I’ve been a fan of Cory Putman Oakes and her books for years. Afterall, she’s the author of the fabulously magical young adult novel WITCH TOWN and the fantastically fun middle-grade DINOSAUR BOY series, among others. But my excitement was ratched up a thousand when she told about the newest middle-grade book she’d sold, because it has ghosts!
THE SECOND-BEST HAUNTED HOTEL ON MERCER STREET comes out from Abrams on Aug. 18, and I’ve already pre-ordered my copy. (You can get yours here.) You can just imagine my excitement at interviewing Cory about her new book. And the best part? She’s given us a wonderfully spooky recipe to try too.
Hi, Cory! Welcome to Spooky Middle Grade! Tell us about THE SECOND-BEST HAUNTED HOTEL ON MERCER STREET.
THE SECOND-BEST HAUNTED HOTEL ON MERCER STREET is “You’ve Got Mail” meets “The Haunted Mansion,” but for a middle grade audience. The idea is that there are two competing haunted hotels on Mercer Street: The Hotel Ivan (small, quirky, family-owned), and The Hauntery (part of a big, soulless, corporate chain). There are also two main characters. There’s Willow, a living girl, whose family has owned the Hotel Ivan for 400 years. Willow’s mother has died and come back as a ghost – she and all of the other friendly ghosts who haunt the Ivan are starting to fade (along with the hotel’s business). Willow is desperate to save her beloved home and the ghosts who are like family to her. Then there’s Evie, a ghost, who works for The Hauntery where she is forced to play the role of “Spooky Little Girl.” Evie longs to play the Terrifying Phantasm, but neither hotel management or her own family will let her prove she’s terrifying enough. The two girls meet at their local library (they’re fans of the same mystery series) and hatch a daring plan to help one another, but can they pull it off before the dreaded Hotel Inspector decides, once and for all, which hotel is the “Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street”?
So much fun! What inspired you to write this story?
I spent an entire night walking my infant son around a decidedly not-haunted hotel. He wouldn’t sleep and he’d fuss whenever I tried to sit down so we walked around empty ballrooms, meeting rooms, down quiet hallways, and through the deserted lobby. We didn’t see any ghosts, but seeing a hotel in the dead of night like that – all that emptiness and quiet, with only echoes of all the parties and proms and weddings and life events that have happened there – was the most haunted thing I’ve ever experienced. I knew immediately I had to write a book about a haunted hotel.
You’ve written some other spooky stories. What do you like best about spooky stories?
I love to tell stories that have a spooky (or magical) element brewing right under the surface of “normal.” There’s something very fun about a world that looks a lot like ours except for one, big, spooky/magical difference. In this case – the world of Mercer Street is just like ours, except ghosts exist and are woven into the fabric of everyday life. I love having paranormal elements brush up against modern things like WiFi and Instagram and toxic corporate culture – it allows me to really play with these concepts in interesting ways.
I’ve always loved spooky stories in particular because they are so layered. On the surface, spooky stories are fun in that spine-tingling, oh-no-don’t-open-the-door, deliciously frightening way. But, especially when spooky stories deal with ghosts and hauntings, they always have a deeper layer of meaning that venture into subjects like death, moving on, living life to the fullest, and what it means to really be “alive.” These are all subjects that kids wonder about and often have a hard time discussing because adults don’t always know what to say about them. The great thing about middle grade ghost stories is that they’re safe places for kids to explore these topics – they allow kids to dip their toes in the heavier stuff while they’re still floating on that cushion of surface-level, spine-tingling fun stuff.
What are your favorite spooky stories that you’ve read?
Recently, I’ve really enjoyed GHOST SQUAD (by Claribel Ortega), GREENGLASS HOUSE (by Kate Milford), GLOOM TOWN (by Ronald L. Smith) and THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ (by Adrianna Cuevas). While I was writing this book I also re-watched a lot of old, classic scary movies like The Shining, Poltergeist, Halloween, and The Haunted Mansion – in fact, a lot of my secondary character names ended up coming from those movies!
Have you ever seen a ghost in real life?
I have never seen a ghost in real life. My Gram used to see them with some regularity and at various points in my life, I’ve worried that I might have inherited this talent of hers. But I’m turning 40 this year and it hasn’t happened yet, so I think I’m safe. Thank goodness! As much as I love literary ghosts, I know I’d be absolutely terrified if I ever encountered the real thing.
The cover for THE SECOND-BEST HAUNTED HOTEL ON MERCER STREET is so fun. Can you introduce us to the characters?
I love the cover too! This book actually has illustrations throughout – they (and the cover) are all the work of a talented artist named Jane Pica. I LOVE the way she captured the personalities of the characters.
And yes, let’s meet them! On the bottom left we have Willow – Willow’s family owns the Hotel Ivan (which everybody is standing in front of). Evie, the other point of view character, is on the bottom right, wearing her “Spooky Little Girl” outfit (which the Hauntery forces her to wear and which she hates with every fiber of her being). Above the girls are some of the Hotel Ivan’s resident ghosts. Going clockwise (starting above Willow’s head), we’ve got: Molly the Headless Horsewoman (she frequently loses her head), Alford (a WW1 veteran who wears his uniform when he’s nervous), Leonata (a drag performer who is married to Alford. When she’s not in drag, she’s Leopold, a former opera singer and the Ivan’s resident Terrifying Phantasm). Bree (the Ivan’s Social Media Coordinator, whose dream is to open her own photography studio). And right at the bottom between Willow and Evie is Cuddles, the Hotel Ivan’s resident ghost dog.
Do you have a spooky craft or recipe to share?
I do! If you’ve been anywhere near my Instagram, you probably noticed that I like to bake. I always try and find a way to sneak baked goods or other recipes into my books. In THE SECOND-BEST HAUNTED HOTEL ON MERCER STREET it was pretty easy – there are actually two other Ivan ghosts who I haven’t mentioned yet (who aren’t on the cover): Antonia, the Ivan’s Head Chef and her niece, Francesca, a Chef-in-Training. They make a number of interesting dishes throughout the story (including one, very memorable dinner party menu). But my favorite, and probably the best one to pass along, is the recipe for the chocolate chip scones they bake for the lobby. This recipe is adapted from one of my all-time favorite scones recipes in The National Trust Book of Scones (by Sarah Clelland).
THE HOTEL IVAN’S CHOCOLATE CHIP SCONES
(Adapted from The National Trust Book of Scones by Sarah Clelland)
16 oz self-rising flour
4 oz butter, cubed
3 oz caster sugar (or granulated sugar if you don’t have caster)
4 oz chocolate chips (plus more to snack on while baking)
1 egg, beaten
200 ml whole milk
Pre heat oven to 400 degrees.
Sift the flour. Rub in the cubed butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until it resembles fine crumbs. Stir in the sugar and the chocolate chips.
Add the egg and mix in almost all of the milk (saving a little bit to brush on top of the scones before baking) to make a soft dough.
Knead the dough lightly on a floured surface until it just comes together. Press the dough out with the palms of your hands until it’s about an inch thick then stamp out the scones with a small round biscuit cutter. Re-roll the scraps and stamp out more until you run out of dough. (If you prefer triangle scones, then flatten the dough into a large circle and cut the dough, pizza-style.)
Brush the top of the scones with the remaining milk and bake them for 10-15 minutes until they’ve risen and are golden brown on top.
Eat them while they’re warm and melty. Share with your favorite ghosts.
Mmmm. My mouth is already watering. Thank you, Cory, for stopping by Spooky Middle Grade. We can’t wait for your new book!
Samantha M Clark is the award-winning author of the spooky and mysterious middle-grade novel THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster). Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or her website.