Patricia McKissack was a writer even before she considered it as a profession. She loved words as a child, and loved making up stories. One of her favorite radio shows was Machine Gun Kelly, and she used him as the main character for several of her initial stories. “I had no concept of a gun, let alone a machine gun,” she quips, but that didn’t stop her from writing.
Pat grew up in a storytelling family that nurtured the talent within her. “A huggy, touchy, kissy people with a story, a smile, and a piece of bread to share,” says Pat. She remembers gathering around the fireplace, on the back porch, or around the table at meal times to hear the latest yarn.
In school, Pat wrote for traditional publications—her high school yearbook, her college newspaper, her sorority’s newsletter. She followed a degree in English with a teaching career, a master’s in early childhood education, and finally a stint as an editor for a book publisher.
One day, Pat remembers returning home from the publishing house exhausted from the daily battles she waged to get her favorite projects published. That evening she went to the park with her husband, Fredrick. Together they sat by their favorite waterfall and Pat cried. Fred asked her to pick something she could be happy doing for the rest of her life. Pat chose writing for children and Fred promised to help her. “But Freddy, you don’t know beans about children,” said Pat in her gentle Southern drawl. “I know enough,” he said. Pat knew he would have promised anything to get her to stop crying, but she called his bluff and rented office space for their joint venture.
Together the McKissacks have researched the dissolution of slavery, the history of civil rights, African-American sailors aboard whaling ships, and prominent African-Americans like Martin Luther King, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Frederick Douglass. They’ve toured historical plantations to understand the life of a slave and collected Southern supernatural tales, and tales of wily Southern characters.
Originally, the McKissacks were lauded for their nonfiction work. But Pat couldn’t stop thinking about the reams of material that never made it into their books. Research for a nonfiction book on Apaches that she wrote at the beginning of her career became the basis for Run Away Home—the story of an Apache boy who escapes from the train taking him to the reservation.
While reading slave narratives for Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, Pat stumbled across an account of a slave girl who learned to read while fanning the Missus and the young Master during their lessons. In Pat’s novel, A Picture of Freedom: A Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, Clotee says, “Every time I read or write a word it puts a picture in my head.” Every word but freedom. Pat’s story focuses on how Clotee comes to form a picture of freedom.
Flossie and the Fox, one of Pat’s most successful stories, is currently on its second generation of readers. Pat remembers sitting next to her grandfather on the porch swing while he began spinning his tale: “Did I ever tell you ‘bout the time lil’ Flossie Finley come out the Piney Woods heeling a fox?”
When Pat’s three sons began reading they told her they were sick of books about black kids always in need, or a day late and a dollar short. The McKissack boys had enough to wear and enough to eat; they led happy-go-lucky lives and they wanted Pat to tell their story. Pat responded with the easy-reader series about Miami, a composite of her three sons.
Throughout her career, Pat has written fiction and nonfiction for a variety of age groups. The variety keeps her fresh and wards off writer’s block. She writes from her St. Louis, Missouri home and describes herself as goal-oriented. Each morning she creates a manageable to-do list; when she completes the list her work is over for the day. Sometimes she’s finished at 2:00p.m., and sometimes she’s finished at 7:00p.m. But she doesn’t exhaust herself, knowing that fresh ideas come from a fresh mind. Winner of multiple Coretta Scott King awards and the Newbery Honor, Pat keeps her readers foremost in her mind when she’s working on a project. “I care about what I am giving them,” she says. “When my readers put down a Pat McKissack book they will come away with something that’s enriched their lives.”