Tracy Holczer Interviews Caroline Starr Rose about BLUE BIRDS (and the Lost Colony of Roanoke)

The Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of America's most enduring mysteries. What happened to the men, women and children who colonized there? No one knows for sure, although many theories abound. Author Caroline Starr Rose of the acclaimed novel May B (Schwartz & Wade, 2012) tells her version of the story in her newest middle grade, Blue Birds (Putnam, March 2015), based on the facts left behind.

I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of Blue Birds. I must admit that even as a lover of poetry, it usually takes me a minute to sink into a novel in verse. Maybe it has something to do with the visual element, the words on the page being so spare, or the condensed nature of verse that takes an adjustment. BUT, I had no such trouble with Blue Birds (or May B for that matter). The writing is so visual, the characters and situation so compelling from the very first page that everything goes away except for the story.

This is one of those books to savor…on your second read. Because good luck savoring as you wildly turn pages to see what will happen next. Also, it has one of the most beautiful covers I've seen. The art perfectly captures the telling.

From the promotional copy:

It’s 1587, and twelve-year-old Alis has traveled a long distance from England with her parents to help settle the New World. Alis is delighted to be leaving behind the dirty city streets of Longdon for the island of Roanoke, with its wide-open spaces and exquisite natural beauty. The forests and blue sky of Roanoke speak to Alis, but she’s still missing something from home: a friend.

The island is also home to the Roanoke tribe, who’ve watched the English arrive with unease. Though she lost her sister at the hands of the English, Kimi is a Roanoke girl who finds the English curious, with their strange clothes and different ways. When Alis and Kimi meet, they forge a special friendship despite the barriers of their cultures; they don’t even speak the same language, but quickly become close as sisters. With tensions rising between the Roanoke people and the settlers, the girls’ friendship is soon threatened. Willing to risk anything for the other, Kimi and Alis are determined to stay together, leaving Alis with a decision that will change her life forever.

Praise for Blue Birds:

“Composed in varying formats, the descriptive and finely crafted poems reveal the similarities the two girls share, from loved ones lost to hatred between the English and the Roanoke to a desire for peace… Fans of Karen Hesse and the author's May B. (2012) will delight in this offering.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A memorable account of a friendship that transcends culture and prejudice.”—Publishers Weekly

“An excellent historical offering and belongs on public and school library shelves.”—VOYA

“With two compelling main characters and an abundance of rich historical detail, Rose’s latest novel offers much to discuss and much to appreciate.”—School Library Journal

“An imaginative historical novel with two sympathetic protagonists.”—Booklist

And now, without further ado, Caroline Starr Rose answers some of my pesky questions.

BLUE BIRDS is a beautiful story about Kimi, a Roanoke girl, and Alis, an English girl, who find each other in the woods and become friends just before the famed English colony goes missing. How much of the story is true and how much is fiction?

While both Kimi and Alis are my own invention, the things that happened in their communities the first five weeks of the story are all true. On July 22, 1587, Governor John White and 116 other colonists were dumped at Roanoke island instead of the Chesapeake Bay area, where they had planned to settle. The English fort built two years before was abandoned. Vines grew through the windows of houses. Deer wandered about. Bleached bones lay scattered on the ground.

One week later, Englishmen George Howe Sr. was killed by the Roanoke. In an attempt to restore the friendship the English once had with surrounding tribes, John White tried to reach out to the Croatoan, a tribe on a neighboring island. Through his Croatoan interpreter, Manteo, White asked the Croatoan to spread word that the English wanted to meet in ten days to talk peace.

The English, however, didn't wait for the tenth day. On the ninth night, they crept to the Roanoke village and attacked. The Roanoke weren’t there, but the Croatoan were. Perhaps they’d come early to talk peace. Perhaps they were there to gather the corn the Roanoke had left behind. The English unknowingly attacked their only Native allies.

In just a matter of days, the situation for everyone had moved from bad to worse. By week five the Governor’s assistants had convinced him to sail back to England. He needed to send help. He needed to tell the supply ships where to find the colony.

The colonists never saw John White again.

I’ve held to this (unbelievable) unfolding of events in the story. Everything after the Governor’s departure comes from my imagination (expect for White’s tragic return in August, 1590).

It’s such a mysterious and fascinating story. It must have taken an incredible amount of research to get the details right. And the details were spectacular (including the mysterious footprint! Those who have read will know what I’m referring to). I really felt I was there. The time, the colony, the woods around them and the Roanoke people all came alive. Did you visit the area? How did you pull together such wonderful details?

Scenery from Fort Raleigh, courtesy of the
National Park Service
I have yet to visit a place I’ve written about. Thank you for saying the story and the setting worked for you. As you can see above, what actually happened was both awful and unbelievable. I worried it might be difficult to follow, as events weren't always logical, and we don’t have ready information as to why things happened as they did.

I think historical fiction for children needs to be accessible. With that in mind, I tried to see everything through the eyes of Alis and Kimi. As children, not every detail would have been available or interesting to them. I truly feel readers don’t need to “get” every detail of what happened, but they do need to feel the emotions of the moment: the confusion, the fear, the anger. That’s how these characters would have lived it. That's the way it should read, too.

Now I’m even more impressed than I was to begin with! The elements of fiction that you wove in with facts makes perfect sense and very well could have happened that way. So let’s turn to story format. Talk a little about verse and prose. How do you make the decision about the best way to tell a story?

As strange as it sounds, verse has become my default. I find it a really in-the-moment way to write historical fiction. It’s immediate, spare, and lets us into a character’s inner life very quickly.

For this book in particular, verse also became a wonderful way to tell a story in two voices. Readers move quickly from Kimi to Alis and back again. And when the girls share a poem, I was able through line and stanza placement to “speak” their story visually, adding one more layer of communication. Verse is magical that way!

I admire the restraint of verse, the focus required to tell a story that way. It feels a little magical to me and I was especially moved by those scenes of the girls together, how they didn’t speak the same language, but understood each other just the same. Can you share a poem that didnt make it into the novel and talk about why?

I am such an under-writer, Tracy. This just didn’t happen. I did add a good number, though. In addition to fleshing out what was already there, I wrote new poems to show Alis and Kimi’s developing friendship. I also added more to the climax…or maybe I wrote the climax that was never really there to begin with!

The work is truly beautiful and has such great kid appeal. A fascinating story I hope will inspire kids (and adults) to look further into our history. I can’t wait to recommend this one!

Caroline Starr Rose spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping at the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. As a girl she danced ballet, raced through books, composed poetry on an ancient typewriter, and put on magic shows in a homemade cape. She's taught both social studies and English in New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, and Louisiana. In her classroom she worked to instill in her students a passion for books, an enthusiasm to experiment with words, and a curiosity about the past.

Caroline lives in New Mexico with her husband and two sons.


  1. Thanks for this interview, Tracy. I'm a Caroline Starr Rose fan, too!

  2. This new book sounds so intriguing!

  3. This is a great interview, you two! And, of course, I LOVED Blue Birds!!

  4. Can't wait to get my hands on a copy!


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