Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May is a lovely, short novel about a twelve-year-old growing up in an unconventional family that will appeal to students with family issues as well as students in general. The protagonist, a girl named Summer, came to live with her elderly Aunt May and Uncle Ob in the mountains of West Virginia after being passed around from relative to relative since her mother died when she was very young. After her difficult early years, Summer is happy and feels at home with May and Ob. At that time she was taken in by May and Ob, Summer was about six, but the story actually begins later, when Summer is twelve and May has just died.
After May’s death, Ob is overcome by grief and Summer is kept busy trying to keep things together. When it seems that Ob may not be coming out of his depression, Summer worries about Ob and about her own future. Then help arrives from an unlikely source, their neighbor and Summer’s schoolmate, Cletus Underwood. Cletus has heard of a preacher – Reverend Miriam B. Young, billed as the “Small Medium at Large” – who can supposedly commune with the dead. Ob is interested, and the three of them set off to find her, with a planned stop to see the state capitol along the way.
When they arrive and find that Reverend Young has died, Ob is devastated and says that they are going home. They drive right past the capitol which makes Cletus very disappointed. Then in a sudden turn of events, Ob says,”I’m turning this buggy around.” They spend the day touring the capitol, and somehow this is the beginning of Ob’s returning to life. Ob gets interested in doing something with the whirligigs that he has been carving for years, and Ob, Cletus, and Summer set them up in May’s old garden. Summer feels peaceful and thinks about her good memories of May.
Missing May has a number of family-related themes, and should be great for opening up a discussion on one of these topics. Some of the themes are:
- Unconventional families or foster families
- Grief, the grieving process
- Dealing with a parent’s grief
- Dealing with a parent who may not be able to cope
- Valuing and appreciating differences in others
- Characteristics like strength of character, empathy, and patience (all exhibited by Summer)
One of the interesting elements in the story is Ob’s whirligigs. He puts great care into creating them and says that each one represents a”mystery” such as love, fire, hope, or dreams. Students might be interested in looking at samples of this interesting folk art. There are some great pictures at this Smithsonian site. Also, at the end of the novel in the extra material, there are directions for making a simple whirligig from sturdy paper or cardboard.
Cynthia Ryland has written many books for kids, the majority for younger ones. However there are also some that look really interesting for middle grade kids including Gooseberry Park (an animal story featuring an unusual assortment of characters including a squirrel, a Labrador retriever, a hermit crab, an a bat) and The Van Gogh Cafe (a book of short stories that mixes realism and fantasy).
If you have used Missing May or another one of these middle grades books in your classroom, I would love to hear about what ideas you addressed with the book or what activities worked well.
Missing May Novel Study
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Linked with The Literary Maven for On My Bookshelf, Focused on Fifth for What Are You Reading?” and Reading Toward the Stars for Book Talk Thursday: