Fans of Lisa McMann’s The Unwanteds series have several treats in store. At the end of Island of Graves, the sixth volume in the dystopian fantasy series, which Aladdin will publish on September 15, they’ll get an early peek at the cover and title of the seventh and final Unwanteds novel, due out in April 2016. And readers who are reluctant to bid adieu to the Unwanteds world will be pleased to learn that McMann is writing a spinoff series, The Unwanteds Quests, scheduled to kick off in spring 2017, with book two following a year later.
The Unwanteds is set in totalitarian Quill, where creativity is a crime and 13-year-olds are sorted into two groups: the “strong” Wanteds go to university, and the artistic Unwanteds are exiled to an alleged “death camp” that is actually a world called Artimé, where they learn to use their talents magically. This unsettling tradition pits Unwanted Alex against his Wanted twin brother, Aaron. Launched in 2001, the middle-grade series has one million copies in print, including the 100,000-copy first printing set for Island of Graves.
An incident involving McMann’s own children – son Kilian, now 21, and daughter Kennedy, now 18 – jumpstarted the series. They came home from elementary school one day with a letter announcing that the arts curriculum was being cut due to budget problems.
“Kilian loved art and Kennedy was very into theater and music, so they were devastated by this news,” recalled McMann. “I remember saying, ‘I am so sorry. It seems like you’re being punished for being creative.’ And then Kilian said, ‘Wait a second – what if there were a world where kids were not just punished for being creative, but sent to their deaths?’ I felt a chill go down my spine, and immediately knew that this should be a novel.”
Based on the series’ success, and feedback from child and adult readers, the author knows that The Unwanteds has hit a nerve across a broad audience. “The idea of Artimé really touches many people – parents, teachers facing budget cuts, and kids themselves,” she said. “For some kids, it gives them permission to be creative. I’ve heard parents say of a child, ‘Oh yeah, she’s the creative one,’ in an almost negative tone. We need creative people, not just in the arts but in science and other areas as well. I’ve heard from readers that the series’ premise has been a bit of a lifeline for them, allowing them to say, ‘I’m OK as I am.’ ”
One of the series’s earliest and most ardent fans is McMann’s editor, Liesa Abrams, v-p and editorial director of Simon Pulse and associate editorial director of Aladdin, who was instantly drawn to the books’ message and the way McMann delivered it. “What really got me from the beginning is the brilliant way Lisa captures the metaphor of that universal experience of kids feeling different, and the way the series empowers those kids and turns a negative into a positive,” she said. “The message that kids should wear their Unwanted status like a badge of honor is so powerful and so meaningful to readers, which is why Lisa has such an incredibly passionate fan base.”
McMann’s fans, in fact, played a role in the inspiration for the unusual cover reveal for The Unwanteds #7. The author explains that she, her agent (Michael Bourret of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management), and Abrams brainstormed on how to put a new spin on a cover reveal that would set it apart – and would also reward the author’s devoted readers. “I have diehard fans who can’t wait for each new book – they talk to me on Instagram every day!” she said. “I wanted to let them be the first to see what the final Unwanteds cover will look like.”
Additionally, the early reveal will ideally amplify the buzz about the series’s last installment as kids share the cover via social media, and will give booksellers a selling handle. “They can tell their customers that there’s a surprise in the back of Island of Graves as an extra incentive for buying it,” she said. “And I think it will be a cool way to bring the Unwanteds reading community together, on both the online and retail levels.”
Largely because she dreaded the thought of leaving the world of The Unwanteds behind after the seventh installment, McMann began sowing the seeds for a spin-off series early on. “I’m definitely a planner,” she explained, “and I think it was near the end of writing the second book that I realized that I was going to have a really hard time saying goodbye to these characters. So I started some new story lines and introduced some new characters, who are a bit younger than the original characters – just in case I wanted to continue the story.”
Her planning paid off, as Abrams was immediately on board with the idea of extending the world of The Unwanteds, since she, like McMann, “was really sad at the thought of letting it go.” Set 10 years after the original series wraps up, The Unwanteds Quests brings back some characters from the first series, but will center on the next generation of Unwanteds. Though neither author nor editor was willing to share any “spoilers,” McMann did disclose that “the new series introduces a new set of twins – and they are girls.” And Island of Graves readers will find a teaser scene from the debut Unwanteds Quests book at the end of the novel.
A Family Affair
Circling back to The Unwanteds’ genesis, McMann’s children weathered the elimination of their elementary school arts program (which was reinstated by the time they reached high school) and have flourished creatively. Kilian is focusing on art at Northern Arizona University and Kennedy is pursuing performing arts at Carnegie Mellon University.
Both McMann offspring have volunteered their talents to help their mother with The Unwanteds – on several fronts. As her first readers, said the author, “Kilian is critical and blunt and tells me where I might have gone off track, and I always listen to him. And Kennedy constantly gives me feedback, and has very good copyediting skills.”
In yet another way, the series has been “an organic family effort,” McMann added, since Kilian creates the drawings that appear on the signed promotional postcard for each Unwanteds book, and Kennedy created the crossword puzzles, word searches, and other activities that are included in the pre-order “prize packs” given out at participating indies.
McMann’s 13-city tour for Island of Graves gets underway on September 14 at Parnassus Books in Nashville. In addition to the pre-order campaign, Simon & Schuster plans social media promotion and advertisements in DC Comics and Boys’ Life.
After her tour, McMann will return to the realms of Quill and Artimé – and happily. “The world and characters of The Unwanteds are extremely special to me,” she said. “I’ve already finished the seventh Unwanteds book and I’m not at all sick of anyone! I still love with this world, and I’m so excited that, with The Unwanteds Quests, I get to stay in it a while longer.”
The Unwanteds: Island of Danger by Lisa McMann. Aladdin, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-4424-9334-6