Patricia MacLachlan Tells Family Tales

This author’s writing is sparse but beautiful, much like the landscape of her Wyoming homeland. In the Skylark series, which begins with Newbery Award-winner Sarah, Plain and Tall, we watch as a new family is formed and grows from people who were separated in their loneliness. Beyond the Skylark series, she has written many other picture books and novels for young people.

Patricia grew up as the only child of teacher parents Philo and Madonna Pritzkau. Born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on March 3, 1938, she and her parents moved to Minnesota when she was very young. Her small family was quite close. Although she had no brothers or sisters, for a playmate, she imagined herself a friend named Mary. Mary was so much a part of the family that a place had to be set at the table for her.

Not a Writer?

As a young girl, Patricia loved books and often acted out the parts in them with her parents playing supporting roles. She remembers that her mother told her to “read a book to find out who you are.” When she tried to write a story for an elementary school assignment, the results did not please her teacher. Discouraged, she set down in her diary: “I shall try not to be a writer.”Sarah, Plain and Tall

And, indeed, for a long time, she did not try to be a writer. Patricia grew up and attended college at the University of Connecticut. She graduated in 1962, the same year she married Robert MacLachlan, a clinical psychologist. For the next 16 years, she raised her family of three children and taught English at a junior high school. She also worked with foster mothers at a family service agency, an experience which eventually found its way into some of her writing.

Her Writing Career Begins

When she was 35, she wrote her first book—a picture book—entitled The Sick Day. It has a simple premise, but it is true to the basic importance of family love that permeates so much of her writing. The plot is nothing more and nothing less than that of a father caring for his child when she has a cold. Her next picture book, Through Grandpa’s Eyes, is a little more unusual. Though a grandfather is blind, he can teach his grandson to “see” the world as he does—through his other senses.

“It is more difficult to write a picture book than a novel. A good picture book is much like a poem: concise, rich, bare-boned, and multileveled. …When I want to stretch into greater self-indulgence, I write a novel.”
--Patricia MacLachlan

Soon she was writing those longer books. Her first novel, Arthur for the Very First Time, introduces a somewhat self-centered and sheltered city lad who comes to be stronger and more outwardly-focused as a result of a summer spent on his elderly aunt's and uncle’s farm. Again, Patricia takes what could have been a rather dull and mundane plot and mixes so much emotional truth into it that the reader is left with a greater understanding of the characters and himself.

An Award-Winning Writer!

Drawing on her own family’s history, Patricia MacLachlan created a homesteading family in her Newbery-winning book, Sarah, Plain and Tall. In 1910, mail-order bride Sarah worries that she will never be at home in Kansas with a husband who still grieves for his first wife and two shy step-children. This book appeals to readers because its characters are so emotionally true to life.Baby

Skylark, the second book in the series, finds the new family in serious trouble. Just after a joyous wedding for Jacob and Sarah, drought hits the prairie. Her husband, whose name is “written on the land,” wants to stick it out, but Sarah takes the children away to comfort and safety in her hometown in faraway Maine. The longings of family members for their homes and each other are extremely poignant and once again conveyed in spare yet lyrical language.

Caleb’s Story is told by Sarah’s young stepson, who discovers that an odd, old man is secretly living on the farm. With this story’s resolution, another lonely situation is resolved for the Whiting family.

Jacob and Sarah’s little daughter Cassie is worried when her parents are expecting yet another child. Her mother had promised her a gift More Perfect than the Moon, but will she still love her enough to keep that promise? Writing in a journal that once belonged to her brother Caleb helps Cassie work out her feelings towards the new baby.

In Grandfather’s Dance, Cassie faces the ordinary yet difficult changes that come about when her older sister Anna gets married and their grandfather’s health fails. Her family’s strength in togetherness in the face of joy and pain shines through once more in this final chapter in the Skylark series.

Through the years, Patricia MacLachlan has written many books and has also written the teleplays for Hallmark’s productions of the first three books in the Skylark series. In recent years, she has collaborated with her daughter, Emily, on several children’s books including Painting the Wind and Bittle, a picture book starring a new baby and a jealous dog and cat. Painting the Wind shows how artists visiting an island every summer use various techniques to show their very different ways of seeing the same things. Other mother-daughter book collaborations are Fiona Loves the Night and Once I Ate a Pie, a charming poetry/picture book about dogs.

In 2003, Patricia came to the White House to receive the National Humanities Medal for her body of work.  Her recent books include Barkus, Book 1, Just Dance, and Someone Like Me.

Fast Facts

Born: March 3, 1938
Education: University of Connecticut, B.A. (1962) 
Family: married Robert McLachlan in 1962; children: John, Jamie, and Emily.
Career: Writer and educator; middle school English teacher, 1963–79; Smith College, Northampton, MA, visiting lecturer, 1986–; writer. Lecturer; social worker; teacher of creative writing workshops for adults and children.
Selected Awards: Golden Kite Award for Fiction for Arthur for the Very First Time (1980) and Sarah, Plain and Tall (1985); ALA Notable Children’s Book Award for Unclaimed Treasures (1984); Newbery Medal and Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction for Children for Sarah, Plain and Tall (1985); National Endowment for the Humanities Medalist (2002)

More on the Web:

Kirkus Reviews: Mining Memories With Patricia MacLachlan (9/14/17) National Endowment for the Humanities Profile (2002)

Patricia MacLachlan (1938–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights

Q & A with Patricia MacLachlan

Through The Looking Glass Author/Illustrator Profiles: Patricia MacLachlan

CRRL cardholders can find additional research articles on this author online through the database Biography in Context.