GUELPH/ERAMOSA – Jean Mills’ love of playing with language has led her to write and publish nine young adult (YA) novels, two of which will be available this spring.
Bliss Adair and the First Rule of Knitting launches on April 30 and Wingman will be released on April 11.
Mills notes the YA label “can be very misleading and very misunderstood,” with many people thinking it will be “gritty and hard-core” or a romantic comedy.
“I don’t do that,” Mills said.
“I do realistic contemporary fiction,” with teenagers living their lives and facing the real-life challenges of adolescence. She said her books “tread a path that is between really light and dark.”
Mills has always loved language.
“Even as a young child as soon as I had the alphabet and could string words together I was writing,” she said, adding she can still recite from memory a poem she wrote as a six-year-old about riding a pony.
She said storytelling is part of her DNA, and she was fortunate to have teachers who recognized, supported, and pushed her passion for writing.
“I was ‘Jeanie the writer,’” she said.
“Teachers said that in front of the class – ‘one day, when you are reading one of Jeanie’s books…’”
In addition to her collection of novels, Mills has taught at three colleges, wrote for Curling Canada, contributed to English as a Second Language books, and published short stories in magazines for kids.
Bliss Adair and the First Rule of Knitting
“There’s always a spark,” Mills said. “That little germ of an idea that comes up in my imagination when I’m writing a story.”
With Bliss Adair and the First Rule of Knitting the spark was Mills’ love of yarn.
Mills said knitting is an escape, an artistic endeavor, and a tradition for her since childhood.
“It’s such a fun part of my life and something that I lean on and rely on,” she said.
“That big love of yarn and knitting inspired a story.”
Bliss Adair, the protagonist in the book, shares Mills’ passion for knitting.
“Knitting is Bliss’s escape, it’s her safe place,” Mills said. “When she’s overwhelmed she picks up that pattern and she just knits.”
The idea for the story was inspired by a conversation Mills had with a “master knitter” years ago, who advised her not to look ahead too far when working on a more complicated pattern.
“Just take it stitch by stitch, row by row,” Mills was advised. “And if you trust the pattern it will work out.”
Mills said this advice applies to life too – “sometimes you can just go day-by-day, step-by-step, decision-by-decision and it all turns out.”
That’s the rule referred to in the title – “don’t look to far ahead.”
In the novel she takes this idea and turns it into a story about a teenager – an age full of decision making and unknowns.
Mills said though the book centres on the teenage experience, it will “resonate with adult readers” and younger kids too, especially “readers interested in the world of yarn and knitting.
“It shows how being a knitter – a yarn lover – improves your life.”
Mills said the novel includes a variety of characters, including Bliss’s best friend, “a gay boy who suffers from some body shaming in public,” a pregnant teenager, and teens “from all sorts of walks of life.”
At the back of the book Mills included patterns based on projects the characters create and donate to charities for their crafting club at school, like a scarf and a blanket for cats.
“So if anyone is interested in giving (knitting) a try they have something easy to start with,” she said.
Mills lives in Guelph/Eramosa near Marden, and notes there are “little Easter eggs for anyone who is local” in the book.
It’s set in an unnamed town that “might be Guelph,” with a yarn store across the street from a bookstore and cafe, a lot like Quebec street in downtown Guelph.
“Bliss and her friends go for a walk along the trail by the Boathouse,” Mills said, and when she initially imagined the story she “pictured them being students at GCVI.”
The yarn store in the book is called String Theory, a name Mills coincidentally chose a few months before Miranda Holmes opened String Theory in Fergus.
Mills has spoken with Holmes about the overlap and she’s supportive of the store’s name appearing in the book.
There’s discussion of a possible collaboration on a promotional event in the store after the book’s release.
Mills’ other upcoming book, Wingman, incorporates a “completely different” writing style from her previous novels.
It will be published by Orca Books in its “Soundlings” line for teenage striving readers who may be reluctant to pick up a book, speak English as a second language, or benefit from increased accessibility.
The books are shorter and aimed at adolescents but written at “more of an elementary school reading level,” Mills said.
She “loved writing” Wingman as it was a challenge to tell a story with short words and sentences while still engaging the reader and keeping them turning the page.
“I had so much fun with it,” she notes, especially “the technical side – being so careful with word choice.”
Wingman has already been named a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, “so I did something right,” Mills said with a humble laugh.
It is “set in the world of teen minor hockey,” she said, and “addresses the dark side of hockey culture, particularly parental pressure.”
“It has a lot of swearing in it,” Mills notes – “hockey boys, right? I know hockey boys and that’s how they talk. Kids who are reading it will say, ‘Oh yeah this just sounds like my hockey (dressing) room.’”
Mills has pitched a few more ideas to Orca Books for their “Soundlings” line, and is hopeful she will write more.
Both of Mills’ upcoming novels are available for preorder at Magic Pebble Books in Elora.
For more information about Mills visit jeanmillswriter.com.