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Missing May

by Cynthia Rylant

The Book Club Novel Guide outlines a complete theme-based unit with Book Club lesson plans focusing on Missing May.

Buy the Novel Buy the Book Club Novel Guide

Below you will find a synopsis, further reading materials, discussion topics, and reviews that you might find useful during your teaching of Missing May.

A Synopsis

Because none of her relatives in Ohio want her, six-year-old Summer goes to live with her Aunt May and Uncle Ob in West Virginia after her parents die. There, in a broken-down trailer filled with Ob’s whirligigs, she finds the love and family that she’s been missing. Life is good for six years, and then May dies. Ob and Summer are heartbroken, and Summer worries when Ob claims that May has returned. She fears she’ll lose Ob and be left alone.

Then Cletus Underwood, Summer’s classmate, starts to come around. He and Ob make friends, despite Summer’s objections. Ob becomes convinced that Cletus can help him talk to May’s spirit because Cletus had a near-death experience as a boy. Instead, Cletus proposes that they travel to visit a spiritualist in another county and also visit the state capitol in Charleston. Hoping somehow that contacting May will give Ob a reason to live, they are horrified when they arrive and find that the spiritualist has died. Ob turns the car homeward, apparently forgetting his promise to visit the capitol.

Miraculously, Ob seems to recover some of his spirit. He turns the car around, and they spend the rest of the day exploring the magnificent capitol and its surroundings. They return home late that night and, as they head into the trailer, an owl flies overhead. This event reminds Summer how much she misses May, and she starts crying—something she hasn’t done since May died. The next morning Ob tells Cletus and Summer that they have a chore to do. As a group they erect all of Ob’s whirligigs in May’s garden, setting them free along with May’s spirit.

Further Reading and Links

The following sites can be used to support and enrich the Book Club unit for Missing May by Cynthia Rylant.

About the Author and the Book

  • Cynthia Rylant — Cynthia Rylant's official website provides some insight into her motivation for writing. This site also includes a brief biography and bibliography of her works.
  • Ohio Reading Road Trip — Another biography about the author can be found on this website. It includes further links, a selected bibliography, and criticism and reviews.
  • Kirkus Book Review — At this site, visitors can read a review about Missing May published by the magazine Kirkus.

Explore the Setting of the Novel

  • Charleston, West Virginia — This site shows the golden dome of Charleston's capitol building and offers an overview of the arts, culture, history, and events of Charleston.
  • Fayette County — This site offers some quick facts about Fayette County.
  • County map — This map outlines the counties of West Virginia and locates Fayette County in relationship to Putnam County.

Find Out about Whirligigs

  • From Windmills to Whirligigs — Visitors to this site can check out step-by-step instructions for building different whirligigs, find out facts about the scientific principles demonstrated by whirligigs, and locate other sources of whirligig information by clicking "From Windmills to Whirligigs" under Ideas and Activities on the Science Museum of Minnesota home page.

Learn about Bats and Owls

  • Bats — All the facts that anyone could want to know about bats, including a complete description of their features and habitat, the myths that surround them, the importance of their conservation, as well as their usefulness to humans, are easily accessed from this page.
  • Owls — Visitors can use The Owl Pages to find descriptions about owls, species, physiology, as well as a comprehensive owl photo gallery of owls in various habitats.
  • OwlCam — Engaging photographs and interesting commentary by the creator of this website record the lives of a pair of Northern Barred Owls in eastern Massachusetts over the course of several years.

Visit the Renaissance

  • Virtual Tour of the Renaissance — This site is designed to immerse visitors in the atmosphere of the Renaissance. They gain a unique perspective on great Renaissance figures from the viewpoints of historical characters and learn about the events, movements, architecture, art, music, and literature of the time in a creative way.

Examine the Grieving Process

  • The Grief of Children — The SIDS Foundation sponsors this look at children's grief and offers advice about how to recognize the symptoms of grief, how to avoid explanations that don't help, and how to implement effective strategies for dealing with grief.
  • Talking to Children about Death — This site offers ways to approach the subject of death with children, as well as information about the developmental stages of children.

Big Theme Questions

How can we celebrate the special talents, skills, family, and friends that we have been given?

How do various cultures and people celebrate life and cope with death?

What are some ways that people may experience grief?

Do our views about death affect the way we live?

Outline of Lesson Plan | Discussion Topics | Writing Prompts

The following section can be used to get discussions started in your classroom. It is based on the Lesson Plan within the Book Club Novel Guide for Missing May. The Lesson Plan includes blackline masters for the students that support the writing prompts. The writing prompts provided are meant as suggestions only. As students become more comfortable with the Book Club format, they will certainly have ideas and questions that go beyond the prompts. Consider giving students “free choice” as a log option. Book Club Reading Logs help students respond to literature and organize ideas as they participate in Book Club.


Chapter 1 | Language Conventions: Responding to Missing May

  • Record the ways Rylant develops characters.
  • Have you ever lost a loved one? Describe how you felt.

Chapter 2 | Response to Literature: Charting Characters’ Responses

  • Outline your own grief process or that of someone you know.
  • Describe May’s beliefs about an afterlife.

Chapters 3–4 | Comprehension: Comparison and Contrast

  • Explain why the author chose first-person point of view.
  • Write a summary of the chapters from another character’s point of view.
  • Describe how you feel about Cletus.
  • Find a picture that could be from Cletus’s suitcase and tell a story about it.
  • Discuss the meaning of surrealism.
  • Define the word irony and find an example of it in the chapters.
  • Discuss any interesting comparisons.

Chapter 5 | Literary Elements: Characterization and Author’s Craft

  • Continue charting the grief processes for the characters in Missing May.
  • Why is Part One of the book called “Still as Night”?
  • Continue writing about characterization.
  • Examine any interesting comparisons.

Chapters 6–7 | Literary Elements: Allusion

  • Find an allusion in Chapters 6–7 and explain the one you select.
  • Continue charting the grief processes for the characters.
  • Continue writing about characterization.
  • Examine any interesting comparisons.

Chapters 8–9 | Response to Literature: Decision Making

  • “Fear starts with the people who raise us.” Respond.
  • Ob lies in Chapter 8. What do you think?
  • Predict what will happen when they meet the Bat Lady.
  • Choose a decision made by one of the characters and analyze it.
  • Continue examining characterization.
  • Write about interesting comparisons.

Chapter 10 | Literary Elements: Point of View

  • How does Ms. Rylant use comic relief to help the reader through sad sections?
  • How does Summer describe death? What qualities does death have?
  • Write a summary of Chapter 10 from Ob’s or Cletus’s point of view.

Chapters 11–12 | Literary Elements: Symbolism

  • What two reasons kept Summer from crying before now?
  • What happens after Summer falls asleep at the end of Chapter 11?
  • Investigate the three kinds of quiet that are described in three different chapters.
  • How has nature been used to add meaning to the story?
  • What is symbolic about the whirligigs?
  • Continue charting the grief processes for the characters.