Q&A: Children's Author Patricia C. McKissak

A native of Smyrna, Tenn., now residing in St. Louis, Patricia C. McKissak was an educator and editor before turning her talents to writing children's books in the late 1980s. Her work, much of it written in collaboration with her husband Frederick, focuses on African-American history and folklore, and has received some of the highest awards available: the 1993 Newberry Honor for The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural; the Caldecott Honor in 1989 for Mirandy and Brother Wind (illlustrated by Brian Pinkney); the Coretta Scott King Author Award in 1995 for Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters (co-authored with Frederick); and the NAACP Image Award in 1999 for Let My People Go: Bible Stories Told by a Freeman of Color (co-authored with Fredrick). NOTE: She was originally scheduled to appear at the Children's Festival of Reading on Saturday, May 21, at World's Fair Park, but had to cancel due to a family illness. Her fellow writers and illustrators Robert Sabuda, Grace Lin, and Bill Harley are still in the line-up.

How often is Tennessee in your thoughts when you write?

I'm writing from my childhood, so I write a great deal from Tennessee, and I also include Missouri, where I grew up some. I hold a dual citizenship.

Who is this grandmother who sneaks into so many of your works?

It is both of my grandmothers, merged into one, like the wind dancing Mirandy in my picture book. Mama Frances, it's her front porch I sat on in Tennessee, but my grandmother Sarah in St. Louis had a porch, too. My grandmothers were best friends before my father and mother ever met, working at a laundry and a hotel. They remained best friends even though Mom and Dad divorced.

When you're speaking, you don't seem like a scary person, but The Dark-Thirty is ominous.

Kids love it. They love scary stories. I did get a letter—"Dear Ms. McKissak, I read your book because it was supposed to be scary, but it wasn't. Signed, your friend Jeffrey." He was too put out with me, enough to write. I don't write slasher fingernail stories; I don't write horror. I write stories that could have two endings, and you can decide. "The Chicken Coop Monster," that is my own story. My grandmother's chicken coop had a monster that lived in there, with scales instead of feathers. I was terrified of it. I was the oldest granddaughter, and my grandfather allowed me to have my monster, and also to defeat it. Love conquered all monsters, and I was dearly loved. With kids, you don't say, "Don't be silly, the monster doesn't exist." What you do is show them how to defeat it—which is something you don't grasp had you never faced a monster in a story. The monster is always defeated in my stories, if you notice.

What do you like to read?

Horror is my favorite reading material. I love Stephen King. My first book I read of his is Salem's Lot, and I slept with the lights on after that. I was just a wreck. Next I read The Shining. But my favorite book in the whole wide world is To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it once a year just to touch base. It is also my favorite movie. Gregory Peck just became Atticus Finch to me.

It's amusing that your husband and collaborator worked many years as an engineer.

Frederick is one step from genius. What drew me to him is his love of words, and voice, and stories. He used to read poetry to me. He loved words and wasn't embarassed about it. Engineering was something he did to make a good living. He comes from a family where his grandfather was the first licensed black architect in Tennessee, and his grandfather and uncle helped build Tuskegee Air Base in World War II—though they had to go up the grain elevator to get their pay.

What was your favorite book as a child?

There weren't too many children's books that showed me in it, okay? I didn't have a favorite. My child could walk with a book under his arm and it would have a little boy that looked like him, but not in my day.

Did you like to read?

I was almost an encyclopedia reader, the kind people say, "She would read the back of a cereal box." But I wanted real information, stories about people that exist. And mythology! My grandfather was a functional illiterate; he could neither read nor write. He had a Bible, a King James Bible, and a Bullfinch's Mythology, the gigantic one. I don't know where he got it. Imagine little-bit-of-something me carrying that book. If you look at my work very carefully, as some people have, and then told me—because I didn't see it myself—the St. James Bible and Bullfinch's Mythology inform my work.