Naylor was born in Indiana and grew up during the Great Depression. She has said that she never felt poor because her parents read stories from their book collection to her and her siblings in their childhood. She began writing her own stories when she was in elementary school. Her first children's book was called The Galloping Goat and Other Stories and was published in 1965. In 1991, Naylor published the children's book, Shiloh about a young boy and an abused dog set in West Virginia. The book won the Newbery Medal in 1992. While not from Appalachia herself, she married a West Virginian and spent a great deal of time traveling, visiting and doing research in Appalachia for future stories.