Patricia MacLachlan, author of 'Sarah, Plain and Tall,' dies at 84
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Patricia MacLachlan, author of 'Sarah, Plain and Tall,' dies at 84
A best-selling children’s book writer, she focused on family life and its difficulties, earning acclaim for her gentle, sparse prose.

by Annabelle Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Patricia MacLachlan, a celebrated author of children’s books, including the bestselling “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” about a young woman who moves to a pioneer homestead to join a widower and his children, died March 31 at her home in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. She was 84.

The death was confirmed by her son John, who declined to specify the cause.

Praised for its interiority and sparse, gentle prose, “Sarah, Plain and Tall” sold millions of copies and earned a Newbery Medal, the premier honor for children’s literature.

Set in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the book centers on the story of Jacob Witting, a farmer on the Wyoming prairie trying to raise his children after his wife has died in childbirth. A woman named Sarah Wheaton answers a newspaper ad to become his new wife and the mother to the family, and travels from her home in Maine to join them.

In a 1986 article about the author in The New York Times Book Review, Eden Ross Lipson called “Sarah, Plain and Tall” “accessible to early readers, perfect for reading aloud, poignant and affecting even to jaded teenagers and weary adults.” It was adapted into a 1991 television movie starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken.

MacLachlan told the Times that the book had been inspired by an event in her own family history. The story was to be a gift to her mother, she said, “who had met the real Sarah and who would shortly lose her memory of the past entirely” — a fate that to MacLachlan seemed “far worse than losing the present.”

MacLachlan’s career continued to flourish. She wrote four other installments in what became a “Sarah, Plain and Tall” series and dozens of other picture and chapter books.

Three more of her books will be published this year, her publisher, HarperCollins, announced.

MacLachlan’s work often focused on families and never shied away from difficult topics. “My Father’s Words,” published in 2018, followed siblings volunteering at an animal shelter in the wake of their father’s death.

“Though the premise might seem way too sad — or even a bit too obvious — MacLachlan turns it into something remarkable,” Catherine Hong wrote in the Times Book Review.

MacLachlan often said in interviews that she wrote with great respect for children’s abilities as readers and writers. And her writing style, accessible yet free of pandering, attracted many fans.

“I love their letters,” she told Publisher’s Weekly in 2010. “I saved one from a child, on my refrigerator, and it says, ‘Thank you for writing this book, it was the second greatest book I’ve ever read.’ I love that. And I always wonder what was the first greatest book this child ever read.”

In 2002, MacLachlan won the National Humanities Medal for her work.

Patricia Marie Pritzkau was born March 3, 1938, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her father, Philo Pritzkau, a native of North Dakota who had taught in Wyoming, was an education professor. Her mother, Madonna (Moss) Pritzkau, was an English teacher and homemaker.

The family moved to Minnesota and later to Storrs, Connecticut, where her father taught at the University of Connecticut and where Patricia attended high school.

As an only child, she told the Times in the 1986 article, ‘’looking back, I see that I write books about brothers and sisters, about what makes up a family, what works and what is nurturing.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Connecticut in 1962. She married Robert MacLachlan Jr., a psychologist, the same year. They were together until his death in 2015.

In her later career, MacLachlan wrote several picture books with her daughter, Emily MacLachlan Charest.

In addition to her son John, MacLachlan is survived by her daughter; another son, Jamison; and six grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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