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Interview: Megan McCafferty, author of Jessica Darling's IT List

After a generation of readers fell in love with Jessica Darling as they watched her grow from a 16-year-old into a 20Something, Megan McCafferty has finally brought her back...and to middle school! In JESSICA DARLING'S IT LIST #1:  The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Popularity, Prettiness and Perfection, Jessica is nervous about starting middle school, but at least she has her best friend and her sister's survival guide. Will that be enough?

In this interview, Megan McCafferty explains why she wanted to bring Jessica Darling back, tells some embarrasing middle school stories and shares her own tips on surviving middle school.

I was so excited to hear that Jessica Darling is back! Why did you decide to revisit her story -- and explore who she was in middle school?

I’m lucky to know a lot of book-loving tweens!

For the past five years I’ve volunteered at my son’s excellent elementary school library. Week after week, year after year, I’ve been so lucky to talk to young people who love reading as much as I did when I was their age. As time went on and the kids got older, however, I noticed a disturbing trend. Students often returned to class empty-handed because they’d outgrown authors or series that had once been so appealing.

“There’s nothing that isn’t babyish or fantasy or fairies or a zillion years old. Like, from the 80s,” lamented one of my favorite 10-year-olds on a spring day just over a year ago. “Maybe I’m done with books.”

“No! You just haven’t found the right ones!” I insisted. “You are NOT done with books!”

And that’s when I decided whom my next series would be for and about.

What was the biggest difficulty for you to revisit these characters -- and imagine them as younger versions of themselves?

Actually, it was all too easy to get inside these characters’ heads and hearts. I guess a big part of me is perpetually 12-years-old!

The most challenging part of writing the prequel was staying true to the original books without limiting where the story could go. I certainly don’t want to mess with fans’ fond memories of the first five books, but it was more important to me for the prequels to stand on their own. While I hope older readers enjoy reuniting with these characters they know so well, ultimately the IT LIST is intended for the 10-and-up reader who is meeting Jessica Darling for the first time.

My favorite part of reading this book was how we see Jessica joining the track team and meeting Hope and even Marcus Flutie. Those who have already read the Jessica Darling series are familiar with Jessica running track and knowing Hope and Marcus, but what was it like introducing these characters to a whole new group of readers?

Thank you! As I said, it wasn’t very hard to think like a seventh grader. I’ve always compared it to method acting. Like, I think about all the character’s motivations and ask myself, What makes them do the things they do? And because I already know the adults they’ll all eventually become, it was a fascinating exercise to imagine how those traits and quirks manifested themselves when they were young.

It’s incredibly rewarding to have created a cast of characters that so many different types of readers can relate to. Over the years I’ve had Queen Bees and wallflowers alike gush, “These books are my life!” So I’m absolutely thrilled by the idea that a whole new generation of readers will find friends in the pages of Jessica Darling’s IT List.

Jessica's relationship with her sister Bethany is strained, especially when Bethany puts pressure on Jessica to follow the IT List, become popular and continue the Darling family legacy. Have you ever felt pressure to live up to anything?

Of course! Right now! I feel pressure for these prequels to live up to the originals!

Seriously though, I’ve always set very high standards for myself. While I think it’s important to set goals and work hard to achieve them, I think it’s equally vital to cut yourself some slack when things don’t go as planned.

For example, by the time I graduated as valedictorian of my middle school, I’d already set the school record in the mile, won the talent show two years in a row and had a poem set to be published in a national magazine. These were all achievements to be proud of, for sure. But I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if I hadn’t failed my first pre-algebra test, or been outrun by a rival or blown that audition for a community musical or crossed out more words than I kept. Those failures weren’t fun. But learning how to bounce back from bad breaks was essential for moving onward and upward.

Throughout the story, we watch Jessica completely fail at understanding Bethany's IT List and then fall into very embarrassing situations. Do you have an embarrassing middle grade experience you could share with us?

That time of my life could be described as one nonstop embarrassing situation. I honestly don’t know where to start. Hmmm. How about when I woke up with a fist-sized chin zit on school picture day? Or when my mother refused to let me get a strapless number for the big dance and insisted I wear a baggy grandma dress instead? Or when my period surprised me on a school trip and had to stuff toilet paper in my underpants, and I was convinced my crush thought I was wearing a diaper? Or when my hair turned the color of a pumpkin from using too much Sun In? Oh…I could go on and onnnnnn.

If you were to make a list of ways to survive middle school, what would you include?

1. Make one trustworthy and true friend --- it’s better than a posse of posers.

2. Remember: You’re not the only one who is confused. No one knows what they’re doing!

3. Be yourself always…which is hard when you’re still figuring out who you are!

What would you like readers to take away from this book and series?

No one is perfect. You will fail. And fail again. But like Jessica Darling --- and me! --- you’ll learn so much more from your mistakes than your successes.

When are we to expect the next Jessica Darling's II List book? Are you working on anything else?

JESSICA DARLING’S IT LIST #2: The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Friends, Foes and Faux Friends will goes sale in Fall 2014. I hope there will be many more IT Lists to come! I’ll keep writing as long as there are readers who want to know what happens next!