Thank you for your enthusiasm and willingness to join us for this interview, Margaret. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions about your career and your latest release, The School for Whatnots.
The School For Whatnots is another thrilling page turner for middle grade readers.
No matter what anyone tells you, I’m real.
That’s what the note says that Max finds under his keyboard.
Max’s best friend, Josie wrote the note. But what the note means is the mystery that lies at the heart of this novel..
Max and Josie have been best friends since kindergarten. But, things change the summer after their fifth grade year, when Josie mysteriously disappears, leaving the note behind. Josie had also whispered something to Max about “whatnot rules.”
But why would Max ever think that Josie wasn’t real? And what are whatnots?
As Max sets to uncover what happened to Josie—and what she is or isn’t—little does he know that she’s fighting to find him again, too. But there are forces trying to keep Max and Josie from ever seeing each other again. Because Josie wasn’t supposed to be real.
The School for Whatnots examines disparity, friendship and parental roles in wanting and teaching what is best, and right, for children.
I’d like to begin by noting that The School for Whatnots is your 47th book! Congratulations! Given your prolific publication history, what is your writing process? Do you write every day for hours on end? Do you work on multiple projects at once? Do you plot out your works, or let the characters take you where the story should go? What does a day in the life of Margaret Peterson Haddix look like? (I know that’s a lot, but I really want to know…J.)
Process? Wait—I’m supposed to have a process?
Obviously I’m joking here (a little). The truth, though, is that I’m not sure that I’ve followed the same process twice, and there’s not really any such thing as a “typical” day. That’s one of the things I like about writing—the variability. But I do often complain at the beginning of a new book, “I don’t know how to do this! Writing this book is totally different from any book I’ve ever written before!” At least I am a bit more patient than I used to be about knowing that it’s going to take me a while to figure everything out. Overall, I would characterize my approach as being a hybrid between plotting things out ahead of time and making everything up as I go along. With The School for Whatnots, I did a lot more “figuring it out as I write” than usual. I had a lot of fun doing that, but then I also hit some brick walls where I felt really stuck and even despaired of ever finding a way to the end. Not planning ahead much also meant that I had to do a lot more rewriting during the revision phase. But I think that was necessary with this particular book. Each book seems to have its own personality.
As for how my writing days usually go, I like being super-focused on writing in the morning when I am freshest, and then working on other things in the afternoon. But sometimes I am useless as a writer in the morning, and I just spin my wheels all day long. Other times I’m in the flow and suddenly realize I’ve written all day long—and avoided everything else on my to-do list. Mostly I try to work on only one book at a time, but I do sometimes weave in books at different stages—stopping in the middle of a first draft of one book, for example, to go back and revise a previous book when I get feedback from my editor.
As history has always been of great interest to you, and as a former journalist (is it possible to ever be a former journalist????), I know you go to great lengths to research time periods and locations in creating the worlds for your novels. Is there a time/location that you have found most fascinating in all your research?
The more research I do, the more I become fascinated with even the time periods/locations I originally find boring—which I think is a testament to the fact that the more you know about something, the more you want to know.
But I do have two time periods/locations I became particularly obsessed with while doing book research. One was Roanoke Island (in what is now North Carolina) during the late 1500s, a place and time period I focused on in the third book of the Missing series, Sabotaged. That was the site of what is billed as the first “permanent” English colony in North America—though everyone living there vanished within the first three years. I had learned about the Roanoke Colony as a kid, but then was intrigued to discover all the ways in which the history I’d been taught was either inaccurate or incomplete. I kept wanting to read and know more, even though there’s a lot about that era that can’t be known.
The other time period/topic I became obsessed with was the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s, which I researched for my book, Uprising. Based on what I’d learned in school, I thought the suffrage movement was all about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the middle of the 1800s, then nothing happening for about seventy years, and then suddenly in 1920, women were allowed to vote. However, so much happened in those seventy years that didn’t make it into the history textbooks I had as a kid, and I was in awe of the suffragists who struggled so hard during those last twenty years or so before getting to vote. In some cases, they even risked their lives for it. Uprising focuses on the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, but it also deals with the strike that preceded the fire—a strike where wealthy women trying to get the right to vote sided with poor immigrant women seeking rights as workers. It was such a fascinating juxtaposition, and, at least for a short while, the women involved felt connected by their gender even though they were very divided by their social class. I wanted to go back in time and interview all the women who took part in that strike!
I know authors are often asked by children which is your favorite book you’ve written. As an adult, I want to know which characters have found a special place in your heart?
Can I say, “All of them”? I know that’s not really a good answer. But I have to care deeply about my main characters to want to write about them. Josie and Max from The School for Whatnots are definitely among the characters I’ve loved the most. They were both so real to me from the very beginning, and I wanted so badly for them to work through their challenges—even though I as the author was the one throwing those challenges at them.
I love reading author’s notes, searching for what inspired the story. You offer in The School for Whatnots that this story stemmed from what you witnessed in the disparity of school districts and the disadvantages of the children who attend schools with fewer resources. Could you please elaborate for the benefit of our readers?
That was not the initial spark for the book, but it was an important factor. I began thinking about Whatnots at a time when I was doing a lot of school visits. When I started out as an author decades ago, it felt like most of the schools I visited were middle class. More recently (in the years leading up to the pandemic), it began to feel like I only went to schools where kids were either very rich or very poor. (I think this was partly because rich schools could afford author visits on their own, and poor schools could get grants.) At both types of schools, the kids were great—so bright, so curious, and so full of insightful questions about my books. But I noticed a huge difference in how the kids were treated, based on their socio-economic backgrounds (and, sometimes, their race.) A kid could ask a question at one school and be praised for his innovative thinking; the same question at a different school would lead to a kid being scolded for being disruptive and not staying on topic. This is a huge generalization, and I truly do not mean to call out educators here—I worked for a while as a substitute teacher and I know that it is impossible to teach anyone much of anything if there aren’t a certain number of rules. Educators have very hard jobs, no matter what. But it was distressing to me that the main message some kids seemed to be getting from school was, “Sit down and shut up—you’re nothing but a nuisance” while other kids were being encouraged to think and explore, and given every resource and encouragement to do so. I want all kids to have access to a good education, and the chance to live up to their potential.
So that was in the background of my thinking about Whatnots. I am okay with kids reading this book and seeing it only as a story about friends. But if it also makes them think more about wanting all kids to have a fairer shot at success, that’s great, too.
Congratulations on the Kirkus starred review for The School for Whatnots. The reviewer offered that your work is “An intriguing novel that highlights social class disparities and the importance of friendship.” Could you share a little bit about the friendship between Max and Josie?
When Max and Josie meet in kindergarten, they just get each other right away. Everybody should have a friend like that at some point in their life—and hopefully lots and lots of friends like that. But kindergarteners grow up, and as kids change, their friendships do, too. Max and Josie face very unusual challenges to their friendship, but I think most kids on the cusp of middle school can relate to looking at a long-term friend and suddenly wondering, “Who is this person, really? Are we still friends? Should we be?” Max and Josie are just so loyal to each other that they are convinced they can overcome any challenge for the sake of their friendship. But their friendship is not perfect, and one of my favorite parts of the book is the section where the narrator pretty much says, “You know how I’ve been telling you only the good parts of Josie and Max’s friendship? Well, all this other stuff happened, too. And they’re still great friends. Being good friends doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens—it just means that the friendship includes being able to forgive and get back to treating one another well after the problems.”
Along with the disparity in school districts, a theme in the novel is bullying, or rather, protecting from bullying at all costs. What messages were you trying to convey to your audience on this important issue?
I’ll answer with a story: When my son started kindergarten, he came home every day complaining about the boy he had to sit with on the bus. Let’s call this kid Mark, even though that wasn’t actually his name. That first week of school, Mark kept poking my son in the side during the bus ride; when I told my son to tell Mark, “You need to keep your hands to yourself,” it didn’t help. At the start of the second week, I had every intention of asking the bus driver to put my son or Mark in a different assigned seat. But I hesitated, because I didn’t want to be “that” mother. It was a five-minute bus ride—I could just imagine the bus driver telling me that I was being ridiculous. It’s a good thing I hesitated, because when my son came home from school on about Day 8 and I asked, “Did Mark bother you on the bus today?” my son’s answer was something like, “What are you talking about? We’re friends now.” Mark became the kid who was always over at our house, and he and my son were inseparable; when Mark and his family moved away at the end of that school year, my son and I were both distraught.
Now, that story does not address situations that are truly bullying. It also could have been a different story if it’d been a boy picking on a girl, or a child of one race picking on a child of a different race. But it’s so hard for parents to tell sometimes about situations that are borderline. I found out later that Mark was the fourth of five children, and he was used to rough-housing with older brothers—apparently the actions that my son perceived as annoying and painful were actually meant as offers of friendship from the very beginning. I’m glad my son and Mark ultimately figured out how to get along without any adults intervening. I definitely believe that adults need to intervene in some situations, and again, I don’t want to downplay the fact that bullying can be a very serious issue. But parents do their kids a true disservice if they try so hard to protect their kids that they don’t ever allow their kids to be in situations where they might make mistakes, where they might be hurt, where they themselves might unintentionally hurt others—or where, while rebounding from problems, they might learn how to interact with others in a healthy way. As much as we parents would like to, we can’t wrap our kids in bubble wrap and protect them from every risk and every potential pain. And it can undermine kids to even try to do that. This is a more important message for adults than for kids, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing for kids to realize that adults can make mistakes, too.
I loved many of the sentiments in the text, but especially this line, “Was it possible to want to be hovered over and want to be left alone—both at the same time?” I think this sentence reflects the intended audience perfectly…wanting to be cared for and cuddled, but at the same time, not bothered, as the desire for independence sets in. Do you have any favorite lines from this book?
I so enjoyed writing this book from the perspective of the snarky narrator—or maybe I should say, “poignantly snarky narrator.” I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that she’s had more experience with life as a fifth grader than most people get. So it was fun to slip in lines like, “From the vantage point of the last day of school, summer always looked endless.” And then, near the end of the book, “But there’s something about the last day of summer that makes everything seem uncertain. It makes you feel like anything could end.” Those are sensations I remember vividly from being a kid myself; that’s how the cycle of the school year felt then.
In December, Publisher’s Weekly featured a story on the long-awaited sequel to your first novel, Running Out of Time. I know that you have written books that you expected to be stand-alone novels yet became one of a series. Will The School for Whatnots be the first in a series?
I don’t have any plans to write a sequel to The School for Whatnots. But I’ve learned to never say never—I also didn’t have any plans to write a sequel to Running Out of Time for the first 25 years or so after it came out!
Finally, what other new Margaret Peterson Haddix books can we look forward to reading soon?
I have another book coming this year that I am also very excited about: The Secret Letters, which will be the first book in the Mysteries of Trash and Treasure trilogy. It’s due out September 20. The Secret Letters is about two kids whose parents run rival junk removal companies. When Colin and Nevaeh discover hidden shoeboxes full of letters that two other kids wrote to each other about fifty years ago, it sets them on a path toward solving three different mysteries—with an unexpected connection to Colin and Nevaeh themselves.
And then after that, the Running Out of Time sequel, which is called Falling Out of Time, will come out in the summer of 2023.
Thank you, Margaret, for spending time with us here at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors, and for offering a complimentary copy of The School of Whatnots to one of our readers.
Enter the giveaway for a complimentary copy of The School for Whatnots below, note only residents of the United States, please.