Robbie Tilley Branscum (1934–1997)
Robbie Tilley Branscum gained fame as the award-winning author of books for older children. Her hardscrabble childhood in Arkansas provided the vivid, rustic backdrop for each of her many books.
Robbie Branscum was born Robbie Nell Tilley in Big Flat (Baxter County) on June 17, 1934, the third of five children born into a poor family. When she was five, the family moved to Colorado in search of a better life. Her father, Donnie Tilley, worked briefly in timber before dying of appendicitis shortly after the move. Her mother, Blanche, took the children to live with their paternal grandparents near Big Flat and returned to Colorado alone.
Tilley’s grandparents were poor sharecroppers who had previously raised ten children of their own. She and her siblings worked hard on the farm. The one-room school she attended held two orange crates filled with books, books that offered her an escape from her abusive grandmother and a glimpse into worlds far beyond her own. “I don’t remember learning to read,” she later wrote. “One day I couldn’t, then one day I could. I read like a starving person eats.”
When Tilley was thirteen, her mother came to school one day, without warning, and took her and her siblings back to Colorado, where her mother had remarried and had two young children. The move was the end of her formal education, but she discovered public libraries in Colorado and continued to read voraciously. In 1949, at the age of fifteen, she married Dwane Branscum and moved to California. Robbie Branscum had a daughter at age twenty-two and was divorced by age twenty-five. During those years, she had been an accomplished storyteller but did not make a serious attempt to write until the late 1960s.
After several rejections, her first book, Me and Jim Luke, was accepted and published in 1971. Between 1971 and 1991, Branscum published twenty books. Her childhood abandonment was a major theme in all her books; being a devout Christian, she also celebrated her Southern Baptist roots in virtually every book. The blunt, homespun language and occasional swear word meant that some of Branscum’s books were banned by a few children’s librarians, but most welcomed Branscum’s well-reviewed novels. In 1977,Toby, Granny and George received a Friends of American Writers Award. Johnny May, published in 1975, was included in the “Best of the Best 1966–1978” by the School Library Journal. In 1982, The Murder of Hound Dog Bates won the annual Edgar Allan Poe award for the best juvenile mystery given by the Mystery Writers of America. It was also selected as one of the Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times. In 1987, Branscum’s most autobiographical work, The Girl, won a PEN award for literary excellence in children’s fiction.
Branscum suffered from heart disease for much of her adult life and had her first stroke in May 1995, but she continued writing despite ill health. She left behind many unpublished manuscripts after dying of an apparent heart attack at home in San Pablo, California, on May 24, 1997.
For additional information:
Agee, Hugh. “Arkansas Lives: Robbie Branscum: A Natural Storyteller.” Arkansas Libraries 41 (June 1984): 17–20.
“Branscum, Robbie.” In Something about the Author: Autobiography Series. vol. 17. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1993.
The early childhood home of author Robbie Tilley Branscum still stands in a little place called Round Mountain, just south of Big Flat, Arkansas. I myself lived in that same house, and it is still in my family. When I was a young girl, Robbie visited our home one summer day. I can still remember her to this day and have always wished that the house we both lived in could be preserved and people could come and visit it. It is a very special place and one that shared many many hours of reading for Robbie and myself. When my son attended UCA in Conway he was surprised when one professor educated the class on the author Robbie Branscum from Big Flat, and he called me to ask if I had ever heard of her. Much to my delight! I am proud of her heritage in my hometown.
I grew up in the small town of Big Flat and truly relate to Robbie’s writings. I read her books as a young adult and now at fifty-seven years old am collecting her books. My eight-year-old grandson, Hunter, just read The Murder of Hound Dog Bates and loved it. He will not give the book back so he may become a collector also someday. I regret I was not able to sit down with Robbie and share a cup of strong coffee and a conversation or two.
During the 1970s and 1980s as a lonely child of the South and an aspiring writer, I discovered Robbie Branscum. I loved and devoured each book of hers I was able to access. As I grew older, I marveled at the truth and wonder in these works. Ms. Branscum is underrated. To my mind, her work is as great as Caroline Miller’s Lamb in His Bosom. Anyone who has the privilege to encounter her works is given the sweet, simple secrets of years gone by and entertainment on a pure scale. May other readers and younger generations discover this wonderful woman whom I wish I had personally known.
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