I love this book.
Margaret’s father died in a mysterious drowning accident when she was eight years old. Four years later, her mother still won’t talk about it — in fact, she doesn’t talk about much of anything. But when Margaret’s mother takes her and her little sister, Sophie, to a strange abandoned mansion and puts a FOR SALE BY OWNER sign in the front yard, Margaret is determined to solve the puzzle of her family, once and for all.
Armed with three strange clues — a swimming medal, a key, and a handwritten comic book — Margaret returns to the mansion alone. With the help of Boyd, the lonely, comic-book-obsessed boy next door, she discovers that truth can be stranger than fiction — depending on who’s telling the story.
Years ago, I was fortunate to be in the University of Washington screenwriting program with Sara Nickerson. And, although she’ll probably deny it, she was hands down the most talented writer in the class. I knew How to Disappear when it was just a baby and in its original screenplay format. When Sara later adapted it as a novel, she inspired me to do the same with one of my own scripts, and we both discovered that we loved playing in the world of children’s literature.
This is not speculative fiction, but the mystery makes you wonder if supernatural things are afoot, and the comic book pages do creepily (is that a word?) coincide with the action of the story. Sara has a talent for creating compelling characters, and the ones in this book are so real you think you’d recognize them on the street. The relationship between protagonist Margaret and her precocious little sister is totally believable. As well, Sara is spot on capturing the voice of a socially awkward 12-year-old. If I were 10 years old when I first found this story, I probably would have read it over and over again (as opposed to only the three times I’ve read it as an adult – lol).
Entwined with Margaret’s story, are shorter chapters about Boyd, an equally lonely pre-teen who lives next door to the mysterious house Margaret’s mom is selling, and who is obsessed with the handmade Ratt comics. The children are forced together and learn to trust each other, something not so easy with either of them.
Supporting character Tina Louise, Margaret’s first and only friend at school, is one of my favourite middle grade characters. We only get her for a few chapters, but her presence is throughout as Margaret continually asks herself, “What would Tina Louise do?”
If you’re looking for a spectacular coming-of-age upper middle grade novel, that also features pages from the mysterious Ratt comic book, this book is for you.
I wrote to Sara to see if she’d answer a few questions about her work:
Where did you get the story idea? Is any of this based on real people or events?
I thought of the story while I was on a camping trip with my nieces. At the time, they were about the ages of Margaret and Sophie. I didn’t actually have a specific idea for the story – more that I wanted to write a story for them, the kind of story I loved as a kid. That meant it had to have mystery, suspense, and a kid going off on her own. (And donuts). I was writing screenplays at the time, so I wrote it first as a screenplay.
What made you decide to turn it into a novel?
I was working in television and film when I wrote this story as a screenplay, but so many people thought it would be a good novel, that I finally listened to them. I was lucky because one of those people was a fabulous editor at HarperCollins.
You have such a great way of capturing that middle school voice. Why do you suppose that is?
Thank you. I think it’s because I love those books – I loved them when I was a kid and I love them now. I read all the time. And I’m around kids all the time.
Do you still write screenplays or have you found your home in children’s novels?
Right now I’m working on two new middle grade novels. I would definitely like to write another screenplay, but only if it seemed like it was a story that HAD to be a movie. I’m very happy writing novels for kids.