Since her debut in 2008 with the YA thriller Wake, Lisa McMann has released more than two dozen books for children and young adults, including the popular Unwanted series. In Map of Flames, her 28th book and first in her Forgotten Five series, she focuses on five children whose parents, superhuman criminals, fled their oppressive society for the safety of an isolated tropical refuge following their last big heist. Now, with their parents dead or missing, the children leave their home, encountering modern civilization for the first time. PW spoke with McMann about her career, her propensity for writing series, and what to expect next.
In Map of Flames, your young heroes find their familial bonds tested by their strange new surroundings. What inspired this storyline?
Usually, I always have this defining moment where I come up with the idea, and it’s this light bulb moment with the shiver down the spine. In this case, I was at the end of the Unwanted series, and I’d been working on Clarice the Brave, a middle grade standalone that came out in October. I knew I wanted to jump into another series. What was I going to do next?
I’ve always loved writing sibling relationships, like in the Visions trilogy, where it was so much fun to make these siblings who really cared about each other. I thought I would like to do something like that, where the main characters are not always at each other’s throats, but they’re really supportive of each other. In Map of Flames, two are siblings, and the other three just kind of feel like siblings, because all they have in the world is each other. Another thing I’ve always wanted to write about was criminals. That pushed the boundaries on how I write middle grade, because how do I write about parents who are criminals, and how does that affect the way these children make choices? Especially when their criminal parents have been their only influences for all their lives.
Your story takes place in a contemporary world much like our own, but with significant differences, such as Estero City, where much of the later action is set. What influenced this choice? Was any of it modeled after real locations?
Like you said, it’s like ours, but it has a small amount of supernatural people in it. I wanted a big-city feel, like New York or Chicago, just to have the biggest contrast possible. These kids were raised on the beach with this jungle nearby, with no electricity. It’s an Encino Man situation where these kids go off to the big city to search of their missing parents, to look for this potential treasure or stash that their parents hid in Estero. I wanted that awkwardness as they discover technology for the first time. I was really excited about the humor of the situation. Like, bathrooms are always hilarious for kids, and cell phones and all that.
When I got to thinking about the map of the world, I pictured their hideout on the deserted peninsula to be like the toe of Italy, while Estero is near the coast of Spain, so there’s two ways to get there. You can go through the water, or you can go all the way down and around. I’ve spent some time in Spain and really enjoyed it, so I figured I’d put some Spanish flavor into this with the names of things.
From communicating with animals to possessing camouflage skin, your characters have a wide range of powers. What went into picking those specific abilities?
I wanted the kids to have abilities that would complement each other. I love animals, so I’m always going to have some sort of animal-related character. So Birdie can communicate with animals. I love Seven’s camouflage ability so much because he hates it. I don’t want to see him suffer, but I love that he has to deal with this problem, that he’s not safe going to Estero. He’s the one who wants to stay home where it’s safe. I wanted a combination of visible supernatural abilities to make Estero more dangerous for them, and hidden ones which would come in handy.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
My main goal is for them to not feel alone. The Unwanted series is about being unwanted in a society, and shunned, and told you’re not good enough. The Forgotten Five is about being forgotten, which is a relative of that. I think every kid has felt that way at some point in their lives. When I write books about these underdogs who have so much to overcome, and who use these labels of unwanted or forgotten as a badge of honor and become stronger as a result, I want kids to see that and relate to it, and become stronger. You know, “I see myself here and I’m not alone.”
Your first book came out in 2008 when you were 40. What can you tell us about the development of your career?
I failed. A lot. I started trying to get published in the picture book world right out of college. I wasn’t very good, though. I didn’t have enough feedback, or critiques, or people to read it and tell me the truth, so I got a lot of rejections. Back then, it was different. We didn’t have email as much. You had to snail mail everything in, and wait for the rejection letter, and sometimes it took six months and sometimes two years. I got to a point where I couldn’t take rejection anymore, and gave up. I didn’t write anything for 10 years. I spent time as a bookseller, and became a realtor, got married, had kids.
Around the time my kids were seven and four, my broker said, “You’re working a lot. Don’t you have any hobbies?” And since I didn’t play golf, I thought about my old stories. I found them in a drawer, and one was still kind of good. I started workshopping my stories again, and got feedback and advice. I started submitting again in 2003, and in 2004 I won a contest called the Templeton [International Power of Purpose] Award, which came with a $10,000 prize. That served as my nest egg while I started writing novels. Wake was the third book I wrote and the first to sell. I learned to see rejection as an opportunity to keep going.
You’ve written for both YA and middle grade audiences. Which do you prefer?
I really enjoyed writing YA, but I stumbled into writing The Unwanteds, my first middle grade. It came out in 2011, and I had no idea at the time there’d be 13 more in the same world. I remember my first book tour for The Unwanteds. Going into schools to talk to fourth and fifth and sixth graders, I was terrified. Luckily, my publisher paired me up with Margaret Peterson Haddix, who was an old pro at middle grade. She let me tag along on her tour for a week, and taught me the ropes. I realized how amazing that audience was. You don’t have to prove anything—you walk in and they love you. I felt like that was where I belonged. I might write YA again eventually, but I feel like middle grade is my place.
The Unwanteds ran for 14 books, and many of your other publications have been trilogies. Are you naturally drawn to series?
I seem to have trouble ending books. I always wind up with cliffhangers. Actually, I always have the ending in mind, no matter how long the series becomes. The final scene of the Unwanteds Quests series was the first very thing I wrote when I started book seven. I’d been waiting years to write it. The Forgotten Five will probably run to five or seven books, depending on how it’s received. I have so many ideas that I could incorporate into the story. There’s always a risk when you plan out a series; if the first doesn’t do well, the publisher may say you need to wrap it up. I’m always thinking about how to do that in the next book if I have to.
What’s next for the Forgotten Five, and for you in general?
Because we’re still early in the series, this is all I’m working on. Book two, The Invisible Spy, is done and will be out in November. I’m in the middle of writing book three, and I haven’t decided what will come after that. I’m getting ready to do a book tour, my first in-person appearances in two years. I’m really excited. I miss kids.
Map of Flames (The Forgotten Five #1) by Lisa McMann. Putnam, $17.99 Feb. 22 ISBN 978-0-593-32540-7