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Transcript from an interview with Patricia and Frederick McKissack

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Patricia and Frederick McKissack. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Patricia and Frederick McKissack

No shortage of ideas

Patricia: We get our ideas for our books from many different places — from childhood experiences…when our children were growing up, we have incidents that happened that have given us ideas for books like Messy Bessie. We have the idea that comes out of history — our own lived history plus the history of the past.

So we get them from just comments sometimes, just overhear a comment and say, "Oh, wow! That sounds like a good book." You know, tell the truth no matter how much it hurts other people and out of that came the honest to goodness truth, so books come from all kinds of places.

Frederick: I guess we have said over and over that ideas are two different natures. One is the instant idea that just seems to come to you and it really doesn't take any time whatsoever. And the other type of idea is one that you work on and work on and work on.

Patricia: We've even named them — the Athenian idea that kind of pops right into your head like the birth of Athena, and the mustard seed idea that kind of grows slowly over time and over a period. So, out of our ideas has even come stories.

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Collaboration

Patricia: Well, really what most people want to know is, do we fight? Our collaborative work is truly a collaboration. Fred doesn't have to send me a memo; he knows what is needed and gets the work done for the research and the gathering of material. And then I take it and do a rough draft, leaving gaping holes where I think information ought to be.

And then he comes back in and fills that in, and we read it and recycle and read it and recycle until we finally get it to where we're both satisfied with it.

Frederick: Well I guess said simply, we talk a lot. And when we-re not talking, we, you know, just out observing the world as it is.

Patricia: When we've worked and we hit a rough spot, we'll just go take a drive up in the country or… We live on the Mississippi River. And we drive along Highway 3, which is along the river and we don't talk; we just observe and watch and rest the mind.

And you'd be surprised that on the way back from that trip, we're talking non-stop about how to solve a problem that we've run into or whatever. But we work together at home, in our office. Fred has his desk and his work and I have mine. And we're not attached at the hip, although we work very, very closely together.

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Fixing Flossie

Patricia: I'll go back to the very first picture book, Flossie and the Fox. I wrote it and Fred said, "You know, it's okay, but there's something not quite right about it."

And I said, "Well, what is it? I had the fox, Flossie, get all the way through the woods with her basket of eggs, by tricking the fox. When they got through the woods, the fox was confronted by a dog. And the dog chased the fox and that was the end of the story. And I have reduced him to crying and the fox has fallen completely apart in the story."

And Fred said, "You need to look at that." And I go, "Well, I think it's fine." And he said, "It is fine, but there's a little more than something missing to me." And he said, "As a young reader, I think that you need to look at who will be reading this and what you're really trying to say. I don't know what it is myself, but something's not right."

We went for our drive and we didn't say anything to each other about it — just drove along. And coming back, I said, "I got it. I know what it is, Fred. I've got to give fox back his foxhood!" So if you'll go the last page of Flossie and the Fox, it says, "Mr. J.W. McCutchen's hound dog is right behind you and by the way it's looking, it's all over for you." That's the way I ended it the first time.

When I went home, I worked on it and it ends, "Yes, the hound dog knows who I am because I've been outrunning and outsmarting him for years. Like I told you, I am the fox. And Flossie said, "Oh, I know." And she turned toward Miss Viola with the basket of eggs, safely tucker under her arm."

So he couldn't tell me exactly what it was, but he made me think and re-think the end of that story. I had destroyed fox. Was that the intent? No, it was to get through the woods safely with her basket of eggs. And she used her wits to do it; she didn't beat him over the head; she didn't shoot him.

She didn't maim him and, you know, hang him out to dry. She tricked him and got through the woods. And then when she was safe and her eggs were safe, she gave him back his foxhood and he could be imperial. I am the fox!

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Playing favorites

Frederick: One of the good things about Flossie and the Fox was that it kept us going early in the book sort of business. But it was very rough those days, you know…not much money, a lot of time going out, but not much money coming in. But Time magazine said of Flossie and the Fox…it was a story they'd never heard before.

And in a sense, it encouraged us and it also won an award in London, the Booktrust, and the award was simply to sit in the library for a year… and that was it. But we don't think we've ever produced a better book.

Patricia: No, Flossie and the Fox is one of my favorite books that I've written. Now that's like really asking, "Which one of my kids I love the most," when people ask, "What is your favorite book?" I've got three sons, four grandsons, so I'm very careful about saying which one is favorite. I don't have a favorite. I love them all equally.

And our books are pretty much like that, too. They were all out of me…a part of me…a part of us…a part of our labors…so you have an affection for all of them. But Flossie…she was my first daughter. We always say I had my sons and I also created my daughters.

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Fiction vs. non-fiction

Patricia: The reason why I will write a historical fiction piece is because I can't put all of the facts together to make the story non-fiction, so I'll fictionalize that part that I'm unable to make all the hinges fit.

I'll use Runaway Home as an example of how I used non-fiction material to create a fictional book and why it is realistic. We believe, in our family, that an ancestor of ours is an Apache Indian. The part of Alabama that my family lived in is right at Pensacola, where Alabama and Florida and Georgia come together. The train tracks went right through there.

The Crossley's found and raised an Indian, they said, and his name was Abraham. They never said who or where he came from, but that he was found — this is the story. Well, I have visited all over everywhere trying to… find out if there's any documentation where he might have come from.

We were unable to find anything, but in the process, I learned an awful lot about the Apache Indians. So I wrote a non-fiction book about the Apaches in the True Book Series. And then I wrote a historical fiction book about my ancestor and I called it Runaway Home and I used all the information that I had learned about the removal of the Apaches from the Southwest into Pensacola, Florida, and how they did put the kids… Some of the kids would runaway from the train when they would stop to allow the men and women to relieve themselves.

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Hot on the trail of a story

Frederick: For the one reason or other, we found ourselves at Nantucket and as we got off the boat in Nantucket, I never will forget it. Ray Charles was singing and we went to the museum. That's just, you know, that's how crazy things are. And the first picture when we got to the museum was of a black naval captain of a whaling ship.

And we just liked the fellow, which of all the things that, you know, you have to do…to run your boat around in the Atlantic Ocean and get back — that's quite complicated. And here I guess in the 16th century, maybe the 16th century, is an African-American who was a captain of a naval ship.

Well this doesn't fit with the facts that we had been given! Not at all, so we got interested in whaling and from there, we found out that African-Americans had been in whaling, I guess since the 1700s. And in the later days of the industry, they comprised 90 percent of it that.

Patricia: Yeah, and it took us all over looking for them. We went to Seattle. We went to Monterey to the Maritime Museum there — down to Barbados. We just went wherever we could find…because there wasn't that much written about it, so we had to do original research, which means you have to go to the places and actually dig it up and find it yourself.

So we did that, but we were so proud of the outcome of that book, which was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, and I'm very proud of that. We also learned that these whaling ships were the…Underground Railroad was not a railroad or a train, but a ship.

Frederick: But a ship.

Patricia: And that they were the ones that did a lot of the runs with slaves down in the barrels and in the holds of those ships. So that was good to find out, too.

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Start filling a gap

Patricia: When I started writing a number of years ago, there were very few books for, by and about the African-American experience for children in picture books, beginning readers, novels, fiction or non-fiction: Virginia Hamilton, who was my mentor and… quite helpful; Jim Haskins, who had almost single-handedly documented the stories of African-American musicians; and Walter Dean Myers, whose juvenile novels brought young boys to reading.

So there were some African-American writers out there, but they alone could not represent all the stories that should be told — needed to be told. So when we entered the scene, what we tried to do was to fill a niche.

And our niche was that time period between 1800 and 1900 — that's pre-Civil War, Civil War, post-Civil War, up through and until the Harlem Renaissance. And we just carved that out as our niche and we worked very, very hard to try to tell that story. And I hope that what we've done is to make our history a little bit clearer — something that doesn't make the children feel ashamed or hurt.

It is not designed to point a finger or to make some child in a classroom feel responsible for all that happened back then, but we can't shovel it under the rug and say that those things did not happen — they did. But let's tell it by telling an even-handed, well-researched, well-documented story and that's what we tried to do in Days of Jubilee, Rebels Against Slavery, and Goin' Someplace Special. And even the whale men, White Hands, Black…I mean, Black Hands, White Sails.

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Writing for children

Patricia: Writing for children is… I feel it's as though it's a special trust that has been given to us and that we must protect and guard it diligently; we just don't put anything in a book for young readers.

It did not come to us easy as writers because writing for children doesn't mean you write like a seventh grader; you write for the seventh grader and you have to think like they think, to a degree, but then you have to write like a professional who's writing for children.

And so very often, that was one of the pitfalls that we found is that we got a little bit too chatty or, you know, it was cute, but you don't want to be cute in a book because it will date. You can't use too much slang…all of that. So we had to learn how to write in a professional way so that the quality of your book holds true all the way through.

I remember there was a teacher who wrote a story about the children being afraid of the monster in the computer room. And the teacher said to her — she was working on her master's degree and she wrote about this horrible computer room.

This is when computers were relatively new. And the teacher said, "No, you're afraid of the computer room and the monster in there; not your children. Your children don't see it as a monster; you do." So you've got to start your stories where your kids are — not where you are — but where your kids are and then you go on and tell the stories.

That's why Walter Dean Myers is so successful. That's why so many of our writers today who are at the top of the charts because they start where the kids are and then go from there, okay and they know where their heads are and what they're thinking about, but that doesn't mean they condone or whatever, but it means they start where their interest, where their interest starts.

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Einstein's theory of storytelling

Frederick: Most people that we have been around don't really understand what the power of story is and I think it's best illustrated again by an Einstein paper. He was asked…one of those great questions, "What should mankind be doing now that will benefit him in the future, him or her, whoever mankind might be?"

He answered, "Read stories to the children." So the person interviewing didn't quite understand that. They wanted to move on and he said, Mr. Einstein, what else do you think we should be doing?" He said, "Read more stories to your children." And I don't think he ever got it. But the power of story is just beyond, you know, beyond the idea.

Patricia: It prepares children for making adult decisions and developing their problem solving skills. Without story you're not connected to anything. I mean, think of yourself as being the Little Red Hen. You've been there. You've done all the work for the committee and then they show up for the photo-op.

Well that's the Little Red Hen — of course it is! The Boy Who Cried Wolf…we know that story and we've seen it acted out in life and we react and respond to those situations based on what we were taught in those stories. And so we needed to tell…you have to tell old stories so that we don't lose the connection. And we have to tell new stories. We have to meet children where they are with new stories.

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An excerpt from Goin' Someplace Special

Patricia: This book, Going Someplace Special, which was illustrated by Jerry Pinckney, is autobiographical. It's about when I was growing up in Nashville, and my grandmother and I used to go to a very special place once a week. And to get there we had to go through town and we rode the bus and came back around.

Now this is the South, the Nashville of the segregated South. That was the time when Nashville was segregated based on racial lines. There was so many places that blacks could not go and they had to ride the back of the bus. So when I started out begging my grandmother to let me go downtown by myself, she always said, "No, you have to go with me," because they didn't want us to be hurt by those circumstances.

They kind of buffered it with us and so I was not allowed to go, but then one time I asked if I could go and she said, "Okay. I'm going to let you go this one time, but you walk and hold your head up and act like you belong to somebody." Well, that meant that, you know, I was to behave and that I was to hold my head up and be on my proper behavior.

So when I got on the bus, I had to get on the back of the bus. When I got to Peace Fountain, I couldn't sit on the park bench there. I was so disappointed when I went past and looked at the hotel and I would have loved to have gone in, but I couldn't. I couldn't go to the restaurant.

So I was just, you know, discouraged, and so I met a woman there who used to take care of the gardens. She didn't do it by permission or for money; she just did it because she was there. We used to call her Blooming Mary. And she kind of encouraged me to keep going no matter what. She kind of repeated what my grandmother said. So I'll pick up the story at that point.

Two blocks later, 'Tricia Ann came to the Grand Music Palace where a group had gathered for the matinee performance. As the girl approached, a little boy spoke to her, "Howdy! I'm Hickey and I'm six years old today. You coming in?"

Before 'Tricia Ann could answer, an older girl grabbed his hand. "Hush boy," she said through clenched teeth. "Colored people can't come in the front door. They got to go round back and sit up in the buzzard's roost, don't you know nothing?" his sister whispered harshly.

Hickey looked at 'Tricia Ann with wide wondering eyes. "Are you going to sit up there… in the last three rows of the balcony? Well, I wouldn't sit up there even if watermelons bloomed in January. Besides, I'm going to someplace very, very special," she answered. And then 'Tricia Ann asked him to wait.

"I want to go where she's going," she heard Hickey say, as his sister pulled him through the door. At the corner, 'Tricia Ann saw a building rising above all that surrounded it, looking proud in the summer sun. It was much more then bricks and stone; it was an idea.

Mama Frances called it a doorway to freedom. When she looked at it she didn't feel angry or hurt or embarrassed. At last, 'Tricia Ann whispered, "I've made it to someplace special." Before bounding up the steps and through the front door, she stopped to look up at the message chiseled in stone across the front face — public library, all are welcome. Someplace special. And I've always said those who would have objected to the library being de-segregated didn't use it that much anyway.

This is a very special book for me. I didn't want any anger in it. I didn't want anything to show in it that would be negative. This can be anybody's special place. I get letters from people who say the library is a safe place for them or that the library was a cool or a warm place for them, that the library was a place where they went and experienced the magic and wonder of going to other lands and seeing other places and experiencing things that were different.

So…for me, it was the doorway to freedom, to free thought when you're being told, "You can't, you can't, you can't, you can't." The library said, "You can, you can, you can, you can," and I did!

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"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book." — Coolio