Friday, March 1, 2024

Q&A with Margaret Finnegan


Photo by Stephen Finnegan

Margaret Finnegan is the author of the new middle grade novel Sunny Parker Is Here to Stay. Her other books include the middle grade novel New Kids & Underdogs. She lives in South Pasadena, California.


Q: You’ve said that Sunny Parker Is Here to Stay was based in part on your own experiences--can you say more about that?


A: Sunny Parker Is Here to Stay is about a girl who lives in affordable housing in an affluent town, and that town happens to be debating whether or not to build more apartments for low-income residents. As a matter of fact, I lived in an affordable housing complex during a very similar time.


I lived in federally funded housing in Palo Alto, California from the ages of about 11 to 21. In a million ways, my future-self benefited from the amazing education I got at Palo Alto public schools—which were some of the best in the country.


But it wasn’t always easy. I didn’t always fit in. I wore cheap clothes while my friends wore designer jeans, and I felt embarrassed that everyone I knew lived in houses while I lived in an apartment.


In ninth grade, my English teacher gave us a hard assignment. He said we each had to get something published by the end of the year.


I went for the lowest hanging fruit of the pre-internet days. I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper. It was in support of a plan to bring more affordable housing into the community.


The newspaper published my letter, and it was empowering to realize that not only did I have something to say, but that other people thought my voice mattered.


But then I was trolled before trolling even existed! A perfect stranger looked up my family name in the phone book, wrote an angry letter about what I’d written, and actually mailed it to me. I was 14, and it felt terribly invasive and scary. Yes. I’d learned that I had a voice, but now I’d also learned that using that voice could come at a cost.


Q: How did you create the cast of characters living in the Del Mar Garden Apartments?


A: Such a good question! I knew that I wanted Sunny to live a diverse community, and that’s because the affordably housed are diverse! Beyond that, I wanted to create a real community for Sunny, one where she felt supported and loved.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I did need to do research. I knew affordable housing had changed a lot since my time in Palo Alto, and I needed to better understand how and why.


I learned that there are far fewer affordable housing opportunities now than when I was growing up. I also discovered that the type of housing has also changed.


While I lived in a housing apartment complex dedicated to low-income renters, these days most affordable housing is available through housing vouchers.


The vouchers can technically be used anywhere, but a person might have to wait years just to get on the list to sign up for a voucher, and then they can be on that list for many years more before being issued a voucher!


Also, once a person or family has a voucher, they might have a very hard time finding a building that will accept it.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: I always hope that readers finish my books feeling happy, like they’ve had a chance to laugh and relax. But I also hope they’ve enjoying stepping into someone else’s shoes.


That’s the amazing thing about novels, right? They let us experience lives different from our own, and, in doing so, gain empathy and understanding.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m so glad you asked! My book Spelling it Out (also from Atheneum Books for Young Readers) is working its way through the publishing pipeline. It drops in 2025.


It’s about Ben Bellini, who spends a meaningful summer in San Francisco studying for the National Spelling Bee, making friends, and slowly discovering that his beloved grandmother has dementia.


Like my other books, it’s funny and full of heart. If you like Sunny, you’ll like Ben.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I guess I’d like you to know that while my experience in Palo Alto helped inspire Sunny Parker Won’t Back Down, I am not Sunny. Sunny is much braver than I am, and she probably has a bigger heart.


She also has the worst haircut in the history of all haircuts. Poor Sunny! So many of us have been there. Thank heaven for hats.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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