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Patricia MacLachlan, acclaimed children’s writer and recipient of the prestigious Newbery Medal, died March 31 at the age of 84.
MacLachlan, born Patricia Marie Pritzkaum on March 3, 1938, wrote more than 60 books in a career that spanned more than four decades. Among his best-loved works is Sarah, Plain and Tall, a novel which won him the Newbery Medal in 1986, the highest honor in children’s literature. This story brings to life his lifelong love for the prairies (or rather his prairie). Indeed, MacLachlan was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and although her parents eventually moved the family to Minnesota, away from the prairie of her childhood, she carried it with her throughout her life, literally. In an interview with Two Writing Teachers, MacLachlan explained that she carried a small bag of prairie soil as a kind of amulet:
I carry a small bag of prairie soil to remind me of where I started – the prairie I miss and still dream about. It’s a bit like a charm from my childhood.
Her love of literature was instilled in her at an early age by her father, a philosophy teacher, and her mother, an English teacher who became a housewife. MacLachland once mentioned that her father made sure she “never forgot the connection between books and life”. The lesson lasted: in her Newbery acceptance speech, she wondered “What is magic – the literature or the life from which it grows?” She left that question unanswered, as she often did since she abhorred supposedly moralizing children’s books. On the contrary, she follows her mother’s advice to the letter: “It was my mother who pushed me to ‘read a book and find out who you are’” and she shows the same courtesy towards her readers.
MacLachlan earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Connecticut in 1962. That same year, she married Robert MacLachlan, with whom she had three children: John, Emily, and Jamison. The marriage lasted 53 years, until Robert’s death in 2015.
Originally employed by a family service agency, MacLachlan began writing once her children were in school. His first work, a picture book titled The Sick Day, was published in 1979. His first novel, Arthur, For the very first time soon followed in 1980. She continued to write and publish books until September 2021 when A Secret Shared was released.
His most famous work is undoubtedly Sarah, simple and tall, the first part of a series of 5 books on the Witting family. In this novel, young Anna and her baby brother Caleb are surprised but hopeful when their father Jacob announces that he has taken out an advertisement for a bride – and that a woman, Sarah, who describes herself as “simple and great,” replied. As Anna and Caleb come to know and love Sarah, they worry that she misses her beloved sea too much – and abandon them and their meadow in her favor. A short book, written in a measured, calm style, it’s full of beauty and truth: the kind of story that seems deceptively simple, but lingers longer after turning the last page. It was made into a TV movie in 1991, starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken. MacLachland co-wrote the screenplay.
While the aforementioned Newbery Medal is perhaps the best known, it’s not the only recognition MacLachlan has received during his 42-year career. She also received the 1985 Scott O’Dell Prize for Historical Fiction for Children, the 1981 and 1986 Golden Kite Award, and a 2002 National Humanities Medal, among others.
The outpouring of grief on social media since news broke of her death shows one thing: Patricia MacLachlan has touched many lives. This could already be seen in the large number of books sold (7 million for Sarah, simple and tall alone), but after reading one heartfelt tribute after another, I remember an anecdote she brought up in her Newbery acceptance speech.
These thoughts of immortality surfaced later that week when I was being interviewed. “What would you like to have written on your tombstone?” asked the interviewer. I leaned forward. “You mean I’m going to die?”
In the literal sense, yes. In the literary sense? No Madam. I don’t think you are.