Cythnia Rylant didn't read much when she was a kid. "There just weren't that many books around," she remembers. "No public library, no money to buy books -- no bookstores, anyway." Instead, she spent her time playing, something she now says is the best thing for young writers to do. There was some writing available for her, in the form of Archie and Jughead comic books and paperback romance novels. So she earned her "training as a writer" with comics from the local drugstore, buying them "three for a quarter -- plus Danny Alderman who lived behind me used to trade me a big pile of his for a big pile of mine."
When she was four years old, Rylant's parents got divorced, and she moved with her mother to Cool Ridge, West Virginia. She lived with her grandparents while her mother attended nursing school; their mountain home had no electricity or running water, and they had no car. Her grandparents grew and hunted their own food, and Rylant assures readers that, "Yes, I ate rabbits and squirrels!" Though she missed her parents, many of Rylant's strongest memories come from this time in her life. "It's that time," she says, "that seems to have sunk thickest into my brain and my heart, and much of what I saw and heard then has come into my books…."
After Rylant's mother finished school, Cynthia moved with her to Beaver, West Virginia, where they lived in a three-room apartment by railroad tracks. She went to elementary and high school in Beaver, going from a tomboy who "stayed on [my] bike all day and had fun playing war and Tin Can Alley" to a majorette in the school band. When her plans to marry her high school boyfriend, Eddie, fell through, Rylant went to Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston) and then to Marshall University, where she graduated with a master's degree in English in 1976. Out of college she worked as a waitress for a while, then a librarian at the Akron Public Library. She had discovered "literature" in college; now, working in the children's section at the library, she discovered classics like Goodnight Moon and Charlotte's Web. These first experiences with children's and young adult literature inspired her to write her own stories, so without telling anyone, she started writing at home.
"I don't know why I became a writer," she now says. "I didn't write much as a child. The only stories I ever tried were called "My Adventures with the Beatles." That was in sixth grade when I was madly in love with Paul McCartney."
Now madly in love with Goodnight Moon, she combed her Writer's Market for publishers and sent her stories off. Two months later, a New York editor wrote back to say she loved Rylant's story and wanted to publish it. "I was standing in my yard when I read her letter," Rylant says, "and I was so excited that I yelled to the mailman, who was about four houses down, that I was going to be published! He gave me a big smile and yelled back, 'CONGRATULATIONS!'"
When I Was Young in the Mountains was published in 1982, winning the American Book Award and becoming a Caldecott Honor Book for Diane Good's illustrations. The story was based on her life in Cool Ridge, though it appeals to anyone interested in Appalachian life. Rylant says, "It was hard for me, being away from my parents during that time, and so maybe everything I felt during that time I felt more intensely. And when you write stories, it's always your most intense feelings that come out." She still uses her early memories of her grandparents in her stories; they were strong, proud people who advised her "Always do the best you can with what you've got."
After her first book, Rylant went back to school for a Professional Librarian degree at Kent State University. At Kent she met her "sweetheart," fellow author Dav Pilkey, and they moved to Oregon together in 1990. She continued writing, and now has over twenty books in print, including picture books, children's chapter books, young adult fiction, and poetry. Missing May won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and a Newbery Honor Medal; four of her books were named Notable Children's Books, two were named Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association, and the Ohioana Award in 1992 for Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds.
Despite a notable career, she says she doesn't know if she'll be a writer all her life. "It seems like a long time to keep writing books, a whole lifetime." Right now, she's happy in her Oregon home, collecting teapots and quilts and playing with her dogs and cats.
It took Cynthia Rylant a while to discover books, and even longer to discover writing. Still, they mean the world to her, and she uses her stories to share her memories with others. The best writing, to her, is personal, revealing writing. "Because," she says, "we all, I think, long mostly for the same things and are afraid mostly of the same things, and we all want someone to write about all of this so we won't feel too crazy or alone."
Photos courtesy of Margaret Miller.