"Miz Jackson was just talking outta her head, girl":
A Survey of Realism in Appalachian Picture Books

By Judy A. Teaford
Mountain State University, Beckley, WV

Presented at the March 2000 Appalachian Studies Association Conference
(with slides)

Additional AppLit Picture Book Bibliographies with Realism as a Primary Focus:

Realistic Appalachian Picture Books by Judy A. Teaford

Appalachian Christmas Picture Books by Judy A. Teaford

Nature and the Environment in Appalachian Literature by Tina L. Hanlon 

Ruth and Latrobe Carroll's Mid-Twentieth-Century Picture Books: The Tatum Family Series by Judy A. Teaford 

See also 
Index of AppLit Pages: Picture Books  

Hyperlinks within text of paper are author pages, bibliographies, and lesson plans within AppLit.

In Sandra Belton’s 1993 picture book From Miss Ida’s Porch, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, a young girl (Freda), skeptical that Lena Horne has ever stayed the night with now ninety-year-old Miz Jackson, remarks, "Miz Jackson was just talking outta her head, girl." This statement could also apply to several misconceptions about Appalachian picture books. One common fallacy, even among some literary scholars, is that picture books are incapable of portraying reality or accurately presenting any culture since, in fact, they are only for children and often have comic text and illustrations. The second misconception relates to the text of Appalachian picture books, which draw extensively from the oral tradition. Many feel that any use of dialect promotes regional stereotypes. These beliefs reflect flaws in people’s understanding of children’s and Appalachian children’s literature.

The Golden Age of Appalachian picture books–approximately 1980 into the mid 1990s–is a time of abundance. Unfortunately, this abundance almost completely neglects minority characters such as Native and African-Americans. Their stories are heard primarily in short story anthologies, folktales, legends, non-fiction, and young adult novels. From Miz Ida’s Porch is written during this period. The story takes place on a real street in a real town: Church Street in Beckley, West Virginia.  (Note: Sandra Belton said that she used the name of Church Street rather than South Fayette Street–where she actually grew up–because it sounded better (Belton, Sandra. Second Annual West Virginia Book Festival, Charleston, WV, August 2002). Freda’s "talking out of one’s head" presents yet  another potential for illustrating misconceptions. In America many people believe that African-American history was and is still being taught in public schools. Miz Ida’s porch is a telling place, a place where truth, in all its beauty and brutality, is passed on to the next generation. This particular evening the in-between kids find out the truth. They hear stories about Duke Ellington and Marion Anderson, stories about blacks being denied access to motel rooms and other public places, truths the children were not taught in school. However, there are also stories of change, of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, of Marion Anderson singing there many years later and, in 1965, ending her famous career at Constitution Hall, the same place that earlier had refused access to all blacks.

Another lamentable aspect of the Golden Age is the lack of books set in the present. During this time period, many Appalachian writers retell stories of their own childhood. Most are very nostalgic, many overly sentimental. Nevertheless, nostalgia and sentimentality does not exclude reality. Many of my traditional college students believe that nostalgia in picture books is good, that it arouses a need to come back home to carry on the traditions and culture of the region. My non-traditional students view these books with a certain emotional attachment, a way to relive the past. During the mid 1970s, much of coal-producing Appalachia was experiencing an economic boon. When coal prices dropped and demand decreased, there was a mass exodus out of Appalachia. As I consider my students' responses to books of this time period and the declining economy of the region, it seems plausible that these events might account for some of the nostalgia found in Appalachian picture books during the Golden Age.

There are many prolific writers during this period of Appalachian picture books: Cynthia Rylant, George Ella Lyon, Gloria Houston. Cynthia Rylant’s early work reflects some of the best examples of realism in Appalachian picture books. The illustrations by Diane Goode for When I Was Young in the Mountains (1982) are both sensitive and compelling. A young girl’s memories of growing up in the 1950s, the grand-daughter of an Appalachian coal-mining family, reveals the lack of amenities such as running water and electricity. Stephen Gammell’s illustrations for The Relatives Came (1985), a story about an Appalachian family reunion, are fun and bright, but certainly not stereotypical. . . . Somewhere in the mass of relatives, readers can find a person with whom they can identify, a person they know. In this regard, Gammell’s illustrations universalize the book.  George Ella Lyon’s Come a Tide (1990), also illustrated by Stephen Gammell, is a reassuring yet realistic picture book that conveys one little girl’s memory of a flood in eastern Kentucky that comes with winter thaw and springtime rain. Stephen Gammell "unveils a world gone liquid with blues and grays. There’s so much artfully rendered rain, so many splatters and streaks, that the book itself manages to convey the illusion of having been left out in the rain" (Krull 2).

The harsh realities of war are not glossed over in Appalachian picture books.  Cecil’s Story (1991), written by George Ella Lyon and illustrated by Peter Catalan, takes place during the Civil War. Llewellyn McKernan, in Appalachian Journal, does a wonderful job of reviewing the reality of war, separation, and fear in Lyon’s and Catalanotto’s book. She points out several strategies used by Lyon that allow Cecil to bear the painful emotions of being left with neighbors while his mother goes to get his wounded father. As McKernan notes, Catalanotto reinforces Lyon’s gentleness by never showing Cecil alone and by visually reducing Cecil’s grief by creating a montage of the day’s activities in the scene where Cecil cries, wiping his eyes on his shirttail (McKernan 212-213).

Noted for writing stories based on her real-life family and events from her own past, Gloria Houston often sets her books in her childhood home of Spruce Pine, North Carolina. The Sunny Brook General Store in But No Candy (1992), illustrated by Lloyd Bloom, is based on her parents’ store of the same name. Houston’s book also takes place during wartime–World War II–and though more sentimental and limiting in focus, But No Candy does address the indirect impact of war on children.

Anna Egan Smucker’s No Star Nights (1989) and Candice F. Ransom’s When the Whippoorwill Calls (1995) are two poignant stories about the loss that comes with change. Like many other people in the area, the family of When the Whippoorwill Calls is forced to move from their Blue Ridge home when the owners sell the land to make room for the Shenandoah National Park. Kimberly Bulken Root’s beautifully detailed illustrations reveal authentic details of machinery cutting through the land; however, hope is restored when the father and his young daughter return to their old home to find merkle, "a withered brown mushroom," and realize that sometimes change can be good (Ransom). In No Star Nights, illustrated by Steve Johnson, the pollution and danger associated with Smucker’s childhood home of Weirton, West Virginia, where the steel mill is the primary means of employment, is realistic in both text and illustrations. The narrator has found memories of childhood even though the soot from the steel mill darkens the sky and slag heaps endanger the lives of the people. The story ends well after the steel mill has closed and nature has renewed the land. Though most have moved out of Weirton to find gainful employment, grandchildren delight in return visits where they hear stories of "days when all night long the sky glowed red" (Smucker).

Only One (1993), a counting book by Marc Harshman, illustrated by Barbara Garrison, is centered around a country fair. Like Harshman’s other books, there is no mention in the text of an Appalachian setting. However, the content and illustrations of this book do seem to place it in Appalachia. The focus on rural pursuits, such as the one hundred patches that make up one quilt and the three musicians that make up one trio, are consistent with Appalachian life. Anne Shelby’s Homeplace (1995), illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin, also has a folksy quality. Sentimental, but certainly realistic, Homeplace "is a pictorial quilt of one family’s history. The handmade quilt–symbolic of Appalachian harmony, storytelling through memories, and pride in continued traditions and strong heritage–is a recurrent theme in Halperin’s warm, lavishly detailed pencil and watercolor illustrations" (Teaford 40).

My research has revealed only two Appalachian picture books set in the present. These two books, hopefully, mark the beginning of a transitional stage in the Golden Age of Appalachian picture books. In George Ella Lyon’s Mama is a Miner (1994), illustrated by Peter Catalanotto, a young girl pays tribute to her mother, a coal miner. The bitter hardship and danger of coal mining are sharply contrasted with the safe, more traditional role of a caretaker. Lyon’s book offers an accurate and unforgettable picture of modern Appalachia. Marc Harshman’s Moving Days (1994), illustrated by Wendy Popp, also has a contemporary setting. The realistic account of a young boy’s sadness and anticipation while preparing for a move becomes filled with memories of his family as he discovers lost treasures in the attic of their current home. "The illustrations, hazy and dreamlike, yet firmly anchored in concrete details, capture a small, close-knit family and a boy’s swirling emotions" (qtd. in Amazon 2). Though it is almost impossible to determine, Harshman writes that Moving Days is "set right here in Marshall County," West Virginia (Letter). Certainly, Appalachian writers should not always be expected to write with a specific sense of place; however, it is unfortunate that some of the best books go unrecognized as Appalachian.

The Golden Age of Appalachian picture books is not the beginning of writers’ attempts to present a realistic account of the region and its people. Between the 1930s and the Golden Age, recognizable names of Appalachian picture book writers include Ellis Credle, May Justus, Ruth and Latrobe Carroll, and later Rebecca Caudill and Clyde Bulla. Never the completely isolated land historically presented in early local color literature and current popular media, Appalachia is truly a land of diversity and adaptability. Susan Golden writes that in the "1930s and 1940s, [there was] a time of great changes in the mountains, as the TVA, highway construction, and war took their inevitable tolls. . . . [However] a rich and distinctive culture still survives in Appalachia" (14). My evaluation of these earlier books leads me to conclude that some of the writers of this period were influenced by the stereotypes consistent with an "invented" Appalachia. Additionally, like other books of this period, Appalachian children’s books, though entertaining, deliver a more obvious moral than books written after the 1970s. Nonetheless, most of these books also manage to present an accurate and realistic picture of daily life during this time. Earlier writers are not obsessed with the past, but instead focus on the present, setting many of their books in the time period in which they are written.

One of the earliest books that I have located is Down Down the Mountain (1934) by Ellis Credle. Regrettably, this book does contribute to the promotion of one Appalachian stereotype. Two children, Hetty and Hank, who live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, have never owned a pair of shoes and run barefoot both summer and winter. What makes this story realistic, however, is its rich details, both in text and illustration, about Appalachian life during the time. This family lives completely from the land, and is unable to help the children financially. Grandmother advises the children to grow turnips and sell them in town. The two children harvest their turnips and head down the mountain to town. On their way they meet several people, each of whom they provide with some turnips. The story ends happily when the children, with one turnip remaining, win the prize for their entry in the county fair. The strong moral of this early Appalachian story is obvious to all. Daniel’s Duck (1979) by Clyde Robert Bulla, illustrated by Joan Sandin, is a touching book about a boy’s first attempt at wood carving. Bulla’s book illuminates the role of crafts in Appalachia. The warm earth-toned illustrations reveal the rustic details of Tennessee mountain life in earlier times.

During the 1960s, Rebecca Caudill wrote several notable books. A Pocketful of Cricket (1964), illustrated by Evaline Ness, is an excellent addition to science classes. As young Jay brings in the cows on his Kentucky home, he sees many small treasures: flora, fauna, and animals. In A Certain Small Shepherd (1965), illustrated by William Pene Du Bois, Jamie, mute from birth, speaks his first words on an eventful Christmas Eve when strangers spend the night in the church in Hurricane Gap. Jamie’s frustration, his anger, and his happiness are all realistically dealt with in this story that echoes that of the birth of Christ. Did You Carry the Flag Today, Charley (1966), illustrated by Nancy Grossman, is the story of a enthusiastic, curious young boy who attends Little School the summer of his fifth year. Like many young children, Charley always seems to be on the verge of trouble, never quite well-behaved enough to carry the flag, at least not until he helps out in the school library.

May Justus is another well-known name in Appalachia. Her numerous books teach while entertaining. Both Sammy (1946) and Susie (1947) are illustrated by Christine Chisholm and include music in their stories. Sammy explains where ballads come from, includes the musical score of "There Was a Little Tree," and acknowledges Mr. Mellinger E. Henry as the one who provides the version of the folksong used in the book. Susie includes the musical score for "Lazy Lady" and lots of information on the healing uses of herbs. Jean Tamburine’s lush details of mountain life in Justus’ Barney, Bring Your Banjo (1959) are honest and provide much needed relief from the stereotypical depictions of the times.

Between the early fifties and the late seventies, Ruth and Latrobe Carroll, natives of New York, were committed to writing and illustrating Appalachian picture books as accurately as possible. They were notably successful, especially with the seven books in the Tatum Family Series. Regionally specific illustrations and text keep this series from being stereotypical. Individualized characters, adventurous plots, and a zoo of animals are aspects of the books that universalize this series.  Additionally, the Carrolls were ahead of their time in their treatment of Appalachians, particularly in regard to Appalachians’ desire for education and their acceptance of difference and change.

Returning to the present, just as the Golden Age begins to end, the voices of Native and African -American Appalachians are still noticeable absent in Appalachian picture books. However, this is also a time of transition. During this time, there is a marked increase of books set in the present, books which represent diversity in Appalachians, and a moving away from distinctly Appalachian settings toward more universal settings, both by established Appalachian writers and especially younger Appalachian writers. The more often seen contemporary settings, along with the added diversity of Appalachian writing voices, help promote an accurate picture of present day Appalachia. The trend toward more universal settings is ambiguous. Appalachia, like any other region in the nation or the world, "is a complex, multilayered, and intertextual reality" (Blee 119). Obviously, these concerns are addressed by virtue of the universality of the settings. Nevertheless, since the books may remain unrecognized as Appalachian, many of the typical stereotypes that these books address may persist.

Both George Ella Lyon and Marc Harshman have led the way in writing high quality Appalachian picture books, books with contemporary settings and diverse storylines. Contemporary writers such as Brenda Seabrooke, Tres Seymour, and Libba Moore Gray also provide worthwhile contributions with their nostalgic, yet realistic books. In Looking for Diamonds (1995), illustrated by Nancy Mantha, the lyrical text and sparkling illustrations provide ample opportunity to examine the flora and fauna of the rural South. Seymour’s We Played Marbles (1998) juxtaposes one day’s events in the lives of two young boys with those of the Civil War at Fort Craig. Gray’s When Uncle Took the Fiddle (1999), illustrated by Lloyd Bloom, represents a revisiting of music found in many contemporary Appalachian picture books. Although the nostalgic setting does seem to take something away from the story, the importance of music in Appalachia is as real today as it was in the past. And then there is Robyn Eversole’s The Magic House (1992), illustrated by Peter Palagonia, best grouped with books after 1994 because of its contemporary setting and imaginative storyline. April shares her vision of magical wonders with her older sister, Meredith–stairs turn into waterfalls, the washer and dryer into monsters, the living room into a desert. Meredith finally benefits from her younger sister’s spirit by discovering how to give beauty and movement to her dancing. April watches as her imagination transforms Meredith into a graceful swan. The book reveals an Appalachia unknown to many, one where children are like any other children, where dance recitals and nice houses are as common as not. Like Harshman’s books, Eversole’s book does not indicate an Appalachian setting; however, Eversole said the setting is Bridgeport, West Virginia (personal conversation).

Keep an eye out for Faye Gibbons’ Mountain Wedding (1996), illustrated by Ted Rand, and Lady Borton’s Junk Pile (1997), illustrated by Kimberly Bulken Root. Moon Over Tennessee: A Boy’s Civil War Journal (1999) by Craig Crist-Evans, illustrated by Bonnie Christensen, is written in free verse diary entries. The narrator, a thirteen-year-old boy who works in the camp away from the front lines of the Civil War, describes scenes of violence and tension that accompany war. The book is realistic, yet not overly graphic.

Throughout the history of Appalachian picture books and illustrated chapter books, some writers have fallen prey to the influences of an "invented" Appalachia, but even among these, most have spoken volumes about the reality of Appalachian life. What does the future of Appalachian picture books hold for the region? What can writers now do to help replace an "other," an "invented" Appalachia with the real Appalachia? In my perfect world, the diversity of writing voices and contemporary settings found in Appalachian picture books written around 1994 will continue, and the innovative and talented writers whose books lack acknowledgment of their Appalachian settings will begin to indicate such in author’s notes or elsewhere.

Primary Sources

Belton, Sandra. From Miss Ida’s Porch. Illus. Floyd Cooper. New York: Four Winds, 1993.

Borton, Lady. Junk Pile. Illus. Kimberly Bulken Root. New York: Philomel, 1997.

Bulla, Clyde Robert. Daniel’s Duck. Illus. Joan Sandin. New York: HarperTrophy, 1979.

Carroll, Ruth, and Latrobe Carroll. Beanie. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Oxford UP, 1953.

---. Runaway Pony, Runaway Dog. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Henry A. Walck, 1963.

---. Tough Enough. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Oxford UP, 1954.

---. Tough Enough and Sassy. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Henry A. Walck, 1958.

---. Tough Enough’s Indians. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Henry A. Walck, 1960.

---. Tough Enough’s Pony. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Oxford UP, 1957.

---. Tough Enough’s Trip. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Oxford UP, 1956.

Caudill, Rebecca. A Certain Small Shepherd. Illus. William Pene Du Bois. New York: Henry Holt, 1965.

---. Did You Carry the Flag Today, Charley? Illus. William Grossman. New York: Yearling Book, 1966.

---. Pocket Full of Crickets. Illus Evaline Ness. New York: Holt Owlet Book, 1964.

Crist-Evans, Craig. Moon Over Tennessee: A Boy’s Civil War Journal. Illus. Bonnie Christensen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Eversole, Robyn Harbert. The Magic House. Illus. Peter Palagonia. New York: Orchard Books, 1992.

Gibbons, Faye. Mountain Wedding. Illus. Ted Rand. New York: Morrow, 1996.

Gray, Libba Moore. When Uncle Took the Fiddle. Illus. Lloyd Bloom. New York: Orchard Books, 1999.

Harshman, Marc. Moving Days. Illus. Wendy Popp. New York: Holiday House, 1995.

---. Only One. Illus. Barbara Garrison. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1993.

Houston, Gloria. But No Candy. Illus. Lloyd Bloom. New York: Philomel Books, 1992.

Justus, May. Barney, Bring Your Banjo. Illus. Jean Tamburine. New York: Henry Holt, 1959.

---. Sammy. Illus. Christine Chisholm. Chicago: Albert Whitman, 1946.

---. Susie. Illus. Christine Chisholm. Chicago: Albert Whitman, 1947.

Lyon, George Ella. Cecil’s Story. Illus. Peter Catalanotto. New York: Orchard Books, 1991. 

---. Come a Tide. Illus. Stephen Gammell. New York: Orchard, 1990.

---. Mama is a Miner. Illus. Peter Catalanotto. New York: Orchard, 1994.

Ransom, Candice F. When the Whippoorwill Calls. Illus. Kimberly Bulken Root. New York: Tambourine, 1995.

Rylant, Cynthia. The Relatives Came. Illus. Stephen Gammell. New York: Bradbury, 1985.

---. When I Was Young in the Mountains. Illus. Diane Goode. New York: Dutton, 1982.

Seabrooke, Brenda. Looking for Diamonds. Illus. Nancy Mantha. New York: Cobblehill, 1995.

Seymour. Tres. We Played Marbles. Illus. Dan Andreasen. New York: Orchard Books, 1998.

Shelby, Anne. Homeplace. Illus. Wendy Anderson Halperin. New York: Orchard, 1995.

Smucker, Anna Egan. No Star Nights. Illus. Steve Johnson. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Secondary Sources

Blee, Kathleen M., and Dwight B. Billings. "Where ‘Bloodshed Is a Pastime’ Mountain Feuds and Appalachian Stereotyping." Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes: Back Talk from an American Region. Eds. Dwight B. Billings, Gurney Norman, and Katherine Ledford. Lexington: Kentucky UP, 1999. 119-137.

Golden, Susan. "Appalachia." Review of Come a Tide by George Ella Lyon. Book Links Reading the World May 1991: 14-21.

Harshman, Marc. Letter to Judy A. Teaford. 11 Dec. 1997.

Krull, Kathleen. Come a Tide. New York Times on the Web 14 Oct. 1990. Accessed 23 Oct. 1999.  

McKernan, Llewellyn. "Reviews." Review of Dreamplace, Who Came Down That Road, The Outside Inn, Cecil’s Story, Basket, Come a Tide, Together, A B Cedar: An Alphabet of Trees by George Ella Lyon. Appalachian Journal 21.2 (Winter 1994): 207-217.

Teaford, Judy. "Contemporary Appalachian Picture Books." M. A. Thesis. Marshall Univ. Graduate College, 1998.

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