Those ‘Darling’ Middle School Years: SLJ Chats with Megan McCafferty

By SLJ Staff 

It List #1Jessica Darling is back! Readers who watched older students and teen siblings fall in love with the protagonist in the “Jessica Darling” series will be happy to learn that Megan McCafferty has kicked off a new series about Jessica’s middle school years with Jessica Darling’s It List #1: The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Popularity, Prettiness & Perfection.

In It List #1, Jessica navigates the tumultuous waters of seventh grade friendships, romance, and family—coming to the realization that “life never ties itself up with a sweet little ending.”

SLJ spoke to McCafferty about her new book, writing, and the mysteries of middle school popularity.

NOTE: This editorial content was sponsored by Little, Brown.

Why did you decide to write a middle grade prequel series for your young adult “Jessica Darling” series?

I’ve volunteered at my son’s excellent school library since he started kindergarten. Week after week, year after year, I’ve watched how the right book at the right time can change minds—and lives. It’s thrilling to see a young—and perhaps reluctant—reader find a friend in fiction. As a writer, I wanted to be a part of that! And what better way than introducing a whole new generation to Jessica Darling?

Email for a chance to win one of 10 signed copies of Jessica Darling’s It List #1, signed by Megan McCafferty, of course. Let the subject line of your email read, “I Love Jessica Darling.”

How was writing Jessica Darling’s It List #1 similar and different from penning the original books?

I went into writing the It List knowing all the characters’ backstories (or, um, front stories?) so their voices came back to me very quickly. What surprised me about writing this book was discovering just how much Jessica’s moods affect my own. In Sloppy Firsts, 16-year-old Jessica covers up her sadness with sarcasm. Like readers, I love her snarky sense of humor in the original series, but it was so refreshing to write from 12-year-old Jessica’s more optimistic point of view. She’s a happier character and I’m happier overall when I’m writing about her.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite café or spot in your home where you do your best work?

I work at home alone when my son is at school. I need green tea and dark chocolate. The more time I have, the more time I waste because writers are expert procrastinators. Now, I devote about three hours a day, Wednesdays through Fridays, to my writing. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I volunteer at HiTOPS, an adolescent health services and education center in town. Since switching to this more restricted schedule, I’ve become far more productive on my writing days than ever before!

Megan McCafferty

You touch upon some weighty issues in this novel, such as divorce, friendship road bumps, first romances, bullying, and family dynamics. How did you manage to keep your book full of humor?

I never set out to write “issue” books. I write to entertain. But I do try to infuse my characters with humor and heart, so readers can make connections to who they are and what they’re going through.

Was your middle school experience anything like Jessica’s? For example, did you have a disastrous tryout for the “Cheer Team” or worry about popularity?

I didn’t worry about being popular. But I did I wonder what made the populars so popular when no one seemed to like them very much! Like Jessica, I wanted to make friends who would like me for me, flaws and all.

Can you tell us a little about the hijinks you have planned for Jessica in Jessica Darling’s It List #2?

Jessica’s quest for meaningful friendships is the focus of the next book, Jessica Darling’s It List #2: The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Friends, Foes & Faux Friends. She hosts a slumber party that ends with a trip to the emergency room and arrests by the cops. (According to the Pineville Junior High rumor mill anyway.) She shows up for the school’s Halloween costume contest dressed as “Nerdium.” And she’s forced to work with the impossible Aleck on an even more impossible woodshop project. Whenever she’s gets close to figuring out middle school—BAM!—she’s hit with another “WHAT THE HECK?!” moment. For Jessica Darling, growing up is a comedy of trials and many, many errors. And I’m thrilled to report that she’ll continue stumbling and fumbling her way through adolescence in It List #3!

Megan McCafferty is working on a series of middle-grade prequels to the bestselling Jessica Darling novels. Jessica Darling’s It List #1: The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Popularity, Prettiness & Perfection is available now. The second book in the series goes on sale in Fall 2014.