Author Lisa McMann took some chances with her latest book, The Unwanteds, and her unexpected choices have clearly paid off. For the first time, she aimed her work at a middle grade audience, rather than the teen readers who have made her Wake trilogy a bestseller. And she tackled a genre—dystopian fantasy—that's much more popular in the YA world than in middle grade fiction.
The result is an original and exciting novel that's not only fun to read, but also a great way to get kids thinking about issues like creativity, conformity and the power of the individual vs. society. In The Unwanteds, children who are too creative or expressive are "purged" from their repressive community at age 13 and driven away to face the Eliminators and (they assume) certain death. In the Stowe family, young Aaron is selected for the prestigious "Wanted" group, while his twin brother Alex is labeled an "Unwanted" and led away in chains.
Critics and young readers alike have embraced the book, the first in a planned series. We contacted McMann at her home near Phoenix, where she lives with her husband and two teenagers, to find out more about how the book came to be.
What experiences have you had as a parent that helped to inspire this story?
It’s funny—the whole idea for the Unwanteds series came from an incident involving my kids. One day, when they were 12 and 9, they came home from school with news that the school would be cutting some of the arts programs due to budget shortfalls. I was really bummed out because my kids liked art, music, theatre, etc. And I said, sort of off the cuff, “Wow, guys, I’m so sorry. It kind of feels like you’re getting punished for being creative.” And then I thought about that for a minute and said, “Hey, what if there really was a world where children were punished for being creative?”
My son, who was 12, looked at me very seriously and said, “Not just punished, Mom. Sent to their deaths!”
And my daughter and I said, “Yeah!” And that’s how it all started.
Did you ever feel “unwanted” as a creative little girl?
Absolutely. I’m pretty sure everyone feels unwanted at one point or another. There were several years there where I felt like Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was my only friend. And when it came to my secret desire to be a writer, I just never felt like I could tell people that for fear of being teased. Being a writer wasn’t something people around me aspired to be. It was very “artsy” and out there, not at all cool.
What considerations did you give to the scary aspects of this story since it is aimed at middle grade readers, instead of your usual teen audience?
I didn’t really think about it while writing it, though the scary scenes are definitely less graphic in this series than in my teen books. I wrote The Unwanteds with my kids in mind, and my main goal was to write a book that my then 9-year-old reluctant reader would want to read (yay, it worked!). So I guess a sort of parental comfort level played a part instinctively—I knew what my kids could handle, but I also knew what they would expect. Action. Love. Evil. Danger. Conflict. In the end, they were delighted to discover that if they lived in Quill, they’d be doomed.
I believe kids know the difference between fantasy and real life. A few parents might wince at the “to the death!” concept, worrying that their vulnerable little one isn’t ready for such a heavy topic. But children view the scary stuff in literature as a chance to experience risk and adventure from the safety of the couch. The truth remains that characters in grave danger and extreme peril make us care deeply about them, no matter what our age. And I’ve seen it time and again—when children feel uncomfortable with a book, they put it down. They are not going to waste precious fun time reading a book that makes them feel yucky.
What influenced you in your portrayal of the special bond between twins? Do you know any twins or did you do any research on the bonds between twins?
I had five sets of twins in my graduating class in school and I’ve always been fascinated by how much the identical ones looked alike, but were often very different personality-wise. I also researched a bit about the intense bond twins have with each other, sometimes to the point of being able to feel each other’s pain, or intuitively know when the other is in trouble.
I decided to use twins because I loved the intense conflict—brother against brother. One a Wanted, one an Unwanted. Identical, yet so totally opposite. One trying hard to be evil, one very good, but with an unbreakable bond between them. That’s just so exciting to me.
What reactions have you gotten from young readers to the book?
Enthusiastic! I should start by saying that after touring high schools with each of my four previous teen novels, I was a little bit afraid of doing presentations to fourth through eighth graders. But wow, I forgot how much I love this age! Kids aren’t afraid to tell me what they think should happen in books two, three, four and beyond. It’s such a delight. Often I’ll talk about how my husband and kids and I sat around the living room coming up with spells based on art supplies, and I tell them that maybe over lunch or on the bus ride home they can do the same thing with their friends. That always gets 45 zillion hands shooting up so they can tell me the magic spells they’d create. I love it.
What message do you hope readers will take from The Unwanteds?
I suppose I should say something responsible like “Everyone should accept others no matter what,” or “good prevails over evil,” or “eat your Brussels sprouts,” but the truth is that I just want kids to have a book they can fall into and love and experience just for the fun and adventure of it all. And maybe the kids out there feeling unwanted can find a little comfort knowing they’re not alone.
What were your favorite books as a young reader?
Oh, I love this question. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because Charlie suffered more than me, and I loved him for that. Little Women because of Amy and the limes, and because of Jo and the hair, and the suffering . . . do you sense a theme here? I loved Narnia, which was definitely an influence in my writing of The Unwanteds. I loved all the original dark fairy tales (the ones that ended with children being killed, not the fake ones with happy endings), and I loved Charlotte’s Web, because I just knew deep down that with the right combination of pig, girl and spider, they’d all be able to talk to each other, and that story could really happen. (And I knew I was the right girl.)
How do your two children feel about having a mom who’s a successful writer?
At first they were embarrassed, but then when Miley Cyrus and Paramount optioned the film rights to the Wake series, they thought I was probably sort of cool, and then when they started seeing kids in school walking down the hallway reading my books, they decided I was worth keeping. But I’m still not allowed to speak at their school.
What's coming next in the Unwanteds series?
So. Much. Drama. Book two (The Unwanteds: Island of Silence) will be out in September 2012. The suspense and danger ramps up as the momentary stability between Quill and Artimé crumbles. In Quill, Aaron tries to recover from his failures and get revenge, and in Artimé, Mr. Today has a surprising plan in store for Alex. New characters are introduced in both worlds, there is mass chaos, disappearances and death. I would never say this out loud, but secretly? It’s the best book I’ve ever written, and I can’t wait for you to read it.
Do you have any advice for parents on what they can do to encourage creativity in their children?
You know, we parents are all bozos on this bus together, just trying to figure it out and get it right, aren’t we? But now that my kids are 18 and 15, I can think of some things I could have done better in those middle grade years.
I think it’s really important to realize that creativity comes in many packages. In the world of Quill, it’s only the artistically creative kids who are considered to be Unwanted. But the ruler of Quill overlooks the nature of the very people she promotes—like Aaron, the Wanted twin. He’s extremely creative in coming up with ways to improve their society’s resources, but because he is obedient to the law of the land, his kind of creativity isn’t feared, so he’s safe.
For the child who is artistically creative, I absolutely love and recommend children’s community theatre, and not just for actors. There are wonderful experiences to be had for singers, painters, kids creative in building sets, and for those interested in the technical side of things—sound and lights and backstage managing. There’s so much camaraderie in putting on a show as a team—the friendships they build will be deep and strong.
For the child who doesn’t like to draw or sing or act or tell stories, why not encourage them to help with landscaping, or ask them to fix things around the house, or figure out the best way to lay out the furniture in a room? Ask them to estimate how much you’re spending based on the groceries in the cart, and maybe they can create a computer generated grocery list or expense spreadsheet. Maybe they can’t draw a giraffe to save their life, but they can take an old clock apart and put it back together, or create a go-cart out of two skateboards, a lawnmower and a broken dining room chair. Or maybe they’re really gifted with patience for younger children, and could shine as a babysitter or a volunteer in afterschool daycare. Maybe they can create a better cup holder in your car that keeps your coffee from sloshing around. Or maybe they can tutor students in science, or sell lemonade like it’s going out of style and raise money for charity. And maybe they can run or swim or play football with a natural instinct that makes you marvel. Creativity knows no bounds. Every child has a gift we can encourage.
One last thing. A few years ago my daughter said “I’m going to perform on Broadway,” and I very nearly told her that the chances of that were slim to none. What was I thinking? And who am I, shy nerdy girl from small town Michigan-turned-NYT best-selling author, to crush my kid’s creative dream? We think we’re protecting them by telling them the odds. But what they hear us say is, “I don’t believe you are good enough to do that.”
So when your child says “I’m going to win ‘American Idol,’ ” or “I’m going to be on the space shuttle,” or “I’m going to play for the NBA,” say something like, “If anyone can do it, it’s you. Go for it.” There are plenty of other people who will discourage them along the way. Somebody’s got to have your kid’s back. Let it be you.