New Voice: Caroline Starr Rose on May B.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Caroline Starr Rose is the first-time author of May B. (Schwartz and Wade, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

I watch the wagon

until I see nothing on the open plain.

For the first time ever,

I am alone.

May is helping out on a neighbor’s homestead—just until Christmas, her pa promises. But when a terrible turn of events leaves her all alone, she must try to find food and fuel—and courage—to make it through the approaching winter.

This gorgeous novel in verse by Caroline Starr Rose will transport you to the Kansas prairie—to the endless grassland, and to the suffocating closeness of the sod house where May is stranded.

May’s eloquent yet straightforward voice, and her bravery, determination, and willingness to risk it all will capture your heart. 

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

As a reader I devoured everything from Ramona to Scarlett O’Hara, Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle series to L. M. Montgomery’s Anne and Emily books.

(One summer I took home two grocery bags full of L.M.M. books on loan from a friend. I can proudly claim to have read every single book she’s written — journals and all).

The books I read became a huge part of my world. I played Nancy Drew with friends, clomping around in too-big high heels and collecting “clues” for a mystery I was sure would unfold if I just studied my surroundings carefully enough. I made maps of Lloyd Alexander‘s Prydain, one for each book in his chronicles, and, with a friend, journeyed through this mysterious land.

And then there was Laura Ingalls Wilder. My dad started the series with me as a little girl. I began to call my mother “Ma” (really!) and started talking about Laura as if she were someone I knew personally. As my reading progressed, I’d stay one chapter ahead of my dad.

When I discovered Laura’s dog, Jack, was going to die, I didn’t want to continue. Somehow hearing that chapter read aloud was too painful to imagine. When my father wanted to read, I’d give an excuse until gradually he no longer offered. I finished the series on my own when I was a little older. My childhood babysitter, also a huge Laura fan, would also read those later books to me.

As an adult I told my dad why we’d stopped reading the Little House series. Since then I’ve used the phrase “when Jack died” with him to describe those childhood instances that, now with my own children, I’ll notice but not fully understand — those times when my boys might say or do something that feels out of character and where I realize, if I think through their motivations, hopes, and fears, I might uncover what’s really going on in their worlds. 

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first–character, concept, or time period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

Historical period, most definitely. I knew I wanted to write about the frontier and my own strong pioneer girl (thanks again to Laura Ingalls) and trusted a character would emerge as I studied.

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, and 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.

I poked around with some scenes I thought the story needed but quickly found the writing wasn’t right. I wasn’t close enough to the character. I wasn’t telling the story as honestly as I could.

Continuing with my research, I picked up Elizabeth’s Hamsten’s Read This Only to Yourself: The Private Writings of Midwestern Women, 1880-1910 (Indiana University Press, 1982). Reading these women’s first-hand accounts was like finding a magic formula; their stark, terse, matter-of-fact way of sharing their lives showed me May’s voice. I began writing again, this time in verse, and the story fell into place.

Beyond Hamsten’s book, there are several things that influenced the storyline: my curiosity about children with learning disabilities and how they might be schooled in an era before our own, my interest in survival stories like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet (Bradbury, 1987), and the challenge in trying to write about solitude (like the prison scenes in my favorite-book-of-all-time, The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-1845)).

One special challenge was locating where May’s sod house stood. There’s a reference in the story 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 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.

Cynsational Notes

Debut Writers of the Class of 2k12: Caroline Starr Rose: an interview by Janet Fox from Through the Wardrobe. Peek: “200+ direct rejections from editors over 11 years; 75+ agent rejections.”

Check out the book trailer for May B. by Caroline Starr Rose. See also Video Reading: May B. by Caroline Rose Star from Cari’s Book Blog.

7 thoughts on “New Voice: Caroline Starr Rose on May B.

  1. I've been contemplating a YA historical fiction for about a year now–this is helpful and impressive (and slightly scary–so much work!) info. Thanks!

  2. This one is already in my library queue. I am currently reading Inside Out and Back Again. Another MG book written in verse. It is very well done. I have high hopes for May B. Plus, I love supporting debut authors.

  3. My daughter and I finished May B. last night. We loved it! We took turns reading each verse out loud.

    It was a truly wonderful book and a wonderful way to spend time with my daughter. Thank you!

  4. Go for it, Tricia! We're all rooting for you.

    Happy reading, Laurisa and Ali!

    So glad you enjoyed the post, Natalie!

    Charity, how lovely that you and your daughter shared May B. Memories to treasure!

    Caroline, thanks again for sharing your thoughts, and congratulations on your success!

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