This weekend I’m speaking at the Southwest Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. I’m amazed that three years later, my book is still connecting with readers — especially young people with learning disabilities.
Here’s an interview I did a few months ago that ran in the SWIDA newsletter:
What inspired you to choose a girl with dyslexia as your main character?
In order for a book to work, an author must not give their characters what they want (at least not straight away), but must make them face their fears and weaknesses. Without these things, there is no change. Without change, there is no story.
May’s name came to me before her story did. I liked the way May Betterly could become May B. and how “maybe” could speak to her perception of herself (maybe is such a wishy-washy word. It makes me think of mediocre or so-so). I knew early on that May wanted to be a teacher and decided the most direct way to challenge her would be to make this dream virtually impossible. Pulling her out of school and giving her dyslexia (in an era where this would have been completely misunderstood) fit the bill.
What special challenges did this choice create?
The first is obvious: I am not an expert on dyslexia in the least. At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what her challenge was — anxiety? Fear? A learning disability? Because the book doesn’t spell out exactly what is going on, I thought I could get by with not addressing things: If May and her teachers didn’t know, why would we, as readers, need to?
My editor wasn’t impressed with my line of thinking. She told me (and rightly so!) that if I left readers hanging, they’d feel frustrated. She suggested I weave in more clues that pointed toward dyslexia in the text and that I define May’s disability in the author’s note.
This terrified me. I was sure as soon as I used a technical word I’d be claiming some sort of expertise. The more I researched, though, the more I was reminded that dyslexia is not a one-size-fits-all struggle. I tried to convey in the author’s note general similarities those with dyslexia commonly share (issues with fluency, word recognition, and comprehension; the omission of words and anxiety stemming from reading aloud, for example) and techniques that some find helpful (repetition, reading in unison with one or more people). I also had a writing friend who is a literacy expert read the manuscript.
More than once a person has asked me on what authority I’ve written this book. I’ve come to the conclusion I am qualified to tell May’s story because it is one of identity and self-worth — something all of us must face at some point, something that becomes very real to young people as they become aware of their place in this world.
Before you were a writer, you were a classroom teacher. How did working with students with reading disabilities shape your perspective of May B.?
I’m going to turn this question on its head a little. It wasn’t working with students with reading disabilities that shaped my perspective so much as examining my own time in the classroom — my attitudes, my efforts, and if I’m honest, my shortcomings. In forcing myself to sit with this character and her two very different teachers, I found myself reflecting again and again on my teaching. What I learned wasn’t always attractive. It’s easy to love the hard worker, the kid who wants to do well. It’s not so easy to get behind the child who isn’t as winsome. I have to confess there are kids I put more effort into because I enjoyed them more. There are others I didn’t try as hard with, sometimes because I wasn’t qualified, sometimes because I didn’t fully understand their needs. And sometimes I didn’t put as much work in because I didn’t want to.
If I was going to tell the most honest story I could, I couldn’t hide from these unattractive qualities I found in myself. Instead, I needed to mine them to make the story real, to make it work.
Do you have any words of wisdom you would like to offer students with dyslexia?
I hesitate when taking about the traditional ideas behind character development — the need for flaws and weakness — when talking about May Betterly. I don’t ever want children who have learning disabilities to see themselves as flawed or weak. It was very important to me that May not be “cured” of her dyslexia, first, because it’s an untrue way to look at disability, and second because it sends a damaging message, one that says you are only whole without disability.
Part of my reason in writing the book was to examine the concept of worth — how so often who we are becomes based on what others tell us about ourselves or on what we’re able to do. Like May, I think all of us in some way feel we don’t measure up. Struggles, like dyslexia, don’t define us. They are not shameful. They might be seen as “character flaws” in a book (ways a character is made real and relatable), but such real-life struggles never, ever make a person somehow worth less.
Last year I got an email that thanked me for writing May B. It directed me to a blog post that literally took my breath away:
At the end of May B., I am crying. I am crying at the ways she is so strong and capable.
…I feel like Caroline Starr Rose wrote this book in part for me.
It was as if she were writing to encourage me on behalf of all my teachers in and outside of the classroom who for years didn’t see that all the misspelled words and run-ons as a red flag. It was as if she were writing right into the places of my heart where those accusations of being careless and not good enough had settled. And she whispered that like May, I could overcome. I could hope for the good things even when they are hard. Thank you, Caroline. Thank you, May.
I hope readers of all sorts will be able to relate to — and find confidence and courage in — May’s story.