Transcript from an interview with Margaret Peterson Haddix

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Margaret Peterson Haddix. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Meet Margaret

Hi, I'm Margaret Peterson Haddix, the author of The Shadow Children series, the Missing series, the tenth book in the 39 Clues series, and lots of other books.

I was someone who definitely fell in love with books at a very young age. And as soon as I realized there was actually somebody who wrote the books, I thought that's got to be the greatest job on the face of the earth and that's what I want to do. And so even at a very young age, I was making up stories and writing them down and kind of playing along with it.

Pretty much my entire family is full of bookworms. My mother tells the story that when she was a kid, they would go on family vacations and her parents would yell at her, "stop reading that book so we can see whatever we have come to see." It is so funny, because then when I was a kid, that's what my parents yelled at me.

You'd be like — there's the Grand Canyon out there, stop reading, look out the window. And it was so funny when it got to the point that I was doing that same thing with my own children. So it is definitely a family trait.

As a child I pretty much read anything I could get my hands on. In a pinch, a cereal box would seem interesting to me if there was nothing else that was around to read. I read a lot of books that were older books that had belonged to my parents and grandparents when they were children. My older brother and my grandfather were both heavily interested in science fiction, so I borrowed a lot of their books and read a lot of science fiction, which then ended up playing into my own books.

I grew up on a farm, and I think a lot of people have these rosy images of it would just be so pleasant and the cuddly animals and all of that, and there was a lot of that. My mother tells a story about how she would have me dressed and ready to go to church and she would turn around and I'd be out in the chicken coop playing with the little baby chickens and obviously not dressed and ready to go to church because then I would smell like the chicken coop.

So, there were a lot of fun things like that. And I'm very happy that I grew up on a farm because I had a lot of freedom, got to roam a lot, spent a lot of time outdoors and I think it was a wonderful way to grow up.

I think definitely because I lived out in the country and my closest friends were several miles away, which meant that either their parents or my parents would have to drive back and forth so I could play with other kids besides my siblings, I think that was a big part of the reason that books became such close friends of mine because it was a pretty isolated way to grow up. But it also, happily, made me feel very close to my brothers and sister and my parents, and that was also nice.

I think definitely because I grew up feeling so close to my siblings and they were my main playmates growing up, and also very close to my cousins as well, I think that I tend to reflect that in my books. That in many cases, it's the siblings who are solving things together.

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Teacher Encouragement

I had a lot of good teachers who were very encouraging of me wanting to read a lot, and also of my writing. And I feel very lucky in terms of when I grew up, that the standards for writing assignments, a lot of my teachers were just pretty much like write something. That it wasn't write something that then is going to do well on a test or write something that will fit this standard for this particular curriculum. It was very free form and really encouraged creativity, and I loved that, that was something that was wonderful.

I had just very good English teachers throughout, and a lot of professors in college who were also very good about saying, you know, you're really good, you should do this for a living — this is great.

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The audience in mind?

Sometimes when I'm working on a book, I'm not really thinking that much about who the audience is. But I kind of naturally fall into the pattern, if I'm writing about, say, an 8 year old kid, I am automatically putting myself in the mindset of an 8 year old kid, so I'm using the vocabulary that an 8 year old would use and I'm kind of looking at things from that perspective.

So I don't really find it that difficult to write for a variety of audiences. It is kind of funny that when I started our writing, I was kind of imagining the kids who would be reading my books to be like I was as a child, someone who would just pick up a book and read it. Even if it was a bad book, I'd pick it up and read it. So I felt like that that was who I was writing for and it kind of amazed me when I started getting letters from kids and hearing from teachers that they saw my books as appealing to reluctant readers.

And I thought that makes it a lot harder to think that I am writing for kids who don't want to be reading. But I am really gratified when I've heard from kids who said I didn't like to read, but then I read your book and I loved it. So that's a very good feeling to have.

I'm not quite sure how I ended up being somebody who wrote more of the page-turner style books. I think it's because every time that I've started writing a book, I feel an urgency and I think that is conveyed to the reader as well, the urgency of wanting to get through the story and wanting to tell that story. So I think that is what probably drives the 'thriller' nature of the books that I've written.

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Background Research/Consider the Source

With most of the books that I have done recently, I've ended up doing quite a bit of research for them. With the Missing series, since it's time travel and going back into various eras in history, I had tried as much as possible to learn everything I can about that era so that I can reflect the facts accurately.

And I've also done scientific research into what scientists think would make time travel possible and that kind of ties my brain in knots, but it's fun to think about and imagine how all of that would work. With the historical research, because one of my majors in college was history, I kind of feel like it's a continuation of that.

And even when I've started out researching a historical era that I thought okay, this is not a period of time that I am particularly interested in, it's just a period that I think is kind of boring, as soon as I start doing the research I realize that it's a fascinating time in history. I did that very much with the second book in the Missing series, which is set in the Middle Ages, and I always thought of the Middle Ages and dull and they were not.

I mean, there were so many exciting things going on and so many power struggles and really dramatic events that affected people's lives. At one point in that book I have one of the characters compare the struggle for the crown of the English throne to the struggles that kids go through in middle school where somebody wants to be popular. It's really similar. Human nature hasn't changed that much.

One of the things that I have found disturbing when I've gotten very deeply into a topic and know that I know a lot about it after having read a lot of books on that topic, is that then when I go to the internet — just to do a fact check or just for something that I need very quickly — I discover how much of the information that is available online immediately is incorrect.

So I have gotten to the point that I'm very leery, that I kind of use the internet in the beginning to give me a feel for things and then I dive very deeply into usually books or primary resources. And then at the end I'm kind of going back to do quick checks of things online. And I'm sure kids hear this all the time, that they need to be cautious about looking at who the source is for the information.

That if it's a second grade class in Alabama writing about, pretending to be experts on the explorers, that's maybe not the best source of information. But if it's a museum or a library or something along those lines, I feel like I can trust the information. And the internet is a great resource and there are so many details that you can find.

I was really happy when I was working on my book Uprising, which is set in the early 1900s and has a huge historical component, that online I was able to find a lot of original newspaper clippings about events that I was narrating. I could have done that going to a library and doing lots of digging and all of that, but the fact that I could sit in my own home and have access to all of that was wonderful.

I think because my background is in journalism I am much more likely to call people up to ask research questions when I'm trying to find something out for one of my books. And sometimes this can be a little bit embarrassing when I'm trying to explain that. One of my early books is a book called Don't You Dare Read This Mrs. Dumphry, which is about a girl who is in a bad home life situation and her parents end up abandoning her and her younger brother.

And I wanted to make sure that I was reflecting that accurately in the book, how it would realistically be dealt with. So I called a social worker, child welfare employee, and was explaining the situation in the book and I said, probably after every sentence I would be like — really, this is fiction, I'm not planning to abandon my children, I just want to know how it would be dealt with.

By the end of the phone call, the guy is just like — okay, this woman is totally nuts, I cannot deal with her. But he gave me the answers — nobody showed up at my door trying to see if I had abandoned my children, so it was all okay.

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Her kids/editors

When I started out writing, most of my books were either for ages 8 to 12, middle grades or 12 and up. And it kind of bothered my own kids because at that point they were in first, second grade and they kept — they knew that I had written books and they kind of wanted to brag to their friends about it, but the books weren't appropriate for that age level so it was kind of like, so?

And so they were really pressuring me to write books more geared for their age group at that point. And it just kind of coincided with Simon and Schuster wanting to do more books for early chapter books readers. So I ended up writing The Girl with Five Middle Names and Say What and Dexter the Tough and Because of Anya, that are all for younger kids.

And the funny thing is, by the time those books came out, my kids had graduated to the next level of books, so it was kind of under their age level. But being around kids their age at that point really helped me write those books, but I kind of drew very much on things that I had observed in their classrooms, because I would go in and volunteer at their elementary school. It worked very well to be writing those kind of books, and they were a lot shorter as well, so I could write them very quickly.

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Writing series books

When I started writing, I did not see myself as a series writer at all, that the first four books that I wrote, I saw them all as stand alone books. But the fourth book that I wrote was Among the Hidden and after that book came out, lots of people immediately said to me — oh, this needs to be a series. And it honestly took me a long time to see it that way because to me, the book was finished, I didn't have anything else to tell.

And it really was a process of lots of people, from people in my own family, my husband, my brother, my agent, my editor and fans as well, all sorts of people saying we want to know more about what happens to Luke, you have to write more! And when I finally said okay, well I'll see what I can do and I started writing the second book, it took me awhile to get into that mode, but it was really nice to feel so comfortable with Luke and to feel so comfortable with the situation.

It was easier, in a lot of ways, to write a series book than to write a book where I'm making everything up from scratch. So I decided now what I like is to be able to go back and forth because there are benefits to writing a stand alone book and saying okay, it's done, and then there are benefits to writing a series and being able to continue things and to pick up on little tangents that are within the book that don't necessarily fit within that book, but you can elaborate on in another book. So I like the diversity of going back and forth between stand alone books and series books.

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Taking Criticism

Well, it has been very nice that in this day and age, it used to be that it was very typical that a writer formed a relationship with an editor and then it would last like fifty years and it would always be that relationship. The way the modern world is, that doesn't happen very often. But the very first book that I wrote, Running Out of Time, the editor who picked it up, David Gail at Simon and Schuster, he has edited every single one of my books except the 39 Clues books, so that is now 26 books now that we have worked on together.

And that just provides a level of comfort that — I think he can be pretty blunt with me when there is something he doesn't like, that he's not having to be very careful that he might offend me. Maybe that's good, maybe it's not. And then other times, I mean I can trust him with if I go to him with an idea that if he says yes or says no, I know that that's really how it is.

I think it's very hard for any writer at any level to accept criticism of their work. I know when I was a kid, I was very sensitive about what I'd written, because I had poured my heart and soul into it and then if the teacher found any mistakes or any problems, I would feel hurt because I would think of it as a masterpiece.

So I think that teachers need to be aware of that, but I think students also need to be aware that you shouldn't view a piece of writing when you have finished it as it's done. You can always picture it as something that could be improved and that if someone says well, this needs to be fixed, that that doesn't mean that you are saying the whole thing is terrible and you're a terrible writer, it's just let's make it as good as possible. But again, that is something that is very hard to learn because writing is such a personal thing.

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Tough Guy

When I was writing Dexter the Tough, it actually grew out of something that I saw that a real kid had written about a fight. It made me think about this kid Dexter who would write I am the new kid, I am tough, I have already beaten up a kid, which of course is a terrible way to make an impression on a new teacher.

And as he revises that, fortunately he has a very good teacher who deals with it. And I had interviewed a couple of teachers, the teacher who was my kids' fifth grade teacher, I asked her how she would deal with a new student writing that in her class, and I asked my sister, who is a teacher. So I got information from real teachers about how they would deal with that — very good real teachers — so I was able to kind of give the teacher a good reaction and make it so that it's a positive experience for Dexter working with the writing.

And I've heard from some teachers that they use that as an example with their students of see, see? You do have to rewrite, you do have to revise when you are working on things.

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The roots of Uprising

I wrote Uprising or the original idea to write Uprising came because my editor suggested that I do something about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which was a tragic event in the early 1900s, but also a pivotal event because as a result of that fire, there were a lot of laws passed about workplace safety.

And it is evidently taught extensively in the New York City schools because it's an important event in that area, but at that point there were not any young adult novels written about that topic. My editor felt like that was a huge oversight and there was a huge potential not being met. And so he suggested that I might want to do something about that. It took me awhile, because I had other projects going on as well.

And between the time that he suggested the idea and the time that I actually wrote the book, there actually was another book that came out that was a young adult novel about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. But it ended up, the two books were very different. Now I think there are at least three books that are young adult novels about that topic. I understand the other two are fabulous, but I was so immersed in that history for so long that a little bit burnt out on the whole topic, so I haven't read them myself.

I think historical fiction can be a great way for teachers to make the history come alive for students. Because unfortunately, I think a lot of students have the attitude that history is boring, that it's just names and dates and dead people. But once they are reading a novel about that particular topic and are able to put themselves in the place of… maybe not real kids, but kids who have dreams and goals and want things that are maybe very similar to what they want out of life, I think it makes a much larger impact on them.

And the thing that I found researching history is that a lot of the things that are issues in the past are still issues now and we really need to have this historical perspective on it. To take Uprising as an example, the big issue was immigration and how do you deal with poor people from other countries coming here and taking jobs and is that good, is that bad.

And as I was doing the research for that, that was the huge debate that was being discussed in our own country. And I'm thinking a hundred years, it's the same issue and we still haven't figured out how to deal with this and how to be fair to everybody.

But on the bright side, the other issue that I was dealing with this that was absolutely huge, was women's rights because women were very much trying to get the right to vote at that point. So I would periodically remind myself that we have made progress in the last hundred years, that women can vote now.

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Now I'm a (dis)believer

I like the expression "willing suspension of disbelief," which for children in the audience who may not know what it means, that's when you basically agree as a reader to say okay, I'll believe whatever you tell me about what's going on in this world. And as I think about it, I think the first person who has to suspend the disbelief and accept that whatever is going to happen in this world is the truth has to be the author.

And there have been times that as I've been writing, I'm like oh, nobody is going to believe this. And if I am thinking that, of course they are not going to believe it, because even I don't believe it. So I really have to kind of sell the story to myself before I sell it to anybody else in terms of being believable. It's funny, because then I get so involved in the stories.

I can remember with my first book when I was sending it out and trying to get it published, some of the editors who rejected it were saying oh, this just isn't believable. And I'm like, but it happened, it really happened. And I'm like oh wait, no, it didn't.

Writing the Missing series has made me think a lot about time travel obviously, because I have to, to make it make sense in the series. And it gets into such complications where if you change anything in the past, how is that going to affect the future and if you were to go to the future and you found out what was going to happen to you, would that change how you live your life if you found out when you're going to die? That would be an awful thing to find out, really.

So I would like to say that if there was a time machine sitting in this very room, I'd say no, no, it's too much of a complication, I can't get on there. But it would be such a temptation. It would be so cool to be able to go back in time and see things that we've only had written records of and do we trust the people who wrote those records, did they have an honest perspective on things. And I think we would view our history totally differently if we could go back in time and see these things.

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Reading from Say What?

I'm going to be reading from Say What, which is a story about kids who discover their parents behaving very strangely. And I'll start with the first chapter, which is when the first strange behavior shows up. "Sukie Rose Robinson was running through the living room with a big plastic tub of glitter in each hand. All right, Sukie knew she was doing something wrong. She was only 6 years old, but mom and dad had already told her at least ten billion times no running in the house, this isn't a playground.

And they had told her at least five billion times you have to ask before you use glitter and only at the kitchen table. But Sukie wasn't trying to be bad, she was just in a hurry. She had been making tissue paper flowers in her room and she thought of a cool way to put glitter on all the petals. She didn't have time to hunt up mom or dad and ask permission or to move all her flowers to the kitchen. She had to get the glitter before she forgot her great idea.

Oh no, dad saw her — busted. Dad was walking from the kitchen to the family room, a coffee cup in his hand. His eyebrows went up and his eyes met Sukie's. Sukie tried to slow down to make it look like she had just been strolling along no faster than a snail. She tried to hide the tubs of glitter behind her back real fast, but her shoulders were bent forward, her legs were kicked behind her straight out.

It wasn't like she could just stop. She braced herself for the usual — Sukie, how many times have we told you not to run in the house, and what's that in your hands? But instead dad frowned at her and said if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge too? Huh? Confused, Sukie skidded to a halt. The two tubs of glitter crashed into each other behind her back.

Sukie tried to hold her hands steady, but the tubs tilted and the lids flipped off. The top from the individual shakers of glitter inside the tubs must have been loose. Sukie looked over her shoulder and saw a whole waterfall of green and gold and red and purple and orange glitter streaming down to the carpet. Sukie hunched over.

Now dad was really going to yell what do you think you're doing, young lady, he was going to say, why do you have glitter in the living room? Do you know how long it's going to take you to clean that up? But dad didn't yell, not right away. Sukie looked up at him, waiting. Dad was taking a deep breath, then he looked her straight in the eye and said don't pick your nose, that's a gross habit, and then he walked on into the family room sipping his coffee.

Sukie hadn't been picking her nose, who would pick their nose with their hands full of glitter? Sukie stared after dad. She dropped the tubs of glitter and even more spilled out on the carpet. Sukie stepped over it and peeked in at dad in the family room. He was reading the newspaper and drinking his coffee just like nothing had happened.

Sukie tiptoed back to the living room. She tugged and pulled and shoved the rocking chair over the pile of glitter on the carpet, then she hid the glitter tubs under the couch. She didn't feel like making glitter flowers anymore, this was too weird. What was wrong with dad?"

And that's where I'll stop.

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl