Teen Queen Meg Cabot makes her first foray into 'tween lit with a new series for middle-grade readers, Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls (Scholastic Press). The first installment finds Allie in a housing crisis.
The heroine of your new book, Allie Finkle, is moving into an old house that’s going to need a lot of work. Does this storyline stem from having finished remodeling your house in Key West?
Ha! Finished! I am living a nightmare because now we’re remodeling the kitchen. And we switched all the phones when we realized we had to have a phone with a landline that would work in case of a hurricane because, of course, if you lose power, the cordless ones don’t work. So the phones are only working intermittently now. But, no, it’s based on my experience growing up. My parents, really my mom, at some point became obsessed with wanting to live in an old house. When did This Old House come on the air? She loves PBS. She might have gotten the fever from that.
So you grew up in a rehabbed Victorian?
Yes, when I was nine my parents bought a turn-of-the-century Victorian farmhouse that was right in the center of town [Bloomington, Indiana] and my brothers and I had bedrooms on the third floor. That was a nightmare, too. My bedroom was right next to the trapdoor for the attic, with that stupid cord hanging down. It was traumatic. I thought they were trying to kill us. The only consolation for me was that Meg Murry’s [from Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time] bedroom was on the third floor, too, and that was one of my favorite books. But we [Cabot and her brothers] didn’t want to leave the suburbs where everything was new. We liked the giant dirt piles on the construction sites. That was where we played.
Did you have a rock collection like Allie, too?
I did, all my geodes, and my mother wouldn’t let me bring them with us.
Your brothers’ names weren’t Mark and Kevin, though, right?
Oh, no. I try to give them some anonymity.
I keep thinking you’ll exhaust the material you have in your girlhood diaries, but did you keep journals of all your elementary school years, too?
Oh yeah, I’m pathetic. I still have more. But there’s no kissing in this book. I never thought I would write a book that had no kissing.
Tell us about your decision to reach down to middle-grade readers.
Well, every time I have an event for one of the Princess Diaries books, I get all these little sisters who tag along with their big sisters, or young girls who’ve seen the movie who tell me, ‘My mom won’t let me read your books. Are you ever going to write something for me?’ It kind of made me sad. I thought, ‘That’s not really fair. They need a book, too.’ It’s so hard to wait when you’re that age.
So you mined your own elementary school experience for a story....
Well, this really began with a story I wrote for an anthology that David Levithan was doing. I wrote this story about my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hunter [who also appears in Allie Finkle] and it brought back all these memories. David asked me, ‘Have you ever considered writing a book for this age?’ and I was like, ‘No way.’ But then I thought about it and decided, actually, it would be kind of fun. So the first [Allie Finkle book] is Moving Day, because I know what it’s like to have to move when you don’t want to, and how hard it is to be the new kid. And the next one is The New Girl [Scholastic, Oct.] about starting at a new school and encountering a bully, a girl bully, because that happened to me, too. There was this girl who wanted to beat me up because the teacher liked me.
Yikes. Did she ever make good on her threats?
No. She never did. She just kept threatening me, which was almost worse. It would have been better if she would have just beaten me up and gotten it over with, because the torture of wondering every day, ‘Is this the day I get beaten up?’ was far worse than what she could have actually done to me.
You have an incredible memory of your childhood.
I don’t understand why, because I can’t remember anything that happens in my adult life. But I have also done research for the Allie books because there is this whole group of nine-year-old girls who run around in my neighborhood. I have been hanging out with them, and spying on them, too. I really hope they don’t read the Allie Finkle books, because they’re going to find out that I have included all their little games and dramas and tears. It’s all there.
Um, Meg, what are the chances these girls are not going to read Allie Finkle?
Well, I’m not giving them a copy and I’m hoping that nobody here gets PW.
Oh, your secret’s safe then.
It’s an island! Very remote. Maybe nobody will find out. It’s just too much to resist, though! There’s this one girl on my block who wanted a cell phone so bad. She ran a lemonade stand to raise money, she begged, she pleaded, and finally her parents caved and got her one for Christmas.
Does she have anybody to call?
That’s the thing! Apparently she and her friend lay on her bed next to each other and text! And there was also this huge drama over The Nutcracker. Who got which part and who didn’t and that made me think, ‘Allie has to go on stage.’
You have been doing some performing yourself. You’re all over YouTube.
That was the promotion department at Avon’s idea. They said, ‘We’re sending a guy to your house. Come up with something.’ And this really sweet filmmaker from Seattle arrived. I was high on codeine the day he came because I had a really bad cold.
I suspect your readers were thrilled to finally get to know your cats better.
Credit: Ali Smith
The most successful videos have been the ones we did with my Madame Alexander dolls acting out funny versions of the classics, like scenes from Little Women. I have a huge collection of Madame Alexander dolls that my grandmother gave me.
To what end are you doing these, though? Are they supposed to spur book sales?
I don’t know! I think the idea started with Atoosa [Rubenstein]—the one who was the editor of Seventeen magazine? My editor saw her YouTube videos and said, ‘We should do this.’ Whether this means people will see the videos and then go read my books, that I don’t know.
And I saw you have a sexy new author photo, too.
Oh, I always wanted a photo like the one Jane Pratt, the editor of Sassy magazine, had. So Scholastic was sending a photographer and I insisted on getting something like that. Of course, then Scholastic said, ‘Uh, this is not going to work on a children’s book.’ But I mean, if you’re writing for teenage girls you have to be glamorous. I’ve already gotten complaints [about the new photo] though. Somebody—from Indiana of all places!—was totally offended. They said it was pornographic.
So other than photos and videos, what have you been producing?
I have [the first in] a new series for teens, Airhead, that comes out in June. It’s science fiction about a girl who’s a tomboy and becomes a supermodel and how she got that way. A mystery thriller. And I have one more book to write in the Queen of Babble series.
And you have to finish the kitchen.
We are going to have to throw a huge party because our neighbors have put up with a lot of drilling and sawing. We’ll probably be finished by hurricane season, just in time for it to be destroyed, but at least we have the new phone so we can call FEMA and tell them, ‘Get over here. Get us a trailer!’
Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls by Meg Cabot Scholastic Press, $15.99, 978-0-545-03947-5 ages 8-12