In 2009, with nearly a dozen unpublished manuscripts, stacks of rejections, and no leads, Caroline Starr Rose seized what she terms a “you only live once” conviction and quit her job teaching middle-school social studies to write full-time. Her husband, a Presbyterian minister, and two sons, now nine and 11, cheered her along, and four months later Rose completed the manuscript for May B. (Random/Schwartz & Wade), a historical novel in verse set in the 19th-century, about a 12-year-old girl left to fend for herself during a brutal Kansas winter. She quickly secured an agent, Michelle Humphrey at the Martha Kaplan Agency, and in another four months she had a book deal.
Rose says she always knew she wanted to write. However, the desire to write for younger readers came from teaching. “I was struck by the kids’ quirkiness, irreverence, and honesty.” She credits the authors she read at a similar age—Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Beverly Cleary, and Lloyd Alexander—with shaping her both as a person and a writer. “Those are the books that helped me to find who I was going to be,” Rose says.
Influenced by her love of the Little House series, Rose located her novel on the frontier. “I wanted to do a survival story from a girl’s point of view,” she says. She also drew inspiration from such survival novels as Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Her research began broadly, with firsthand narratives from pioneer women as well as secondary sources. She read voraciously and even watched a YouTube video of the Kansas prairie to help create the setting.
An essential thread of the novel is May’s learning disability, which readers will recognize as dyslexia. “I wondered how learning disabilities would have been treated before they were understood,” says Rose. “Here is a character who’s been told she’s inadequate, and through this [survival] experience she realizes she’s brave and extraordinary.”
The decision to write in verse emerged from frustration with initial drafts. The prose version felt distant and lifeless. So Rose reread the primary source accounts. “The language was so spare and matter-of-fact. And I decided to mirror the voice of these women in verse. It was such a breakthrough, as if I had been struck by lightning,” Rose recalls. “I had only ever read two verse novels, so it felt like a real risk—but I remember feeling it was the most honest thing I’d ever created.”
May B. was sold to Tricycle Press after an auction; however, Random House shuttered Tricycle in 2011 right before the book’s scheduled publication. Fortunately, Random House found a home for May B. at Schwartz & Wade, and Rose believes the narrative benefited from the influence of not one but two editors: Nicole Geiger at Tricycle, and Emily Seise at Schwartz & Wade. “Nicole urged me to flesh out the details of May’s world—what kind of clothing she wore, what kind of food she ate—so the reader could really picture her world,” Rose says. “Whereas Emily really helped me round out the learning disability portion and make sure May remained active rather than passive even while trapped inside alone.”
Rose has graduated to a writing room of her own, rather than the converted closet where she formerly worked. The author recently sold Over the Wetlands, a picture book set in Louisiana, to Schwartz & Wade, which will publish it in 2014, and she’s revisiting some of her older manuscripts as well as working on a new historical novel in verse.
Rose says the attention that May B. has been getting has “really knocked my socks off.” But she counts the praise of her elder son, 11, who voices strong opinions, as particularly significant. “He read various drafts from the scrap box,” Rose remembers. “He told me kids wouldn’t like this because it’s not funny. Right before publication, though, we read it aloud as a family and he said it was cool.”