Cynthia Rylant may write for kids, but she doesn't shy away from the tough topics. The way she sees it, kids are a part of the world too and they experience lots of hard things—including poverty, war, and loss. Missing May is no exception: the whole story revolves around orphaned twelve-year-old Summer coming to terms with the loss of the only mother figure she's ever known, her Aunt May.
Published in 1992 and the recipient of the 1993 Newbery Medal (a very prestigious children's book award), Missing May tackles the tough topic of grief and the different ways in which people deal with it. Summer handles her grief by pushing it down and taking care of business, and even though she's only twelve, she takes care of herself, makes sure that her Uncle Ob is doing okay, and tries to remain stoic and strong to boot.
Uncle Ob, on the other hand, deals with his grief by putting his faith into the supernatural; he wants to see if he can find a way to communicate with his beloved May. Both his and Summer's methods fall short, no matter how much they want it to change the fact of Aunt May's death.
But even though the book is about death, it's not all sad times. In a lot of ways, it's a celebration of love. Being with Aunt May and Uncle Ob teaches Summer what it means to be unconditionally loved, and she comes to realize that even though Aunt May is gone, her love is still there—in fact, it'll be there forever and ever, carrying Summer and Uncle Ob through their lives.
Why Should I Care?
So maybe the tale of a twelve-year-old girl in West Virginia dealing with the death of her elderly aunt doesn't sound like it relates to your life that much. That makes sense—West Virginia is a pretty small place, and it's kind of out in the boonies (no judgment here, West Virginians). But if you've ever felt out of place or unsure of where you stand in life, then this book relates to you. And doesn't everyone feel that way sometimes?
Summer definitely feels out of place: she doesn't have "real" parents and she's always a little unsure of her place in the world. Even though Uncle Ob and Aunt May have shown her all the love in the world, she still has the mindset of an orphan—this nagging sense that everything could be taken away from her at any time. And a large part of the novel deals with her navigating her place in the world and trying to figure out if her family still exists—even with Aunt May there.
So if you are a confused wanderer in the world (or just want to read about oddball Cletus who does things like collect empty potato chip bags), then pick up Missing May and start reading. You'll feel right at home.