Children’s author Patricia MacLachlan dies aged 84

WILLIAMSBURG — Renowned local author Patricia MacLachlan, who wrote the acclaimed children’s book “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” died at her home in Williamsburg on March 31. She was 84 years old.

“She was always true to herself,” said her son John MacLachlan of Williamsburg. “She never forgot where she came from.”

MacLachlan is the author of over 60 children’s books, which have sold millions of copies, including “Sarah, Plain and Tall” which has sold over 7 million.

Perhaps his most famous work, it tells the story of a farmer whose wife dies in childbirth and who sends a mail-order bride from Maine to live with him and his two children in the West.

The book won the John Newbery Medal in 1986 and was later adapted into a 1991 TV movie, starring Christopher Walken and Glenn Close, for which MacLachlan co-wrote the screenplay.

“It’s like the prairie,” John MacLachlan said of the book.

“There’s not a single extra word” in his mother’s books, he said, noting that she said the delete key was her favorite key.

John MacLachlan said his mother was writing in her last week of life.

He also shared how his mother wrote “Sarah, Plain and Tall” as a way to preserve the memories of his grandmother, who was losing them at the time. He said his grandmother actually knew a mail-order bride from Maine and years later found out Sarah’s real name was Ella – something he found out after naming his first child so.

“What are the chances?” he said.

Like her brother, Jamison MacLachlan, from Plymouth, said her mother had stayed true to herself, noting she would talk to anyone and everyone.

“You would never know she was a famous author,” he said. “She would talk to the President of the United States much the same way she would talk to her grandchildren.”

He said people were drawn to his mother and that she sometimes embarrassed her children and delighted her grandchildren with her comments.

“She was able to live the way she liked,” Jamison MacLachlan said. “She adored her children and grandchildren.”

MacLachlan’s husband of over 50 years, Robert MacLachlan, died in 2015. She is survived by John MacLachlan, Jamison MacLachlan, her daughter Emily Charest and six grandchildren.

house on the prairie

Although she was a lifelong resident of western Massachusetts, MacLachlan spent her early years in Wyoming and felt a lifelong connection to that part of the country.

“I carry a little bag of prairie soil to remind me of where I started – the prairie I miss and still dream about,” she said in an interview posted on the Two Writing Teachers website. “It’s kind of like a charm from my childhood. I had a wonderful childhood with wonderful parents who were storytellers and educators. They loved and respected children. So my little prairie bag reminds me of them too.

John MacLachlan said his mother had two bags of prairie soil, one of which was given to her by her friend and fellow writer Leslea Newman of Holyoke.

Newman said she got the dirt at MacLachlan’s request and did it in heels with a spoon. She also said MacLachlan was thrilled to receive the gift.

“It was worth running into my stocking,” she said.

John MacLachlan said his mother brought a bag of prairie soil with her when she visited schools and the children would love it. She also brought her Newbery medal and let the children pass it.

John MacLachlan recounted that at one point his mother lost her medal and speculated that she lost it at a school.

“They issued him another one,” John MacLachlan said. “Then, later, she found him at her house.”

Rochelle Wildfong, assistant principal and children’s librarian at Meekins Library, had known MacLachlan for more than 30 years.

“It’s a great loss for this city,” Wildfong said.

Wildfong said MacLachlan was funny and would “always make people laugh”.

She also praised her as an author, saying that “she really wrote in a way that children could deepen her work.”

“She didn’t talk to the kids,” Wildfong said. “She spoke to them.”

It also aligns with sentiments that MacLachlan herself expressed when she spoke out against moralizing in children’s books.

“Among some writers there’s this horrible idea that you have to teach children lessons,” she once told the Orange County Register. “It’s condescending and incorrect. This is not the purpose of writing. You write to know what you think, to know what you feel.

John MacLachlan said that in some ways his mother thought children were smarter than adults, and that in many of her books children are wiser than adults.

“She had great respect for children and the inherent wisdom of children,” he said.

He said his mother liked to go to the center of Williamsburg to do her business, visit the market, the bank, the post office and the library. He also said that when macular degeneration left her unable to drive, she was saddened that she couldn’t get as much downtown.

“She loved to drive,” he said.

He also testified to his mother’s sense of humor, salty wit, and the way she swore comically while driving the car.

“She didn’t use common profanity,” he said.

Wildfong cited “Sarah, Plain and Tall” along with “Three Names” and “What You Know First” as her favorite MacLachlan books.

As for John MacLachlan, he said that some of his favorite books from his mother were ‘The Poet’s Dog’, ‘The Iridescence of Birds’ and ‘Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby’.

John MacLachlan’s late wife, Karen Zwick, did research for “The Iridescence of Birds,” which is about the famous painter Henri Matisse.

“Lala Salama,” meanwhile, was written after her mother visited her in Tanzania and met her eldest daughter for the first time.

“This book has great sentimental value to me,” he said. “It’s a beautiful book.”

Jamison MacLachlan has said that one of his favorite books is “Baby,” and not just because it’s dedicated to him.

“That one really always got me,” he said.

And he also cited “The Iridescence of Birds” as a favorite.

MacLachlan began her writing career in her 30s, and Wildfong said she was mentored by local author Jane Yolen, who helped her find an agent.

Before writing became a career, however, says John MacLachlan, she wrote stories to entertain her children.

“They were so good and they were so funny,” he said.

MacLachlan joined a writing group in 1977 whose members included Yolen, Newman, and Ann Turner.

“Patty had the heart of a leviathan,” Turner said of her friend. “There was room for everyone in there.”

She said that in the group they had heard almost every book written by MacLachlan. And she said MacLachlan was an intuitive writer who drew on her childhood to write.

“I think she was so in tune with the characters she created,” she said. “She wrote authentically for children.”

Turner also noted her friend’s kindness, wit, and profanity.

“She made us laugh,” said Turner, who also explained how she could also read material that would make people cry.

Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.

Bera Dunau can be reached at [email protected]

Lola R. McClure