Cynthia Rylant is a name that, when uttered, teachers around the country perk up their ears and listen close. Personally, however, I haven’t read enough of Cynthia Rylant to get a feel for her style yet. I’ve read several of her books, but never back to back. When I find a children’s book author I love, I tend to be able to recognize them and their work a mile away. I could pick Mo Willems out of a line-up, and I always know what to expect out of Chris Van Allsburg, but I just haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what makes Cynthia Rylant the household name that it is today. (Click here to visit her website.)
In her book The Old Woman Who Named Things (Published 1996), Cynthia Ryland introduces us to an old woman who loves to, as the title suggests, name things. She has a car named Betsy, a chair named Fred, a bed named Roxanne, and her house in named Franklin. No, she isn’t senile, she’s just lonely. The old woman has outlived all of her friends, and now she refuses to name anything that she might outlive. One day a “shy brown puppy” comes up to her porch and she feeds him, then sends him on his way. She can’t possibly name a living thing that she might outlive. Day after day, time passes and the little brown dog comes to her house. One day, the dog doesn’t visit, and the old woman learns a valuable lesson about friendship and the need to keep your heart open, even as you age.
After reading this book, what stays with me the most, for some reason, is that this woman who loves to name everything never actually gets named in this book. She loves names, and yet Cynthia Rylant never gives her one. I can’t imagine that this is simply an oversight. I believe it is very, very intentional. By not naming the old woman, the old woman becomes a representation of every elderly person out there living on their own. It always breaks my heart when I see old people by themselves, eating dinner at a restaurant or even grocery shopping. I always wonder if they have anyone around them to take care of them or to love them. My grandmother died a little over a year ago, and I remember how I felt when I thought of my grandfather living in the house on his own. It’s not a happy fate, to outlive everyone you know. I really do appreciate Cynthia Rylant’s positive note on the end. It reminds me that we are never too old, never too lonely to still live the life we have.
As I think of my children, I wonder how they will receive this book. I don’t think it will fill them with the same sadness that it gave me. The illustrations lighten the mood of the story. The old woman goes around in cowboy boots and crazy pants, her hair piled high on her head. There’s a lot of lightness to the illustrations, and the old woman really only looks sad when the unnamed dog does not show one day. Kathryn Brown’s watercolors and the subject matter remind me of Mem Fox’s Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, another picturebook that deals with age. What I do think my children will get from this is that friendship can come when we aren’t expecting it. It’s a book that we can use to talk about how people might be lonely, even if on the outside they don’t appear to be so.
I’ve always heard about Cynthia Rylant’s beautiful use of language, and I can definitely see it peeking through in some of her lines. In my class, we talk about golden threads in our writing. Those are lines that leave the reader dazzled, either packed with description or emotion or both. I would certainly put some of her lines on an anchor chart full of golden threads if she was a student in my class. How can you not love the following line, which comes when the old woman realizes that her dog is missing and she never even named him: “Where it was, no one would know that it was supposed to come to the old woman’s gat every day, that she was supposed to feed it and tell it to go home every day, that things were always supposed to be this way.” I feel any attempt for me to over-analyze this line will take away from the beauty of it, from the way it makes me feel inside to read it and reread it and type it and send it out in the world for everyone else to read. Everyone always tells me that they don’t know why or how I can read so much. I can read so much because words like that exist in the world. I think Cynthia Rylant and I are going to have to become much more well-acquainted in the near future.