Caroline Starr Rose May B

 

When I picked up Caroline Starr Rose’s book May B. this spring, I did not know it was going to be about a girl who had dyslexia.

 

Until I was in my 20s, I did not know that I had dyslexia.

 

I checked out May B. along with a host of other 2012 released kidslit books that were possible Newberry Award Winners.  Some were amazing. All were helpful in thinking about my own writing. None of them touched me like May B.

 

I sit down, mint tea in hand, to the striking slate blue, cream, and black covered book. I open the book and read the dedications.

 

Rose Dedication Page to Former Students

 

I furrow my brow.  That dedication almost sounds like an apology. I re-read it. It seems immensely personal and intimate.

 

I open to the first page. It must be an epigraph, a poem to start the chapter, I think.

 

Rose May B Chapter 1

 

I turn the page. It is also in verse. I flip through the next ten: still in verse. My heart sinks. Is this lovely book for children going to be too hard for me to read?

 

But I continue. The white space and pauses between beautiful phrases become a rhythm.  Soon I am drawn into the story: May, short for Mavis Betterlys, is a Laura Ingalls Wilder like heroine who faces a host of challenges in an 1870s Kansas prairie winter in a stranger’s sod house.

 

The poetry puts me in a space where I am unusually aware of how I am reading. My dyslexia sneaks up on me sometimes like this.  As a child, even though I was a voracious reader, I also have early memories of wishing I were in the advanced reading group like my friends.

 

My sweet first grade teacher, Miss Neath, who was on the verge of retirement, sat with me after school catching up on work I had missed during a family vacation.

“Read the little words, Amy,”

“I am.”

“No, you keep skipping the little ones like ‘the’ and ‘a’ and ‘at.’”

“I wish I could be in the advanced reading group.”

“Well, I tell you what, I’ll put you there if you promise to try hard and read those little words.”

 

The following week I move up to the advanced group, even though I still skipped most prepositions and articles.

 

Throughout my schooling my teachers have been for the most part incredibly encouraging and simultaneously not understanding about my strange inability to not “try hard enough” to read and write quite right.

 

Caroline Starr Rose May B

 

I continue to read May B.’s story. She can’t be in school. She studies the lessons but when she goes to read them in front of the class, it all falls apart.

 

As a child, I always thought dyslexia was when letters would float above the page. Like that great 1990s PBS show Ghostwriter, the “d” and “g” in dog would just get up and switch places in mid-air and become “god.”

 

Since I never saw letters float, I didn’t think I could have dyslexia. For me, it was more that the middle of words seemed to fade and become hard to recall when I looked away from the page to pronounce or spell them. I just told people I was bad at spelling, tried to double check everything, and laugh it off when people pointed out my childish mistakes.

 

Caroline Starr Rose May B

 

May B.’s dream is to be a schoolteacher. But how can she be one if she can’t get through school herself?

 

By age 14, I wanted to be a writer. I loved reading good books more than I loved doing anything else, except perhaps daydreaming my own tales.

 

But more and more as I listened to my teachers I heard, “Amy has good ideas, but she has a hard time getting them down. Amy struggles with grammar and spelling and organization. Amy is not a strong writer. Amy is a careless proofreader.”

 

How could I be a novelist if I wasn’t good at writing?

 

I’m in bed and it’s late as I approach the middle of May B. She is facing her school reader in the lonely winter.

 

page 78 Rose May B

 

I frown at the page. All four sentences look the same to me. I know that May is supposed to be struggling to read the sentences.

 

I hand the book to my husband, Evan, who is reading GK Chesterton beside me. “Can you read this to me?” I ask. He reads it aloud. I hear the little differences. But when I had read it my brain had just re-ordered the sentences so they made sense.

 

I am surprised at how my own dyslexia and May B.’s intertwined on that page.

 

I am surprised how strongly I feel May B.’s frustration at not being able to get what is on the page to come out right.  I feel myself wanting to go into May’s freezing sod house and say to her. “I know it’s hard.  Breath deeply. Just take it one sound at a time. You are strong and beautiful. You can do this.” It’s how I feel sometimes when I tutor a child with an undiagnosed learning disability. But of course May has to find her own strength.

 

I decided at age 15 that I couldn’t be a writer if I was bad at writing. I had always gotten good grades in social studies. If I couldn’t write stories about princesses, I could study them in history. But high school history teachers teach presidents not princesses. I decided I would have to get a PhD to teach princesses.

 

Now I see the immense irony in leaving writing what I loved to pursue a career that would involve mostly writing what I thought other people said I was good at. A PhD in history is all writing and reading. Also, it involves very few princesses.

 

Caroline Starr Rose May B

 

May throws the reader across the room. She’s so frustrated and lonely.

 

I failed the first thing I tried to do in that PhD program: the French competency exam. I had a minor in French. But dyslexia in your first language can hide in ways it can’t in a foreign language.

 

I finally go and get tested.  Two and half years previous, during the spring break right before I started dating Evan, I went to San Diego and visited my godmother.  There I learned that my godmother has dyslexia. She struggles with rights and lefts, spelling, grammar, syntax, and pronouncing new words too. She is also one of the brightest and wisest women I know.  Our time together planted a seed.

 

Maybe I had dyslexia.

 

Failing that test two years later was the first time I really needed an accommodation. So on December 3, 2008, I went and got tested.

 

Dyslexia and Written Disorder Diagnosis

 

I don’t know what those numbers mean: Reading Disorder 315.00, with Dyslexia 784.61 Disorder of Written Expression 315.2. I know that they got me time and half and an electronic dictionary. I passed that French Exam. The next summer I passed the Latin exam.  And in many ways, those numbers helped me to leave the program. Not because I failed though.  I wrote those papers, painstakingly, and Evan read and proof read each word. I left because I wanted to face what I had run away from at 15. I wanted to write stories.

 

At the end of May B., I am crying. I am crying at the ways she is so strong and capable.

 

I remember that intimate dedication and 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.

 

Caroline Starr Rose May B

 

What was the last book that touched your heart and encouraged your soul?

 

16 Responses to Reflections on Dyslexia: May B. A Novel by Caroline Starr Rose

  1. I try so very hard not to comment on posts about my book. It doesn’t feel right to join a conversation for readers and by readers. But I just can’t help myself today.

    This is the most beautiful, heartfelt response I’ve ever received from a reader. I am so very touched this girl who isn’t real (though is more than real in so many ways)has spoken into your life as she has mine, in similar ways and differently too.

    There is no escape in writing a story. You are forced again and again to reflect and dig deeper as you revise. And in doing so, I found things about my years teaching I wasn’t proud of — less patience for the children who were not as easy to love, things I let slide because I was too tired or too busy or ill equipped in some way. Those things I could have ignored or excused, but I used them as fuel to tell May’s story most truthfully, just as you have used your own struggles to weave this beautiful tale.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to run a post at my blog quoting a portion of your post and directing readers here. Would you be okay with this? Might I use one of your photos, too?

    Thank you, Amy. YOU are brave and strong.

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thank you so much Caroline! I would be so honored if you posted this on your blog. Feel free to use any photos! Thank you so much for these kind words. I can’t wait to read more of your work!

  2. Kelly Cohen-Mazurowski says:

    Loved this Amy. Great work!

  3. Love your story here and how May B. touched you. It is amazing what we can overcome to tell our own stories and the stories of others. I’m glad you kept writing. : )

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thanks Melissa! We often can wish away the challenges (I know I do!), but it’s want makes stories like May B so great. I think that’s why reading can be so encouraging. We can see the way challenges are woven into growth and strength. Thank you for your kind and encouraging words!

  4. This is such a beautiful reflection of what a book meant to you! I loved May B. as well.
    Keep writing!

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thank you Faith! MayB is such a special book! I will, thank you for your good words of encouragement!

  5. Stasia says:

    What a wonderful post. My eldest, now 18, was diagnosed with dyslexia (and dysgraphia) two years ago (we’d had him tested at age 10 and been told he wasn’t dyslexic). He loved your post, too!

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Oh Stasia, that is so incredible encouraging! I am so touched that you would share this with your son! Thank you to him as well. It is such a process for everyone to be on board and for the right tests to get used. I am so glad that you were able to finally get the right resources! I hope that he really feels empowered and that he has a lot of people cheering for him!

  6. Amy,
    This is an important post for teachers to read. I was directed here from Caroline’s blog. It’s important because of what you say about caring, well-meaning teachers who just didn’t get it, and for the fact that May B could comfort you and help you. We teachers need to know these things. Thanks for sharing and daring to write about such a personal subject.

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thank you Margaret! I am so glad that it encouraged you as a teacher. I know that as my husband, Evan, is finishing an MAT to be a high school history teacher living with me (and proofing all my work!) has made a big impact on the way he thinks about his students’ reading and writing. Sometimes we just need to watch someone we care about struggle for us to understand the shape of a particular challenge. I think that May B can do that for so many kids (and hopefully teachers as well). I am so glad that Caroline included that information at the end about dyslexia, I think it’s great to connect with a character and a condition in such a powerful way. Thanks for your kind encouragement!

  7. […] Thank you for writing May B., the email said, and sent me to this blog post.  […]

  8. And now I have tears in my eyes. What a beautiful post!

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