Margaret Peterson Haddix is a New York Times best-selling author for children and teens with over 40 published titles. In a recent interview, she shared these reflections on the power of story for young people, the appeal of dystopian tales for young minds, and encouragement for parents as they navigate tough topics in reading with their kids.
What are your thoughts on the power of story for humans (especially young ones)?
"Obviously, I am a big believer in the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that are passed down from generation to generation, the stories that we are surrounded by. These stories make such a difference in how we view ourselves, how view the world around us, and how we view our purpose in the universe. All of that is really important, and it is particularly important in the stories we are telling our children. I think we have all had the experience of having a bad day, then we see something or witness something and suddenly our perspective changes around us. Instead of 'oh this is terrible, poor me,' the story becomes 'oh I am so fortunate' and we start counting our blessings. The way we see things--the way we tell the story of our life--really affects how we live our lives in so many different ways. That makes it so important in terms of what stories we are telling our children, what stories we are holding up to them as good examples, and what stories we are holding up to them as examples of what to avoid. We do a lot of telling stories to kids."
Some of your books are dystopian in nature. What is it that seems to draw so many to these types of stories?
"I think there is a value to dystopian stories, as a thing to look at to say, 'We don’t want to be like that.' For example, in The Shadow Children series, it’s a totalitarian government. It’s not a democracy. The people don’t have any say, there’s no voting; it’s very authoritarian. That, I think, is a very bad situation and it leads to some policy that really hurt the kids in the story. I think it’s a good thing for people to read those types of stories and ask, 'How do we avoid having this happen in our country? How do we avoid treating people as poorly as this country is treating its citizens?'
I think particularly for kids who are teens and preteens, life is pretty dramatic for them. There are so many changes that go on. Sometimes I think it’s really healthy to read a story where the character’s problems are so extreme that it helps put things in perspective. It also shows kids getting through much worse situations. They give examples of bravery and courage, and what is possible—not just humans at their worst but also humans at their best, risking their lives to help other people."
What encouragement/wisdom do you offer parents as they navigate difficult content (like dystopian stories) with their young readers?
"I know that is a hard thing, sometimes, for parents. We look at our sweet, innocent children and we have an instinct—we do not want to let them know about the horrors of the past or a fictional dystopian story. We bring children into the world and we want them to value it and know the good things of life. There are situations that are not so great; looking back at history, there are plenty of examples of this.
In general, when we as parents know that our child has an express interest in a story that is about a tough topic, or they have been introduced to it at school, the more that we can have conversations about those topics with our children, the better. Odds are, our children will have questions or think through things in a way that their teacher will not be able to answer [because they have so many other students in the class]. We as parents know our children, we know what they are ready to hear, we know how sensitive they are to things and how we can frame things for them. The more we talk about the issues, the better our children will deal with them.
I encourage parents to read with their children, not just when they’re young, but when they’re eight, nine, ten, eleven. I know parents are busy and have their own things to do, but I encourage parents to try and read the books that their children are reading. Or they can ask their children questions like, 'What are you reading now?' or 'What do you think of this book?' The more conversations parents can have with their children about reading material, the better it is.