A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Harlan County native Rebecca Caudill was a prolific children’s, young adult author

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune Columnist

Early in my teaching career, which started at Trapp Elementary School, I received from the school librarian, Mrs. Virginia Owens, lots of recommendations for books to read aloud to my students. My class consisted of about a dozen special education students who lived in the rural part of southeast Clark County, an area on the cusp of the hills of Appalachia. Virginia was astutely attuned to that fact, and she liked to suggest books of that type to connect with the children’s lives.

One of her first suggestions was Did You Carry the Flag Today, Charley? It is an endearing story of a child of the mountains who enters school life with his own ideas about how to behave, and his way is often disruptive. He plays with the water faucet, dangerously climbs a tree to check out an apple, and refuses to come inside out of the rain. Always his desire but with no success, Charley hopes to win the coveted daily “Carry the Flag” award at The Little School, which is given daily to the most helpful student. And though Charley strains both other students and his teacher’s patience, readers can delight in the boy’s delightful creativity, his curiosity, and his authentic personality—and that engenders rooting for the young dynamo to win the recognition.

Mrs. Owens, with whole-hearted enthusiasm, informed me that the author was a Harlan County native by the name of Rebecca Caudill, and Caudill had written another book my class might enjoy called A Pocketful of Cricket. This Caudill book, like Charley, is about a young Appalachian boy, this one named Jay, who with intense curiosity takes a walk into nature and is highly observant of all things around him. He picks up a cricket while on a walk and quickly becomes emotionally attached to the insect, even taking it to school with him while placing it in his hip pocket after emptying his other nature treasures. And just as in Charley, he endured some rough treatment from his classmates before his teacher mitigated the damage by focusing on his positives.

I like both stories for children, and I also believe there is some value to adults in reading them. And why adults? Included are elements such as empathy, mindfulness (being in the “now”), and the idea of adults seeing the best in young people and seeing their aggravating actions as possible strengths if handled in a patient and wise manner. Caudill wrote many more worthwhile books in her life, and I’ll touch on them after first taking a look at her life.

Rebecca Caudill (Photo courtesy of www.rebeccacaudill.org

A daughter of two teachers and one of eleven children, Rebecca Caudill came into this world in 1899, according to William Ward’s The Literary History of Kentucky, “on a rocky farm squeezed between the Black Mountains and the Poor Fork River in Harlan County.” The family moved to Tennessee when she was four. Later as an adult, she resided in Urbana, Illinois, with her husband, James Sterling Ayars, yet she always proclaimed herself an Appalachian and Kentuckian.

In researching Caudill, I initially didn’t find as much about her as expected, but then I came across a paper presented at The Youngstown State University Young Adult Literature Festival in 1998 by Mary Warner. Warner communicated in-depth about many of Caudill’s books, providing a helpful perspective on her overall body of work, mostly children’s and young adult fiction—and almost all set in Appalachia.

Warner described four characteristics of Appalachian culture demonstrated in Caudill’s four young adult novels: Tree of Freedom, The Far-off Land, Barrie and Daughter, and Susan Cornish. First is kindness, encompassing tolerance of others and hospitality. The second is freedom, meaning independence, self-confidence, and a certain element of pride supporting “necessary and authentic self-esteem.” Third, a moral code of integrity, and fourth, the importance of education.

“In addition to the creation of characters and conflicts so true to Appalachia,” noted Warner, “Caudill uses the mountain variety of English, the foods, activities, and elements of nature native to Appalachia for her comprehensive expose of this region. Her writings serve the people well, but her works also speak to the universals in human experience, thus appealing to contemporary audiences from regions well beyond Appalachia.”

Following is a list of Caudill’s published books for young people, ranging from 1943 to 1976. In time, I hope to own a copy of each:

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

• Barrie and Daughter (1943)
• Happy Little Family (1947)
• Schoolhouse in the Woods (1949)
• Tree of Freedom (1949, Newberry Honor Book, 1950)
• Up and Down the River (1951)
• Florence Nightingale (1953)
• Saturday Cousins (1953)
• The House of the Fifers (1954)
• Susan Cornish (1955)
• Schoolroom in the Parlor (1959)
• Time for Lissa (1959)
• Higgins and the Big Scare (1960)
• The Best-loved Doll (1962)
• A Pocketful of Cricket (1964, Caldecott Honor Book)
• The Far-off Land (1964)
• A Certain Small Shepherd (1965)
• Did You Carry the Flag Today, Charley? (1966)
• Come Along (1969)
• Contrary Jenkins (1969)
• Somebody Go and Bang a Drum (1974)
• Wind, Sand, and Sky (1976)

Along with teaching in high school and college, Caudill taught many writing workshops during her career and served as a trustee on the board of Harlan County’s Pine Mountain Settlement School. Additionally, the county’s public library is named in her honor, and in 2014 she was inducted into the Kentucky Writer’s Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the Carnegie Center in Lexington, the first children’s author to be so recognized. Along with those Kentucky recognitions, The Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award, established in her adopted state, is given annually to the favorite book voted on by fourth through eighth graders in Illinois.

Caudill died in 1985 at age 86. She never forgot from where she came, and we thankfully have her literary body of work to remind us.

Sources: A Literary History of Kentucky, by William Ward; Wikipedia.com; The Kentucky Encyclopedia; www2.ferrum.edu; The Encyclopedia of Appalachia; www.rebeccacaudill.org

Related Posts

Leave a Comment