Cynthia Rylant is an award-winning author of picture books, short stories, fiction, and poetry for children and young adults. Her style is clear, straightforward, and lyrical. Rylant's protagonists tend to be mis-fits — characters who are unusual due to their circumstances and, as a result, receive negative attention from others and are unappreciated. Rylant portrays these characters as unique, wonderful, valuable human beings. She focuses on interpersonal relationships between generations and on the hardships and joys of family life. Although Rylant writes about serious subjects, such as aging and death, and her characters lead challenging lives, she is able to interject humor, which lightens the tone and conveys hope and understanding to her readers. Rylant's childhood experiences, as well as the environment of rural West Virginia, influence her writing.
Rylant was born on June 6, 1954, in Hopewell, Virginia, to John Tune, an Army sergeant, and Leatrel Rylant Smith. Her parents, who had an unhappy marriage, divorced when she was four years old. Her mother took Rylant to live with her grandparents in Cool Ridge, West Virginia, while her mother attended nursing school. Rylant's grandparents' four-room house, which was on a dirt road away from the main highway, had no running water or electricity. The house was often shared with cousins, aunts, and uncles. Rylant's grandparents grew and hunted most of the food they ate. Because the family had no car, Rylant never traveled very far from home.
Rylant's father wrote letters to her occasionally when she first went to live with her grandparents, but after a while the letters stopped. Because none of her family members ever spoke about her father, Rylant did not have the courage to ask them about him. After several years, Rylant's father contacted her again. She looked forward to a reunion with her father, but before that could happen, he died. Rylant was 13 years old. The loss of her father, and not having had the opportunity to know him, affected Rylant deeply.
When Rylant was eight years old, she and her mother moved to Beaver, West Virginia. They lived in a small apartment near the railroad tracks. Rylant was happy in Beaver. She remembers having fun riding bikes and playing Tin Can Alley. Rylant doesn't remember being read to as a child, and didn't do much reading herself because there weren't many books available. There were no libraries, bookstores, or money to buy books. Rylant read Archie and Jughead comic books and Nancy Drew books. When she got older, she resorted to paperback romance novels. It wasn't until she went to college that she began to read literature.
In 1975, Rylant received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Morris Harvey College (now known as the University of Charleston) and, in 1976, she received a Master of Arts degree from Marshall University in West Virginia. Because Rylant thoroughly enjoyed books and reading, she thought she would become an English teacher, but after finishing college she couldn't find a teaching job. She worked as a waitress and then got a job at the Cabell County Public Library in Huntington, West Virginia, in the children's department. Until that time, Rylant had not been exposed to children's books. Her job as a librarian changed her life. Rylant loved reading children's books and within a short time she began to write children's stories. Her first book, When I Was Young in the Mountains (1982), was accepted for publication in 1978, just two months after she had submitted it to a publisher in New York. That same year, Rylant gave birth to her son, Nate (she had been married and divorced). Rylant and her son moved to Ohio, and, in 1982, she received a Master of Library Science degree from Kent State University. Rylant has taught English as a part-time lecturer at various universities.
Writing comes easily for Rylant. She writes picture books in one sitting. Her longer books take her about six months to write. She sometimes goes months without writing anything and then may "sense" a story in her mind, and simply sit down and write it. Many of Rylant's books are connected to her childhood and the West Virginia environment in which she grew up. Authors that have become role models for Rylant include Donald Hall, William Maxwell, Harper Lee, Fred Chappell, and James Agee in particular.
Rylant has received much acclaim for her writing. She won the Newbery Medal for Missing May (1992); two of her picture books, When I Was Young in the Mountains (1982) and The Relatives Came (1986), received the Caldecott Award; and A Fine White Dust (1986) was named a Newbery Honor Book. Three of Rylant's books — A Kindness (1988), Soda Jerk (1990), and A Couple of Kooks and Other Stories about Love (1990) — were named Best Book of the Year for Young Adults by the American Library Association.
Rylant, her son Nate, and all of their pets (dogs, cats, a parakeet, a guinea pig, and a hermit crab) moved to Eugene, Oregon, when Nate was 14 years old. They live in the same small green house in the woods today. Rylant enjoys reading, going to movies, watching public television, and, most of all, staying home spending time with her son, her friend Dav Pilkey, and all of their pets. Her life is quiet and simple, and that is the way she likes it. Although Rylant feels privileged to be a writer, she is unsure whether she will write books for the rest of her life. She is content, however, with the work she has accomplished and feels as though the words she has written have contributed to making the earth more beautiful for other people.