For the McKissacks, Black Is Boundless

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 l960s,” 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 nonfiction, 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 & 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 & 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 re-creation 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.

From the March/April 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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About Barbara Bader

Barbara Bader, a longtime contributor to the Horn Book, is the author of American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within. She has written extensively on picture books, folklore, multicultural literature, the history of libraries, and publishing for children. She is being honored in September 2013 by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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