Sunday, April 22, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Caroline Starr Rose

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with this interview with Caroline Starr Rose about her new book, May B. Graduate student Brooke Adams offers this interview (plus) with Caroline.

Caroline Starr Rose
Caroline Starr Rose has spent time in places such as Saudi Arabia, New Mexico, Australia, Florida, Virginia, and Louisiana. She has taught Social Studies and English with a passion to show the importance in books. Rose currently lives in Albuquerque and writes full time. Caroline Starr Rose is a children’s author. She is currently working on her newest book, Over in the Wetlands.

Author’s Website:
May B. Trailer: http://youtube/FopNl_Y8iQM
Author’s Blog:

Summary of May B.
Mavis Betterly or May B. is a young girl who lives with her Ma, Pa, and brother in the late 1800’s. To help her family financially, May is to stop going to the school house and go 15 miles away to wait on a newly married couple until Christmas. May shows a passion for school and has a hard time reading words, which older readers can identify to be dyslexia. Upset she goes to wait on the couple whom he is older and the new bride isn’t much older than May B. In a turn of events, May is abandoned in the drafty home for months and must find survival through treacherous weather conditions and her smarts.

May B. is a fast-paced and well written story in verse that is easy to understand. Readers want to keep reading to find out what is going to happen to May. Older elementary readers will find the relation between themselves and May with school, or perhaps with having dyslexia, or with having to depend on themselves to get through a situation. Rose has created a scene of imagery through her words. Readers can actually have the sense of being cold or feeling alone in the black of night reading the page-turning writing. The audience can feel the lead character’s frustrations, despair, and strong will with each turn of the page.

Junior Library Guild Selection

Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews
“As unforgiving as the western Kansas prairies, this extraordinary verse novel— Rose’s debut—paints a gritty picture of late-19th-century frontier life from the perspective of a 12-year-old dyslexic girl named Mavis Elizabeth Betterly… May B. for short. If May is a brave, stubborn fighter, the short, free-verse lines are one-two punches in this Laura Ingalls Wilder–inspired ode to the human spirit.”

Author Interview
Q: If you were May, what would you have done if you were abandoned in the snow? Would you have tried to brave the snow or waited for someone to come?

“If I were May, I would have lasted a few days, at most. May is infinitely braver than I am. Honestly, There’s no way I’d have made it to the blizzard portion of the book.”

Q: Your writing suggests that May was dyslexic. Is this what you wanted to portray? If so, why was that important for readers to know about May?

“May’s name came to me before her story did. I liked the way May Betterly could become May B. and how “maybe” could speak to her perception of herself ('maybe' is such a wishy-washy word. It makes me think of mediocre or so-so). I also liked the way her name included the word “better” and determined there needed to be something in her life that made her feel mediocre, something she longed to be better at, something that had come to define her for others and in her own mind.

I decided the most direct way to challenge May would be for her to have a learning disability, something that would have been misunderstood and unknown in her time.

I’ve taught all over the country, and several of my classrooms were inclusion based, but this hardly made me an expert. I was concerned about giving May’s disability a specific name, mainly because I felt it wasn’t the point of the story -- her struggle and growth seemed more important to me -- and also because I knew what I’d written might be taken as gospel by those unfamiliar with dyslexia or might not read accurately to those experts out there. Ultimately, I took my editor’s advice: she felt that while kids might pick up on May’s disability, others would be frustrated not knowing exactly what was going on. By defining May’s disability in my author’s note, I was able to flesh out May’s experience, give a broad description of dyslexia (a condition that doesn’t look the same for every reader), and provide young readers with a deeper understanding of May’s life and world.

May is a strong, courageous girl. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know this. I really wanted May’s difficult circumstances to expose her strength, not just to the reader, but to May herself.”

Q: What kind of research did you do about the time period the story took place in?

“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 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 Chisholm 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 every day, would have still roamed in packs at this time.”

Q: How much, if any, have your personal travels affected this particular story?

“Good question! I’m not sure if there’s a clear cut answer to this, but I’d have to say my experiences living overseas and then returning home have often left me as an outsider -- first in my new culture and then in my own. Maybe this is one thing May and I have in common -- lives where we’ve both been the different ones.”

Q: What lessons did you learn from your experience writing this book?

“May B. was the fourth novel I’d written. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been a trend follower, but May B. was certainly the first book I’d attempted that felt very anti-trendy. Literary, historical verse novels aren’t books readers are exactly clamoring for. But this book was one I felt passionate about writing. As an aspiring author who’d experienced years of rejection, there really was nothing to lose --what was one more no?

It’s been heartening to see that while May will never have broad commercial appeal, there have been readers who have connected with the story at every level: my agent signed me with this story, three editors were interested in acquiring the book, Random House Children’s Books sales representatives have really championed it, teachers and librarians have let me know they’re using it in their classrooms or including it in their libraries.

I also learned to write the book the way the story wanted to be told. May didn’t start as a verse novel. Dissatisfied with the distance between what I was writing and what I was trying to say, I set aside the manuscript and returned to my research. It was in reading the first-hand accounts of pioneer women (specifically in a book called Read This Only to Yourself: The Private Writings of Midwestern Women 1880-1910 by Elizabeth Hampton) that I began to notice their patterns of communication: their language was spare and matter of fact; the same tone was used to discuss the mundane as well as the tragic. In my attempt to mirror their voices, my writing moved from prose to verse, just what the story needed to be told most truthfully.”

Excerpt from May B.
Page 41-42 Excerpt

With my eyes shut tight,
I’d see the swirling waters,
Feel the sea’s smooth coolness.

Suggestion for Sharing
As an introduction to this book teachers could start by asking questions of the students: How would you feel if you had to move away from home for a couple of months? Would you be able to survive if you were alone for a long amount of time? Then, teachers could give a brief summary of the book leading from answers they received.

As a follow up, the teacher could ask the students if May did what they would have done. Did May feel the way you would have felt? Along with these questions, a fun activity would be for students to research “soddy” living and the size that most sod homes commonly were. Tape off on the floor how large a home would be after researching for a visual. Have students relate the size of the home that May B. was in versus their home. Talk about eye-opening conversation!

Rose, Caroline Starr. 2012. May B.: A Novel. New York, NY: Random House. ISBN: 978-1-58246-393-3
Rose, Caroline Starr. (2010). Caroline Starr Rose. (27 Feb 2012).

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Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.

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