An Author from the Mountains
"But what is it that makes a person want to stay here on this earth anyway, and go on suffering the most awful pain just for the sake of getting to stay? I used to think it was because people fear death. But now I think it is because people can't bear saying goodbye."
–Cynthia Rylant, Missing May
Meet Cynthia Rylant
Cynthia Rylant is the author of more than one hundred children’s books, but she didn’t even plan on becoming a writer until after she graduated college. Rylant was born in Virginia in 1954. When she was four, her parents divorced, and Rylant went to live with her grandparents in rural West Virginia while her mother went to nursing school. Despite her family’s poverty, her estrangement from her father, and her limited time with her mother, Rylant describes her childhood in the Appalachian mountains as a happy time. It was also a big influence on her writing: her first book, When I Was Young in the Mountains, describes an Appalachian childhood, and many others of her books feature rural settings and the wisdom of grandparents and other elders. She did not, however, have access to children’s books as a child -- there were no libraries or bookstores in her town. When Rylant’s mother finished her nursing degree, she and Rylant moved together to another town in West Virginia. Rylant never saw her father again; he died of alcoholism and hepatitis when Rylant was twelve, and she found out through a telephone call.
Rylant received a BA from Morris Harvey College, a Masters in English from Marshall University, and a Masters in Library Science from Kent State. She at last discovered children’s literature when working in a library in Akron, Ohio. She was then inspired to write her own books. Rylant has since moved from Ohio to Oregon. She has been married and divorced twice and has one son from her first marriage.
While she writes both picture books and books for older readers, I focused my study mainly on a selection of her picture books. In the books I read, I noticed a few patterns in Rylant’s style of writing. Her books are usually driven by a character (An Angel for Solomon Singer, The Ticky-Tacky Doll, The Relatives Came) or a setting (Dog Heaven, Night in the Country, When I Was Young in the Mountains). They are not usually driven by a complicated or exciting plot. Two of Rylant’s main goals in almost all of her stories are to paint a very vivid picture in your head and to put a strong feeling in your heart (and, often, it’s not a happy feeling). She is not usually interested in making readers laugh or feel suspense and, unlike many picture book authors, her important characters are not all children. She also generally avoids “childish” devices like using anthropomorphized animals as main characters and magical objects or situations. It makes sense, then, that many of the sentence craft and word craft techniques she uses help the reader envision what she is writing about and make the story sound more poetic and full of feeling.
Cynthia Rylant's Favorite Techniques
Breaking the Fourth Wall
Rylant sometimes interrupts her narrative to directly address the reader. She uses this technique to make the reader a more active and included participant in her story. This helps her with her goal of making the reader feel the characters’ feelings, because it invites the reader to make comparisons to feelings that they’ve had.
- An Angel for Solomon Singer: “…if ever you are near the Westway Café, wishing instead you were in a field of conversational crickets and shining stars, go inside, and Angel will take your order and Solomon Singer will smile and make you feel at home.”
- Night in the Country: She interrupts a description to say “Listen:” and then describes an apple dropping from a tree.
- But I’ll Be Back Again: (This is a memoir written for older readers.) “It was like sitting with Tom Cruise, so strong was Robert’s manly aura. We had talked for some time, with quite a bit of space between us, when suddenly he asked if he could kiss me.
- Well, would you refuse Tom Cruise?” (42)
Rylant’s parentheses give you even more of the story, rather than taking you outside of the story for a quick explanation. They flow nicely with the whole sentence, rather than feeling like an interruption, which parentheses often do in the works of other authors.
- An Angel for Solomon Singer: “When he reached the end of his dreams (the end was a purple wall), he simply started all over again and ordered up a balcony (but he didn’t say the balcony out loud).”
- Missing May: “May started talking about where they’d hang the swing as soon as she hoisted herself out of the front seat (May was a big woman) and Ob…” (5)
- But I’ll Be Back Again: “When the Beatles came to America in 1964 the boys lost most of us girls to either John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, or Ringo Starr (not many to Ringo).” (15)
Instead of separating items in a series with commas, Rylant sometimes separates them with a repeated “and.” I think Rylant does this for two reasons: First, if she listed items the same way every time, her writing would be boring, so she switches things up. Second, I think she chooses the “And” Series lists for lists that she wants to seem longer than they are.
- An Angel for Solomon Singer: “The menu told him how much hamburgers and bowls of soup and pieces of pie and other things cost.”
- The Relatives Came: “We were so busy hugging and eating and breathing together…”
- Night in the Country: “…the groans and thumps and squeaks that houses make when they like you are trying to sleep…”
- Scarecrow: “The earth has rained and snowed and blossomed and wilted and yellowed and greened and vined itself all around him.”
Ch-ch-ch-changes: Common Themes in Rylant's Work
Cynthia Rylant’s books often deal with characters who are struggling through a period of transition. In general, Rylant acknowledges how painful change can be while suggesting it is positive all the same, but she avoids the dishonesty of a completely happy ending. In An Angel for Solomon Singer, an older man who lives in subsidized housing is struggling with homesickness for his childhood hometown in Indiana. Eventually, Solomon finds a cafe where he feels at home and a waiter who befriends him. He has found a way to be content with his new life and the book ends on a positive note, but his living situation has not actually improved. In Missing May, a young girl named Summer, who has been passed from relative to relative all her life, finally finds a home with her Aunt May and Uncle Ob, but, soon after, May dies and Ob becomes depressed, leaving Summer to cope with loss and try to save what remains of her family. In The Ticky-Tacky Doll, a young girl faces the big change of going to school for the first time, leaving behind her family and her beloved doll. Her grandmother helps her cope with the transition by making her a small doll that can stay hidden in her bookbag. The Relatives Came does not focus on a loss as explicitly as these, but it does touch on adjusting to change -- the relatives of the unnamed child narrator come for a visit, requiring everyone to sleep on the floor and share food and get used to each other. When the relatives finally leave, the narrator realizes she now has to again get used to life without them. Dog Heaven does not deal with transition and loss within the narrative, but the entire story is directed at children who are dealing with these issues. The book describes the happiness that awaits all dogs after they die, as their children cope with losing them. Each of these stories depicts a journey through a different kind of change.
Rylant, Cynthia. An Angel for Solomon Singer. Illus. Peter Catalanotto. New York: Scholastic, 1992.
--. But I’ll Be Back Again. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
--. Dog Heaven. Illus. Cynthia Rylant. New York: Scholastic, 1995.
--. Missing May. New York: Scholastic, 2004.
--. The Relatives Came. Illus. Stephen Gammell. New York: Antheum, 1985.
--. The Ticky-Tacky Doll. Illus. Harvey Stevenson. New York: Harcourt, 2002.
--. When I Was Young in the Mountains. Illus. Diane Goode. New York: Puffin, 1982.