Rylant entered the world on June 6, 1954 in Hopewell, Virginia to parents John and Leatrel. Her father had fought in the Korean War and was a sergeant in the U.S. Army, but he suffered from hepatitis he had contracted while oversees and from alcoholism. After four years, her parents divorced and Rylant moved with her mother to West Virginia where she stayed with her maternal grandparents. The separation from her father upset Rylant and then her mother left to study nursing. A difficult situation for a young child, Rylant nevertheless basked in the love of her grandparents and her community in the Appalachias in rural West Virginia. An extremely depressed economic area, Rylant's grandparents lacked electricity, running water, and a car, but they provided Rylant with stability and security until her mother returned. It is these years in her life that left an indelible impression upon Rylant.
When her mother earned her nursing degree, Rylant was eight years old. The two moved to Beaver, West Virginia where Rylant experienced running water, indoor plumbing, a television, and her own bedroom. Something of a shock at first, Rylant thought they were rich. As she grew older she learned that they were still rather poor, with some people having many material possessions. Insecure and unsure of her place in the world, Rylant experienced another hardship when her father died.
Having not contacted her in years, Rylant's father finally sent word that he planned to visit. Excited and dreaming of their reunion, Rylant was then devastated to hear that he passed away in a veteran's hospital in Florida before they could meet. She was thirteen. In many ways lonely and searching for acceptance, Rylant joined groups, became a leader, a head majorette, a school queen, and loved boys all the while hiding what was deep inside. The boy she planned to marry, and in whom she'd invested much love and devotion, turned to another girl instead, leaving Rylant alone again.
Some people turn to books to help them escape, but Rylant's did not because there weren't libraries or bookstores in her town. Instead she read comic books, perhaps hundreds of comic books. Finishing high school and through the Veteran's Administration, Rylant attended Morris Harvey College, now called the University of Charleston. She intended to be a nurse and changed her mind after her first English course. Finally a new world opened up to her. Words intrigued her and helped her grow to think for herself. She edited the school newspaper and loved learning.
Continuing her education she went to Marshall University to earn her master's degree. She married and took a position at the public library in Huntington, West Virginia in the children's section. It was while reading these books that Rylant discovered her path in life. She loved children's books and determined to write her own. When her son was six months old, Rylant penned When I Was Young in the Mountains. Without editing or revising her manuscript she sent it to E.P. Dutton Publishers, and they accepted it. This picture book about her childhood received a Caldecott Award honor for Diane Goode's illustrations. Rylant realized that her memories resonated with other people, and she had many more memories to share.
In book after book Rylant retold her life or used memories to define a character or setting. She and her husband divorced after a few years, and she remarried again briefly. Working as a part-time English teacher, Rylant then moved to Ohio where she earned her library science degree from Kent State University to be a children's librarian. All the while she continued to write. Poetry, novels, picture books, beginning readers, Rylant has successfully penned works that readers enjoy time and again. The Relatives Came received another Caldecott Honor award for Stephen Gammell's illustrations while A Fine White Dust received a Newbery Honor Book award for the author, and Missing May earned Rylant the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1993.
Writing about family and life as it is experienced by young people, Rylant has helped herself heal. More confident and secure, she took on being a part-time lecturer at Northeast Ohio Universities College of Medicine, and she illustrated some of her own books. With a voice clear and lyrical, Rylant has captured children with her "Henry and Mudge" series, her "Poppleton" series, and her "Mr. Putter and Tabby" books, just to name a few. This author of over 100 books resides in Oregon with a variety of pets and her son.
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