Margaret Peterson Haddix's Greystone Secrets #1: The Strangers

The New York Times bestselling author's new series about family, friendship, and intrigue has young readers excited. Student Library Journal takes a closer look at the author and her work.

 

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How did you become an author and tell us a bit about what motivates you to create new stories?

I was the quintessential bookworm kid who fell in love with other people’s stories and imagination. In college, I had two seemingly impractical majors--creative writing and history—as well as a third one, journalism, that struck me as the likeliest way I could earn a living wage by writing. So I started out working for newspapers and writing fiction on the side. I was very, very lucky: This strategy actually worked. Journalism proved to be a great springboard into writing books. And I am always motivated by stories that make me wonder, “What if?” and “Why?” A lot of times I am just telling stories that would have fascinated me as a kid.
 
What's most exciting to you about your new series, Greystone Secrets?

Can I cheat and say two “most’s”? I had so much fun hanging out with Chess, Emma, Finn, and Natalie—they were such enjoyable characters to write about, and I am excited to share them with readers. But I also loved creating the trail of clues and switchbacks and red herrings that led the kids to find out the truth about what’s really going on… and to figure out what they should do. So I am also excited to hear readers’ reactions to following those clues.

Why do you think your books are especially useful for reluctant readers?

The first time someone said to me, “Your books are great for reluctant readers!” I was horrified because that seemed to make a hard job even harder. What? You want me to write for kids who are predisposed to hate books and reading? That’s like just asking for writer’s block! 

But now I see it as more of a challenge. It’s like I’m saying to those kids who think they hate reading, “Okay, I get it. You’re sure you’re not going to enjoy this. Fine. But just think about this. What if you discovered a kid with your same first and middle name—and birthday—had just been kidnapped in another state? And what if that kid’s siblings had the same names and birthdays as your siblings? And…” I try to make the story irresistible. I think my journalism background helps—that gave me a lot of experience with paring a story down to its essence. And even though I was a kid who loved reading, instead of avoiding it, I also remember skipping a lot of lengthy descriptions I considered tedious and pointless. So I try to leave out the parts that would have bored me as a kid.


What made you choose to write for children?
 
In the beginning, it wasn’t entirely a conscious decision. When I got the idea for what became my first published book, Running Out of Time, I thought just for practical reasons that the story had to take place from a kid perspective. Then, with subsequent books, it seemed wise to continue on that path. With hindsight, it all makes sense to me now: Because books were so important to me and made such a difference in my life when I was ten, eleven, and twelve, of course, that’s the age range I focus on the most.

How has writing for children changed since your first book?

My first book came out in 1995, which was practically prehistory in connection with two massive phenomena. Yes, the internet existed in 1995, but it was still possible to go days without having any reason to connect to it. That year was also—and this feels equally shocking—pre-Harry Potter. My perceptions may be slightly off, but to me, it seemed like writing for kids in 1995 was barely different than it would have been fifty or a hundred years earlier. Since then, I think the internet (and the accompanying distractions of smartphones, social media, Youtube, games like Fortnite, etc.) has made everyone’s attention spans shorter, and in many ways that make writing for kids more challenging. Authors have less time to draw readers into a story. But the internet also makes it possible for writers to connect more with readers. It’s still amazing to me that I can sit at home and Skype with classrooms full of kids who have read my books in, say, Asia or South America. It’s also amazing to me that those online interactions—especially the ones through social media—have become such a large part of my job.

As for the changes wrought by Harry Potter, I think that whole phenomenon brought a lot more attention to kids’ books and made it much more common for adults who weren’t teachers or children’s librarians to read middle grade or YA. This is both good and bad—that changes the expectations for kids’ books, too.  

Why is it important for you to do school visits and meet with young readers?

I have both selfless and selfish reasons. I’ll go with the noble ones first: I want kids to see that authors are real people (and therefore they themselves could become authors, too); I want kids to know that published authors also struggle with words and make mistakes and can be filled with doubts and may have failed again and again before they succeeded (and therefore the kids too can succeed at whatever they’re dreaming of). I’ve also heard both anecdotally and from more official studies that meeting an author can help kids’ attitudes toward reading and writing. I have no illusion that every encounter I have makes a difference. But I love planting seeds that may blossom in ways I can’t even imagine.

And the selfish ones: I love the chance to meet kids and hear what they think, not just about my books, but about their lives and the future and whatever else they’re excited about. Without school and library visits (and book festivals, bookstore signings, etc.) this job harpercollins would be too isolated and isolating, so I appreciate the balance. And now that my own kids are grown, I see school visits as a way to stay in touch with the kid’s-eye view of the world I need for my books.

Besides all that, they’re usually a lot of fun.
  
What do you want young readers to get from your books?

My first goal is always to tell a good story, one that readers will enjoy and savor. And if that’s all they get, it’s fine. It’s a start, and maybe reading one of my books will lead them to read more. Beyond that, I hope my books will make kids think more—about the story, about the characters, about their lives, about other people’s lives, maybe about some topic they’d never heard of before or never realized they were interested in. If one of my books also makes kids more empathetic or helps them understand someone in their lives better—or helps them understand someone they otherwise would have dismissed as totally unlike them—and then that makes them decide to treat someone more kindly… then that’s like hitting the jackpot. That’s the ideal. 


Join Margaret Peterson Haddix for a special archived LIVE webcast to celebrate the launch of her new middle grade series, The Greystone Secrets!

Watch as Margaret talks about the inspiration behind her books and the ways young readers across the country have impacted her as an author.  Watch the webcast today.

     

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