AN INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET FINNEGAN
AUTHOR OF DEBUT MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL
WE COULD BE HEROES
For Autism Awareness Day 2020, I’m delighted to share this interview with author Margaret Finnegan about her debut middle grade novel We Could Be Heroes and her take on happy endings. At the end Margaret’s also included some helpful resources for readers.
GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Can you tell us a little bit about We Could be Heroes?
MARGARET FINNEGAN: We Could be Heroes is about Hank Hudson and Maisie Huang, two very different kids. They become friends as they try to help a dog with epilepsy—Booler—who is tied day and night to a tree. Their friendship is complicated by the fact that Hank has autism, and so he can’t always tell if Maisie is really trying to be his friend or if she is manipulating him for her own reasons.
GRWR: Your book deals with some very serious issues, but it is always funny and it ends on an adorably happy note. These days, a lot of middle-grade fiction is embracing more complicated and ambivalent endings, what made you decide to go full on happy?
MF: I wrote this book for my daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is not Hank, but she did inspire a few of his qualities, such as his painful aversion to really sad stories. She feels so connected to the characters she reads about—and she feels their heartbreaks and pain so personally—that for a number of years she refused to read new novels. The uncertainty was too much for her. So she read her favorite books over and over. Hank is like that too. When We Could be Heroes opens, Hank is trying to destroy a tragic book his teacher has been reading to the class. He can’t take how sad it makes him.
Since I set out trying to write a book that Elizabeth would read, I knew from the start that it would have to have a big, sloppy happy ending. But Hank needed a happy ending too, and I think he earned it. Like any hero, he is tested and found worthy of reward. But more than that, in a meta sort of way, the story needed a happy ending that would contrast the terrible ending of the story within the story—the one Hank’s teacher is reading the class.
GRWR: Do you think Hank and Maisie’s happy ending can last?
MF: I’m not sure. Maisie’s mom definitely has her doubts. And although Hank and Maisie are “rewarded” something amazing, I think that reward will present Hank—who struggles with change and unpredictability—with challenges. But challenges can help us grow, so I guess that isn’t a bad thing.
GRWR: There are so many challenges that young readers face today—like climate change. How does that factor into thinking about happy endings? Don’t we need books that go to those dark places so kids can see their reality reflected and then face that reality with resiliency? Or is there still a need—at least sometimes—for “big, sloppy, happy endings”?
MF: We need all kinds of stories with all kinds of endings—and there are many wonderful middle-grade novels that go dark and yet are filled with transcendent beauty. Those books actually win lots of awards. But unabashedly happy endings also have something important to offer readers. Our kids are not growing up in bubbles. They have a whole world of experiences and entertainments that teach them the complexities and hardships of the world. And it is exactly when things are going horribly that some readers need stories that make them laugh and that instill hope.
I have been very open about the challenges Elizabeth has had with autism and epilepsy. There was a long stretch of years where she was being bullied, experiencing lots of seizures, and dealing with horrible medication side effects. And what were the books she turned to repeatedly during this time? The Fudge books by Judy Blume. They made her feel good. They made her believe that better was possible. She knows about the pain of the world. She lives it. She—like many others—longs for stories that remind her that there is joy and fun in the world and that sometimes—just sometimes—everything turns out great.
Read a review in Publishers Weekly about We Could Be Heroes here.
Click here for a link to the Epilepsy Foundation.
Margaret Finnegan is the author of We Could Be Heroes.
Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon,
and other publications. She lives in Southern California, where she enjoys
spending time with her family, walking her dog, and baking really
good chocolate cakes. Connect with her @margaretfinnegan.com
or on Twitter @FinneganBegin.