Every once in a while, as a child, you encounter a book that becomes part of your own narrative. When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant was one such book for me. It details the daily life of a girl growing up in the Appalachian Mountains—she tells of her days spent swimming in the muddy swimming hole, attending church in the one-room schoolhouse, eating fried okra at her grandmother’s table, and sitting on the porch swing with her family. The repetition of the title phrase, the gentle illustrations, and the careful details make the book the reading equivalent of comfort food.
Appalachia is a complex region not short on hardships. Even in the narrator’s idyllic remembering, we see that the children are being raised by their grandparents and that the grandfather must mine coal for a living. For centuries, outside companies have taken advantage of the rich coal, timber, and other natural resources without also appreciating and investing in the people and the culture. Even in the media, Appalachians are often portrayed as backward and poor, when in actuality, we are a tough people abundant in family and tradition. We may not have a booming economy, but we have carved out lives on the sides of wild mountains among the galax and the ginseng. We have passed down music and stories that otherwise would have been lost to the past. We are rooted.
Cynthia Rylant and illustrator Diane Goode capture the Appalachia I know and love in a simple and beautiful way with a softened glow that comes from passing time. Now that I no longer live in Appalachia, reading this book allows me an escape back to my mountains, even if just for a few moments.
What children’s books have become part of your childhood memories?