Award-winning author, poet, and playwright Joyce Carol Thomas, whose works largely focused on family and the African-American experience, died on August 13. She was 79.

Thomas was born on May 25, 1938 in the small town of Ponca City, Okla., where she lived until the age of 10. Her family then resettled in rural California where Thomas learned various farming chores and would work long summers harvesting crops alongside Mexican migrant workers from whom she learned to speak Spanish and developed a love of the language.

In 1966 she earned a B.A. in Spanish from San Jose State College (now University) and received a M.A. in education from Stanford University in 1967. She entered academia and taught French and Spanish, black studies, drama, and English at the college level at several institutions around the country throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. During that time she was raising her four children from two marriages that ended in divorce and was also writing plays and poetry for adults.

But Thomas embarked on a new career path in 1982 when Jean Feiwel, then editorial director of Avon Books for Young Readers, published her first young adult novel, Marked by Fire. The book was set in her Oklahoma hometown and followed the joys and tragedies of Abyssinia, a girl born in the cotton fields during a brush fire who has the gift of a beautiful singing voice. The book received critical praise and won the National Book Award in 1983. It was subsequently adapted into the 1987 Broadway gospel musical Abyssinia. A sequel to the novel, Bright Shadow, won the Coretta Scott King Award in 1984.

Thomas went on to write additional novels for adults and teens as well as a number of picture books that showcased her poetry. Her picture book collaborations with illustrator Floyd Cooper earned wide acclaim including a Coretta Scott King Award for Cooper in 2009 for The Blacker the Berry (HarperCollins, 2008) along with Thomas’s Coretta Scott King Honor for the text; a Coretta Scott King Honor for both author and illustrator for Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea (HarperCollins, 1993) and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for I Have Heard of a Land (HarperCollins, 1998). In all, Thomas created more than 30 books for children.

Jean Feiwel, now senior v-p and publisher of Feiwel and Friends, offered these words in an email note: “I was privileged to publish Joyce’s first novel, Marked by Fire,” she said. “She was a beautiful person and a beautiful writer. That novel won the National Book Award and set the course for Joyce’s brilliant career.”

And Thomas’s longtime publisher Joanna Cotler, former senior v-p and publisher at Joanna Cotler Books at HarperCollins Children’s Books, shared this remembrance: “Joyce Carol Thomas was a beautiful, generous and kind person, and a wonderful writer. I was extraordinarily lucky to know her, and so privileged to have published her outstanding work.”

Thomas is survived by her children and grandchildren.