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Patricia McKissack

1944-2017

In loving memory of
Patricia McKissack
1944-2017



By Rachel Kuebler, Editor


American storyteller, award-winning author, educator, historian, orator; civil right advocate; weaver of magic, spinner of tales; loving wife and mother…

Patricia McKissack (MA ’75), internationally acclaimed children’s book author, may be gone, but her stories will live on for generations to come.

As a teacher and editor of children’s books in the 1970s, McKissack embraced the opportunity to serve an unmet need in children’s literature and devoted her life to writing books for African-American children.

In collaboration with her beloved husband, Frederick, she went on to write more than 100 children’s books including original titles such as the “Messey Bessey” series and biographies of African-American icons Jesse Jackson, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth, to name a few. Her works have received distinguished honors including: five Coretta Scott King awards, a Newberry Honor, and two NAACP Image awards, among others.

As a proud alumna of Webster University, she remained close to her alma mater after earning her master’s degree in early childhood literature and media programming in 1975. She served on the School of Education’s advisory board and received the College of Arts & Sciences Outstanding Alumna Award in 2005. In 2010, she was granted an honorary degree, the Doctor of Letters, for her passionate commitment to childhood education and the art of literature.

“Pat was an amazing woman, whose legacy will live on through all of the books that are used daily in classrooms across the country,” said Brenda Fyfe, dean of the School of Education. “She was a true credit to Webster.”

In this interview for Reading Rockets, the McKissacks talk about finding inspiration for their writing and the power of reading to children.


Many people dream of becoming an author or screenwriter, but very few make their fantasy a reality. Writing is a crowded field, and it can be nearly impossible to make a name for yourself among all the competition. These four Webster alumnae, however, found a way to turn their words into lasting and fulfilling careers.

Betty Griesbaum Birney
Jan Greenberg
Jo A. Hiestand
Deborah M. Pratt

Betty Griesbaum Birney

Writing and producing commercials and trailers for Disney Studio would be the stuff of many writers’ dreams. It’s no wonder Betty Birney’s friends and family worried about her sanity when she left that sweet gig on a leap of faith.

It was the early 1980s. Cable was in its infancy, and Disney was preparing to launch its own channel. Birney was an aspiring scriptwriter, so she jumped at the chance to write for the new network even if it meant leaving her job (an outside production company, not Disney, ran the network). She also had to write on spec (speculating that the producers would like it), so she had no guarantee her scripts would ever air.

“Everybody thought I was crazy, but I felt I had to do it,” says Birney. “It’s what I wanted to do.”

Birney’s gamble paid off. One of her first projects, “Welcome to Pooh Corner,” aired on the network’s first day, and ended up having a 120-episode run. Birney wrote many of the scripts for that live-action show and for many other animated shows on the channel.

Although Birney loved the Mickey Mouse Club as a child growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, she didn’t think she’d someday work at Disney. And despite earning a Bachelor of Arts in English from Webster in 1969, she never dreamed she’d write hundreds of episodes of beloved cartoons.

Her career started in advertising copywriting in St. Louis and Chicago. “It was very ‘Mad Men’ back then,” she laughs. That led to a writing job in the advertising department at Disneyland and, eventually, writing for the Disney channel.

“When I wrote those shows, I found something I loved and was good at,” she says. “It became my niche.”

In fact, she spent two decades working as a freelance scriptwriter and story editor on a host of shows for Disney and other networks. She also wrote a number of after-school specials, including “But He Loves Me,” for which she won a Writer’s Guild Award. Birney also won a Daytime Emmy Award for her work on the animated show “Madeline.”

Eventually, Disney asked Birney to write books for some of its properties, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “Toy Story.” She loved the experience so much that she eventually got a book agent—and sold two middle grade novels in three months.

“At age seven, I wrote my first book and announced I was going to be a writer,” Birney says. “That’s pretty much the age I write for. It gives me great pleasure to write for children.”

One of her earliest books, “The World According to Humphrey,” led to a popular series that includes more than 12 titles and has sold more than 6 million copies worldwide.

“If you can get a series in children’s books then you can get a really viable career,” Birney says. “It’s such an unexpected pleasure.”

Although she no longer writes for television, Birney holds a special place for it in her heart. When aspiring scriptwriters ask her for advice, she warns it’s not a viable career for everyone.

“You have to be a self-starter and meet very tight deadlines,” she says. “You have to meet a very specific page count, and it can’t be one page too long or too short. There are a lot of restrictions. Also, it’s not unusual to work seven days a week. But it’s amazing to look at a TV show and see your name come up as a writer.”

Jan Greenberg

Want a stable career as a book author? Identify a gap on the bookshelf and fill it. That’s how Webster alumna Jan Greenberg got started writing nonfiction books about contemporary artists for young readers. In the 20-plus years since, Greenberg has had more than a dozen books published about the arts from painting and sculpture to architecture and modern dance.

Greenberg has had a long-time love affair with art, from minoring in the subject in college to marrying an art dealer who showed cutting-edge works at his gallery. When her daughters were young, she couldn’t find any books about post WWII American artists for readers their age. She shared this fact with Sandra Jordan, a friend in publishing, over lunch in New York City. “The next thing I knew, we had a three-book contract, and we’ve been writing partners ever since,” Greenberg says. “I hope our books together have made a contribution to this field of children’s literature.”

The duo write about artists who’ve made a significant impact and whose works young people can see in museums or galleries. The artist’s personal story also must be interesting. Some of the artists they’ve featured, such as Andy Warhol and Vincent Van Gogh, aren’t alive. In most cases, however, the writers are able to interview their subjects.

“I’m interested in the way their lives and work interact,” Greenberg says. “I’m interested in what experiences the artist had as a child that influenced his or her work as an adult.”

The books are often used by teachers, and although Greenberg considers herself an educator, her first priority is to be a storyteller.

“I’m never interested in teaching a lesson,” Greenberg says. “Kids don’t want to be lectured to, they want to read a story. I would like them to be entertained and inspired to see more.”

Greenberg received a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree from Webster in 1973. “Webster gave me the confidence I needed to teach and write,” she says.

After graduation, she remained close to Webster, teaching MAT students how to use the arts in the classroom as part of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. “It was the most interesting teaching I ever did,” she says.

She and her husband Ronald also became long-time supporters of Webster University as members of the Webster Society. Over the years they’ve built a contemporary art collection for the school to support students and faculty.

Greenberg found her way to professional writing by chance. When her parents passed away, Greenberg felt a longing to share her childhood stories with her teenage daughters. What started as an autobiography, however, morphed into a children’s novel about a young girl coping with the death of her father.

That book, “A Season In Between,” was published by Delacorte Press in 1979. She wrote six more novels for young readers by the time her daughters flew the nest. Then, she says, “I wanted to stretch my brain in a new direction,” and so began her nonfiction career.

Greenberg and Jordan are currently working on three artist profiles, which are slated for publication in the next few years. “Meet Cindy Sherman: Artist, Photographer and Chameleon” will be released in September.

“I say to myself these are the last books I’m going to write about art and artists before I hunker down and write another novel,” says Greenberg. “But I don’t know. I’m at a point in my life where I love to travel. When you write fiction, you’re immersed in the story and you really have to stay in the room until it’s finished.”

Jo A. Hiestand

Some writers know from an early age exactly what they want to do and forge a straight path to a career as a published author. For others, however, that journey is a bit more winding.

Jo Hiestand first attended Webster in her late 20s, earning a bachelor of arts in media studies. For the next 15 years, she worked as a church secretary, a music store clerk, and musician. But she wasn’t fulfilled.

After a vacation to New Zealand, however, she realized her calling. She had been the first visitor to the Ngaio Marsh House, a museum dedicated to the noted New Zealand crime writer, and wrote a story about her experience. When a mystery magazine published her work, a dream was born.

“That trip was a turning point,” Hiestand says. “I felt something was missing, but having my piece published spurred me to think I could try writing a mystery like those I loved so much from Ngaio Marsh. So I tried it.”

Hiestand got to work on her first novel. At the same time, she returned to Webster for another bachelor’s degree, this time in English. Hiestand says she learned the mechanics of writing a novel and how to organize a story.

“I’m better at thinking through the plot: the old who, what, when, where, why questions. Instead of just thinking, ‘I’ll write a book,’ I sit down and think through everything that happens and how it was done, instead of just plunging in and writing it.”

Hiestand found a publisher for her first book, “A Staged Murder,” through a member of the St. Louis Chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization she founded. It was released in 2004, when Hiestand was 57 years old.

Since then, Hiestand has written 17 novels. She’s had three different publishers, and is now self-publishing her books.

“Self-publishing is so easy that anyone can do it, which is good and bad,” she says. “In the old days, publishers were selective and it was difficult to get your work out in front of the public. Now the Internet highway is packed with so much traffic that it’s hard to get noticed.”

Both as writer and reader, Hiestand prefers classic mysteries.

“I like figuring out the puzzle,” she says. “Maybe just as important, I like the sense of justice at the end. The criminal has been caught and all is well in that world.”

Her most popular books to date are the McLaren Mystery series about a former policeman who investigates cold cases in England and Scotland. To add another layer to those novels, Hiestand uses her love of music to write an original song or incorporate an existing folk song into each novel. The lyrics are worked into the story, and Webster students are commissioned to arrange and record the song, which is included on a CD with the book.

“They get to experience cutting a CD and I get top-quality musicians,” she says.

For her next McLaren book, to be released in the fall of 2017, Robert Chamberlain, professor emeritus of Webster University’s music department, wrote original music for two pianos. The piece will be presented in concert on November 19.

After a decade of prolific writing, Hiestand has learned a lot about her new profession. Her advice to aspiring writers? Don’t give up.

“It’s easy to get depressed. When something isn’t accepted for publishing, you think about stopping,” Hiestand says. “But if you really have the fire within you, you have to keep writing. Just keep going. You can’t get published if you don’t try.”

Deborah M. Pratt

Webster alumna Deborah Pratt always knew she wanted a career in entertainment. She also knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“I realized I had something unique to give to the world,” Pratt says. “As an African-American, though, the choice of roles was limited in the 70s, especially for women.”

So Pratt heeded her parents’ advice and went to college for something more practical—psychology. Although she lived in Chicago, she chose Webster University for its Conservatory of Theater Arts.

“Maybe I couldn’t study theater, but I could be there and be a part of it,” she says.

Pratt spent two years in the Conservatory, where she acted in several plays before graduating in 1972. After spending a year teaching preschoolers, Pratt convinced her parents to let her take a year to explore theater professionally.

After serving as an understudy for all the female roles in “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” in Chicago, she spent nearly two years with The Golddiggers, a singing and dancing troupe. They appeared on the Dean Martin Show, the Tonight Show, and had a show in Las Vegas.

“It was a great entree into show business,” Pratt says.

That led to getting the opportunity to act, signing a contract with Paramount, and landing several guest roles on TV shows, including “CHiPs” and “Happy Days.” Pratt’s first starring role came in 1984 as a regular on “Airwolf.” There she met producer Don Bellisario, who would later become her husband of seven years.

“He was incredibly supportive of me as a writer, and I started bringing him ideas for my own shows,” Pratt says. “We ended up doing our own series together.”

That was “Quantum Leap,” starring Scott Bakula as a scientist who is trapped in time and leaps into the body of a different person in a different period of time each episode. Pratt wrote or co-wrote about 40 of the 97 episodes that aired during the show’s five seasons on NBC.

“As a writer, it was a dream,” Pratt says. “I wasn’t writing a cop, doctor, or lawyer show where you have to write the same thing over and over and over again. It was inventive and unique, having him walk in someone else’s shoes and see a period of history through their eyes. It was framed as a sci-fi show, but the stories were about regular people.”

After Quantum Leap, Pratt later served as co-executive producer for “Tequila and Bonetti” on CBS, and writer and producer for “The Net” on USA. Her TV work has earned her a Golden Globe nomination and five Emmy nominations.

In the early 2000s, Pratt shifted much of her focus from television to books. She has written two novel series—”The Vision Quest” and “The Age of Eve.” Designed as a multi-media entertainment franchise, the latest of “The Vision Quest” five-book series is due out this summer.

Pratt also attended the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, and made her directorial debut with “Cora Unashamed” for the BBC. During that time she wrote a screenplay, “Heartswear,” which is being made into a feature film starring Taraji P. Henson. Pratt, who is passionate about ensuring women in the industry have more opportunities to direct feature films, will also be directing the film.

“As a woman I feel it's important to stress success can come without having to rely on men,” she says. “I guess I'm a feminist in a time where I want women to know they can do anything on their own.”

When asked for advice from aspiring writers, Pratt always cautions them that writing is like a marathon.

“You can’t go out and run 26 miles. You have to start slowly and build up incrementally,” she says. “Here’s the trick. The first time you sit down, write for only 5 minutes and then stop. Then you should be anxious to get back to write down what you dreamed of next, or to rework what you already did. Build that to 10 or 15 minutes over the next week, and you’ll set the writing muscle in place. That’s the biggest gift a writer can give themselves.”

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