Caroline Starr Rose, author of two middle-grade historical verse novels, Blue Birds and May B, is also a former elementary teacher. And, the spark for her newest book came from a subject she and her students were studying–the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.
Blue Birds (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015) centers around two girls: Alis, a lonely colonist girl who delights in her new home, and Kimi, a Roanoke Indian girl who is angry at the Europeans for bringing death to her father and sister.
DW: How did you approach and write Alis and Kimi’s separate point-of-views (including the differences in their histories, cultures, and languages)?
CR: Having Alis and Kimi share the story was not my original plan. But once I realized Blue Birds hinged on their forbidden friendship, I knew I couldn’t tell just one girl’s side of things. And that sort of terrified me. There are some people within the writing community who feel you must live a culture in order to write about it. I’m a non-Native author. What right did I have to speak for a Roanoke child? I had to trust my ultimate qualifications came from having once been a child and from my understanding of the beauty and security that thrives in friendship. Once I got to this place, each girl’s voice felt distinct and clear and strong.
What historical research did you do?
A lot! I’ve never come to a new piece of historical fiction with a plot and characters already in mind. Instead I’m drawn to an era or event and trust a story will bubble up to the surface in the midst of my reading. When I first begin my research, I start with non-fiction titles written for children. These books give a broad, clear overview and point to specifics that appeal to children. I make extensive lists of titles mentioned in these books’ bibliographies and search for them at my library or buy them online. At this stage I also do a thorough search of any and all books on my subject in my local library system. If I have friends who have written about a similar topic or era, I’ll ask for book recommendations.
Once I’ve gathered my reading material, I begin a notebook devoted to the future book. Here I collect quotes, facts, questions, maps, lists, timelines and the like. Ideas about the book begin to emerge, mainly through “what if” and “what about” questions, though I’ll focus on the research for a good six months before committing to any specific story ideas.
What draws you to certain historical topics/eras/settings?
It’s usually not the big events that catch my attention but the quiet, everyday lives of regular people. But really, so many things draw my curiosity. It’s easy for me to get hooked!
What is your process for writing verse novels? Do you start in verse or prose?
I go in knowing my setting well and my protagonist semi-well. As far as plotting goes, I have a sense of some key turning points and usually the ending (though I’m not quite sure how to get there). From there, since I start directly with the verse, the writing is painfully slow. (A fantastic day would be 750 words. I rarely keep count of such things, because it’s kind of discouraging). What I love, though, is how organic it is. I see a quilt as a metaphor for a verse novel. Each poem is a square. As I move from poem to poem, I trust a pattern is emerging in the overall story.
How has your process for writing Blue Birds differed from writing May B? The process was very different. For May B., I was only responsible for being familiar with an era. With Blue Birds, I had to learn about an era, an event with spare records, and two Native American tribes that no longer exist. This is the first time I’ve included real people from history in something I’ve written. While they only had minor roles, it felt like a big responsibility.
When did you start loving poetry and verse? Does poetry come naturally to you, or is it something you learned to do?
I grew up with A.A. Milne and Shel Silverstein. I also danced ballet very seriously for 10 years and feel like my love for rhythm and movement and patterns, which are so much a part of verse, stems a lot from this time. As for writing verse, it wasn’t something I planned but something that sort of happened to me. Once I found the format that most honestly told May’s story, I felt like I also found a way to write that felt like home.
Many authors connect to their characters and story through music, photos, artwork, etc. How did wearing a pearl necklace help you?
This is so goofy, I know, but it really worked for me. Because Kimi and Alis secretly share a pearl necklace, wearing one regularly while working on revisions kept the characters close. When I was writing or even at the grocery store, it was like the girls were with me. How did you come to the title and the symbolism of Blue Birds? I’m awful at titles and am always amazed when an editor lets me keep one! Alis’s love of nature meant I wanted some sort of creature indigenous to the Outer Banks that would catch her attention. The animal also needed to be included on the Algonquian word list the Roanoke and Croatoan would have spoken (Only a list remains, as this dialect no longer exists). The eastern bluebird worked perfectly. From there, the symbolism grew on its own. The girls “become” bluebirds, restoring joy and bringing happiness to each other. There is strength in who they are together. This ties nicely with the wooden bluebird Alis’s Uncle Samuel carved for her. The Roanoke believed objects held power (montoac), and like the necklace, the bird is something the girls share.
Friendship is a huge theme in Blue Birds. How did your own experiences making friends, often after a family move, affect your story?
I suppose I know what it feels like to be an outsider and to feel lonely. Two of my childhood friendships played a major role in the creation of the girls. These friendships were a place I could be myself. They were fun and wonderful and freeing, but I also took them very seriously in a way that perhaps we lose as we grow older. There were a lot of “you’ll be my friend forever” sorts of vows, you know? I’m proud to say this has held true!
I was also fascinated with the experience I had when coming home to the US after an exchange in Australia. My own country and culture were downright strange. I wanted to explore that transformation.
How has teaching children helped your writing?
Teaching is a daily reminder that every person counts. I hope my books reflect this.
What were your favorite childhood books?
Little House. Anne of Green Gables. Ramona. The Chronicles of Prydain. The All-of-a-Kind Family. Mary Poppins. Dr. Doolittle. Those biographies about famous Americans that were really more story than history. The Shoe books (Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, etc.). Every time I’m asked this, my answer varies. There are so many!
For more info about Caroline, see her website.
Comment prompt: How have you crossed language or cultural boundaries to make and/or keep a friend?