Obituary: Byrd Baylor

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Author and activist Byrd Baylor, whose picture books reflected deep appreciation for the Southwest and the Native American cultures she loved, died on June 16 in Tucson, Ariz. She was 97.

Baylor was born on March 28, 1924 in San Antonio, Tex. When she was very young, Baylor’s father worked on oil rigs and in precious metal mines, moving the family as he took jobs in Texas and Arizona. Baylor was five or six years old when the family settled in Tucson. Throughout her childhood she could often be found outdoors exploring and learning about the region’s plants and animals. During these early years she developed great respect for the natural world of the deserts and canyons around her and also became fascinated with Native American culture, including folklore and art. “I always knew I was going to be a writer,” Baylor told the Arizona Daily Star in 2009. “When I was a little kid, I was sending off poems to magazines and signing them, ‘Byrd Baylor, age 36.’ ”

Baylor studied creative writing at the University of Arizona but left in her junior year when she married a young naval officer and moved to San Francisco. After that marriage ended, Byrd returned to Tucson and began working as a reporter for the Tucson Daily Citizen in 1951. She covered arts stories and segued into writing features about the people on the Tohono O’odham Reservation and other social justice issues that were important to her like poverty in Tucson. But according an Arizona Daily Star piece, her reporting on a well-known Tucson resident who was a slumlord led to a falling out in the newsroom and in 1955 Byrd moved on to become a freelance writer. Her first success on that front was a short story about a romance that was published in Redbook in 1957.

By 1963, Baylor had combined her passions for writing and the natural world in a new way, publishing her first children’s book, Amigo, illustrated by Garth Williams (Macmillan), about a boy who befriends a prairie dog in the desert. She had remarried and published Amigo and three other titles in the 1960s under the name Byrd Baylor Schweitzer, before reverting to Baylor after the marriage ended. Throughout the 1970s she published at least one picture book annually, with a variety of illustrators. When Clay Sings, illustrated by Tom Bahti (Scribner, 1972), is a prose poem focusing on how ancient Native Americans, including the Anasazi and Mogollon peoples, depicted scenes from their everyday lives on their clay pottery—and the children who find remnants of those pots in the hillsides of the Southwestern deserts. The book won a 1973 Caldecott Honor, the first of four her titles would receive.

Everybody Needs a Rock (Scribner, 1974), in which the narrator presents readers with guidelines for finding just the right rock for them, marked Baylor’s initial collaboration with illustrator Peter Parnall. Three subsequent collaborations received Caldecott Honors: The Desert Is Theirs (Scribner, 1975), Hawk, I Am Your Brother (Scribner, 1976), and The Way to Start a Day (Scribner, 1978). In the Arizona Daily Star, Baylor noted that her books depict “all the things I love… the land, the animals,” and that she was continually inspired by daily excursions into her surroundings. “I have learned so much by walking or just sitting on a rock.”

As her children’s book career flourished, Baylor was simultaneously fighting to protect native wildlife and working to help local Native American people in need. She told the Arizona Daily Star that on her first day counseling people of the Tohono O’odham Reservation who had moved to Tucson, she took six people home with her. That experience and others inspired her only novel, Yes Is Better Than No (Scribner, 1977), which was written for adults and follows a Native American family that wins a swimming pool in a lottery but doesn’t know what to do with the prize because they don’t have running water.

Beginning in the 1980s Baylor lived off the grid in an adobe house her friends helped her build on more than 35 acres of land in Arivaca, southwest of Tucson. She did all of her writing—which included essays and other works beyond her two dozen children’s books—on manual typewriters, in a converted chicken coop studio. In the early 2000s Baylor began another humanitarian effort by joining forces with a group called No More Deaths, providing food and water to undocumented migrants from Mexico. She allowed the organization to create the Byrd Camp on her property and according to the Arizona Daily Star, the camp has been running for 16 years. It will continue to provide support as long as the group has permission from Baylor’s grandson Jesse Stanley, with whom she had lived in Tucson since the 2010s.

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