Great mom. Great writer. Great cultural warrior. Good card player.
These are just some of the qualities used to describe Webster University alumna and children’s author Patricia McKissack by her son Fredrick L. McKissack Jr.
Patricia collapsed at a restaurant where she was having dinner with Fredrick. She was pronounced dead from cardiorespiratory arrest April 7 at DePaul Hospital, according to Fredrick. She was 72.
Fredrick can remember one of the last conversations he had with his mother. They were talking about who could play her in a movie. The answer? Kerry Washington. He said the person who would direct the movie about their family would be Wes Anderson, known for his strange and surreal films.
“We were, I think for some people, this really weird, diverse family,” Fredrick said.
That family included Patricia, her husband and collaborator Fredrick McKissack, who died in 2013, and their three sons, Fredrick, John and Robert.
Patricia was best known for her career writing children’s books that centered around African-American history and folklore. For people like children’s author and close friend Steven Kellogg, she was an inspirational figure, someone with a wonderful sense of humor whose caring personality motivated everyone around her.
“She was a person of enormous integrity and very high principles,” Kellogg said.
Fredrick said his family was very active. They took hikes and held picnics on the weekends at the Shaw Arboretum in Gray Summit, and spent a lot of time at Forest Park, the Art Museum, the Planetarium and the Zoo.
Fredrick said his parents loved history, art, architecture, film, literature, film and mythology. Patricia loved Ernest Hemingway, and her last big trip was to Cuba, where Hemingway lived for 20 years.
Fredrick said it is hard to not mention his mother without mentioning his father. For him, it was always “Pat and Fred” or “mom and dad.” They did everything together, and Fredrick said what stood out about his parents was their willingness to help out their fellow writers and illustrators.
“They wanted to share whatever knowledge, contacts, good wishes, faith with any other writers, and any other illustrator,” Fredrick said.
Webster and beyond
Patricia received her master’s degree in early childhood literature and media programming from Webster in 1975. She stayed involved long after.
In 2005, Patricia received the College of Arts & Sciences Outstanding Alumna Award. In 2010, she was approached by School of Education (SOE) Dean Brenda Fyfe to serve on the school’s advisory board.
Fyfe became acquainted with Patricia and her husband’s work through children’s literature conferences about 20 years ago, where they would serve as keynotes speakers. Fyfe had opportunities to meet with Patricia at alumni events. Fyfe said it was during the period where Patricia served on the advisory board that she truly got to know her.
“She was just such a lovely, lovely person, as well as such an accomplished author of really important children’s literature in an area that was really lacking of any representation of African-American children in particular,” Fyfe said.
While on the advisory board, Fyfe said Patricia advised the board on concerns they had about attracting a more diverse student body and faculty. Patricia suggested that they not just reach out to schools, but church groups and African-American church leaders that had a strong influence on youth in the community.
The school sent around 60 invitations to different church leaders for advice on how they could encourage more youth to consider teaching as a profession.
After a couple of years of doing this, what followed was the inception of the SOE’s Middle School Summer Academy targeted toward youth from diverse communities. This academy brings youth onto campus where they are provided with different educational programs. They continue to do this today. Their most recent academy, in the summer of 2016, provided workshops and activities that focused in the areas of history, leadership and sustainability.
“Pat was the instigator of all of that, and she was right on,” Fyfe said.
In addition to joining the SOE’s advisory board, Patricia received an honorary degree from the university at the 2010 commencement.
Author for the ages
Patricia worked alongside her husband in her career as an author. Patricia did most of the writing while her husband did most of the research. She has published over 100 works in her career as an author and was honored with many awards.
Patricia served on the Board of Directors for the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA), a non-profit organization whose mission is to “educate, inform, and advocate for young people, literacy, literature and libraries,” according to the organization’s website.
NCBLA Executive Director and President Mary Brigid Barrett said Patricia taught her a lot about issues of diversity, something she brought to the organization as a whole by introducing them to new and diverse authors and stories.
“One of the things I always say about Pat is that she educated my ignorance without ever making me feel stupid,” Barrett said.
Elizabeth Harding is the vice president of Curtis Brown Ltd., a literary agency. She represented both Patricia and her husband since 2003. Harding said Patricia always wrote out of passion, truth and authenticity.
“She wrote from the heart, and that really shone through in all of her work,” Harding said.
Fredrick said he wants his mother to be remembered as a person who loved children, family and God, who embraced other cultures and different opinions and who raised awareness for diversity.
Fredrick said what the rest of the family learned the most from their parents is that with success comes an obligation to give back, not to get something in return but out of desire to help.
“Without our parents, the most honorable thing [we can do] is keep up that tradition,” Fredrick said.