Jul 1, 2017

2017 NCSS NOTABLE BOOKS: An Interview with author Pat Zietlow Miller

I'm especially excited to include an interview with the very talented author, Pat Zietlow Miller in this post. You'll want to read what she has to say about writing The Quickest Kid in Clarksville. This is a longer post than usual, so after reading the interview,  if you don't have much time , you may want to bookmark this post and come back to it later for further suggested titles and links. In fact, even if you read all the way through, clicking on all the links, you may want to bookmark this post. I'm not suggesting that my words are particularly brilliant, but this post offers a valuable resource you'll want to remember and use. Sooner or later, I hope you'll spend time on it and click through to all of the links, because these books are too good to miss. 

This annual NCSS notable list will be worth knowing about year after year.

First, here's that valuable resource for everyone interested in quality literature for kids. You simply MUST know about the National Council for the Social Studies annual NOTABLE SOCIAL STUDIES TRADE BOOKS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE. For the full list for 2017, click here. 
Each year I've used the current and prior annual lists as a teacher, as a writer, as presenter, and  as a reader. I remain a member of this professional organization even though I've retired from the classroom, but anyone can access the lists on the site linked above. Titles are grouped  in broad categories, are selected in collaboration with the Children's Book Council (CBC), and include picture books targeted to a wide age range, along with nonfiction and novels. 

I was particulary excited to see THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE, written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Frank Morrison, was on the 2017 list. It's that delightful achievement of a winning story that incorporates historic information and individuals.  The author, Pat Zietlow Miller, is a favorite of mine (and a writing friend). The inspiring athletic figure embedded in the story, Wilma Rudolph, is also a favorite of mine.  I've written about this terrific book in several posts, and on Goodreads. The NCSS Notables categorizes it with other  titles involving social interactions and relationships.

Below Pat's interview I've featured (with links) several of the other titles on the notable list that I've reviewed and/or featured in prior posts. 
But first, here's that interview with Pat:

Congratulations, Pat, on having QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE named to the NCSS Notable Books for Young Readers list for 2017. Your books have garnered many awards in the past, but how are you feeling about this specific honor and how do you hope it will impact the use of this book by young readers and their parents and teachers?

I’m excited about having THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE on this list because I love the story of Wilma Rudolph and want to make sure more kids know who she was and what she accomplished.

I’m also excited because being part of this list shows that fiction books can educate and inform readers as much as nonfiction texts.

QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE provides important information about the amazing and inspiring athlete, WILMA RUDOLPH, but it does so indirectly, embedded in the fictional story of Alta and Charmaine. Can you share a bit of the origin story of this book? Did you start with an interest in writing about Wilma Rudolph, or a story about young characters and their competition, cooperation, and friendship?  Which came first, the chicken or the egg so to speak?

Alta and Charmaine came first. I started out writing about two modern-day girls who competed in everything to see who was the best. They ran. They jumped. They skipped rope. And, the story was fine, but it didn’t have the spark I wanted. Something was missing.

An editor suggested I add a historical element, and I immediately thought of Wilma Rudolph, someone whose story I knew and admired. So I had both girls look up to Wilma and want to be just like her.

But I didn’t think to set the story in Wilma’s hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, until a writing friend of mine suggested it. Once I did that, and learned Clarksville’s history with segregation and how Wilma helped the town take its first steps toward integration, the story finally came together properly.

Although set in the historical context of the segregated south, the social dynamics between the girls feel familiar and authentic for contemporary situations. I imagine you were able to find specific historic details about Wilma Rudolph’s triumphant return to her hometown, and the conditions she set to participate, but how did you arrive at specific details within Alta’s story? The economic differences and interpersonal challenges were very credible; in particular, Alta’s awareness of Charmaine’s new shoes as compared to her worn ones.

The shoes were inspired by a personal story. When my twin sister and I were in middle school, we really wanted white, low-top, canvas Nikes with a colored swoosh. It seemed like all our classmates had them, even though, as I look back, I’m sure that wasn’t the case. Oh, we wanted those shoes. My sister, who now has a Ph.D. in math, even made a chart showing how many kids in each of our classes had those Nikes.

We already had perfectly fine shoes, without holes, but I remember how much we wanted those Nikes. And then, when my parents relented and got them for us – a true act of love because we certainly didn’t need them – I remember how proud I was to wear them.

So that story of shoe envy totally played a part in deciding how Alta and Charmaine each felt.

Not all of your books are in rhyme, but they all have a lyric, rhythmic lilt to the text. Reviewers point that out and I admire the natural flow of your writing, especially knowing how much effort it requires to make it seem effortless. What led you to the use of Alta’s training chant (Wil- ma Ru- dolph) within her running routines, how do you see it benefiting the story?

I wanted some kind of a running beat in the book and having Alta chant Wilma’s name seemed like the perfect thing. I experimented with a few different ways of her using the name before settling on this one. Again, my critique group helped me determine which version worked best.

And, thank you, for talking about the story’s rhythmic lilt.  Flow and rhythm are very important to me whether the story I’m writing rhymes or not, and I spend a lot of time working on them.

One of the coolest things that happened after this book was published was that a school took words from the book and turned them into a chant that students performed. You can see it here.

Your books have generated many eager-reader connections (Sophie’s Squash “adoptions”, Wherever You Go for graduates). Whose idea was it to generate make-your-own athletic trading cards? (link here). Have you heard from readers, families, and teachers about how these are being used? 

That idea came from the Chronicle Books, the publisher. It was ingenious, but alas, I can take no credit for it.

What types of responses and feedback have you had about this particular book, and from whom? Is there something about this book that holds a special place in your heart?

I’ve heard from lots of schools who have used the book with gym classes or paired it with WILMA UNLIMITED, a great, straight nonfiction picture book biography of Wilma Rudolph written by Kathleen Krull.

And, I got to Skype with a classroom of kids in Clarksville, Tennessee, which was so very cool.

This book is special to me, because of how it evolved from initial idea to the finished product and because of how much I learned writing it. 

Here’s a blog I wrote outlining the book’s journey. It’s called “It takes a village … to write a book.” But it just as easily could have been called, “Why writing a picture book might make you lose your mind.”

To make it work, I had to be like Wilma and never give up.

Thanks, Pat, for taking the time to share your journey with readers here. 

Click on Pat's name above, or HERE, to learn more about her and her other books. Stay tuned for her upcoming picture books, WIDE-AWAKE BEAR, and  BE KIND in early 2018. 

Now here are quick connections to a few of the other NCSS Notable Books I've written about in previous posts: 

It is listed among titles involving social interactions and relationships.

Category: History/Life and Culture in America

Category: History/Life and Culture in America

Category: Biography

MISS MARY REPORTING: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber, written by Sue Macy, illustrated by C. F. Payne.

Category: Biography

Category: Biography

Category: World History and Culture.

Category: Biography


  1. I'm teaching Picture Book writing at Hollins University's MFA in writing and illustrating this summer and your blog is a mainstay for current, gracefully presented information about what is new and, better yet GOOD. I've seen Miss Mary Reporting and can confirm that it is an excellent bio PB. Now I'm in search of the others on this list! Thanks.

  2. Hi, Ashley. What a kind and encouraging comment about this post and my blog in general. Lists like the NCSS Notables and other annual ones (Jane Addams Children's Book Awards, for one) offer not only the current honored titles but also archive lists from past years. There are never enough hours in my life to feature all of the wonderful picture books in our world, so I rely on referring to such reliably excellent sources. I do my best to steer people toward what are, IMO, some of the best. Your note inspires me to continue. Thanks so much for taking time to comment, and all best to you and your students!

  3. I love how Pat uses the NF element so effectively. Definitely a great mentor text. Thank you for this terrific interview.

  4. I agree, David. I love when the fiction/NF content blends so seamlessly and Pat did a fantastic job for young readers in the back notes on Wilma. Thanks for reading here, and for spreading the word about this book and notable list.


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