, began serving as both her researcher and writing partner, eventually collaborating with her in over seventy-five books for children. The McKissacks have three sons, and their eldest, Fredrick Jr., contributed to their 1994 book, Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues. In addition to her literary career, McKissack has worked as a writing instructor since 1975, teaching at Forest Park College and the U.M.-St. Louis continuing education department. Now living in Kirkwood, Missouri, McKissack serves as a board member of the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance. a national non-profit organization that actively advocates for literacy, literature, and libraries.
Together, the McKissacks have penned several biographies in Enslow's "Great African Americans" series, short nonfiction titles intended for the primary grades. These books—which include Ida B. Wells-Barnett: A Voice against Violence (1991), Marian Anderson: A Great Singer (1991), Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Peace (1991), and Ralph J. Bunche: Peacemaker (1991)—describe the lives of important African-American leaders, both cultural and political, in brief chapters using a basic, concise style accompanied by photographs and other illustrations. Many books in the series have been revised for 2001 and 2002 editions that feature original black-and-white photographs. The McKissacks also have several non-series biographies to their credit. With Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman? (1992), a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, they tell the story of the nineteenth-century preacher, abolitionist, and activist for the rights of both African Americans and women. Born as a slave, Isabella van Wagener was later freed and, at age forty-six, felt the calling to "walk in the light of His truth." Thereafter, she adopted the name of Sojourner Truth and fought for the rights of slaves and women, popularizing such ideas throughout the Midwest and New England despite the climate of the times. In Young, Black, and Determined (1998), the McKissacks tell the story of the brilliant African-American writer Lorraine Hansberry. The author of the acclaimed play A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry fought prejudice throughout her brief career. The McKissacks' other history books of note include such works as Black Diamond, Red-Tail Angels, and Black Hands, White Sails, all collaborative efforts.
McKissack has also authored numerous solo works of juvenile history and fiction. Her books for very young readers, such as Flossie and the Fox and the Caldecott Honor Book Mirandy and Brother Wind, have won critical praise and a wide readership. Both works were inspired by stories from McKissack's grandfather. McKissack's 1997 work Ma Dear's Aprons was inspired by her remembrances of her great-grandmother and her iconic apron. She has penned other works of fiction, including The Honest-to-Goodness Truth (2000), in which young Libby learns that truth-telling is not always as straightforward as it seems, and Tippy Lemmey (2003), a chapter book for middle readers about a vicious dog who becomes a valuable friend. McKissack has also collaborated on several fictional works, teaming with Southern-born political commentator James Carville to tell a folktale from Carville's childhood with Lu and the Swamp Ghost (2004). In the story, Lu finds a mud-covered monster in the swamps near her Louisiana home. After escaping from it, she decides maybe the monster just needs a friend. When she attempts to tame the ghost, Lu discovers it is not a monster after all, but instead someone who needs her help. In another collaboration, McKissack joined Onawumi Jean Moss in the retelling of another folk story, Precious and the Boo Hag (2005). Precious is left home alone and warned not to let the Boo Hag inside her house. Her brother warns her that the Boo Hag can change her appearance, so when the Boo Hag tries to come in by disguising herself as a shiny penny, Precious knows better than to bring her inside. McKissack became the recipient of a Newbery Honor Award for the short stories collected in The Dark-Thirty. The title comes from McKissack's youth, representing the half-hour period before dark during which children were still allowed to play outside. The ten original stories in the collection reflect different aspects of African-American history and culture. Some of McKissack's other works for older readers include a series of fictionalized diaries of African-American girls for Scholastic, such as A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl (1997) and Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North (2000). The first title is set on a Virginia plantation in 1859, and the second title follows the fortunes of a young girl who migrates to Chicago after World War I.
Throughout her prolific career, McKissack has developed a reputation as a successful and well-regarded children's author. Sharron McElmeel has commented that, "Patricia McKissack is noted for candor and thoroughness, whether she is writing biographies of important African Americans or telling about the slaves and the plantation owners on an 1859 Virginia plantation, as in Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters (1994), or creating a story based on her own great-grandmother's experiences as a domestic worker, as in Ma Dear's Aprons. Her writing is lyrical and often instructs while conveying a pride in African-American heritage and in being a strong and independent thinking female." Reviewers have consistently praised McKissack's dedication to creating fiction and nonfiction works that both appeal to and educate young audiences, particularly African-American and other minority readers. Heather L. Walker has characterized Run Away Home as a story that "beautifully blends historical fact with fictional characters and the result is compelling. It is a gentle and powerful fictional tribute to Abraham and the Crossley family. The novel itself is a clear, proud, affirming work. The language of the novel is simple without ever being simplistic or patronizing. Indeed, its stark, honest simplicity often makes the hatred, brutality of the racist South more powerful and painful." In her review of Goin' Someplace Special (2000), Robin Smith has called the work "just the right balance in a picture book for young readers and listeners: informative without being preachy; hopeful without being sentimental." Further stressing McKissack's contributions to the children's literature genre, Barbara Bader has asserted that, "[t]o fill a proper library for all kinds of kids takes all kinds of books—stories of struggle, stories with a lineage, stories that are plain entertaining. Any of them might come with the McKissack name."
Juvenile Fiction and Nonfiction
Good Shepherd Prayer [as L'Ann Carwell] (juvenile fiction) 1978
God Gives New Life [as L'Ann Carwell] (juvenile fiction) 1979
The Apache (juvenile nonfiction) 1984
It's the Truth, Christopher [illustrations by Bartholomew] (picture book) 1984
Lights Out, Christopher [illustrations by Bartholomew] (picture book) 1984
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Man to Remember (juvenile biography) 1984
Michael Jackson, Superstar (juvenile biography) 1984
Paul Lawrence Dunbar: A Poet to Remember (juvenile biography) 1984
Aztec Indians (juvenile nonfiction) 1985
The Inca (juvenile nonfiction) 1985
The Maya (juvenile nonfiction) 1985
Mary McLeod Bethune: A Great American Educator (juvenile biography) 1985
Flossie and the Fox [illustrations by Rachel Isadora] (picture book) 1986
Our Martin Luther King Book [illustrations by Rachel Isadora] (picture book) 1986
Who Is Coming? [illustrations by Clovis Martin] (picture book) 1986
Give It with Love, Christopher: Christopher Learns about Gifts and Giving [illustrations by Bartholomew] (picture book) 1988
Mirandy and Brother Wind [illustrations by Jerry Pinkney] (picture book) 1988
Monkey-Monkey's Trick: Based on an African Folk-Tale [illustrations by Paul Meisel] (picture book) 1988
Nettie Jo's Friends [illustrations by Scott Cook] (picture book) 1988
Speak Up, Christopher: Christopher Learns the Difference between Right and Wrong [illustrations by Bartholomew] (picture book) 1988
Jesse Jackson: A Biography (juvenile biography) 1989
The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural [illustrations by Brian Pinkney] (juvenile short stories) 1992
A Million Fish—More or Less [illustrations by Dena Schutzer] (juvenile fiction) 1992
Ma Dear's Aprons [illustrations by Floyd Cooper] (picture book) 1997
A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl (juvenile fiction) 1997
Run Away Home (juvenile fiction) 1997
Goin' Someplace Special [illustrations by Giselle Potter] (picture book) 2000
The Honest-to-Goodness Truth [illustrations by Giselle Potter] (juvenile fiction) 2000
Nzingha, Warrior Queen of Matamba (juvenile non-fiction) 2000
Itching and Twitching: A Nigerian Folktale [with Robert L. McKissack; illustrations by Laura Freeman] (juvenile fiction) 2003
Tippy Lemmey [illustrations by Susan Keeter] (picture book) 2003
Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreaus, a French Slave Girl (juvenile fiction) 2004
Lu and the Swamp Ghost [with James Carville; illustrations by David Catrow] (picture book) 2004
To Establish Justice: Citizenship and the Constitution [with Arlene Zarembka] (juvenile nonfiction) 2004
Abby Takes a Stand [illustrations by Gordon C. James] (picture book) 2005
Amistad: The Story of a Slave Ship [illustrations by Sanna Stanley] (juvenile nonfiction) 2005
Loved Best [illustrations by Felicia Marshall] (juvenile fiction) 2005
Precious and the Boo Hag [with Onawumi Jean Moss; illustrations by Kyrsten Brooker] (picture book) 2005
Where Crocodiles Have Wings [illustrations by Bob Barner] (picture book) 2005
Away West [illustrations by Gordon C. James] (juvenile nonfiction) 2006
Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters [illustrations by André Carrilho] (juvenile short stories) 2006
A Friendship for Today (juvenile fiction) 2007
The All-I'll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll [illustrations by Jerry Pinkney] (juvenile fiction) 2007
Song for Harlem [illustrations by Gordon C. James] (juvenile fiction) 2007
Juvenile Fiction and Nonfiction with Fredrick L. McKissack
Abram, Abram, Where Are We Going? [illustrations by Joe Boddy] (picture book) 1984
Look What You've Done Now, Moses [illustrations by Joe Boddy] (picture book) 1984
Cinderella [illustrations by Tom Dunnington] (juvenile fiction) 1985
Country Mouse and City Mouse [illustrations by Anne Sikorski] (juvenile fiction) 1985
The Little Red Hen [illustrations by Dennis Hockerman] (juvenile fiction) 1985
The Three Bears [illustrations by Virginia Bala] (juvenile fiction) 1985
King Midas and His Gold [illustrations by Tom Dunnington] (juvenile fiction) 1986
The Ugly Little Duck [illustrations by Peggy Perry Anderson] (juvenile fiction) 1986
When Do You Talk to God?: Prayers for Small Children [illustrations by Gary Gumble] (juvenile nonfiction) 1986
All Paths Lead to Bethlehem [illustrations by Kathryn E. Shoemaker] (juvenile nonfiction) 1987
The Big Bug Book of Counting [illustrations by Bartholomew] (picture book) 1987
The Big Bug Book of Opposites [illustrations by Bartholomew] (picture book) 1987
The Big Bug Book of Places to Go [illustrations by Bartholomew] (picture book) 1987
The Big Bug Book of the Alphabet [illustrations by Bartholomew] (picture book) 1987
The Big Bug Book of Things to Do [illustrations by Bartholomew] (picture book) 1987
The Civil Rights Movement in America from 1865 to the Present (juvenile nonfiction) 1987
Frederick Douglass: The Black Lion (juvenile biography) 1987
The King's New Clothes [illustrations by Gwen Connelly] (juvenile fiction) 1987
Messy Bessey [illustrations by Richard Hackney] (juvenile fiction) 1987; with illustrations by Dana Regan, 1999
My Bible ABC Book [illustrations by Reed Merrill] (picture book) 1987
A Real Winner [illustrations by Quentin Thompson and Ken Jones] (juvenile fiction) 1987
Tall Phil and Small Bill [illustrations by Kathy Mitter] (juvenile fiction) 1987
Three Billy Goats Gruff [illustrations by Tom Dunnington] (juvenile fiction) 1987
Bugs! [illustrations by Clovis Martin] (picture book) 1988
The Children's ABC Christmas [illustrations by Kathy Rogers] (picture book) 1988
Constance Stumbles [illustrations by Tom Dunnington] (juvenile fiction) 1988
God Made Something Wonderful [illustrations by Ching] (picture book) 1989
A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter (juvenile nonfiction) 1989
Messy Bessey's Closet [illustrations by Richard Hackney] (juvenile fiction) 1989; with illustrations by Dana Regan, 2001
Oh, Happy, Happy Day!: A Child's Easter in Story, Song, and Prayer [illustrations by Elizabeth Swisher] (juvenile nonfiction) 1989
James Weldon Johnson: "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (juvenile biography) 1990
Taking a Stand against Racism and Racial Discrimination (juvenile nonfiction) 1990
W. E. B. DuBois (juvenile biography) 1990
Messy Bessey's Garden [illustrations by Richard Hackney] (juvenile fiction) 1991; with illustrations by Dana Regan, 2002
The Story of Booker T. Washington (juvenile biography) 1991
Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman? (juvenile biography) 1992
God Makes All Things New [illustrations by Ching] (picture book) 1993
African Americans [illustrations by Michael McBride] (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
African-American Inventors (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
African-American Scientists (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues [with Fredrick McKissack, Jr.] (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters [illustrations by John Thompson] (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
Sports (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
Red-Tail Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (juvenile nonfiction) 1995
Rebels against Slavery: American Slave Revolts (juvenile nonfiction) 1996
Messy Bessey and the Birthday Overnight [illustrations by Dana Regan] (juvenile fiction) 1998
Messy Bessey's School Desk [illustrations by Dana Regan] (juvenile fiction) 1998
Let My People Go: Bible Stories of Faith, Hope, and Love, as Told by Price Jefferies, a Free Man of Color, to His Daughter, Charlotte, in Charleston, South Carolina, 1806-1816 [illustrations by James E. Ransome] (juvenile nonfiction) 1998
Young, Black, and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry (juvenile biography) 1998
Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers (juvenile nonfiction) 1999
Messy Bessey's Holidays [illustrations by Dana Regan] (juvenile fiction) 1999
Messy Bessey's Family Reunion [illustrations by Dana Regan] (juvenile fiction) 2000
Miami Gets It Straight [illustrations by Michael Chesworth] (juvenile fiction) 2000
Miami Makes the Play [illustrations by Michael Chesworth] (juvenile fiction) 2001
Miami Sees It Through [illustrations by Michael Chesworth] (juvenile fiction) 2002
Days of Jubilee: The End of Slavery in the United States (juvenile nonfiction) 2003
Hard Labor: The First African Americans, 1619 [illustrations by Joseph Daniel Fiedler] (juvenile nonfiction) 2004
"Great African Americans" Series; with Fredrick L. McKissack
Carter G. Woodson: The Father of Black History [illustrations by Ned Ostendorf] (juvenile biography) 1991
Frederick Douglass: Leader against Slavery [illustrations by Ned Ostendorf] (juvenile biography) 1991
George Washington Carver: The Peanut Scientist [illustrations by Ned Ostendorf] (juvenile biography) 1991
Ida B. Wells-Barnett: A Voice against Violence [illustrations by Ned Ostendorf] (juvenile biography) 1991
Louis Armstrong: Jazz Musician [illustrations by Ned Ostendorf] (juvenile biography) 1991
Marian Anderson: A Great Singer [illustrations by Ned Ostendorf] (juvenile biography) 1991
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Peace [illustrations by Ned Ostendorf] (juvenile biography) 1991
Mary Church Terrell: Leader for Equality [illustrations by Ned Ostendorf] (juvenile biography) 1991
Mary McLeod Bethune: A Great Teacher [illustrations by Ned Ostendorf] (juvenile biography) 1991
Ralph J. Bunche: Peacemaker [illustrations by Ned Ostendorf] (juvenile biography) 1991
Booker T. Washington: Leader and Educator [illustrations by Michael Bryant] (juvenile biography) 1992
Jesse Owens: Olympic Star [illustrations by Michael David Biegel] (juvenile biography) 1992
Langston Hughes: Great American Poet [illustrations by Michael David Biegel] (juvenile biography) 1992
Madam C. J. Walker: Self-Made Millionaire [illustrations by Michael Bryant] (juvenile biography) 1992
Paul Robeson: A Voice to Remember [illustrations by Michael David Biegel] (juvenile biography) 1992
Satchel Paige: The Best Arm in Baseball [illustrations by Michael David Biegel] (juvenile biography) 1992
Sojourner Truth: Voice for Freedom [illustrations by Michael Bryant] (juvenile biography) 1992
Zora Neale Hurston: Writer and Storyteller [illustrations by Michael Bryant] (juvenile biography) 1992
Patricia C. McKissack and Rudine Sims Bishop (interview date January 1992)
SOURCE: McKissack, Patricia C., and Rudine Sims Bishop. "Profile: A Conversation with Patricia McKissack." Language Arts 69, no. 1 (January 1992): 69-74.
[In the following interview, McKissack discusses her personal history, how she became a writer, and how she creates her books for children.]
Patricia C. McKissack is the author or coauthor of more than 40 books for children. A former eighth-grade English teacher, Ms. McKissack also holds an M.A. in early childhood education and literature from Webster University. Currently she lives in St. Louis, where she and her husband Fredrick, her sometime coauthor, do freelance writing and editing. Ms. McKissack also teaches writing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis Continuing Education Department.
I first discovered Ms. McKissack's work in 1986 when Flossie and the Fox (illustrated by Rachel Isadora) was published by Dial. In a period when the texts of many beautifully illustrated picture books seemed bland and pale next to the visual art, Flossie was a good story, well told. Flossie herself is irresistible, a quick thinker who uses her head to get herself out of a tight situation. She has been compared to Little Red Riding Hood, but Flossie needs no rescue. When the fox tries to find a way to steal the eggs she is delivering, Flossie outwits him by pretending not to believe he is a fox. Flossie is last seen wearing a radiant smile, her destination in sight, as the fox tries to save himself from the hunting dogs close on his heels. Kirkus Book Review called it "… a perfect picture book." Flossie was followed by two other picture books featuring young African-American girls: Mirandy and Brother Wind (Knopf, 1988), a Caldecott Honor Book illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, and Nettie Jo's Friends, illustrated by Scott Cook (Knopf, 1989). All three draw on Ms. McKissack's Southern heritage and reflect the language of Southern African Americans of an earlier time. Although some of her readers profess discomfort with the idiom, most find her three plucky heroines irresistible. Mirandy is determined to capture Brother Wind and make him her partner at the cakewalk, but just when she is about to achieve success, loyalty to a friend leads her to make a better choice. Nettie Jo needs help in finding a needle to stitch up her doll's dress for Cousin Willadeen's wedding. When she seeks assistance from her animal friends, she finds they all need help themselves. As Nettie Jo solves each of their problems, they run off, too busy with their own affairs to help her. Eventually, however, Nettie Jo's generosity is rewarded.
Ms. McKissack and her husband have also written nonfiction. Their best selling title is The Civil Rights Movement in America from 1865 to the Present, which is widely used in junior high and middle schools. In addition, they have also produced several biographies of African-American heroes, contributions to series such as the People of Distinction series of Children's Press and the Great African Americans series of Enslow Publishers. Their subjects include Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Laurence Dunbar, Mary McLeod Bethune, Michael Jackson, James Weldon Johnson, Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Mary Church Terrell, and Carter G. Woodson.
The McKissacks' work has been very well received. A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter (Walker, 1989) received both the Jane Addams Award and the Coretta Scott King Award. Mirandy and Brother Wind, in addition to being a Caldecott Honor Book, was also awarded the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration and was an ALA Notable Book. Their books published with Augsburg Press, a religious publishing house in Minneapolis, have won at least two C. S. Lewis Silver Medals for outstanding contribution in the area of religious books for children.
Patricia McKissack was the closing speaker at the Children's Literature Assembly workshop at the 1990 NCTE Annual Convention in Atlanta. We set aside part of the afternoon of November 19 for lunch and a long, relaxed, informal conversation. Excerpts follow.* * *
[Rudine Sims Bishop]: Would you begin by talking about how you got started writing for children?
[Patricia C. McKissack]: I actually got started in third grade. I wrote a poem, and the teacher put it on the bulletin board and said she liked it. It was thrilling to have other people read and respond to something I had written, and I don't think that feeling ever left me. I was forever scribbling ideas and thoughts. I kept a journal; I've always kept a diary.
When I became a teacher, I was bothered by the lack of materials for African-American children. I taught eighth grade, that very important age group where they're looking for self, especially in books. I wanted to give my kids Paul Laurence Dunbar. He's an American standard. My mother had recited Dunbar for me, and I grew up jumping double dutch to "Jump back, honey, jump back!" But his work wasn't in our anthologies, where my kids could get it. So I said, "OK, I'll write it myself." So I did, and that was one of my first books (Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Poet to Remember, Children's Press, 1984). It was the first time I had disciplined myself to write a whole manuscript—beginning, middle, and end—with purpose. Of course, it didn't get published for many years.
From teaching, I went into editing. I was the children's book editor for Concordia Publishing, a religious publishing house in St. Louis. I was with them for 6 years, so I learned the industry from the inside. Then I decided I wanted to write professionally, but it was difficult to do that and also work full-time as an editor, so I had to make a career choice. I couldn't just break away and start writing because it takes a while to get enough books in print to make a living. So I continued to teach, but at the college level. I taught freshman composition, and oddly enough, it was much like teaching eighth-grade English. It was from there that I moved into writing.
Did you want to be a writer when you were a child?
Yes, but I was told black people couldn't do that—"Girl, you better take something you can do. You'd better be a teacher." Even in college I was steered toward getting a teaching certificate "so you can have something to do when you graduate." I love the teaching profession. When people ask me what I do, I still say, "I write, and I teach." Teaching is very much a part of me; it was my stepping stone to writing, and it continues to be. But it's limiting to be told that's all you can do. Perhaps they were wise at the time, but today I would be appalled if a teacher told a child that he or she can't make a living as a writer, because you can. It's hard work, but you can make a living. And we need more black voices; we need different points of view. Six or seven black writers cannot represent all the attitudes, all the characters, all the ways in which characters interact with one another. When my books come under criticism, I say, "Now wait. I am just one voice in the wilderness. If you don't like my books, then read Virginia Hamilton or Eloise Greenfield or someone else who is doing something different. But don't expect me to speak for everyone."
Do you have some idea why there aren't more black writers?
It's tough to make a living as a writer, and it has taken a long time to finally get people to recognize that there is a need for good books written by good black authors. Now we've reached a point where we have good black writers. I consider myself a good writer. I'm a craftsman; I can write about any subject. I choose, however, to write about the African-American experience. But I don't want to be limited to that, and I'd fight to the tooth if I thought I were.
Let's go back to those diaries and journals you kept as a child.
Our home burned in January, 1968, and I lost my yearbook, my marriage album, all of the stuff. I had boxes of memorabilia that I had collected through school, and I lost every bit of it. People ask me what I missed most after the fire. My first son's baby pictures. Things that can't be replaced. My childhood diaries. Like most little girls, I used to write my feelings. It was amazing how many times I fell in and out of love. I would scribble a poem now and then, and after a trip, I would describe it—all the smells and sounds and tastes. I did enjoy doing that. There's still a part of me that mourns that loss.
Tell me a little about your growing up.
My parents divorced when I was young, but they were together for 10 years, so I really got to enjoy my father. I was a daddy's girl, and in many ways I guess I still am. I was very close to my grandparents on both sides. My grandmothers were best friends; they knew each other before my parents knew each other. The two of them knew I was deeply hurt by the divorce and that I didn't understand any of it, so they surrounded me with love. My mother moved from Kirkwood, a small town near St. Louis, to Nashville, and I grew up there in the projects in the bosom of this loving family. They just spoiled me rotten, especially my maternal grandfather, who gave me plenty of attention.
Was he the storyteller?
Yes, and I was his baby. He was the storyteller, in every sense of the word. When he would tell a tale, he would begin with something like, "No granddaughter of mine would be foolish enough to let some wolf or something come take her stuff away, right?" And I'd say, "That's right, Papa." And then he'd go on to tell the story.
My grandfather couldn't read, but we never knew it. He cloaked it well. I thought it was the natural order of things for the child to read to the adult. He would say, "Baby, read to me what you learned at the schoolhouse today." And I would proceed to read. Here's this adult giving me all this attention, and I'm just stumbling through words, and he would just sit there and allow me to work it through. Of course, I didn't know he had to let me do it. But look at the strength and confidence he was giving me. I would say, "No, no, no. I'll work it out." And he'd say, "I know you can, Little Sister. You just keep on. I know you can. You just go right on." So he would hear these stories and he would redevelop them, or he would contradict them. He told Bible stories, too, and that's why I love to tell them as well.
So you were a reader as well as a writer?
I read everything. The Nashville Public Library wasn't segregated when I was growing up. It was always open to blacks, and that said something about the library to me: Here is a place where blacks are welcome, so it must be a wonderful place. I had a different feeling about it than I had about those institutions that locked us out. The library had sense enough to throw its doors open and invite us in, and I accepted the invitation. I was there every week to check out my three books, which was all we were allowed. As soon as I read those three, I would take them back and get three more. Fairy tales and myths were my favorites. Even today I love mythology. I feel that I can learn a lot about a people if I know their mythology.
What troubled me, though, was that I never saw myself in books. It was very difficult to find me in any of the books I was looking at—except nonfiction. So began my love of reading nonfiction for fun. That's why I fight so hard for it to be read for fun and not just for research, or an assignment, or a book report. Teachers need to model it, but they don't because they don't read it for fun; they don't have the mindset for it. It's fun to me because it was one of the few places where I could find images that reflected me.
What kinds of things did you find about black people in nonfiction?
I could find biographies of people like Mary McLeod Bethune. And the poetry of Langston Hughes was available. I would even pick up the encyclopedia and go through it and look for black people. That's how hungry I was to find what we had done, too. But I couldn't find anything in the juvenile novels. I combed the shelves looking for them and could not find them. What I did read shows up in what I ended up writing about.
That explains the nonfiction. What about the picture books?
The reason I wrote Flossie, Mirandy, and Nettie Jo is that I wanted black kids to see a book with a picture of a beautiful black child on it—be it male or female—and say, "Oh, there's me in a book." And feel good about it. I wanted to have a little girl who was sharp and smart, learning a little bit about her history and a little bit about our language. That's why I wrote those books.
We've talked about your growing up. What about your current family?
I'm the mother of three very beautiful sons. The oldest is Fred, Jr., who's writing now. He's a sports writer for St. Louis suburban journals. Then I have twins. Robert is at Tennessee State, where my husband and I went to school. He's in English. John graduated from Northwestern in June, 1991, with a degree in mechanical engineering. We're very proud of our sons. Then there's my husband of 26 years. He's the wind beneath my wings. Believe me, he's my best friend.
Let's talk about this wind beneath your wings. You do books together. Would you talk about how that works?
That's the question everybody asks. "How in the world do you work with your husband?" What they're really asking is, "Do you fight?" We do fight, but never about who's right and who's wrong. We usually try to figure out the best way to get across the point we want to make. Sometimes that means that we have to take out information because we're overloading. We have to make sure the information is documented and researched. We take great pride in the fact that we try to write as accurately as possible. We're going to make mistakes, but it won't be because of sloppiness. We try our best to document, to verify. That's Fred; that's the wind. He does the gathering of the information and I do the writing.
The first thing we do is outline the book. Do kids ever groan when we tell them that! We have to have done some prereading in order to do the outline, so we go to the library and do some preliminaries. Then we do a broad preliminary outline.
We work on a word processor. I'll type a draft, and Fred works over what I've done. He adds information. I run a hard copy and leave big blank spots. He reads it, and he may say, "This is not working. We need to move this to another chapter because it will flow better, and I'll find some more information to put in here." Then we read together. We read out loud; we tape, and I listen. We talk—all the time. A lot of people think we must be attached at the hip. But some days we don't see each other. He's out, or he's on the phone for hours at a time trying to track down information.
I don't enjoy research. It's fun when I get to go some place. When we were doing a Christmas book, it was fun to go into old houses and see their holiday decorations. But I don't like the nitty-gritty stuff. I don't like finding 14 different birthdates for the same person and having to figure out which one is accurate. Fred, with that engineering, left-brained mind of his, goes after every little thing. I'll say, "1872. That's close enough." But he'll find out it was November 13, 1872, at 2 o'clock in the morning. He'll even go search weather reports and tell me it was a cloudy day.
Documentation is what it's all about. People will not argue if you can find original sources for your material. We try at all costs to either quote from a person who's using primary source material or use primary sources ourselves. It's not an easy thing, but it's worth it.
We also depend a lot on the scholarly works that have been written by other people. What would I do without Lerone Bennett's book Before the Mayflower? It gives me jumping-off points. Or if I need to verify something quickly, I know Lerone has done it; it's accurate and accessible. I have to give him credit for his scholarly work and for the impact he has had upon our writing.
Flossie and the Fox was the book that brought you to the attention of a wide audience. Some people are now calling it a folktale. Where did it come from?
It came from my grandfather. He used to tell wonderful stories. That man could mesmerize us. But if I told it the way he had told it, it would not be publishable because it was so long and rambling. Her name was not Flossie; it was Pat. He always named his characters after me, or my sister, or my brother, which was wonderful, too, because we became a part of this magical world that he had created. In his story, Flossie encountered a bear, a wolf, a snake—all the evil creatures that children might encounter—and then a fox. But she did basically the same thing each time, and it would ramble on and on and on. So I developed Flossie from that. I wrote it first as an easy reader, and Flossie was a chicken. And it didn't work. Then one day I said, "I know what's wrong with this. I'm not telling this in the right voice." So, I had to step out of myself and step into my grandfather's head and hear and speak the story as though he were telling it to me. So it was like I was playing both parts. I had to be me, and I had to be him. My heart was already open to the story, but I had to hear it. Now his language was not mine. It was very difficult for me to say, "And what do a fox look like, ‘cause I disremember ever seein’ one." I had to play with that for several passages before I finally got into it, but once I got into it, I found it came very easily. So that's how Flossie came about. But it came on the heels of a lot of attempts. Anne Schwartz was an editor at Dial at the time. I had sent her a manuscript that was really not very good, but something she saw in it prompted her to write me and say, "This has potential." She encouraged me to keep writing. I had sent her other things before Flossie, but that was the one that hit. Anne's a wonderful editor. So is Fran Dyra at Children's Press. They have the smarts to leave me alone and let us do what we do best. They're not frustrated writers who are trying to write their own manuscripts through us. A lot of editors are like that, but not mine. Nor Ann Reit, who's my editor at Scholastic. I have wonderful editors. I have to give them credit because they gave me the opportunity to write some exciting books.
Do you do storytelling?
All the time. That's another thing "I do." People often wonder if the storytelling came before the writing. It didn't. I studied at Webster University with a wonderful storyteller named Lynn Rubright. She wows her audiences, as does Ruthhilde Kronberg, with whom I recently coauthored a storytelling book called A Piece of the Wind (Harper & Row, 1990). Ruthhilde and Lynn taught this course in storytelling and puppetry, and it was through them that I began to loosen up. I was a good story reader, but I was scared to death to stand up without the book and just go for it. They helped me to do that. Then I started to draw on Southern heritage and the Southern story, and that's when things kind of exploded for me.
What advice do you give to teachers who hesitate to readFlossie aloud because they don't feel comfortable with the dialect?
I must tell you this story. There was a teacher who told me she couldn't do Flossie because she was uncomfortable with the language. So I said, "Try it."
So indeed she did. And when I had occasion to be in her school, I did my BEST Flossie and the Fox. I had my fox and little eggs, and I charged right in and did my Flossie well. When it was over, she came up to me with an odd expression on her face and said, "I've got something to tell you. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but guess what?"
I said, "What?"
"When you finished doing Flossie, one of my students said, "Miss _____, she didn't do it right. She didn't do it the way you do."
Isn't that wonderful? It proves my point 100%. If the kids know and trust the teacher, they will accept what she gives them. If she goes to them with honesty and with love and appreciation of the story, they will pick that up from her, and they will love it because she has given it to them. But if the teacher is frightened or turned off by the story, she will transmit those feelings to the children as well.
Even though you are well known for your stories in dialect, most of your writing is in Standard English.
I write in both. Like Paul Laurence Dunbar, who could write "'Lias! 'Lias! Bless de Lawd! Don' you know de day's erbroad?'"; and then he could turn around and write, "I know why the caged bird sings, ah me … When he beats his bars and would be free." I hope that in the writing I do I can be as effective in Standard English as I am in dialect and as effective in dialect as I am in Standard English. Language is a tool, not a cage, and I refuse to be caged by language.
Language is wonderful. We can do much with it, and if we free our kids up to express themselves in many different ways, their school experiences with language will be so much more meaningful to them. They will not be inhibited about putting things on paper, or in their talking. Let them express joy and exuberance, the joy of living; and then when it's not there, we can clean it up—decide whether to write "I am" or "I be." And if "I be" fits the story better, leave it alone. When I'm choosing a word, I never choose the right word; I choose the best word, and the best word is not always Standard English. That's what we need to teach our children—to find the best way to express their thoughts.
A Selected Listing of Books by Patricia C. McKissack
With Ruthhilde Kronberg. A Piece of the Wind: And Other Stories to Tell. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
Flossie and the Fox. Illustrated by Rachael Isadora. New York: Dial, 1986.
Mirandy and Brother Wind. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Monkey Monkey's Trick. Illustrated by Paul Meisel. New York: Random House, 1988.
Nettie Jo's Friends. Illustrated by Scott Cook. New York: Knopf, 1989.
With Fredrick McKissack. The Civil Rights Movement in America from 1865 to the Present. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.
With Fredrick McKissack. Frederick Douglass: The Black Lion. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.
Jesse Jackson: A Biography. New York: Scholastic, 1989.
With Fredrick McKissack. A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter. American History Series for Young People. New York: Walker & Co., 1989.
W. E. B. DuBois. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.
Patricia C. McKissack (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: McKissack, Patricia C. "That's Why I Write." In Sitting at the Feet of the Past: Retelling the North American Folk Tale for Children, edited by Gary D. Schmidt and Donald R. Hettinga, pp. 64-8. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, McKissack discusses how her ancestral and familial heritage impacts her storytelling.]
On the wall before me, my photo of Paul Robeson—and Michelangelo's David. At my shoulder the bust of Einstein. At the top of the stairs—O'Casey. The company I keep! But—just to keep things in perspective—I have made me a rather large reminder which is now tacked in the most prominent place of all. It reads: "BUT—" THE CHILD SAID—"THE EMPEROR ISN'T WEARING ANY CLOTHES …"
Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black
I am a wordsmith, one who crafts words into books for young readers. According to the late child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, the stories children hear and read early in life help shape their adult decision-making and problem-solving skills. And I believe it, too.
Since these first stories are so important to the growth and development of children, the dearth of materials for, by, and about the African-American experience is truly disastrous. Who are the heroes black children want to emulate? From where do they get ideas about overcoming insurmountable odds, becoming a winner, and fulfilling dreams? Unfortunately black children's imaginations aren't being nourished by a plentiful supply of good stories that reflect the African-American culture in various ways. That's why I write. More importantly, that's why I write for children.
Long before I was a writer I was a listener. Growing up around grandparents in Tennessee provided me with excellent exposure to the oral tradition as it was practiced a half century ago.
On cold winter nights, when dark comes early, our family sat in the living room and talked. The talk generally led to a tale or two, beginning with my grandmother who knew hair-raising ghost stories. As the last glimmers of light faded from the window overlooking the woods, she'd tell the chilling tale of Gray Jim, the runaway slave who'd been killed while trying to escape. Gray Jim's ghost haunted the woods on moonless nights, "and woe unto them who hear Gray Jim's dying screams," she whispered. "That soul's not long for this world." At this point, my grandmother would pause and say, "Pat, go get me a glass of water."
I was deliciously frightened. The fear began as a tingle in my toes, then zinged up my spine like a closing zipper. The walk from the living room to the kitchen and back was a perilous journey, an adventure filled with all the imaginary horrors I might expect to encounter if I were walking in those dreaded woods out behind our house.
During the summer, when it was too hot and muggy to sleep, we'd pass the evening hours on the front porch. Mama's hands were always busy, but while shelling peas or picking greens, she'd recite Paul Laurence Dunbar poetry.
An angel, robed in spotless white,
Bent down and kissed the sleeping Night.
Night woke to blush; the sprite was gone.
Men saw the blush and called it Dawn.
What an image! And like Charles Dickens whose first love was Little Red Riding Hood, I, too, fell head over heels for Dunbar's tall, black angel, "robed in spotless white." There was never any doubt that "my angel" would come awaken me—the sleeping night—with a loving kiss. The angel was poetry, my first love.
"Do another one," I'd beg. And Mama would begin:
Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes,
Come to yo' pappy an' set on his knee.
What you been doin', suh—makin' san' pies?
Look at dat bib—You's ez du'ty ez me.
Look at dat mouf—dat's merlasses, I bet;
Come hyeah, Maria, an' wipe off his han's.
Bes gwine to ketch you an' eat you yit,
Bein' so sticky an' sweet—goodness lan's!
Mama shifted from standard English to dialect smoothly and without passing judgment. It never occurred to me that standard English was considered "right" and dialect was "wrong." Nonsense. How could a father's happy time with his son be wrong? Besides, my grandfather used words that way, too. So, the language was familiar, acceptable, and even comforting, and I never tired of hearing it. When Mama finished, I'd plead for another Dunbar poem, and another, but she'd defer to my grandfather, the griot in the true West African sense.
Like the African tellers since the dawn of time, he told stories to entertain and instruct his audience. We children were giggly with excitement when Daddy James took the stage. Each story was evenly paced, but made richer by the colorful language of his South, the South of his childhood. For example, he made up words like "disremember," and hid secret messages in phrases like "be particular." "Be particular" meant "be careful," but oh, so much more. Tucked away between the sounds was the personal message, "because I love you."
The language made my grandfather's stories as memorable as Dunbar's poetry, but more so, because he often featured a little girl with my name. She was bright, witty, confident, and independent. "No granddaughter would let no fox take her basket away, now would she?" Of course not!
I grew up loving beautiful word pictures and the rhythms of different language patterns. For me there is no right or wrong language—just different forms of expression. As a writer, I never look for the right word, but rather the "best" word. Sometimes "before" works well, but at another time "'fore" might be better.
My books Flossie and the Fox, Mirandy and Brother Wind, and Nettie Jo's Friends clearly reflect my Southern heritage, storytelling background, and philosophy about language.
Some reviewers think Flossie and the Fox is my answer to Little Red Riding Hood. That was not my motivation. I wanted to write a contemporary fairy tale in the classical format, but most of all I wanted the character to be an African-American child. The most difficult task, however, was trying to translate the stories from the oral to the written format. My first attempts failed miserably.
There's no way I could write Flossie and the Fox the way it was told. Storytellers have their bags of stories and they use gestures, voice inflections, eye contact to embellish their tales. I had no such advantage.
I wrote Flossie as a first reader, with a tightly controlled vocabulary. She was a freshly hatched chick who was harassed by a fox who said he was going to eat her. I couldn't give it away to a publisher. At last, I let my grandfather's language shape Flossie and the Fox and it worked. "You just an old confidencer. Come telling me you was a fox and then can't prove it. Shame on you!" Could Flossie say that any other way?
Whenever I write a story based on my childhood remembrances, I let my grandfather's voice dictate the words. Dunbar's influence provided the bridge that has allowed me to cross from dialect to standard English and back again with the ease of familiarity. It's no wonder, then, why years later the biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first book I disciplined myself to research and write.
Before I was a writer I was also a reader. And I read everything, including the backs of cereal boxes.
Frederick Douglass wrote, "No man is a slave if he can read." Literacy meant freedom to my illiterate grandfather, who often had me read to him. Well, wasn't I the luckiest girl in the world, getting so much attention? And when I came to a difficult word, he didn't jump in and tell me—he couldn't. His encouraging words guided me over the stumbling block and gave me the confidence to go on. "Work with it now. Take yo' time, Honey." And soon I'd figure it out and move on. Poor, dear man, in this way he suffered through "Dick and Jane" all the way through Julius Caesar, never once complaining. It shocked me when I learned this was not the way it was done in other households where adults read to children. I liked it our way better!
Children throughout the ages have conquered their fears by confronting goblins, witches, dragons, and the Booga-Man. They've cheered for princesses, wise men, and the youngest brother. And they've traveled through time and space just by clicking their heels together. I was no exception. My favorite stories were fairy tales.
I read Bullfinch long before I was supposed to be able to read or understand mythology. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen introduced me to wonderful friends with whom I shared many enchanted hours. My special buddy was the Ugly Duckling who helped me cope with the day-to-day humiliation of segregation. I knew the day wasn't far off when Langston Hughes's prediction would come true: "Besides they will see how beautiful I am … I, too, sing America."
Joseph Campbell believed Hercules, King Midas, Cinderella, Little Red Hen, the Three Pigs, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears are the keys to western civilization: "The myths and fairy tales are ancient, the collective wisdom of the ages." From them children learn about their world and how to live with others in it. Growing up without these stores makes it difficult for the emerging adult to enjoy art, music, drama, architecture, and literature. That's why my husband and I selected some of the most well-known fairy tales, myths, and legends, and rewrote them for the beginning reader (Start-Off Stories, Children's Press).
While I agree wholeheartedly that knowledge of and appreciation for European-based stories is necessary, I am opposed to the narrow Eurocentric definition of "cultural literacy." To define literacy in such a narrow way is arrogant, academically irresponsible, and boring!
How about "multicultural literacy?" It makes more sense. By sharing stories from many cultures, children learn that people are not the same; they are wonderfully different, but "different" is not a synonym for "wrong." A variety of story experiences offers young readers a larger pool of ideas from which to expand their problem-solving options. Actually, it takes nothing from one culture to respect another. And the results might be as interesting as a meeting between Br'er Rabbit and Peter Rabbit … or Flossie and Little Red Riding Hood. And that's why I write.
Contemporary books can create images and assist in developing positive attitudes, too. Our Messy Bessey stories have no more than sixty words, yet we feel these books are as important as any we've written. This is how they were developed.
One night we were in our office working late; the cleaning lady came in and called us Messy Besseys. That sounded like a wonderful character for a story. So within the hour we had drafted Messy Bessey.
Look at your room Messy Bessey.
See colors on the wall,
Books on the chair,
Toys in the dresser drawer,
And games everywhere!
Bessey, look at your messy room.
The book ended with Bessey making up her bed, picking up her things, stuffing them in the closet, and closing the closet door. Immediately a red flag went up in my mind. There's no way I wanted to perpetuate the dirty, untidy stereotype African-Americans had been fighting for years. We added these four lines to the end:
Now look at your room Miss Bessey.
And look at you, too.
Your room is clean and beautiful
just like you!
Notice Messy Bessey's name changed to "Miss Bessey." The implication here that she's a "little lady" worthy of a title, like little "Miss Muffet." And now she is clean and beautiful—two words that haven't been used to describe little black children in the books they read. We feel books like these, though contemporary, are needed to provide positive material for young readers.
If young readers don't find themselves in stories, they soon grow restless with reading. "I don't like to read" soon becomes "I can't read." What follows is failure. That's why I write.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. "Dawn," in The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Introduction by W. D. Howells. 1896; rpt. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1970.
Hansberry, Lorraine. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. Adapted by Robert Nemiroff. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
McKissack, Patricia C. Flossie and the Fox. Illustrated by Rachel Isadora. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1986.
———. Mirandy and Brother Wind. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
———. Nettie Jo's Friends. Illustrated by Scott Cook. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
McKissack, Patricia C., and Frederick McKissack. Messy Bessey. Rookie Readers Series. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.
Olga Idriss Davis (essay date spring 1998)
SOURCE: Davis, Olga Idriss. "The Rhetoric of Quilts: Creating Identity in African-American Children's Literature." African American Review 32, no. 1 (spring 1998): 67-76.
[In the following essay, Davis examines how quilt-making is used as a rhetorical tool for exploring African-American history in several children's novels, including McKissack's Mirandy and Brother Wind.]
Learning to read and write are two of the greatest accomplishments in the life of a child. The ability to create language, make meaning, and transform reality by the use of symbols provides children creative opportunities to engage the world. Language becomes the vehicle for children to locate their place in the world and to understand the social and political implications of their society. Literacy is not simply learning how to read words but, more importantly, how to "read the world" (Freire and Macedo 7). Providing children a space to locate themselves in history makes them present as agents in the struggle for self-definition and cultural identity. Their learning, then, becomes a pedagogy of empowerment and liberation.
African-American literary works have been inspired by quiltmaking (Benberry 79), and several African-American women authors of children's literature have embraced this notion of reading the world by employing the quilt tradition in their stories. The implication that quilting reveals a continuum of African-American women's experience and creative expression is a recurrent theme in such works as Deborah Hopkinson's Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, Faith Ringgold's Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky, Courtni C. Wright's Journey to Freedom, Valerie Flournoy's The Patchwork Quilt, Patricia McKissack's Mirandy and Brother Wind, and Bettye Stroud's Down Home at Miss Dessa's. These authors present the quilt in ways which conceptualize identity and redefine history, setting in place a dialectical tension between traditional learning and critical literacy.
While traditional learning encourages the dominant discourse of cultural hegemony, critical literacy redefines the parameters of knowledge and power by making a space for oppressed voices to name their experience, reclaim their history, and transform their future. The stories of Hopkinson, Ringgold, Wright, Flournoy, McKissack, and Stroud contribute to literacy by advancing the tradition of the quilt as a form of resistance to structures of dominance and control. Working within the historical context of Black culture, these six authors provide a space for teaching children the history of struggle and the importance of family relationships. Houston Baker and Charlotte Pierce-Baker point out that "the patchwork quilt … opens a fascinating interpretive window on vernacular dimensions of lived, creative experience in the United States. Quilts, in their patched and many-colored glory offer not a counter to tradition, but, in fact, an instance of the only legitimate tradition of ‘the people’ that exists" (714). Baker and Pierce-Baker underscore the transformative role of the quilt. Its symbolic nature transforms children into a community of readers of the world and of culture by illuminating Black experience in America through rhetorical art.
It is therefore not only useful but insightful to examine how African-American women writers incorporate the quilt tradition in children's stories and reveal the rhetorical nature of Black women's ability to transcend adversity. Rhetoric points to the legacy of a people struggling for symbols of expression through pieces of cloth and a myriad of colors. The quilt uncovers the choice of symbols Black women used within their community to create a shared, common meaning of self and the world. Thus, the quilt serves as a vehicle for re-inventing the symbolic expression of identity and freedom.
The heritage of motherhood of African-American women is illuminated by the cultural artifact of the quilt (Benberry 19; hooks 116; Wahlman and Scully 80). The quilt represents, on one hand, the African tradition of folk art and embroidery and, on the other, a political symbol of resistance by Black women to the oppression in America of being both Black and female. The Negro spiritual "I Ain't No Ways Tired" suggests one of the major characteristics of Black women's history—survival. Despite the dualities of racism and sexism, field and domestic labor, and the double duty of motherhood for both white and black children, African-American women developed methods for surviving. Hurled into slavery and oppression they, because of "brutal circumstances[,] were forced to promote the consciousness and practice of resistance" (Angela Davis 5). Black women weaved resistance into their daily lives of motherhood in the slave community.
I contend that Black women maintained their centrality to the African-American community by creating a cultural form of resistance that would transcend experience, reshape their world, and re-invent the form throughout generations. The quilt became a covert manifestation of resistance within the context of storytelling. Upon first impression, the quilt represented skill, aesthetic beauty, and charm (Benberry 23). However, upon deeper viewing, the weaving of stories into quilts became a way for Black women to defy the system of slavery. Quilts often served in the antebellum period as "codes" for escape to freedom. The stories of Hopkinson, Ringgold, and Wright underscore the defiance of Black women to slavery by means of the quilt as a code. Their stories create a culture of the quilt which names experience and reclaims the history of the struggles and triumphs of freedom.
Central to each author's work is a woman-centered ethic of motherhood. Woven within this ethic are motifs of struggle, survival, and family relationships. Barbara Christian acknowledges the theme of motherhood as central to the philosophy of both African and African-American peoples as well as its function as a symbol of creativity and continuity (214). Of motherhood and its relationship to freedom she states, "… it is related to the historical process within which these people have been engaged, a process that is an intertwining of tradition, enslavement, and the struggle for their people's freedom" (213).
In Deborah Hopkinson's Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (1993), Afrocentric motherhood borders the quilt motif through means of empowerment and liberation. An enslaved girl torn from her mother at the age of twelve, Clara is sent to work in the fields on another plantation. Pained by the separation from her natural mother, Clara is brought up by an "othermother" in the community of slaves (Hill-Collins 129). Aunt Rachel represents the tradition of extended-family networks of black women who nurture and take personal accountability for all the Black community's children. Learning from Aunt Rachel, Clara is rescued from field work and develops the skill of sewing. She is characterized as a young girl who transforms herself and her community through the representation of the quilt. Attempting to assist her community to reach the Underground Railroad, Clara pieces together scraps of cloth with scraps of information gathered from other slaves to create a quilt "map" that provides the codes of escape and, ultimately, freedom.
Situating motherhood in its historic and cultural space, Hopkinson centers Clara in the exigencies of slavery and oppression, thereby providing an exploration into the quilt as a symbol of the political struggle of African Americans for freedom. The rhetoric of the quilt in Hopkinson's story illustrates the ways in which othermothers in the slave community taught their young women essential elements of resistance and liberation through symbols of expression and narrativity. For Hopkinson's readers, Clara's quilt provides cultural insight into the meaning of slavery from young children's perspectives. Clara represents the way in which youth of the African-American enslaved resisted with self-definition, self-valuation, and empowerment.
Upon escaping to freedom through the memory of her stitched quilt, Clara states,
We went north, following the trail of the freedom quilt. All the things people told me about, all the tiny stitches I took, now I could see real things…. It was like being in a dream you already dreamed.
Each stitch represents Clara's determination to keep the dream of freedom alive while making certain she "works" toward that freedom. An implicit message for readers is that children, too, are agents of change. Taking responsibility for one's own education is to stitch today's skills for tomorrow's successes. Clara's stitches reveal to young readers that they, too, may locate themselves in the history of America and learn that, even in oppression, there are ways of resistance and liberation. Through her quilted map, Clara reunites with her mother and reaches freedom. The quilt remains at the plantation in the slave quarters to aid in the journey for others. Clara concludes, "Sometimes I wish I could sew a quilt that would spread over the whole land, and the people just follow the stitches to freedom, as easy as taking a Sunday walk" (28). This statement signifies a child's willingness to make, and faith in making, all things right with her artistic expression of goodness and freedom. But the road to freedom is unlike the "yellow brick road" that leads to the Land of Oz. Freedom is a long and arduous journey, a fabric pieced together from a legacy of survival.
Author Faith Ringgold also captures the place of quilts in African-American history when she employs the symbol of the North Star motif in her story quilts and presents its rhetoric as a message of protection. Ringgold's characters in Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992), along with her celebrated artistic work, examine the legacy of African-American women's history. Her story quilts in the form of children's books re-claim Black women's lives of remembering, celebrating, and giving praise (hooks 115) while also revealing a desire so often expressed by African Americans—to fly away from oppression to freedom.
The rhetoric of the quilt in this story frames Afrocentric motherhood in its ethic of care. With Harriet Tubman as her guide, Cassie retraces the steps escaping slaves took on the Underground Railroad in order to reunite with her younger brother Be Be. The story chronicles the siblings' attempt to escape slavery and, with the help of Aunt Harriet, reach Canada. The role of Aunt Harriet provides young readers an understanding of the quilt as a code of solidarity, shelter, and safety for slaves in the antebellum period. Not only does Ringgold's story locate young readers in history, but it also challenges them to learn of the quilt as a guiding force when danger is near. The quilt symbolizes the struggle to claim self and freedom:
Aunt Harriet's whispering voice said, "Go on to a weather-beaten frame house with a star quilt flung on the roof. If you don't see the quilt, hide in the woods until it appears. Then it is safe to go in. The next night, follow the road to the bridge, several miles away."
Be Be and Cassie reunite in the sky with a circle of Black women dressed in white flying around them. That they are Black women surrounding the children in the sky reveals another theme of African-American culture. The women provide a physical and psychological base for shielding Cassie and Be Be while transforming their future with the success of flying to freedom. Ringgold's illustration of women in white signifies the spirituality of motherhood—the circle of love, peace, and the powerful symbol it represents for the community's well-being. Ringgold employs the rhetoric of the quilt in unique ways by placing "othermothers" in the center of safety for the young. While claiming the narrative as a way of engaging young readers to enter into the sociopolitical reality of the nineteenth century, she transforms their future through literacy for the twenty-first. In addition, young readers locate the importance of their lives interwoven with the lives of their grand-ancestors. As the sister-brother team embrace, they reflect upon their journey, the pain of separation, and the loss of the family bond—all central issues in the experiences of their ancestors. Cassie and Be Be respond to their world of newfound freedom thus:
I kissed Be Be over and over, and I made him promise he'd never, ever leave me again. "I love you, Cassie, but I had to go," Be Be said. "Freedom is more important than just staying together, and what's more, I got to ride on the Underground Railroad with Harriet Tubman. Now I know what our great-great-grandparents survived when they were children."
Young readers are invited to enter the family bond between sisters and brothers who, despite the vicissitudes of life, maintain the heritage of the ancestors. Surviving and maintaining kinship, in spite of all adversity, are of the utmost importance.
Courtni C. Wright's Journey to Freedom (1994) also emphasizes the role of the quilt on the Underground Railroad to freedom. Within the rhetoric of the enslaved, the language of freedom is rich with metaphor, simile, and spiritual symbolism of faith and trust, coupled with the struggles and fears associated with escape. Harriet Tubman, the "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, is portrayed in simile as both a type of Moses leading her people out of bondage to freedom and a political activist who, when necessary, reveals her pistol as a weapon to protect her passengers.
The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses, and enslaved African Americans were passengers who slept and ate in barns, cellars, and secret rooms during the day. At night, the passengers continued northward until they reached "station masters" who hid them until it was safe to continue their escape. Station masters were abolitionists, supporters of the anti-slavery movement, and people with a consciousness to assist African Americans with shelter, food, and clothing on their journey.
Wright employs the quilt as a turning point in the story of the last few days of one family's journey to reach freedom in Ontario, Canada. While leading escaped slaves out of bondage, Harriet Tubman waits for the code of safety represented by the quilt. As the family approaches the station master's house, a quilt awaits them on the porch. The narrator of the story, young Joshua, explains:
Each morning at dawn, we stop at the edge of the forest until we see the station master hang a quilt on the porch railing. If it has the color black in its pattern, we walk into the yard. It is the "All's clear" sign known only by the conductors and station masters on the Railroad.
Here the tradition of the quilt is a rhetorical artifact of conscience. That is, the patterns and colors symbolize the political exigencies of slavery and express the concern of White Americans about the importance of moral, social, and ethical issues of the time. The quilt functions to alter reality by providing information about a hiding place for weary fugitive slaves. For the dominant culture, a quilt hung on a porch gave it freshness, while the enslaved saw the quilt as a symbol of hope for life in freedom's land. Freedom was within reach when the quilt was within sight.
As the Negro spiritual "I Shall Not Be Moved" reflects a tree planted by the water, the quilt shall not be moved as a tradition of defiance and dialectical response to social and political circumstances. The rhetoric of the quilt exposes systems of domination and illuminates the ways in which marginalized groups contest their lived experiences and express their meanings of the world. Furthermore, the quilt represents a ritualized practice of connection-making, unification, and harmonizing (Hillard 116).
Wright illustrates the quilt as an icon of a working community. Not only is the community a subversive element, but the story teaches young readers that engaging in a unity of purpose between Black and White Americans is possible when ethical and moral principles seek innovative methods to engender equitable rights and privileges. The rhetorical purpose of the quilt, then, is to invite young readers into the meaning-making process of history, while providing a public space for naming their experience and renaming the world.
The works of Flournoy, McKissack, and Stroud point to cultural identity in a rhetorical motif of Black family traditions. In The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy (1985), cultural identity is created by the rhetoric of Black family experience. Flournoy provides the story of three generations of African-American women by presenting a motif of the daily task of women creating a quilt. She explores the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter Tanya who, when her grandmother falls ill, takes up the quilt and completes it, illustrating the circle of the African-American family tradition that will not be broken. Flournoy symbolically joins diverse pieces of experience, trust, and sharing into a coherent pattern that is both a history of African-American mothers as well as the transformational experience of young Tanya by way of the quilt.
Tanya's grandmother is introduced as a symbol of power, not as a white-male-created matriarchal figure (Hill-Collins 117); she is a recorder of family history. She teaches Tanya the language of respect for the quilt, raising her consciousness to appreciate the scraps and pieces of cloth that are symbolic of the day-to-dayness of life and its experiences:
"Whatcha gonna do with all that stuff?" Tanya asked.
"Stuff? These ain't stuff. These little pieces gonna make me a quilt, a patchwork quilt."
"I know what a quilt is, Grandma. There's one on your bed, but it's old and dirty and Mama can never get in clean.
"It ain't dirty, honey. It's worn, the way it's supposed to be…. My mother made me a quilt when I wasn't any older than you. But sometimes the old ways are forgotten."
The transformative power of relationships between Black women and children is not intended to control or dominate, according to Patricia Hill-Collins. Rather, the child's knowing of her or his place in tradition transforms and binds the family, uplifts the race, and provides members of the family and community self-reliance and independence essential for resistance (132).
Flournoy employs the quilt as a symbol of transformation because it recalls and speaks to the past. Grandmother reminds Tanya that "‘… a quilt won't forget. It can tell your life story’" (9). Tanya reaffirms this notion by reminding her mother of the power of the quilt. That grandmother is not alone inside the house as family members frolic in the snow is the basis for Tanya's explanation:
"I don't like leaving Grandma in that house by herself," Mama said. "I know she's lonely."
"Grandma isn't lonely," Tanya said happily. "She and the quilt are telling each other stories."
Mama glanced questioningly at Tanya, "Telling each other stories?"
"Yes, Grandma says a quilt never forgets!"
Tanya's mother, Mama, appears detached from the symbolic power of Afrocentric motherhood. A product of the black middle class, she has become alienated from the cultural heritage symbolized by the quilt. Her embrace of Western culture causes her to value the commodification and mass production of the quilt rather than its African threads rooted in the transforming power of family experience. Mama exclaims to Grandma:
"You don't need these scraps. I can get you a quilt."
Grandma looked at her daughter and then turned to her grandchild. "Yes, your mama can get you a quilt from any department store. But it won't be like my patchwork quilt, and it won't last as long either."
It is not until she has a personal experience with Tanya's grandmother in the presence of the quilt that Mama returns to her identity stitched within the values of traditional African culture:
Mama sat at the old woman's feet. Tanya … knew Grandma was telling Mama all about quilts and how this quilt would be very special … then she saw Mama pick up a piece of fabric, rub it with her fingers, and smile. From that moment on both women spent their winter evenings working on the quilt.
Motherhood woven with the rhetoric of the quilt tradition offers Mama a way of transforming her self-identity and cultural identity. She locates herself in the realm of an intergenerational continuum, connecting her to mother, daughter, and African female ancestors. In so doing, Mama reclaims the tradition of Afrocentric motherhood and becomes a "bridge," as it were, between Grandma and Tanya. Her transformation becomes more evident when Grandma falls ill and cannot complete the quilt she calls "her masterpiece." Mama demonstrates the ethics of caring and personal accountability by looking after her mother, on the one hand, and continuing the daily task of the quilt with Tanya, on the other:
[Tanya] knew how to cut the scraps, but she wasn't certain of the rest. Just then Tanya felt a hand resting on her shoulder. She looked up and saw Mama. "… You cut more squares, Tanya, while I stitch some patches together," Mama said.
The mother-child relationship is often submitted in literature from the perspective of mothers' influences on their children. However, the rhetoric of the quilt informs how Black children affirm their mothers and how important that affirmation is in a society which denigrates Blackness and Afrocentric motherhood. In her essay "A Child of One's Own," Alice Walker offers this vision: "We are together, my child and I. Mother and child, yes, but sisters really, against whatever denies us all that we are" (75). Flournoy connects the mother-daughter team as spiritual sisters, symbolic of the defiance against the illness which has denied Grandma a place in her family's quilting tradition. In their defiance, Mama and Tanya realize each patch is symbolic of experiences of the entire family, with the exception of Grandma. Removing a few patches from Grandma's old quilt, Tanya stitches her grandmother's experience of transcending illness into the family narrative, which illustrates the power of the child to imbue the Afrocentric tradition and avoid the circle from being broken. Flournoy persuades her readers to see how the quilt in its rhetorical dimension provides a source of renewal, ancestral traditions, and cultural connections to intergenerational relations. With delicate stitches, the quilt offers African-American readers a catalyst for self-definition and empowerment through the folkways of creativity and Afrocentric motherhood.
Patricia McKissack's Mirandy and Brother Wind (1988) weaves the quilt in multiple patterns of symbolic representation. Celebrating small, Black town life, McKissack presents the quilt as a preservation of the social fabric of African-American culture. Integrating nature with dance and the desire of a young girl to win first prize in the Junior Cakewalk provides an insightful look into the quilt as a symbol of the connectedness of a people imbedded in nature and in their community. By her efforts to capture the wind, Mirandy attempts to make Brother Wind her partner for the cakewalk celebration.
The cakewalk is a dance rooted in the tradition of enslaved Africans who used the dance as an expression of life and a celebration of grace and pride. For one to win the yearly cakewalk dance contest was an honor. The cakewalk becomes the binding thread to preserve the community's socio-cultural sense of shaping public representation of young people. In the cakewalk, dancers parade in couples while the elders of the community judge them on kicks and swirls, style and precision. At the conclusion of the dance, the winning couple was given a cake to take home. Oftentimes the cakewalk foreshadowed budding relationships developing between the young in the community.
Mirandy seeks the wind for special talents to provide a winning partnership. Grandmama Beasley tries to warn Mirandy of the effervescence and imperceptibility of Brother Wind and confides, "‘Can't nobody put shackles on Brother Wind, chile. He be special. He be free’" (5). Mirandy goes throughout the community asking neighbors the ways in which to catch Brother Wind until she is told an old African-American myth:
… put black pepper in Brother Wind's footprints. That would make him sneeze. While he's busy sneezing, slip up behind and throw a quilt over him….
Believing in the mythology of the community, Mirandy tries to conjure Brother Wind:
Mirandy rushed home and got the black-pepper mill and one of Ma Dear's quilts…. Sneaking up behind him, Mirandy commenced to grinding pepper. Then she threw the quilt. But—whoosh! Brother Wind was gone.
Mirandy is incapable of capturing Brother Wind with the quilt because its symbolic purpose is violated by her action. The rhetorical distinction of the quilt is to liberate rather than confine. As an oppressive force, Mirandy's use of the quilt is antithetical to the symbolic representation of freedom. Young readers are invited into a dialectic of the struggle to be free, on the one hand, and the dynamics between oppressed and oppressor, on the other. More importantly, readers of this story see the quilt used as a contradiction to its sociopolitical intent. Thus, McKissack employs the quilt to engage readers into a meaning-making dialogue about the political nature of culture. Mirandy realizes that, in order to "have Brother Wind do [her] bidding" (4), she must return the quilt to its traditional "code of safety" and locate other means of persuasion. Later in the story the quilt hangs over the clothesline in the backyard of Mirandy's house, reifying the cultural tradition of the quilt as a symbol of liberation and empowerment.
In The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook, produced by Dorothy I. Height and the National Council of Negro Women, the notion of the quilt as a symbol of resistance and of intergenerational relationships is underscored:
Quilts containing black fabric or made in the Rob Peter to Pay Paul patchwork pattern were hung on clothes lines as a way to signal a refuge for escaping bondsmen. Southern burial traditions also figure into quilting since enslaved African-Americans used quilts to wrap the bodies of their loved ones for their "final journey."
The idea of the quilt as a storytelling device for resistance illuminates the brilliance of slave women to preserve the quilt tradition, and to shape the future through rhetorical means of naming, locating experience, and recalling the past. Like the oral tradition of West Africa, African-American quilts reclaim the values of the ancestors. The communal effort toward safety, security, love, and comfort are pieced together by the old Black folks of Mirandy's community.
In Bettye Stroud's Down Home at Miss Dessa's (1996), young readers are transported into the world of African-American sisters who spend the day caring for an elderly neighbor. The quilt becomes the connecting force between young and old. It symbolizes the passing of an era where companionship of neighbors proved vital to the network and fabric which held together the African-American community. At Miss Dessa's farmhouse on a country dirt road in the South, young girls could learn the tradition of quilting while honoring the elderly who had so much love, knowledge, and experience to share.
The African-American cultural tradition teaches that all children are the responsibility of the community because they are the future of that community. Miss Dessa was an "other-mother" who embraced this ethic: "Miss Dessa was an old woman … and kept an eye on us—mending each skinned knee or bruised elbow we came crying about. Miss Dessa always knew how to make us feel better" (2). The importance of identifying the role of children in the con- tinuum of community and cultural history is exemplified when Miss Dessa becomes incapacitated. Falling from her porch when her glasses slip from her face, Miss Dessa relies on the love and care of her young neighbors. The sisters run home to call Mama and the doctor. Interested in helping Miss Dessa, they mend her glasses with blue yarn found in the yarn bag she uses in making quilts. Confined to her rocker while recovering from the fall, Miss Dessa maintains her quilting work. She teaches the tradition of quilt-making to the girls while simultaneously securing their bond of friendship, respect, and love, which grows ever stronger:
Miss Dessa sat in her rocker and sewed quilt pieces together. "Sit beside me, Girl, and I'll show you." … Miss Dessa made quilts on a frame that hung from the ceiling. Together we worked on a special quilt for her daughter who lived in New York City.
The quilt provides a connection to the cultural tradition of the South and a bond between generations. Stroud also establishes Miss Dessa as a "keeper of the culture" of Afrocentric sisterhood in constructing a quilt which binds the generations of women in a culture of rural life, homegrown love, and cultural identity. Miss Dessa's daughter may have chosen urban American life in the North, but Miss Dessa keeps her centered in cultural identity by way of the quilt.
The story concludes with the sisters expressing their love for Miss Dessa by reading to her while she sleeps under a patchwork quilt:
"Let's read Miss Dessa a bedtime story," Baby Sister said. I found an old book of fairy tales and read aloud. Miss Dessa snuggled under the patchwork coverlet, her eyelids drooping and her breathing soft. I carefully laid Miss Dessa's glasses on the dresser and Baby Sister tucked her in.
Understanding the quilt as a product of rhetorical invention provides a new perspective on the relationship between narrative and cultural identity. As stories are told and retold from generation to generation, the narrative genre provides a format for a person to understand who he or she is to become and what role the person is to play in society. Walter R. Fisher contends that the stories humans select to tell and to believe demonstrate a "universal logic" of values and common sense (66). This suggests that narration lay at the incipience of understanding all of human communication. In African-American women's communication, the quilt is an expression of the rhetorical nature of art and a representation of Black women's culture:
Story quilts are narrative rather than abstract. They flow directly out of the oral tradition which used story telling as a way to impart the culture and preserve the history of a people. Story telling and the story quilt impart moral and spiritual lessons as well as personal family genealogy for future generations. To view a story quilt is to learn about the quilters, their families, values and life experiences. One has only to review West African history to understand the role of using narrative in the creation of textile pieces.
The rhetoric or narrative of the quilt, then, reveals life in America through the experience of Black women and their ability to transcend adversity. By relaying their experiences in narrative form, Black women have defined and re-defined the parameters of American life for themselves and their communities. Similar to the slave narrative as a cultural artifact, quilts are distinctly rhetorical documents because they "reveal a dimension of language that serves as a means toward an end, with hopes of agreeing upon a distinct vision of society. That vision is freedom" (Olga I. Davis 38). Speaking of the slave narrative Charles Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., state, "… in that lettered utterance is assertion of identity and in identity is freedom—freedom from slavery, freedom from ignorance, freedom from non-being, freedom from even time" (157). The nature of rhetoric viewed from the perspective of the narrative illuminates the works by Flournoy, Hopkinson, Ringgold, McKissack, Stroud, and Wright. In each of their works cultural identity is created by the symbolic tradition of the quilt and its representation of Afrocentric motherhood.
The Negro spiritual "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" provides a rhetorical focus that uncovers the underlying query of Margaret Burroughs's poem concerning African-American existence in the culture of White America: "What shall I tell my children who are Black?" (qtd. in Bell-Scott, et al., xiii). Transforming literacy through the process of reading the world, I submit, is a viable answer. Paulo Freire suggests that education is an act of knowing. He contends to know reality and how it is created is to develop in readers a kind of critical reading or critical understanding of society which allows transformation of self and society (Shor and Freire 45).
Flournoy, Hopkinson, Ringgold, McKissack, Stroud, and Wright speak in their stories with ideologically infused voices. They create a world in which children readers are implored to "hear, believe, and understand" that world (Lanser 291-93). Transforming literacy through the piecing of history, experience, and resistance in their stories suggests that African-American women authors of children's literature continue to make sure the circle of cultural identity is never broken.
Baker, Houston A., Jr., and Charlotte Pierce-Baker. "Patches: Quilts and Community in Alice Walker's ‘Everyday Use.’" Southern Review ns 21 (1985): 706-20.
Bell-Scott, Patricia, et al. Double Stitch. New York: Harper, 1991.
Benberry, Cuesta. Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts. Louisville: Kentucky Quilt Project, 1992.
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism. New York: Pergamon P, 1985.
Davis, Angela. "Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves." Black Scholar 3 (Dec. 1971): 3-15.
Davis, Charles, and Henry L. Gates, Jr. The Slave's Narrative. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.
Davis, Olga I. "It Be's Hard Sometimes: The Rhetorical Invention of Black Female Persona in Pre-Emancipatory Slave Narratives." Diss. U of Nebraska, 1994.
Fisher, Walter R. Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1987.
Flournoy, Valerie. The Patchwork Quilt. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Freire, Paulo, and Donald Macedo. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. Boston: Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
Height, Dorothy I., and The National Council of Negro Women, Inc. The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook. New York: Fireside, 1993.
Hill-Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Hillard, Van E. "Census, Consensus, and the Commodification of Form: The NAMES Quilt Project." Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern. Ed. Cheryl B. Tornsey and Judy Elsley. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1994. 112-24.
hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End P, 1990.
Hopkinson, Deborah. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Lanser, Susan S. The Narrative Act: Point of View in Prose Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.
McKissack, Patricia C. Mirandy and Brother Wind. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Ringgold, Faith. Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky. New York: Crown, 1992.
Shor, Ira, and Paulo Freire. A Pedagogy for Liberation. South Hadley: Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
Stroud, Bettye. Down Home at Miss Dessa's. New York: Lee & Low, 1996.
Wahlman, Maude Southwell, and John Scully. "Aesthetic Principles in Afro-American Quilts." Afro-American Folk Arts and Crafts. Ed. William Ferris. Boston: Hall, 1983. 79-97.
Walker, Alice. "A Child of One's Own: A Meaningful Digression Within the Work(s)." Ms. 8 (Aug. 1979): 47-50, 72-75.
Wright, Courtni C. Journey to Freedom. New York: Holiday House, 1994.
Dorothy N. Bowen (review date May 2002)
SOURCE: Bowen, Dorothy N. Review of Frederick Douglass: Leader against Slavery and Mary Church Terrell: Leader for Equality, by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack, illustrated by Ned Ostendorf. School Library Journal 48, no. 5 (May 2002): 140.
Gr. 2-4—These revised biographies contain many facts presented in a readable style. While some of the material has been updated and expanded, the most striking difference is the visuals. For example, the mediocre drawings in the first edition of Frederick Douglass: Leader against Slavery have been replaced with black-and-white archival photos and reproductions. The appealing cover is new and the typography has changed. The text, which recounts Douglass's experiences of being taken from his mother, becoming a slave, and suffering many beatings, help to put a human face on the evils of slavery. Children will gain insight into the power of literacy as they read the words of Douglass's master who said, "Never teach a slave to read…. He won't want to stay a slave." Mary Church Terrell: Leader for Equality also relies heavily on black-and-white period photographs. Like Douglass, she also lived in the 19th century, but was born free into a life of privilege and wealth. However, Terrell also faced the obstacles placed before African Americans and fought to overcome them. She was active in African-American women's groups and the newly formed NAACP. Attractive replacements for libraries needing biographies for beginning chapter-book readers.
Barbara Bader (essay date March-April 2007)
SOURCE: Bader, Barbara. "For the McKissacks, Black Is Boundless." Horn Book Magazine 83, no. 2 (March-April 2007): 149-56.
[In the following essay, Bader explores the history of the collaboration between McKissack and her frequent writing partner, her husband Fredrick.]
Carter Woodson would be pleased as punch.
The "father of black history" was famously dour, but he was also known to light up at word of some victory for the cause—healthy ticket sales for a Negro History Week event, respectful mention in the press.
What would he make, then, of a pair of African-American authors with 120 or more books to their names at the end of 2006, the great majority to do with black history and life? The figure is inexact because Patricia and Fredrick McKissack are too busy to keep count. On the docket for 2007 are three new entries, one scheduled for each publishing season: A Friendship for Today, in the winter; Away West, in the spring; The All-I'll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll, in the fall. Three periods, three settings, three kinds of book. Three longtime editors, too, providing both security and freedom.
The McKissacks do think big. "We're Kennedy products," Pat McKissack has said—idealists and optimists.
The two were childhood friends in Nashville, under segregation, and attended Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University (now Tennessee State University) during the heady civil rights years. Married upon graduation, they moved to St. Louis, had three boys, two of them twins, and settled into careers—Pat as a teacher of junior high and college English, Fred as a civil engineer and contractor.
In the country at large: recoil and retrenchment. The assassinations of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X, coupled with the bitter divisions of the Vietnam War, had quashed the hopes of earlier years. "Just as blacks experienced white resistance to equality during Reconstruction, there was another backlash to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s," Pat McKissack notes in her SATA profile. "By 1980 blacks were once again on the defense, trying to safeguard their and their children's rights."
One way to win hearts and minds was by writing, Pat's ambition since childhood. "Fred encouraged me to follow my dream and write full time," she wrote in her 1997 autobiography for children, Can You Imagine?, and repeats without prompting. "He even offered to help." In 1981 the McKissacks set up All-Writing Services to generate income from writing proposals, reports, and other business documents "while the children's books were developing." With similar foresight, today's schedule of three books a year is designed to "keep the revenue stream flowing."
The first of five books contracted with Children's Press, a very easy reader called Who Is Who?, came out in 1983. On the cover are the heads of two identical little black boys, smiling at each other. They are Johnny and Bobby (per the McKissack twins), whose resemblance ends with their appearance: "Johnny likes red. Bobby likes blue." The vocabulary could hardly be more limited—large and small, front and back, up and down—but the examples pictured have a lively, varied correspondence to child life that Dick and Jane never dreamed of. "Johnny likes big" ride- 'em trucks, "Bobby likes little" motor-vehicle miniatures; going for a ride, Johnny likes to sit in "front" with Dad, Bobby likes to sit in "back" with Mom. Bobby and Johnny are two distinct personalities, two individuals. Knowing them, you know "who is who."
To make so much of so little takes imagination, sensitivity, skill. To produce a variety of fiction and non-fiction, to fill an assortment of niches, takes application. Writing responsibly about people and times past takes research—Fred McKissack's particular contribution.
In 1984, the year after Who Is Who?, the fledgling authors had six books on offer: biographies of Martin Luther King and Paul Laurence Dunbar, plus two other nonfiction titles, from Children's Press, and two cautionary picture books about a little boy named Christopher from the religious publisher Augsburg. In It's the Truth, Christopher, shock-headed, freckled Christopher learns the difference between "love and honesty"—or, after he loses almost all his friends, not to tell the truth when it hurts others. In McKissack stories, religious or nonreligious, hard choices are made, hard lessons are learned. It's part of their attraction.
Pat McKissack had first written about Paul Laurence Dunbar years before, to give her eighth graders information about one of her favorite poets. They were not impressed: "Ms. McKissack, that was awful." She rewrote her narrative for the next year's class, and the next and the next, as she tells it, until she "learned to tell a good story" and got a thumbs-up.
For the fifth- to seventh-graders served by the Children's Press series People of Distinction, yet another revision was in order. Dunbar is a dicey subject. His dialect poems were more highly esteemed by white literati, to his distress, than his formal poetry in standard English. His long-awaited marriage fell apart; he took sick and became an alcoholic. McKissack holds nothing back. "The worst thing you can do as a teacher," she said to me, "is to teach what you later have to unteach."
The McKissack difference comes broadly to light in the 1987 biography of Frederick Douglass, in the same series, that bears the names of both McKissacks. Compared with thirteen other children's biographies of Douglass on the shelves of the Seattle Public Library, the McKissack entry is incomparably richer in historical insight and internal conflict than anything else below the YA level.
At the beginning of the third chapter, young Frederick Douglass turns sixteen. It is 1833, the year, the McKissacks remind us, that slavery was banished in the British Empire. "The irony," they continue, is that he might have been freed in America, too, had the "colonists lost the Revolutionary War. Black men, however, were some of the strongest supporters of the Revolutionary cause." In the spirit of Crispus Attucks, black men also press for their own freedom, freedom from slavery, during and after the war … Douglass, his future thus foreshadowed, joins a church, marvels at the hypocrisy of slave-holding churchgoers, takes comfort in learning that white abolitionists recognize and denounce that hypocrisy, and questions some of his own religious motives. How can he be asked to "turn the other cheek" toward a vicious, abusive owner? All this, as part-and-parcel of the story, in just four clearly written pages.
The McKissacks were going full steam. Besides the Douglass bio, 1987 brought one other sizable work, a history of the civil rights movement, and twelve assorted books for younger children, from simplified folktales to activity books to that irresistible demon of clean-up, Messy Bessey, for a grand total of fourteen. As before, the majority were done with Fran Dyra at Children's Press, first of the editors Pat McKissack is quick to bless.
For sheer durability, Messy Bessey 's biggest rival may be its near-antithesis, Flossie and the Fox (1986). More a personal creation than its predecessors, less a product for a pre-existing market, more textured and less tightly drawn, the story of cagey little Flossie who outfoxes a fox introduces an authorial voice that was soon to become familiar—the voice of the homegrown storyteller, Pat McKissack, paying tribute to her forebears as she passes on their legacy. She especially recalls her grandfather speaking, "on a hot summer day … in the rich and colorful dialect of the rural South." Flossie was Pat McKissack's first book with a major trade publisher, Dial, and with Anne Schwartz, another of her editorial icons whom she followed to Knopf, Atheneum, and now Schwartz & Wade/Random.
In the vein of family folklore Pat McKissack went on to produce some of her most distinctive work: the expansive picture-book tales that begin with Mirandy and Brother Wind (1988) and the two collections of original stories "rooted in African-American history," The Dark-Thirty (1992) and Porch Lies (2006).
Flossie and the Fox is a timeless story, self-contained and self-referential, not unlike "Little Red Riding Hood" in that respect. Mirandy and Brother Wind is social history with a political subtext and, of course, a crackling story: how Mirandy doesn't get Brother Wind for a partner at the junior cakewalk and wins instead with Ezel, the "clumsy" boy who dances up a storm. Inspired by a photograph of McKissack's grandparents as cakewalk winners in 1906, Mirandy and Brother Wind shows African Americans having a grand good time in the bad old days, the period African-American historian Rayford Logan justly called "the nadir." It's cultural and social history, and both figure importantly in the McKissacks' work thereafter.
McKissack nonfiction entered a new stage, too, with projects of their own making—projects with a great deal of meaning for the African-American community. In two years, 1991 and 1992, the McKissacks together published eighteen basic biographies with Enslow, nine each year: Louis Armstrong and Mary Church Terrell and Ralph J. Bunche, Zora Neale Hurston and Satchel Paige and Paul Robeson, for a sampling. A balanced assortment of notable men and women, not all headliners or childhood heroes, presented in a manner equally suited to youngsters and to adults of limited reading ability. Here is Paul Robeson under fire for his politics: "After the war, any American who was friendly with the Soviet Union or Communists got into trouble. Paul was one of them … A lot of Americans thought he was a traitor." The prose is old-school primer-ese; the information is the plain truth.
The two works celebrating the achievements of the Pullman porters (A Long Hard Journey, 1989) and the WWII Tuskegee airmen (Red-Tail Angels, 1995) do their readers a personal service as records not only of black struggle-and-success but also of who-did-what, with name after name to note with pride and admiration.
During these crowded years the McKissacks also wrote substantial biographies of two slippery giants, scholar and Negro-rights militant W. E. B. DuBois and abolitionist/feminist/mystic Sojourner Truth. The Truth biography, an especially difficult exercise, took the McKissacks to Scholastic and to Ann Reit, with whom they would do two path-breaking books of slavery history for young people, Rebels against Slavery (1996) and Days of Jubilee (2003), about the two-hundred-year fight for freedom and the curious "twists and turns" of its coming.
Pat McKissack tells how, researching one project, she and Fred often had leftover material that launched them into another project. What grew internally, incrementally, also grew into what the regular McKissack reader perceives as a web of historical allusion and a continuum of sustaining tradition. Take the 1906 cakewalk that figures so large in Mirandy. Its historical antecedent appears, along the way, in a McKissack account of 1859 Christmas plantation revelry: in the dark days of segregation, we see, blacks drew upon strengths of their own from the days before emancipation.
From the look of it, The Dark-Thirty (1992) might simply be a collection of Southern gothic tales with black settings. From its title alone, Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters (1994) might be happy holidays upstairs and down. The two books, published by Knopf and Scholastic, respectively, are not only not what they appear to be, they both pack an unexpected wallop; coming from dissimilar origins, in folklore and history, each packs a similar punch.
"The Legend of Pin Oak," first of the ten original stories in The Dark-Thirty, concerns the two sons of a white plantation owner—"legitimate" Harper, a weakling neglected and slighted by his father, and "mulatto" Henri, the image and favorite of that father. After the father dies and the plantation comes upon hard times, you don't have to guess what might happen: Harper's announcement that he has sold Henri is the shocking beginning of the story. The flight of Henri and his family ends in a disaster that is, indeed, the stuff of deep-seated black legend. Other eerie stories find their inspiration, variously, in the exploits of Pullman porters, the psychic powers of a WWII veteran, the Montgomery bus boycott. Through the merger of folklore and history, Pat McKissack expands the parameters of historical fiction.
Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, a large-format picture book authored by both McKissacks, gets its extraordinary effect by seeming to be an ordinary, anecdotal recreation of daily plantation life. But as preparations are made for the coming holiday, we see by the section-headings that it is December 1859. Then it is January 1, 1860. The masked ball has ended in the Big House, the cakewalk is over in the Quarters. With the decorations down, life returns abruptly to normal. The first day of the year is separation day, when Massa announces the names of the slaves who've been sold or hired out. Husbands are parted from their wives, children are parted from their families, perhaps forever. And as the McKissacks first turn the screw and then lift the curtain, a young white girl begs for her own slave, only to be reassured that five years hence—"December 1865," the girl counts on her fingers—"there'll be plenty of slaves … to choose from." In the Quarters, meanwhile, the talk is of a runaway slave, of the freedom that surely must come, anticipating the events of that momentous year.
Pat McKissack's own experience of un-freedom and the fight for black rights in the 1950s has come to the fore in—this being McKissack—three disparate books. Goin' Someplace Special, with exuberant Jerry Pinkney illustrations, is another book that only looks benign. Though she'll be allowed into the downtown library, 'Tricia Ann has to ride in the back of the bus, finds that the bench in the nearby park is for "Whites Only," and has a real scare when she innocently follows a white crowd into an off-limits hotel. Youngsters who read about 'Tricia Ann will appreciate Rosa Parks's resolve all the more.
The two civil rights novels, A Friendship for Today and Abby Takes a Stand, bring a fresh perspective to the integration experience. For ten-year-old Rosemary in A Friendship for Today, having a white friend is not the best of all possible worlds. In Abby Takes a Stand, the food in the restaurant the Nashville young people fight to integrate turns out to be nothing to clamor for. Whatever the circumstance, it's being free to choose that matters.
Abby Takes a Stand is the first in a series, Scraps of Time, that Pat McKissack is developing with another of her editor-collaborators, Jane O'Connor at Viking. McKissack and O'Connor brainstormed possible projects, and came up with the idea of tying family mementos in granny Gee's attic to episodes in African-American history. McKissack sees the series as going on more or less forever, exploring unknown terrain as well as familiar ground.
Who knows what will appear alongside? Maybe even some more zippy, warm-hearted, laugh-aloud stories like Tippy Lemmey (2003) and Loved Best (2005), drawn from Pat McKissack's life—contemporary stories with nary a social problem and only a few white characters, where black is the default setting. To fill a proper library for all kinds of kids takes all kinds of books—stories of struggle, stories with a lineage, stories that are plain entertaining. Any of them might come with the McKissack name.
RUN AWAY HOME (1997)
Heather L. Walker (review date November-December 1997)
SOURCE: Walker, Heather L. Review of Run Away Home, by Patricia C. McKissack. Five Owls 12, no. 2 (November-December 1997): 35.
[In the following review, Walker praises Run Away Home as a "compelling and realistic novel."]
"I looked back … [and] that's when, over the shoulders of the soldiers, I saw the boy who had been sitting next to Geronimo leap through an open window and roll into the darkness. He never made a sound." It is 1880 in rural Alabama and Sarah Crossman, an eleven year old African-American girl, has just witnessed an Apache boy escape from the train that the government is using to ship the Apaches to another part of the county. Does she cry out and alert the soldiers? Does she keep his secret and allow him to escape? Sarah struggles with the decision and it is her choice to remain silent and her vow to not betray the boy that begins this tale. But when Sarah's mother discovers her daughter in their barn with a dying Sky, the secret is revealed. Together, Sarah, her Mama, Georgianne and her Papa, Lee Andrew, nurse Sky back to health and provide for him a family and community to replace the one he lost. He, in turn, brings a part of the Apache culture to theirs.
Inspired by family history and legend, Patricia McKissack creates a compelling and realistic novel that weaves the stories of two cultures that are fighting to survive. In the Author's Note at the beginning of the novel, McKissack speaks of the impetus to write this tale. "My great-great-great-grandfather, Abraham Crossley, was a Native American. In the summer of 1977, when we visited southeast Alabama for a family reunion, my great-uncle told us the family legend of how the Crossley family had found a young Indian child in the woods." This brief story sparked McKissack's desire to know her family's history, to answer the questions that the scant legends had left her with. She spent the next twenty years copiously researching the history of the Apache and African-American people in the South, and piecing together what she could of the possibilities of Abraham's life. Evident in both the introductions to the book and in the novel itself, McKissack has clearly and carefully researched the time period as well as her own family history. The author's notes and the acknowledgments not only invite the reader to share in her personal journey to write this story, but also lay a solid historical foundation for the novel. Run Away Home is the result of these two decades of research and passionate interest. It beautifully blends historical fact with fictional characters and the result is compelling. It is a gentle and powerful fictional tribute to Abraham and the Crossley family.
The novel itself is a clear, proud, affirming work. The language of the novel is simple without ever being simplistic or patronizing. Indeed, its stark, honest simplicity often makes the hatred, brutality and terror of the racist South more powerful and painful. Along with depicting the painful struggle and loss that the blacks and Native Americans endured, this novel is replete with images and examples of survival, strength and pride. Sarah's father was born and grew to manhood as a slave and it is this legacy that Sarah often draws upon in her own life. She remembers stories of Harriet Tubman, of the Underground Rail- road, and of the many who bravely worked to hide slaves during their escape to freedom. These stories offer her guidance to know that she cannot turn her back on Sky. It is this history of strength that allows both the Crossman's and their neighbors to continue to fight for the rights that they are entitled even in the face of often overwhelming odds.
Although occasionally the history lessons in the novel can become a bit heavy handed, the lessons of compassion, commonality, and respect of difference never feel didactic. McKissack's celebration of differences is evident in almost every aspect of the novel and it is clearly and powerfully felt.
Run Away Home does not offer an ending of unrealistic reversal of feeling and beliefs. Racial prejudice is not eradicated in the small town of Quincy, nor do the soldiers suddenly see the error of their ways and allow the Apache people to return home. McKissack is also careful not to integrate Sky into the Crossman family in a way that dismisses his own culture. Likewise, the Crossmans learn and are changed by Sky while continuing to reaffirm their own history and legacy. This novel offers the hopefulness of people who refuse to allow their lives to be destroyed by hatred and fear, the strength of community, and the power of celebration.
BLACK HANDS, WHITE SAILS: THE STORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WHALERS (1999)
Mary M. Burns (review date November-December 1999)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers, by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack. Horn Book Magazine 75, no. 6 (November-December 1999): 758-59.
The popular image of whaling is often a romantic one, helped by Hollywood and potboiler stories. But real life on a whaling ship was dangerous, often disappointing, frequently unrewarding to the average sailor—and, as the McKissacks demonstrate here [in Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers ], an important facet of the African-American experience. In the process of re-examining nineteenth-century economic and social history, they also shed new light on that icon of American literature, Moby Dick. Their introduction sets the theme for what is to follow by linking together slavery and whaling as "part of the growth and development of the American economy from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries." Subsequent chapters not only reinforce this concept but also show the important role of the whalers in the abolitionist movement and in the success of the Underground Railroad. Incisive accounts are given of significant African Americans in this industry, including the great Frederick Douglass, who once worked as a ship's caulker in New Bedford, Massachusetts; Prince Boston, whose actions resulted in the abolition of slavery on Nantucket; Captain Paul Cuffe, the ship owner and entrepreneur who labored to eliminate discriminatory practices; and Lewis Temple, whose invention of the "toggle" harpoon revolutionized the industry. The role of the Quakers is carefully explored; seafaring women are not ignored; and life aboard a whaling ship is thoroughly documented. Exemplifying the attention given to research is the explanation of the correct call when a whale was sighted: "There blows!" not "There she blows!"—a small but significant detail. With an appendix of information about various types of whales, a list of dates indicating the historical intersection of whaling and slavery, and a bibliography that includes two videos. Index not seen.
COLOR ME DARK: THE DIARY OF NELLIE LEE LOVE, THE GREAT MIGRATION NORTH (2000)
Terry Stahler (review date winter 2000-2001)
SOURCE: Stahler, Terry. Review of Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North, by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrations by Jerry Pinkney. Childhood Education 77, no. 2 (winter 2000-2001): 108-09.
Nellie Lee Love and her family move from Tennessee to Chicago with hopes of leaving the racism and hatred of the South behind [in Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North ]. In a diary format, the author mingles the typical concerns of a young girl reaching adulthood with a historical look at growing up black in the years after World War I. Historical events weave through Nellie's life to help readers understand the transition from childhood to adulthood, and to understand what it means to be black in the United States, both in the past and the present. Many discussions about judging a person based on "the content of character rather than color of skin" will naturally emerge from reading this historical fiction. Ages 9-12.
NZINGHA: WARRIOR QUEEN OF MATAMBA (2000)
Daniel Mungai (review date December 2000)
SOURCE: Mungai, Daniel. Review of Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, by Patricia C. McKissack. School Library Journal 46, no. 12 (December 2000): 146.
Gr. 5-8—Nzingha, an Angolan princess in the 16th and 17th centuries, was born in a land in which women were predestined to be subservient to men's whims. Nzingha, however, broke that rule and, following her father's footsteps, became a leader after his death. Through fictionalized diary entries, readers learn that Queen Nzingha is knowledgeable, intelligent, and brave [in Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba ]. She is opposed to Portuguese slavery and European ways of life, although she secretly learns the outsiders' language and uses it to her advantage. The diary format will appeal to readers and the author's use of time lines, seasons, and actual place names makes the story believable and interesting. While the ending is too abrupt, this is still a good addition to the series. The maps, photos, glossary, illustrations, and genealogical trees enhance the presentation.
MARIAN ANDERSON: A GREAT SINGER (2001)
Kristen Oravec (review date January 2002)
SOURCE: Oravec, Kristen. Review of Marian Anderson: A Great Singer, by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack, illustrated by Ned Ostendorf. School Library Journal 48, no. 1 (January 2002): 121.
Gr. 3-5—This revision [Marian Anderson: A Great Singer ] is a superb introduction to the life of this remarkable woman. Miss Anderson, as she was known, was born into humble surroundings in 1897 in Philadelphia. At the age of six, she began singing in her church choir. She took music lessons from Giuseppe Boghetti, a renowned teacher. Despite a disastrous New York City debut and incidents of racism, Miss Anderson sang at many places in the United States, including the White House, Lincoln Memorial, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Although a few changes have been made to the 1991 text, including the addition of the singer's death in 1993, the majority of the changes are graphical. The original included several illustrations that have been mostly replaced with clear, crisp, black-and-white photographs. The layout has been reworked for a more clean and contemporary look. A time line has been added, as well as a page of further resources, which includes Internet addresses. Even libraries that own the earlier version will want this fresh and appealing new edition.
DAYS OF JUBILEE: THE END OF SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES (2003)
Elizabeth Bush (review date April 2003)
SOURCE: Bush, Elizabeth. Review of Days of Jubilee: The End of Slavery in the United States, by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 56, no. 8 (April 2003): 322.
The McKissacks chip through much of the mythology encrusting textbook summaries of emancipation to explore the plethora of political, military, and legal machinations that culminated in the Thirteenth Amendment [in Days of Jubilee: The End of Slavery in the United States ]. The opening chapter discusses colonial free blacks' initial faith and quick disillusionment in the promise of the Declaration of Independence. Following chapters examine the advent of Civil War, rife with tangled abolitionist proposals for gradual emancipation, colonization, and compensation for slaveholders, and then the war itself, with pockets of slaves freed by Union military order (orders often rescinded in Washington), the Emancipation Proclamation (ineffective, but of inestimable symbolic value), and finally, Confederate defeat. Prose varies from blunt ("In reality the Emancipation Proclamation could not be enforced. And it left 830,000 people enslaved in the border states") to florid ("The president's tall, gaunt figure could be seen pensively pacing the halls of the White House, wearing his grief like an ill-fitting shroud, soaked in the blood of patriots too numerous to count"). Annoying imprecisions riddle the text, from the claim that Lee's surrender "officially" ended the Civil War, to the citation of Robert Small's 1862 escape to the Union blockade as introduction to a section on how "the Emancipation Proclamation  transformed the Union army into a liberating force." Nonetheless, the McKissacks do grippingly convey the anxiety of slaves awaiting official word of their release from bondage, and the jubilation that spread like a shock wave as news of freedom made its way into the deep South and West at the end of the conflict. Period photos, a timeline, bibliography, and index are included.
TIPPY LEMMEY (2003)
Roger Sutton (review date March-April 2003)
SOURCE: Sutton, Roger. Review of Tippy Lemmey, by Patricia McKissack, illustrated by Susan Keeter. Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 2 (March-April 2003): 213-14.
"He was the only dog I ever knew who had a first and last name." McKissack's storytelling chops go on display right from the beginning of [Tippy Lemmey, ] this easy chapter book about three friends and a seemingly invulnerable villain: the eponymous Tippy Lemmey, new dog in town and terror of the neighborhood. Leandra and her friends Paul and Jeannie—each distinctively drawn—have to go by Tippy Lemmey's house to get anywhere, and the "monster" chow won't let them by without chasing and snapping. Elaborate schemes to outwit him don't work, and even a visit from Leandra and her parents to Tippy Lemmey's family is more farcical than effective: Leandra's parents go in with the mistaken notion that Tippy Lemmey is a boy who has been terrorizing the children, and the dog himself couldn't be sweeter during the visit ("‘You should have seen Tippy Lemmey acting like a puppy,’ I said, feeling real disgusted"). Of course the dog turns out to be friendly, but not before the three friends encounter the twin perils of man (two dognappers) and nature (a swiftly rising creek) in an exciting climax. The 1951 small-town-Tennessee setting is evoked naturally through the action, which is constant. This is a terrific read-aloud, but why bother? Get Tippy Lemmey into one kid's hands and it will be the pass-it-on hit of the summer reading club.
HARD LABOR: THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICANS, 1619 (2004)
Elizabeth Bush (review date March 2004)
SOURCE: Bush, Elizabeth. Review of Hard Labor: The First African Americans, 1619, by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack, illustrated by Joseph Daniel Fiedler. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 7 (March 2004): 287-88.
[In Hard Labor: The First African Americans, 1619, t]he McKissacks peer far back into the history of Europeans in the Americas to examine a period in which race-based chattel slavery was not, by any means, a foregone conclusion. Through carefully structured chapters, each starting with guiding questions, readers are introduced to slavery systems long in place among world cultures and the indenture system that, as evidence strongly suggests, brought many Africans to American shores early on. The 1619 arrival of twenty Africans at Jamestown demonstrates that, although coercion was certainly involved and the life of an indentured servant could be brutal indeed, Africans fared no worse than their white counterparts and could—and did—achieve landowner status and hold their own laborers in indenture. American slavery as it would become known by the eighteenth century was a product of specific social, economic, and legal decisions. The text is even-handed and concise, and a detailed scrutiny of the rise and decline of seventeenth-century servant Anthony Johnson and his family brings the historical argument down to earth. This underexamined topic deserves better bookmaking than it receives, however. The format is decidedly unappealing, with dreary, narrow-margined typeset and a dozen dull black-and-white scenes. Four "Virtual Visits" are listed for Web enthusiasts, but specific sources for the text are not offered.
LOOK TO THE HILLS: THE DIARY OF LOZETTE MOREAU, A FRENCH SLAVE GIRL (2004)
Nancy P. Reeder (review date May 2004)
SOURCE: Reeder, Nancy P. Review of Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, a French Slave Girl, by Patricia C. McKissack. School Library Journal 50, no. 5 (May 2004): 152.
Gr. 4-6—Zettie, 12, is a companion to the daughter of a once-wealthy Frenchman [in Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, a French Slave Girl ]. An African slave, she was purchased as a gift for Marie-Louise and although well treated, she longs to be free. After Marie-Louise's father dies, her older brother threatens to sell the slaves and marry off his sister to an older, unattractive, but wealthy man to keep himself out of debtor's prison. Marie-Louise convinces her fiancé to purchase Zettie as her wedding gift, and the two girls, with the help of a friend, flee to Spain, and then to America. They sail to a British-controlled fort in the area that would later become New York State. The rest of the book describes life at the fort, the effects of the French and Indian War on the relations with the Native Americans, and Marie-Louise's search for her younger brother, who had been captured by the Delaware Indians. The diary is a straightforward account with very little emotion. Zettie simply records the events of the day with few comments as to her thoughts and feelings, and her character is never fully developed. The other figures are even more shadowy. The quality of the black-and-white period maps, portraits, landscapes, etc., is poor. It is unfortunate that a book written about this time period, on which there is little fiction available for this age, is not up to the author's usual standard.
LU AND THE SWAMP GHOST (2004)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Joy Bean (review date 23 August 2004)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Joy Bean. Review of Lu and the Swamp Ghost, by James Carville and Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by David Catrow. Publishers Weekly 251, no. 34 (23 August 2004): 53.
Inspired by the colorful storytelling style and kind actions of his southern mother, political consultant Carville (aided by McKissack) spins a Depression-era yarn set in the Louisiana bayou about life's true riches [in Lu and the Swamp Ghost ]. Young Lucille Ray-Jean, Lu for short, always has plenty to eat, and is usually busy as a bee in a hive, just like the rest of her family as they tend to their house, garden or animals. That's why Lu is confused by the talk in town about the Depression. After all, as Lu's Mama says, "You're never poor if you have a loving family and one good friend." With that thought in mind, Lu bravely befriends and feeds a creature covered in mud, leaves and twigs that she believes to be "a genuine, for-real swamp ghost." First impressions prove false however; after she offers the creature food and shelter, she discovers its true identity. Lu's innocent selflessness and genuine, sweet nature set this story apart from similar tales and give its message resonance. And the pacing is just right for settin' a spell on the back porch. Catrow's (Take Me Out of the Bathtub) watercolor-and-pencil compositions have a wiry, loose line that matches the air of gentleness and subtle wonder in the narrative. His slimy swamp critters, including all manner of bugs, give the proceedings an appropriate hum. He even includes a separate and funny visual story line for Lu's dog. A CD recording of Carville reading the text in his familiar drawl is included. Ages 4-8.
TO ESTABLISH JUSTICE: CITIZENSHIP AND THE CONSTITUTION (2004)
Carolyn Phelan (review date 15 October 2004)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Review of To Establish Justice: Citizenship and the Constitution, by Patricia C. McKissack and Arlene Zarembka. Booklist 101, no. 4 (15 October 2004): 397.
Gr. 6-10—This solid book [To Establish Justice: Citizenship and the Constitution ] considers the rights of various groups of people as granted in the Constitution and interpreted by the courts. The first chapter concerns the creation of the Constitution and points out that while the original document guaranteed certain rights to citizens, it did not define who was considered a citizen. Taking a broadly historical path, the book discusses how the courts have interpreted the Constitution in cases involving Native Americans, slaves and free blacks in the 1800s, women's suffrage, discrimination against Asian Americans, "separate but equal" education, the rights of students, affirmative action, and discrimination based upon race, gender, and sexual orientation. The book ends with the text of the document, a lengthy source bibliography, and suggestions for further reading. Black-and-white illustrations include reproductions of many period photographs as well as a few paintings, engravings, and documents. This excellent resource pulls together a great deal of information and presents it in a clear, logical manner.
ABBY TAKES A STAND (2005)
Publishers Weekly (review date 25 July 2005)
SOURCE: Review of Abby Takes a Stand, by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Gordon C. James. Publishers Weekly 252, no. 29 (25 July 2005): 77.
McKissack kicks off the engaging Scraps of Time series with this chapter book [Abby Takes a Stand ], which opens as cousins explore their grandmother Gee's attic, filled with "scraps of time." One such scrap, a menu from The Monkey Bar in Nashville, sparks Gee's memory of a pivotal episode in her childhood—and in the American civil rights movement. Gee recalls the year 1960 when, as 10-year-old Abby, she is stunned to be turned away from the new restaurant, just because she is black. McKissack gives a clear sense of the racial tenor of the time: though blacks could now sit wherever they liked on busses, segregated schools and "whites only" signs are still the reality. While her cousin organizes lunch-counter sit-ins, Abby passes out flyers advocating nonviolent protests; and after her cousin is arrested, the resolute girl takes her own stand, boldly drinking from a whites-only water fountain. McKissack has a keen sense of her audience: when, in the story's rewarding climax, Abby and her mother eat at the newly integrated Monkey Bar, Abby observes (after sampling the not-so-great food), "I don't think the sit-ins were about the food. I think they were about having choices." The author uses humor and universal experiences of childhood (Abby and her best friend love milkshakes and scary movies) to draw readers into the larger backdrop of history in the making. Back in the present, the cousins' discovery of another memento—Gee's great-grandfather's Civil War medal—sets the scene for the next tale. Ages 8-up.
PRECIOUS AND THE BOO HAG (2005)
Timnah Card (review date January 2005)
SOURCE: Card, Timnah. Review of Precious and the Boo Hag, by Patricia C. McKissack and Onawumi Jean Moss, illustrated by Kyrsten Booker. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 58, no. 5 (January 2005): 217-18.
[In Precious and the Boo Hag, w]hen Precious stays home alone with a stomachache, Brother warns her not to let anyone in the house, "'cause if you let somebody in, you never know. It just might be Pruella the Boo Hag." Sure enough, while the rest of the family is at work in the fields, the Boo Hag lays siege to the house with tricks and disguises designed to get herself invited indoors. Luckily, Precious uses her own quick mind and the folk wisdom passed on by her brother to keep herself safe from this frightening shape-shifter. Mixed-media illustrations spotlight the action of the story, their bowed lines and angles imbued with kinetic energy and textured dimensionality that makes the inner world of the story seem bigger than the spread of the pages that represent it. The refrain used by Precious to shore up her courage is placed within the illustrations rather than the text, drawing the images and words closer together and providing young listeners with something to shout to chase away their own fear. The prose is nicely vernacular without being stereotypical, and it has a conversational rhythm that lends itself to being read aloud with flair. Readers aloud may want to condense the text-heavy opening for squirmier crowds, but the action quickly gets exciting, making the tale thrilling enough to keep an audience fully engaged. The final spread suggests that Precious will have to outwit the Boo Hag many more times before this battle is won, leaving listeners with a deliciously sinister chill (though one does wonder: will Precious ever be able to leave the house?). The story is set in harvest time, but the implication of an ongoing conflict between child and hag will have youngsters requesting the tale throughout the year, and Precious is an admirable companion to McKissack's clever Flossie (from Flossie and the Fox, BCCB 9/86).
WHERE CROCODILES HAVE WINGS (2005)
Rachael Vilmar (review date October 2005)
SOURCE: Vilmar, Rachael. Review of Where Crocodiles Have Wings, by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Bob Barner. School Library Journal 51, no. 10 (October 2005): 120.
PreS-Gr. 2—In this muddled picture book [Where Crocodiles Have Wings ], readers are told that "There's a once-upon-a-place / in time and space / where surprises grow on trees / And crocs have wings." Unfortunately, the text never makes clear exactly what this place is, or why anyone would want to go there. The book simply lays out a bizarre and plodding description of a land where "Coyotes sneeze / And chickens wheeze / Whenever the seasons / change— / And bears lay eggs / With two good legs / For running in marathons." At the end, there is a brief nod to the power of the imagination, as youngsters are instructed to "Touch your toes / Wiggle your nose / and open a favorite book…." Unfortunately, the world that this book depicts is one in which bouncy rhyme schemes are picked up and inexplicably dropped in the space of a single page, and in which meter is halting, jolting, and inconsistent. Also, some of the busy, cut-paper collage illustrations do not depict what is described in the text. Stick with McKissack's more successful titles, such as Precious and the Boo Hag (S & S, 2005), and skip this offering.
AWAY WEST (2006)
Kay Weisman (review date 15 April 2006)
SOURCE: Weisman, Kay. Review of Away West, by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Gordon C. James. Booklist 102, no. 16 (15 April 2006): 59.
Gr. 3-6—In [Away West, ] this companion to Abby Takes a Stand (2005), from the Scraps of Time series, the Webster cousins find a Civil War medal in their grandmother's attic, and Gee relates a story about Everett Turner, to whom the medal belonged. In 1879, the newly orphaned Turner runs away to St. Louis, where he works in a livery stable, earning money to move west to the all-African-American town of Nicodemus, Kansas. Everett treasures his ability to read and write, but his developing skills as a horse trainer earn him a place on the wagon train. McKissack augments her story about the town with details of African-American Civil War regiments (where Everett's father earned the aforementioned medal) and the buffalo soldiers. Short chapters, simple sentences, and James' pencil sketches make this an appealing choice for newly independent readers; an appended time line clarifies the actual people and events. Suggest Daniel Chu's Going Home to Nicodemus (1994) to children who want to learn more about the town.
PORCH LIES: TALES OF SLICKSTERS, TRICKSTERS, AND OTHER WILY CHARACTERS (2006)
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 May 2006)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters, by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by André Carrilho. Booklist 102, no. 18 (15 May 2006): 46.
Gr. 3-5—Like McKissack's award-winning The Dark-Thirty (1992), the nine original tales in this uproarious collection [Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters and Other Wily Characters ] draw on African-American oral tradition and blend history and legend with sly humor, creepy horror, villainous characters, and wild farce. McKissack based the stories on those she heard as a child while sitting on her grandparents' porch; now she is passing them on to her grandchildren. Without using dialect, her intimate folk idiom celebrates the storytelling among friends, neighbors, and family as much as the stories themselves. "Some folk believe the story; some don't. You decide for yourself." Is the weasly gravedigger going to steal a corpse's jewelry, or does he know the woman is really still alive? Can bespectacled Aunt Gran outwit the notorious outlaw Jesse James? In black and white, Carrilho's full-page illustrations—part cartoon, part portrait in silhouette—combine realistic characters with scary monsters. History is always in the background (runaway slaves, segregation cruelty, white-robed Klansmen), and in surprising twists and turns that are true to trickster tradition, the weak and exploited beat powerful oppressors with the best lies ever told. Great for sharing, on the porch and in the classroom.
A FRIENDSHIP FOR TODAY (2007)
Robin Smith (review date March-April 2007)
SOURCE: Smith, Robin. Review of A Friendship for Today, by Patricia C. McKissack. Horn Book Magazine 83, no. 2 (March-April 2007): 198-99.
It's 1955 suburban St. Louis, and the fifth graders at Attucks Elementary are saying goodbye to their beloved teacher and to their school, too: it is being closed in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision ending segregation [in A Friendship for Today ]. In the fall, Rosemary is the lone black child in her classroom, and her believably sixth-grade voice rings with confusion, excitement, and anxiety. Making friends is a challenge, with her best friend J. J. stricken with polio and with the horrible Grace Hamilton in her class (the Hamiltons have moved from Arkansas, and their attitudes toward integration are straight out of the nineteenth century). Katherine, the queen bee of the sixth grade, seems intent on making Rosemary's life difficult, and when she tries to use her influence to humiliate Rosemary and Grace, the two girls become unlikely friends. McKissack's secondary characters, from Mr. Bob at the grocery store to Rosemary's divorcing parents to the stubbornly courageous Mrs. Hamilton, are complex creations, conflicted and imperfect but full of wisdom as they grope their way along life's road. As Rosemary's mother tells her, "It's the little victories that win the war."
Beck, Martha Davis. Review of Ma Dear's Aprons, by Patricia McKissack, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Five Owls 11, no. 5 (May-June 1997): 107.
Offers a positive assessment of Ma Dear's Aprons.
Beecham, Katherine. Review of Goin' Someplace Special, by Patricia McKissack, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Five Owls 16, nos. 2, 3, 4 (2002): 85.
Characterizes Goin' Someplace Special as a "poignant story."
Hudak, Melissa. Review of A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, by Patricia C. McKissack. School Library Journal 43, no. 9 (September 1997): 220.
Offers a positive assessment of A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, noting the volume's "touching and sobering details of slave life."
Knoth, Maeve Visser. Review of Ma Dear's Aprons, by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Horn Book Magazine 73, no. 3 (May-June 1997): 310.
Asserts that, despite the lack of plot in Ma Dear's Aprons, "there is plenty of emotion and many details to attract a child."
Marantz, Ken, and Sylvia Marantz. Review of The Honest-to-Goodness Truth, by Patricia McKissack, illustrated by Giselle Potter. Five Owls 14, no. 5 (May-June 2000): 119.
Regards The Honest-to-Goodness Truth, as "a universal story of ethical behavior."
McElmeel, Sharron. "Patricia McKissack: Wordsmith and Avid Reader." Book Report 18, no. 3 (November-December 1999): 36-7.
Presents a biographical profile of McKissack's literary career.
Mura, Janet. Review of Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues, by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack, Jr. Voice of Youth Advocates 17, no. 4 (October 1994): 233.
Compliments the McKissacks' "easy and breezy" history of baseball in Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues.
Pearson, Susan. Review of Flossie and the Fox, by Patricia McKissack, illustrated by Rachel Isado. Five Owls 1, no. 1 (September-October 1986): 8.
Praises Flossie and the Fox, calling the text, "[a] joy to read the first time, it gets better with every reading."
Additional coverage of McKissack's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 38; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 15; Black Writers, Ed. 2; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 23, 55; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 118; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 38, 96, 147; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; and Something about the Author, Vols. 51, 73, 117, 162.