How Children’s Book Writer Cynthia Rylant Found Her Calling in Southern West Virginia
Cynthia Rylant has transported readers from around the world to Appalachia for decades, beginning with her first children’s book in 1982.
Since then, Rylant has written more than 100 books, ranging from picture books and easy readers to chapter books and novels. Her books have won Caldecott and Newbery awards.
Some of Rylant’s books, including her 1982 debut, “When I Was Young in the Mountains,” were based on her life growing up in southern West Virginia.
While she has a lot of happy memories from her early childhood, Rylant also experienced tough times. She was raised by a single mom, who had to leave her young daughter so she could attend nursing school. For those years, Rylant lived with her grandparents in Raleigh County, in the coalfields of southern West Virginia.
Inside Appalachia’s Mason Adams recently interviewed Rylant about her childhood in the state and how it shaped the rest of her life.
***Editor's Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Rylant: It was so lovely living [in Raleigh County].
For one thing, it was just so quiet. The world has such a noisy place these days. Just to hear the cowbells out in the field, and just to hear the birds singing in the morning, and be able to be free and be outside all day.
People were quiet. They were very dignified, and took such good care of their homes. They had beautiful gardens, and canned all their vegetables.
I was very protected. I never felt afraid when I was there.
Adams: Was “When I Was Young in the Mountains” based on your own experience living with your grandparents?
Rylant: Yes, everything in that book is true.
The book was illustrated by an artist named Diane Goode. In her art, she placed the time of the story much earlier. It looks to be in the late 1800s the way that people are dressed. Actually, the time that I lived in Cool Ridge was in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s.
Adams: The page that fascinates my kids is the image of the children swimming in the pond with the snakes. I think they find it so fascinating because in every other book, people tend to be scared of snakes. Your book just depicts people co-existing with them, and that squares with their own lives. Did you swim with snakes then?
Rylant: Oh, yeah. And in the book, I talked about us draping a long snake across our necks for a photograph. We did that. I've got one photograph with my mom and I think the same snake. We'd never seen one quite that long. She's sitting on the hood of a car, and a dead snake is draped across the hood of the car behind her.
We were so used to nature. I'm more nervous walking in the woods now than when I was five years old.
Adams: You stayed with your grandparents for several years. What happened next?
Rylant: During those years I lived with my grandparents, I was very protected and had happy days.
But I was shattered when my mother would come and visit for a short period of time, and then leave again and go back to nursing school. I have a memory of standing in the yard and watching the car take her away to the Greyhound bus station, and crying so hard and my grandmother leading me back into the house gently and putting me into her bed covering me up, just crying my little eyes out.
So the most joyful thing was that my mother finally finished school, and she came back permanently and got a job at a hospital in Beckley. She found us a little three-room apartment with an indoor bathroom, which I had not experienced before.
This was in Beaver, West Virginia, and I began my more urban life. In Beaver, I could walk to the grocery store and a little drugstore and little post office. I could ride my bike on paved roads. That was a whole new world for me. Beaver gave me all kinds of stories, too.
Adams: When she graduated high school, Cynthia Rylant went to college in Charleston and later got her master’s degree in English at Marshall University in Huntington. That’s where she met a community of like-minded people who were into books and literature.
Rylant: I didn't write creatively, all through high school and college. In a strange way, I wasn't worthy of it. Like that could never be something that I could do.
I finished graduate school, and was still living in Huntington. I waitressed for a while, and then somebody suggested I try to get a job at the public library. I applied, even though I’d never really used a public library before, and I got a job as a clerk making minimum wage.
I was assigned to the children's department. That's where I first started reading children's books. And that changed my life.
First of all, I was just kind of astonished that they were all so beautiful. I’d never seen picture books before. I had come out of graduate school in English. And the writing in those books was just incredibly moving to me — much more than the writing that I had studied in all my classes.
Adams: Was that what inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?
Rylant: When I was working in the children's department, I used to just carry home bags full of children's books to read. Something told me to pick up a pen, a pad of paper. One night, I sat down and I wrote the line, “When I was young in the mountains, Grandfather came home in the evening covered with the black dust of a coal mine.”
I just kept writing and within a few minutes, I'd written my first picture book, “When I Was Young in the Mountains.”
Adams: How did you then write your second book? How did you go from that one book to dozens of books?
Rylant: When I got the first book accepted, I remember sort of trying to bargain with God, and saying, ‘If you just let me have one more book accepted, I'll be happy. I'll just be happy with two books.’
I decided to stay in Appalachia for my writing. My second book was called “Miss Maggie.” It was again about a woman I knew, who lived in a log house near one of those cow pastures. She wore the old Appalachians bonnet. She chewed tobacco, and there was a rumor that a black snake lived in the house with her. My grandparents used to take Miss Maggie to the grocery store, back and forth. I wrote a story about her, and that was my second accepted book.
I continued with these Appalachian stories, and my third book was called ‘The Relatives Came.’ Again, that’s a true story about the relatives of Virginia traveling over the mountains to come see us in West Virginia.
It all just flowed. I think it was just my calling. I think we all find in our lives, a time when we're doing things right and natural, no matter what that is, you know, many different things. But we just feel like we're in the right place, doing the right thing. That's what I felt when I started writing picture books.
Adams: You said that your intention was to remain in Appalachia and continue to write what led you to leave?
Rylant: I just couldn't find a job. I had a master's degree in English, but it wasn't a Ph.D. in English, and I wasn't ready to or even able to go to get further education to become a college teacher. I didn't have an education degree to be a public school teacher. I was intimidated by the idea of being a student teacher.
What I ended up doing was going to Ohio, and I was able to get another assistantship, and I got a library degree. I ended up working in an Ohio library, because when I wanted to come back to West Virginia, back to Huntington, there weren't any jobs available.
I ended up just living in Ohio for many years, and never moved back to West Virginia. Although my family, of course, stayed there. I'm in my 60s now, and all my adult life, I've made a trip to West Virginia at least once a year.
Adams: Now you live in the Pacific Northwest?
Rylant: Yeah. I do.
Adams: What led you there?
Rylant: A lot of people do this so-called midlife crisis that happens around the late 30s, early 40s. People think they just got to do something different.
I can't really explain to you why I felt I needed to come to the Pacific Northwest at that time. But I had visited Seattle once, and was just fascinated by this part of the country, and the whole Puget Sound region. It’s kind of mysterious and so green. I just got it into my head when I was close to 40 that I wanted to move out here.
This was not really my design as probably God's design. I just thought it was my idea.
When we look at our lives, and we look at the choices we’ve made, I often think of all the mistakes I've made, and the wrong turns I took, and the people I shouldn't have been with, and people I should have been with that I wasn't — you know, things like that.
You look back and think, ‘Oh, I wish I could change this or that,’ but you have to follow the thread. You have to say, where does that mistake you think you’re making take you? And invariably, when I look back at my thread, it took me someplace good.
When I got out here to the Pacific Northwest, many times I would think, maybe I should go back. But, I have a little granddaughter born just three years ago. I tell myself that long thread you were following led to her. She wouldn't have been made had I not come out here.
And so we have to think that when we're making our choices, we're being guided. We're being pulled towards something that we don't even understand.
This interview is from an episode of Inside Appalachia, featuring children's book writers.