04 September, 2013

Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills - Guest Post and Giveaway (US only, ends 9/12)

Thanks to Claudia Mills and FSG for inviting me to kick off the Zero Tolerance blog tour!

Go for the Cringe
by Claudia Mills

Like many authors, I fashion my books as a patchwork stitched from varied scraps of memories, although there may not be a single scene, character, or even line of dialogue taken intact from real life. Still, the emotional core of a book tends to start with some remembered childhood experience. Usually that core originates in some memory that continues even decades later to make me cringe. 

I drew the actual incident that triggered Zero Tolerance from the local news, when a nearby middle school took action to expel an honor student who brought the wrong lunch to school, an incident that received extensive media coverage. I saved no newspaper clippings; I don’t have that kind of careful filing system for book ideas. But I held onto the story nonetheless. Years later, when I sat down to write Zero Tolerance, that incident stored in my writer’s brain helped unearth an adolescent memory stored in my writer’s heart.

Here is the memory at the heart of Sierra’s story. 

Many years ago, as a student at North Plainfield High School in central New Jersey, one spring I took issue with the school’s practice of locking all the school doors after the closing bell (both from inside and out) even though extracurricular activities were going on at that time. What if there were a fire? How could students exit the school? It seemed to my adolescent self such a metaphor for school-as-prison. So I complained to my friends. I complained to a few teachers. And then one of my friends took it upon herself to send a letter to the local paper protesting the locked doors—and signed the name of our much-disliked P.E. teacher.

When the letter appeared in print, I was horrified. A budding writer, I knew how important it is that we can own the words that appear over our signature; I knew what a wrong thing my friend had done. Worse, I knew I would be taken to be the author of the fraudulent letter. I knew I would be blamed, or even punished, when I myself had done nothing wrong. I still remember the terrible helplessness I felt as I waited to see how the teacher would respond, for any attempts I made to clear my name would be taken only as further evidence of guilt.

What ended up happening was... nothing. Life is so often less interesting than fiction. The school year drew to a close, and I tried to suppress that painful memory as best I could. But it resurfaced as I grappled with how to tell Sierra’s story. Readers of the book will know that Sierra ends up sending a fraudulent letter to the newspaper signed by the much-disliked school secretary. And while she is clearly at fault for doing so, she spends most of the book being punished for something she clearly deserved no blame for doing.

Many other snippets from my real life found their way into the book. A sixth grade best friend who excelled at analyzing every utterance or gesture of the boys we liked. A teachers’ assistant at my sons’ elementary school who was inappropriately bossy toward the students. A friend of mine who is an ardent though unrecognized playwright. A comforting cat.

But the heart of the book is the dark memory of a letter that never should have been written. The heart of the book is a memory that still lies heavy on my heart. So my advice for other writers, and for myself as a writer, is and will continue to be: don’t be afraid to go into those dark places. Sometimes you can write the book you need to write only if you let yourself go for the cringe.

Claudia Mills (c) Larry Harwood
About the author

CLAUDIA MILLS is the author of many chapter and middle-grade books, including 7 x 9=Trouble!; How Oliver Olson Changed the World; and, most recently, Kelsey Green, Reading Queen.

She also teaches philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.

To learn more, visit her website: claudiamillsauthor.com

Enter to win a copy of the book using the Rafflecopter widget below!

Follow Claudia on her her blog tour! Check back for new posts between now and Sept 17.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

In case anyone is wondering, the question you need to answer in the Rafflecopter (for the Commenting points) is "Sierra ends up bringing something to school that she shouldn't have. More often than not, we forget to bring something to school we should have! What's the thing you kept forgetting to bring? For me, it was clean gym clothes :("


  1. Yup, gym clothes and a clean towel, Yuck!

  2. My lunch bag and the empty containers.

  3. Haha... gym clothes, yes and homework!

  4. Usually papers that my parents had to sign. -_-

  5. I played in the band, and was awful at remembering to bring my flute to school