In her latest work for young readers, Missing Millie Benson, author Julie K. Rubini discusses the influence of Nancy Drew’s most prolific author. Rubini also describes her family’s efforts to celebrate children’s books through Claire’s Day, in honor of Rubini’s late daughter. Recently, Ohio University Press sent a free Advance Review Copy of Missing Millie Benson to me in preparation for this blog interview.
- Please share about your background as a writer of children’s books. How have public libraries and reading impacted your professional and personal life?
I have loved both reading and writing since I was a child. As I lived out in the country, the Lucas County Public Library’s bookmobile was my gateway to worlds beyond my backyard. I would fill my bike’s basket up from the mobile collection every week. Reading encouraged my writing in a variety of forms, from essays, to short stories, newsletters, and eventually children’s books. Public libraries have always provided answers for me. Whether for personal enrichment and growth, for research, for a story, or for countless books shared and enjoyed with my children over the years, libraries offer guidance, entertainment and sanctuary.
- What makes Nancy Drew so appealing to this day? Why were you interested in capturing the life of Millie Benson, who wrote twenty-three of the first thirty books in this series?
Nancy Drew is independent, smart, and relies upon her own instincts to solve mysteries and to get out of challenging situations. I would like to think that we all aspire to be as such. I know I do. I was blessed to enjoy much of the freedom that Nancy experienced as a child. Sans the roadster! I’ve always admired Millie from a distance, and saddened that I never took the initiative to meet her. I loved her stories in The Blade, and tales I would hear from others about her. Writing and sharing her story offers readers, who, like me, never had the chance to meet her, come to appreciate Millie’s own independence and indomitable spirit.
- How did libraries shape your research process as you prepared to write this book? What was the greatest challenge in finding your information?
I had great assistance from the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, both staff at Main Library, as well as the Maumee Branch. I have the advantage of knowing our awesome library staff through my work with Claire’s Day, the children’s book festival we established fifteen years ago in honor of my late daughter. However, even if I did not have that relationship, I’ve never met a librarian who isn’t happy to assist in a research quest! This was the case with the New York Public Library, where I had the opportunity to spend time in the Stratemeyer Syndicate records in the Archives and Manuscripts division. I literally pinched myself while I was there! I had this incredible feeling while researching, that I was doing exactly what I was meant to do as a writer. I am naturally resourceful (and I don’t mean to sound arrogant in the least bit!) and determined. The greatest challenge, if one would call it that, was how to access information. Source notes from previously published works related to Nancy Drew were very helpful, as was staff both in Ohio and NYC to bring the pieces of the mystery in researching Millie’s life together.
- What fun facts do you recommend children’s librarians share with young readers when they highlight this book in their collections?
Great question! I will offer them in chronological order:
Millie had her first story published when she was fourteen years old.
She was the first person to obtain a Master degree in Journalism from the University of Iowa.
Millie wrote twenty-three of the first thirty Nancy Drew Mystery Stories.
Her writing career included penning one hundred and thirty five children’s books, and serving as a newspaper journalist for fifty-eight years.
Millie loved aviation and obtained her private pilot’s license when she was sixty-two years old!
She applied for the Journalist in Space Program when she was eighty-one!
5. Within Missing Millie Benson, “Did You Know?” sections add additional context to chapters. “Extra Clues” includes even further information regarding Millie and this rich time period. Why is it important to include this level of documentation in a work for younger readers?
The special sections included within Millie’s story hold true for each of the books in the Ohio University Press Biographies for Young Readers series. I am grateful that these sections are included within the text. I believe that readers will enjoy learning a little more in-depth information about Millie’s life. Perhaps all of the information contained within will spark interest in readers to learn even more about dime novels, Nancy Drew, the Gallup Poll and famous aviatrixes! I know when I read a book, content often encourages as such. After enjoying the novel, Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, I researched books on real American women involved in the French resistance. That’s just how my brain works.
6. Please share more about Claire’s Day, the children’s book festival you and your husband founded in honor of your late daughter. Why did you choose to highlight children’s books and what has been your proudest moment as this festival has progressed?
Claire was just ten years old when she died in 2000. She loved to dance, sing, play with friends, organize games with her younger sister and brother, swim and tell stories. Above all else though, she loved to read. She would often be late for dinner, as she had “just one more page to read” and tried to use reading as an excuse to get out of chores. Sometimes it worked. We felt compelled to remember her in a way that was true to her, and our thoughts always came back to books and reading. Six months after she died, while on a flight to a family wedding, I found an issue of Time in my seat pocket. I discovered an article about then First Lady Laura Bush (I’ve always been a fan!) and the Texas Book Festival. I loved that the festival featured Texas born authors and benefitted Texas libraries. I turned to my husband sitting across the aisle, and with tears in my eyes, I told him that I had discovered what we were going to create in Claire’s honor. Claire’s Day was born.
As Claire was a child, it was apparent we should focus on children’s book authors and illustrators. Initially we featured picture book writers and artists, and eventually expanded to include middle-grade and young adult. We are both proud that the organization merged with Read for Literacy this past year, which allows me to pursue writing opportunities and revisit several partially completed manuscripts. The merger will also support our continued growth established over our fifteen year history. Claire’s Day isn’t just a day any longer! We support a week of literary experiences, including school visits by our participating authors, and Claire’s Night, a fundraising reception for adults the evening prior to the book festival. Most significantly, a highlight of the day is the C.A.R.E. Awards (Claire’s Awards for Reading Excellence) given to children nominated as being most improved readers in their schools. Each nominated child receives a certificate as well as a coupon to choose a book from the selection Barnes & Noble makes available by our guest authors and illustrators. In 2002 we gave 25 C.A.R.E. Awards. This past year we recognized 800 children!
7. In your author’s note, you share that you invited Millie Benson to attend Claire’s Day. Please share more about your connection to this author.
I wrote to Millie, inviting her to attend our first Claire’s Day. She responded with a phone call. I was not at home when she left her message, but I recall her sweet, feeble voice on my answering machine offering her condolences, her admiration for what we were doing in Claire’s honor, her wishes for great success. She was in poor health and did not make any public appearances any longer, however, so would not able to join us. Millie died just ten days after our first Claire’s Day. As I learned more about Millie, I found myself identifying with her carefree childhood filled with reading, and her desire to write from a young age. I could relate to her pain through her losses, and her way of dealing with it all…by doing.
- Why is it important that children’s books are celebrated in this way? How can public libraries ensure children’s books receive the recognition they deserve?
Children’s books and their creators should be celebrated, and I believe our avenue in doing so offers many learning opportunities to children, as well as adults. I’ve learned that children’s book authors and illustrators are just people too, incredibly talented mind you, but much like you and me. Successful children’s book authors and illustrators are as such because they dedicate every day to their craft. Writing and illustrating children’s books takes time, talent, and resources. Anything a library can do to support authors and artists, whether by featuring them in programs, or highlighting their books is always appreciated.
- Why did you decide to partner with your public library on Claire’s Day? What guidance can you provide children’s librarians who may wish to recognize families who have lost a child?
We visited our Maumee library branch at least weekly when our children were young. I remember making a rule that each of our three children could borrow as many books as they could carry! We read to them every night before bed, and I would read with them during the day. As they each became independent readers, they read on their own quite a bit. It was only natural to consider the library as the setting for Claire’s Day. The library building is beautiful, the grounds are large and lovely, and the staff incredible. It was and is our library. Every year Claire’s Day has given $2500.00 to the library system, earmarked for books written or illustrated by our upcoming authors and illustrators. This way educators and families have access to the books prior to the festival. Every book purchased by the system through this grant notes that it is a part of the collection as a result of Claire’s Day, in honor of Claire. Purchasing books for the system in honor of a child gone too soon is a lovely sentiment for a family. Or, recognizing children who have worked so hard in improving their reading skills by giving them a book in honor of the child is pretty impactful too.
- What advice would you have for children’s librarians interested in beginning their own community celebrations highlighting children’s books? What do you wish you knew when you began your work on Claire’s Day, almost 15 years ago?
Wow, great question. As Brad and I formed the organization and then approached the library, I’m not quite certain how to answer that. I will offer that without the assistance of our volunteer committee members, we would never have turned the page from concept to reality. I would look to community volunteers who are passionate about supporting the library and reach out to them to assist in organizing a community celebration. We have many organizational documents created throughout the years, including a task list should any libraries be interested!
It would be our hope that perhaps Claire’s Day, or even the C.A.R.E. Awards could be established in other libraries around the country. It could be fairly easy to do. Start small! Invite a children’s book author/illustrator to present a program and sign books following! What I didn’t know then was what an incredible impact we would have on children and families in the community. I’m humbled by the support of the community, and the recognition in various forms for our efforts. I’m not certain I would have wished for anything other than what I have received through this process. Deeper bonds with my family and friends, new friends who lent their time and talents to the cause, and ultimately connections with established children’s book authors and illustrators have helped guide me on my path as a published children’s book author. Claire would be amazed and proud.
Thank you for sharing your writing process for Missing Millie Benson, your connection to public libraries, and your inspiration regarding Claire’s Day!