Caroline Starr Rose is a former history teacher and author of the starred novel in verse, May B. Her new historical middle grade novel Blue Birds (G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Group USA, 2015) is set in 1587. It’s the honest and gripping story of Alis, one of the unwelcome English settlers on Roanoke Island. Kimi, a member of the Roanoke tribe, has lost both her father and her sister to violent attacks from the colonists. Despite language and mistrust, the two girls find friendship.
MUF: History clearly inspires you. When do you turn from research to story?
CSR: I am not an author who is oozing with plots and characters. Instead I start with an era or event that I want to explore, and I trust ideas will start to grow out of what I’m learning and from the “what if” questions I pose. I need to immerse myself in my study until I feel confident with the material. By the time I start thinking of story, it feels like a natural outgrowth of the history I’ve learned.
MUF: Alis is a brave girl, but also of her time, with chores and children to watch. And yet she is drawn outside of the protection of the settlement to the friend she has made. Tell me about building the tension Alis feels between the two worlds.
CSR: A large part of Alis stems from my exploration of my own experiences as a girl and teen. I moved back to the U.S. at the age of six, after three years in Saudi Arabia. I knew little about my own country or culture and was very much an outsider. My fifteenth year I spent on exchange in Australia. Again, when I came home, what was supposed to be familiar was actually foreign. I wanted to watch a similar tension grow in Alis, wanted her to be drawn into a new world but also come to see her own culture as an outsider might.
MUF: You really capture Alis’ joy in the natural world. I loved the wood carving and learning the word for blue bird, iachawanes. What was your inspiration?
CSR: Author Lucy Maud Montgomery was the inspiration behind Alis’s love of nature. Readers will know her as the author of the Anne Shirley and Emily Starr books. While both these characters deeply love nature, I would argue L.M. Montgomery was even more under its spell. (I’ve read her five-volume journal twice now and plan to do so every ten years. They’ve become a huge part of my writing and reading life.)
Iacháwanes was tricky. I wanted to find an animal indigenous to the Outer Banks that both girls might have encountered and that also had a known Algonquian counterpart. Because the Algonquian dialect the Roanoke and Croatoan spoke is now dead, there were a limited number of words to pick from. The eastern blue bird — iacháwanes — is actually the third bird I picked! When I found Governor John White’s beautiful watercolor (see here), I knew this was the bird my girls connected over.
MUF: You remain true to the terrible and violent history of what happened to both Native people and the white settlers but in a way that won’t frighten young readers. Did you struggle with that?
CSR: An unvarnished picture of history, one that doesn’t try to explain the ugly parts away, is always most impactful. I was worried some of these heartbreaking events might frighten young or especially sensitive readers, but at the same time I knew I couldn’t hide from what really happened. These young characters couldn’t, and I couldn’t do that to my readers, either. That said, I’m happy my publisher chose to label the book as “10 and up” rather than the typical middle grade 8-12.
MUF: There is a demand for diverse books, and yet it’s hard to write across cultures. How did you address describing the Roanoke experience?
CSR: Honestly, it was a very challenging, sometimes scary experience. I’m a non-Native author. I’ve written about two tribes that no longer exist, groups who left no written record and are the subject of very few reference materials. Have I gotten things wrong in some places? I’m almost positive I have. But I tried my very, very best to work with what I knew, as was absolutely my responsibility. It was also important to find a reader from the Lumbee tribe (possibly the modern-day descendants of the Croatoan) who was able to vet my work.
Ultimately, I had to trust my life experiences — I’ve been a girl, I know how profoundly friendship can shape a person — gave me a measure of authority to write about a character far different from me. Writing is a risky endeavor. There’s no room for playing it safe.
MUF: Verse expresses beautifully the connection between Alis and Kimi, especially when there are so few words they share in common. Why did you choose to write in verse?
CSR: I knew from the start this book would be in verse, partly because that’s what I’m comfortable with, partly because I find it such a great way to write historical fiction. Verse gives a reader immediate access to a character and her world. The extraneous is stripped away.
Once I realized the story needed to be told in both girls’ voices, verse added another layer of communication through stanza and line placement on the page. As the girls are drawn together, the words are, too. Verse is magical this way.
MUF: You have a picture book out soon too! Will you continue to write novels in verse?
CSR: Yes! Over in the Wetlands releases this July. Though my next historical novel, a story about the Klondike Gold Rush, is written in prose, I definitely will write verse again. I’m learning to listen to the best way a story can be told. Ideally I figure this out before I begin drafting!