Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: May B. by Caroline Starr Rose (Schwartz and Wade, 2012)

Author Caroline Starr Rose describes her striking debut novel in verse for middle grade readers as "part Hatchet, part Little House on the Prairie, part Out of the Dust.  It's a story of courage and hope."

Set on the Kansas frontier, this novel tells the story of May, who's just twelve years old when her pa pulls her out of school and hires her out to a couple who've recently moved out to the endless Kansas prairies.  "I won't go," is the book's poignant first line, but of course she has no real choice, in the way of all children in that era.  She'll bring in some extra money for her family, and it will just be until Christmas, her ma promises her.

May hopes to be a schoolteacher one day, a surprising goal given that she has trouble learning at school.  "What sort of teacher can't read out lessons?" she wonders.  Yet she perseveres, bringing a book and her slate with her.  When the couple she's sent to live with leave her alone in their sod house, at first she's sure they'll be returning.  But when the days pass, she realizes she's been left to fend for herself, miles from any other settlers and with no help in sight.  With the harsh Kansas winter coming, she must find food and fuel if she's to survive, summoning every bit of her courage and knowledge to make it through alive.

I particularly enjoyed the author's use of free verse in this short novel, which is accessible to even reluctant readers.  The author's poetry is particularly evocative in describing the vastness of the Kansas prairies:  "grass/always grass,/in different shades and textures/like the braids in a rag rug."

This novel deals with several different themes; on the one hand it is an exciting survival/adventure story, much in the spirit of books like Hatchet, in which May must survive on her own, with no adults to help her.  The author also portrays the harsh realities of life on the prairie for settlers, a less warm and fuzzy environment than what we'd encounter in classics such as the Little House series.  Moreover, May B. is also a poignant story of a child trying to overcome a disability; in this case dyslexia.  Of course no one understood dyslexia at that time, and often children with this disability were simply seen as stupid or not trying hard enough.  We see one teacher, Miss Sanders, who's sympathetic to May and doesn't force her to read aloud, and another, simply known as "Teacher," who humiliates her by seating her with the youngest children.

May B. received starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus.  It's an excellent historical fiction choice for upper elementary and middle school students.

A study guide for May B. is available here.

1 comment:

PragmaticMom said...

I won a copy and now I am highly motivated to read it! Thanks for the review. I knew it sounded good!