Margaret Peterson Haddix is a full-fledged celebrity whose children's books have sold millions, but she'd rather talk about parenting, volunteering & her small-town roots.
Margaret Peterson Haddix was, to most who knew her, another friendly stay-at-home mom, busy caring for her two young children while her husband worked as a newspaper editor. So when a fellow mother spotted the distinctive name on her child's book club flier, she brought it to Haddix, ready to relish a chuckle. "Look!" the woman said. "There's some children's author who has the same name as you!"
"Mary," Haddix replied, inevitably sheepishly, "That is me!"
That was years ago - perhaps before her fame had truly set in. But such is the modest presence of Haddix. She's a world-renowned author of highly popular and award-winning books for elementary and middle-school kids who parks her minivan in the garage of a lovely but far-from-mansion-like home on the border of Dublin and Powell and is, by all accounts, as humble, kind and giving as folks come.
Haddix, 45, has published more than 20 successful books, including The Shadow Children series, a seven-book collection that has sold more than 2.5 million copies. But she won't be the first to tell anyone any of that.
"She's thoughtful and inquisitive and caring and dependable," said Jon Hauerwas, associate pastor at Worthington Presbyterian Church, where Haddix and her family are active. "You tend to think of people who have attained a certain degree of fame to be more self-centered, more interested in talking about themselves. And Margaret always comes across as someone who's more interested in what you have to say than what's going on in her life."
Haddix grew up on a farm near Washington Court House, the daughter of a farmer and a nurse. She was a happy child who-between theater, band, 4-H and more-kept her nose stuck in books.
Her younger brother John, 42, still keeps a story his sister penned for him as a birthday gift when she was about 11. "It was a nice little story about some space men living on this planet," he said, then joked: "So even then I knew to hang onto her stuff because she was going to be rich and famous someday."
Though the girl with the active imagination and affinity for writing dreamed of authoring books, she was also practical. So when she enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, she majored in journalism and history along with creative writing.
She began a career in newspapers, but while telling truthful tales as a reporter intrigued her, her mind swirled with fictional ideas. She eventually married Doug Haddix, her college sweetheart, and the couple later moved from Indiana to Illinois - and into a pickle. Doug was taking an editor's job, which meant that if Margaret was to continue reporting, her husband would be her boss. They decided to use the situation as an opportunity to allow Margaret time to pursue writing books.
Her initial attempts at impressing agents failed. "It was a lengthy process," Haddix recalled, "with a lot of depression and tears." Meanwhile, she and her husband birthed a big reason to celebrate: their daughter, Meredith. Finally, two years after she had started seeking agents, Haddix secured one. A year later - and while she was pregnant with her son, Connor - Simon & Schuster bought two of Haddix's books.
But when the family moved to Pennsylvania, Haddix still told people she was a stay-at-home mom. "That was what I did all day," she said. "[Being an author] still didn't feel real." Even after they moved to Central Ohio and the fifth-grade students in her son's school were all reading her hit Among the Hidden, Haddix continued to say she was simply a busy mother.
"It just kind of never came up - 'And by the way, I've had a book published!' " she said. "And at a certain point, it's kind of nice to have dual identities. Because sometimes, people start treating you different. Sometimes, it's nice just to be the mom."
Meredith, now 16 and a student at Dublin Scioto High School, said she didn't realize what a big deal her mother was until Haddix once arrived at her elementary school to speak - and a gym full of students was thrilled. "The whole school was interested in her book," Meredith recalled. "I pretty much just see her as my mom. I don't see her the same way as other people."
The funny thing is, Haddix doesn't live the life most fans envision. She writes not from a skyscraping perch in any downtown; rather, she types from a small wooden desk in an extra bedroom that has a daybed and an old photo of her kids in Santa hats. Her husband - a longtime editor with The Columbus Dispatch who is now the training director for the national journalism group Investigative Reporters and Editors - is proud that the woman he fell in love with remains unchanged. "She still clips coupons and is a bargain shopper," said Doug. "Some kids think she lives in a mansion with servants and has that type of life. But she doesn't want that type of life."
Instead, she keeps her success in perspective by using her time, money and energy to help others. Besides giving cash to those in need, she has, among other things, tutored a boy in English, served dinners to homeless mothers and children at the YWCA, volunteered at her children's schools, taught at vacation Bible school, spearheaded a blanket drive at church and served as her church's representative on the board of COMPASS, which helps prevent homelessness by helping people with one-time emergency needs.
She also fosters others' writing. She participates in an intimate local writing group, where she critiques the work of others, and they critique hers. She also judges an annual children's writing contest in Dublin. Liz Soppe, a college friend who now runs that contest, said she appreciates that the sweet-farm-girl-turned-superstar still makes time for events like this. "The kids," she said, "just love her!"
Haddix's books have been about myriad topics: A futuristic country in which children live secret lives because the government has limited the number of kids that couples can have (The Shadow Children Series); two adopted boys who begin receiving mysterious letters and are sucked into a mystery involving a plane, smuggling and the FBI (Found); a girl whose journal assignment gives her a chance to explore feelings about, among other topics, being abandoned by her mother (Don't You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey). While Haddix doesn't consider her books depressing, she does understand why fans sometimes act surprised to meet such an upbeat woman. "A lot of times, people expect me to be dark," she said. "I get a lot of 'Wow, you're really normal!' "
One of the few problems that has accompanied success - besides the occasionally odd phone call to the family's still-listed phone number - is the high demand on Haddix's time. This fall, for example, her newest books hit shelves. So on top of writing three to four hours daily, she is touring schools and bookstores in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Then, she leaves for a promotional tour in Germany. And it's thrilling to be wanted, yes - until locals get hurt feelings because she can't accommodate everyone, her husband noted. "It's difficult at coffee hour at church to say, 'Yes - I have a three-year waiting list,' " he said.
But Haddix does not complain. "I feel very grateful I've gotten to have as much fun as I've had with my books," she said. "It's fit well with being a mother." And though she has won many awards, she considers her greatest accomplishment turning kids on to reading. "It amazes me," she said, "because I didn't realize that's who I was writing for."
So yes, Margaret Peterson Haddix is a busy mom, taxiing kids, clipping coupons, folding laundry. But make no mistake-she's not a modest mother who happens to share the name of a famous author.
That is her.Kristy Eckert is the editor of Capital Style.