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Children's literature suffers loss with Fredrick McKissack's death

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The world of children's literature and young readers will miss Fredrick McKissack, who died Sunday.

The Chesterfield author was not as well known, perhaps, as his wife, Patricia McKissack, whose name has been on many award-winning books. But as Michael Sorkin's obituary today makes clear, Mr. McKissack often helped with research, even on books without his name.

The pair who have contributed so much to children's literature have been in the Post-Dispatch several times. Be sure to read the interesting obituary. And for more about the McKissacks, here is a feature story written by Renee Stovsky, who profiled the writers in 1998:

In 1970, Patricia C. McKissack was an eighth-grade English teacher at Nipher Middle School in Kirkwood, eager to introduce her students to the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar. To her dismay, she could find only scant biographical information on her favorite black American poet.

Not one to be easily discouraged, McKissack decided to write a children's book about Dunbar herself. It certainly wasn't her first attempt at writing. Ever since her days at James Milton Turner Elementary School in Kirkwood, she'd been scribbling stories, plays and poems in notebooks. And as a stay-at-home mother with three young sons -- Fredrick Jr., now 32, and twins Robert and John, now 30 -- she'd practically made a career out of collecting publisher's rejection slips for manuscripts.

Still, the Dunbar book was a turning point in Pat McKissack's life.

"As both a parent and teacher, I was aware that there was very little accurate material available about African-American history. Whole generations were growing up, unfamiliar even with heroes like Frederick Douglass, Mary Church Terrell, Paul Robeson . . . I realized then that if someone didn't start preserving these stories, an extremely important part of our heritage could be lost forever, " she says.

That's when McKissack's writing took on an almost missionary zeal -- a fervor that has since propelled her and her husband, Fredrick McKissack, into the literary limelight. Together, they have produced more than 100 children's books, including the just released "Let My People Go" (Atheneum, $20), a compilation of Old Testament tales retold from the viewpoint of a free black Southerner during post-Revolutionary slave times.

"Let My People Go" already has been named by Publisher's Weekly one of the best

children's religious books of 1998. That laurel should come as no surprise to the McKissacks -- their work has won everything from the Newbery Honor and Caldecott Honor to the Coretta Scott King Award, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, the Jane Addams Peace Award, and more.

Among their best-known picture books are "Flossie & the Fox, " "Mirandy and Brother Wind, " "Nettie Jo's Friends" and "Ma Dear's Aprons."

Their most highly acclaimed books for young adults include "The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, " "A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter, " and "Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman?"

"The McKissacks are among the most prolific African-American authors of children's literature today, " says Ginny Moore Kruse, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center, a research facility at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "They have done incredible research with primary source material, bringing a very reliable Afrocentric perspective to young readers. Their work has been unique -- and absolutely invaluable."

Take a tour of the McKissacks' office in the basement of their Chesterfield home, ground zero for their publishing efforts, and their success looks almost effortless.

A dry-erase board enumerates the projects they are currently working on -- there are probably half a dozen -- along with manuscript deadlines, projected publishing dates and so on. Piles of papers surround a computer; an extensive research library fills a back room; hardback copies of their books are stacked neatly in a closet, to be used for lectures, school visits, book signings and other personal appearances.

But Pat McKissack was anything but a publishing phenom when she first decided to become an author. Her Dunbar book -- which she sold to Children's Press in 1984 for only $800 -- wasn't even published until 1987.

In between, she earned a master's degree at Webster University, where she studied early childhood literature and worked as an editor at Concordia Publishing House, the publishing arm of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. She also spent time at an O'Fallon, Mo., publishing company, Paul and Nancy Polette's Book Lures Inc., helping to produce workbooks for teachers of the gifted. And she took classes in puppetry, storytelling and writing under Lynn Rubright and the late Harry Cargas at Webster University.

"I knew I had a lot of family stories that could be used as publishing material, " says McKissack. "Storytelling was a perfect tool to help me learn to refine and give voice to them."

By 1982, McKissack had decided to devote herself full time to her writing endeavors. She rented an office on a month-to-month lease in Clayton and shared space with two friends, Thomasina Hassler and Etheldra Hollis, who were aspiring entrepreneurs as well. To support her efforts, she also became an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Lindenwood College and St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, teaching English and children's literature courses.

About the same time, Fred McKissack, a general contractor, sold his interest in Nimrod Construction and "was looking for something else to do."

"I knew how strongly Pat felt about writing these books for kids, so I told her I'd help with a few, and then I'd go back to corporate America, " he recalls. "I never did."

No one who knows the McKissacks well would have been surprised by the depth of their commitment to black children's literature. Both had been intimately involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Pat McKissack, now 54, helped integrate Kirkwood's Robinson Elementary School in 1954; she was the sole black student in the sixth grade there. (After her parents, Robert and Erma Carwell, divorced, she moved to Nashville's Preston-Taylor Housing Projects with her mother and younger brother and sister.)

Fred, five years Pat's senior, enrolled at Tennessee State University in 1961 -- the height of the civil rights movement -- and was instrumental in integrating lunch counters in downtown Nashville as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

The McKissacks met at Tennessee State in May 1964, when Fred, a civil engineering major, helped tutor Pat in algebra. A few months later, they arrived at the same party with different dates and talked all night long. By December 1964, they were married. Soon after, Fred accepted a job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers here, and the couple moved to St. Louis.

The McKissacks were inspired by the civil rights movement of the '60s. "It gave us hope to achieve everything our grandparents had fought and sacrificed for, " they said. "We became aware that we were responsible for making change happen."

In 1986, Dial Publishing Co. released Pat's picture book, "Flossie & the Fox."

Up to that point, the McKissacks had successfully cracked the scholastic market with a series of books profiling famous black Americans for Children's Press and penetrated the religious market with a number of children's books for Augsburg Publishing Co.

"Flossie, " based on a yarn Pat's grandfather used to spin, was "my breakthrough, mainstream press book, " says Pat. Illustrated by Caldecott Medal artist Rachel Isadora, "Flossie" was selected by the Book Trust in London, England as one of the best books of 1986 and was subsequently published in several foreign language editions.

A year later, the pair's "The Civil Rights Movement in America: 1865 to the Present" was published by Children's Press, and became one of its best-selling titles of all time. The textbook -- slated for a third edition in 2000 -- is used in school districts from Virginia to Texas.

In 1988, "Mirandy and Brother Wind, " illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, garnered a Caldecott honor. "The Dark Thirty, " released in 1992, was a Newbery Honor book.

Success has allowed the McKissacks -- Fred is the primary researcher, Pat the primary writer -- the luxury to delve into more offbeat aspects of black American history. That freedom has resulted in books like "The Red-Tailed Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, " "Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues" (written by Pat and her son, Fredrick McKissack Jr.), and "Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African Americans in the Whaling Industry, " to be released next fall.

It's also given them the time and money to produce what they consider their "signature" books, first "Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters" (1994) and now "Let My People Go."

"These are our 'faction' books -- historically accurate but set in a fictional place, " says Fred.

Before writing "Let My People Go, " for example, the McKissacks made five trips to Charleston, S.C., once a major slave-trading port. There, they discovered the story of a free black man, Denmark Vesey, a former seaman-turned-freedom fighter who was hanged for organizing a slave rebellion in 1822. They used pieces of Vesey's life and other free blacks in Charleston to create the character of narrator Price Jefferies and his family.

Why combine Bible stories with post-Revolutionary African-American history?

"The most cherished and read book in the African-American community is the Bible. We wanted to relate it to present-day living. By making the ancient stories more inclusive, we hope they'll be more relevant to today's children, " says Pat.

The McKissacks' success has paralleled slow but steady progress in the number of children's books produced by black authors and illustrators. According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, in 1985 only 18 of 2,500 books published for children were the work of African-Americans. In 1997 -- the latest figures available -- that ratio had increased to 88 out of 4,500.

Those figures merely strengthen the McKissacks' resolve to work harder on producing quality children's literature.

"We could write 100 books a year for the next 100 years and still not scratch the surface of stories that have fallen through the cracks, " says Pat McKissack.



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