Author of children’s picture books and novels for middle-grade readers, Patricia MacLachlan, frequently focuses her stories on the family. One of her most beloved tales, Sarah, Plain and Tall, focuses on a mail-order bride who profoundly influences two motherless pioneer children. With the exception of Tomorrow’s Wizard, a collection of fantastic tales, MacLachlan’s books have also been solidly grounded in realism. MacLachlan has also undertaken collaborations with her daughter. A recent picture biography offering from MacLachlan, The Iridescence of Birds, appeared on several 2014 Best of Children’s Book lists. It’s also my review book for tomorrow. Save the date: February 4!
Born in Wyoming, Patricia MacLachlan grew up feeling a strong connection to the wide-open prairie. “I carry around a little bag of prairie dirt with me, like a part of my past,” she tells Houghton-Mifflin. This love comes through strongly in her books such as the Sarah, Plain and Tall trilogy.
An only child, Patricia MacLachlan’s lack of siblings was offset by a strong relationship with her parents and an active imagination. Her parents were teachers and they encouraged her to read. In fact, reports Biography, her mother urged her to “read a book and find out who you are”. This is a line that MacLachlan repeats in Word After Word After Word, except she relates it to writing. Maclachlan read voraciously, sometimes discussing and acting out scenes in books with her parents. As she did so, she also at times reworked the plot.
During her childhood, reveals Biography, MacLachlan also found company in an imaginary friend. “who was real enough for me to insist that my parents set a place for her at the table.” One of her early memories is of her father, negotiating with Mary for the couch after dinner.
Despite her love of stories, MacLachlan didn’t write them as a child. She recalls for Biography a particular school assignment where she wrote a story on a three by five card: “My cats have names and seem happy. Often they play. The end.” Her teacher wasn’t impressed. This discouraged Maclachlan who wrote in her in my diary: “I shall try not to be a writer.” MacLachlan grew up being afraid of putting her own feelings and thoughts on paper.
Years later, as an adult of thirty-five, MacLachlan found the courage to write. Married with children of her own, she kept busy by working with foster mothers at a family services agency and spending time with her family. As her children grew older, she tells Biography that she felt a need to go to graduate school or to teach or something. “It dawned on me that what I really wanted to do was to write.” It helped that she now lived where there were many writers. Also, she took a course being taught by Jane Yolen on writing for children. According to Mackin, that was the beginning of MacLachlin’s writing career.
Although she found it scary being in the role of student again, trying to learn something entirely new, MacLachlan took a chance. She started her successful writing career by creating picture books. Her first, The Sick Day, details how a little girl with a cold is cared for by her father. Biography states that MacLachlan received praised for the simplicity and sensitivity she brought to her stories, especially her deft handling of unconventional subject matter. Encouraged by her editor, MacLachlan also started to write novels intended for a slightly older audience than her picture books.
When asked how she gets her ideas for writing, MacLachlan tells Houghton-Mifflin, “I do not think up topics. They tap me on the shoulder.” Characters, in particular, tap her quite often, and she begins to have conversations with them. “We talk in the car, we talk in the bathtub or in the shower. We talk sometimes when I’m in bed at night and the lights are off and I’m thinking.” From these dialogues with her characters, a story begins to take shape.
MacLachlan also often gleans elements of her stories from personal experience. Her first picture book, The Sick Day, recounts experiences that could happen in almost any family. As for Sarah, Plain and Tall, her mother told her about the real Sarah. She was a distant relative, who came from the coast of Maine to the prairie to become a wife and mother to a close family member. Shortly before two of her children were to leave for college, MacLachlan’s parents took the family on a trip to the prairie where both her parents and MacLachlan were born.
As for The Iridescence of Birds, MacLachlan wrote it to answer the question of: Why do artists paint what they do? Surprisingly, she also describes it to Mackin as a book that no publisher wanted. Apparently, when attending a writing conference, she talked with an editor whom she liked. He told her that his session had been about what he buys and why he buys it. Then he asked about her topic. MacLachlan shared that she had read her stuff that didn’t work and wouldn’t sell. He asked what she meant, she told him about The Iridescence of Birds, and…. she found a publisher.
I think the children often think they don’t have very exciting lives that are worth writing about. I just tell them that that’s what we write about—we make them more interesting by writing about them. We change our lives in our books in a way, and that’s the most exciting thing about writing about your own life. Kids get very excited when they hear that because they can change their own lives in their stories.
–Patricia MacLachlan, Biography