Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Happy Book Birthday to Nora

Today is the pub date for my newest book child, The Trouble with Ants, the first title in my new three-book series from Knopf, The Nora Notebooks.Nora is a serious, scientific girl who is in love with the ants she studies in her ant farm. But she knows that even as she loves her ants, they don't return her love. That isn't what ants do. And it's hard to get her parents and her classmates at school to love her ants. Apparently that isn't what most other human beings do, either.

I've had a lot of book children now. I think Nora is my 52nd child. As families get bigger, the fuss made over each new arrival tends to get smaller. Few people would host a baby shower for their tenth child, not to mention their 52nd.

And yet. . . . each child, each book, is still special and precious.

This is why I was touched and thrilled when my writing group, The Writing Roosters, had a meeting earlier this month that turned out to be . . . a surprise party for Nora!

There were ant-themed snacks.

There was a splendid ant centerpiece.

There were glasses of wine raised to toast ants.

And my heart was filled with love for my writer friends, who do love ants. Or at least love my book about a girl who loves them.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Do You Want a Children's Book Writng Mentor?

One of the most satisfying experiences of my long and varied writing career has been participating in the Michelle Begley Mentor Program of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Editors. Michelle created the program a number of years ago to foster interaction between established and aspiring children's book authors. She died in a tragic car accident last year, and the program now bears her name.

Here's how the program works. It's for serious writers who have already completed a full-length book manuscript and now want to revise it into publishable form with one-on-one guidance from a professional in the field. If accepted, you work for several months closely with your mentor, who reads your work and gives extensive supportive but critical commentary on it, working with you through multiple drafts until it's as good as you can make it right now.

I've lost track of how many people I've worked with over the past four or five years: maybe a dozen? I've loved each one so much. I just spent four hours one day this past week giving extremely detailed comments on fifty pages of the second draft of one's hilarious middle-grade novel, commenting on everything from lack of clarity in the character arc to implausibilities in details of the classroom setting to comma errors - with tons of comments on every page like "Ha!"and "So great!" and "OMG!!"

I don't consider myself to be a great writing teacher. I don't really know how to tell someone how to write a book. But if someone has already written a book, and hands it to me, then I'm on fire to offer all I can, distilled from thirty-five years of experience, to make it better. I feel that I can instantly see what a book needs to move it to that next level of greatness. Well, sometimes instantly. Sometimes I need to ponder for a while. But, oh, the joy of seeing the stronger, clearer structure of the story emerge - to add missing scenes that were needed to give emotional depth - to cut superfluous scenes that were mere distraction - to fix up those commas!!

The application window for this year's program is NOW: September 15-October 15. Information on how to apply is available here. I know most of the other mentors: they're all wonderful.

So if you want a mentor to move forward in your writing, and you're an SCBWI member, apply! (And if you're not an SCBWI member, join and then apply!) Magic can happen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Falling in Love with Philosophy Again

In a life that has been spent falling in and out of love with philosophy, over and over again (see "Unleaving Philosophy"), I just spent a few days back at DePauw University falling in love once more.

I flew back to Indiana for the "Young Philosophers Lecture Series," created by Prindle Institute for Ethics director Andy Cullison when he was a faculty member at SUNY-Fredonia. It's a competitive lecture series, with four philosophers in the early years of their careers selected by blind review from a good-sized pool. The winners come to campus to give both an intro-level talk accessible to students and colleagues in other departments, and a research talk aimed at specialists in the field.

Last year when I attended my first Young Philosophers event, I was initially skeptical. I've spent so much of my own career sitting in the back of a room listening to incomprehensible, jargon-filled, needlessly technical, and frankly boring talks, just to be a good citizen of my academic community. I would avoid asking questions during the Q&A period for fear I'd look dumb in front of colleagues who excelled in dazzling thrust-and-parry argumentative sword play. (I did, however, get a lot of sonnets written as I tuned out and thought my own thoughts about other things.)

But Young Philosophers was fun. Tons of fun, actually. So I was pleased when Andy asked me to serve on the reviewers' panel this year: I could pick papers that I'd know in advance were NOT incomprehensible, jargon-filled, needlessly technical, and boring. I'd have an excuse to come back to my beloved DePauw, not that I needed an excuse, but still, it helps to have a reason to come some particular week rather than some other random time. And I could spend two days luxuriating in philosophy.

This year's four speakers were: Nina Emery, Brown University; John Pittard, Yale Divinity School; Jason D'Cruz, SUNY-Albany; and Samuel Kahn, IUPUI. Here are a few titles from the eight talks I heard over a period of two days:

"What's the Big Deal with Lethal Injection?"
"How Is It Possible to Deceive Yourself?"
"Two Very Different Reasons to Believe in Multiple Universes"
"A Scientific Realist's Guide to Objective Chance"

I listened, I learned, I asked questions as good as anybody else's questions, I ate delicious free Prindle Institute food and had wonderful wide-ranging conversations with fascinating visitors and colleagues.

I found myself thinking of the lyrics of my favorite Dolly Parton song, this time sung by me to philosophy: "Here you come again, lookin' better than a body has a right to, and shaking me up so, that I all I really know, is here you come again, and here I go..."

Monday, September 7, 2015

My Hobby: Judging Awards

One of my hobbies is judging awards. Over the past few decades I've judged so many. During my time at the University of Colorado I was a judge of the Graduate Student Teaching Excellence Award, which allowed me to observe classes by stellar nominees in dance, studio art, theater, French (I always tried to be the first judge to sign up so I would get dibs on all the classes that looked most delicious). As a writer, I've judged the Golden Kite Award for fiction from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (winner my year: The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw), a manuscript-in-progress grant from the Utah Arts Council, and in 2005 (the crowning glory of my judging career), the National Book Award in the category of Literature for Young People (winner: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall). 

Often the judging involves a huge amount of poorly paid and all but unrecognized work. So why do I love it so much? I just do. I love the power to be somebody's fairy godmother, giving them this lovely boost to help them achieve their dreams. I love visiting all those classes, reading all those books - after all, I loved being a student, sitting in class with my notebook open in front of me, and I love reading books, and having an excuse - nay, an obligation - to read so many. I love turning on the discerning part of my brain. I love it all.

Right now I have one of my most demanding judging gigs ever. I'm serving a three-year elected term as a judge of the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award: an award given each year to a children's book published 20 years previously which did not win a major award at the time but is now judged worthy of winning one. Our committee is currently working on the award for 2018, which means that I'm immersed in reading heaps and heaps of books published in 1998.

To make the task more manageable (there is no way we can read every children's or young adult book published in the English language in 1998!), we start by generating a list of contenders from books that received at least some critical acclaim at the time, from end-of -year best books lists to starred reviews. This year we ended up with a list of 170 titles which we now need to cull to a list of 20 or so, which will then receive extremely close reading and discussion. Oh, and we have two months to do this round of culling. Two months! To procure those 170 titles from various libraries (I'm lucky that CU has an excellent children's literature collection, and the Boulder Public Library is also outstanding) - and then to read them - or at least skim them - or otherwise form a basis for judging whether any given title is a contender.

I get up in the morning and read Phoenix books. I read them through the day. I read them before I go to bed at night. I am living my life in 1998. People in these books call each other on land lines (not under that name, of course). They fly on airplanes in a pre-9-11 security climate. But in other ways their world is all too much like ours: in Jacqueline Woodson's If You Come Softly a high-achieving black kid, son of a prominent filmmaker father and novelist mother, is gunned down by police as he is out jogging in the park).

There are other ways I could be spending my time. Writing my own books. Preparing my courses for the fall. Revising and expanding three scholarly articles into publishable form. But I'm a woman obsessed. I just want to read one more Phoenix book - and then another - and then another - and then another.

After all, this IS my hobby.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Sometimes life brings with it sweet moments where all the different facets of our existence come together in lovely, unexpected ways.

Yesterday afternoon I was babysitting for Kataleya while her parents had a movie date. Addicted as I am to progress, I decided to take Kat with me to the local branch of the public library to pick up a book I had on hold: the YA novel Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I had wanted to read it, anyway, as I had already read and enjoyed her Eleanor and Park, but now I actually needed to read it, as I've been asked to review an article on girl writers in Fangirl and Little Women, submitted to a children's literature journal. How delightful to have a double reason to spend an hour at the library: play time for Kat and Mimsie, and another item crossed off my long to-do list.

At the library, Kat was busy playing in the children's area, thick stubs of chalk clutched in each hand for scribbling on the chalk table, as I chatted with the parents of another little boy playing there as well. A mother and her two daughters approached us: "Excuse us for interrupting, but are you. . . Claudia Mills?" I spied a copy of my Kelsey Green, Reading Green in the huge batch of books they were preparing to check out.

Why, yes, I am Claudia Mills. And what is nicer than to encounter eager readers of my books? It turns out that Kelsey was being checked out for the younger sister; the older one had already read it, as well as Annika Riz, Math Whiz, and now had Izzy Barr, Running Star on hold for a future library checkout. Her mother recognized me because they read my blog - this blog! She had seen the picture of me by the world's biggest ball of twine. She's the kind of mom who not only takes her girls to the library every week for two bulging shopping bags filled with books, but devours author blogs as well to immerse them fully in the world of children's literature.

I told my young fan about my forthcoming Nora Notebooks series, mentioning the launch title, The Trouble with Ants, which tells of Nora's enthusiasm for her ant farm. "Nora, of the Mason Dixon books? she asked. Yes! I hugged her, overcome with love for someone who had read my books so closely and remembered them so well.

The parents of the first adorable little boy joined in the conversation. That dad is a third grade teacher, who now plans to look for my books to share with his students.

So as I was there at the library to check out Fangirl, I met my own young fangirl, and her wonderful family, and gained an opportunity to connect with yet more kids who might become future fangirls and fanboys. I ask you: What could be more perfect than that?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Act Three, One Year Later

Today is my birthday.

Last year my birthday launched what I've been calling Act III, the last and best act of my life. I saw the birthday, my big 6-0, as a major life milestone. That same year I took early retirement, after 22 years, from my job as a professor in the philosophy department of the University of Colorado, irrevocably surrendering my tenure in a satisfying bridge-burning way. I became a grandmother: my grandmother name is Mimsie, and eighteen-month-old Kataleya and I are each others' most beloved companions. I published my 50th children's book, Annika Riz, Math Whiz. I was clearly at a watershed moment in my life.

Now a year has passed. Act III so far has been lovely, but not what I thought it would be. So, herewith, some birthday reflections.

Act III hasn't really turned out to be all that different from Act II. I woke up on my birthday last year, and, well, I was still the same person. Maybe this should have been less of a surprise than it was. But I somehow had envisioned myself now leaping out of bed to exercise with hand weights, standing on one foot for minutes at a time to enhance my sense of balance, writing some new kind of book different from anything I'd ever written before (more, say, the kind of book that would win the National Book Award), and using my newly empty days for what Brenda Ueland calls "moodling" - long, slow reflection that leads to big, deep ideas.

None of those things happened. I did the hand weights for two days and then lost interest. Ditto for standing on one foot, though I know that this is the single most crucial thing I can do to maintain my quality of life as I age. Falls killed my mother, and I've already had several, including one that led to a broken foot with a most irritating period of convalescence. Okay, memo to self: this year I really truly am going to stand on one foot at a time for a full two minutes every single day!

I also found that I'm not much for moodling. What I like is to be busy, busy, busy. Maybe this is a failing in me, a sign that in some subconscious way I need to distract myself continually from meditation on life's woes? Maybe it's fear of tackling the unknown in a way that I would do better to push on through? In any case, I feel restless and blue after days where I don't have anything concrete to show for myself. I want to have pages written (preferably on a book already under contract, with a pressing deadline). I want to advise writing mentees (preferably lots of them), review articles for journals, design courses to teach, even grade papers (giving myself credit for each batch of five graded). I'm addicted to visible, tangible signs of progress. I just am.

So within a month of my Act III-launching birthday, I surprised myself by signing up to teach again, heading back to Indiana for one more sweet semester at DePauw this past spring, and now securing myself a teaching appointment there for this coming spring as well, where I'll be teaching three courses, including two that I've never taught before, and one that nobody has ever taught before, which I invented myself: an honors scholar course on "The Ethics of Story."

I feel my usual guilt at leaving my family for so long to sojourn elsewhere. How Tanky the little dog will miss me, his champion walker! How Kataleya will stand at the gate at the bottom of the stairs and cry for Mimsie! My heart breaks already just thinking about it. And yet. . . I'm just someone who thrives on time away from home, just as I thrive on time here immersed in the heart of my loving family. I like to be here. But I also like to be there. And so I'm trying to arrange a life where I have both.

One year in, Act III has brought some (perhaps rueful) self-recognition. I yam what I yam. And yet. . . I still feel tingly with a sense of possibility, and a twinge of envy, when friends radically upend their entire existence, as when a DePauw librarian friend suddenly moved her entire family permanently (well, permanently for now) to New Zealand, and an author/illustrator friend decided to get an MFA at the University of Edinburgh, selling her house and starting all over again in a foreign land. Something in me can't stop reading websites about retiring in Ecuador or Estonia.

But for now: this is my life, part in Colorado, part in Indiana, part with my family, part by myself a thousand miles away, teaching the courses I like to teach, writing the books I like to write, being who I am in the way that I'm used to being. But I AM going to start standing on one foot for two minutes a day!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Two Writers on the Road

I'm home from a girlfriend road trip to Branson, Missouri, with my friend Leslie, a trip filled with madcap, picaresque adventures. Well, a trip filled with the madcap, picaresque adventures that Leslie is dreaming up for the characters in her novel-in-progress. For this was a research trip, and I was invited to tag along with her: her story takes place during a girlfriend road trip, and what better girlfriend to share a practice trip than a fellow writer?

I can't reveal the details of Leslie's book, but she planned the whole itinerary with possible plot points in mind. So we needed to spend the night in Cawker City, Kansas, where we saw the world's largest ball of twine.
We were required to attend a comedy hypnosis show (what secret might a character reveal under hypnosis?), as well as other popular Branson shows such as Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede and male quartet Pierce Arrow (which had a truly great standup comic). We made a literary pilgrimage to Laura Ingalls Wilder's farm at Rocky Ridge.
For research purposes we visited some sites off the usual tourist itinerary, such as the local jail and a casino where a key scene may be set. On the way home, we found ourselves 650 feet below ground in a salt mine.
My role in the trip was just to be a companion and fellow brainstormer, so I gave my plotting muscles a great workout, as Leslie is a master plotter and inspired me to new levels of comic complexity.

I was also hoping that along the way I might stumble upon the seed that could grow into my own next book, as currently I'm in that uneasy, stressful time of groping toward The Next Idea.

I didn't find one. At least I don't think I did. But if a future book should call for a scene at the world's largest ball of twine, or involve a character's obsession with Little House on the Prairie, or benefit from familiarity with the mining of salt, I'm ready. I tried to pay extra attention to the children we saw on on the trip, monitoring their moments of joy or discomfort at all they were experiencing.

A new idea will come. It always does, enriched by all the humdrum - and wonderfully bizarre- things we do as we wait for the well to fill up again. This past week mine filled up mightily.