Old white people are everywhere! When I Was Young In The Mountains, a Caldecott Honor book written by Cynthia Rylant and published in 1982, is a story about a young girl and her time living in the mountains with her grandparents and younger brother. There are several sociological institutions that this children’s book addresses: race, family, gender and religion.
The illustrations throughout the book depict a very non-diverse community. Everyone is white. The children and grandparents are white, Mr. and Mrs. Crawford (the shopkeepers) are white, even the entire church congregation is white! Surprisingly, the only dark illustration happens on the first page when the grandfather first comes home covered in soot from working all day in the coal mines. It’s interesting to consider why there are no other races shown. Good children’s books these days are praised for their use of diversity. Was race not that important in the early 1980’s? Or maybe race was too important?
This book shows children a good example of what the typical power dynamic of a family back a couple of decades ago was like. The powerful person in this family was the grandmother. One would like to think that the grandfather has the power role because he is the man, head of the household and breadwinner; however, the grandmother is the one that does everything and keeps the household and family running. The grandmother is shown to be the person who cares for the house and family. She is depicted as the protector when she takes the young girl to the outhouse at night and is charged with scaring, and sometimes killing, snakes. The grandmother is finally shown as the nurturing member by crying when cousin Peter is baptized. The only real actions that the reader sees the grandfather do is working at the coal mine at the beginning of the book and sharpening pencils at the end of the book. This family dynamic is not something typically observed in society’s today. Today’s view would either show the man as the power person or both of the grandparents with equal responsibilities.
Looking at the illustrations in this book, it also shows the sister (and the other woman) in a typical female role. The book shows this initially with the cover of the book. The young girl is standing with her brother in a protective motherly manner. The first page has the young girl welcoming her grandfather very demurely. The next page shows the girl going to the outhouse under the protection of her grandmother. In the middle of the book, the illustration shows the girl warming up her brother by towel drying him in the kitchen resembling a mothering type role. In the picture of the baptism, the girl has her arm around her younger brother. And finally in a page towards the very end, the illustrator has drawn the young girl helping her grandmother with shelling beans while the brother sits on the ground and plays with the dogs. The young girl (and all of the females in the book) are always shown in long dresses with their hair pulled back.
This book also touches on religion. It illustrates the importance that religion plays in that environment. The only time that the rest of the community was shown was on the page illustrating the church service. The author lets the reader know that the family attends church on a weekly basis (on Sunday’s at the schoolhouse). It also shows the act of baptizism by immersion rather than other ways such as anointing the head with holy water. I find these two pages on religion an important underlying factor of the book.
Rylant, Cynthia. When I Was Young in the Mountains. New York: Penguin Group, 1982. Print.