May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

I have been a member of the offline Nerdy Book Club for as long as I can remember…. Mrs. Lucas, my elementary school librarian, fed me books that I became lost in. I loved everything about that library. Miss Watts, my third grade teacher, read Charlotteʼs Web aloud to us. The reason I remember this so vividly (I am way past third grade…) is because she used a different voice for each character. Wilbur was kind of whiney, Charlotte sounded so wise, and Fern was innocent and earnest.

Fast forward about 45 years, and I have spent my career teaching third grade myself. I spent 16 years ensconced in a private school that had way too much curriculum to devote any time to such a luxury as readerʼs workshop. We did a little silent reading, and I always read aloud (albeit guiltily), but it wasnʼt until two years ago, now teaching in a charter school with a much different philosophy, that I embarked on a readerʼs workshop journey that would completely change the way my third grade classroom operated. Readerʼs workshop is at the core. It is my most favorite time of each day. I have watched children learn to LOVE books after coming into my class with the attitude that they were not “readers.” We share favorite reads, book talk for each other, and beg to be the next to have “that” book! We laugh together over picture books like Peter Brownʼs Flight of the Dodo, and cry over John Reynolds Gardinerʼs Stone Fox. Third grade is a turning point where young readers move beyond the simpler early chapter books, and for the first time their books elicit real emotion. It is momentous for them, and wonderful to watch.

I spent luxurious hours during my recent spring break trip to Death Valley National Park (“Are there dead bodies there, Mrs. D.?”) reading some of the newer novels for upper elementary students. Wonderful works, all.

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose is an absolute gem. It is the story of a young girl living in a soddy on the Kansas prairie who must help her family out by living with, and working for a couple 15 miles away (light years in the late 1800ʼs). As historical fiction, it is intriguing, but even more wonderful is the fact that it is written in verse. Beautifully.

“Youʼll bring in some extra money,” Ma says.

“Weʼll get you home by Christmas,”

A wisp of hair escapes her grasp, encircling my cheek.

For the best, one less child to bathe.

I became one with May, feeling every anxious pang, every heart wrenching disappointment. We discover early on that May has a learning disability, probably dyslexia, which she struggles to understand, but she wants to be a teacher herself, so she privately and tenaciously works at her reading.

I pull the crate from under my bed, taking my reader and my slate.

Ma sighs. “Ainʼt no way youʼll keep up with the rest.” “I know,” I say.

I catch whatʼs not said: itʼs foolishness to keep pretending. What sort of teacher canʼt read out lessons?

The story takes a turn when, because of unexpected circumstances, May is left alone for months. As it dawns on her that the couple is not coming back, I feel her terror. She is alone, fending for herself, and winter is coming. Paʼs not returning until Christmas.

My legs fold under me

as I try

to catch

my breath

between sobs.

May wrestles with hard memories of school, and fantasizing about what her own family might be doing at that very moment. Nobody knows what sheʼs going through.

Wouldnʼt it be easier

to stay in the hazy place where dreams come,

to simply fade away?

May B. is a definite page turner as you wait to discover if she survives this ordeal, and how she grows personally. Does she defeat her learning disability? I can imagine students from third grade on unable to put this book down. May is a character we can all identify with. May B. would integrate perfectly with social studies, writing, and any coming of age discussions.

Our school theme this year is “See the world through different eyes,” and seeing the world through Mayʼs eyes was a treat. Every moment. Every page.

*****

Pam Dahlkamp has taught third grade for 20 years, along with some years in other grades from preschool to middle school. She is currently at The Weilenmann School of Discovery, in Park City, Utah. Pam is the proud mom of two grown readers, and her husband belongs to a subset of book nerds, the history book nerd. She can be reached at pamdahlkamp@wsdpc.org. She is way too busy to have a blog of her own.