Monday, January 27, 2014


age range: middle grade
setting: 1870s Kansas frontier
May B. study guide
May B. book talk
May B. book trailer

School Library Journal review:
Told in spare, vivid verse, May’s story works on many levels; as a survival story, a coming-of-age tale, and a worthwhile next read for “Little House on the Prairie” fans.

Publisher's Weekly starred review:
Writing with compassion and a wealth of evocative details, Rose offers a memorable heroine and a testament to the will to survive. 

Hornbook review:
The verse novel form is particularly well suited to this spare survival story set on the homesteaded Kansas prairie. Rose uses a close-up lens and a fine sense of rhythm to draw us into her stark world, Little House on the Prairie without the coziness. 

Kirkus starred review:
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.

Please tell us about your book.
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.

What inspired you to write this story?
Because of my childhood love for the Little House on the Prairie series, I 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.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching? 
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.

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

What are some special challenges associated with writing a verse novel?
May B. didn’t start as a novel in verse. I poked around with some scenes in prose 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 Hamsten’s Read This Only to Yourself: The Private Writings of Midwestern Women, 1880-1910. 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.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
  • the frontier era
  • pioneers
  • Kansas history
  • one-room schoolhouses
  • learning disabilities
  • blizzards
  • survival / isolation
  • shame / self-worth
In celebration of May's recent paperback release, I'm giving away one signed copy. To enter, please 
email Caroline your mailing address with "May B." in the subject line. The winner will be announced in next month's Classroom Connections.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Countdown to ALA Newbery 2014 Winners!


Many schools and libraries put together Mock Newbery Award book clubs, rallying their students to read the books that are getting “winner buzz” each year and then putting together discussion groups to talk about the books they’ve read.

In December or January, ballots are assembled and the students can vote on their favorites and see which book “won” that year’s Mock Newbery Award. Sound like fun? It is!

Here are a few links for more information to get started at your school:

If you’re on Goodreads, there is a forum filled with librarians, teachers and readers, who discuss books all year long as books are published. They discuss the pros and cons about each title’s potential as a Newbery Medal contender.
I’ve often learned about new books that I’ve missed, and I enjoy the conversation about good books in these forums.

In case you’ve been a bit swamped with lesson plans or life (who isn’t?!), here are a few of the books (down below!) folks have been buzzing about all year long as potential Newbery winners. (We’re focusing on the Newbery since this is a Middle-Grade Savvy Site. Of course, all the awards from Picture Books through the Young Adult Printz Award are at the links below.)

Let us know which are your favorites for the 2014 Newbery Medal, and don’t forget to watch the ALA Newbery Broadcast next Monday, January 27th. (This link takes you to a full page from ALA with all the info and details!)

Just a *few* titles – and there is NO predicting what will happen!


Kimberley Griffiths Little’s next Middle Grade novel, THE TIME OF THE FIREFLIES, will publish July, 2014 by Scholastic. (Her Young Adult debut, FORBIDDEN, launches November 2014 with Harpercollins). You can find her hanging out a lot on Facebook. Enjoy Teacher’s Guides, Mother/Daughter Book Club Guides, and “filmed on location” book trailers at her website.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Secret Language of Stories Explores I AM LEGEND posted by Carolee Dean

Happy New Year Everyone! First off, the winners of the FIERCE READS TOUR Book Giveaway have all been notified. They were Chris Victor, Mindy Holt, Karen Douglas and Elizabeth. If you have not already received your fabulous book prizes, please contact me by email.

For the 2013-14 school year  I have been using my twelve step story analysis method to outline popular books and movies. This month I’m reviewing one of my favorite movies, I Am Legend. It is a true classic. Before we get started, if you aren’t familiar with my plot analysis system, check out The Secret Language of Stories at Carolee Dean Books.

The 2007 film, I Am Legend, featuring Will Smith, is based loosely on a 1954 novel by Richard Matheson with the same title. The novel greatly influenced the zombie genre and the concept of apocalyptic disease. In addition to the 2007 movie, other film versions include The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston. The novel also inspired the movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), and reportedly influenced the writing of Stephen King.

When I talk to students about story plots, I always begin by discussing the OLD WORLD and the NEW WORLD. The before and after contrasts in I Am Legend are stark. The movie begins with a TV interview of Dr. Alice Krippin (Emma Thompson) a doctor who has found the cure for cancer in a genetically engineered form of measles she created. The film then cuts to a scene occurring years later in downtown NYC where virologist Robert Neville hunts deer because wild animals have returned to the now nearly uninhabited city.

Neville is the only survivor of a deadly virus caused from Kripin’s measles cure. The mutated strain has turned most of the population into rabid vampire-like predators. They are called Darkseekers because they cannot expose themselves to light, forcing them to hunt at night. As a product of their ruthless hunting practices, Neville appears to be the only person left alive.  

The film handles the contrasts between the OLD and NEW WORLDS in interesting ways. Trying to deal with his desperate loneliness and wanting to continue some semblance of a normal routine, Neville watches old newscasts he has recorded. It is through these newscasts, as well as a series of flashbacks, that the OLD WORLD, and the details of the rise of the deadly virus, is revealed.

But the abandoned city isn’t the only New World explored in the story. In fact, the first part of the movie establishes Neville’s new routine in what has become his post apocalyptic “ordinary world.” He gets up every day, does his exercise routine, feeds his dog, Sam, watches the “old” news, and goes to the video store where he interacts with the mannequins he has placed around the store. He has even given the mannequins names, attesting to his desperate loneliness and the fact that everyone else has either died or become a Darkseeker. 

Neville has recorded a radio broadcast offering food and shelter to any remaining survivors. He instructs them to meet him at the South Street Seaport at midday. Therefore, part of his daily routine includes hitting golf balls into the ocean while he waits at the Seaport for anyone else who has survived the plague and may have heard his message. He also checks on the status of the rabid rats he has injected with various serums made from his immune blood. As he searches for a cure, he creates video documentation of his research. It’s a pretty full routine, but he still finds time to hunt deer with his loyal dog, Sam.

Neville does not appear to have any MENTORS or GUIDES to help him, even in the flashbacks. The GIFTS he acquires to assist him on his quest for survival are items he finds randomly searching the apartments of the dead. He is so alone, he asks for advice and guidance from the mannequins. It is this lack of assistance and absence of any human contact that helps create the mood of isolation, loneliness and despair that pervades the movie

The CALL TO ADVENTURE occurs when Sam follows a deer into an abandoned building. Neville is reluctant to enter, calling to his dog, trying desperately to get her to come out. He finally goes inside after her, sweating profusely, aiming his rifle at anything that moves in the darkness. The deer they were hunting has been killed and dragged through the building full of Darkseekers. Neville stumbles upon a group of them huddled together like bees in a hive. At this point he finds Sam and runs for his life, barely escaping the vicious undead.

The next day, Neville gathers supplies and returns to the abandoned building where he sets a trap and captures one of the Darkseekers, a female, for his research. The CROSSING OVER in this story occurs when Neville brings the creature home. This action sets in motion a chain of events that changes the course of the story.

The PROBLEM is established at the very beginning of the movie. Almost all of the world’s population has been decimated by the killer virus. The PRIZE that virologist Robert Neville seeks is a cure. His PLAN is to keep working on different variations of his serum until he discovers one that reverses the effects of KV (the Krippin Virus). One of the mixtures shows promise in a rat and so Neville uses it to inject the woman. His first ATTEMPT at the MIDPOINT of the movie seems to fail when the creature tries to break free from her restraints to attack him, but Neville is able to sedate her and keep her on ice to lower her elevated body temperature.

After his failed attempt with the serum, Neville takes some DOWNTIME to regroup and come up with another plan, but a major twist occurs when Neville goes out hunting with Sam and sees that one of the mannequins he previously placed in the video store is now standing in front of the Grand Central Terminal. Completely derailed by this image, and perhaps fearing for his sanity, he goes to investigate and is knocked out when he hits his head on the ground as he is caught in a trap similar to the one he set for the Darkseekers.

As it nears dusk, Neville’s watch alarm goes off and wakes him up. He is able to cut himself down from the cable ensnaring his leg, but vicious Darkseeker dogs CHASE him and one of them bites Sam. Neville takes his companion home and tries to inject her with the serum, but it’s too late and Sam begins the metamorphosis. Neville is forced to strangle Sam to death as she turns on him.

Sam was the only friend Neville had left. He goes through a crisis of the soul and chooses to face DEATH to wait for the Darkseekers that night at the Seaport, knowing they will surely come for him. He kills many of them, but he is obviously outnumbered. Just as it appears that they will annihilate him, bright lights suddenly frighten the Darkseekers away and Neville is rescued by two uninfected humans, a woman named Anna and a boy named Ethan, who heard his radio broadcasts and have travelled from Maryland to find him.

In the presence of humans for the first time in three years, Neville goes through an awkward TRANSFORMATION as he tries to relate to them. It’s easier for him to repeat the lines of SHREK than it is to have a real conversation. He explodes in anger when Anna insists that God told her to go to the survivor’s camp in Bethel, Vermont, and he tells her there is no survivor’s camp. There was a plan to create one, but the virus moved through the population too quickly.

During the FINAL SHOWDOWN, Darkseekers arrive at his townhouse. Anna inadvertently led them there when she brought Neville home. At first he is able to fend them off with UV lights and mines planted outside his residence, but they eventually rip open the roof and get inside. Neville takes Anna and Ethan down to the lab where they lock themselves inside a glass room with the infected Darkseeker woman. They see that the woman is beginning to become human again. The serum is working.

The alpha male Darkseeker throws his body into the glass and it begins to crack in the pattern of a butterfly. Neville notices that Anna has a butterfly tattoo and he recalls, in a flashback. how one of the last things his dead daughter did was to make a butterfly symbol with her hands, right before the evacuation helicopter carrying Neville’s wife and daughter crashed. For the first time in the movie, Neville experiences true hope.

Neville draws blood from the infected woman, puts it in a vial, and gives the vial to Anna, telling her it holds the cure. Then he shuts Anna and Ethan in a coal chute and detonates a hand grenade killing himself and the Darkseekers.

The REWARD is realized when Anna and Ethan arrive at the survivor’s camp with the blood that holds the cure. The survivors are the legacy and Neville’s fight to find the cure was his legend.