Former St. Davids resident Kaley Mills’ upcoming debut children’s book is capturing attention from across the globe.
Bianca the Brave follows Bianca Monroe, a character made famous by author Katie Cross in a series of 60 young adult books, as she fights off flames threatening the forest in Letum Wood, part of Cross’ fantasy world Alkarra. The fierce barefoot warrior uses her trusty sword to push the fire back, but lays down that weapon to save the life of a bird whose ability to fly has been lost to the heat.
Mills collaborated on the book with Cross, who lives in Montana. The mother of four has been working with the popular author since her last child, four-year-old Riley, was born.
“I was spending a lot of time in the nursery,” Mills tells The Local, a sister publication of ThoroldToday, “and I was looking for an e-book to read in the dark. I stumbled on Katie’s first e-book, Flame, which she offers for free. I loved it so much, so I reached out to her via email. We struck up an online friendship.”
As Mills devoured more of Cross’ writing during the pandemic, she began talking to Cross about the possibility of working for her.
“She asked me to send her my dreams,” marvels Mills. “No one other than my mom has ever asked me that. She ended up offering me three jobs, and stressed that her company had to work for me as much as I had to work for the company.”
On the phone while promoting her books at Atlanta, Georgia’s annual Dragon Con event, Cross remembers that conversation well.
“I remember having a really good feeling about her right from the start,” says Cross. “When we began talking about her coming on as a beta reader and editor, I just wanted to know that she would be so excited. I didn’t want her to try to make me happy by saying it would be a dream to work for me. If Alkarra, my fantasy world, could bring her own dreams to the forefront, I was so happy to bring her in.”
Cross has built a following around the world and won awards for Bianca’s adventures in books such as Miss Mabel’s School for Girls. Her fans have become used to her prolific work habits, cranking out a YA manuscript each month. Mills felt so fortunate to become part of her mentor’s development team, providing advice on character creation and continuity.
Soon, she was ready to approach Cross about her idea to turn Bianca, a grown-up character in her early 20s, into a younger version of the dragonslayer.
"We were away at a cottage in the summer,” Mills recalls, “and I woke up in the middle of the night with this story burning inside of me about Bianca. I could not go back to sleep until I had written it down. I sent it to Katie in the morning. She wrote back immediately, and said we needed to publish it.”
Cross says her readers approach her often with ideas of their own for Bianca’s Alkarra adventures. But this one was different.
“I’m always open to those ideas, because it’s exciting to see Alkarra moving beyond me,” says Cross. “But I was really floored by Kaley’s manuscript. I remember the feeling in my chest. She gets it. She sees Alkarra and Bianca and the vision I have for my company. I saw so much potential for this book and future ones to bring goodness back into the world through escapism and magic.”
The pair decided to launch Bianca the Brave via a Kickstarter campaign, which opened on Aug. 22 with the goal of raising $13,584 (US $10,000). They smashed that goal in 12 hours, and at press time 243 backers had pledged $21,355 (US $15,600).
“Katie has such a big following,” says Mills. “We worked really hard to get the word out about the campaign. We estimated that we would maybe hit 30 per cent on day one. She writes young adult fantasy books, so we had no idea how a kids book would be received. By the end of that day I felt so humbled, speechless and honoured that people would believe in it.”
On Saturday, Mills had a table set up to promote the crowdfunding effort at Penner Home Hardware, where her husband, Aaron, who grew up not far from the lumber yard, once worked.
“Marcia Penner has been really supportive since the beginning,” Mills explains. “She was so gracious to allow us to set up the table. I was blown away that every single person stopped and was receptive to what I was saying. They all took bookmarks — men, women, everyone was so kind.”
Mills and Cross had a chance to meet in person for the first time just before the launch. The two mothers immediately hit it off when Mills travelled to Cross’ Montana home.
“I only knew her by video, so when we met in person it was like she became three-dimensional,” laughs Mills. “Our friendship just became so enhanced.”
The Kickstarter success means that Mills and Cross can give the go-ahead to illustrator Laila Savoainen of Australia to begin drawing out the entire story. As well, they are hoping the funds can be sufficient to bring in Guatemalan Andy Gonzalez to translate the story into Spanish, and Kaley’s cousin Sophie, who lives in France, to provide the French translation.
“If all goes well,” says Mills, who expects Bianca the Brave to be available in paperback and hardcover versions by the end of November, “we’ll have women from five different parts of the world working on this.”
Mills, who returned to her job this week teaching Grade two at Jacob Beam Public School in Beamsville, has already spoken to Cross about more Alkarra adventures in children’s book form.
“The second book is already written,” Mills says. “It’s about Merrick, a little long-blonde-haired boy. As we go forward, we want to show a host of minority populations. I’ve seen in my teaching career that little boys don’t like to read. If they can see themselves in a book, then they can be successful in reading.”
Her third Alkarra book will feature Sanna, a little girl who has vision impairment.
The Bianca the Brave Kickstarter campaign wraps up this Sunday, Sept. 10. Mills promises that once the books are ready for sale, she’ll be back at Penner Home Hardware with the physical copies.
To pre-order a copy of Bianca the Brave, contact Mills at [email protected].