Spooky Middle Grade (a.k.a., The Spookies): Today we are so excited to feature the wonderful Anica Mrose Rissi, author of numerous, fabulous books — from picture books to chapter books to YA thrillers, you name it! We could spend all day talking about Anica’s incredible Anna, Banana chapter book series, or her amazing picture books, but today we’re particularly excited to talk about Anica’s upcoming spooky short story collection for middle-graders, Hide and Don’t Seek: And Other Very Scary Stories.
Before we get started, let’s check out that nerve-jangling cover illustrated by Carolina Godina:
The Spookies: Welcome, Anica! What a beautiful, haunting cover! We’re so very happy you could join the Spooky Crew today! Could you kick us off with a little bit of backstory about your upcoming collection? How did the story ideas come to you (i.e., all at once, or slowly but surely)? Give us the scoop!
AMR: Boo! Thanks for having me.
I’m joining you today from my childhood home on an island off the coast of Maine (this is Stephen King country: the movie Pet Sematary was filmed nearby), which is also where I wrote most of the twenty spooky stories—some funny, some spine-tingling, some hide-under-the-covers scary—found in Hide and Don’t Seek. Just over my shoulder, there’s a shadow box in which three crocheted dolls are trapped (my mother’s idea of good wall art). Their faces are pressed to the glass, their arms are spread wide, and their eyes never blink. Is it any wonder I was inspired to write spooky stories here?
Two summers ago, I wrote the collection’s opening story, about a game of hide-and-seek that never ends, to amuse myself and my nieces. It was a fun way to procrastinate from the work I was supposed to be doing, so I wrote another, and another. I completed thirteen scary stories that summer in a thrilling creative whirlwind, and read them aloud to any friends who would listen (an important step in my revision process). After my editor at HarperCollins/Quill Tree, Rosemary Brosnan, bought the collection, I added seven more scary stories, playing with not only fears but also formats: One story is told entirely through text messages, another through letters sent home from camp. A few are in verse. One is the script of a play. There’s even a story narrated by a very good dog.
This book was a lot of fun to write!
The Spookies: You definitely know how to make readers bite their nails in suspense (*points to Anica’s YA thriller, Nobody Knows But You*). Did you find the process very different when writing spooky, suspenseful stories for middle-graders, versus writing for a YA audience? Did you find any similarities in the process?
AMR: In Nobody Knows But You, my YA novel about an intense friendship formed over a single summer at camp—a summer cut short by murder—the psychological suspense builds over the course of the whole book, so the pacing is pretty different. With Hide and Don’t Seek, part of the fun is that the stories are short (the longest has 2,350 words but the shortest has only 62), so I got to pack scares, suspense, chills, and surprises into every page. Both books have a dark sense of humor, but the humor in Hide and Don’t Seek is overall sillier and more playful than the humor in my books for older readers. Nobody Knows But You has some deeply cerebral moments, whereas Hide and Don’t Seek is designed to engage readers’ senses with scary sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and corporeal feelings.
The Spookies: Have you come away with a particular favorite in the collection? If so, why is it your favorite? Does it give you more nightmares than all the rest?
AMR: “The Girl and the Crow” is the story I revised the most times, and it’s the one I find most terrifying—perhaps because, despite it featuring a talking crow, it feels very real to me. You can read it as a straight-up classically horrifying fairy tale, but I hope its underlying themes will spark thoughts and conversations about boundaries and consent, gender dynamics, and the danger of teaching girls they must always be “nice.” A corresponding story, “The Boy and the Crow,” expands the allegory and examines how patriarchal structures and systemic racism are toxic and harmful to even their beneficiaries. I’m proud of those stories. I hope they’ll make readers shudder and think.
The Spookies: Do you have any favorite creepy authors or books that you find especially inspiring or influential?
AMR: Oh, I was definitely inspired by my love for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its sequels. I haven’t revisited the series since childhood, but I remember its scariest moments—and the experience of reading them—vividly.
The Spookies: What monster, legend, piece of lore, or ghost tale scares you the most?
AMR: I can read almost anything but I’m a total scaredy-cat when it comes to watching horror—even horror lite. Friends tease me because I had to quit Buffy the Vampire Slayer after only one episode. It gave me too many nightmares!
The Spookies: If you had a single piece of advice to give an aspiring writer of spooky stories, what would it be?
AMR: Focus on the senses! What scary sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations can you incorporate into your story to make it more evocative and memorable?
The Spookies: Okay, let’s do something a little more . . . adventurous. We’re going to give you a noun, and we want you to write a two-sentence horror story based on each. Are you up for the challenge?
AMR: Eeep! Okay.
The Spookies: Then let’s start with . . . GRAPE JELLY.
AMR: When I stuck my finger in the jelly jar, I expected a warm, sticky squish. I did not expect something inside the jar to reach out and poke me back.
The Spookies: Yikes! Good one! How about . . . PUPPY LEASH.
AMR: The other ghosts moan and rattle their chains, searching for justice and vengeance…but not Myrtle. She whistles and whistles all through the night, one hand clasped to the spot where her heart doesn’t beat, the other holding the leash of her poor lost pup.
The Spookies: Ooooh, excellent creepy vibe! Now let’s do . . . MOON BEAM.
AMR: “Don’t worry,” he said, pulling a soft quilt up to the boy’s chin. “The Murderbeast can only enter your room on a moon beam, and I’m certain we’ve closed those curtains tight.”
The Spookies: Okay, that one is the creepiest yet! Last but not least, how about a super tough one: ELEPHANT.
AMR: The ground shook and the beast roared. Slippy the Clown’s painted-on smile didn’t budge, but her eyes grew wide and her shoulders trembled as the World’s Tiniest Ballerina rushed past her, leaping toward the exit, and shouted, “That is not a normal elephant!”
The Spookies: Wow, you really were up to the challenge! Well done! (And after that Moon Beam story, we won’t be sleeping for days.) Thanks so much for your time, Anica! We’re stoked about the release of Hide and Don’t Seek: And Other Very Scary Stories, creeping into the world in hardcover, audiobook, and ebook on August 3, 2021!
AMR: Thanks, Spooky Middle Grade! I hope it scares you silly.