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Margaret Willey

Award-winning author Margaret Willey grew up in southwestern Michigan, the eldest daughter in a family of eleven children. She believes that her writing career began with reading stories and poems aloud to her younger brothers and sisters. “Many years later, I am basically still doing this—sharing stories and poems with children.” All her work comes from a personal place, either something that happened to her or something she witnessed at close range.

Previous books include Clever Beatrice, a folktale for which she received the Charlotte Zolotow Award, and Three Bears and Goldilocks. Her previous young adult novel, A Summer of Silk Moths, received an Honor Award from the Green Earth Book Awards. In 2010, Margaret received the Gwen Frostic Award from the Michigan Reading Association, an award for impacting literacy in her home state of Michigan, where she lives with her husband.

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Q. What inspired you to write Four Secrets?

A. When my daughter was in high school, she and some of her friends were targeted by older boys and bullied for weeks on end. It was a terrible experience for them, these wonderful, arty, sensitive teenagers, and some of the descriptions of bullying in Four Secrets come directly from my daughter’s revelations about the ordeal. I still remember vividly the day she tearfully told me, “something really bad is happening to me at school.” I knew that once she had recovered from the experience, I would write about that ‘something bad,’ and about her brave and loyal friends, who basically came to her rescue and who are still her friends today.

Q. What kind of research did you do for this book? Can you give us any of the bullying statistics you learned or strategies kids can use to deal with bullies?

A. For several years, my husband and I taught a college-level seminar together called “The Culture of Adolescence.” We both read books and articles about the “bullying culture” in the modern high school. I learned that the constant stereotyping of students in middle school and high school (the nerd, the jock, the cheerleader) can lead to making an “unpopular” or different teenager into a target. And teen movies reinforce this, making adolescence itself into a stereotype. So one suggestion I have would be to encourage teachers to find ways to first identify, and then tone down the labeling. Students need to be challenged to see each others apart from these rigid categories, which by the way, disappear after high school, although many scars remain.

Q. How do you expect that “bullies” will respond to Four Secrets? How about those kids who are bullied by them?

A. I hope that my novel will be read as a tribute to the courage and stamina of bullied teens everywhere. Statistically, one in three teenagers has experienced some form of bullying. That’s a lot of kids and also a lot of bullies. And I also hope that my book will raise awareness about the damage caused by typical everyday bullying behaviors, especially gender bullying, with its brutal names and sexual innuendoes. Gender bullying is so common in the modern high school, but can be crippling, and as we’ve seen, it makes school a dangerous place for many kids.

Q. Why do you think so many kids don’t report bullying when it’s happening to them?

A. They are too ashamed about being the targets of bullying and too confused about how to stop the persecution. This is how my characters react initially. Then they decide to take matters into their own hands, a brave decision, but it lands them in juvenile detention, which they vow to endure rather than reveal their secrets. But they do finally turn to a trusted adult—their social worker. So I do have a message in my book about turning to a trusted adult. Not necessarily a parent, but somebody that can and will help.

Q. Your previous books were for younger audiences. Do you anticipate writing more young adult novels in the future?

A. Actually I started my career writing for teenagers, way back in the eighties, writing six YA novels before I turned to picture books and folktales. Now I am back in the groove of writing about modern adolescence, but this writing feels new both because I’m a different writer and because adolescence itself has changed so much in the past decade, become more complicated and more segregated and more dangerous. I hope that Four Secrets will help teenagers to see that surviving bullying, or intervening to help a bullied student, is an heroic act, and something to forever be proud of.

Q. About yourself, how keen a reader were you as a child?

A. I was an obsessive reader. As a teenager, I preferred books about teenagers who were miserable and confused, as I was. There weren’t many. Whenever I found one, it was like a religious experience. Among the books that saved me were Girl of the Limberlost, Catcher in the Rye, and Harriet the Spy.

Q. When did you first decide that you wanted to be a writer?

A. I wrote all through my childhood and adolescence, but I came to writing as a career rather late—in my late twenties, after I had tried half a dozen other jobs and realized that I needed to work alone and live inside my head and be part of a profession that is hard to explain to non-writers—the need to write, as one needs to eat. Luckily my husband, a non-writer, has always understood that writing is part of who I am.

Q. What’s your best advice to parents of teens or pre-teens to help their kids to read more?

A. A book can be a gift that inspires and comforts when given to the right child at the right time. This requires careful observation of what is going on in the life of your children, their fears, their interests, their passions. A good librarian can help with suggestions. I also think that teenagers, like all readers, need to read books that are not all that serious, escapism is fine if interspersed with an occasional book that will challenge and stretch them.

Q. What do you most enjoy when you’re not reading or writing?

A. I love to take long walks, love to read contemporary novels and have been recently writing some poetry. My husband and I both love foreign films. I also recently started assisting with a children’s choir—ages 4 to 8, singing many Beatle songs—so much joy and innocence, really uplifting.

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