BY RENN ELKINS’20
On Thursday, April 6, the Mount Holyoke College English department hosted the penultimate speaker in its children’s literature speaker series, Patricia MacLachlan, author of an impressive arsenal of both picture books and children’s novels, including the Newbery winner “Sarah, Plain and Tall” and its sequels.
MacLachlan opened her hour-long Q&A session by declaring that she would hold nothing back, “I’ll tell you all the terrible truths,” she said.
The first of these ‘terrible’ truths revealed was the fact that though she always loved to read, she never thought she would make a career out of writing. Even now, she says, “Sometimes I’m not sure, when I write a book, why I write it and where it came from.” Her stories are not only explorations of her imagination; almost all of them emerge from incidents in her life, particularly her childhood on the prairies of Wyoming. During her introduction, MacLachlan was quoted as having once said that “Your life slips sideways into your books.” Upon hearing herself quoted, her face lit up, and she exclaimed “That was a good line!”
MacLachlan’s childhood also contributed to her signature style of prose. She’s known for her straightforward, unembellished writing. When asked about this, she explained that her style is “the voice I grew up with. My cowboy uncles spoke like this, and they carried poetry books in the pockets of their jeans. You just can’t elaborate much while on the prairies.” Though simplicity is a part of the natural flow of MacLachlan’s language, she still cuts down a lot during the editing process, which, for her, consists mostly of deleting unnecessary words.
The other questions that guests asked MacLachlan were related to the variety of mediums that make up her collected works. In addition to her novels, she has written several picture books, and has worked with many different illustrators during this process. She explained that her stories will “tell” her early on which shape they’re bound to take, and that she hasn’t yet been wrong about what type of book suits a particular idea. As for comparing the two forms, MacLachlan said that “writing a picture book is the most satisfying thing on earth, and it is hard.” In novels, on the other hand, “you can swim around [and remain unsatisfied].”
That isn’t to say that she is at all averse to the challenge of writing picture books; rather, she loves giving herself “games” to play in her writing. For instance, her 2014 picture book “The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse” began when she dared herself one night to write an entire book in a single sentence. She did just that, but never expected to find a publisher. Yet, to her amazement, there was one who wanted the book. Upon publishing, the book received excellent reviews.
Almost all of MacLachlan’s responses throughout the session found their way back to nostalgic recollections about her childhood on the prairie. Her formative years were “one long bunch of paper” to which she consistently returns while writing her stories. She even carries a bag of prairie dirt wherever she goes, to ensure that she never forgets her origins.
Ultimately, the most important thing in Patricia MacLachlan’s writing is the magic of her childhood. “The blinder I get,” she said, referencing the severe loss of vision that she has suffered over the past few years, “the more I remember my childhood. I see it more clearly.”
As a children’s writer who draws heavily from her own childhood, MacLachlan has a special love for children. In them, she sees a special kind of wisdom, one which evades far too many adults. Her mission is to tap into that wisdom within herself, and to preserve it in others; “In most of my books, the children take power,” she explained, “and I feel like that’s really what I try to do.”