"If you're a serious writer, a serious artist, you write about those things that you're deeply moved by. And I think most people are deeply moved by the sane things
that I'm moved by. I just happen to be the one who was given the ability to put that swelling of the heart, that sweet reverence that you have for those things around you and those people you live with into some kind of language. And that seems to be my particular gift in this world."
A glimpse of Cynthia Rylant
Cynthia Rylant writes mainly for children, but writers of all ages can learn much from her clear, sensory, down-to-earth language and style. She never had formal writing training, but, with more than 100 books, she is one of the most popular, best-loved, children's writers in the world.
Her children’s books highlight ordinary things and ordinary people: dogs, scarecrows, night in the country. Her books for young adults deal with subjects such as war, poverty, religion, and loneliness, with that same clear, incisive style. The first line of her very first book is a great example of her ability to choose concrete details that open the heart: "When I was young in the mountains, my grandfather came home in the evening covered with the dust of a coal mine. Only his lips were clean, and he used them to kiss the top of my head.”
When Cynthia was four, she went to live with her grandfather and grandmother in the country while her mom went to nursing school. Later, she and her mom moved into a small house in the Raleigh County town of Beaver. Cynthia walked around town and got to know all kinds of people: Sam, the shoe man, Henry at the market, the girl who had a concrete pool in her yard. Her first book of poetry, Waiting to Waltz, brings them each to life.
Shy and straightforward, she does not tour or often make public appearances these days. This program offers West Virginians a rare, hour-long visit with her. Being a West Virginian is, “a source of real pride for me,” she said. “When I first started writing my books and West Virginia crept into them, I think it’s because I really didn’t know who else to be but who I was.”
A Cynthia Rylant sample: from The Relatives Came
Notice the way Cynthia piles up details about the family trip, to paint a picture in your mind. Notice the way she moves the story along with the rhythm of her words, repeating certain words and details for impact.
It was the summer of the year when the relatives came. They came up from Virginia. They
left when their grapes were nearly purple enough to pick, but not quite. They had an old station wagon that smelled like a real car. And in it, they put an ice chest full of soda pop and some boxes of crackers and some baloney sandwiches, and up they came from Virginia. They left at four in the morning when it was still dark, before even the birds were awake.
They drove all day long and into the night. And while they traveled along, they looked at the strange houses and the different mountains, and they thought about their almost-purple grapes back home. They thought about Virginia. But they thought about us too, waiting for them. So they drank up all their pop and ate up all their crackers and traveled up all those miles until, finally, they pulled into our yard.
Then it was hugging time. Talk about hugging! Those relatives just passed us all around their car, pulling us against their wrinkled Virginia clothes, crying sometimes. They hugged us for hours! Then it was into the house and so much laughing and shining faces and hugging in the doorways. you'd have to go through four different hugs to get from the kitchen to the front room. Those relatives!
And finally after a big supper, two or three times around, until we all got a turn at the table, there was quiet talk, and we were in twos and threes through the house.
The relatives weren't particular about beds, which was good, since there weren't any extras. So a few squeezed in with us, and some slept on the floor, some with their arms thrown over the closest person, some with their arms thrown around one person and a leg across another. It was different, going to sleep with all that new breathing in the house .... "
The relatives stayed for weeks and weeks. They helped us tend the garden, and they fixed any broken things they could find. They ate up all our strawberries and melons, then promised we could eat up all their grapes and peaches when we came to Virginia. But none of us thought about Virginia much. We were so busy hugging and eating and breathing together ..."
A writing activity to go with this sample:
A good writer is like a movie producer. The screen is in the readers' heads. Skilled writers know how to mix "close-ups", "wide shots", and information, to move the story along.
Look at each sentence above. What kind of "shots" is Cynthia creating in our heads in each sentence? In your mind's eye, do you see a closeup? A wide shot? A mix of both? Write several paragraphs about going somewhere in a car. You can make it up. Include at least three close-up details and three wide shots.
Go to the Activities page for other ways to learn from these writers.
Five ways to get the most from this web site:
1. Listen to the delightful hour-long conversation with Cynthia.
Enjoy Cynthia's voice, stories, readings, reflections and advice about writing.
2. Read/download the program script. Read it as you listen, marking passages you want to remember, or think you might like to use in class or a program.
3. Read/download the table of contents. These are outlines of the program. They will help you find the passages you want to return to.
4. Using the script or table of contents, find short audio clips you can play for a class or a presentation. It's easy! Click here to find out how to do it.
5. Explore activities that use Cynthia's writing to teach storytelling/writing skills.
Cynthia writes for young adults too.
In A Fine White Dust, a lonely young boy is targeted by a phony revival preacher.
Cynthia's poems inspired by Walker Evans photographs are great for classroom activities.
In I Had Seen Castles, a young man leaves his sweetheart to go to war.