Walking With Miss Millie tells the story of a friendship between a 10-year-old girl and her 92-year-old neighbor. This novel actually sprouted from my own life when my daughter –during her middle school years, was given the chore of walking our elderly neighbor’s dog. But just like feisty Clarence in my novel, the neighbor’s dog refused to walk unless his owner went along. One day led to the next and soon, it was understood that the unlikely threesome would walk and talk on a daily basis.
I knew I had to tell this precious story. But when I got ready to write it, other parts of my world were demanding to be heard from. I taught at a wonderfully diverse high school and for the most part, the students got along as well as teenagers normally do get along. But during that particular time I had been reading Writer’s Notebooks with a few disturbing issues of race relations. Some wrote about feelings of pent-up anger and hurt, others wrote stereotypes about people whose skin color was different from their own.
Of course, I want my students to live in a world of acceptance. But reading their honesty, made me think of my own family. Ten years ago, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law began a foster-to-adopt program. Since then, our family has grown to include three beautiful African American boys. So when I hear of injustice, bigotry, and racial tension, it’s personal.
More than ever, I need the world to be better, to do better.
And so, as I sat down to tell this story of an elderly lady and a young girl, my students’ struggles and my own hopes for them and my nephews rattled around my head as well as my heart. That’s when I decided to take the story of the unique friendship and set it long ago in the South—making my characters different races. I wanted the novel to not only celebrate our uniqueness, but to also embrace what we have in common.
I know it’s tricky to write a story with a message or moral in mind. The word “didactic” is in danger of popping up. But I’m a teacher and that’s a risk I was willing to take. I also soon learned that writers are discouraged to write outside their own race. But by the time I learned this, I was blissfully too far in love with Miss Millie and Alice to abandon them. I had to tell their story. Plus, how boring would the world of art be if we all only stayed in our own lanes?
And so I continued to write the story and hopefully honor the characters that were planted in my heart several years ago. Now, eight drafts and six years later, it is finally coming into the world.
Do I expect Walking with Miss Millie will enlighten students to be kinder to each other? Do I think it has the power to make a better world for my nephews and all kids everywhere?
Of course I do.
That’s why every writer writes, isn’t it? We write to make a difference. We believe we can affect change or in the very least bring a tear or a smile to a world in need of being reminded of its humanity.
In my experience, that’s when the magic happens—when we get to tell the story that only we can tell.