Heretical Claim re Setting (July theme) by Claudia Mills

Here's my heretical claim and perhaps humiliating confession re setting: Setting doesn't always have to be important to a book, and it's almost never important to mine.

Whew! There, I've said it!

These days I write mainly school stories for third and fourth grade readers: Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika Riz, Math Whiz; Izzy Barr, Running Star in the Franklin School Friends series; and my forthcoming Nora Notebooks series launching this September with The Trouble with Ants.

The setting of my books is just. . . school, and a school setting that I hope will be universally recognizable to anyone who has ever been a student, teacher, or classroom visitor. Because a book has to take place somewhere, my books "take place" in Colorado; I live here, so I can toss in a few mentions of mountains with confidence. But there is nothing specific to Colorado about Franklin Elementary School and Plainfield Elementary School. If I took out the occasional reference to mountains and substituted the occasional reference to palm trees or cornfields, nothing of significance would change about my stories at all.

Writer friends who have heard me say this rush to reassure me that my books DO create wonderful settings, they do, they do! They tell me they can so see Mrs. Molina's third grade classroom, where she presides strictly and sternly until exuberant, always enthusiastic principal Mr. Boone comes bounding in to rouse the kids for the school-wide reading contest, or PTA carnival with its dunking tank, or spelling bee.

That is kind of them. Writers are so often kind to other writers.

But I think what they really mean is that my books have memorable characters, who invite the reader into a memorable world. Does that memorable world count as a setting?

I'm not sure it does. But maybe I'm wrong.

In Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ, we do get to see the Word Wall in Mrs. Molina's room, where Simon competes with Kelsey to write the most and hardest words ever. We see the kids huddling for spelling practice, trying to be the first team to claim the coveted bean bag chairs. We see the teams crowding into the gym for the main event, carrying the large pads on which teams will write each correctly spelled word to display. And we see the winning team feasting on Mr. Boone's famous honey pie at the pie buffet.

So I have physical details. I'm not saying I don't have physical details, that my characters somehow float above the material world as disembodied spirits. Franklin School is a place. But it's a place that comes alive for readers, if it does, chiefly because of the characters who inhabit it and what they say and do in that space.

Perhaps I'm interpreting setting too narrowly as geographical/regional? Perhaps setting can just be a distinctively delightful classroom in Every School, USA? I still think I'm right that setting is the least important feature of my books. But setting is so widely held to be the most important element of a book that I wouldn't mind being convinced that I'm mistaken.


  1. Now that you've written this, I bet your next book will have a seriously strong geographical setting. (That kind of thing always happens to me, anyway...)

    1. Well, not the next book, but one soon. I do think setting is wonderful. Newbery winners always have amazing settings. I just . . . don't....


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