Prolific writer of Christian fiction Charles Mills talks about the reprint of his children's book series, where Adventist publishing is headed, research in Bozeman, and the micro-second attention spans of today's young readers.
Question: I understand that your Shadow Creek Ranch children's book series has just undergone a reprint. What was the motivation for the reprint?
Answer: With the publishing industry struggling to stay alive and viable, I can only assume that the Pacific Press chose to reprint a book series that had enjoyed some success in the past. This saved them a bit of money (no royalty advance to the author as well as no additional editorial work required) and put before the public a recognized product by a recognized author. I also want to believe that they saw something of spiritual value to the reader within the series. They set up the release beautifully by inviting me to write a number 13 in the series “Out of the Blue” a couple years ago to draw readers—old and new—into the Shadow Creek Ranch fold.
When was the Shadow Creek Ranch series first published?
Shadow Creek Ranch began its publishing run in 1991 with the release of book #1 - “Escape to Shadow Creek Ranch.” Book #12 “Planet of Joy” came out in 1999. Then the Pacific Press released book #13 “Out of the Blue” in 2014 and then re-released the first 12 books in four-book per volume form this year (2016).
What other children's books have you written? When was the last time you wrote for children? Do you envision any projects in the future that would be targeted toward a younger audience?
I’ve had the privilege of writing dozens of children’s books for both the Review and Herald and Pacific Press, including three devotionals and a book about sex and love. It all began with the “Voyager” series and moved on to the “Professor Appleby” and “Honors Club” books. In between were single releases such as “Jackrabbit Safari” and picture books such as “God’s Special Promises to Me” and “When I Grow Up.” The last book I penned was “Out of the Blue,” book 13 in the Shadow Creek Ranch series. As for future projects, our publishing house knows where I am, and I’ve told them I’m eager to help out in any way I can.
What issues do you see confronting the Adventist and wider Christian publishing industry relating to producing quality children's literature? How, as an author, did you target an audience and what literary characteristics do you think are critical in writing for children? Do you feel that in our publishing we are adequately addressing issues that affect new generations of Adventist young people?
I believe that today’s young reader is identical to young readers of the past except for a couple glaring differences. First, their attention span is not measured in hours or minutes but in micro-seconds. Second, some want their content on something other than a dead tree. But moving content to digital release has, in my opinion, created some real problems. You now face relentless and overpowering competition. When I was a young reader, I went to camp meeting and purchased the latest “children’s books” from the “Book and Bible House.” There might be, at most, a dozen new releases from which to choose. Today, we’re buried in “buy me” messages from hundreds of sources—with Adventist authors a decided minority in the mix. There’s also something to be said about what professional publishers add to a project. Very intelligent people bring their talents to bear on professionally published and printed books. Digital-only publishers often say, “Anyone can be a writer.” But, as a reader, I can add, “Yes, but not everyone should be a writer.”
I targeted my audience by first understanding my audience. Being a school teacher for a couple years introduced me to that glorious young mind and showed me, time and time again, what grabbed the attention of young readers. Having never really grown up myself helped a lot, too. So, I tried to make my writing fast-paced and focused on the type of issues that boys and girls face on a daily basis (friendships, fear, uncertainty, curiosity, dealing with grownups and their issues, decision making, adjusting to change, forgiveness, etc., etc.) By and large, writing for kids is exactly like writing for adults. You just use slightly less complicated wording and focus on the things that concern and excite kids today.
I certainly believe that our publishing efforts these days are addressing Adventist young people. But, I have to say that the move to “all true” stories in our books and other publications has put a serious limiting factor on our publishing outreach. To me, that’s like telling Christ that parables are out! Of course, writing Christian fiction is my specialty, so I may be a bit biased.
Who are your favorite children's authors: both Adventist and more broadly?
I’ve always been a great fan of Sam Campbell, Josephine Cunnington Edwards, and anyone willing to tell me an exciting story—real or imagined. Guide magazine was my go-to publication for many years when I was young. They got it right. They still get it right.
How has the explosion in digital media affected the Christian, and specifically Seventh-day Adventist, publishing industry? As an author, would you be interested in the Pacific Press marketing digital versions of your books? Is that an avenue that they are exploring and that you would embrace? (Kindle, Nook, etc.)
I may be behind the times, but I don’t feel that digital has taken over the hearts and minds of readers just yet. It may in time. Even as publishing houses stumble around trying to decide where and how to get the word out, the printed page is still finding its way into eager hands. The Pacific Press is marketing many of my books in digital form, but as far I can tell, dead trees still reign supreme.
Do you think that the Adventist publishing industry should try to target audiences outside of the church?
Yes and no. I’ve written for both the inside and outside crowd, and I know just how much I have to “dumb down” my expression of faith when I know my words are headed out the door of the church. We Adventists are unique in this world. We have unique issues and unique needs which must be addressed uniquely. In other words, as much as I love non-Adventist authors, they’re not going to be in the same boat as I’m sailing in, and I read their beautiful words with a careful eye. Error can sound pretty convincing in the hands of a skilled author. But, when I dig into a good ol’ Adventist-authored release, I relax and know that I’m on much safer ground theologically. When I was young, I got the feeling that the books waiting for me on the Bible House shelves were written specially for my brand of faith. But, there was always that “sharing book” which I knew would be going to my neighbors or the world in general. I felt secure knowing that I was being nurtured in my faith and had something of substance available to share with people not of my faith.
If I ran an Adventist publishing house, I’d target the church first and foremost but then provide a few professional tools that could be taken into the community. I think that’s being done on a regular basis. But the lure of the big bucks waiting outside the church (owing to the much larger potential audience) is pretty strong. To a struggling Adventist publishing industry, that’s got to be really, really tempting.
What other projects have you been working on? What nonfiction projects have you worked on? Tell us about your radio show.
I’ve swung toward radio and audio production. I enjoy hosting live programs and presently have weekly taped shows—“Heartwise” and “LifeQuest Liberty”—airing on both the LifeTalk and 3ABN radio networks as well as dozens of other outlets. “Heartwise” is a health program focusing on making sound lifestyle choices, and “LifeQuest Liberty” addresses religious liberty issues around the world. I get to interview really, really smart people, and I love that! I’m also happily writing projects for my beloved Guide magazine as well as providing articles for Signs, Message, and the Adventist Review.
I understand that you have recently retired. What does that mean for you?
What does retirement mean for me? For the first time in 43 years, I can relax. As the government slowly gives me my money back, I can face each day without that pedal-to-the-metal, make-a-living-or-die feeling. When I retired, I told the Lord, “Hey, I’m here if you need me, but I’m not going to go looking for things to do.” I thought that was my ticket to a life of leisure. Seems the Lord has both a sense of humor and a very different definition of the word “leisure.” I’m just as busy as always. But the pressure is gone. I love it.
What are your favorite books you have written?
That’s like asking a parent, “Who’s your favorite child?” But there are a couple books that mean a lot to me. My first, “Voyager,”—which started out as a very successful series in Guide magazine, got me believing that I could add writing to how I make a living. Also, book #3 of the “Honors Club” series from Pacific Press, “The Secret of Scarlett Cove,” was set on Chincoteague Island, Virginia where my wife and I vacationed each year. I used some of the local people as characters in the book, and writing it was like taking a vacation on that beautiful place. Of course, the entire Shadow Creek Ranch series began with a visit to Bozeman and the surrounding areas. The Review and Herald sent me out to find locations for the ranch and all the things that happened book after book. Very wise people, those Review folk! It made writing it a pure joy as I recalled the incredible beauty of Montana’s mountains, valleys, and critters. I think that joy comes through in each and every adventure. At least it does for me.
Are there any topics that you would like to see Adventist authors address that have not yet been written about?
As host of a weekly religious liberty radio program, I feel that we really need to address those types of issues because they are tied into most everything that’s going on in this world—everything from sexual issues to people movements to wars and rumors of wars. Freedom is delicate to the extreme and can be lost so very easily. We need to be aware and proactive in this area.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Thank you for letting me share a bit of my journey and a few of the insights I’ve gained along the way. Our church is in crisis mode, but level-headed publishing can go far to steady the boat in the storm. It all begins with truth, and people who aren’t afraid to write and publish it.
In crisis mode? Can you elaborate?
I could write a book about it!
The updated Shadow Creek Ranch books are available on the Adventist Book Center website.
Charles Mills has written more than 50 books and hundreds of articles, mainly for Adventist publishers. He also produces videos and creates and hosts radio programs. During the 1970s and 1980s he also worked for Faith for Today, the Adventist Media Center, Pacific Union College (as radio station manager), and for the Review and Herald Publishing Association.
Jennifer Payne is second cousin to Charles Mills. She graduated from Andrews University and completed her MA in Humanities at Hood College. She has taught English at North Shore Junior Academy and Highland View Academy. She lives in Michigan with her husband and two children.
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