Margaret Peterson Haddix has written more than 40 books for children and young adults which have been translated into more than 20 different languages and have received numerous honors, including New York Times bestseller status, the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award and they have won spots on the American Library Association’s lists of best books.
In the first installment in her new middle grade series, Greystrone Secrets: The Strangers, three young siblings must solve a mystery that involves a series of kidnappings and a parallel dimension. We caught up with Haddix to talk about how A Wrinkle in Time influenced this new novel, how her fiction has inspired young readers and more.
What were some of your inspirations for the story in The Strangers? While reading it, I found your book reminiscent of both Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Were these texts influential for this novel?
I would say there’s always some Wrinkle in Time embedded in anything I write because I read that book so many times as a kid; it’s hard to separate out who I would be as a writer—or a person—without it. And like Wrinkle in Time, The Strangers has siblings searching for a beloved missing parent against great odds, family members demonstrating (and benefitting from) intense love and loyalty, and kids struggling against weird and/or scary alternate worlds they don’t quite understand. I didn’t consciously intend all those connections while I was writing The Strangers, but apparently, my subconscious wanted to pay homage.
The Strangers was also probably influenced by another book I read and loved as a kid: Escape to Witch Mountain by Alexander Key. That also has siblings in danger and with a mysterious past they don’t know about until odd events begin happening. Secret codes don’t play as big a role in Witch Mountain as they do in The Strangers, but I do remember one that was very important.
I didn’t read A Series of Unfortunate Events until I was an adult, so it’s not as deeply ingrained. But you are not the first to point out that connection. Both have three siblings dealing with, well, you know, unfortunate events. It’s just that the events the Greystone kids grapple with are rather different than the circumstances Lemony Snicket puts the poor Baudelaire children through.
How much research into parallel universes did you do to take this high-level concept and make it both relatable and understandable to a young audience?
I had previously done research about parallel universes while I was writing my time-travel series, The Missing. I’d wanted to make that series as scientifically plausible as possible—which is a little laughable, of course. I came across scientific articles theorizing that time travel could never happen, but parallel universes are very likely. Regardless, I think it’s hard to write time travel without veering into parallel-universe territory. The Missing series, like a lot of other time-travel fiction, became an exploration of how different decisions in the past could create a new present and future. I also dealt with the concept of an alternate world in one of my standalones, Game Changer, so I was definitely primed for the topic. Would it sound lazy to admit that I didn’t do any extra research when I started on The Strangers? If anything, my problem working on early drafts of the book was that I was already too cozy with the topic. I appreciated my editor, Katherine Tegen, asking questions during the revision process that made me realize I needed to give more explanation because some of my younger readers might be encountering the concept for the first time. So as the Greystone kids were struggling to understand parallel universes, I had Emma think of kid-friendly examples, like the worlds diverging dramatically just because someone chose a different ice cream flavor.
Still, based on my conversations with readers, I believe kids can catch on quickly. I think it’s human nature to wonder, “What would the world be like if things were a little different? What would my life be like if only I’d done or said this or that, instead of what I really did or what actually came out of my mouth?”
Do you hope to inspire your young readers to take up an interest in the sciences after reading your novel?
Yes! Or math. Or political science. Or sociology. Or cryptology. Or writing. Or any subject where they think deeply and investigate and try to make the world a better place. One of the great things about writing for kids is that I get to share my love of many different topics with readers. And because I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’ve now met young adults who encountered my explorations of certain topics years ago, realized they had a greater interest and dove into studying topics as far from my own areas of expertise as genetics and engineering. And now they know a lot more about those topics than I do—and hold actual degrees in those subjects—and all that is wonderful.
How have your past experiences as a newspaper editor and a reporter influenced both your writing style and your narrative choices?
Working at newspapers forced me to become a more efficient and clearer writer. Clarity and brevity are particularly valuable traits in writing for kids.
And I doubt that this was exactly what you meant by “narrative choices,” but stories I covered as a newspaper reporter literally gave me the ideas for my first three books. Since then, the seeds of the ideas for three of my other books—including The Strangers—came from reading newspapers. My background in journalism probably keeps me a little more moored in reality. Even though I’m writing fiction now, and even though it’s sometimes fairly fantastical, I still want my characters to react realistically, and I still want a certain logic to my plot choices. I always try to see my characters and their story arcs in a larger context.
Many of your novels are installments in larger series. Do you prefer to write those as opposed to standalone novels? What does a series enable you to do narratively that a standalone doesn’t, and vice versa?
I like being able to switch back and forth between series and standalones because there are pros and cons with each. (In addition to the Greystone Secrets series starting this year, I also have a standalone, Remarkables, coming out in September.)
What I love about series is the way it gives me the chance to explore more facets and tangents of a story. I’ve been able to jump to different perspectives, explore how a single event can affect different characters differently, and in general, just show a bigger, more complete picture of the fictional time and place and characters I’ve imagined. I love how readers can be so eager to see the rest of the story with a series. I love being able to give them more than the one tale that can be told between the covers of a single book.
But sometimes series can begin to feel a little like that picture book about the fish you aren’t supposed to overfeed—sometimes series grow out of control. Right now I am in the early stages of working on the third book in the Greystone Secrets series, and I see so many directions I could go, so many paths I could take. And soon I will need to aim for and then arrive at The End. So sometimes I’m just really grateful for the completeness of a standalone, the way it’s a beginning, a middle and an end, and then it’s really and truly finished.
Do you have any interest in writing books for adult readers at some point in your career?
I have thought about it and I have had ideas for adult books. There have been times when I’ve seen potential forks ahead of me in my writing career and wondered about making that leap. So far there have always been better reasons not to, but who knows what could happen later on? If I do that, it would have to be because I have an idea I’m dying to explore that has to be for adults. I think sometimes writers feel they have to write for adults to be “real” writers—or to be perceived that way by the literary community. I don’t feel that motivation at all.
What do you love most about writing stories for young readers?
I have so many mosts! I love getting to keep the childlike wonder-and-awe part of my brain alive and active. I love that perspective. I also love getting to meet so many kids, who are such interesting people. I love the way young readers can be so passionate about the books they care about. And, even though it feels like an overwhelming responsibility sometimes, I love the sense that I have an incredibly meaningful job because I am writing for kids, and they are so new to the world that a single book can make a bigger difference to them than to any adult.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Greystone Secrets: The Strangers.