Claudia Mills received her BA degree from Wellesley College, her MA degree from Princeton University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. She also received an MLS degree from the University of Maryland, with a concentration in children's literature. She 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 at 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 mother brought me up 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 poetry to put in it. I wrote incessantly as a child – I still have a box stuffed full of poetry written on Kleenex, on paper napkins, on the margins of my math assignments. It was the only thing I ever wanted to be.
Carma: When did your professional writing career begin?
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 began trying to write my own manuscripts, submitting them to various New York publishers and receiving uniform rejections. Then I hit upon the brilliant plan of sending one of my own stories to Four Winds Press, using a pseudonym to escape detection. The story, like all my others, was rejected – and I had to type my own rejection letter! A second story suffered a similar fate. But then when I submitted my third story to Four Winds Press, my boss there, Barbara Lalicki, asked me to write an editorial critique of it for her. I did – and surprised myself by finding plenty in my own story to criticize. Barbara then wrote the author (me) a letter, which her secretary (me) typed, asking if I would be willing to revise the story according to the suggestions in my own critique. I complied with 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 do not 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 has no name (well, we do refer ourselves as the Belles and the Beauties, but that's not our official title). I rely on my writing group for the first critique of every one of my manuscripts, as well as invaluable support and encouragement when the going gets tough.
Carma: Who or what inspires your ideas ?
Claudia: All my ideas have been inspired by my own childhood experiences, or by things that have happened to my two boys, who are now 19 and 16. Lately I draw a lot of inspiration just from the ever-fascinating elementary school curriculum. For example, in my most recent book , The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish, Amanda has a school assignment to keep a diary pretending she is a Civil War character, Polly Mason, who has one brother fighting for the North and one for the South. At the same time, Amanda is dealing with the "Civil War" within her own home: her parents' separation. The book alternates between chapters of Amanda's life and chapters of the diary she writes as Polly Mason. My book Being Teddy Roosevelt was inspired by the "biography tea" in which both my boys participated: each child had to read a biography and then come to school dressed up as the subject of the biography and impersonate that noted individual at a fancy tea party . And my book Trading Places draws on the popular Mini-Society curriculum, in which children create their own classroom society, with its own rules, flag, currency, and economy.
Carma: Does being a philosophy professor give you an added advantage when writing your children's books?
Claudia: It does make me more sensitive to the importance of theme in a book: what is this story all about? What is the small kernel of truth that it is trying to disclose?
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 a beginning author?
Claudia: Well, of course, read, read, read, and write, write, write. Join SCBWI (the Society of Children's book writers 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 write only realistic fiction, about real-life 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 grades 4-6, the age group for the middle-grade novel, but lately I've fallen in love with writing chapter books targeted at third graders. I love the brisker pacing. And I love writing about the small but painful challenges of children: mastering those pesky times tables! trying to convince your mom to let you do instrumental music. . .
Carma: What is the origin of your famous Ape Dance?
Claudia: This is a dance I used to do in junior high school – and even on into high school (my high school yearbook features a picture of me doing the ape dance as a graduating senior). Because of the ape dance I was given (or gave myself?) The nickname of Tarzan, Queen of the Apes. So my first book-length manuscript was an autobiographical collection of stories about my 8th grade year, written when I was in 8th grade, called T Is for Tarzan. I usually close my school visits with a performance of the ape dance. So now you know!
Thank you for this interview Claudia.