Award-winning children’s book author Patricia MacLachlan, widely lauded for her spare, realistic stories about everyday family life, died on March 31 at her home in Williamsburg, Mass. She was 84.
MacLachlan was born March 3, 1938, in Cheyenne, Wyo., the only child of Philo and Madonna Pritzkau, both teachers. When Patricia was five, the family moved to Rochester, Minn., where they stayed until she finished elementary school. In her autobiography from Something About the Author, MacLachlan stated that the prairie landscape of those early years “has always been a powerful source in my life, fueling my mind and my imagination and giving me a sense of belonging to a particular place.” As an adult, she always carried a bag of prairie dirt with her. “It’s important to remember where I began,” she told PW in 2010.
MacLachlan recalled her parents as being “very liberal and very literate. There was no such thing as an ‘unsuitable’ or ‘banned’ book in our household,” she wrote. She became an avid reader, noting, “I measured my life in terms of when I read a particular book.” She also remembered a home filled with music, which she studied via piano and cello lessons.
As a girl, MacLachlan was fond of inventing characters of all sorts and was especially attached to a free-spirited imaginary friend. But it would still be some time before she felt compelled to commit any of her story ideas to paper.
In the 1950s MacLachlan had moved with her parents to Connecticut where her father was a professor in the English department at the University of Connecticut. MacLachlan earned a B.A. from the university in 1962, the same year she married Robert MacLachlan, a clinical psychologist, whom she had met as a student there. The couple would eventually have three children, John, Jamison, and Emily.
Upon graduating from college, MacLachlan followed in her parents’ footsteps and became an educator. She taught English at Bennett Junior High School in Manchester, Conn., from 1963 to 1979. During that time, MacLachlan also became involved with the Children’s Aid Family Service Agency, where she worked on publicity campaigns and interviewed foster mothers. When MacLachlan’s children got a bit older, she told SATA, “I felt the need to do something else. It dawned on me that what I really wanted to do was write.”
MacLachlan said that turning her attention to writing was “very scary,” but she promised herself she would change course if she didn’t get something published after a few years of trying. She found there were many stories to tell in mining the memories and experiences of her own life. Living in the western Berkshires during this period offered MacLachlan the opportunity to meet a number of other writers, including children’s author and writing instructor Jane Yolen, who introduced MacLachlan to her first literary agent (Craig Virden) and offered advice on where to submit manuscripts. In 1979, Pantheon published MacLachlan’s debut picture book, The Sick Day, about a girl whose father takes care of her when she has a cold. Two more picture books followed, then, MacLachlan—encouraged by her editor at Harper, Charlotte Zolotow—embarked on writing a novel. The result was Arthur, For the Very First Time (Harper & Row, 1980). Following a boy who spends the summer with his great-aunt and great-uncle, that book includes a character—mail-order bride Aunt Mag—who would prove the spark for MacLachlan’s best known and most critically acclaimed work, Sarah, Plain, and Tall (1985), about a woman who answers the newspaper ad of a widower seeking a new wife to help care for his two children.
Sarah, Plain and Tall earned MacLachlan the 1986 Newbery Medal as well as the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction that same year. The book served as a launching pad for four additional books about the central family, and the first three titles were adapted into a trio of movies starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, with MacLachlan penning the screenplays. Since publication, Sarah, Plain and Tall has sold more than seven million copies.
In all, MacLachlan created more than 60 titles for children, including several picture-book collaborations with her daughter Emily. Among her many accolades, she won the Christopher Award in 1986 and received the National Humanities Medal in 2002 for her contributions to children’s literature.
Author-illustrator Joanna Cotler, former publisher of Joanna Cotler Books at Harper, became MacLachlan’s editor following Charlotte Zolotow’s tenure. “Patty was one of a kind,” Cotler said. “From the moment I met her I was knocked out by her wit, her sharp intelligence, and her laugh-out-loud sense of humor. I had the very great privilege of working with her for 21 years on many of her extraordinary books, and each one was a gift. I feel so lucky to have known and loved her, and we’re all so lucky she leaves us her beautiful books.”
Katherine Tegen, v-p and publisher at Katherine Tegen Books, who took the reins from Cotler when she left the company in 2008, is MacLachlan’s current editor at HarperCollins. “Over the past 13 years, I worked on many books with Patty, and I will miss her salty wit and joyous enthusiasm,” she said. “She had a great respect for young people and a general respect for everyone she met; she was always generous, funny, and self-deprecating. So many people have told me that Sarah, Plain and Tall was an important book in their lives and to everyone who knew Patty, she was a continual source of wisdom and love.”
Neal Porter, v-p and publisher of Neal Porter Books at Holiday House, who published three books with MacLachlan, shared this tribute. “Patty always called me her favorite editor, but I suspect she probably said that to each of us who were fortunate enough to work with her. I think she was a bloody genius, and I don’t know anyone who took such utter pleasure in crafting a sentence. She was also deeply, uproariously funny, on the page and in person, and one sidelong glance from her would reduce me to a puddle. Her Iridescence of Birds, acquired over a glass of chardonnay and a purloined cigarette or two at an SCBWI conference, still gives me goosebumps with each rereading. Like all whose lives she touched, I will miss her desperately.”
Justin Chanda, senior v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, worked on 11 books with MacLachlan, including the forthcoming Snow Horses (Nov.). He offered this remembrance: “Patty was a brilliant writer, but what made her a genius was that she could express more in one sentence than most accomplish in a chapter or two. She wrote in an almost secret language that made children feel seen and made adults remember. Every word a gem. Being around her you always felt like you were catching up with your best friend and most wicked co-conspirator.”
And author Jane Yolen recalled her longtime friend and former writing student this way: “PattyMac, as we in the writing group often called her, was more than just a brilliant writer. She was a sort of Dorothy Parker figure—sharp and funny—crossed with an Emily Dickinson wordsmith. ‘I’m no poet, you know,’ she would say to us, when we were talking about a piece she just read to us, her own lines of the picture book putting the lie to such a statement. We watched her struggle with macular degeneration and marveled that even blind, she was writing more than any of us. She always had a new piece, or part of a new book for us to hear. She was finishing revisions on a new novel even as death crept up behind her.
Was she one of a kind? She was three of a kind, I think. I know no one else like her—soft and sharp, witty and snarky, and the most loving mom and grandmother in the world. In fact, the world has been mothered by her. Just read her books and you will know what I mean.”