TTLG Author/Illustrator Profiles
Although Patricia MacLachlan didn't officially put pen to paper until the age of thirty-five--after her three children were all in school--her Cheyenne, Wyoming, childhood was heavily populated with stories and storybook characters. Her parents, she writes, invited her into books. "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." Like Minna in her novel The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, Patricia MacLachlan also loved music, and lessons filled the agenda as well.
After spending a few years in Minnesota, she traveled to the East Coast to attend the University of Connecticut. She subsequently married psychologist Robert MacLachlan and had three children. From the very beginning her family has always come before anything else. For some time she also served on the board of a family agency, where her contributions included writing a series of journalistic pieces concerning adoption and foster mothers.
Clearly this concern for families and for children has shaped Patricia MacLachlan's writing career. One of her earliest books, Mama One, Mama Two, focuses on a foster mother. That interest, she has stated, combined with a strong commitment to literature for children, compelled her to begin writing children's books. In an article in The New York Times Book Review, MacLachlan comments that she writes "as a participant, to see what will happen. . . .I see that I write books about brothers and sisters, about what makes up a family, what works and what is nurturing." Before her first title, The Sick Day, appeared in 1979, she was voraciously reading thirty to forty children's books per week.
That first title appeared in 1977 and was followed by a number of other books in rapid succession--nearly one a year, in fact, and most of them do involve families in one way or another. They also, as she freely admits in an article for The Horn Book, frequently include autobiographical elements: "Like Cassie [in her novel Cassie Binegar] I spent hours in hidden places listening to conversations I was not meant to hear. . . .I do know . . .that Aunt Elda and Uncle Wrisby in Arthur, For the Very First time are my mother and father."
Then, in 1985 Harper & Row published what Booklist called "a near-perfect miniature novel" and what The New York Times termed "the simplest of love stories expressed in the simplest of prose." MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall, fifty-six pages of nearly flawless prose, is simple enough to be understood by younger readers and yet has also earned a large and devoted audience among older readers and adults.
In 1986 the book received the John Newbery Medal from the American Library Association. The title grew, as MacLachlan revealed in her Newbery acceptance speech, "out of the heroics of a common life"--the ideas emerging from an incident in her family's history and the impetus for writing the book coming from a trip that she, her husband, and her children took to the prairies where she had been born. The novel itself is set on the prairie during the nineteenth century, as a young girl describes how a mail-order bride from Maine came to live with her and her brother and widowed father. It is written in the same gentle, quietly touching and humorous style that characterizes MacLachlan's writing in general.
Sarah, Plain and Tall, perhaps not surprisingly, has captured numerous other awards and honors, among them the 1985 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction for Children, the 1986 Christopher Award, the 1986 Jefferson Cup Award of the Virginia Library Association, and the 1985 Golden Kite Award for fiction.
But her popularity and critical acclaim have scarcely been limited to Sarah, Plain and Tall. A string of awards and honors winds throughout the MacLachlan canon: Unclaimed Treasures was named both a 1984 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book for fiction and an ALA Notable Children's Book for 1984; Arthur, For the Very First Time earned a 1980 Golden Kite Award for fiction from the Society of Children's Book Writers along with a place on the 1980 ALA list of Notable Books. Through Grandpa's Eyes, a Reading Rainbow book, and Mama One, Mama Two both were named Notable Children's Trade Books in The Field of Social Studies by the National Council on the Social Studies and the Children's Book Council in their years of publication. The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt followed Sarah, Plain Tall chronologically, and, as a New York Times review points out, any book coming on the heels of a Newbery winner is bound to be compared with the earlier work. Yet this title survived the test with flying colors, receiving starred reviews and making an appearance on ALA's 1988 list of Notable Children's Books.