National Humanities Medal
Books have filled the world of Patricia MacLachlan since she was a little girl growing up in Wyoming. As a child she and her father acted out the different stories she read. “Books became real to me,” says MacLachlan. “That’s how I grew up.”
It’s no wonder then that she grew up to become one of today’s most respected children’s authors, known for her award-winning book, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and many other treasured children’s stories.
MacLachlan loves writing for children because of their openness. “Children read with a certain belief and vision about finding themselves in literature,” she says. “Literature changes their lives. They have a sense of closeness with literature that speaks for them.
“And they feel they know me as a writer,” she says. “One child told me that from my picture on the book ‘I can look into the eyes of the person who wrote the story.’”
Sarah, Plain and Tall, published in 1985, is a simple narrative of two children and their widowed father living on the plains in the nineteenth century, waiting for the arrival of a mail-order bride from Maine. It has been praised for its clear-cut prose, wisdom, and gentle humor. The New York Times called it “the simplest of love stories expressed in the simplest of prose.” And the American Library Association (ALA) said it was, “a near perfect miniature novel that fulfills the ideal of different levels of meaning for children and adults.” It won the John Newbery Medal from the ALA and the 1985 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction for Children.
MacLachlan’s popularity and acclaim are not just for Sarah, Plain and Tall. She has won awards for many of her sixteen books, including the ALA Notable Children’s Book award in 1984 for Unclaimed Treasures. She followed up Sarah with The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, which appeared on the ALA’s 1988 list of notable children’s books.
Children and families are the subjects of most of MacLachlan’s stories, probably because that’s what MacLachlan knows best. She did not begin her writing career until age thirty-five, after her own three children were in school, and only after she had read as many children’s books as she could get hold of. She had also, earlier in her career, written a series of articles on adoption and foster care that deeply affected her. Her interest in families, however, stems from her own experiences. “I had an amazing growing-up and have a wonderful family now,” she says. When a child asked her what a family is, it reminded her of the importance of extended families and she wrote Journey, the story of a boy whose mother leaves him with his grandparents.
MacLachlan loves the comments she gets from her young readers, either in letters or during her visits to classrooms. “One child told me, ‘I don’t like any of your books that I’ve read so far. I’ll let you know when I do.’ Another told me Sarah, Plain and Tall is her second favorite book.”
Although she recognizes the immense effect television has on children today, she believes “they still do read.”
“My own children would have the television on, with a book on their laps,” she observes. “There’s something about a book--you can close it and open it a while later and it’s all still there.”