MMGM/BLOG TOUR/GIVEAWAY: Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills


Seventh-grader Sierra Shepard has always been the perfect student, so when she sees that she accidentally brought her mother's lunch bag to school, including a paring knife, she immediately turns in the knife at the school office. Much to her surprise, her beloved principal places her in in-school suspension and sets a hearing for her expulsion, citing the school's ironclad no weapons policy. While there, Sierra spends time with Luke, a boy who's known as a troublemaker, and discovers that he's not the person she assumed he would be--and that the lines between good and bad aren't as clear as she once thought. Claudia Mills brings another compelling school story to life with Zero Tolerance.


Claudia Mills is the author of How Oliver Olson Changed the World7 x 9 = Trouble!Being Teddy Roosevelt, and many other books for children. She was born in New York City in 1954. She received her bachelor's degree from Wellesley College, her master's degree from Princeton University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. She also received an M.L.S. degree from the University of Maryland, with a concentration in children's literature. She worked as an editorial assistant at Four Winds Press (Scholastic), then as an editor at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland 1980 to 1989. Since 1991 she has taught philosophy, first as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, then as an assistant professor and now as an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has two children, Christopher and Gregory, and one cat named Snickers.

To learn more, visit her website:


Zero Tolerance addresses a concern that I have long had about zero tolerance policies in schools. That concern revolves around the rigidity of that term.  The fact is accidents happen and innocent mistakes occur. Claudia Mills takes a look at this issue.  When Sierra Shepard opens her lunch bag one day, she quickly realizes that she has her mother's lunch and there is a small knife included for cutting the apple.  When she turns in the knife, she is shocked to find herself suspended and well on her way to expulsion. 

What I liked: I appreciated how Sierra changes through the story and realizes that people are more than just their grades and reputations.  She also learns how to be less selfish and accept life's imperfections.  The inclusion of Luke Bishop, the "troublemaker" was a nice touch, allowing the reader to see how characters who are quite different can become friends when they look beyond the surface.  The power of the media and 'saving face' are also clearly demonstrated here. I also appreciated how Sierra tries to do the right thing in regard to Mr. Besser after messing up with Ms. Lin. 

What I didn't like: In-school suspension is supposed to allow students to keep up with their school work while being away from the other students.  In this book, it is portrayed as free time, the students aren't given anything to do, they just sit there. And there is not a teacher there to supervise. Also, when Sierra really does something wrong, the principal lets her off because she's already up for expulsion. All she has to do is apologize. 

All in all, a thought-provoking read that is well worth talking about.

GUEST POST:  It Takes a Writing Group by Claudia Mills

Even though every writer needs to face the blank page or the blank computer screen alone, writing a book is for me a highly collaborate endeavor.

For most of my career I have been part of a writing group: a group of fellow writers who band together to help one another write the best books possible. When I lived in Maryland I was a member of the Soup Group. We met every other Tuesday for lunch and ate, yes delicious home-made soup (the cream of cashew was the best) and home-made bread. As we sipped our soup and broke our bread, we critiqued our manuscripts, leaving at the end of two hours with full bellies and improved stories.

When I moved to Colorado two decades ago, the first thing I did was to contact fellow members of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) who lived near me in Boulder. One invited to visit her writing group, and I’ve been a member of that group ever since.

In the beginning our group was made up entirely of children’s book authors, some published, most unpublished. Over our years together, we have developed in all different kinds of directions, and all of us have been published now. Some of us still write children’s books; others write mysteries for grown-ups, women’s fiction, science fiction, and nonfiction books about Colorado history for adults and children alike.

Here we are at our annual retreat, the last weekend in August, up in the Rocky Mountains in Silverthorne. Pictured from left to right: Marie DesJardin, Claudia Mills, Phyllis Perry, Leslie O’Kane, Elizabeth Wrenn, Mary Peace Finley, Ann Whitehead Nagda.

Over the years we’ve worked out various rules to structure our biweekly Monday night meetings. We share manuscripts in the order that people arrive: a great way to ensure promptness! We bring hard copies of the manuscripts to pass around and read them in silence, scribbling voluminous critical comments as well as marking the all-important smiley faces that let us know when we’ve done something right. When we give our critiques, we try to begin with comments that are positive, but we focus on those crucial critical comments that make the difference between publishable and unpublishable work. We critique in a clockwise order, beginning with the person to the left of the author. No one speaks twice until everyone has spoken at least once—a lovely mechanism to ensure that all voices are heard.

Sometimes the comments sting. Sometimes I go home and tell my husband, “Remind me never to go to THAT writing group again!” But in the end, I always listen. How can a writer not listen to her readers? I revise from my friends’ comments, and the book gets better. And better. And better.

When I shared the manuscript for Zero Tolerance, a chapter at a time, the group’s comments helped me navigate the delicate balancing act of making Sierra somewhat self-righteous about her “perfect student” status at the beginning of the book, but still fundamentally likeable (I hope!). I had to make her a character readers could root for and care about, but someone who still had room to grow and change. My writer friends helped me streamline the story: originally I had Sierra writing not one but two emails from the school secretary’s computer, as she serves her time in suspension. They helped me pick up the pace during scenes that dragged and to slow it down when scenes felt rushed.

I was on a panel recently with an author who mentioned that he had revised one passage in his recent novel 88 times. The audience gasped. 

I couldn’t resist asking him: “Are you in a writing group?” 

“Oh, no,” he said. “I wouldn’t find that helpful.” 

“Well,” I replied, “a writing group would have saved you eighty of those eighty-eight revisions!”

For me, it takes a writing group to raise a book.


1 print copy of Zero Tolerance
US/Canada only
ENDS 9/23/2013

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