Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Reading: But I'll Be Back Again

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I didn't grow up in the 1960's, but I have sometimes wished I did, mostly because of all of the flowers that were around.  In another life, I'd like to think I'd be peacefully trapezing the streets of San Francisco, a flower tucked behind my ear, catching trolleys to work among the wind-blown hills of my favorite city.  I know this is a rather romanticized notion, and yes, I've been influenced by my mother's vintage pins and antiques (not to mention my own love for flowers), but I have always been interested in learning about the past, particularly the 1960's and the culture of the United States at that time.  Reading But I'll Be Back Again, an autobiography by children's writer Cynthia Rylant, gave me a peek into that world and taught me more about one of the most well-rounded writers today.  

As I was reading, I wanted to make connections between Rylant's early life and some of the books she has written.  It seems as if some of her childhood experiences have affected the books she writes, while other books she has written seemingly for pure entertainment and enjoyment.  For example, When I Was Young in the Mountains is told from a reminiscent perspective about life in the mountains.  Growing up, Cynthia Rylant spent time with her grandparents in the mountains of West Virginia.  Of her time in the mountains, Rylant writes, "I had big stacks of pancakes and hot cocoa, hound dogs and chickens, teaberry leaves and honeysuckle, and aunts and cousins to sleep with at night and hug until someone could return for me."  This particular line makes me feel that Rylant thought fondly of her time in the mountains; further, it connects me to another famous Rylant book: The Relatives Came.  

In this book, the relatives come "up from Virginia" and there is a lot of laughter and hugging as the family spends time together.  Rylant has written several other books about Appalachia or featuring country settings, including Appalachia: The Voices of Singing Birds and Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story.  Many of Cynthia's children's books focus on older people, including The Old Woman Who Named Things, An Angel for Solomon Singer, and Mr. Griggs; Work. I wonder if any of these stories are meant to honor her grandparents, who raised her for four years while her mother was at nursing school.  Sometimes, it seems as if Cynthia Rylant has written a story for every occasion, but it is important to note how her own life experiences have inspired her to write more.  This makes her an authority about many of the books she has written. I am sure that there are many other connections between her own childhood and the books she writes, in which she tries to right the wrongs that she experienced when she was young, but I have not read enough of her work to make these links.

The element I found most fundamental in Rylant's writing is that she shares with young adults that her childhood was not perfect; her father was an alcoholic, her parents were divorced, and there was not always electriicity or running water in her home.  (Think about the latrine in When I Was Young in the Mountains!)  Not to mention all of the growing pains and coming-of-age encounters she had: an eternal crush on Paul McCartney, kissing boys, and the art of shaving.  A line in the book that I found most compelling has nothing to do with any of these incidents, however, but is a revelation that Rylant learned (and that I still need to figure out for myself sometimes):  "I believe I grew up with this big feeling inside that said, 'Whenever anyone who is with you is unhappy, it is you fault.' I didn't know, growing up, that I didn't have to make people happy."   This is such an important thing to know, that we must find happiness within ourselves and cannot make other people be happy, nor must we always look to others to make ourselves happy.  Certainly, we can contribute positivity to a person's life, but if we ourselves are not content with ourselves, then it seems that we never will be. But I'll Be Back Again is an encouraging read for all students, as it lets them know that they can achieve greatness despite their circumstances (and that they can feel happy, too, despite those obstacles).  

I also appreciated how each chapter of this book began with a related Beatles quote.  I thought that this was a unique link with a topic that was important to her and also showed how she connected with the Beatles and why they were so essential to her life.  What a challenge it must be, too, (or perhaps not if you're well-versed in their music) to find lyrics that mesh perfectly with your own thoughts!  

I enjoyed reading But I'll Be Back Again to learn more about a famous author.  I love teaching my students about their favorite writers (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Patricia Polacco, Jan Brett, Louis Sachar) and love learning about writers on my own, too.  If you are interested in reading this autobiography, or any other book written by Cynthia Rylant, visit your local library! 

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