Patricia MacLachlan obituary | Children and teenagers

Patricia MacLachlan, who has died aged 84, was the author of more than 60 novels and picture books for children, among them Sarah, Plain and Tall (1985). This short novel for young readers has sold around 7m copies and garnered an impressive list of awards.

The story is set on a poor farm on the prairie and told in the first person by 10-year-old Anna, carer 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 much on nature, particularly on spring and its regenerative qualities, Sarah, Plain and Tall is a vivid story of great intensity, despite having little obvious drama. It embodies MacLachlan’s ability to weave a powerful narrative around family interactions that creates a fully realized picture despite being restrained – and told briefly.

Sarah, Plain and Tall touched readers around the world. In 1991 it was turned into a TV movie starring Glenn Close as Sarah, for which MacLachlan wrote the screenplay. Subsequently she added four more titles about the same family growing up.

Sarah, Plain and Tall, the book that won Patricia MacLachlan a Newbery medal in 1986. Photograph: HarperCollins

Although not strictly autobiographical, MacLachlan’s stories were largely based on realistic and perceptive observations of family life, which she conveyed with a kind and humorous eye and a simple clarity that gave the stories a luminous quality. Writing largely realistic stories as either picture books or short novels, she was gifted at telling stories with a big impact in a way that was also spare stylistically and in length.

An only child, Patricia was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her parents, Madonna (nee 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 his Russian heritage. Following her father’s promotions in the teaching profession, the family moved eastwards, where he became an education professor at the University of Connecticut; her mother was an English teacher.

Thereafter Patricia remained in New England but 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 her belief that what you knew first was of critical importance. She retained a deep connection with her childhood and, school aside, described it as happy. She had loving parents who introduced her to books and music, she created an imaginary friend and she became an accomplished pianist and cellist.

Patricia went to Windham high school, New Hampshire, and studied English education at the University of Connecticut. Believing that life experience was of equal importance to study, she briefly dropped out of her course and took a job at a publishing company in New York. The choice of publishing was coincidental: following a dismal English lesson at school and the crushing comment on her work by the teacher, she had written in her diary as an eight-year-old: “I shall try not to be a writer.”

She graduated in 1962 and married Robert MacLachlan, a clinical psychologist, in the same year. On graduation she taught English at an elementary school in Manchester, Connecticut, for a year but it was not an experience she particularly enjoyed.

Following the birth of her three children she stayed at home while also volunteering, including serving on the board of a children’s social services organization that helped families in trouble. These years later provided much inspiration for her writing as she kept notes on all she saw of family behavior. Writing about her work she later claimed that most of her stories began with a character and that many of them came from these years. Her parents, husband, children and friends all make appearances in her books.

MacLachlan’s career writing picture books took off swiftly. 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 following years. It was affirmed when Sarah, Plain and Tall won the Newbery medal and the Scott O’Dell award for historical fiction, and MacLachlan went on to write several picture books with her daughter, Emily.

Her husband died in 2015. She is survived by Emily, two sons, John and Jamison, and six grandchildren.

Patricia MacLachlan, children’s author, born 3 March 1938; died 31 March 2022

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