Check out the cover for Megan McCafferty's Jessica Darling prequel 'It List' -- EXCLUSIVE

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Megan McCafferty still can’t believe it took her as long as it did to come up with a Jessica Darling prequel. “As soon as I figured it out it seemed like, ‘Duh, I should have done this three years ago,’” she tells EW. But it didn’t seem obvious to this writer. Perfect Fifths, the final installment in the series that began with Sloppy Firsts, ended, well, perfectly (in my opinion, anyhow). Do we really need to know what Marcus Flutie looked like in junior high? Turns out the answer to that would be an unequivocal yes.

Instead of exploring the cringe-worthy moments of young and new adulthood, Jessica Darling’s It List: The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Popularity, Prettiness and Perfection turns back the clock in favor of junior high. Yes, the book is the first in a new series for middle-graders, but have no fear, older readers: It’s been called “a gift for Jessica Darling fans.” All of your favorite (and not-so favorite) characters are there, albeit younger and perhaps a tad less jaded (but just a tad — this is Jessica Darling, after all). It List starts on the day before seventh grade when Jessica’s older sister Bethany presents her with the “It List,” a list of instructions to continue “Darling Domination of Popularity.” Jessica tries to stick to the list, to hilarious (and often painful) effect.

There are still a few months to go before the book’s release date, but you can check out the brand-new cover below, then read our full interview with McCafferty afterwards.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I feel like I only just heard about this book last week.
MEGAN McCAFFERTY: I don’t blame you. It happened so fast. I’ve never had the process of going from the idea to the publication happen so quickly before. That speaks to just how much this book means to me. As soon as I figured it out it seemed like, “Duh, I should have done this three years ago.”

So what’s the idea behind it?
It started because for three years I’ve volunteered at my son’s elementary school — he’s 10 and in the fourth grade now — and I noticed a distinct shift around age 9 when the more advanced readers in his class were having a hard time finding books for themselves. According to one of my favorite third grade girls, “There’s nothing to read that isn’t fantasy or fairies or a zillion years old, like from the 80s.”

That’s so old!
So old. So I’m hearing this and I’m noticing that there seems to be a void. There are readers who are interested in more mature content and presentation of a young adult novel, but aren’t quite ready for them yet. So I’m thinking, “Well, I have all these young people in my life right now, wouldn’t it be great if I figured out a way to write for them?” You would think that the Jessica Darling prequel idea would have come automatically after that [laughs], but it’s never that easy for me. I find that all my best ideas come to me in my sleep. And I literally woke up at 4 a.m. sometime last May and it was like, “You have the characters! You have the world! Why not write that book in this world?” As soon as that ping went off, I went downstairs and I ended up writing the first three chapters of the It List. I wrote for two hours before my husband woke up.

I have to say, I was surprised to hear about a Jessica Darling prequel. To me, the story ended so well with Perfect Fifths that I wasn’t sure I wanted to see more of her. Have you heard that concern from other people?
People have asked me if I saw myself continuing Jessica’s story and quite honestly I don’t. I don’t see myself writing beyond Perfect Fifths. I agree with you: I love the way that story ends; it’s exactly how I wanted it to be. But this is different: It’s deepening a story without messing with the ending.

Is it weird to write Jessica as a junior high student? I imagine she isn’t quite as cynical or sarcastic, which is part of what defines Jessica’s voice when she’s older.
It’s refreshing. Because she, at her heart, is still who she is. She’s still an insider and an outsider, she’s still hyper-observant, she still loves wordplay. So all the things that I think people love about Jessica are still there. But for me, I didn’t realize how much writing from a cynical, jaded point-of-view affected my own world view. Writing a character who is young and wide-eyed and hasn’t suffered the indignities of adolescence yet has made me a happier person in my day-to-day life. I’ve had more fun writing these books — I’m more than halfway through the second one — than anything I’ve ever worked on in my life.

I’m sure this series will bring a lot of new readers to the original Jessica Darling books, but I’ve noticed that the people who are really excited are the people like me, those who read the books when they were teenagers and are just thrilled to see more of Jessica. What’s that response been like?
It’s wonderful. It’s the best of both worlds. But I hope that when those readers do read it they understand that this book isn’t for them. It’s for 9 to 13-year-olds. Those kids have no idea who Jessica Darling and Marcus Flutie are. They’re not going to buy the books because Jessica Darling’s name is on the cover or because they’re dying to find out what Marcus is like as a 13-year-old. A familiarity with the original series isn’t essential for enjoying it, but at the same time there are very intentional allusions to scenes in the other books. Only people who have read the other books will understand these. I’ve spoken to a few bloggers who got early copies at BEA. One of them came up to me and was just like, “This book is a gift to Jessica Darling fans. It’s a gift to be able to pass on to another generation, but also to be able to spend more time with characters that have come to mean so much to a lot of people.” I almost started crying.

But it must be nice to introduce a whole new crop of readers to the original Jessica Darling books…someday at least.
It’s such a relief for me for the first time in my career to be able to say across the board to my friend’s daughters, “Yes, you can read this, absolutely.” [Laughs] My son brought it to school and I’m not worried. He’s not going to get into trouble for having it. But I’ve had that happen. I was having an email correspondence with an 11-year-old who’d picked up Sloppy Firsts. I was like, “Talk to your mother! You shouldn’t be talking to me about this!”

Jessica Darling’s It List: The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Popularity, Prettiness and Perfection hits shelves Sept. 3.

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