Patricia MacLachlan (see Patricia MacLachlan booklist) is an American author writing for the past thirty years and having produced nearly thirty books for young children (picture books) and independent readers. Her writing style is very direct, simple, personal and always touched with humor. She is best known for her Newbery Medal winning Sarah, Plain and Tall, from 1985 but all her books are enjoyable and several of them are easily the equal of that best known book.
I noted in the Featured Author essay of Dick King-Smith that one of his admirable attributes was that, as a parent, you can always be comfortable giving one of his books to your child, sight unseen, and feel confident that 1) they will like it, and 2) that there is nothing inappropriate in the story.
Patricia MacLachlan shares that attribute but hers is an even greater accomplishment in one respect. Whereas King-Smith writes of sweet animals, MacLachlan writes about families and often about some of the more troubling and poignant issues that a family can face. Across her oeuvre, her books deal with a mail order bride/potential stepmother, with new siblings, with handicaps (blindness), with depression, and with the loss of a child. I almost always abhor books around these topics. They are, I am sure, written with the best of intentions but the vast majority come across as trite, message-laden, wooden clunkers. These can be potentially useful in pressing circumstances; however, they are a message masquerading as a story.
MacLachlan's works are on a different plane entirely. She is a story-teller extraordinaire. You are absorbed by the rich characters she develops, you enter their lives and share their lives with them. You love some, laugh at or with others and get irritated by the personal traits of a few. Virtually every story I have read of hers, I have enjoyed but almost always there is a moment where your throat catches and your eyes well. Just plain, thoroughly satisfying, reads.
Her skill is particularly evident when you consider the brevity of the stories, she often packs a rich, well-imagined world into 80-120 brief pages. She has said that she first imagines the characters; lives with them for a while, sometimes a long while; then imagines the start of the book and starts writing; she then lets the nature of the characters drive the plot. She does not start with a map of the story and often, in the writing, has no idea how it will end.
This integrity, based on well-imagined characters, is another element of the success of her writing. Given some of the topics she writes about and their emotiveness, it would be easy to feel, in the hands of a lesser writer, as if you, the reader, were being emotionally manipulated. This is not the case with MacLachlan. While fundamentally an optimistic author, her stories often have loss and distress in them but these experiences arise from the circumstances of her characters - they are a natural unfolding of those circumstances and her simple direct style of writing strips away the histrionics of emotiveness and allows you to connect directly with the character, often giving you a painful jolt as you do so.
Different people have different preferences and while I acknowledge the quality and popularity of Sarah, Plain and Tall, my personal preference is for a couple of her picture books. All the Places to Love is a gem. It is told by a young boy who is living in anticipation of the arrival of a new sibling. He lives on a farm and tells the tale, as he has heard it, of his own birth. He relates his growing up and all the places around the farm and in the countryside that he has learned to love from his parents and grandparents. As he does, he anticipates how he will share these places with his new sister. The writing is exquisite, as are the illustrations. MacLachlan has been particularly blessed with wonderful illustrators of her books, particularly this one.
The other picture book that is near to my heart is What You Know First, the story of a young plains family preparing to leave the dry prairie for a better life. The young girl speaks of her love of the only home she has known. She knows that this is, perhaps, the "right" thing for the family to do but she cannot let go of her love of that which she has known first. As they depart, she takes with her a small bag of prairie dirt to keep with her always.
It is no surprise that farms and prairies show up with frequency in her writing. Patricia MacLachlan was born March 3rd, 1938 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her father was a school teacher of the one-room school house variety (he started teaching at nineteen). She was an only child and her early life was an emotionally secure and a surprisingly rich one. Given the nature of her father's job, there were always books around the house which she was encouraged to read. More than just access to books though, they were engaged with by herself and with her parents. "We read them, discussed them, reread them, and acted out the parts. I can still feel the goose bumps as I, in the fur of Peter Rabbit, fled from the garden and Mr. McGregor - played with great ferocity by my father - to the coat closet."
Aside from reading, she also played the cello and then later, the piano. While living in a world of books and loving them, she never aspired as a child to be a writer. In fact, the reverse. Having been assigned to write a story in school, she produced a tale that portended her future writing style - noted for its brevity and succinctness. This first effort amounted to a three sentence story and was not well received by her teacher and her diary entry concluded "I shall try not to be a writer."
The family moved from Wyoming to Minnesota where she spent the remainder of her childhood. She then moved East for college, graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1962. From 1963 to 1979 she was a junior high school teacher in western Massachusetts. She married a psychologist, Robert MacLachlan and they had three children. It was only when all three children were in school and becoming more independent that Patricia MacLachlan decided to do something more than her teaching and her work with the Children's Aid Family Service Agency (on whose board she sat for many years). "It dawned on me that what I really wanted to do was to write."
She attended a writing workshop instructed by children's author Jane Yolen (Featured Author July 13th, 2008), retained an agent and published her first picture book The Sick Day (1979), all in the space of a year. One of her first editors was another much-loved children's author, Charlotte Zolotow (Featured Author November 18th, 2007) who became one of her first advocates. After an initial spate of four books all published in 1979/1980 (The Sick Day; Arthur for the Very First Time; Moon, Star, Frogs, and Friends; and Through Grandpa's Eyes) she has settled down to a more measured pace of about a book a year.
Sarah, Plain and Tall arrived in 1985 and was immediately, and has remained, a big hit, winning the Newbery Medal. Based on a true event in MacLachlan's extended family's history, it tells the story, as told from the perspective of Anna, of a widowed plains farmer raising two children, Anna and Caleb. He runs an advertisement back east for a bride. Sarah, plain and tall, joins them on trial for a month. Young Caleb is immediately taken by this wise young woman but it takes awhile for Anna to come to the same realization. A charming story. MacLachlan had no intention to write further of this family. Yet the characters sat with her and eventually she wrote a further four stories, bringing the cycle to a close in 2006 with Grandfather's Dance. Unlike many series born of a foundation story, this sequence of books bears up well through the cycle.
Families, a sense of place, real characters dealing with real world situations but always with grace and charm - these are the hallmarks of MacLachlan's writings. The sustained high quality of her writing is quite astonishing and is reflected in the opinions of her held by other noted children's authors including Jane Yolen, Charlotte Zolotow and Natalie Babbitt, as well as by the fact that her stories have won most of the major children's literature awards such as the Newbery Medal, Golden Kite Award, the Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award, the Jefferson Cup Award, the Christopher Award, many ALA Notable Book mentions, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honors, etc. Yet a further testament is that fully 85% of her books published over the past thirty years are still in print, where 30% would be a more normal situation. Not bad for someone from the prairies that didn't want to be a writer, and didn't start till after she had raised a family.
All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Mike Wimmer Highly Recommended
What You Know First by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Barry Moser Highly Recommended
Through Grandpa's Eyes by Patricia MacLachlan Recommended
Fiona Loves the Night by Patricia MacLachlan and Emily Maclachlan Charest and illustrated by Amanda Shepherd Recommended
Three Names by Patricia MacLachlan Suggested
Bittle by Patricia MacLachlan and Emily Maclachlan and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino
Painting the Wind by Patricia MacLachlan and Emily Maclachlan and illustrated by Katy Schneider Suggested
Who Loves Me? by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Amanda Shepherd Suggested
Once I Ate A Pie by Patricia MacLachlan and Emily Maclachlan and illustrated by Katy Schneider Suggested
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan Highly Recommended
The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt by Patricia MacLachlan Recommended
Skylark by Patricia MacLachlan Recommended
Caleb's Story by Patricia MacLachlan Recommended
Grandfather's Dance by Patricia MacLachlan Recommended
Arthur for the Very First Time by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom Suggested
Cassie Binegar by Patricia MacLachlan Suggested
Seven Kisses in a Row by Patricia MacLachlan Suggested
Unclaimed Treasures by Patricia MacLachlan Suggested
Journey by Patricia MacLachlan Suggested
Baby by Patricia MacLachlan Suggested
More Perfect Than the Moon by Patricia MacLachlan Suggested
Edward's Eyes by Patricia MacLachlan Suggested
The Sick Day by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by William Pene Du Bois 1979
Arthur, for the Very First Time by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom 1980
Moon, Stars, Frogs, and Friends by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Tomie de Paola 1980
Through Grandpa's Eyes by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Deborah Ray 1980
Cassie Binegar by Patricia MacLachlan 1982
Tomorrow's Wizard by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Kathy Jacobi 1982
Mama One, Mama Two by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Ruth Lercher Bornstein 1982
Seven Kisses in a Row by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Maria Pia Marrella 1983
Unclaimed Treasures by Patricia MacLachlan 1984
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Marcia Sewall 1985
The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt by Patricia MacLachlan 1988
Journey by Patricia MacLachlan 1991
Three Names by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Alexander Pertzoff 1991
Baby by Patricia MacLachlan 1993
Skylark by Patricia MacLachlan 1994
All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Mike Wimmer 1994
What You Know First by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Barry Moser 1995
Caleb's Story by Patricia MacLachlan 2001
More Perfect Than the Moon by Patricia MacLachlan 2004
Blittle by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino 2004
Painting the Wind by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Katy Schneider 2005
Who Loves Me? by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Amanda Shepherd 2005
Once I Ate a Pie by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Katy Schneider 2006
Grandfather's Dance by Patricia MacLachlan 2006
Edward's Eyes by Patricia MacLachlan 2007
Fiona Loves the Night by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Amanda Shepherd 2007