On March 4 as part of the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book, Shannon Hitchcock (She Sang for the Mountains: The Story of Jean Ritchie Singer Songwriter, Activist) discussed her picture book in a presentation for school groups across Virginia.
Watch the video from this event here and read the transcript below:
About the Book
“A hearty portrait of the ‘Mother of Folk,’ emphasizing the belief that music can create change.”—Publishers Weekly
This lyrical picture book biography of songwriter and activist Jean Ritchie-Singer traces her life from the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky to New York City and beyond as her protest songs inspired a nation. The author and illustrator previously teamed up for the stunning biography Saving Granddaddy’s Stories: Ray Hicks, the Voice of Appalachia.
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SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book, presenting a Virtual School Visit with Shannon Hitchcock. I’m Sarah Lawson, Associate Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. A couple notes before we begin. Please share your questions for the author using the Q&A tab on Zoom, and we will get to as many as possible at the end of today’s event. This event also has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time using the tab at the bottom of your window. If you’d like to rewatch this event later, it will be available along with other videos from Festival speakers at VaBook.org/watch.
Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s featured author. Shannon Hitchcock, author of She Sang for the Mountains: The Story of Jean Ritchie Singer, Songwriter, Activist was born in North Carolina and grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She is the author of four middle-grade novels and two picture book biographies.
She Sang for the Mountains is a lyrical picture book biography of singer and activist Jean Ritchie that traces her life from the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky to New York City and beyond, as her protest songs inspired a nation. Publishers Weekly called it “a hearty portrait of the ‘Mother of Folk,’ emphasizing the belief that music can create change.”
Shannon, thank you so much for being here. Take it away.
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: Thank you. All right, can everybody see? Let’s hope so. I am the author of The Storytellers’ series, and I’m going to tell you a little bit about those books. They are illustrated books, picture book biographies, which means they are books about an actual person who lived.
The reason they’re called Storytellers is because each book in the series explores a different way to tell a story. The first book is called Saving Granddaddy’s Stories: Ray Hicks, the Voice of Appalachia. Ray was an oral storyteller, and what that basically means is he was not reading his stories out of books. He was telling stories that had been handed down through his family for generations. And sometimes he made up stories of his own. The stories that Ray is most famous for telling are Jack tales. A good example of the Jack tale would be the story “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
The second book in the series, She Sang for the Mountains: The Story of Jean Ritchie Singer, Songwriter, Activist, is about a ballad singer. And a ballad is really just a story set to music. So Jean was telling her stories through music.
The third book in the series will be coming in September, and that book is called Story Quilts, and it’s about how Appalachian women told stories through the quilts that they sewed. And that the very end, I’m going to let you in on a secret. There is a fourth book. I just signed the contract for it last week. And I’ll tell you what that book is going to be about. So we’re going to be looking at the different ways that people have shared stories.
A little bit about how I became a writer and a storyteller is, when I was a little girl, my favorite thing to do was have my mother read aloud to me. This is a book that is a little bit worse for wear. It was my favorite book. It was full of fairytales. And you can see on the cover there is a giant beanstalk and the boy Jack. And I think that’s why I was drawn to writing about Ray Hicks—is because “Jack and the Beanstalk” and Jack tales were his favorite stories too.
I grew to love stories because of my mom reading aloud to me, but I became a storyteller because of my sister. Here you see the two girls in the rocking chairs. I am the larger child. And then my sister Robin is waving to you. When we were little girls, we shared a bedroom, and my parents would turn out the lights and expect us to go to sleep. But that never happened.
Robin would whisper, “Tell me a story.”
I could not read her a story because the lights were out, so I had to make up stories. And I’m still making up stories today.
I live in Asheville, North Carolina, in the mountains. And because of that, I’m very interested in Appalachian culture. I like to read about it. I like to write about it. I think we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I’m surrounded by this kind of beauty every day, and it’s why I’m drawn to Appalachian stories.
The illustrator for my books is Sophie Page. Sophie is a mixed media illustrator. She crafts her images in two and three dimension out of paper, clay, fabric, and wire. So as we go through, we’re going to look at some of Sophie’s illustrations, and I want you to notice how unique they are. I really think they add a wonderful flavor to the books.
We’re going to start and talk about Ray’s story for just a minute, and then we’ll switch over and we’ll talk about Jean’s story. So let’s start with Saving Granddaddy’s Stories: Ray Hicks, the Voice of Appalachia.
A picture book is really a marriage of words and art. I am not an illustrator, so it’s always a lot of fun for me to write the words and then see what Sophie is going to do with my words—to see how she is going to illustrate them.
So this says: Granddaddy started his stories by saying, “Now, Jack.” Same Jack as “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but mountain folks changed him to fit their way of living. Their Jack was a poor mountain boy. Their Jack lived in a log cabin, worked hard farming, traded his cow for a magic bean because he was starving.
When somebody tells a story orally, it’s never exactly the same any two times. They can make it longer. They can make it shorter. They can add details. They can take details out. It’s really interactive with the audience and based on how the audience is responding to the story. And the same thing happened with the Jack tales.
When the first settlers came over to the Appalachian Mountains, they brought the Jack tales with them from the British Isles—from England and Scotland and Ireland. But over time, these stories evolved. So Jack—all of a sudden, he became a poor mountain boy, and he was living in a log cabin. The story changed to reflect the way they were living in the Appalachian Mountains.
These books make really fun read-alouds, but they’re also about some serious topics. Ray’s family was very poor, and he often didn’t have enough to eat.
Ray Hicks grew up among the shimmering peaks and coves of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but times were hard. Ray often went hungry. Mountain folks said their bellies were eatin’ their backbones. Ray kept from starving by picking wild berries, gathering chestnuts, snatching a turnip from a neighbor’s garden.
Ray also wore hand-me-down clothes because his family was poor. When his older brother would outgrow his clothes, they would get passed down to Ray. The only problem was Ray was taller than his brother and a lot skinnier. So they often didn’t fit very well.
Ray wore hand-me-down britches as wide as a creek and short enough to wade across it. On the three-mile walk to school, they swung from side to side. The other kids called him “ole wide pockets.” That must have hurt Ray’s feelings. I think we can all agree it’s never a good idea to make fun of somebody’s clothes.
These books are also full of history. Song catchers were men and women who traveled across the United States between the First and the Second World War, and they went into these remote areas, and they recorded folk songs because they were afraid they would be forgotten. Both Ray’s family and Gene’s family were recorded by song catchers. Ray’s family was recorded by Frank and Anne Warner, and Gene’s family was recorded by Cecil Sharpe.
When Ray was a teenager, song catchers traveled the country, recording folk songs. Ray’s kin sang lonesome ballads, fiddled, and danced, strummed handmade banjos and dulcimers.
Ray was a white man from Appalachia, but every year he went to the International Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee. So a very easy way to make learning about Ray and oral storytelling multicultural is to look at the International Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro because people come from all over the world, from every cultural background you can imagine, to tell their stories.
Now let’s talk about Jean’s story, She Sang for the Mountains: The Story of Jean Ritchie Singer, Songwriter, Activist. One of my favorite things in the illustrations is the way that Sophie made the dulcimer. The dulcimer is the musical instrument you see there on the cover.
These books are full of figurative language, and that’s just a way that writers make their stories more colorful. I’ll give you an example as we look at the text.
In the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky, Jean Ritchie heard music everywhere: in the tinkling stream, in the hoot owl’s call, when the rain played a lullaby on the farmhouse roof.
Now when I say the rain played a lullaby, the rain wasn’t actually playing a lullaby, right? But anybody who’s ever slept at night, especially under a tin roof, and heard rain hit the roof, it kind of lulls you to sleep. So that’s just a more colorful way that I tell you what was happening and how Jean heard music everywhere.
Another theme that is running through Jean’s story is about how life always changes, and you can’t really stop it. Nothing stays the same.
Jean grew like a sapling, and life in the Cumberland Mountains began to change. Rumbling cars replaced rambling walks. The roar of radios replaced the strum of strings. A heavy feeling hung over the hills. Jean wished she could turn back time. Her brothers and sisters left home one by one. Finally, it was Jean’s turn to go.
Where do you suppose she went? We’re going to turn the page and find out.
Jean went to New York City. She got a job at the Henry Street Settlement House, and she became a social worker.
Jean taught the songs of the hills to the children of the city—songs that had echoed through the mountains for generations. Her clear, lilting voice caught the ear of a song collector. He recorded her ballads for the Library of Congress and introduced her to folk singers who harmonized and protested.
So here this is another favorite thing of mine that Sophie crafted. She’s got small pictures here of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Carl Sandburg, and Doc Watson. These are some of the people that Jean had the opportunity to perform with. And these men often sang songs about things that they thought were wrong in the country—things that needed fixing. And they influenced Jean. They influenced what she wrote about.
Though Jean was far from home, she had something to protest too. Companies who mined the coal and moved on, leaving old men with black lung disease, young men in need of work, and rusty railroad cars.
So Jean is going to use her voice.
Jean raised her voice and sang for the mountains.
I was born and raised in the mouth of the Hazard Hollow.
Coal cars rambled past my door.
Now they’re standin’ in a rusty row all empty
And the L&N
Don’t stop here anymore.
The L&N was the local railroad. And any time when you’re reading this book and you see words that are inside a box like that, those are actual lyrics from songs that Jean sang. And my publisher got permission to use these lyrics. If we hadn’t, that would not be fair, right? That would be plagiarism. So we had to get permission.
Jean published her protest songs under the name Than Hall. She believed a man’s music would be taken more seriously.
That’s a sad commentary on the time that Jean lived. And honestly, there’s some of it still today. So I think we can agree that it’s not fair to treat somebody differently because of their sex or their gender.
Jean inspired other people.
The coal companies started strip mining—digging and blasting into the mountains. It poisoned the water. Again, Jean raised her voice and sang for the mountains.
I come from the mountains. Kentucky’s my home
Where the wild deer and black bear so lately did roam
By the cool rushing waterfall the wildflowers dream
And through every green valley there runs a clear stream.
Now there’s scenes of destruction on every hand
And only black waters run down through my land.
So what happened was other people heard Jean’s song “Black Waters,” and they locked arms, and they stood in front of coal trucks and bulldozers. And they sang for the mountains just like Jean.
Strip mining gave way to mountaintop removal—blowing the tops off mountains to mine for coal. It ripped trees from the forests, filled valleys with rocks and dirt, left the mountains desolate, bare, and ugly.
The thing about mountaintop removal is, once you blow the top off of a mountain, you can never put it back. You have altered the landscape forever.
At the beginning of this book, we see Jean as a little girl who heard music everywhere. In the middle, we see her in New York City, and we see her performing and writing songs. Here in the end, we see her still performing, still writing songs. It’s a story of perseverance because sometimes the changes that we want to see happen slowly.
Jean wrote another song—an environmental hymn. She raised her voice and sang for the mountains.
My Lord, he said unto me,
“Do you like my garden so fair?
You may live in this garden if you’ll keep the grasses green,
And I’ll return in the cool of the day.”
So the takeaway from both these books is I hope you identify with Ray Hicks and realize your family has stories worth sharing too. Talk to your parents, your grandparents, family, friends, aunts, uncles—ask them to tell you stories about when they were growing up. And I hope Gene’s story will inspire you. Every one of us have talents. We have abilities. And when we see something wrong, it’s our responsibility to speak up and to say so.
If your teacher would like to teach you more about Jean and Ray, on YouTube you can listen to Jean sing all of the songs that are in the text of this book, and you can also watch Ray tell stories. I warn you beforehand he has a very thick Appalachian accent, so you have to listen carefully.
So I told you a third book is coming in September, and that book is called Story Quilts. Sophie is also the illustrator for the entire series. And I just signed the contract for book four, and it’s called Of Words and Water: The Story of Wilma Dykeman Writer, Historian, Environmentalist. And Wilma was a writer who a lot of her fiction and nonfiction dealt with river contamination. And so Wilma was a writer that helped inspire activists that eventually we ended up having the Clean Water Act. So she was just one part of that—one small part of that.
So now I’m going to stop sharing my screen, and we will have some time for questions.
SARAH LAWSON: Thank you, Shannon. That was wonderful. Just amazing to see how the artwork came together and hear more about the stories and the people that inspired the stories. We have some great questions from students in the Q&A, and everyone out there remember that you can add yours still to the Q&A or the chat. We’ll start with a question from Mrs. Grissom’s second grade class, who would like to know: do you sing?
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: No. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do. You just don’t want to hear it. I don’t sing very well.
SARAH LAWSON: Fair enough. So kind of related. When did you know that you wanted to be a storyteller, since obviously you did not want to be a singer?
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: Really when I was a little girl, I started telling stories with my sister. And all through school, my favorite classes were always English classes and stories. But when I really decided I wanted to write children’s books was when my little boy—well, my little boy is now twenty-eight years old. But when he was a little boy and I used to read books to him, I started thinking that I wanted to write books of my own.
SARAH LAWSON: Very good. And when did you actually start making books is a question from Miss Jackson’s class?
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: My first book was published in 2013. So that was—now I will tell you that before that I was publishing magazine stories with Highlights for Children and Cricket and Pockets and some of the little magazines. So my first magazine story was published in 2005.
SARAH LAWSON: Okay, very good. And what was the title of the first book you wrote is a question that someone put in the Q&A.
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: The first book I wrote was called The Ballad of Jessie Pearl.
SARAH LAWSON: Excellent, thank you. All right, we have another question from Miss Jackson’s class. How long did this book take for you to make from start to finish? The most recent one.
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: The Jean Ritchie book—it probably—now when I tell you a couple of years, all of that’s not me, right? Because I write the book—or I write the words—and then I sell them to a publisher. And then the publisher contracts an illustrator, and then the illustrator has to work on those with an art director. And then books go out about three months ahead of time to review journals. And then before all that, they have to be printed, and they go out to review journals. It’s just a long process.
But I’ll tell you what takes me the longest is the research. Because although these books are illustrated and they’re short, I have to know a lot of information. And then I have to figure out how to condense that information and make it fit under thirty-two pages and make sure that I’ve given the illustrator something to work with on every one of those pages.
So the hardest part for me is when I do all this research, I want to tell you everything I know. And I can’t do that. I have to find a theme, and I have to make sure that every spread goes with the theme.
SARAH LAWSON: Excellent. And that hits on another question from Mrs. Grissom’s second grade class, which is how would you define the themes of your books—the series overall. They’ve been learning about themes in their class, and they’re curious to know what your theme is.
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: Well, the overall theme is the different ways of telling stories. That’s the overall theme of the series. Because we’ve looked at oral storytelling. We’re looking at ballad singing. We’re looking at crafts—how people told stories through quilting. Then we’re going to look at an actual Appalachian author. So writing a story that is published. And there may be other books to this series, and I’ve thought about maybe doing one about food—how we tell stories through the food that we grow and make for our families. I’ve thought about maybe doing an Appalachian poet and talking about poetry. So the overall theme is different ways to tell stories.
In Jean’s story, I think the overall theme for that book is perseverance. Because Jean was upset about the way the landscape and the mountains was being altered by coal mining. And she throughout her long life continued to advocate for change. And it’s still something that’s ongoing. We’re still grappling with that. So it’s really about how change happens slowly and that it takes a lot of perseverance, and you can’t lose heart.
SARAH LAWSON: That’s wonderfully said. Thank you. We have a question from Kimberly, who is curious to know what inspired you to write about the specific people that you chose to write about.
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: Honestly, adult biographies. I love biographies. And so I read an adult biography about Ray Hicks. But the reason I read that biography in the first place is because I went to college at Appalachian State University in Boone, and that is close to where Ray lived. And when I was in college, Ray was named a National Heritage fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. And so for a lot of my professors, that was a big deal, and I remember us talking about it in my college classes. So that’s why I was interested in him—because of where I’d gone to college and because I knew about him. And then when I happened to pick up an adult biography about him, I was like, “Ooh, I’d like to tell this story for children.”
And then when I was—I research far and wide. So I was researching Ray, and I ran across Jean. And I thought, oh, there’s an adult biography about her. In her case, it was an autobiography, and it’s called Singing Family of the Cumberlands. And I thought, oh, I want to read that. And then I read it ,and I thought, ooh, I want to write about her too.
So that’s kind of what happens. I read this stuff, and then I start thinking about ways to perhaps tell the story that I’m reading as an adult to children.
SARAH LAWSON: That’s awesome. Thank you for doing that. All right, we are almost at time, so we have one final question—actually, a two-parter. But from Mrs. Kidwell’s class. They would like to know whether it is difficult to write a book and also what is your favorite book.
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: Yes, it is very difficult to write a book. And I don’t think books are ever written. They are rewritten. I have so many drafts of these books that you see on my computer. There may be twenty-five before I finally think this is good enough to show to my agent and to my editor. And I will tell you that that book that I then think is wonderful—they will have so many changes. I recently got the changes for my fourth book that’s coming, Of Words and Water, and I spent a day saying, “I can’t do this. I don’t know how to fix this. I can’t do this.”
But the good news is because I have several published books, I know that I can do it. And I know that that’s just part of my initial reaction to getting those letters. It’s just like, “Ahh!” And if I just keep thinking about it, it will come to me, and I will know how to fix it. Because I am an okay writer, but I am an excellent reviser.
SARAH LAWSON: Very good.
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: And what was the second part?
SARAH LAWSON: Favorite book. Or maybe a book that you would recommend to young readers out there.
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: Oh, there are so many. The only thing I can do is tell you the most recent books that I have read. I don’t know that I really have a favorite. I read a book called Roll with It by Jamie Sumner that I thought was really good. It’s about a young girl who has cerebral palsy. But it’s just done so well, and Jamie herself has a child with cerebral palsy. And I think she just did a fantastic job on this book. And I haven’t read this book yet, but I have one that—let me see where it got to. I told you I love picture book biographies. And so this one is called Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention. It’s by Barb Rosenstock.
So I’m always ordering books. So this one is one that I read, and it’s in my “to be read” stack. But I can tell you that everything that Barb Rosenstock writes is awesome. She is one of the authors that I study. I study her books as mentor texts because I think she is the queen of picture book biographies. And so I would recommend anything that she has ever written.
SARAH LAWSON: Wonderful. Thank you so much. Thank you. Ms. Hitchcock. We have enjoyed this so greatly. Thank you to everyone who has tuned in. I am so sorry that it is time to wrap things up, but this has been fantastic. We hope that you will also visit VaBook.org to explore the full schedule of upcoming Virginia Festival of the Book events, including another event with Ms. Hitchcock later this month. And thank you again for tuning in. Thank you, Shannon.
SHANNON HITCHCOCK: Bye. Thank you so much.