Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Jeff Miller Interview - Rare Birds

Photo Content from Jeff Miller

Jeff Miller is a middle-grade author and former camp counselor originally from Kent, Ohio. He loves snow, coffee, and visiting schools to connect with young readers. His mom, a 2018 heart transplant recipient, has always inspired him to face life with humor and heart. He is the author of The Nerdy Dozen series, middle-grade books about video games, friendship, top-secret aircraft, positivity, and ostriches. His latest middle-grade novel, Rare Birds, is authentically inspired by his personal experience of living through his own parent’s heart transplant. Miller currently lives in Chicago, where he keeps asking his cats for writing advice.


Greatest thing you learned at school.
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
In third grade I wrote a story entitled ‘The Dog Who Ate Cream Cheese Part 3: Attack of The Killer Food Items,’ so I think I’ve known I’d be creative ever since.

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book and why? And what is your favorite book outside of your genre?
Hmm, my favorite book, which is also outside of MG, would probably be a ME TALK PRETTY SOMEDAY by David Sedaris. It makes me cry from laughing and cry from life insights. He’s my favorite writer.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to have a life in writing?
It’s certainly a career of peaks and valleys, so it’s good to keep that in mind when you’re feeling a little low or on top of the world. This too will pass.

If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?

Has reading a book ever changed your life? Which one and why, if yes?
Oh absolutely. I think it really was an inspiration for RARE BIRDS, but I remember reading BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA in 5th grade and feeling allll the emotions.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
I think learning to empathize with folks from a different background is critical, especially now more than ever, it seems. People need connections, and finding a story that really speaks to you and makes you look at the world differently can do a lot for a reader/human.

Can you tell us when you started RARE BIRDS, how that came about?
It actually began in 2018, as my mom’s heart failure was progressing. She’d just undergone one of two open-heart surgeries in a calendar year, and so I started writing a story that might help someone also going through a tough time. A big hug of a book, hopefully.
I was in 4th grade when she received her diagnosis, so I think writing for people that are the same age felt important. I wanted to write a story that might’ve helped me through it all, and hopefully it can be there for someone else that could use it.

  • I based a lot of it on my own experiences, and what my mom has experienced. Not all of it is our story, but there’s a lot of us in there.
  • The story is set in the fictional town of Sugarland, and for a very brief period of time that was the title of the story.
  • I had never actually been birding before writing this story. Now I love it!
  • In the story there’s a wildlife refuge called The Salvato Marsh, which was named after one of my favorite college professors, Al, who tragically passed away far too soon.
  • When I was writing my first series, THE NERDY DOZEN, I worked on a painting crew. That was the inspiration for the painting scenes with Dom, Graham and Nick. And I definitely learned that I am a very sloooow painter.
  • There’s also a scene where Nick paints a room purple instead of blue, as he’s partially colorblind. This is based on my own experiences - as I’m partially colorblind, too.
    Once, in elementary school, I helped my friend Dan with a project on George Washington and used a purple crayon to color his outfit. I couldn’t tell the difference, but it was like Prince was one of our founding fathers…which wouldn’t be the worst thing?
  • Every hospital has one machine offering up The Good Ice. If you find yourself walking the halls, I highly suggest taking your mind off things with a good ice hunt.
  • In the story there’s a legendary alligator named The Fossil, which was used for an old film and escaped from the set. I loosely based this off of a friend’s story, as apparently there’s a river somewhere in Florida that has a community of monkeys that escaped from a film set.
  • I based parts of the character Lou on one of my good friends Zach, who passed away when I was in college. It was a really seismic time. Writing this book was certainly emotional, and I returned to the difficult feelings of when we lost him, but I hope I honored his positivity and love for other people. He faced so many challenges and never, ever complained. I feel like Lou and Zach would’ve been good friends.
  • Maybe have some tissues on hand while reading.
    My main goal was to make people cry on public transportation. So far I’ve made several friends cry on airplanes, so it seems like it’s working!
What is the first job you have had?
My first job was as a newspaper delivery boy, which is sadly probably a thing that won’t exist much longer.

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning?
LeBron James blocking Andre Iguodala to seal the 2016 NBA Championship.

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
True love, sure why not.

When you looked in the mirror first thing this morning, what was the first thing you thought?
“You gotta trim that beard, fella.”

If you had to go back in time and change one thing, if you HAD to, even if you had “no regrets” what would it be?
If I could change one thing in the history of time it would be giving Craig Ehlo the calf strength to block Michael Jordan’s shot in the 1989 playoffs.

What was your favorite subject when you were in school?
Not really a subject, but a lot of my favorite high school memories were made in drama club.

First Love?
My first dog, Emily.

What decade during the last century would you have chosen to be a kid?
I was a kid of the ‘80’s and honestly don’t think I’d want to grow up during another time.

First Heartbreak?
See: Craig Ehlo, Michael Jordan, 1989.

Any Camp stories you would like to share?
Campers are going to puke in your shoes. It’s not an if, it’s a when.

What is one unique thing are you afraid of?
I’m 6’6” and very afraid of low-hanging, pointy tree branches on sidewalks!

What do you usually think about right before falling asleep?
My brain likes to play a fun trick where it reminds me of every embarrassing/awkward/slightly shameful moment I’ve ever had. It’s a blast!

What is your most memorable travel experience?
In 2008 I did AmeriCorps NCCC, which I’d highly recommend to anyone 18-24 years of age. I got to drive around in a big van doing service work with a bunch of strangers that turned into family. It was fantastic.

Twelve-year-old Graham Dodds is no stranger to hospital waiting rooms. Sometimes, he feels like his entire life is one big waiting room. Waiting for the next doctor to tell them what’s wrong with his mom. Waiting to find out what city they’re moving to next. Waiting to see if they will finally get their miracle—a heart transplant to save his mom’s life.

Now Graham is stuck in Florida for the summer, waiting once again. But when he meets a girl named Lou at the hospital, he finds a friend who needs a distraction as much as he does. She tells him about a contest to find the endangered Snail Kite, which resides in the local gator-filled swamps. Together they embark on an adventure, searching for the rare bird . . . and along the way, Graham might just find something else—himself.

You can purchase Rare Birds at the following Retailers:

1 Winner will receive a $10 Amazon Gift Card.


  1. I used to dream I was floating way up -- I'm scared of heights; yikes.

  2. I think it would be my mom passing away. I don't know what I would do without her

  3. I have so many dreams and nightmares, but I think the most alarming one was when I was a passenger in a truck and it went airborne and landed in a body of water.