Love Letters to Our Favorite Libraries

Like a lot of writers, I grew up in libraries.

The public library in my little Midwestern hometown was a cramped single-story brick building wedged between the police station and a busy downtown alley—but to me, it was a wonderland. I spent hours huddled in its narrow aisles, reading and scribbling away…and sometimes playing Oregon Trail on its single computer. I thought anything could be found in that tiny library. Any story. Any fact. Any truth.

The library in my new MG mystery/ghost story Long Lost is nothing like the one in my hometown. Instead of a squat office building, it’s a vast Victorian mansion, donated to the town by a long-dead local heiress. It was inspired in part by the old public library in Portage, Wisconsin, where the home of Pulitzer-winning author Zona Gale (1873 – 1938) was deeded to the city to serve as its library after her death. I never got to visit that spot myself—the Portage Public Library moved to a much larger/less unique location in 1995—but a few years ago, I heard it described by a local librarian who grew up in the area, and that idea wove itself into a story I was already constructing. Librarians: Giving us the info we need when we don’t even know we need it!

The Zona Gale House/Portage Free Library

Whether it’s housed in a strip mall or a mansion, pretty much every writer I know has a library (or two or three) that is extra special to them—a library that helped shape them, or that inspires them, or that gives them shelter and community and all the amazing free reading material any bookworm could ask for.

So here are a few of Spooky MG’s love notes to our libraries.   

Janet Fox (ARTIFACT HUNTERS, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE)

I grew up in a small midwestern town with a wonderful library. My grandmother would come to visit once or twice a year. She was totally deaf from the age of twelve, and a voracious reader – she especially loved mysteries, but romances, dramas, historical novels – she read anything and everything. And she read fast. My mom would have to go back to the library for a new selection every couple of days when Grandma visited, and she had to be careful not to check out the books Grandma already had read, so Mom developed a strategy: she put a tiny set of initials, “KES”, in pencil, on the back inside end paper, up in the corner, in books Grandma read. I wonder whether there are still any old KES books in that library today.
-Janet Fox

Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)

Libraries saved my life—or at least expanded my world in ways that would never have been possible otherwise. As a child I was enthralled with reading and stories, but I lived in a small rural community without even a school library. I first envisioned heaven when I was in fourth grade and we moved to a town with a public library. I couldn’t believe the abundance of books—all free for the taking. That began my library love and support. The love would continue through my life as I pursued a graduate degree in Library Science and went on to work in both public and school libraries. I took great pleasure in sharing books and information with students, helping them to love the wonder awaiting them within a library.

Cynthia at story time, with a bunch of new library-lovers

David Neilsen (DR. FELL AND THE PLAYGROUND OF DOOM, BEYOND THE DOORS)

My local library, Warner Library, serves two villages: Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. Therefore, Halloween is our big holiday. For a few years, we created an indoor 18-hole mini golf course. It was a one-day affair, all the holes were created by volunteers, and it raised a ton of money for the library.

Our library is more than a library, it is a focal point of the community. Events like this, as well as a murder mystery I put together, help give it a life outside of the normal uses. But it is central to our community. I recall during Hurricane Sandy when everybody lost power. The library had power, and people came from all over to plug in and charge their phones or computers. You’d walk into the reading room and there were people on the floor. It really served as a lifeline during that time.

Halloween Mini Golf

Kim Ventrella (BONE HOLLOW, SKELETON TREE, THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM)

Before becoming a full-time author, I worked in public libraries for ten years. For people who haven’t visited their local library in a while, it’s easy to forget what a vital role libraries play in community life. Libraries provide computer access, training and a world of information to customers who otherwise can’t afford it. They offer rich literacy and STEAM-focused programs for children, in a time when the arts are being cut from school budgets. Libraries host job fairs and free health screenings. They provide a meeting space for community groups. Many find unique ways to support local artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Plus, customers frequently get the chance to see librarians in costume.

Can you find Kim? Hint: She’s playing Lord Licorice…

Lisa Schmid (OLLIE OXLEY AND THE GHOST)

Growing up, I moved around quite a bit, so I was always the new kid in town. As a result, I didn’t have a lot of friends. But I could always count on a library as a safe harbor. So when I started getting tagged in posts from friends who had spotted OLLIE OXLEY AND THE GHOST at my local library, I was positively giddy. It didn’t take long before I jumped in my car and raced to Folsom Library to take this picture. Pure joy! 

Historical Spooky MG

Happy October, readers and writers!

This month, some of us here at Spooky MG have been talking about historical–or historical-ish–creepy middle grade books: why we write them, what we love about them, which ones are recent favorites.

Read on to find out what we had to say — and if you haven’t already, be sure to check out our *giveaway* of all of these marvelous historical MGs over on Twitter!

(To enter: Retweet the giveaway post and follow @spookymgbooks. Bonus entries for tagging friends! Open from 10/4 to 10/9 at midnight EST. Winner announced 10/10/20. US only.)

Janet Fox – author of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE and THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS

Why do you like to write historical spooky books?
I love historical books, and adding that spooky element raises the stakes to a whole new level. But, in fact, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, my first spooky historical, became a historical work first and a spooky book second. It was an organic process of finding that I had an antagonist who was so evil that she took the story to a different level. In The Artifact Hunters, my second, because it’s a sequel I used many of the same elements (setting, time period, some characters) and so the spookiness was baked in. But I do love twisting historical elements (castles) with creepy ones (ghosts).


Tell us a bit about your book. What drew you to the period in which your book is set?
The Artifact Hunters (as well as Charmed Children) is set during World War Two. There are a number of things that drew me to that time period. First, I could separate the children from their parents during the London Blitz – because children were, truly, sent away during the bombing to keep them safe. Second, there have long been rumors that Hitler was obsessed by the occult, and wanted to use those practices to further his aims, and how creepy is that? And third, the threats to my characters could come both from the evil antagonist and the war itself.

What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend?
I recommend The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. It’s one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read. Set in Victorian times it reads like a Poe story, with orphaned children, a terrible curse, and a terrifying monster. I loved every spine-tingling atmospheric moment.


Jacqueline West — author of THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE and LONG LOST (coming 5.11.21)

Why do you like to write historical spooky books? 
My books often begin with a setting. Locations—especially rambling, odd, old buildings—are irresistible to my writing brain. I want to wander around inside of them all, and explore every dusty nook and corner, and discover all the secrets of their pasts and presents. And when I write about them, I get to.

Tell us a bit about your book. What drew you to the period in which your book is set?
My first series, The Books of Elsewhere, was inspired by a strange old house in my hometown. While most of the story is set in the present day, the past is central to the book: The looming stone house that Olive Dunwoody moves into is filled with the history (and secrets) of the house’s former owners. Getting to unfold that history was one of the most exciting parts of writing the books. 

And my next middle-grade book, Long Lost (coming in May 2021!), takes place in an old New England town with a public library that used to be the home of a wealthy and mysterious local family. There’s a story-within-a-story in this one, so I got to explore the house and town as I imagine them today and as they were a century ago. The book itself is about how the past tangles with the present, and about how, even when people vanish, their stories can live on and on and on.  

What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend? 
Hoodoo, by Ronald L. Smith. It’s set in rural Alabama in the 1930s, and it’s the story of a twelve-year-old boy from a family of folk magicians who has to help his dead father’s spirit find peace while fending off a mysterious visitor called The Stranger. The time and place are so richly captured, and the whole thing is unique and deep and creepy and wonderful.  


Josh Roberts – author of THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE

Why do you like to write historical spooky books?
I believe history is all around us, and it affects our lives in a million invisible ways every single day. I wanted to explore this idea in my debut novel, The Witches of Willow Willow Cove, which is a contemporary story that’s centered around a historical mystery tied to the Salem Witch Trials. I think the more we understand what has come before us–and why it happened–the better we can understand the context of our own lives. Plus, the mysteries of the past are just incredibly fun to write about!


What drew you to the period in which your book is set?
I was born and raised in New England just a few towns over from Salem, Massachusetts. Growing up, the Witch Trials were always a big part of our local lore. I remember learning about that period as a kid growing up in the 1980s, and then discovering that the witch scare extended far beyond Salem and even into my own home town. When I set out to write The Witches of Willow Cove, I drew upon my memories of a contemporary childhood and what it was like to discover my town’s ties to this very dark period of local history. From there it was an easy step to imagine modern day kids like my main character, a seventh grader named Abby Shepherd, discovering even deeper ties to the Witch Trials and how that might affect her life in exciting and unexpected ways. 


What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend? 
My go-to recommendation is The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange. It’s a beautiful story of friendship, trauma, and recovery set against a backdrop of ghostly woods and spooky old houses in WWI-era England.


Angie Smibert – author of THE GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS series

Why do you like to write historical spooky books?

I love historical books—with a twist. The history is certainly fascinating itself, but I’m really a spec fiction writer, so I like a little something else going on, such as a good ghost story or a bit of magic or magical realism. The spooky element raises the stakes and just generally makes the story more interesting.

What drew you to the period in which your book is set?

The setting drew me in first. The Truce—and the whole Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series—happens in a small coal mining community in Southwest Virginia. The place is loosely based on McCoy, Virginia, where my mother and her family (and several generations before her) grew up.  I set the story in 1942 because this was the peak of the coal mining in our area—and yet it was also a time of great change. The US was fully involved in World War II by that time. Men were leaving the mines to fight in the war. Rationing had started. Women were working in factories. People were dying. This was the perfect time period for a protagonist who wants everything to stay like it had been. (Be cruel to your protagonists!) And my protagonist, twelve-year-old Bone Phillips, is going through a great change, too. She discovered her Gift, the ability to see the ghosts inside ordinary objects, and she was not happy about it!

This is a place that doesn’t really exist anymore. After the war, the mines began to shut down, really changing everything. Now you can drive through the area and never realize there were once coal mines there.

What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend?

I loved The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by MT Anderson and Eugene Yelchin, so I decided to look up some other things Yelchin had written. Delightfully spooky and a little offbeat, The Haunting of Falcon House is set in late 19th Century Saint Petersburg, Russia. Young Prince Lev, a budding artist, must leave his mother to take up his noble duties at Falcon House. There he discovers a dreadful family secret in this haunted mansion that makes him question his role and the aristocracy. The book includes many of the Prince’s drawings.


To win a copy of each of these books — THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE, VOL 1: THE SHADOWS, THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE and THE TRUCE, *PLUS* our recommended titles, THE NIGHT GARDENER, HOODOO, THE SECRET OF NIGHTINGALE WOOD, and THE HAUNTING OF FALCON HOUSE — make sure to find us on Twitter: @spookymgbooks.

Happy reading!

The Stories that Scared US

Obviously, all of us at Spooky MG love creepy stories. And we love the ones written for young readers with a special fierceness.

But I wanted to know about the books that genuinely terrify us—or that terrified us when we were young and impressionable, and that may have given us writing (or nightmare) material for years to come.

I’ll knew what my own answer would be:

Scary Stories Trilogy

Like pretty much everyone else in my Elder Millennial/Oregon Trail generation, my third grade mind was blown by Alvin Schwartz’s SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. I was terrified by those collections, and I adored them—probably for the same reasons. My friends and I would read them aloud at sleepovers, poring over Stephen Gammell’s illustrations, scaring ourselves catatonic. On my own, I would turn back to certain stories or images again and again, seeing if they were as frightening as I remembered. They always were.

If I had to pick a few stories that really dug their hooks into me, I might say “The Bride” (Gah, “The Bride”!!), “The Wendigo” (Its frozen, empty eeriness hit this upper Midwesterner hard), or “Me Tie Doughty Walker,” where the protagonist’s dog begins speaking in strange nonsense words, and is answered by a voice that comes from somewhere in the darkness outside his little cottage… The thought of that one still makes me shudder.

I know some grownups who say they were scarred by these books, and who wish they hadn’t read them when they were small. I suppose I was scarred by them too. But I’m weirdly grateful for it. Without them, I’m not sure what dark and terrible things would be missing from my imagination. And now I get to play with those dark and terrible things when I sit down to write creepy stories of my own.

So, what books for young readers scared—or scarred—my fellow Spookies?

 

Ghostly AnimalsSarah Cannon (ODDITY, TWIST)

Before SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK or GOOSEBUMPS, there was an author named Daniel Cohen who used to put out scary story collections, and GHOSTLY ANIMALS in particular scared the pants off me. There was a ghost that was a skunk with a human face, which was so completely out of left field that it blindsided me…it hadn’t even occurred to me to be scared of such a thing before! Also, Phillis Reynolds Naylor’s Witch series (WITCH WATER, WITCH’S SISTER, etc.) scared me half to death, mostly because the villain was a scary old lady neighbor. The adults could *see* her, they just thought the kids were being fanciful. But they weren’t, and the scary incidents that illustrated this were extremely real to me.

 

LionWitchWardrobe CoverSamantha M. Clark (THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST)

The book that terrified me most as a kid was actually THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. I was terrified that the Witch was going to turn me to stone and horrified about all the animals that had been turned to stone. The idea still haunts me to this day. I’ve never been able to look at realistic statues without wondering if a person is trapped inside…

 

 

The_BFG_(Dahl_novel_-_cover_art)Tania del Rio (WARREN THE 13TH series)

So a book that scared me as a kid was The BFG by Roald Dahl, which is funny because it’s not even a scary book, at least not compared to, say, THE WITCHES. And even though BFG literally stands for big FRIENDLY giant, I still used to lay awake at night terrified that an enormous eye would peer into my bedroom window or that a massive hand would reach through and whisk me away. Even the idea of a giant man blowing pleasant dreams through a long horn creeped me out. It didn’t help that I had tall poplar trees in my backyard and at night, their silhouettes looked like giants wearing long cloaks! 😬

 

Janet Fox (THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE)

I hate to say it, but almost nothing I read as a kid scared me. Even the grownup books. Even DRACULA. But put me in front of a mildly scary movie – even today – and I will have nightmares for weeks, months, years. I don’t know if that helps, but it’s the truth. And maybe why I can write scary books today.

 

Lorien Lawrence (THE STITCHERS)

In a Dark, Dark Room

Lorien Lawrence (THE STITCHERS)

The first scary story that comes to mind is “The Green Ribbon” by Alvin Schwartz from his IN A DARK, DARK ROOM collection. I remember a librarian reading this to my class as kindergarteners – which seems bizarre now because it’s SUCH a scary story, even by today’s standards! We were all sitting on the carpet, huddled together, just listening. I could not stop thinking about it for days afterwards. It definitely gave me nightmares, but it also left me wanting more. I’m sure that read-aloud jump started my love of all things spooky!

 

Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)

The Children of Green Knowe

Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)

I have to admit that I was a Nancy Drew addict—these creepy, spooky, mysterious books always appealed to me. Plus, I enjoyed trying to solve the puzzle, and they were easily accessible at the small local libraries where I lived when I was an MG reader. But I also remember how creepy and chilling the GREEN KNOWE books by Lucy M. Boston were. Loved them! And often I would ready spooky Clyde Robert Bulla books like THE GHOST OF WINDY HILL. First and foremost in monstrous books for me were fairy tales and folklore stories, which were again easily accessible and often taught at school.

 

Kim Ventrella (THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM, THE SKELETON TREE, etc.)

As a kid, I always found myself yearning for stories that both transported me and reflected my experiences, and those experiences weren’t always roses and rainbows. Books that tackled tough topics or delved into the scary or macabre, rather than frightening me, made me feel accepted and understood. They validated my experience and gave me courage. I especially loved SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, mostly thanks to the disturbing, ethereal imagery. Unlike other scary books for kids, that collection didn’t sugar-coat things. I remember being in fifth grade and getting super upset when I read a book (that shall remain unnamed :P) where the ‘monster’ turned out to be some big misunderstanding, basically a Scooby Doo ending. I wanted the monsters to be real, so that I could see kids overcoming true evil. I longed for that catharsis. The funny thing is that now, as an adult, my books with ’spooky’ themes are all about finding light, whimsy and wonder in the midst of darkness. The spooky elements are there partly to lessen the blow of the real-life tough topics I address, like loss and grief. But I think the two needs are connected, i.e. the need I had as a young reader to see kids overcoming true evil, and the recognition that, as an adult, real life is much more terrifying than any kind of fantasy monster.

 


Jacqueline West is the author of THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE, THE COLLECTORS, and DIGGING UP DANGER, as well as the YA horror novel LAST THINGS. Visit her at http://www.jacquelinewest.com, or find her at jacqueline.west.writes (Instagram) or @JacquelineMWest (Twitter).

Writing Tool: The Pandemic Attic Notebook

Anyone else having a little trouble concentrating these days?

Ugh.

In all honesty, I was having a bit of trouble concentrating on writing even before this global pandemic began. After turning in the draft of my next MG novel (a creepy book-within-a-book about sisters and stories and a haunted library, tentatively titled LONG LOST and coming out sometime in 2021—woohoo!), I found myself wavering between four other gestating projects, with a new baby and a just-turned-five-year-old occupying most of my attention, and then…

…Well, you know.

Suddenly, with no preschool or family help, most of my writing time was gone. But not writing at all was making me feel immeasurably worse, like it always does.

So I started something new. (I suppose I officially started it just over a year ago, during a between-books patch, and dropped it when my schedule got crazy again. But we don’t need to talk about that.) It’s called the Attic Notebook. I first heard about it from Laini Taylor, but many writer friends have pointed out similar exercises, like the “morning pages” in The Artist’s Way.

Here are the basics:

– Write in a designated notebook for 10 – 15 minutes each day, using simple prompts to get started, never stopping to revise or look back.

– Write in any form or style: poetry, essays, short or long fiction, whatever comes.

– Once you’ve filled the notebook, hide it away for at least six weeks.

– When you take it out again, imagine that you found the notebook at the bottom of an old trunk in someone else’s attic. Not only will you see the writing with fresh eyes, but it should feel a little like buried treasure.

lamp Attic Notebook

Each morning, before anyone else in my house gets up, I’ve been creeping downstairs to scribble in my Attic Notebook. I try not to think about why I’m writing, about what each  piece is for, about if it will ever turn into anything publishable or finish-able or worthwhile at all. I just pick a prompt and write. I’ve filled one notebook already, and I’m putting off the reading part for as long as I can stand it. Maybe I’ll run out of patience soon and sit down and dive in. But it’s been a great reminder that process matters more than product. And it’s helping me step outside of my anxieties for a little while each day, and that’s been sanity-saving.

 

(Voila: My Pand-Attic Notebooks! If you want to keep one with me during this era, I suppose you could call it a “Shelter-in-the-Attic Notebook,” or a “Quarantine Notebook,” especially if you want to get literal and let yourself read it after exactly 40 days…)

Here are some of the prompts I’ve come up with. Feel free to use them, to add your own, to find others–whatever works for you. And if you want to share any of your process, you can tag me on FB or Instagram (jacqueline.west.writes). It’s nice to remember that we aren’t really alone these days — even while we’re scribbling in the dark all by ourselves.

Prompts:
– Come in from the cold
– Capture the flag
– Paw print
– Lost button
– Shadow caster
– Last rites
– Switched at birth
– Freak show
– Winding road
– To be honest
– Since when
– Hour of beasts
– Hide and seek
– Choked with vines
– Paralyzed
– Survival of the fairest
– Beware
– Monarch
– Pomegranate seeds
– Poison field
– Pan pipes
– Courage
– Locked drawer
– Morning glory
– Sea of storms

 

 

Horror for the Holidays

There’s one holiday that most of us associate with scary stories—and it doesn’t fall in December. In the US, at least, Halloween is the season for everything dark and strange and spooky. Meanwhile, the December holidays are all about coziness and comfort and light, whether that light comes from a row of burning candles or a twinkling tree.

And that’s our loss. After all, what could be cozier than sitting around a crackling fireplace while the wind howls outside, shivering over a great ghost story?

Early storytellers got this. The tradition of telling scary tales in winter goes back centuries, to ancient celebrations of the winter solstice. On the longest, darkest nights of the year, the divide between the realms of the living and the dead was believed to be especially thin. Clans gathered around Yule fires to share strange tales, letting light and warmth keep the icy dark at bay. (You can’t have firelight—or strings of glowing fairy lights stapled all over your house—without darkness, after all!)

The tradition survived through Shakespeare’s time—“A sad tale’s best for winter,” he wrote in The Winter’s Tale. “I have one. Of sprites and goblins.”—and had a boom in Victorian England, when writers like Elizabeth Gaskell and Algernon Blackwood penned wintery ghost tales, and Charles Dickens published what might be the most famous ghost story of all: A Christmas Carol.


(“The Last of the Spirits,” by Harry Furniss)

So for everyone who’s ever listened to the lyrics of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow… There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…”) and thought: Wait. What?—yes, the winter holidays are a perfect time for scary stories. Maybe it’s time for all of us creepy book lovers to bring the tradition back.

Want an eerie, wintery MG read to spark your own Yule celebration? Here are some options:

Crowfield Capture

The Crowfield Curse, by Pat Walsh (2010). Set in a chilly medieval abbey and its surrounding woods, this tale of goblins, buried secrets, and dark magic is rich with historical details and unsettling mystery—plus, Walsh captures the cold of winter so vividly, you’ll want to read it beneath a thick blanket. Or two.

Dead Voices

Dead Voices, by Katherine Arden (2019). The follow-up to Arden’s popular Small Spaces moves from autumn into wintertime, featuring a snowbound ski lodge and the ghosts that haunt it. Pour yourself some cocoa and dive in.

200px-p_wolves_of_willoughby_chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken (1962). The godmother of all gothic MG fiction. An isolated manor in the snowy British countryside? Cruel, conniving servants and mistreated but resourceful children? Packs of howling wolves everywhere? What’s not to love?

greenglass-house-large

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford (2014). This Edgar Award-winning mystery is a bit like a game of Clue set in a remote inn during a brutal snowstorm, but with richer characters and greater depths.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Ghosts of Christmas Past, edited by Tim Martin (2018). While not strictly a middle grade book, this collection features short stories by many authors who are well-known to MG and YA audiences (Neil Gaiman, E. Nesbit, Kelly Link, etc.), and has a little something for everyone, from short and darkly funny pieces to classic, truly haunting tales.

Happy holidays, and happy reading!

JacquelineWest2017cropped
Jacqueline West is the author of the NYT-bestselling dark fantasy series The Books of Elsewhere, the MG mystery Digging Up Danger, and the Schneider Family Honor-winning MG fantasy The Collectors and its sequel, A Storm of Wishes. She loves creepy stories, warm fires, and hot coffee, and at this time of year, you can probably find her enjoying all three at once. Visit her at www.jacquelinewest.com.