Monday, June 4, 2007

Missing May

A while back I realized that the Newbery Award winners in my town's library have a little label with a medal on the spine. So last week when I was browsing the children's shelves for some books to pull out for my son - voila! - next time he's bored and just wants to play the Nintendo DS for the whole summer break, I grabbed a couple of the stickered winners at random.

I took this one because I thought "Hey, another book by the author of Rules!" - which was one of this year's Newbery Honors books. Rules was an amazing book, one that I just ordered in hardcover because I want to have it on my shelves forever, a book that I am pretty sure most adults will enjoy and learn as much from as most kids will. If I didn't like The Higher Power of Lucky so much, I would say that Rules definitely should have won the Newbery this year.

Anyway, it wasn't until I was halfway through Missing May that I Googled (so I could order Rules), and I realized that Cynthia Lord is the author of Rules, and that Cynthia Rylant (whose name was familiar from some of my daughter's picture books - like Henry & Mudge!) is the author of this book. By then, however, I was enjoying Missing May so much that I wasn't upset that it wasn't by Cynthia Lord (whose first book is Rules - and I hope she is writing more, since she doesn't have a backlist to plunder).

Interestingly, Missing May reminds me quite a bit of The Higher Power of Lucky - it's also the story of an orphaned, not very wealthy girl (who also lives in a trailer!), who is worried about her caretaker, and dealing with death of a loved one. Like Lucky, Summer also has a friend - a boy in her class - who is more than a little quirky, who has elderly parents and a strange name: Cletus (instead of Lincoln).

The fact that this character's name is Cletus and that he lives in West Virginia bothered me a bit at first. It sounded like a bit too much of a stereotype of Appalachia. There was already a character named Ob who makes whirligigs, and May (recently deceased), who rode out a childhood flood in a washtub. But Rylant deftly avoids any further stereotypes in her story of a small family coming to terms with the death of a parent (in all but biology) and a wife.

I thought Rylant's description of the West Virginia capitol was particularly beautiful:
The capitol building sprawled gray concrete like a regal queen spreading out her petticoats, and its giant dome glittered pure gold in the morning sun. I felt in me an embarrassing sense of pride that she was ours. That we weren't just shut-down coal mines and people on welfare like the rest of the country wanted to believe we were. We were this majestic, elegant thing sitting solid, sparkling in the light. (p. 71)
And I loved this description of Cletus - especially the last line:
May would have liked him. She would have said he was "full of wonders," same as Ob. May always liked the weird ones best, the ones you couldn't peg right off. She must be loving it up in heaven, where I figure everybody must just let loose. That's got to be at least one of the benefits of heaven - never having to act normal again. (p. 55)
Missing May is a much darker book than The Higher Power of Lucky, examining loss, grief and uncertainty in much more detail. Summer and Cletus are a few years older than Lucky and Lincoln, and they grapple with their problems in a more adult way. Despite the plot similarities (and the fact that both are short books), they are very different stories (so no, I don't think that Patron ripped off Rylant fourteen years later), and I think that the subject matter of Missing May is more suited for kids in the 12 and up age range. Also, you might want to have a box of kleenex handy for the last couple of chapters.

1 comment:

Sandy D. said...

Also, from an author interview I just read, it looks like a large part of "Missing May" is autobiographical - Rylant was raised mostly by her grandparents in WV. And Summer (the main character) wants to be a writer.