I have a passion for chapter books — they were the first of my stories to be published. They’re little soap operas for the primary grade set, relying on action and dialogue to create characters and conflict. And in my humble opinion, Claudia Mills is one amazing writer of chapter books. If writing for younger readers is something you aspire to, studying Claudia’s work is a must. Feel free to start with her newest, The Trouble with Babies (Knopf), which published in August.
Thank you, dear Kirby, for inviting me to be one of your Friday Friends. You do such a warm job welcoming other writers to your blog that whenever I read your Friend Friday posts, I feel my own circle of friends expanding. My new book, The Trouble with Babies, is the second title in the three-book series, The Nora Notebooks, following last year’s The Trouble with Ants.
In some ways it’s easier to write a sequel than a first book. You already know the characters: in this case, I was already well acquainted with Nora, a budding myrmecologist, or studier of ants, who turns her scientific gaze upon her fourth-grade peers. I already had the voice and the format of posting “fascinating facts” from Nora’s journals at the end of each chapter. But how could I make each book in the series “the same, but different”? Well, for starters, I could give Nora new challenges to react to: I let this devotee of a-n-t-s become a ten-year-old a-u-n-t.
As I have learned to my sorrow, all confident competence disappears when confronted with a squirming, squalling infant. I could further undermine Nora’s self-possession in the science fair by having her teacher decide to pair students with partners – and of course giving Nora the worst-possible partner: the decidedly unscientific Emma. But because my day job for a quarter of a century was being a philosophy professor, I found myself pondering what new philosophical truth Nora could stumble upon.
In the first book, she’s meditating on questions of identity. As a scientist, she knows her ants don’t love her back: that’s not the kind of thing that ants do. She learns, painfully, that ants are short-lived: dying is something else that ants do. But discouraged by the thwarting of her dream to publish her ant research in a top-tier science journal (maybe two hours of experimentation was not long enough to meet the demanding standards of the field?) and heartsick about her ants’ demise, she also realizes that she’s not going to abandon her passion for ants. Studying ants was what Nora did. What would be her philosophical take-away from book two?
Hmm. Maybe, I thought, as she studies her newborn niece, she can start to reflect on why both newborn Nellie and Nora herself are the way they are: ditto for her always pessimistic friend Mason, always optimistic friend Brody, and giggling, flirty Emma. I love writing about school activities – I love everything about school – so I created a classroom social studies assignment where kids would draw “Fate Cards” to determine how they fared on the Oregon Trail. Ooh! Now Nora could ponder whether there is such a thing as fate. And if we are somehow destined by temperament or circumstances to be who we are, can we also change who we are?
So I had the fun of writing a comic story about fourth-grade baby-tending and science-fair misadventures that doubles as a meditation on free will and predestination. Now all I have to do is to figure out what same-but-different thing Nora can do in next year’s book three, The Trouble with Friends.
Claudia Mills is the author of almost 60 books for young readers, most recently Write This Down (Farrar) and The Trouble with Babies (Knopf). She is Associate Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she lives in a very small house filled with six humans, including two adorable granddaughters (ages 2 ½ and 4 months), and two animals, including one well-behaved cat and one badly behaved dog. The Trouble with Babies was published by Knopf in August of 2016. Illustrations (including the adorable cover image) by Katie Kath.