Spanning less than 100 pages, Cynthia Rylant’s children’s novel Missing May
(1992) tells the story of a young girl named Summer and her guardian, Uncle Ob. Uncle Ob's wife and Summer's mother figure, Aunt May, has recently died, leaving Ob depressed, much to Summer's dismay. When Uncle Ob forms an unlikely friendship with Summer's strange classmate, Ob becomes obsessed with contacting Aunt May's spirit.
Orphaned as a baby, Summer was passed around to various relatives before meeting her Uncle Ob and Aunt May. The couple immediately saw that she wasn't receiving enough attention from her previous caregivers and brought her to their small home in the Appalachian hills. There, Summer happily flourished over the next six years. Her Aunt May gardened and her Uncle Ob created sculpture "whirligigs" to represent what he calls, "The Mysteries," meaning intangible concepts such as spirits, hope, and heaven.
As the story opens, twelve-year-old Summer and her Uncle Ob are coping with the loss of Aunt May, who died suddenly while gardening. Ob, always depressed, believes he has been visited by Aunt May's spirit. Summer worries that Ob is planning to die so that he can be with his wife.
Soon, Ob forms a friendship with Cletus Underwood, a strange kid in Summer's class. Cletus claims that he had a near-death experience as an infant; Ob believes that the child will help him connect with Aunt May's spirit. He calls Cletus his "afterlife antenna."
Cletus finds an ad in the newspaper for a prominent spiritualist, Reverend Young, in Putnam County. Uncle Ob, Cletus, and Summer travel there to see if the Reverend can help them contact Aunt May. Uncle Ob tells Cletus's parents that they're going to see the state capitol. In fact, Cletus has always wanted to see Charleston, and Uncle Ob promises him they can make a stop there on their way back home.
After a three-hour drive to Putnam County, the group arrives to find that Reverend Young has died and his church is no longer active. They will not be able to contact the spirit realm, after all. Dejected, Uncle Ob heads back home. He passes Charleston, much to the disappointment of Cletus. At the last moment, however, Uncle Ob seems to change his mind, and he turns around. Summer suspects, "Right out of the blue, he wanted to live again."
They spend the day at the capitol and then head home. Arriving home late at night, Summer sees an owl flying overhead as they unload the car. The owl reminds her of Aunt May, and she begins sobbing, grieving for her mother figure for the first time.
The next day, Uncle Ob, Summer, and Cletus place all of the whirligigs out in Aunt May's garden. It seems Uncle Ob has decided to stay with Summer, giving up thoughts of contacting Aunt May in favor of remembering her fondly.
Abandonment is a significant theme in Missing May
, as the narrator and protagonist Summer has faced abandonment from various relatives multiple times before she found a stable home with Aunt May. When Aunt May dies, both Summer and Uncle Ob feel abandoned; Ob seeks to reach May in the afterlife from the world where she has "left" him. Summer fears that Uncle Ob will decide to follow Aunt May into death, leaving her once again without a family. As the story ends, both Summer and Uncle Ob realize that Aunt May is still guiding them. They feel that her presence is near, even if they cannot communicate with her.
The book won the Newbery Medal in 1993, given by the Association for Library Service to Children to the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Considered one of the most prestigious awards for children's literature in the United States, it has recognized prominent works such as Holes
, The Giver
, and Hatchet
Cynthia Rylant has written more than a hundred children's books. Another of her books, A Fine White Dust,
was a Newbery Honor book in 1987, and she has written two Caldecott Honor Books. After her parents' divorce when she was four, Rylant was sent to her grandparents in the Appalachian region (much like Summer). There, she grew accustomed to a rustic lifestyle without electricity or running water. She later reunited with her mother but never saw her father again, as he died when she was only thirteen. She said of her father: "I did not have a chance to know him or say goodbye to him, and that is all the loss I needed to become a writer."