An Honest, Simple Life: A Biography of Rebecca Caudill

While children‘s author Rebecca Caudill is best-known for her stories based on her childhood in Appalachia, the fact is that the majority of her years were spent right here in Champaign County, Illinois. Born in the tiny hamlet of Poor Fork, Kentucky, in 1899, Rebecca‘s family moved to central Tennessee when she was only five years old.

She was the middle child in a family of nine youngsters, and her memories of growing up in that happy, active family in the hill country of Tennessee form the basis for her Bonnie Fairchild series and other stories.

No one in the Caudill family had ever attended college but Rebecca, who was a very good student, longed to go. She worked her way through Wesleyan College in Georgia and then earned a Master‘s degree in international relations from Vanderbilt University.

Rebecca Caudill in Brazil.

After teaching English to children in Brazil and editing a girl‘s magazine in Nashville, she met and married author and editor James Ayars in Chicago. Their two children, Jimmy and Becky Jean, were born there.

In 1937, the little family moved to Urbana, Illinois, where James became the editor of the Illinois Natural History Survey housed on the University of Illinois campus. In 1941, when daughter Becky Jean started school, James encouraged Rebecca to begin writing some of the stories of her childhood.

Caudill’s books for children

Her first book, Barrie and Daughter, is based upon people she knew in the hill country. Her novels are acclaimed for their sympathetic and accurate depiction of the lives of the pioneers of the late 1800s. Tree of Freedom, published in 1949, was a runner-up for the Newbery Award and the New York Herald Tribune Honor Book. Six of her eleven books were selections of the Junior Literary Guild.

Child of Appalachia a film on her life and writing, was judged one of the top three entries at the Birmingham International Film Festival in 1978.

Many of her books have been translated and reprinted in French, German, and Japanese. The new public library in Cumberland, Kentucky, was named the Rebecca Caudill Library in 1973. In 1981, the Thomas Paine School Library in Urbana was dedicated to Rebecca and James Ayars.

For many years the Ayars family was active in local church, school, and community affairs. In 1978, Rebecca and James moved from their home on Iowa Street to Clark Lindsey Village on the edge of Urbana.

Rebecca Caudill Ayars died in 1985 at the age of 86.

Biography by Joanne Kelly; Photos courtesy Becky Baker

Rebecca Caudill's parents

Caudill's parents

Rebecca Caudill's family

Caudill as a child