Lisa McMann: The Unwanteds Q&A

It’s not every day that one gets to pick the imagination of an author – especially one who has created such a colorful and creative dystopian world like that of Artime. Naturally, I was thrilled when presented with the opportunity to interview Lisa McMann, not only because the enchanting magic of her imaginary universe left a permanent smile on my face every time I entered it (who doesn’t love slam poetry as a form of combat?), but  mostly due to the fact the I believe Lisa’s message is so timely. In today’s educational system, imagination takes an all-too-often forced backseat to the sciences, and in some areas of the country, many low-income schools offer no arts education at all.

Consequently, the sad truth is that we have children in our society that go all the way through kindergarten and high school without one art or music class.  This (among other reasons) is why I feel Lisa McMann’s book is so crucial. It is important for children to understand that creativity is not only fun, but it is essential for the survival of a healthy society:

Can you describe your creative process for creating the dystopian fantasy world in The Unwanteds?

The idea was sparked by my kids several years ago when they came home from elementary school with a letter that said that the school was going to cut some of the arts classes due to budget constraints. I looked at my kids and said off-the-cuff, “Wow, I’m so sorry. It kind of feels like you’re being punished for being creative.”

I thought about that, wondering what a world would be like if children were punished for being creative, and I wrote the scene that would become chapter one of THE UNWANTEDS. And then the family and I brainstormed what the opposite world would be like, a world where art was celebrated and even used to make magic, and Artimé was born.

Which character in the book do you identify most with?

Oh, probably the High Priest Justine. Just kidding! I identify with all of them in some way. Probably a combination of Ms. Octavia, Samheed, and Simber.

Did you ever feel, being a creative child, that your gifts were unwanted or not useful in the world?

This is going to sound weird, but I never thought of myself as a creative child. I was terrible at drawing and making crafts, and I couldn’t sing. Writing – that wasn’t anything special. I was sort of embarrassed that I liked to write. I do think there was a stigma attached to writing, that it was not something important to actually do for a living, but that it might mean I could be a teacher someday. I had a few brief flashes of encouragement that I remember, in 4th grade and when I was a senior in high school, but it wasn’t until college that I realized I was a pretty decent writer and I didn’t have to ashamed of that.

What are your thoughts about the decline of arts programs in public schools?

Oy. So much sadness. The arts help kids think, grow, and deal with life in a way that isn’t measured by a multiple choice standardized test. At the end of last semester my daughter, now a sophomore, had to take three different math exams to satisfy state, district, and her actual teacher. Can you imagine that class of kids walking around like zombies after all of that? Thankfully my daughter has an amazing theatre teacher and program in this high school, and my son has art classes he can take. Not every kid is so lucky, and that’s a real shame.

Anything you can share with us from The Unwanteds 2? A sentence even? We’d love a sneak peek!

Okay! Well, in book 2, we see a bit more of Aaron, who is having a rough time after what happened at the end of book one. Here’s a little scene from early on. Aaron is in his dormitory room:

A moment later, there was a knock on his door. He froze. Had someone heard him cry out?

“Who’s there?” he asked.

Aaron heard a shuffle outside his door, and four armed Quillitary soldiers burst through the door into the room. Aaron stood immediately, his chair scraping the floor and nearly tipping over. His eyes widened. He’d met them all before.

“Former Assistant Secretary Aaron Stowe?” said the apparent leader in gruff voice.


“You’re being terminated.”

Why write middle grade?

I didn’t purposely set out to make The Unwanteds middle grade, but it came out that way because I wanted it to be something my kids would enjoy. They were 12 and nine when I started writing. And I found that I totally loved writing about 13-year-olds. Writing The Unwanteds gives me so much variety, since there are two worlds, Aaron’s dystopian and Alex’s magical fantasy. Add my teen paranormals and realistic fiction to that, and my workday is never dull.

Give us your Twitter sales pitch: convince us to read The Unwanteds in 140 characters or less!

Children sent to their deaths for being creative. And fire-breathing origami dragons.


Private concert: who’s playing

The Killers

Pizza toppings?

Bacon and mushrooms

Book you can’t stop re-reading?

I wish I had time to re-read them all! When I was a kid, it was Little Women and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Living or dead, who would you like to have dinner with?

Does it really matter who they are if they are dead? A whole table full of dead people, rotting away… more food for me! (I think I just creeped myself out). Okay, seriously – J. K. Rowling and Harper Lee.

Perfect vacation?

Somewhere warm with an ocean. And no humidity.

Look at your desk right now. Name five things within reach.

I don’t actually have a desk! But I have a chair. Five things around my chair: Diet Coke, iPhone, Batman pin, purple Sharpie, didgeridoo.

Thank you, Lisa, for using your imagination to celebrate the magic of creativity.

And be sure to check out The Unwanteds, in stores now:

Quill prevails when the strong survive.

Every year in Quill, thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories: the strong, intelligent Wanteds go to university, and the artistic Unwanteds are sent to their graves.

On the day of the Purge, identical twins Alex and Aaron Stowe await their fate. While Aaron is hopeful of becoming a Wanted, Alex knows his chances are slim. He’s been caught drawing with a stick in the dirt-and in the stark gray land of Quill, being creative is a death sentence.

But when Alex and the other Unwanteds face the Eliminators, they discover an eccentric magician named Mr. Today and his hidden world that exists to save the condemned children. Artimé is a colorful place of talking statues, uncommon creatures, and artistic magic, where creativity is considered a gift… and a weapon.

For the comments: Have you read The Unwanteds? Share your thoughts below!

4 thoughts on “Lisa McMann: The Unwanteds Q&A

Add yours

  1. Great questions! Lisa is such a fantastic writer and one of the nicest authors I’ve met. My WoW for tomorrow is Island of Silence. I don’t typically read MG, but after reading The Unwanteds I wondered what I might be missing out on by not visiting the MG shelves more often.

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