Career Achievers: Kelly Milner Halls on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? 

When I studied journalism in high school (California) and college (Utah), I thought I’d be an investigative reporter for a newspaper someday. I’d watched Woodward and Bernstein work to reveal the deceptions of Nixon, and I thought I wanted to do the same kind of work.

Then I saw Nixon’s adult daughters weep as their family boarded a chopper to leave the White House on his resignation day. I still admired the heroic efforts of the Washington Post and The New York Times, but I knew I didn’t have it in me to out the bad guys and their kids. I put my writing on indefinite hold.

Years later, as a young mother in Colorado I discovered nonfiction for young readers. I could use my training to write compelling work for kids without ever having to be mean spirited. I was hooked.

I wrote for young readers magazines first—Highlights for Children, U.S. Kids, Children’s Digest, Fox Kids, Teen People, Guidepost for Kids and more. Then I added newspapers to the roster, including the Chicago Tribune KidNews, the Atlanta Journal Constitutions News for Kids, the Fort Worth Star Telegrams PG Pages and Freezone/Curiocity, a newspaper insert subscription service.

In ten years, I wrote more than 1500 articles and book reviews (most for kids aged 10 and up). I had to write 12 a month to make a living.

I also wrote my first book— Dino Trekking: The Ultimate Dinosaur Lover’s Travel Guide (Wiley, 1996), a travel guide on fossil exhibits across the United States. That’s when my friend Marilyn Singer challenged me to take the next step and write children’s books. I accepted the challenge the same year I got a divorce and moved my two daughters to a brand new town, Spokane, Washington.

Not long after, my editor at Guidepost for Teens, Tanya Anderson called. She’d left the magazine to start a new publishing house called Darby Creek with an enthusiastic investor. She had very little time to launch her first list—one book of fiction by Joseph Bruchac and one nonfiction book from me, provided I had an idea I could write quickly.

I’d just written an article for the Chicago Tribune on where kids could dig up dinosaur fossils and the paleontologist had told me about a mummified dinosaur he called Leonardo. Tanya liked the idea, so a few months later, Dinosaur Mummies: Beyond Bare Bone Fossils (Darby Creek, 2003) was born.

Tanya and I created six books together—books that allowed me to explore kid friendly topics I loved in exactly the way I wanted to write them. My nonfiction book career was successfully launched. Then Darby Creek was sold to Lerner without Tanya. My books were orphaned and my future was uncertain—a scary place to be as a single mother with no other source of income.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Learn more about Kelly Milner Halls and her books. Death Eaters: Meet Nature’s Scavengers (Millbrook/Lerner, 2018) is out now and Cryptid Creatures: A Field Guide (Sasquatch/Little Bigfoot) is due out in the fall.

If I could go back, I’d start writing for young readers and join SCBWI sooner. I didn’t even know the organization existed. Had I known, I might have been more successful sooner, too.

I’d also tell myself not to try and write books “like” books I admired. I wasted a lot of time trying to be “like” someone else, when the secret was in finding my own unique point of view. The person you are, deep inside, has something to offer the business of children’s literature.

The field and body of literature are always evolving.  For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing?  What do you think of them and why?

In nonfiction, I’ve seen books shift from being books kids love to being books adults want kids to love. I love STEM and educational books—my books are always educational—but I also love writing books kids can read for pure enjoyment.

Picture book editors understand that, but nonfiction is so tied to educational sales, I fear the fun in nonfiction is an endangered species. I hope, in time, there is room for both kinds of nonfiction books. I think the two should go hand-in-hand.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

I’d tell myself the career would never be easy, that I’d never be rich or even fully secure, financially, but I’d always be happy. I’d reassure myself that writing is a “real” job and worthy of appreciation. I’d also encourage myself to submit more proposals to more editors.

Keeping all your eggs in one basket is a dangerous thing to do, long term. I’d also encourage the younger me to save more money for those inevitable lean times. And if you’re a single mom with no financial back up, there are always lean times.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers) looking to the future?

I hope the industry will remember kids love to read for fun, and that fun leads to reading advancements.

My nephew read nothing but Goosebumps (by R.L. Stine (Scholastic, 1992-1997) for years and years and years. My sister used to tell me it worried her. I told her he was reading, and as a kid, it didn’t matter so much what he was reading as it did that he was reading.

She doubted my advice—relax and celebrate R.L. Stine. But when he made the leap from Goosebumps to the sophisticated Redwall series (1986-2011) by the late (and great) Brian Jacques, she became a believer.

Reading for fun gives a kid the confidence they need to move up the literature ladder.  Fun books provide that crucial safe zone to learn the magic of reading.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Like all writers, I dream of a series that will help me move from a paycheck-to-paycheck writer to a writer that can breathe a bit easier. But that’s a wish I’ve had now for nearly 20 years. So I’ll hope for a steady stream of contracts and lots of school visits to keep the lights on until I’m old enough to get Social Security. And as I hope, I’ll bask in the joy I’ve had sharing books the kid I was would have loved, with kids of a new generation—several of them, in fact.

I never got rich, I never won a stack of awards, but god what a happy, surprising, weird life I’ve lead. That should count for something, too. I’m happy to say, for me, it absolutely does.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.