Written & Spoken Word

The Irreplaceable Gift

A lyrical, atmospheric new picture book celebrates author and environmentalist Wilma Dykeman

Download Resource File

TITLE: The Irreplaceable Gift: A lyrical, atmospheric new picture book celebrates author and environmentalist Wilma Dykeman

AUTHOR: Emily Choate

SOURCE: Chapter 16, a website (chapter16.org) founded in 2009 by Humanities Tennessee to provide comprehensive coverage of literary news and events in Tennessee. Chapter 16’s content appears in print weekly through the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, the Nashville Scene, the Chattanooga Times Free-Press, and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

PERMISSION to publish granted by Humanities Tennessee with restrictions.

Of Words and Water: The Story of Wilma Dykeman — Writer, Historian, Environmentalist

by Shannon Hitchcock, with llustrations by Sophie Page
Reycraft Books
32 pages
Ages 6-12, Grades 1-4

Shannon Hitchcock. Photo: The Gallery Studios



In her new picture book, Of Words and Water, Shannon Hitchcock tells the story of underappreciated author and environmentalist Wilma Dykeman. During her childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, Wilma Dykeman fell in love with the French Broad River, where, Hitchcock writes, “Wilma’s companions were flowering dogwoods, twinkling fireflies, tumbling streams. In nature, she was never alone.”

As a grown woman living with her family in East Tennessee, Dykeman wrote several novels that reflected her Appalachian background, but her 1955 nonfiction book, The French Broad, galvanized her as a trailblazing advocate against water pollution — a subject her publisher attempted to erase from the book. Not only did Dykeman win that battle, but she went on to address many progressive subjects in her writing and teaching career. In 1981, Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander named her state historian.

Shannon Hitchcock, also a native of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is the author of many books for children, including the “storyteller series.” These expressive, deeply felt picture books explore unsung Appalachian lives, perfectly accompanied by mixed-media illustrations by Sophie Page. Hitchcock answered questions about her most recent book for Chapter 16 via email.

Chapter 16: Of Words and Water brings Wilma Dykeman’s inspiring story to life with such warmth and vibrancy. What was it about Dykeman that drew you to her as the subject of this book?

Shannon Hitchcock: The most fascinating thing about Wilma Dykeman is that she was a woman ahead of her time. To quote her son, Jim Stokely, “At the age of thirty-five, she, (Wilma), would write the first full-fledged economic arguments against water pollution ever published.”

When writing a picture book biography, I don’t have the word count to share every aspect of a subject’s life, so I search for a theme that defines the person I’m writing about. Oftentimes finding the right theme is the hardest part of the process. Since Wilma’s most famous book is The French Broad, I had water in mind. Then I read her autobiography, Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood, and read that Wilma’s first words were, “Water Coming Down.” That allowed me to trace Wilma’s fascination with water back to her childhood.

The more I researched, the more I was certain I was on the right track. I found a quote from author Robert Morgan: “Water is always a sign of continuity of health, of renewal, in Dykeman’s fiction. It is almost a biblical symbol of life.” Next I read two books of essays written by Wilma herself and pulled several quotes pertaining to water. My book Of Words & Water ends with one of those quotes,“Water is the irreplaceable gift. It is life. Use, cherish, celebrate, preserve, enjoy.”

Chapter 16: Sophie Page’s mixed-media illustrations provide such a lyrical, multi-dimensional atmosphere for Wilma’s story. What can you tell us about this wonderful collaboration?

Hitchcock: As a writer, I sell my words to a publisher and the publisher selects the illustrator. Most people don’t realize it, but an author and illustrator seldom meet. That said, shortly after book two, She Sang for the Mountains: The Story of Jean Ritchie, Singer, Songwriter, Activist, Sophie emailed and said she was staying with friends in Brevard and asked if I would like to meet her for coffee. We’ve been corresponding ever since.

A few fun facts about Sophie: She is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, who crafts her images in two and three dimensions using paper, clay, fabric, and wire. I think her illustrations have a folk art quality that pairs perfectly with Appalachian storytelling.

Chapter 16: This is the fourth picture book in your “storyteller series,” which highlights underappreciated Appalachian voices. How did this series come about? Do you have plans to expand it further? 

Hitchcock: The start of the series goes back to 1983 when I was a senior at Appalachian State University. That year, Ray Hicks was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. His story fascinated me and I carried it around for a lot of years, until the right opportunity presented itself. Once the first book, Saving Granddaddy’s Stories — Ray Hicks, The Voice of Appalachia was under contract, I proposed a second book and now we’re on book four.

I would love to expand the series, but ultimately it’s a business decision and up to the publisher.

Chapter 16: Like Dykeman, you grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. How have those particular mountain settings influenced the writer you’ve become?

Hitchcock: I grew up in an old-fashioned setting. My grandparents lived on a 100-acre farm. They raised tobacco, milked cows, kept pigs and chickens. So, when I started writing for children, my own life experiences crept into my stories. I’m happiest writing about what I love, and I love the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Chapter 16: The end of the book emphasizes Dykeman’s call to “use words to fight injustice.” When writing for our youngest readers, how do you approach finding the right language to use when describing our world’s injustices?

Hitchcock: I focus on fairness. That’s a pretty easy concept for most kids because they’ve experienced it firsthand, whether a sibling took one of their toys, or a classmate pushed ahead of them in line.

Emily Choate is the fiction editor of Peauxdunque Review and holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Mississippi ReviewstorySouth, ShenandoahThe Florida ReviewRappahannock Review, Atticus ReviewTupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives near Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.

Emily Choate
Environmental Justice Intake Form
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.