Cynthia Rylant moves about the world of children's books at a rapid pace. Born in 1954, she has already written more than 60 books for children and young teens. You may know her as the author of her first book, When I Was Young in the Mountains, a Caldecott Honor Book published in 1982. She continued to call on her memories of childhood in West Virginia with more picture books, including another Caldecott Honor book, The Relatives Came. Rylant also writes poetry and easy readers remember the Henry and Mudge books and later Poppleton and Mr. Putter and Tabby? More recently, she has even begun illustrating her picture books with the strong, primitive pictures in Cat Heaven, Dog Heaven, and The Whales.
Her strong storytelling skills appeal to middle-graders and young teens in the novels she writes. Though they appear less frequently, they are memorable when they do. In 1986, A Fine White Dust was named a Newbery Honor Book, and in 1992 her Missing May was the Newbery Award winner.
In the newly released novel The Islander, she writes about the area where she now lives the Pacific Northwest. (Incidentally, Rylant painted the picture of the pelican on the cover.) The story is a sort of memoir told by Daniel Jennings, a young man looking back on his 20th birthday. Daniel, a boy of eight, lives alone with his grandfather on a sparsely populated island off the coast of British Columbia. A shy child, he nonetheless yearns for a larger world. The appearance of a mermaid's comb on the beach intrigues him, and he waits into the night, hoping to see the mermaid. When she appears, the comb vibrates and slips through the air until she catches it. Then she speaks Daniel's name before disappearing back into the sea. Soon after, an otter brings him a shell which he pries open to discover a small, very old key, and he knows the mermaid has sent it. From that moment on, he wears the key around his neck.
The remaining story turns on the key. Its vibrations at critical points lead Daniel to find wounded pelicans after a terrible storm hits the island and, the following winter, to rescue a little girl who had disappeared. Time passes until Daniel is 17. After his grandfather's sudden death, he discovers an old photograph of a young woman in his Bible. Written on the back was her name and the dates of her birth and death. She had only lived to be 17, and Daniel determines to unravel the mystery. What follows gives The Islander more excitement and the ring of authenticity. Daniel emerges at the end of the story with gifts from the sea that make him a wise and contented young man, one who has found the companionship he needed. Rylant's haunting story with its mix of reality and fable is one that stays with readers, whether they are middle-graders, young teens, or adults. Rylant's own young life in West Virginia may have been the source of inspiration for Daniel. She describes that stage of her life as being "graced with silence in those mountains, and the smell of flowers and pines, and space." That kind of childhood seems very near to Daniel's spent walking the beach and caring for animals. It has the sort of quiet solitude with nature that enriches a young person and may stimulate imagination later in life. It certainly did for Cynthia Rylant.