Childrens Books

Interview with children’s author Claudia Mills

Claudia Mills holds a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. She also earned an MLS degree from the University of Maryland, with a concentration in children’s literature. She has worked as an editorial assistant at Four Winds Press (Scholastic) and as an editor at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Since 1991 she has taught philosophy, first as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, then as an assistant professor and now as an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has two children, Christopher Wahl and Gregory Wahl.

Carma: When did you decide to be a writer, or did it just happen?

Claudia: I always knew I wanted to be a writer. My mom raised me to be a writer: When I was in first grade, she gave me a marble-covered composition book and told me it was to be my poetry book, so I started writing. write poetry to put there. As a child, I was always writing – I still have a box full of poems written on Kleenex, on paper napkins, on the sidelines of my math homework. It was the only thing I ever wanted to be.

Carma: When did your career as a professional writer start?

Claudia: I worked for Four Winds Press/Scholastic in the late 1970s, and that was my entry into the wonderful world of children’s book publishing. I started trying to write my own manuscripts, submitting them to various New York publishers and receiving uniform rejections. Then I had the brilliant plan to send one of my own stories to Four Winds Press, using a pseudonym to evade detection. The story, like all my others, was rejected – and I had to type my own rejection letter! A second floor suffered the same fate. But when I submitted my third article to Four Winds Press, my boss, Barbara Lalicki, asked me to write an editorial review for her. I did – and found myself finding plenty to criticize in my own story. Barbara then wrote the author (me) a letter, which her secretary (me) typed, asking if I would be willing to revise the story based on my own reviewer’s suggestions. I took all the excellent advice I had received (!), and Four Winds ended up publishing the book, under the title At the Back of the Woods.

Carma: What role, if any, have writing groups played in your career?

Claudia: I don’t think I could be a writer without my writing group. When I lived in Maryland, I was a member of a writing group called The Soup Group; here in Colorado, I’m a member of a writing group that doesn’t have a name (well, we call ourselves the Beauties and the Beauties, but that’s not our official title). I rely on my writing group for the first review of each of my manuscripts, as well as invaluable support and encouragement when the going gets tough.

Carma: Who or what inspires your ideas?

Claudia: All of my ideas were inspired by my own childhood experiences, or things that happened to my two boys, who are now 19 and 16. Lately, I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration from the always fascinating primary school curriculum. For example, in my most recent book, Amanda MacLeish’s Totally Made Up Civil War Diary, Amanda has a duty to keep a diary pretending that she is a Civil War character, Polly Mason, who has a brother who fights for the North and one for the South. At the same time, Amanda faces “civil war” within her own home: separation from her parents. The book alternates between chapters from Amanda’s life and chapters from the diary she writes as Polly Mason. My book Being Teddy Roosevelt was inspired by the “biography tea” my two boys attended: each child had to read a biography, then come to school dressed as the subject of the biography and pretend to be that remarkable individual at a tea party chic. and my book Stock exchanges is inspired by the popular Mini-Society program, in which children create their own class society, with its own rules, flag, currency and economy.

Carma: Does being a philosophy teacher give you an added advantage when writing books for your children?

Claudia: It makes me more sensitive to the importance of the theme in a book: what is this story about? What is the little kernel of truth he is trying to divulge?

Carma: Did you have an agent for your first published book?

Claudia: I’ve never had an agent for any of my books.

Carma: What advice would you give to a beginning author?

Claudia: Well, sure, read, read, read and write, write, write. Join the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators) and attend their conferences. And find yourself a writing group.

Carma: What is your favorite genre?

Claudia: As a child, I loved fantasy, but now I only write realistic fiction, about real children at home and at school. I want to write (and love to read) the kind of story where the reader both laughs and cries, hopefully at the same time.

Carma: Do you have a favorite age group to write for?

Claudia: It used to be 4th to 6th grade, the age group for the middle grade novel, but lately I’ve fallen in love with writing chapter books for third graders. I love the faster pace. And I love writing about the small but painful challenges children face: mastering those pesky multiplication tables! try to convince your mother to let you make instrumental music. . .

Carma: What is the origin of your famous Ape Dance?

Claudia: It’s a dance I used to do in middle school – and even in high school (my high school yearbook has a picture of me doing the monkey dance in high school). Because of the dance of the monkeys, I was given (or I gave myself?) the nickname of Tarzan, queen of the monkeys. So my first book-length manuscript was an autobiographical collection of stories about my 8th grade, written when I was in 8th grade, called T Is for Tarzan. I usually end my school visits with a performance of the monkey dance. So now you know!
Thank you for this interview Claudia.

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