Margaret Peterson Haddix is an American author. She is best known for writing The Missing series and the Shadow Children sequence. She also wrote the tenth volume in The 39 Clues series, published by Scholastic.
When my daughter was in third grade, she brought home a list one day that
described what everyone in her class wanted to be when they grew up. Most of the
kids clearly picked the same jobs their parents held. But a few went for the
fantastical. One kid said he wanted to be a spy; another was longing to be a
professional dirt-biker; another saw himself as a future movie director. And I
looked at that list and thought, “Yep, I’m with the dirt-biker and the spy.”
As a kid, I also longed for a career that I didn’t actually believe real
people got to do. The far-out, only-in-your dreams career I wanted was to be an
author. All the grown-ups I knew were farmers (like my dad) or nurses (like my
mom), teachers or dentists, housewives or grocery store clerks, etc., etc. The
only authors I’d ever heard of were, well, just in books.
I grew up on a farm about halfway between two small towns: Washington
Court House, Ohio, and Sabina, Ohio. I come from both a long line of farmers,
and a long line of bookworms. When we went on family vacations, my parents were
always saying things like, “Would you guys stop reading for a minute and look
out the window? That’s the Grand Canyon we’re driving past!” But then my mom
would laugh and say, “That’s exactly what my parents always said to me when I
was a kid!” Now that I’ve made the same kind of comments to my own children
(“Please put down Harry Potter for a moment! That’s the Pacific Ocean out
there!”), it makes me wonder how far back this goes. How many of my ancestors,
immigrating to America, had to admonish their kids, “Would you put down that
book and look out? Don’t you want to see our new home?”
The people I met in books always seemed very real to me: as a kid, I
counted among my friends the whip-smart New York kids of E.L. Konigsburg books,
Harriet the Spy, Anne of Green Gables, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Anne
Frank, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Little Princess’ Sara Crewe, L.M.
Montgomery’s Emily Byrd Starr, Beanie Malone, and many, many others. To me, it
didn’t seem to be much of a step to go from loving books to wanting to create
books of my own.
But because I also read more practical information as well—my local
newspaper, Time magazine, accounts of the Great Depression—I knew that I
couldn’t be completely impractical about my career choice. So I hedged my bets a
bit when I went off to college. I did major in creative writing, but I also
majored in journalism (and history, just for fun). Except for the summer after
my freshman year of college, when I worked as an assistant cook at a 4-H camp
(which was lots and lots of fun), every job I’ve held since then has been
related to writing in some way. During college, I worked on my school newspaper
and had summer internships at newspapers in Urbana, Ohio; Charlotte, North
Carolina; and Indianapolis, Indiana. After college, I worked first as a
newspaper copy editor in Fort Wayne, Indiana, then quickly moved back to
Indianapolis to work as a newspaper reporter there.
I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but during those early years of my
life I was also amassing things to write about. During high school, I acted in
school plays; played flute and piccolo in the marching, pep and symphonic bands;
sang in the school choir; worked on the school newspaper; ran track one year;
competed on a school quick-recall team; served on the county junior fair board;
and did volunteer work through my church and 4-H clubs. (Lest you think I was
some multi-talented prodigy, I should point out that I’m a terrible singer, a
terrible actor, and, as a runner, I’m really, really good at walking. One of the
advantages of going to a fairly small school is that, if you’re not too afraid
of making a fool of yourself, they’ll let you try just about any activity.) In
college, one of the best things I did was spend a semester studying in
Luxembourg, a small country nestled between France, Germany and Belgium. Living
in a foreign country is a great way to force yourself to really think about,
“Who am I?” “What shaped me as a person?” “Why do I believe what I believe?”
“What do I want out of life?” “What shaped all these people I see around me?”
“Why do they believe what they believe?” “What do they want out of life?”
But it was being a reporter that really gave me the opportunity to meet
lots of different people, in vastly different circumstances. It never failed to
amaze me that I could sit down with people, and begin asking really, really nosy
questions, and because I was from the newspaper, they would almost always
answer. For most of my time as a journalist, I worked as a general assignment
reporter, which meant that I could be covering a fire one day, a scientific
breakthrough the next, a politician’s news conference the next. (Or, on really
busy days, some combination of several vastly different events, all at once.)
Somehow, for me, hearing so many different stories from so many different
people--and witnessing so many different events--didn’t just inspire me to write
it all down. It also inspired me to play with different plots and characters and
settings in my head. Facts weren’t enough for me. I still also wanted
For anyone who doesn’t trust journalists, I should point out that I
didn’t change any facts for the stories I wrote for the newspaper. But I would
go home and also write different kinds of stories, ones based more on my own
imagination and my sense that there could be some sort of higher truth than just
“facts.” Still, it wasn’t always easy, after spending eight or nine or ten hours
a day writing and reporting, to write some more in my time off-work. So during
this time, I had a lot more ideas for fiction than I actually wrote down.
It was also during this time that I got married. My husband, Doug, and I
met in college, and he also went into journalism right after school. When he got
a job as city editor of a newspaper in Danville, Illinois, it seemed like a big
complication for my career. If I wanted to continue as a newspaper reporter, I
knew I’d probably have to have my husband as a boss. This did not seem like a
good idea. My husband and I agreed to see this complication as an opportunity:
this would be my chance to concentrate on fiction. I took part-time jobs
teaching writing at a community college and doing freelance business writing,
but I also wrote Running Out of Time; Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey;
and numerous short stories. While I was working on those, my husband and I also
decided to start a family.
Like most writers, I went through an agonizing phase of submitting my
work and collecting nothing but rejection letters for quite a while. For me,
this phase lasted long enough that, by the time I sold my first two books (both
at once, actually) our daughter, Meredith, was a year and a half old, and I was
pregnant with our second child, Connor. Talk about feeling multiply blessed!
Still, it was a little challenging to be a newly published author at the same
time that I was becoming a new mother. For those first few years, I wrote only
during my kids’ naptime, when I probably should have been napping myself. So I
developed strict criteria for everything I wrote: it had to be exciting enough
to keep me awake.
Since then, my life has changed quite a bit. My husband and kids and I
moved from Illinois to Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, to Columbus, Ohio. My kids
are now teenagers, and I no longer have to worry that the sound of me typing at
the computer might wake them up. But my criteria for what I write hasn’t changed
that much. I know I have to write a story when the story keeps me awake at
night, teases at the back of my brain all day, just won’t let me go.
And that’s why I became a writer.
The Epicenter of Excitement!
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