May B. : An Interview with Caroline Starr Rose
Mavis Elizabeth Betterly, or May B. as she is known, is helping out on a neighbor's Kansas prairie homestead, "Just until Christmas," says her Pa. Twelve-year-old May wants to contribute, but it's hard to be separated from her family by fifteen long, unfamiliar miles.
Then the unthinkable happens: May is abandoned to the oncoming winter, trapped all alone in a tiny snow-covered sod house without any way to let her family know and no neighbors to turn to. In her solitude, she wavers between relishing her freedom and succumbing to utter despair, while trying to survive in the harshest conditions. Her physical struggle to first withstand and then to escape her prison is matched by tormenting memories of her failures at school.
Only a very strong girl will be able to stand up to both and emerge alive and well.
In this debut novel written in gripping verse, Caroline Starr Rose has given readers a new heroine to root for, one who never, ever gives up.
Spellbinders: How did your life path lead you to writing as a career?
I'm a former middle school English and social studies teacher and have been an avid reader since childhood. Writing books was always a dream, one I started to take seriously in 1998. I had no children at the time and was on summer vacation -- there really was no excuse not to give it a try. By the end of the summer, I had the first draft of a (horrendous!) children's novel about the Oregon Trail. I revised during the school year and began contacting editors the following spring.
This first manuscript helped set the pattern I was to continue until 2009: writing, revising, then sending out query letters to editors I hoped might be interested in my writing. May B. was my fourth novel and eleventh book overall (I write picture books, too).
Spellbinders: I read that MAY B. did not start out as a novel in verse. What made you decide to change to this format, and why do you think your story lends itself to being written in verse?
My first few attempts at writing the story as prose felt distant and lifeless. It wasn't until I returned to my research (and specifically a book called Read this Only to Yourself: The Private Writings of Midwestern Women, 1880-1910) that I saw the patterns these women's writings had in common: terse language, stark circumstances, a matter-of-fact tone. It was if the heavens had opened for me, and I was able to climb inside May's world, using the voices of the women I'd encountered through research.
A confession: I'd read only two verse novels before writing May B. -- Karen Hess's Out of the Dust and Sharon Creech's Heartbeat. This both terrified and liberated me. I stayed away from all verse novels while drafting, worried any sort of comparison would paralyze me. On the other hand, I wasn't bound by patterns or rules. Several readers have said May B.'s pacing reads more like prose (swifter than the typical verse novel), which ultimately serves the story.
Spellbinders: Your book is set in 1870s Kansas. What research did do you do to keep everything historically accurate? Why did you pick that era and Kansas?
I read. A lot. At first, all I knew was I wanted to write about the frontier but hadn't honed in on Kansas specifically. My first attempt at writing had been historical fiction, and I learned from that disastrous manuscript that regardless of the history, the story had to belong to the character; I couldn't beat historical facts into my readers' heads. I went into May B. trusting that if I kept my protagonist's perspective and understanding of her world, enough history would organically seep in.
A blizzard plays a key part in May's story, so I needed her somewhere where weather extremes weren't uncommon. I also was enamored with sod houses, which also limited in what part of the country May could live.
One special challenge was locating exactly where May's sod house stood. There's a reference in May B. to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, so the book had to take place in 1876 or later. I wanted her in a part of western Kansas that wasn't very developed and was semi-close to a railroad. It was also necessary to have wolves around. The first place I located May was outside of Dodge City, where she would have been smack dab in the middle of the Chisolm Cattle Trail -- not exactly the solitude I was looking for (I also wasn't interested in telling the sort of rowdy cowboy story that Dodge City brings to mind). The story couldn't take place much beyond 1880 because in order to have wolves, buffalo still needed to be prevalent; by 1880 these animals were widely wiped out. Gove County, Kansas became a good location: the railroad (and therefore surrounding communities) was still relatively new but old enough to have been there before 1880; the short-grass country of western Kansas supported sod houses; and wolves, while not spotted everyday, would have still roamed in packs at this time.
Spellbinders: How did you get the inspiration for May B.? Why did you choose to make her dyslexia a focus of the book?
I grew up with the Little House on the Prairie books and wanted to create my own strong pioneer girl. I was also curious how someone might write about solitude and challenged myself to experiment with a storyline that would confine one character to a limited space (believe me, there were many times I didn't feel up to this challenge!). I'd also fallen hard for Gary Paulsen's Hatchet and wanted to create a survival story told from a girl's perspective.
May's name, Mavis Elizabeth Betterly, came to me before I did any character development. I liked the way I could shorten Mavis Betterly to May B. and loved the way her name hinted at the wishy-washy word "maybe" (which is a word like mediocre or okay; it doesn't carry a lot of conviction), but also contained the strong word "better". Though I wasn't quite sure of the specifics, I determined there had to be something in May's life that made her feel mediocre, something she longed to do better and something that spoke not only to her lack of ability but also her sense of worth.
As a teacher, I'd always wondered how children with learning disabilities had fared at a time before their challenges were understood, especially in the days when recitation and reading aloud were the major means of instruction. Dyslexia became a perfect obstacle for a child striving to do better and mirrored nicely May B.'s theme of isolation.
Spellbinders: Do you have any advice about how to nurture a love of writing within our students?
It is so essential to give children the freedom to experiment with words. Allow kids to write things you'll never see (maybe have them keep a nature journal or a reader's response booklet as they read their favorite books). Give them a place that is a spelling and grammar-free zone. And most importantly, give them opportunities to write about things of their own choosing. While there are times and situations when essays, grammar, and the like need to be addressed, there are just as many times when they don't need to be.
Two things I firmly believe: children can't find their writing voice unless they are given permission to explore a lot of different ways to write. Also, as any writer will tell you, not everything we create is meant to be taken to the final draft stage. While it is important to teach children the steps of the writing process (brainstorming, rough draft, editing and revision, final draft), not every piece of writing needs to be taken this far.
And one more thing: Pick up a copy of Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick and watch your young writers blossom.
May B. Giveaway: As a reader, which middle grade protagonist has made the biggest impression on you? Why?
Stop by my May B. Facebook page and enter to win by answering the question above. One winner will be randomly selected. Contest ends 2/14.