Author Interviews
4:53 pm
Sun November 10, 2013

How Cynthia Rylant Discovered The Poetry Of Storytelling

Originally published on Sun November 10, 2013 6:58 pm

Cynthia Rylant is a renowned author who has written for all age groups and been honored with both Caldecott and Newbery prizes for her work.

Her latest book, God Got a Dog, is a collection of poems that only took her one day to write.

"One poem ... just came out of the blue, and I sat down and I wrote it. And then after I finished writing it, I got an idea for another God poem, and so I wrote that one. And so it started in the morning and then by the end of the day, I was finished writing the book," she tells All Things Considered host Arun Rath.

Driven by these bursts of inspiration, Rylant says her talent was "bestowed" rather than learned, and shares how her modest and isolated childhood shaped her work.


Interview Highlights

On the influence of her father, and his absence

"In the brief time that I was with him as a child, he would set me on his knee and he would get a couple of stuffed animals and act out a story, a play, with them. And I remember the animals shouting at each other and hitting each other and laughing and hugging and crying ...

"My father was just a great entertainer, and that was the gift that he gave to me, this delight in storytelling. ...

"When I was 4, he pretty much disappeared from my life and he never came back. And then when I was 12, he died, and I got word of his death by telephone. ... You struggle to believe that you're worth something after a parent abandons you."

On life in a West Virginia coal mining town

"There were seven of us in a little house, tiny house, out in the country. We didn't have any indoor plumbing. It was very isolated. No libraries, of course. And it was a really wonderful experience.

"And so in my books you might notice that there's a theme of nurturing among all the characters. They're all taking care of each other. They're being steady and reliable and loving."

On writing and the creative process

"I think you have to be a poet to write a good children's book. Especially a picture book ... I actually go long periods between books. Sometimes I'll just find any way at all in the world to avoid writing a book. I think it's because I think every single word is so important; I find it daunting to write. And so I couldn't do it every day. ...

"The gift of language, it's truly a gift ... it isn't linear or rational. So I try to remember that. I try to be humble about the fact that I really didn't do anything to have this ability to make beautiful language. It was bestowed on me."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you have read books to kids anytime over the past, say, 30 years, you've probably read Cynthia Rylant. She's been incredibly prolific and writes for all age groups. In fact, if you're a little bit younger, you may have learned to read with her "Early Readers" series, or cut your long-form teeth on her young adult novels.

Many of Rylant's picture books revolve around children relying on their families for love and support. But Rylant's own childhood was complicated. Her father was an alcoholic. And like many alcoholics, he also had a wonderful side.

CYNTHIA RYLANT: In the brief time that I was with him as a child, he would set me on his knee, and he would get a couple of stuffed animals and act out a story, a play with them. And I remember, you know, the animals shouting at each other and hitting each other, and laughing and hugging and crying. And my father was just a great entertainer. And that was the gift that he gave to me, this delight in storytelling.

RATH: But Rylant's father didn't stick around.

RYLANT: When I was 4, he pretty much disappeared from my life, and he never came back. And then when I was 12, he died. And I got word of his death by telephone. And so, you know, you try - you struggle to believe that you're worth something, after a parent abandons you.

RATH: When her father left them, Rylant's mother was overwhelmed. She brought 4-year-old Cynthia to live with her grandparents and other cousins in the tiny coal mining town of Cool Ridge, W.Va.

RYLANT: There were seven of us in a little house - a tiny house, out in the country. We didn't have any indoor plumbing. It was very isolated. No libraries, of course. And it was a really wonderful experience. And so in my books, you might notice that there's a theme of nurturing among all the characters. They're all taking care of each other. They're being steady and reliable and loving.

RATH: You talked about your family situation. I think having, you know, a family that ends up being spread out across the country is a thing a lot of people can relate to. And I'm thinking about your book "When the Relatives Came" - which won a Caldecott - and that kind of conveys that sense.

(LAUGHTER)

RYLANT: Yeah. The relatives who lived in Virginia winding their way, you know, in their old car over those mountains and hills and hollers to get to our little house in Cool Ridge. And it was such a long trip, and so they would - once they got there, they really stayed.

(LAUGHTER)

RYLANT: We all just all squeezed into all the beds. And I remember my Uncle Leo used to sleep in the backseat of his car. And I can't remember - not one lonely day when I was living there.

RATH: Talking about your childhood, and it certainly wasn't too opulent; I'm wondering what kind of books you had access to growing up.

RYLANT: Oh, well, I grew up on comic books, the other kids and I. And this was in Beaver, W.Va. You know, we collect pop - old pop bottles, so we'd take them to the store and get - build up our pennies. And then we'd go to the drugstore and buy comic books. And I was crazy about them.

RATH: Now, I'm a boy, so I'm thinking, you know, "Batman" and "Superman" and "Spider-Man." Is that what you were reading?

RYLANT: I was reading "Archie," "Baby Huey" and "Little Lulu," but mostly "Archie."

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: You know, I'm kind of amazed at how you write books for a variety of distinct age groups. You know, there are books that I've read to my kids from birth; there are the early reader books for kids starting to read on their own, and the longer chapter books. I'm just curious how you work. Do you just put on a different hat for the different ages, or how do you get into the mindset?

RYLANT: I really can't explain it. When I first started writing, you know, I tried picture books. And, you know, I soon discovered that when I write, it's a bit of a flash. It's all of a sudden, and kind of inspiration. And that's true for all of the picture books. The poetry books, I'll write a book of poetry in a day, and I'll be done with it. The longer books - which there are few of because I don't like to write longer books - have usually come about because an editor has begged me for something that's more than five pages long.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: You've been writing more poetry, or maybe just publishing more poetry in recent years, and it feels like it's more aimed towards adults. Your new book is called "God Got a Dog." What gave you the idea for doing books in this kind of vein?

RYLANT: Well, I think you have to be poet to write a good children's book, especially a picture book. And so I've been writing picture books for years and years and years. And occasionally, I've gotten this sudden inspiration - out of the blue - to write a bunch of poems around a theme, and one poem came to me. "God Went to Beauty School" was the title of that poem. Just came out of the blue, and I sat down and I wrote it.

And then after I finished writing it, I got an idea for another God poem, and so I wrote that one. And so it started in the morning, and then by the end of the day, I was finished writing the book.

RATH: It sounds like the books just come, you know, as inspiration hits you - pretty regularly, though.

RYLANT: No. I actually go long periods between books. Sometimes, I'll just find any way at all in the world to avoid writing a book.

(LAUGHTER)

RYLANT: I think it's because I think every single word is so important. I find it daunting to write, and so I couldn't do it every day.

RATH: I think a lot of people would be surprised, and maybe comforted, by the fact that even you, after all these years, have that kind of anxiety about the blank page.

RYLANT: Well, I think the gift of language, it's truly a gift. I don't think it's anything that can be crafted. I don't think you can learn it, like auto mechanics. It's - it isn't linear or rational. So I try to remember that. I try to be humble about the fact that I really didn't do anything to have this ability to make beautiful language. It was bestowed on me.

RATH: Cynthia Rylant has won numerous awards for her children's books. Cynthia, thank you so much.

RYLANT: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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