Sunday, February 9, 2014


Students all around the country read Romeo and Juliet their Freshman year of high school. One of the factors that has made this such a classic and enduring story is the strength of Shakespeare's plot. This month I'm using The Secret Language of Stories (SLOS) to analyze this timeless tale.

As always, you may find a full description of SLOS on my blog.

The Ordinary World – In the streets of Verona, a fight breaks out between servants of the Capulets and Montagues establishing the long time feud between the two families. Prince Escalus decrees death for anyone who disturbs the peace. Meanwhile, Romeo Montague is despondent because Rosaline does not love him, and at the Capulet estate, Paris asks Capulet for permission to marry his daughter Juliet.

Call and Response- Capulet sends a servant out to invite guests to a feast, but the servant cannot read the guest list and asks Romeo for assistance. When Romeo sees Rosaline's name, he decides to crash the party. His friend Benvolio hopes Romeo will realize there are other beautiful women in Verona, but Romeo only agrees to go because he wants to see Rosaline. All of that changes when he meets Juliet. He dances with her and they kiss before he realizes she is the daughter of his father’s enemy. The “Call to Adventure” is represented by the inner stirrings of love felt by both Romeo and Juliet. They face their reluctance to get involved during the famous balcony scene where Juliet debates the meaning of a name, "Deny thy father and refuse thy name;/ Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,/And I'll no longer be a Capulet" (II.ii.38-40).

Crossing- Romeo climbs an orchard wall to arrive at Juliet’s balcony where they both profess their love. When Juliet expresses her concern for Romeo's safety, he replies, “I am no pilot, yet, wert though as far/ As that vast shore washed with the farthest sea,/ I would adventure for such merchandise” (II.ii.88-99). These lines show how the outward expression of crossing over into the New World may look like a simple gesture (i.e. climbing a wall) while inwardly it represents a great journey.

Mentors, Guides, and Gifts- Juliet’s nurse offers advice and guidance to Juliet throughout the play and helps to procure a ladder after the wedding so Romeo can gain access to Juliet's bedroom. Friar Laurence counsels Romeo, performs the forbidden wedding ceremony, and helps Juliet devise the plan at the end of the story that unintentionally results in the death of the two lovers.

New World- Although Romeo and Juliet both remain in Verona for the first half of the story, their situations are irrevocably altered and their perceptions changed because of forbidden love.

Problem, Prize, and Plan-  The problem these two lovers face is that they want to be together, but their families are sworn enemies. They plan to get married with the aid of Friar Laurence and Juliet's nurse.

Midpoint Attempt- Romeo marries Juliet in secret and it appears that he has won his prize. He plans to come to Juliet that night and they part, but soon after, Tybalt sees Romeo and challenges him to a duel. Tybalt is still angry about Romeo crashing the Capulet's party. Romeo refuses to fight because Tybalt is now his kinsman. Mercutio doesn’t understand Romeo's reluctance and he fights Tybalt himself. Tybalt kills Mercutio. Romeo then flies into a rage and kills Tybalt. The Prince responds by banishing Romeo from Verona forever.

Downtime- Romeo spends the night with Juliet and they consummate their marriage.

Chase and Escape: The next morning Romeo flees the city. Juliet’s father, upset by the death of Tybalt, has arranged for her to marry Paris in three days. Juliet then seeks out Friar Laurence in pursuit of an escape. He concocts a plan for her to take a potion that will make her appear dead. She will then be free to join Romeo. Friar Laurence sends Friar John to find Romeo with a message outlining the plan, but John gets detained and Romeo never receives the letter.

Death and Transformation- Juliet arrives at home and discovers the wedding has been moved up. She takes the potion and her nurse finds her body the next morning. Juliet is then placed in the family crypt.

Climax- When Romeo hears that Juliet has died, he buys poison from an apothecary. He then races back to Verona. When he sees Paris scattering flowers outside of Juliet's tomb, they fight and Romeo kills Paris. Romeo then enters the tomb, takes the poison, and dies at Juliet's side. When Juliet awakens and realizes that Romeo has perished, she kisses his poisoned lips. When this fails to kill her, she stabs herself in the heart with his dagger.

Reward- Although this story is a tragedy, there is still a reward of sorts. The Capulets and Montagues arrive at the graveyard. Monague's wife has died of grief over the banishment of Romeo. When the two men see their dead children’s bodies, they agree to stop their feud and raise gold statues of the two lovers in Verona as a memorial of their love.

NOTE: If you are using this play with your students, you may want to have them create a modern parody by replacing each section of the plot with experiences from contemporary life. For example, teens could explore situations that pit groups against each other such as rivalries between gangs, schools, and sports teams. The story could even take place at the Olympic Games with team members from two rivaling countries falling in love. Although taking poison seems like a melodramatic (and unrealistic) way to fake one's death, there might be other examples from modern experience such as taking part in the witness protection program or pretending to die in a car crash or fire. Students don't have to write a story. Just brainstorming the possibilities helps them to connect the story to their own experiences.

Friday, February 7, 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, February 2, 2014

Writing Resolutions

For our first feature article of 2014, Spellbinders asked some of our author friends what their writing resolutions are for the upcoming year. Check these out. You may find a few you want to adopt for yourself.

Shirley Raye Redmond

S is for Social Media—I will make use of Amazon’s Author Central, Good Reads author page and Facebook, although this is just not my sort of thing. I’d rather be writing!
M is for Marketing—I will spend at least 30 minutes each day actively marketing my titles by contacting libraries, bloggers, bookstores and appropriate museum gift shops, etc. I’m even considering contacting photography shops about carrying my FAIRIES: A TRUE STORY (Random House) as it is about a photographic hoax.
A is for Achievable—I have set a realistic goal of writing at least 1000 polished words per day.
R is for Reading—I will make time to read books, blogs, and pertinent magazines.
T is for Time Sensitive—I will take all deadlines seriously, even my own self-imposed ones.
E is for Exercise—I will strive to take 10,000 steps a day (I wear a pedometer) so as not to come down with repetitive use injuries and other aches and pains caused by too much sitting.
R is for Revision--I will not resent it, but learn to relish it.

Betsy James        

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I make resolutions about every three months, when I nuke yet again the piles of books and papers and swear that next time I won’t let the piles get overwhelming. As if. Recently I did make a resolution-like decision, though. I can’t print it here because there’s a curse word in it. It goes something like, “From 9 to 12 in the morning, drop everything, including &%$#, and write.” I suppose I could have printed that as e***l. It is the curse.

Judith Schiess Avila

It was a huge relief seeing the ball drop on 2013. My 90-year-old father died in April, 2013, leaving our family deprived of his gruff strength and humor. My amazing little sister was diagnosed with breast cancer that same month. So was one of my best friends. My two wonderful, longtime dog companions both died. And I loaned my new truck to a friend who totaled it in a freak rain-related accident. So, plowing ahead in my old Subaru, I found comfort watching 2013 grow smaller and disappear in the rearview mirror.

Sometime during 2014, I hope to get my sanity back. Last year I wrote virtually nothing, using travels with my book Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII as an excuse. But I have learned that writing brings me happiness, focus, and (I hope) sanity.

This year I vow to be present in every minute. When a news item catches my eye, I will tell myself, Wow! This could be a story. What if… When my friends relate funny or touching incidents, I will examine them for story potential and again ask myself, What if… When I see an inspiring movie or read a fascinating book, I’ll take it further – great tale, but what if… Everything that passes the “what if” test by making my imagination soar will be captured in my computer journal. And when I am asked to write something, I will never say I’m too busy.

These few short paragraphs are a start.

Kersten Hamilton
Kersten's website

I'm giving up on social media for 2014. No Twitter, no Facebook, no blog. I'm going to take the time I would have spent on social media and spend it writing instead.

And here are two resolutions from the Spellbinders:

Caroline Starr Rose

Keep plugging away! If I look at the big picture, I tend to freak out. Day by day, bird by bird makes it feel doable.

Carolee Dean

I plan to be more active on social media - Twitter (@CaroleeJDean), Facebook, and my blog, so I can stay connected with readers. At the same time, I don't want it to become a huge time suck, so I plan to do a little something each Sunday and spend the rest of the week writing books. Its funny that this is exactly the opposite of Kersten's resolution above.

The bottom line is do something, shake it up, keep it fresh. That's what writing is all about.
Now go out there and make it a great 2014