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of the Center for Children's Books

Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist, sometimes a new talent whose work has begun to come into its own and sometimes an old favorite whose reliable contributions deserve notice. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.

Claudia Mills


At the end of each month's Bulletin, we include a subject and use index of that issue's included titles. Putting together these indices is not the most technical of procedures, but we use our own terms rather than following the lead of the Library of Congress. Sometimes, however, we run into books that are difficult to categorize, books dealing with a variety of daily school and family life aspects and for which the most accurate index heading would probably be "Stuff-fiction." These are most often aimed at the middle-grades readers and focused on their age-group peers.

Fortunately, categorizability isn't a criterion for merit, and some of these books are very good indeed. One of the best practitioners in the genre is Claudia Mills. Mills first started writing for children in the early '80s, and though her work has ex tended to include picture books, historical fiction, and beginning readers, the contemporary novels remain her most memorable contributions. And while her early titles include some good solid books, it is the era of Dinah (of Dynamite Dinah, Dinah for President, Dinah in Love,and Dinah Forever) and her cohorts that shows Mills at her best.

Where Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice is Everygirl, the average kid, Mills' protagonists are resoundingly specific. Dinah (echoing the earlier Cynthia Jane Thornton, of The One and Only Cynthia Jane Thornton) is a show-off, eager to be the cynosure of all eyes and exploding the myth that limelight-seekers are necessarily insecure. Hannah (of Hannah on Her Way) is retiring and home-loving, drawn only against her will into the social whirl. Bethany (of The Secret Life of Bethany Barrett) is a protective worrier, whose important thoughts never get shared with her family for fear of her mother's concern. Ethan (in Losers, Inc.) realizes that victory of his older brother's ilk isn't in the cards for him, so he'll revel in loserhood instead.

In all of them, Mills manages the difficult balancing act between distance and intimacy, allowing for both perspective on her protagonists' behavior and empathy with it. This is particularly important when it comes to the humor--Dinah may be funnier in a few more ways than she knows, but that's not the main point, and she's headed for that broader knowledge anyway, so there's no lofty condescension involved. Without polarizing judgments into good families and bad, the books demonstrate the individuality of each family's personalities and interrelationships, making clear how her heroes and heroines fit into that pattern but never depriving them of originality and free will. Whether the subject is science fair projects (Losers, Inc.) or cosmic mortality (Dinah Forever), Mills treats it with the full understanding of its importance to her protagonists and, by extension, to her readers.

We may not always know how to classify these books, but we're sure glad they're here.

--Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor


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