Mary Lyn Ray

Mary Lyn Ray is a conservationist and author of several picture books for children. Ray’s texts are often praised for their lyricism and emotional depth, and in her works she frequently focuses on humankind’s relationship with nature. Among her critically acclaimed titles are Pumpkins, Shaker Boy, and Welcome, Brown Bird.

Ray was born in Louisiana and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. “But I never felt identity there,” she once told Something about the Author (SATA). “When I was very young, one of my favorite books was about an old farm in New Hampshire. If the idea was not already planted in me when I was born, the book—Tasha Tudor’s Snow before Christmas—planted it.” Ray has lived in New England since 1964, when she first came east to attend college. In 1973 she began living in New Hampshire, and in 1984 she relocated to South Danbury, the place she feels she has “always been coming to.” As Ray recalled to SATA: “I saw and felt a poetry in this place. A kind of scenery. Everything I write is in some way informed by the memory and poetry I’ve found here. But I’m not just taking stories from this place. As it has become a part of me, I have had to risk opening myself to it. Everything I write is, in some way, from my life. And much comes directly from this old New Hampshire farm where I live.”

When Ray bought her farmhouse, which is about 150 years old, it “hadn’t been lived in for forty years,” she told SATA. “It had never had electricity or plumbing or running water, and squirrels and raccoons and foxes had taken it over.” Room by room, she restored, plastered, and painted, but was careful to leave it “still an old house with old memories in it.” A few years after she moved to her new home, 160 acres of farmland surrounding the house were put up for sale. “I knew that I would buy the land to protect it from development,” Ray said. “What I didn’t know was how I would pay for it.”

When Ray’s sister jokingly suggested that she could plant pumpkins in the fields and sell them to earn the necessary money, Ray was inspired with the idea for her 1992 picture book, Pumpkins. In this story, a man worries that the field across from his home will be sold to developers. He sells almost everything he owns to try to raise money to buy the land himself, but he still does not have enough. So he plants pumpkin seeds. In the fall the man harvests 461,212 pumpkins—so many that he has to ship them around the world to sell them. Now he is able to buy the land, but he keeps one pumpkin for seeds. Pumpkins, he knows, could make him rich, but he chooses to give the seeds away, “because somewhere someone might love another field pumpkins could save.”

Although Ray didn’t plant pumpkins, she did buy the land and has protected it in perpetuity with a conservation easement. “My commitment to saving this farm has encouraged neighbors to protect their land also—some 6,000 acres are now conservation land—and has sparked a larger project to create a greenway linking nine towns and three mountains in a preserve of thousands and thousands of acres. These numbers are dramatic; it’s not everywhere that so much contiguous land can be protected. But everywhere something is possible, and that’s what Pumpkins speaks to.”

Ray has received several conservation awards for her work protecting New Hampshire’s natural areas, but “it has had a cost,” she explained to SATA. Because she didn’t take her sister’s suggestion and plant pumpkins, she had to borrow all of the money from a bank, intending to repay the loan by allowing excavation of a lapsed gravel pit. Unfortunately, the deposit of gravel turned out to be shallow, and “Suddenly I held a loan I couldn’t expect to pay.” Once again, her circumstances suggested a story: in A Rumbly Tumbly Glittery Gritty Place a child explores a gravel pit, which for her becomes a special, secret place wherein she has wonderful adventures. As Ray noted to SATA, the story reminded her “of what children know, but we outgrow childhood and forget.”

Other books by Ray also center around the people and places the author has come to know in New Hampshire. For example, she was inspired to write Alvah and Arvilla after attending the wedding of two of her neighbors. Since the couple ran a dairy farm, their honeymoon only lasted one night because they had to be home the following morning to milk the cows. In the story that grew from this, Alvah and Arvilla, who are farmers too, have been married for thirty-one years. However, they have never taken a vacation due to the daily demands of running their farm. To achieve her dream of seeing the Pacific Ocean, Arvilla convinces her husband to pack up their belongings and all their animals to make the journey to California. After the unusual assortment of characters spends several days relaxing on the beach, they return home, where they spread sand they collected to make their own miniature beach.

Pianna was also inspired by one of Ray’s neighbors. Set in the early 1900s, the book introduces an elderly woman named Anna as she looks back on her long life. Many of her best memories center around her beloved piano, which her parents bought for her when she was seven years old. Because no one else in town had a piano then, Anna had to ride the train 215 miles to Boston every week for a music lesson. As a young girl, she practiced so much that her brothers and sisters nicknamed her “Pianna.” Over the years she got married and played for her husband and children, as well as at church and at social functions. After Anna’s husband dies, her children move away, and times change, the piano continues to keep her company. “This is a story,” Ray explained, “about what endures. And finding it.”

Ray’s 1994 work, Shaker Boy, follows the life of Caleb Whitcher, a young boy who is sent to live in a Shaker community after his father is killed during the U.S. Civil War. As he grows older, Caleb adapts to the Shaker way of life, which stresses work, worship, and a reverence for life. “Ray skillfully weaves fact and a touch of fancy … into an absorbing, informative tale,” noted a Publishers Weekly critic. Horn Book contributor Nancy Vasilakis praised Ray’s depiction of the Shaker community, remarking that the author “has successfully conveyed their love of order and simplicity and the communal spirituality that formed the core of their way of life.”

In 1996 Ray published Mud, a “cheerful homage to the coming of spring,” according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Illustrated by Lauren Stringer, Mud portrays a toddler’s romp through muddy patches left by the spring thaw. “Ray’s word choice is vibrant, poetic, alliterative, and enormously descriptive,” wrote Horticulture contributor Trish Wesley Umbrell. Ray and Stringer teamed up again for the 2000 work Red Rubber Boot Day. In this story, told from a child’s point of view, a small boy spends a rainy day indoors playing with his toy cars and building blocks, having a tea party, and reading. He later ventures outside to splash in the puddles. Carolyn Phelan, reviewing Red Rubber Boot Day for Booklist, noted that Ray “does a fine job of conjuring up a familiar childhood experience.”

A family living in the hills above New York’s Hudson Valley journeys to town each time the moon is full to sell their handmade baskets in Basket Moon, a tale set at the turn of the twentieth century. When the story’s narrator, a young boy, joins his father on one of the trips to Hudson, the townspeople sneer at his “hillbilly” roots. Back home, the boy learns to appreciate the craft of basket weaving from the men of his area. According to Horn Book reviewer Margaret A. Bush, Ray’s story is “nicely framed as history lesson and coming-of-age story.” A critic for Publishers Weekly observed that the author “pays homage not only to a time-honored craft, but to the way traditions link one generation to the next.”

A little girl finds comfort with an imaginary friend in Ray’s All Aboard! During an overnight train trip, the girl is accompanied by Mr. Barnes, a large white rabbit in a purple suit who handles the complications of travel with ease. In reality, Mr. Barnes is a stuffed rabbit that sits in the girl’s backpack. The “clever melding of real and imagined perfectly mimics the sensibilities and perceptions of young children,” wrote Jane Marino in School Library Journal. Other critics praised the author’s style and tone. “The language is rhythmic and rich with auditory treats,” remarked a Kirkus Reviews critic, while a Publishers Weekly contributor noted the “pleasingly repetitive, elliptic prose.”

In the book Welcome, Brown Bird, two boys who live thousands of miles apart share an affection for the wood thrush, a songbird that migrates between their home countries. In the spring and summer, the thrush makes its home in the hemlock trees on a North American farm; in the fall and winter, the bird heads to a forest in the southern hemisphere. When the forests are slated to be cleared, however, both boys convince their fathers to preserve the thrush’s habitat. In Welcome, Brown Bird Ray “has conceived an extended metaphor for the interconnectedness of living things,” wrote a contributor to Publishers Weekly.

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