Sunday, April 17, 2011

Waiting to Waltz: A Childhood

Written by Cynthia Rylant
Drawings by Stephen Gammell

As I continue to read more of Cynthia Rylant’s work, I feel like I am beginning to put pieces of a puzzle together.  She has a remarkable gift to write a picture book that has rhyme and rhythm for a child, yet a message that is profound for an adult.  She can write a novel that will draw you into different characters and leave you feeling satisfied.  She can write a collection of poems such as Waiting to Waltz: A Childhood that can quickly make you connect and reflect upon your own life.
This collection of poems is about Rylant’s childhood growing up in West Virginia.  It isn’t just about her; it is also about the people in her community.  Her perspective of them as she saw them as a child and how she sees them as an adult.  Rylant’s use of free verse allows her to express her feelings about what Beaver is like, the people that live there, poverty, a dog dying, her father dying, religion, and growing up. 
There are many poems that reflect a child’s own experiences and emotions.  For example, Little Short Legs is about a dog that is run over by her mother.  Many children think that their parents are perfect and nothing bad can ever happen to them.  However, we all know that this isn’t a perfect world and bad things can happen to anyone.  “Never knew a grown-up could/make such a mistake.”  Kids will relate to this.  Another example is in the poem PTA.  Many children have working parents and they are not able to attend PTA functions.  As a child, this is hurtful because you want your mom present.  You want to feel proud and be a part of these types of functions.  However, in the end, Rylant is proud that her mother is a nurse and is able to save a child. 
Steven Gammell’s pencil drawings add to the depth of these poems.  Forgotten describes her mother informing Rylant that her father had passed away.  She isn’t really sure what this means to her and how she is supposed to be feeling.  “Nobody else’s dad had been so loved/by a four-year-old./And so forgotten by one/now/thirteen.”  There is a black and white illustration of an empty chair by an end table with an empty glass on top.  There is some light shining through the window and a coat hanger hanging on a hook on the wall.  This illustration depicts emptiness.  The poem The Great Beyond is about Rylant as she went to swim in her friend’s swimming pool.  Rylant did not tell her friend that she didn’t know how to swim.  This poem is about her starting to sink in the deep water.  “Halfway across/the eight-foot end/started to sink.”  “And no one ever knew,/not even Karen,/how close I’d come/ to the great beyond.”  The illustrations are black and white, but there is resemblance of light and dark.  It reminds me of the images I visualize when someone has a near death experience and they say they “see a light.”  Both of these examples, swimming in a hole and a near death experience, remind me of two of her other works;  When I was Young in the Mountains and Missing May.
These poems are well written and include common themes, emotions, and experiences familiar to all children.  Rylant was able to write with precision.  She is able to use the perfect words to convey her experiences growing up without telling her life story. With each work that I read of Rylant, I begin to have a better understanding of who she is and where she comes from.   Rylant writes from her heart and with that comes discussion of social issues.


  1. I never considered pencil drawings "completed." However, I love black and white photo's. These pencil drawings are so creative and exact to the comprehension of the words.

  2. I enjoyed your introduction--great way to summarize Cynthia Rylant. I hadn't thought of, "Seeing the light" with the illustration for the drowning experience.