Five questions for Ann M. Martin

photo by Dion Ogust

Ann Martin fans, rejoice: she’s back, with an addictive new middle-grade series. Readers will find familiar hallmarks of Martin’s earlier work: the intimacy with which readers get to know the characters; the amount of emotion conveyed through small incidents. But in other ways, this series is quite different. Here’s what the author had to say about Better to Wish (Scholastic, 10–14 years), the first book in the Family Tree series.

1. The framework for the book (a series of vignettes that take Abby from an eight-year-old in 1930 to a twenty-three-year-old in 1945) is unusual — not to mention that it will be the first in a multigenerational series. Where did you get the idea? And did you write all four books at once?

Ann M. Martin: The idea for the series — a family story told in four books, each narrated by the oldest daughter of the previous narrator — was suggested to me by my editor, David Levithan. We've worked together on The Baby-sitters Club series and the Main Street books. It was my idea to tell each character's story from the time she's a child until she's an adult, setting off on her own in the world, and also to show these lives as a series of snapshots, each chapter set on a single day. I think this allows readers to feel as though they're flipping through a photo album and watching someone grow up.

Yes, I did plan all four books at once, as if I were outlining one long story. I started writing each manuscript almost as soon as I had finished the rough draft for the previous one. I'm halfway through the final book now.

2. Another unusual feature is that the book begins during the Great Depression — a time period that has generated many stories in which characters face financial deprivation. Abby has the opposite problem here. Why did you choose this situation?

AMM: I wanted to write about the Depression but tell an atypical story — to present the United States during those years, but write about a character whose experience is different from what one might expect. Also, in the first two books, Abby's financial situation will go through many changes. When I was working on Better to Wish, I wanted to portray a wealthy girl in a poor economy. Then…well, wait and see what happens in Book #2.

Better to Wish3. Abby’s life is so full of challenges and tragedy — she’s a true poor little rich girl. Was the book’s darkness informed by your historical research, or by fictional forces?

AMM: When I first began researching the book, I began reading about the Depression, of course, but also about everything from the KKK to World War II. A lot of what I was reading was dark, and in the end I had to pull back to keep the book from becoming too dark. Fictional forces were at play, too, though, many triggered by old family papers and memorabilia, but these lent themselves more to details than to larger issues.

4. The book contains so many audience-pleasing details (such as what Adele’s dolls were wearing, and why Abby has a middle name but Rose doesn’t). Yet bigger issues (such as what exactly happened to the girls’ mother) are shrouded in secrecy. How did you decide what to put out there and what to leave to readers’ interpretation?

AMM: A lot of the details I mentioned were things that I thought children would remember or be fascinated by. Many of the bigger issues belong to the adult world, and I wanted to tell Abby's story through her own eyes. Also, where the death of Abby's mother is concerned (as well as other issues), just remember that this is only the first part of a larger story. Perhaps we haven't had the last word on her death…

5. What happens to Orrin? Or can’t you tell us yet?

AMM: Mum's the word on Orrin, but you haven't heard the last of him!

From the June 2013 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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