Appalachian Literature: Celebrating Identity, Connectedness, and Diversity at WVELA ’19

Growing up Appalachian

Growing up in Appalachia, I have always felt an unbreakable connection to home and a deep appreciation of place.  I can remember, as a very young child, vacationing away from West Virginia for the first time. The days were dizzying with sun and laughter, and as I slept each night, I could still feel the gentle rocking of the ocean and taste its salt between my lips. I felt such joy at the newness and difference of it all.

And then slowly, I would begin to feel something else – a creeping anxiety that I could not name; growing through too many sun soaked, salt water days. I would look out over the ocean, or across the flat land and feel a mounting sense of homesickness – not for my house with its four man-made walls, but for the mountains. And it’s the same today. If I’m gone for too long, or have travelled too far away – I find myself missing these mountains and all that they represent. These mountains have made me feel safe, sheltered, connected, and even isolated.

Today, while I still acknowledge this continual pull to the mountains and connection to my home, I cannot describe to you how or why thoughts of West Virginia stir up feelings that seem mystical and ancient beyond my understanding.

What does it mean to be Appalachian? Karla inspired me to deeply ponder this question earlier this year, and I find myself still reflecting on how the place where I’ve lived and grown has shaped me.


My daughter, overlooking the view where I grew up in Grant County, WV.

Growing up in the Potomac Highlands (Grant County, represent!) I did not feel 100% like I could own my Applalchianness. I had never seven seen a coal mine, much less a piece of coal, and our valley, while steeped in Civil War history, seemed far removed from the struggle of the mine wars. sometimes felt like I missed out on all that made me a true “West Virginian.”

Still… as a child, to be Appalachian meant studying our proud culture and partaking in the traditions rooted in the beginnings of our wild, beautiful, and sometimes painful history. It meant churning the apple cutter with my classmates, trying out the dulcimer and the jaw harp, making the apple head dolls, sewing the quilts, studying for the Golden Horseshoe, watching October Sky, visiting the one room schoolhouse on the grounds of our elementary school as well as trails of the Civil War, and learning how to honor where you’ve been and appreciate where you came from.

I have often wondered if my wonderful, inspiring teachers had conspired together – deciding to instill in us this deep appreciation of Appalachia and West Virginia’s place within it, or if they were just teaching standards with a sense enthusiasm, understanding, and love that has marked my memory. I will never forget hanging on every word of Homer Hickham’s Rocket Boys as Mr. Foley read it aloud to us, begging him to read on, and I can still picture each scene in my mind. And when Mrs. Harman engaged us in a study of Appalachian literature through books like Gauley Mountain by Louise McNeil, I found my eyes opened to just how connected Appalachians really are to our history.

As I began my own career as an elementary teacher, I found myself drawn to works of children’s literature that celebrate and explore Appalachia. Books by Cynthia Rylant were my go-to: When I Was Young in the MountainsAppalachia: The Voices of Singing Birds, and The Relatives Came. They were so familiar in the amount of love, and ya’ll, and pride, and nostalgia they held. And when I shared Missing May with my students, it was like I was reading it again for the first time – more of the same and also this feeling of I know these people, but can’t put my finger on where I know them from… as Summer takes in all that Ob and May and their little home are.

I have also strived, in my role as literacy coach, to inspire teachers to develop a love literacy in their students; meeting them where they are like the Packhorse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky. That Book Woman by Heather Hanson chronicles the journey of one of these women and her impact on a young boy – “making two readers, out of one.” These librarians are truly a treasure within our Appalachian heritage and an inspiration to educators today, and I always feel an added sense of pride that they were women of the mountains.

What Appalachian Means to Me Now

While this heritage is precious to me, my understanding of what it means to be Appalachian has evolved, branching outward and growing deeper. For me, it’s becoming less about our rich traditions and lively history and more about owning a sense of identity and acknowledging our connectedness, as well as our diversity. While I treasure the picture of Appalachia and its people as some of the warmest, most good-hearted souls (spoiler alert: we are) on this planet who do a lot with a little, we are so much more and this. As I continue to study the many facets of our shared identity, it nudges me back toward that question: What does it mean to be Appalachian?

This state and this region are so much like the quilts that are a deep part of our heritage – pieced together with care, held together by common threads, and yet so vibrant in our beauty and striking in our differentness. WE define what it is to be Appalachian. WE write the narrative.

And this is why I am so excited for WVELA 2019 in Morgantown, West Virginia. There are so many voices, identifies, and experiences within Appalachia for us to explore, celebrate, and honor. I am all about our past, but I am HERE for our present and future. Our resiliency, determination, compassion, advocacy, and art are worthy beyond words, and this conference will be a celebration of all of these. It will also be an opportunity to widen the lens through which we view Appalachia and encourage us to challenge our perspectives.

For these reasons and more, I cannot wait to attend sessions by Ann Pancake, award-winning Appalachian author of Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley and Strange as the Weather Has Been AND Chrystal Good, Affrilachian poet, speaker, and author of “Valley Girl,” a collection of poetry. With works that are marked by the beauty, struggle, and diversity of Appalachia, we are so fortunate that are lending their voices to this weekend. Both offer us an opportunity to help our students to widen their own lenses, challenge their perspectives, and expand our appreciate for and understanding of Appalachian literature.

In celebration of how diverse and yet connected we are, I hope you will join us.

WVCTE is wondering… How do you use Appalachian literature do you use in your classroom? What are you looking forward to at WVELA ’19? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!


Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach for Berkeley County Schools, unabashed bibliophile, and advocate of lifelong literacy. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from literacy, her other loves of life are traveling with her family and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.

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