Written by Cynthia Rylant
I imagine it must be very difficult to write about your own life—especially knowing the amount of people who will read it. You have to be strong in order to hang your dirty laundry up in order for all to see. I believe that Cynthia Rylant is a very strong person who has given readers a glimpse into her life through most of the books she has written. Her autobiography, But I’ll Be Back Again, helps to provide a further glimpse into Cynthia Rylant’s childhood and the possible reasoning behind the themes of her books.
When I first started teaching, I saw Cynthia Rylant in a very different light than I do now. I did not realize how many books were in Rylant’s extensive collection. I mostly knew her as the author of series such as Henry and Mudge and Mr. Putter and Tabby and a few choice read-alouds such as The Relatives Came, In November and The Great Gracie Chase. I now realize she writes in a variety of different genres and for a variety of different audiences—whether other adults realize it or not.
Many of Rylant’s books have reoccurring adult themes such as the passing of time, death, loneliness, old age, or the loss of a loved one. Her books also present certain social issues such as poverty and homelessness. I had not realized this about Cynthia Rylant until I started to read more and more of her books. I was surprised to find that many of her picture books are more for adults than they are for children. For example, the story, Mr. Griggs’ Work at first seems like a story about a friendly old mailman who loves his job. Reviewers of the book say that the story is great for teaching children about providing services in an Economics Unit. Upon deeper analysis, however, one realizes that the character of Mr. Griggs is simply a lonely old man who puts all of his time and effort into his work. There is no evidence through the illustrations that he ever married or had any children. Everything he does relates to the mail. Through this story, we see the theme of loneliness shine through. Another book, An Angel for Solomon Singer is also about an old man who is lonely and leaves us with questions about the social system in place in our society. The Old Woman Who Named Things is about an old lady who had suffered the loss of all of her loved ones and was afraid of loving anything living ever again for fear that they’d be gone.
As I started to wonder about why Rylant wrote using adult themes, I started to research her and her reasoning behind her books. I realized that her childhood was not perfect. She especially suffered from loneliness and loss. The more I realized this about Cynthia Rylant’s childhood, the more the themes of her books made sense to me. If I read Cynthia Rylant’s autobiography prior to making the connection of many of the adult themes in her books, I think I would have been very surprised to read about her childhood.
The autobiography was published in 1989 and the name, But I’ll Be Back Again, seems to be inspired by the Beatles song, I’ll Be Back. Throughout the book, Rylant includes quotes from various Beatles songs. Due to all of the research I had already done on Rylant, I did not find that her autobiography provided me with any new information about her life. Much of her information in her autobiography corresponded well with the poems she wrote in, Waiting to Waltz. It almost seemed as though the autobiography provided a further description of each poem in her book.
Author Lois Lowry emphasizes the fact that her ideas for fiction stem from memories that she has. Cynthia Rylant seems to do the same—it is powerful to write about the things that you know and have lived. Rylant states, “They say that to be a writer you must first have an unhappy childhood. I don’t know if unhappiness is necessary, but I think maybe some children who have suffered a loss too great for words grow up into writers who are always trying to find those words, trying to find a meaning for the way they have lived…”
Rylant’s books are almost like therapy for her. At the end of her autobiography, she mentions that she has been divorced twice before the age of thirty and that she is ashamed of her failures. Through this, Rylant discovered that she did not expect much happiness from her life—she felt life was supposed to be hard for her. It took her awhile to figure out how to find comfort in a life that did not hurt and she mentioned that today she is happy. She has a son and hopes that his childhood will be easier than hers.
It has been more than twenty years since Rylant’s autobiography has been published. I wonder if she will ever write another one that emphasizes the events of her adult life and how they have provided new inspiration for her books. Would she focus on the negative or the happiness and joy that being a mother has brought to her?