Patricia MacLachlan, who has died at the age of 84, was the author of more than 60 children’s novels and picture books, including Sarah, Plain and Tall (1985). This novella for young readers has sold over 7 million copies and garnered an impressive list of awards.
The story is set on a poor farm in the prairie and told in the first person by Anna, a 10-year-old girl, the caretaker of her brother Caleb, whose mother died giving birth to him. She records the arrival of the eponymous Sarah, to take care of the family. Drawing heavily on nature, particularly spring and its regenerative qualities, Sarah, Plain and Tall is a vivid story of great intensity, despite little overt drama. It embodies MacLachlan’s ability to weave a powerful narrative around family interactions that creates a fully realized picture despite being restrained and briefly told.
Sarah, Plain and Tall moved readers around the world. In 1991 it was made into a TV movie starring near glenn as Sarah, for whom MacLachlan wrote the screenplay. Later, he added four more titles about the same family growing up.
Although not strictly autobiographical, MacLachlan’s stories drew heavily on realistic and insightful observations of family life, which he conveyed with a gentle, humorous eye and a simple clarity that gave the stories a luminous quality. Writing largely realistic stories, whether as picture books or novellas, he had a gift for telling stories with great impact in a way that was also understated in style and length.
An only child, Patricia was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her parents, Madonna (née Moss) and Philo Pritzkau, were from Kansas and North Dakota, respectively. They felt connected to a way of life shaped by the prairie, and her father was also proud of her Russian heritage. Following her father’s promotions into the teaching profession, the family moved east, where he became a professor of education at the University of Connecticut; her mother was an English teacher.
From then on, Patricia stayed in New England, but she carried a bag of prairie dust with her wherever she went. That sense of place was a constant theme in her books and, both from her own experience and from her conversations with many children, she never lost the belief that what you knew first was critically important. She maintained a deep connection to her childhood and, apart from school, described her as happy. She had loving parents who introduced her to books and music, she created an imaginary friend, and became an accomplished pianist and cellist.
Patricia went to high school in Windham, New Hampshire, and studied English education at the University of Connecticut. Believing that her life experience was of equal importance to study, she briefly dropped out of her course and took a job at a publishing house in New York. The choice of publication was a coincidence: after a lousy English lesson at school and the teacher’s devastating comment on her work, she had written in her diary when she was eight years old: “I will try to not be a writer.
She graduated in 1962 and married Robert MacLachlan, a clinical psychologist, that same year. Upon graduation, she taught English at an elementary school in Manchester, Connecticut, for a year, but it was not an experience she particularly enjoyed.
After the birth of her three children, she stayed home while also volunteering, even serving on the board of directors of a children’s social service organization that helped troubled families. These later years provided much inspiration for her writing, as she took notes on everything she saw about family behavior. Later, writing about her work, she stated that most of her stories began with a character and that many of them came from these years. Her parents, husband, children and her friends appear in her books.
MacLachlan’s career writing picture books took off quickly. The Sick Day (1979) and Through Grandpa’s Eyes (1980) were published almost simultaneously. Other titles followed in quick succession and MacLachlan’s reputation grew rapidly in the years that followed. It was affirmed when Sarah, Plain and Tall won the Newbery Medal and the Scott O’Dell Prize for Historical Fiction, and MacLachlan went on to write several picture books with his daughter, Emily.
Her husband died in 2015. She is survived by Emily, two children, John and Jamison, and six grandchildren.