Rick Walton, Utah’s beloved children’s author, passed away on October 7, 2016. In honor of his memory, friend and fellow author Carol Lynch Williams discusses Walton’s profound influence on Utah’s literary community.
PROVO, Utah (Jan. 10, 2017)—We’ve heard of famous children and young adult authors with Utah roots, such as Newbery Honor winner Shannon Hale or National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr. Utah’s contribution to the young adult and children’s literature scene is significant and often attracts notice. None of this might have been possible, however, without children’s literature author Rick Walton.
Walton passed away on October 7, 2016, after complications from a malignant brain tumor discovered in early 2015. Walton’s legacy and gift to creative communities in Utah is remarkable, and he will be missed by the many individuals whose lives and careers he influenced over the years. Appearing on the I.R.A. Children’s Choice list and the television program Reading Rainbow, Walton’s children’s books have inspired and delighted children, adults and authors alike.
Carol Lynch Williams, Y.A. author and BYU adjunct faculty, is just one example of many close friends and colleagues Walton has mentored over the years. Williams became friends with Walton nearly 25 years ago. She was on bedrest, pregnant with her fourth daughter, when she received a friendly telephone call from Walton, whom she had never met. He had heard from a mutual friend and writer, Louise Plummer, that she was about to publish her first book, and though a stranger to Williams, Walton called her every day to invite her to join their writers group. “Long before we met, he and I were friends,” Williams recalled.
As a member of BYU’s adjunct faculty, Walton taught and mentored students interested in pursuing children’s literature for fifteen years. But Walton’s influence as a mentor reaches much farther than his time at BYU. Over the years he built an intricate and crucial support network for Utah’s literary community, organizing several inexpensive and accessible conferences, workshops and groups for anyone with a desire to write and publish literature for children and young adults.
“As a human being he cared about people,” Williams said. “He said, ‘Let’s let anybody who wants to come to the writers group come to the writers group, whether they’re going to be writers or not.’ He cared that people succeeded.”
Williams said that one of the things she admired most about Walton was how prolific he was as an author. Over the course of his writing career Walton wrote thousands of picture books and published about 100.
“His idea was you can throw the spaghetti on the wall, take a handful of ideas and just write, write, write,” Williams said. “Some of the spaghetti is going to stick and some of it isn’t, but the more ideas you have and the more you’re writing, the better chance you have of publishing.”
As a friend and mentor, Walton cared deeply about other authors succeeding. During the course of Williams’ friendship with Walton, both worked diligently to provide opportunities for children’s and Y.A. authors in Utah to succeed.
“What ended up happening is that people would say, what’s in the water in Utah? We have a Newbery Honor winner here, we have P.E.N. Award winners, we have National Book Award nominees – tons of people coming from this community,” Williams said. “It was because there was this groundwork that was laid that everybody could publish if they really wanted to do it, and Rick believed in that. He put on the best and cheapest conferences and made writing available.”
She added, “Even when he got Parkinson’s and was so sick, he would try to help people succeed. Even if he couldn’t unclench his hands, even if he couldn’t button his shirt, it still mattered to him that people published and that they did the important things that they wanted to do.”
Though Walton made his mark on many children’s and Young Adult authors, both famous and lesser-known, perhaps one of the most significant legacies he has left behind is his own literature, books that have inspired and will continue to inspire generations of readers to come. Readers familiar with Walton’s work will remember titles such as Once There Was a Bullfrog, Frankenstein, Pig, Pigger, Piggest, and Why the Banana Split.
“He was writing the books that people could cut their teeth on, that moms and dads read to their children,” Williams concluded. “Maybe we become readers and writers because we were read to when we were little – and I think that’s important.”
—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)
Sylvia covers the English Department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French and a minor in women’s studies.
Photos courtesy of the BYU English Department.