Patricia McKissack and her husband, Fredrick, shared a “missionary zeal” to write books about black personalities “where there hadn’t been any before,” their son said. Credit John L. White/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via Associated Press

Patricia McKissack, who with her husband transformed a career crisis into a prolific literary partnership that produced scores of children’s books about black history and folklore, died on April 7 in Bridgeton, Mo. She was 72.

The cause was cardiorespiratory arrest, her son Fredrick L. McKissack Jr. said.

Ms. McKissack, who grew up in the segregated South and was the only black student in her sixth-grade class, wove the back-porch fables she remembered from childhood together with her own personal anecdotes (including a false accusation of thievery and a dinner at a whites-only restaurant) in fictional narratives.

She also championed black exemplars whom her husband, Fredrick, had exhaustively researched in biographies for young people of all races.

“We try to enlighten, to change attitudes, to set goals — to build bridges with books,” she once told Prof. Jessie Carney Smith of Fisk University in “Notable Black American Women,” a series of reference books she edited.

Fred Jr. said his parents had shared a “missionary zeal” to write books about black personalities “where there hadn’t been any before.”

“When children don’t see themselves in books, they aren’t motivated to read,” she told Professor Smith, who has written extensively about black heroes. “If children don’t read often they usually don’t read well. And soon that translates into failure. I don’t want that to happen, so I try to create characters children enjoy reading about.”

Her “Mirandy and Brother Wind” (1988) won a Caldecott honor for distinguished picture book, and “The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural” (1992) won another prestigious award, a Newbery honor, for an outstanding contribution to children’s literature. The couple’s books won nine Coretta Scott King Author and Honor awards.

Patricia McKissack wrote folkloric fiction, like “The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural” (1992), which won a Newbery honor. Credit Knopf Books for Young Readers

The New York Times Book Review called the couple’s “Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman?” (1992), about the 19th-century black abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, “arguably the best” biography of her for young readers. And it praised Ms. McKissack’s “refreshing candor” in a 1989 biography of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

“At first glance, it may seem the book is meant for an intelligent student in the middle grades,” the reviewer, Rosemary L. Bray, wrote. “But Patricia McKissack is excellent at conveying sophisticated themes and ideas, so that ‘Jesse Jackson: A Biography’ can be read with pleasure by both children and young adults.”

Ms. McKissack and her son Fred Jr., a writer, together wrote “Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love” (illustrated by Randy DuBurke and published in 2012), which The Times called a “gripping graphic novel.”

She was born Patricia L’Ann Carwell on Aug. 9, 1944, in Smyrna, Tenn. Her family moved to St. Louis when she was 3.

Her father, Robert, was successively an administrator of the city jail, convention center and airport. Her mother, the former Erma Petway, was a hospital admissions aide. She was raised in St. Louis and in Kirkwood, Tenn., and moved to Nashville after her parents divorced when she was in junior high school.

As a young girl, she had pen pals in three countries, wrote poetry and was a frequent visitor to her local library, which she later remembered as a lifesaver.

In addition to Fred Jr., she is survived by two other sons, John and Robert; a brother, Robert Carwell; a sister, Sarah Stuart, and five grandchildren.

The New York Times Book Review called the McKissacks’ book “Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman?” (1992), about the 19th-century black abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, “arguably the best” biography of her for young readers. Credit Scholastic

Ms. McKissack earned a master’s degree at Webster University in Missouri while teaching English to eighth graders and writing to college students. At the same time, she wrote radio scripts and freelance magazine articles. She was children’s book editor of Concordia Publishing House, an affiliate of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, from 1976 to 1981.

But in the early 1980s, the couple had a transformative conversation on a park bench. She was in tears because his contracting business was failing. He asked her what she would do if she could choose anything. Write books, she said.

“Let’s do it,” Mr. McKissack said, “and I’ll help you.”

He closed his business — temporarily, he thought — and they began a three-decade collaboration, working at almost identical desks in their home library.

Their first book together was a biography of her mother’s favorite poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, published a decade after she had been unable to find one for her students in the junior high school library. They wrote a dozen more.

Her latest book, published in January, was “Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!,” a celebration of childhood stories and songs. Another, “What Is Given From the Heart, Reaches the Heart,” is to be released in 2019.

In writing “Let’s Clap,” she told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she was struck that some of the same songs and stories that defined the civil rights movement of the 1960s still reverberate.

She wrote her hundred or more books, she said, “to tell a different story — one that has been marginalized by mainstream history; one that has been distorted, misrepresented or just plain forgotten,” and she urged other blacks to write more, too.

“Writing,” she said, “is a kind of freedom.”

Correction: April 14, 2017
An obituary on Thursday about the children’s-book author Patricia McKissack misspelled the given name of her husband, who was also her collaborator, and that of one of their sons. Her husband was Fredrick, not Frederick, as is the son named for him. The error was repeated in a picture caption.




Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam of New York State’s Court of Appeals in 2013. Credit Mike Groll/Associated Press

The last time someone heard from Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam apparently was on Tuesday when she called her chambers in the Graybar Building in Manhattan to say she wasn’t well and would not be coming in. At some point, she had left her apartment in Harlem, law enforcement officials said, departing without her wallet and cellphone, and locking the door behind her.

When Judge Abdus-Salaam — the first black woman to serve on New York State’s highest court — failed to appear at work on Wednesday, her assistant grew concerned and contacted her husband, who reported her missing, the law enforcement officials said. Then that afternoon, there was a terrible discovery: The judge’s body floating, fully clothed and with no apparent signs of trauma, in the Hudson River.

The unexpected death was shocking and saddening and even set off some suspicions among Judge Abdus-Salaam’s friends and colleagues, many of whom said she had given no indication that anyone — including herself — would want to do her harm.

In the hours after her body was found, the police said they were treating her death as a suicide. The judge, 65, had recently told friends and a doctor that she was suffering from stress. And tragedy had followed her closely: On Easter in 2012, her mother committed suicide at age 92, according to two law enforcement officials. Two years later, around the same holiday, her brother shot himself to death, the officials said.

But by Thursday afternoon, investigators had reached no clear conclusion, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing. The medical examiner’s office said that “the cause and manner of death were pending further studies”; police detectives were looking for surveillance video along her possible path to see if it revealed her movements, and whether or not it supported the theory that she had walked into the river.

“We’re all just shocked,” said Jonathan Lippman, a former chief judge of New York State who had served with her on the Court of Appeals. “No one has any idea what happened.”

Since 2013, Judge Abdus-Salaam had been one of seven judges on the high court. Before that, she served for about four years with the First Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, and for 15 years as a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan. She was previously a lawyer in the state attorney general’s office.

Judge Abdus-Salaam was known for her steadfast liberal voice, regularly siding with immigrants, the poor, and people with mental illnesses against established interests. She also leaned toward injured parties who brought claims of fraud or misconduct against wealthy corporations.

She was admired by her colleagues for her thoughtfulness, candor and finely crafted writing style. And she was not one to use her decisions as a soapbox even when they set precedents.

Judge Abdus-Salaam lived part time on 131st Street, on a block filled with brownstones that two or three decades ago was in dire straits. “My family was here during the Reagan crack era, and she was here when it was worse,” said Todd Milner, a 47-year-old filmmaker who has lived near the judge for more than 20 years. “That says a lot about her.”

Judge Abdus-Salaam in 2013 with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., left, and Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy, far right, after she was sworn in by New York’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman. Credit Hans Pennink/Associated Press

“For someone who had the type of power she was entrusted with, she was so humble,” Mr. Milner said.

Sean Johnson, who does maintenance for buildings on the block, still carries with him a two-year-old note from Judge Abdus-Salaam saying, “Thanks for keeping my property clean.”

Like Mr. Johnson, many of Judge Abdus-Salaam’s friends and colleagues said they could not believe that she had killed herself, and investigators have not produced a suicide note. Steve Younger, a lawyer who knew the judge for 15 years, said he spoke with her last week when he asked if she could give a speech to his bar association.

“She was totally upbeat, planning her summer vacation,” Mr. Younger recalled.

And yet, other close friends, like Marilyn Mobley, an official at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said that Judge Abdus-Salaam had a heavy caseload and was in demand as a speaker and may have had trouble handling the pressure.

“What she shared with me is she had been under a lot of stress recently and that she was having trouble sleeping,” said Dr. Mobley, who saw her friend for breakfast in New York two weeks ago. “The truth is she was accomplished, resilient and strong, and she had a breaking point like everyone else. I fear it got there.”

Judge Abdus-Salaam was a cancer survivor, two officials said, but was not currently under treatment. She had visited her doctor on Monday, one official said, and told the physician that she had been “stressed with the demands of work” and “not spending enough time with her husband.”

Raised in Washington as one of seven children in a poor family, Judge Abdus-Salaam earned her law degree at Columbia University in 1977. She was married three times, most recently eight months ago to Gregory Jacobs, an Episcopal pastor. She divided her time between Albany and Harlem, though Mr. Jacobs kept a separate residence in Newark. (Her name led to confusion about whether or not she was Muslim. Gary Spencer, a spokesman for the Court of Appeals, said she had told him that she was not.)

After law school, Judge Abdus-Salaam became a public defender in Brooklyn and then served as an assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Bureau of the state attorney general’s office. In one of her first cases, she won an anti-discrimination suit for more than 30 female New York City bus drivers who had been denied promotions.

Last summer, Judge Abdus-Salaam wrote an important decision, in the Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., that expanded the definition of what it means to be a parent. For 25 years, the court had held that the nonbiological parent in a same-sex couple had no standing to seek custody or visitation rights after a breakup.

But that, Judge Abdus-Salaam wrote, had become “unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.” In a tightly reasoned decision, she wrote that nonbiological parents did have standing to seek custody if they showed “by clear and convincing evidence that all parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together.”

In an interview in 2014 about black history, Judge Abdus-Salaam said that she had become interested in her family’s history as a young girl in public school and that her research had led her to discover that her great-grandfather was a slave in Virginia.


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One response to “IN REMEMBRANCE: 4-16-2017

  1. Barbara

    It’s very rare that Black women commit suicide. It seems that untreated mental illness ran in the Judge’s family. So sad.

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