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Reviews of select titles by Patricia C. McKissack

mckissack_flossie & the foxstar2 Flossie & the Fox
by Patricia C. McKissack; illus. by Rachel Isadora
Primary     Dial     32 pp.
10/86     0-8037-0251-5     $10.95
Library ed. 0-8037-0521-5     $10.89

Based on a story remembered from the author’s childhood, this tale of wit triumphant from the black tradition of the rural South — with its lilting cadence and colorful, carefully phrased dialect — fairly sings on the page. Exactly the right note of suspense carries the reader from page to page, as small Flossie Finley outsmarts a wily fox determined to steal her eggs by refusing to be scared until he proves that he is indeed what he claims to be. As he pridefully points out the various aspect of himself — luxurious fur, long pointed nose, sharp claws and yellow eyes, bushy tail — she cleverly compares each characteristic to that of another animal: rabbit, rat, cat, or squirrel. Totally discombobulated by her boldness in withholding the respect he thinks is his due, the would-be trickster — never suspecting that the innocent Flossie knows exactly what she is doing —  is lured into accompanying her to her destination, where his plans are suddenly disrupted by a menacing hound. Although the text can stand alone as a wonderful example of folk literature, Rachel Isadora’s handsome, full-color, double-boxed illustrations enhance and extend the plot, underscoring Flossie’s triumph, suggesting the sinuous slyness of the fox, and capturing the splendor of sunlight gleaming on a path through the woods. Yet, impressive as they are, these pictures and not simply remarkable examples of fine art but are true illustrations, filled with a sense of story, beautifully composed, engagingly vital. Well suited for picture-book hours, the book is a real charmer, thoughtfully crafted and carefully designed. MARY M. BURNS

Reviewed in the January/February 1987 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

pinkney_mirandyMirandy and Brother Wind
by Patricia C. McKissack; illus. by Jerry Pinkney
Primary     Knopf     32 pp.
09/88     0-394-88765-4     $12.95
Library ed. 0-394-98765-9     $13.99

The impetus for the delightful and joyful story came from a 1906 photograph of the author’s grandparents after they had just won a cakewalk contest. In splendid, bright watercolors with floral tones, Jerry Pinkney captures the high-prancing spirit of this Afro-American dance which became such a vital part of the American culture in the nineteenth century. Mirandy, happily anticipating the cakewalk, will only settle for Brother Wind as her partner. But the elegantly dressed Brother Wind is elusive and difficult to capture. Relentlessly, Mirandy pursues the blue spiritlike creature until, with the help of a little magic, she corners him. The reader accompanies Mirandy in a jaunty stride to the spirited finale. The author and illustrator present young listeners with an endearing glimpse into America’s entertaining past. LOIS F. ANDERSON

Reviewed in the March/April 1989 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

mckissack_dark-thirtyThe Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural
by Patricia C. McKissack; illus. by Brian Pinkney
Intermediate     Knopf/Random     122 pp.
9/92     0-679-81863-3    $15.00
Library ed. 0-679-91863-9     $15.99

The Dark-Thirty is a collection of original stories rooted in African-American history and the tradition of oral storytelling. The stories span the period from slavery to the civil rights era. McKissack has chosen a varied selection of tales — ghost stories, horror stories, suspenseful and supernatural stories — and, as usual, her remarkable ability to assume different voices is evident. “The Woman in the Snow” tells about the chilling events leading to the death of a young mother and her infant and their yearly appearance as ghosts on the anniversary of their death. In “Justice” a Ku Klux Klan member who made a mockery of justice by lynching an innocent young black man is haunted by the young man’s ghost. Each story is introduced by a beginning paragraph that sets it in the historical context of the African-American community. Brian Pinkney’s scratchboard artwork adds the right amount of tension and apprehension to the stories. A spooky collection, perfect for reading aloud. GAIL PETTIFORD WILLETT

Reviewed in the March/April 1993 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

mckissack_sojourner truthSojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman?
by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick McKissack
Intermediate     Scholastic     186 pp.
11/92     0-590-44690-8     $13.95

Illustrated with black-and-white photographs. Born into slavery in New York in 1797, Sojourner Truth began life with the name Isabella — Belle to her parents and the other slaves. It wasn’t until she endured the separation of her family, was bought and sold several times, and, after having been tricked by a man who promised her freedom in exchange for extra work, ran away with her youngest child, that Belle achieved freedom. In 1843, at the age of forty-six, she assumed the name Sojourner Truth and began the period of her life which was to bring her fame. In her travels, she brought a strident abolitionist and feminist message to many parts of the country, often facing considerable opposition while delivering her speeches. The authors do a particularly fine job relating the major incidents in Sojourner Truth’s life, as well as as establishing the political climate in the country at the time she lived. A final section provides brief biographical sketches of the many people Truth knew and worked with until her death in 1883, among them women’s rights advocates Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Standon and abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and William Lloyd Garrison. The photographs are well placed and used liberally to bring a sense of immediacy to the narrative. A fine contribution to the body of work about this remarkable and articulate activist. Bibliography and index. ELLEN FADER

Reviewed in the March/April 1993 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

mckissack_christmas in the big houseChristmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters
by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack; illus. by John Thompson
Intermediate     Scholastic     68 pp.
10/94     0-590-43027-0     $17.95

Hardly a detail is missed in this vivid description of a traditional Christmas on a Virginia plantation in 1859 — the “last Yuletide celebration before the Southern Rebellion.” The authors view the holiday from the perspectives of both the slaveholder and his household in the “Big House” and the slaves in the “Quarters.” Rich descriptions of preparations fill the text — recipes and menus from both groups are provided — and colorful paintings reflect the antebellum period. Sprinkled throughout the book are lyrics of traditional spirituals, carols, and poetry. The joyful spirit of the holiday is prevalent; but lurking underneath the gaiety in the Big House is fearful talk of black insurrection, abolitionists, and the possibility of war, while the blacks secretly speak of emancipation rumors, Frederick Douglass, the Underground railroad, and escape. Use of authentic language of the time helps the narrative flow, and carefully documented notes illuminate the interesting text. An extensive bibliography is included in this well-researched history of contrasting celebrations. LOIS F. ANDERSON

Reviewed in the January/February 1995 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

mckissack_black hands white sails Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers
by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack
Intermediate     Scholastic     147 pp.
10/99     0-590-48313-7     $15.95     g

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, 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. MARY M. BURNS

Reviewed in the November/December 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Goin’ Someplace Special
by Patricia C. McKissack; illus. by Jerry Pinkney
Primary     Schwartz/Atheneum     40 pp.
9/01      0-689-81885-8     $16.00

Young ’Tricia Ann is off to Someplace Special — and about to “burst with excitement” because her grandmother is letting her go there alone for the very first time. The journey is not an easy one: she must face the indignities of life in the Jim Crow South. She has to sit behind the sign on the bus that says “COLORED SECTION.” She is not allowed to sit in the park by the Peace Fountain her stonemason grandfather helped build. She visits her friend the doorman at the elegant Southland Hotel and is asked to leave. “What makes you think you can come inside? No colored people are allowed!” the manager says. Despite these humiliations, ’Tricia Ann is strengthened at every turn by people who care about her and who bolster her with reminders to “Carry yo’self proud” and “Don’t let those signs steal yo’ happiness.” Soon she reaches her beloved Someplace Special — the public library. The words carved in stone proclaim: “Public Library: All Are Welcome.” Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations place ’Tricia Ann at the center of each page, willing to face the challenges the outside world throws at her. Whether ’Tricia Ann is in her grandmother’s kitchen (surrounded by bountiful fresh fruits and vegetables and the love they symbolize) or fearfully looking over her shoulder on the bus, Pinkney makes it clear that she will triumph. Though this story takes place in an unnamed Southern city, the helpful author’s note states that McKissack was raised in Nashville, where, unlike many other Southern cities of the 1950s, the public libraries welcomed African Americans. The library pictured on the final pages, bathed in hopeful lemon sunshine, is the downtown library of 1950s Nashville. There are many books about a child’s first trip alone, and many books about racism and the struggle for civil rights, but this book is about more than either: it is the story of a child facing a difficult time sustained by the support of the adults in her life. McKissack and Pinkney strike just the right balance in a picture book for young readers and listeners: informative without being preachy; hopeful without being sentimental. ROBIN SMITH

Reviewed in the November/December 2001 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

mckissack_tippy lemmeyTippy Lemmey
by Patricia C. McKissack; illus. by Susan Keeter
Primary     Simon     60 pp.
1/03     Library ed. 0-689-85594-X      $11.89      g
Aladdin paper ed. 0-689-85019-0     $3.99

“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 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. ROGER SUTTON

Reviewed in the March/April 2003 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

mckissack_let's clap, jump, sing & shoutLet’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood
by Patricia C. McKissack; illus. by Brian Pinkney
Preschool, Primary, Intermediate    Schwartz & Wade/Random    171 pp.
1/17    978-0-375-87088-0    $24.99
Library ed.  978-0-375-97088-7    $27.99    g
e-book ed.  978-0-307-97495-2    $12.99

Children’s book royalty and storyteller supreme, Patricia McKissack here compiles an impressive and cohesive treasury of African American children’s culture: “a collection of my favorite childhood games, songs, poetry, and stories that are directly linked to my African American heritage.” From hand-claps and jump-rope rhymes, through spirituals and gospel lyrics and Bible stories, to proverbs and poetry and folktales, the collection provides an informal history of African American life as well as something of a memoir for McKissack. For example, in one of the many conversational but illuminating notes that pepper the well-organized sections, she recalls reciting James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” at “age fourteen at the Elk Oratorical Contest in Minneapolis in 1959.” With close to one hundred selections in all, the book might seem formidable, but the design is spacious and lightened by Pinkney’s swirling decorations in ink and watercolor. Although sourcing is only variously complete and readers will have to find melody lines for the songs elsewhere, this is a rich compilation to stand beside Rollins’s Christmas Gif’ (rev. 5/94) and Hamilton’s The People Could Fly (rev. 3/86). Index not seen.

Reviewed in the November/December 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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