Celebrating the Desert with Byrd Baylor: A Retrospective

by Julie Swarstad

Byrd Baylor, When Clay SingsByrd Baylor is the author of more than twenty books of children's poetry.  Her writing primarily focuses on the places and people of the Southwestern United States.  Four of her books--When Clay Sings (1973), The Desert is Theirs (1976), Hawk, I'm Your Brother (1977), and The Way to Start a Day (1979)--have been recognized as Caldecott Honor Books.  Baylor is a resident of Arivaca.

Byrd Baylor will be signing books at the Poetry Center's Young at Art Festival on April 30th following a performance of Baylor's Desert Voices presented by University of Arizona's Stories on Stage.

Byrd Baylor is one of the most ubiquitous names in Southwestern children's literature.  Baylor's stories are told in free verse that moves quietly forward, celebrating the desert and calling for her readers to spend more time listening to and appreciating the world that surrounds them.  Baylor's publications span a period of over forty years, but the constant throughout her entire career is this sense of a deep and abiding connection to the desert.

Baylor's earliest available publication is Amigo (1963), a surprisingly sweet story of boy and prairie dog who befriend one another told in a sing-song rhyme.  Although Amigo is very different from Baylor's usual style, Baylor's story is simple and fun.  After Amigo, Baylor published several other books (Coyote Cry and Before You Came This Way) before publishing When Clay Sings with illustrations by Tom Bahti in 1972.  Baylor's text--now the free verse that she would continue to write in throughout her career--uses designs from native Southwestern pottery as a point of departure for imagined stories about the people who may have created the images.  Tom Bahti's illustrations were recognized with a Caldecott Honor Medal, but the book deals with the artwork at a very surface level, taking the figures as they are and weaving a little story out of them.  It's worth reading, but readers may find the work a bit dated in its approach.

Byrd Baylor, the Way to Start a DayBaylor's longtime collaboration with illustrator Peter Parnall began in 1974 with the publication of Everybody Needs a Rock.  Parnall's pen-and-ink illustrations pair neatly with Baylor's sparse free-verse text, and his typical choice of browns, reds, oranges, and yellows pull the desert onto the page.  Baylor and Parnall collaborated on ten of Baylor's most well-known books (Everybody Needs a Rock; The Desert is Theirs; Hawk, I'm Your Brother; The Way to Start a Day; The Other Way to Listen; Your Own Best Secret Place; If You are a Hunter of Fossils; Desert Voices; I'm in Charge of Celebrations; and The Table Where Rich People Sit), and it is sometimes difficult to separate Baylor's voice from Parnall's illustrations because the two complement each other so neatly.

Baylor's best work comes from her collaborations with Parnall.  The Other Way to Listen (1978) is a gorgeous enticement to take the time to listen to the world around you.  The story centers on an older friend who teaches the protagonist how to listen to rocks, plants, and other inanimate objects that normally don't receive such attention.  Baylor crafts a simple refrain--"It seemed like the most / natural / thing / in the world"--which carries with a growing momentum throughout the entire story as the protagonist finds the ability to stop and listen.

If You are a Hunter of Fossils (1980) is another wonderful creation by Baylor and Parnall.  Baylor describes the ancient sea that covered the Midwest while Parnall's illustrations depict the desert transforming into an ocean depicted in luscious blue-greens and curving lines.  I'm in Charge of Celebrations (1986) is full of brilliant colors and exciting possibilities for new holidays to celebrate like "Rainbow Celebration Day," "Coyote Day," and "The Time of Falling Stars."  Baylor's writing always seems like a personal conversation with the reader as it explores both the desert and the way we perceive it and interact with it.

In addition to her picture books, Baylor has also written two anthologies of retellings of Native American stories.  And It is Still That Way (1976) and The Way to Make Perfect Mountains (1997; originally published as A God on Every Mountain Top in 1981) are both collections of stories from the Southwest, retold in Baylor's free verse.  Unlike her original stories, these collections offer more text, making them much lengthier reads than Baylor's other work.

Finally, several film adaptations of Baylor's books have been made: The Way to Start a Day, The Other Way to Listen, and Hawk, I'm Your Brother.  Filmed in 1988, The Way to Start a Day features narration by Will Rogers, Jr. and animation of Parnall's illustrations by Will Thompson.  This twelve minute video is very much a product of its time with wailing synthesizer music, but it's fun to see Parnall's artwork on the move and to hear Rogers' quirky reading of Baylor's text.

Baylor is truly a landmark children's writer of the Southwest, and her books are wonderful choice for teaching young readers about the possibilities within free verse poetry while also instilling them with a sense of respect for the desert and an active interest in their surroundings.  Her wide range of stories gives readers plenty to choose from, and fans of her work will find much to enjoy as they explore her distinctive collection.

Created on: 
Thursday, April 14, 2011
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