Sweet story: May's book preserves traditions

Like many folk traditions, the process of making sorghum molasses the "old fashioned way" is labor intensive. It takes the whole community to harvest the cane, press the thin green juice from the stalks, stoke and tend the fire, and stir the juice as it simmers all day steeping to a thick brown sweetness.

Also like many folk traditions, molasses making is a dying art, one that local children's author Kathy May wants to preserve, even if it's just between the hardbound pages of her new children's book Molasses Man.

 "I did not intend to write a book about making molasses," May says.

May, 50, grew up in Eastern Kentucky where she thrived on family stories and cultivated childhood memories that now inform her writing. Prior to penning Molasses Man, she always wrote for adults. With degrees in English education and psychology and an MFA in poetry writing from Indiana University, she published poetry and won prizes for short fiction, but never thought of writing for children.

One October day in 1989, driving up Route 29 on their way home from the Ferrum College Folklife Festival, she and her folklorist husband Garry Barrow came across the Farmer family making molasses at the side of the road.

"I'm just interested in everything," says the soft spoken May. "If something is going on somewhere, I want to get involved."

Seeing the activity as they drove by, May convinced her husband to stop. The couple ended up spending the whole day there asking questions, helping out, and learning first-hand just how to make sorghum molasses.

Years later, reading picture books to her two young children every night, it occurred to May that this was a genre she should explore.

"I was just astonished and delighted by the richness of children's picture books," she says. So she decided to write one.

That was when her experiences with molasses-making turned into "a down-home story of familial love and tradition, with all the makings of a sweet read," as her review in Booklist puts it.

May also never dreamed she would now be teaching kids about both writing and molasses making. Since the publication of Molasses Man in 2000, May has been presenting workshops and talks to area schoolchildren. As a featured presenter at this year's Virginia Festival of the Book, May will help kids at several area elementary schools cook up some understanding of just what it takes to make the sweet stuff in their gingerbread.