West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature

Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds

by Cynthia Rylant

Listen as you follow the text.

The people who live in Appalachia grew up more used to trees than sky and inside them had this feeling of mystery about the rest of the world they couldn't see because mountains came up so close to them and blocked their view like a person standing in a doorway. They weren't sure about going beyond these mountains, going until the land becomes flat or ocean, and so they stayed where they knew for sure the sun would come up in the morning and set again at night.

Many of them are coal miners because the mountains in Appalachia are full of coal which people want and if you are brave enough to travel two miles down into solid dark earth to get it, somebody will pay you money for your trouble.

Those who don't live in Appalachia and don't understand it sometimes make the mistake of calling these people "hillbillies." It isn't a good word for them. They probably would prefer "Appalachians." Like anyone else, they're sensitive about words.

The houses in Appalachia are as different as houses anywhere. Some are wood and some are brick. Some have real flowers in pots on the porch and some have plastic ones. Some have shiny new cars parked in their driveways and some have only the parts of old cars parked in theirs. Most have running water inside the house, with sinks in their kitchens, washing machines in their basements, and pretty blue bathrooms.


In their bedrooms there are usually one or two or three quilts somebody in the family made. In the winter these are on the bed, but usually not on top. And in the summer they stay folded up on shelves in small dark closets which smell of old wood and moth balls.

Morning in these houses in Appalachia is quiet and full of light and the mountains out the window look new, like God made them just that day. Night in these houses is thick, the mountains wear heavy shawls of fog, and giant moths flap at the porch lights.

The men and women and children who live in Appalachia have no sourness about them and though they are shy toward outsiders, they will wave to you if you drive by in your car whether they know your face or not. . . . Most of them are thinkers, because these mountains inspire that, but they could never find the words to tell you of these thoughts they have. They talk to you of their corn or their cows instead and they keep the thoughts to themselves.

When they die, they will want the preacher at their church to say the words at their funeral and they will want to be buried in the Appalachian Mountains with their families.

From Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds, by Cynthia Rylant (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1991). The picture book has realistic paintings by Barry Moser (not photographs as on this page).

Cynthia Rylant grew up in Cool Ridge, in Raleigh County, West Virginia. She lived with her grandparents and other relatives in a four-room house.

See also quotation from Rylant's When I Was Young in the Mountains at the end of this teaching unit.

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West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature is a self-contained teaching unit by Avis Caynor and Reneé Wyatt (1997), reprinted with permission in 2003 in the larger web site AppLit.

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