"It was important for me to write about loss and grief in a way that didn’t feel exploitative." | Allison Mills on "The Ghost Collector"

Debut author Mills discusses the inspiration behind her poignant middle grade novel, Indigenous representation in kid lit, and creating "stories about Cree kids living in a contemporary world that’s still touched by magic."

Sixth-grader Shelley isn't afraid of death. In fact, she takes it very seriously; it is her job, after all. Shelley is an assistant to her Cree grandmother, who helps remove spirits from people's homes and carries them to the afterlife in her hair. She also tags along on Grandma's trips to help the police find bodies or to visit the graveyard ghost, a teenage audiophile named Joseph. Shelley's mother, however, doesn't approve. She cut her hair short long ago, and doesn't want her daughter dealing in death so young. Then tragedy strikes, and Shelley struggles with an enormous loss that leads her to hold the spirits even closer. In her lyrical, riveting debut, The Ghost Collector (Annick Pr., Sep. 2019, Gr 5 Up), Allison Mills employs her Cree worldview to explore grief, tradition, and what must be released to move on. SLJ caught up with the educator-archivist to discuss challenging dominant perceptions of Indigenous history and balancing heavy topics as both writer and reader.

 

While The Ghost Collector is a story about ghosts and death, at its core it's about a family with deep, loving, and complicated relationships. What moved you to write this touching tale of grief and passing on?

I started writing this story while I was spending five days a week working with records documenting Indigenous trauma. I was trying to find ways to process what I was reading so I didn’t carry it with me outside of work. Part of that meant I spent a lot of time thinking about haunting in a metaphorical sense—things that stick around and stay with you after your initial contact with them is done—and that eventually manifested itself as a story about very literal ghosts.

Some of my inspiration also came from family stories about my great-grandmother, Louisa.  She had a knack for finding people who went missing in the water up in Chapleau, Ontario, where my family is from. My grandfather talks about the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) coming to their house and asking her for help when he was a kid. When you grow up hearing about your great-grandma finding bodies in the woods, those stories stick with you, and they informed Shelly’s grandmother’s relationship with the people who ask her for help in The Ghost Collector.

 

Matrilineage is significant in your book; all of the women in Shelly’s family can see ghosts, and learning to help spirits transition is considered the family business. The mother-daughter relationships are extremely important, even when Shelly’s mother is absent for most of the plot. Where did the inspiration for this powerful dynamic come from?

Intergenerational relationships are an important part of Cree culture and often how teachings are passed down from generation to generation. Shelly learns a lot about ghosts and responsibility from her grandmother, and even though Shelly’s mother is absent, Shelly is still learning from her throughout the book. Indigenous families are disproportionately affected by deliberate disruption of our families. In Canada, for example, the government forced Indigenous children into residential schools for decades, and currently, there is a massive overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care. I wanted to write a story about a family whose connection to each other is their strength, even in the face of something that completely changes their family dynamic.

 

Allison Mills author photo
Photo by K Ho

This is your debut novel, but you come from a background in children’s literature. What did this work teach you about crafting strong, resonant stories for kids?

It made me really aware of the power of representation in children’s literature. When I was a teen, I wrote stories about white protagonists because the majority of the books I read were about white kids. My mom’s a librarian too, and she gave me books about Indigenous kids to read, but what I really loved was fantasy and science fiction. If there were Indigenous people in those books, they were usually allegorical or there to be impressed and saved by a white guy—it wasn’t exactly the most encouraging depiction. Even in fiction, Indigenous peoples were being erased and written about like we were dying out. Even in fiction we weren’t allowed to be part of the present day.

Reading criticism written by Indigenous academics and writers was eye-opening. There was this long history of other people feeling like books were never for them that I hadn’t known was out there. It was a breath of fresh air and I felt like I’d been given permission to write the stories I would have wanted to read as a kid—stories about Cree kids living in a contemporary world that’s still touched by magic.

 

Similarly, how has your experience working with youth informed your approach to writing books for middle grade readers? What was your writing process?

One of the most important things for me is always keeping Indigenous kids in mind when I’m writing. The Ghost Collector started as a short story for adults, which I adapted into a middle grade novel. In doing that adaptation, I wanted to create a world that Indigenous youth didn’t feel alienated from or hurt by. Shelly loses her mother in this book; the prevalence of violence against Indigenous women and girls means that many Indigenous children have lost a family member they’re close to as well. It was important for me to write about loss and grief in a way that didn’t feel exploitative. This is a story about loss and grief, but not about that particular, violent kind of loss.

With the audience in mind, it was also important to me to find ways to balance moments of darkness in the book with light, to incorporate humor and familial love in a way that I hope means readers finish the book feeling like everything is going to be okay.

 

What did writing this story teach you about death and moving on?

A lot of people who’ve read the story end up telling me about a loss they’ve experienced. Both writing it and those discussions with readers have really made me appreciate the importance of talking about your feelings. Grief is messy and complicated and hard, but coming together with people you care about to grieve together can make it easier.

 

You worked at the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre in Vancouver, BC, which involved talking with young people about residential schools in Canada. What did those conversations look like, and what do you wish more young people knew about Indigenous history?

Young people are really smart—when you talk to them about children being taken from their families and forced to assimilate to a completely foreign way of life, they tend to understand how hard that would be much more quickly than adults do. It’s difficult to unpack the complexities of centuries of colonial trauma and communicate the nature of systematic oppression in a day, but young people are quick to connect their experiences to those of students in residential schools. Conversations become about people, not systems, and I think that’s more powerful and impactful.

It was really important to me to not make Indigenous kids feel like outsiders to their own stories and histories—to not actively do them harm by prioritizing educating their non-Indigenous classmates over them. I have family members who went to residential school, and I went into these conversations aware that there were likely people in the room whose families had been through the system too. There’s a troubling tendency in a lot of educational programming about Indigenous peoples to historicize us and act like we’re not still here—to write things about, but not for, us. That’s the thing I wish both non-Indigenous young people and teachers would keep in mind when they talk about Indigenous history—that it’s not just history, that we’re still present and part of the modern world. You know, just because we have cell phones and take the bus doesn’t mean we’re not here.

 

As a marginalized creator, it can be painful to revisit histories rife with trauma even when those stories need to be shared. How do you balance this heaviness in your books and in your life?Ghost Collector book cover

There’s nothing wrong with heaviness and negative emotions, but it’s important to be able to remind yourself that that’s not all there is. In writing, I think humor is a great way to do this—it can lighten the moment when you need it the most. Community and relationships, too, are important to nurture and maintain—that’s something that ended up being a big part of The Ghost Collector, because I think connecting with other people, building your relationships with friends and family and recognizing their importance to you, is an integral part of balancing heaviness in your life.

 

Music and its connective power are important motifs throughout Shelley’s journey. She bonds with her mother through music, while Joseph remains tethered to the world of the living through the cassettes he receives. What role does music play in your life, and what song best captures your feelings about this book?

Music and books play a very similar role in my life. The same way a story can sometimes feel like it was written just for you, when you find a song or album you really connect with, it feels like someone out there gets you. Both can make you feel less alone. That relationship to music is definitely reflected in Joseph’s connection to his tape player and in Shelly and her mom bonding through her mother’s musical tastes.

As for what song captures my feelings about this book, that’s tough! I have a whole playlist of songs I wrote to, but if I’m narrowing it down to one song then I have to go with “Pictures of You” by The Cure.

 

As a librarian, how would you utilize your book in an educational setting?

I would use it in a setting where I wanted to talk about loss, but in a way that made it possible for me to mediate that class discussion—I think it would work well for literature circles or as a read-aloud. Going back to what I said about wishing non-Indigenous people understood that we’re still around and that we participate in the modern world, I think The Ghost Collector also works as just a novel about Indigenous people that doesn’t historicize us to include in an educational setting.

 

What ideas/projects are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a couple of projects! The one I’m most excited about right now is a YA novel about a Cree teenager attending high school away from his community while trying to navigate complicated feelings about his identity and how he fits in the world as he inadvertently finds himself thrust into working as an advice columnist for the flagging school newspaper.

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