Building Bridges to Black History

Husband-and-wife team writes for youngsters of all races, but celebrate African-American culture

CHILDREN'S book authors Patricia and Fredrick McKissack say they write to ``build bridges.''

``Building bridges with books has become almost like our trademark,'' Mrs. McKissack says. ``There are many bridges that lead to many different places - from people to people, child to adult, from one time period to this time period.''

The husband-and-wife team's latest book, ``Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters'' (Scholastic, 1994), takes readers back more than 135 years to a pre-Civil War Christmas. Using historically accurate stories, poems, songs, and recipes, the authors share the holiday traditions of both slave owners and slaves on a Virginia plantation. Earlier this month, ``Christmas in the Big House'' won one of the Coretta Scott King awards given annually by the American Library Association to outstanding children's books written or illustrated by African-Americans.

The McKissacks say they are not writing exclusively for a black audience, even though many of their books have African-American heroes or themes.

``We like to say that we write our books for all children but especially to give the black child something,'' Mr. McKissack says. In the early 1980s when the the couple left their jobs to write (she was a book editor and former teacher and he owned a contracting business), there were few children's books addressing black history and culture.

The McKissacks have now written more than 60 books ranging from a 27-word picture book to a classroom reference book on the civil rights movement and a series on ``Great African Americans.'' Meanwhile, they have urged other black authors to share their cultural history with young readers.

``There are many more African-American authors writing children's books today,'' Mrs. McKissack says. ``I'm encouraged, but I'd like to be encouraged some more. There's such a need for books about the African-American experience. These children don't know who they are. They don't know their heroes. We need to do something to provide stories where they can see their images.''

As a teacher, Mrs. McKissack recalls having students who did not want to read. ``What they were really saying was, `I don't have anything to read that interests me.' If you have a book that interests a child, even a nonreader will try to stumble through it.''

In their own books, the couple sets out to educate and entertain. ``I have a recurring nightmare that children will say they don't want to read another one of my books because they were bored,'' Mrs. McKissack says.

Yet entertainment is not the only goal. The McKissacks are meticulous about their research.

They spent two years researching ``Christmas in the Big House,'' making numerous trips to the South to visit restored plantations and historic sites. The couple culled information from diaries and books of the period as well as narratives taken from former slaves in the 1930s. Many incidents from the book are taken directly from these true stories.

``Christmas in the Big House,'' which is written for readers age

8 to 13, includes six pages of notes giving further background and historical information and a two-page bibliography. ``The reason that we put so much research into this and the footnotes in the back is to tell the kids we are not making this up,'' Mrs. McKissack says. ``We want them to know that this is as accurate as we could possibly make it.''

``One of the things that we have always held is that we don't want kids growing up 20 years later and saying that we lied to them,'' says Mr. McKissack, who often takes the lead on research while his wife writes the first drafts for their books. ``The most important thing you can do is give kids the best information that you have. Pat always says that the hardest thing for a teacher to do is unteach.''

When they decided to write a Christmas book based on slave and master traditions in 1859, the McKissacks knew they were tackling a sensitive subject. ``We're challenging some age-old stereotypes,'' Mrs. McKissack says.

For example, the notion of ``singing, happy slaves'' is dispelled by a scene late on Christmas night when the oldest daughter in ``the big house'' writes in her diary about the ``perfect day, ending with the sweet sound of a happy, contented slave singing a carol.'' The children in ``the quarters'' hear the same song but recognize it as a signal from their father who has made contact with a conductor on the Underground Railroad. The ``Big Times,'' as the slaves called the celebration week between Christmas and New Year's Day, were a popular time to escape since slaves would not be missed for several days, the book points out.

The authors hope their work sparks an interest in young readers to find out more about historical events that are often misunderstood or ignored. ``We don't look at our work as a completion but more as a start,'' Mr. McKissack says. ``That's where we are when it comes to African-American literature for children - we're just starting.''

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