Interview With Author Refe Tuma

This week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Refe to talk about his debut middle grade novel, Frances And The Monster. I quickly discovered he’s as charming and delightful as his new book.


Lisa: Tell us about FRANCES AND THE MONSTER.

Refe: Eleven-year-old Frances Stenzel comes from a long line of esteemed scientists and dreams of making a name for herself.

When her parents leave her home yet again, this time in the charge of an infuriatingly clever robot named Hobbes, she decides she’s done waiting. She sneaks down to the laboratory and enters her father’s off-limits workshop, determined to prove her scientific mettle.

Instead, she accidentally awakens her great-grandfather’s secret and most terrible invention—an enormous monster who breaks out of the manor and disappears into the city below.

With her pet chimp, Fritz, and a reluctant Hobbes by her side, Frances sets off to find the monster and stop it before it destroys the city—and her future—along with it.

Lisa: How did you come up with this fantastic story?

Refe: FRANCES AND THE MONSTER began as an idea for a short film that I planned to shoot using stop-motion animation. I loved the idea of a letting a kid loose in a laboratory, where she could channel the frustration I think we all experienced at that age, when our minds have begun to develop beyond the limits of our current freedoms.

The idea stuck with me for years, eventually growing into the full-length novel it is today. It’s still incredible to think it’s out in the world for kids to read.

Lisa: How do you develop your plot and characters?

Refe: I tend to create my characters on the page. Sometimes a scene or a line of dialogue will bubble up in my mind and I’ll start writing. I try not to worry about where that moment will fit in the larger story. It’s a great way to get a sense of who my characters are and the kinds of situations that might challenge them and force them to make the choices that will shape their journey. 

Most of those experiments don’t end up in the finished book, but bits and pieces often do, or other moments those pages inspire.

I don’t like to get too boxed into a plot until I’ve had some time to explore the story. Even once the major beats are planned, I try to stay open to surprises. 

Lisa: What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing?

Refe: I think I rewrote the first chapter more than two dozen times! Those first few pages are so important for orienting the reader in the world of the story and setting them off in the right direction. There’s a lot of new information and characters and scenery to juggle, but it can’t feel like that’s what’s happening when you read it.

The worst part is, I’m doing the exact same thing on book two, which I hope to wrap up by the end of this month!

Lisa: What part of the book was the most fun to write?

Refe: I loved writing dialogue between Frances, Hobbes, and Luca. Hobbes was a character who came into the story fully formed (which is ironic, if you know what happens to him in the book…) and he remained consistent throughout the entire process. Once Luca appeared, it was so easy to play the three of them off each other.

Lisa: How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?

Refe: I don’t tend to write very autobiographically. Mostly, the bits of my life that end up in my stories are more like impressions of how I felt in certain situations. Vibes, maybe. I do have a story in the works that is based on my experiences in middle school and high school that I’m very excited about, but that project is still a ways off. 

Lisa: What books did you like to read when you were a kid? 

Refe: I liked books with intelligent protagonists, especially when those protagonists were pitted against nefarious adults. Adults make the perfect bad guys because their motives and morality can seem so grey to kids. They’re unwitting agents of a cynical world, intent on squeezing the freedom and hopefulness of childhood out of us before we’re ready. It’s a fun dynamic to play with, especially in fantasy stories.

Lisa: What advice would you give a new writer?

Refe: Write your ideas down! You never know where the spark for your next project might come from. I recommend keeping an idea journal—a physical one, ideally. It’s fun to flip back through the pages and revisit old ideas. Some you might have already forgotten were in there.

Beyond that, just keep writing. Completing a novel feels utterly impossible until the moment you type THE END for the first time. After that, the process really does open up, and the next book doesn’t seem like such a steep hill to climb. 

Lisa: What are you hoping readers will take away from FRANCES AND THE MONSTER?

Refe: I hope readers will see themselves in Frances and Luca. I want them to come away from the story feeling more confident in themselves, more open to making friends and building trust, even in the unlikeliest of places.

Most of all, I hope they enjoy the story.

Lisa: What are you working on now?

Refe: I am about 3 weeks away from turning in the final draft of a sequel to FRANCES AND THE MONSTER! I’ll be sharing more about it soon, but I can tell you that Frances sees her world expand in a big way in this next book. That’s something she’s wanted for a long time—but that doesn’t mean it will happen in the way she expects…

Lisa: What advice would you give 12-year-old Refe? 

Refe: I’d tell him to SLOW DOWN. I was always in such a rush to grow up. There’s a unique quality to those middle school years. Nothing is set in stone. Your trajectory isn’t fixed. Anything can happen. I’d tell him/myself to be present in every experience, even the ones that feel lousy in the moment, and don’t be in such a hurry to reach the next one. Frances starts to learn this lesson, I think, so maybe 12-year-old Refe could too.

Lisa: Thank you so much for stopping by our spooky little corner of the world. It was a pleasure chatting with you!

To learn more about Refe Tuma please visit his Linktree.

Interview with Graphic Novelist, Ira Marcks

This week, I sat with spooky crew member Ira Marcks to discuss his graphic novel, Shark Summer. In addition, I wanted to learn about his creative process and get the skinny on his new book, Spirit Week, available October 25, 2022. So, without further ado, let’s wade into the spine-chilling waters of graphic novels.

Lisa: What inspired you to make Shark Summer?

Ira: I’ve always wanted to make a comic about kids on a summer adventure. But I could never find a way into the story that didn’t seem like it’d been done before. Then one day I was reading a book about the making of JAWS and I thought to myself “wow, what a wild, madcap summer that must have been for the cast and crew.”  It got me thinking… is there a more iconic summer adventure  than the one JAWS captured on film? Suddenly, I had my inciting incident; a sleepy New England island is overrun with a Hollywood production. Now, all I had to do was decide what happens to the people who live there behind the scenes.

Lisa: What can readers expect from the story?

Ira: A fast paced, nostalgia infused, summer adventure about new friendships, filmmaking, and the creepy secret history of a New England island!

Lisa: What were some of the challenges of turning this story into a graphic novel?

Ira: The most difficult part of the process was trying to find the right balance of cartoon humor, horror movie tropes, and real world consequences. Shark Summer takes place on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1974 during the filming of JAWS. While I worked hard to convey the geography and spirit of this time and place, there were also choices to be made about how to use these elements to tell an inspirational comic for kids. My editor Andrea Colvin deserves a lot of credit for helping me find the best way to tell this story.

Lisa: How long have you been interested in comics? Is this what you wanted to do when you “grew up”?

Ira: Comics are a balance of drawing and writing so while I loved to draw as a little kid, I soon realized that I couldn’t tell a good story with a comic unless I practiced my writing. Putting those two skills together inevitably led me to making comics! I’ve always been good enough at it to keep a few people interested in what I was working on, and I built my ‘career’ from there.

Lisa: What’s the best writing advice you have received?

Ira: I like the quote by fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett that goes “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” Which is to say, the later drafts are intended for the reader. I think it’s important to distinguish a first draft from the rest of the process. To be honest with yourself is crucial to the early stages of a project. So when you bring other cooks into the kitchen and begin to edit and clarify the story, there will always be a seed of truth left from that first draft you wrote for yourself.

Lisa: I see you have a new graphic novel coming out on October 25, 2022. Please tell us about Spirit Week.

Ira: It’s kinda like a sequel to Shark Summer. In the second book we join Shark Summer’s aspiring filmmaker Elijah Jones as he heads off to Colorado to make a documentary about a reclusive horror writer who has been living at a certain infamous hotel.

Ira Marcks is a graphic novelist based in Upstate NY. He make comics, teaches comics, and podcast about cartoons. His books have been recommended by The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and American Library Learn more:

A Good Luck Tale

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. To celebrate, the spooky middle-grade authors are sharing how a wee bit of luck helped pave their path to publication.

Lisa Schmid

A few years ago, I had given up on Ollie Oxley and The Ghost and decided to move on to a new project. But as luck would have it, at the last minute, I decided to participate in the Twitter pitch party #kidpit. To my good fortune, Carlisa Cramer with Jolly Fish Press liked my pitch, and the rest is history. It was my lucky day.

Cynthia Reeg 

In the summer of 2005, I attended the Highlights Foundation weeklong Chautauqua Workshop and had the opportunity to have then Highlights editor, Marileta Robinson, look over my very first MG fantasy, THE SLIGHTLY TANGLED TALES OF JIM-BO BAXTER. I was at a bit of a low spot in my writing career at that point. She encouraged me to keep working on my story. I did and I submitted it to our regional SCBWI contest that fall. I was amazed when I won the Ellen Dolan Mentorship Award for 2006. I spent the next year polishing TANGLED TALES with my wonderful mentor, Vicki Erwin. We even had time to start revising my new MG fantasy, FROM THE GRAVE, which eventually lead me to joining the lovely Spooky MG Authors. Vicki continues to mentor me—and five other authors, as part of a great group of talented authors called the Polished Pens. That’s the thing with writing children’s literature—I’ve found such great support and camaraderie all along the way. Lucky for me!

Tania del Rio 

Warren the 13th may sound unlucky, but it’s all thanks to a stroke of good luck that it was able to be published.

Usually you write a manuscript and query agents who will hopefully sell your book to a publisher. In my case, Warren the 13th was just an idea that was created by the illustrator Will Staehle back when we went to art school together many years ago. He designed the character and concept, and I wrote an early draft of Warren’s story. It was a fun concept but we were both preoccupied with our respective majors (graphic design and animation), so we never did anything with Warren at that time.

Fast forward many years later. Will and I were at a booth in Comic Con San Diego, selling Victorian inspired art, short stories, and goods for our company, The Bazaarium. A guy named Jason came by to check out our wares, and was a fan of our stuff. It turned out he was the publisher for Quirk Books and he invited us to pitch him on a book idea inspired by our spooky Gothic/Victorian aesthetic. We knew Warren the 13th would be perfect! So we dusted off the cobwebs off the old manuscript I wrote so many years ago and we pitched it along with Will’s fantastic illustrations. Next thing we knew, we had a new series under our belts!

I feel so lucky that we got to bring Warren into the world through a chance meeting. If we hadn’t met Jason, there’s a good chance Warren would still be left in a pile of old papers, forgotten.

Kim Ventrella

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a “starving artist.” Those exact words. I have been so extraordinarily lucky to do what I love, exclusively, for the past three years. Has it been a financial struggle? Yes. Does it require some serious hustle? For sure. But the vast majority of people around the globe never get the opportunity to follow their passions in that way. And I should say that, as a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I love living on the cheap. That’s a huge part of how I can do this, as is my dog. No, she doesn’t bring home the bucks, but her adorable cuddly butt is worth way more than money.

Samantha Clark 

I got a lot of luck with my first book, although it could also be that I had put myself into the right place at the right time. As the new Regional Advisor of the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, I helped to organize an annual conference. I had a team who helped me decide which speakers we should bring in, agents, editors, art directors, authors, etc. While I was an organizer, I also had the same dreams of the attendees: that I might connect with an agent or editor who liked my work. By lunch on the Saturday, I had heard from friends that they’d made promising connections with agents and editors, and that was thrilling, to have been a small part in making that connection. But I knew I wouldn’t be making a connection because I had researched the agents we had invited and I knew it was unlikely they’d be interested in my manuscript because of the types of books the represented. It felt bittersweet, sad for myself, but at the same time joyous for others—and I at least had the satisfaction of organizing a wonderful event that inspired so many people. But luck—or fate?—had other ideas.

On the Sunday, as I carried boxes of handouts into a room, one of the agents, Liza Pulitzer Voges, pulled me over and said she’d heard about my work from my author friend Donna Janell Bowman and would like to see it. Knowing Liza’s clients, I didn’t think she’d represent my work, but I thanked her and said I would send it. The rest of the conference went great, and on the Monday, I spent the morning with the art director we’d brought in, Laurent Linn from Simon & Schuster,  because we could only get him a late flight. I took him to our local indie bookstore, BookPeople, and introduced him to the children’s book buyer. Over a coffee, I told him about the manuscript I was working on. Then the conference was over and I thought no more about it.

Flash forward a month and I was not surprised to get a rejection from Liza Voges, but what did surprise me was she felt that, even though the book wasn’t right for her, it could be right for other agents. She recommended I submit to two mentioning her name. I thanked her and… did not send my work to the other agents. I didn’t see the point. My manuscript had been requested by lots of agents, and in some cases, had been sitting in their inboxes for over a year. After over 100 rejections, I had lost hope that one more agent submission would make a difference.

Three weeks later, I got copied on an email Liza Voges was sending to the agents she had recommended. She had told them about my work and both of them had asked to see my full manuscript. I was so grateful and shocked that Liza had gone that extra mile. And even though I was sure they’d reject me too, I didn’t want to let Liza down, so I immediately sent off the manuscripts. Three weeks later, I got an offer of representation from Rachel Orr, who’s still my agent today.

But that’s not all! Two years later, that manuscript sold to Sarah Jane Abbott at Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster. When it was talked about in a staff meeting, Laurent Linn recognized the story as the one we’d talked about over coffee in the BookPeople cafe two and a half years earlier. He quickly told them he wanted to work on the book. He did an amazing job, collaborating with illustrator Justin Hernandez to give THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST a gorgeous cover and interior, and they just collaborated again for my next novel, ARROW.

So from organizing a conference where I was sure I wasn’t making any connections that would move my career forward, I ended up getting an amazing agent and art director, and both were out of my hands. A lot of this was out of my hands: The chapter’s former Regional Advisor, Shelley Ann Jackson, had suggested we invite Liza Pulitzer Voges and Laurent Linn to speak at our conference.  Donna had mentioned my work to Liza, and Liza had recommended it to my agent. And in more luck, if Laurent had been able to get an earlier flight out after the conference, I might not have had coffee with him at BookPeople, and he might not have been my book’s art director.

I’m very grateful for the people who helped me make these connections, but I also think about all the rejections THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST had had before, rejections that had helped me learn and revise and make the manuscript better. So much luck  helped me make those connections, but one of the things I’m also grateful for, is that the luck came when THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST was ready, which was perhaps the luckiest part of all.

Janet Fox 

My lucky break came when I got a super-last-minute critique, due to a cancellation, at a conference I decided to attend a few days before it started, and that critique was with Alyssa Eisner Henkin, then an editor at S&S. I sent off my stuff in time for her to read it on the plane. At the conference I was disappointed when she announced she was leaving S&S – to become an agent. But………in my critique she gushed over my pages, saying she’d been wishing for the plane to fly faster, and she wanted to see the whole manuscript as soon as she was in her new office. Two months later, I became her first client, and she was my first agent, who sold my first novel to Penguin in a two-book deal.

Sheri Larsen

I crossed the luck of the Irish during my writing journey thus far a few times. The most memorable would be how I signed with my first agent. After months of querying, gaining requests but no offers of representation, I decided to submit to publishers on my own and I received seven offers of publication. I then recontacted a few agents and that’s how I signed with my first agent! Guess you could say I found the lucky backdoor.

Interview with Colette Sewall, Author of Kiki Macadoo And The Graveyard Ballerinas

Kiki Macadoo and The Graveyard Ballerinas is one of my favorite books of 2020. It’s a spooky adventure that leaps off the page and into your heart. The moment I finished reading this magical tale, I knew I wanted to interview Colette for the Spooky Middle Grade Blog.

1. Tell us about Kiki Macadoo and The Graveyard Ballerinas. 

When eleven-year-old Kiki MacAdoo and her talented older sister go to Mount Faylinn Dance Conservatory for the summer, they ignore the brochure’s mysterious warning that “ballets come alive” in the nearby forest. But after her sister disappears, it’s up to Kiki to brave the woods and save her from the ghost sylphs that dance young girls to their deaths. As Kiki unlocks the mysteries of Mount Faylinn, the ballet of the ghost sylphs, Giselle, simultaneously unfolds, and Kiki is swept away in the adventure of a lifetime.

2. How did you come up with the idea? 

When I was young, my mother used to tell me the haunting story of the ghost sylphs in the ballet, Giselle. My mother was a classical pianist, and on some nights when I was little, she would play music from the ballet and let me stay up late. I would lower the lights and tiptoe through the living room, pretending I was lost deep in the forest. When my mother would count out the chimes of midnight for the ghost ballerinas to rise, I always shrieked—even though I loved every minute of it. That ballet always held a special place in my heart, and I thought a retelling of it would make a perfect children’s fantasy. Of course, I had to embellish it by adding a lot of additional creepy stuff to the original story!

3. Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans! 

Some of my characters often have similar traits to people I know (including yours truly). For instance, I wear glasses, and I was a dancer, so I have that in common with Kiki. I also love chocolate chip cookies! I also had a best friend named Susan (who later moved to Orlando). We took dance classes together in New York when we were young, and we’re still friends today. I didn’t grow up with a sister like Kiki, but I did have a brother. Like Kiki and Alison, we got on each other’s nerves sometimes, but underneath it all, we always loved and stood by one another.

4. How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell? 

As I mentioned above, I was a dancer and studio owner, so I know the struggles students experience and how hard it is to excel in dance. I also always loved to draw and paint like Kiki ever since I was young. In addition, I also believe I actually saw a flower fairy when I was a child. We had a bouquet on the table, and out of nowhere, a tiny face from one of the yellow flowers popped out and stared at me! A second later, it shot back into the petals. Unfortunately, that never happened again.

Another incident I incorporated in the book happened when I was an adult and running my own dance studios. At the end of one of my recitals, I was alone onstage making an announcement when an overhead stage light crashed to the ground, just missing my head!

5. What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Do those books influence your writing? 

When I was young, we didn’t have the vast assortment of children’s books as we do now. But I always loved old fashioned fairy tales, Madeline, The Little Prince, and Dr. Seuss books. Another book I particularly enjoyed was Little Women. I loved the fact that a woman wrote it over 150 years ago, and since Louisa May Alcott’s great-grandparents were my four times great-grandparents, her book always held a personal meaning for me. I loved the coming-of-age theme and the relationship between the sisters. I also loved how determined the character Jo was and how she refused to fit into the mold of what was expected of women back then. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or not when I decided to feature two sisters in my story.

6. What are you working on now? 

I am currently finishing a sequel to Kiki MacAdoo, which is also quite spooky. I also have an historical YA that I’m editing and a number of other ideas brewing. 

7. What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?  

I would say that I am a bit of both—a planster. I need to have a fairly good idea where my story is going before I begin. But I am not one of those authors who can write intricate outlines. I do an abbreviated one using pen and paper in a notebook and on index cards. I also scribble random notes on scraps of paper throughout the house as ideas come to me. 

8. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Read as much as you can, especially in your genre. Also, study all the books on the craft of writing that you can get your hands on. When you finish a manuscript, try to find a trusted critique partner who is not afraid to be honest. It also helps to follow Query Tracker, MSWL, and Publisher’s Lunch to keep posted on what agents and editors are signing.

And finally, I would tell them not to give up. If you enjoy writing and it’s in your heart, it’s never too late to follow your dreams.

About the Author

Colette Sewall is an award-winning writer who spent the majority of her life as a dancer and studio director. Since she has also worked as a medical assistant, flight attendant, actor, and artist, she believes she is like a cat with nine lives. She is a direct descendent of one of the judges who presided over the infamous Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692, which can be a bit awkward when she runs into a descendent of one of the accused witches. She lives on the eastern end of Long Island with her husband and psychic German shepherd, Gracey, and is in desperate need of more bookshelves. When she is not writing middle grade or young adult novels, she is probably perusing one of her favorite libraries or used bookstores. She is a member of the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators and is represented by Britt Siess of Martin Literary Management.




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Interview with Tara Gilboy, Author of Rewritten

Tara Gilboy is a delightful ball of energy and her books are just as fun! When I heard her new story, REWRITTEN had a spooky theme, I knew I had to interview her.

Let’s get to it!

1. Tell us about Rewritten.

Rewritten is the sequel to Unwritten, which follows Gracie, a twelve-year-old girl who is actually a character in an unpublished fairy tale. Her parents took her out of the story, and into the real world, as a baby in order to save her life. In the first book, Gracie goes in search of her author, Gertrude Winters, to find out what happened in her story. Rewrittenpicks up where Unwritten left off. This time, Gracie ends up in another of her author’s tales, but this one is a gothic horror novel, full of all kinds of spooky story tropes: a crumbling mansion, an ancient cemetery, a beast that roams the night…. 

2. How did you come up with the idea? 

The idea for Rewritten came easier than other books I’d written in the past. I knew when I finished Unwritten that if I wrote a sequel, I’d want to have Gracie travel into other Gertrude Winters stories, so I had a general sense of what the book would be about. The hardest part of figuring out what shape the plot would take was getting a firm handle on what Gracie’s internal arc would be. She had resolved a lot of her issues in book one, and so figuring out what her character still needed took some time. Interestingly, in order to figure out what would happen in Rewritten, I had to think really hard about what the villain, Cassandra, wanted. Often when I’m plotting, I’m focusing on my protagonist’s goals, but I knew in this case, I needed to figure out what Cassandra wanted and what her next move would be because this would play a significant role in what happened to Gracie.

3. Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans! 

I don’t base characters on real people intentionally, but I think I grab bits and pieces from people I know. I might get an idea for a certain character trait; for example, I might notice the way someone who is shy moves and interacts with the world and then use those mannerisms when I’m crafting a shy character. I think using these kinds of real-life observations can help create characters who feel authentic and lifelike, but I’m also careful not to base a character too much on a real person, both because I don’t want to offend my friends and family and also because I want the characters I create to serve the story, and I think being too married to the “real person” who serves as inspiration can sometimes inadvertently limit the story’s development.

4. How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell? 

Well, thankfully not a lot, considering how spooky Rewritten is! I wouldn’t want to have to go through what Gracie did! 

I’m joking, because since I write fantasy, a lot of what takes place in my stories couldn’t happen in real life, but I do actually draw on my real-life experiences quite a bit in other ways. Usually those are related to the emotional experienceof an event, rather than the event itself. For example, if one of my characters is experiencing fear, I’ll think back to a time when I was afraid and really try to be in the moment and remember how it felt, both in my mind and body. Thoughts whirling, senses alert, muscles tensed, ready to flee… This helps me to create authentic reactions in my characters. And of course, since I write for children, I do think back to my own childhood quite a bit and remember the emotional experience of it, the things that were important to me, the way I felt about the world and about other people… Though, on a side note, I think I sometimes do use my real experiences without realizing it. I remember once after reading one of my stories, my mom called me and said “I remember when that happened to you as a kid,” and I was like “That happened to me?” I had completely forgotten the incident, but somehow it made its way into my story.

5. What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Do those books influence your writing? 

I liked to read anything and everything as a kid, but my favorite books were historical fiction. I was kind of obsessed with the Little House on the Prairie series, the American Girl books, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. But I also had a long stretch where I was reading nothing but The Babysitter’s Club books and then as I got a little older, the R.L. Stine Fear Street series. Interestingly, I didn’t read a lot of fantasy as a kid, and that’s what I mostly write now. I think the biggest way that the books I read as a kid influenced my work was that I was always very drawn to middle grade. Even now, I read mostly middle grade novels. There is something so compelling to me about the way these stories are told and how their characters view the world.

6. What are you working on now? 

Lately, I’ve been bouncing back and forth between a few different projects. I’ve been struggling to find time to write lately because of all the teaching I’m doing. I just took a sketch comedy writing class that was a lot of fun because it pushed me to try a new kind of writing. But the main thing I am working on is a spooky historical middle grade with mermaids.

7. What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?  

I write best in the morning, and I always start my writing session by reading: nothing puts me in the “writing zone” better than reading great stories by other authors. I’m really big on writing crappy rough drafts, and so I don’t edit a lot along the way, though I do workshop quite a bit with my writing group. I often get feedback from them and use their suggestions as I continue forward, but I don’t do a lot revising until I’ve reached the end of the first draft. I know a lot of writers who do revise along the way, but that’s just not a process that works for me because I’m definitely someone who can get lost in revising and then never get to the end of a manuscript. Plus, because I don’t do much outlining, I often don’t know what the heart of the story is until I get to the end of the draft. So if I revised too much along the way, I might end up with some beautifully-written scenes that end up getting cut because they don’t earn their place in the plot. I have shifted a bit and started plotting a bit more recently than I used to. I usually will make an outline now, but I rarely stick to it. I find when I hold myself too rigidly to an outline, I end up forcing my characters to do and say things that don’t feel natural simply because it’s what I had put in my outline. My characters surprise me too much for an outline to be completely effective for me, though I usually do have a general sense of where a story is headed.

8. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

One of my creative writing teachers once said something to me that’s always stuck with me. She said (and I’m paraphrasing): “I’ve taught a lot of amazing writers over the years, but in the end, it wasn’t the most talented ones that made it. It was the ones who worked the hardest, revised the most, and didn’t give up.” 

I return to her words again and again. There’s not much I can control about the publishing industry, but I can control how hard I work and how much I revise. So my advice is: don’t give up if you don’t succeed right away. Writing is hard! Keep writing, keep taking classes and joining writer’s groups, and most of all… revise! My books go through over 20 drafts before I send them out (and that’s a low estimate – I actually lost count at 20). Don’t put pressure on yourself to write great early drafts. I’ve seen a lot of writers give up because of that. 

9. How can readers get in touch with you?

Thanks for asking! I love to connect with my readers.






A Chat With Jessica Haight & Stephanie Robinson, Authors of The FAIRDAY MORROW Series

I recently participated in World Read Aloud Day. It was a blast! But the day only got better when I discovered that one of the librarians who had reached out to me was none other than Stephanie Robinson, co-author of the FAIRDAY MORROW book series.

I am a HUGE fan! It was probably a good thing I didn’t realize that it was her until after the fact, or I might have totally geeked out!

I immediately invited Stephanie and Jessica to the Spooky Middle Grade blog, because, of course, I have questions only they can answer!

Let’s get to it!


1.How did you gals start writing together? Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 12.25.07 PM

Jess: We met in English class freshman year of high school. I have always enjoyed sharing my thoughts about books with Stephanie. I wrote a children’s poem that I wanted to turn into a picture book, but when that didn’t work out and I decided to create a middle grade book with my idea. It seemed natural to ask her if she wanted to write it with me. The rest is history- and lots of it!

Stephanie: I had always loved writing and had written many short stories and poems. Growing up I thought I would write a book a summer when I became a teacher.  So, when Jess asked me to co-author a book with her, I decided it was the perfect chance to begin working on one of my dreams (and I soon found out that I write too slow to produce a book a summer- and there are a lot more steps to publishing than I knew).

  1. Tell us about Fairday Morrow. Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 12.26.04 PM

Fairday is our main character. She’s in 5th grade and has a younger sister named Margo who she adores. Fairday is a thinker and likes to take in the situation around her. She’s calm and inquisitive and loves playing with words. Fairday reads a ton and shares the books she enjoys with her best friend Lizzy. She tries her best to be fair and doesn’t like seeing people be unkind. 

  1. How did you come up with the idea for this book series? 

Jess: The initial story was partially created by my grandfather. When I was a kid, I stayed with my grandparents for a while and they lived in a spooky house in Ridgefield, CT. Sometimes it sounded like someone was walking around upstairs when there was no one up there, and my grandfather used to tell me it was Ruby Begonia clomping around in her high-heeled sneakers. I spent years trying to catch her, but never did. Ruby’s story took shape as I grew up. When I was in my twenties, I wrote the children’s poem, Ruby Begonia and the High-Heeled Sneakers. One day, I thought how cool it would be to turn the poem into a chapter book and the name, Fairday Morrow popped into my head. I thought to ask my best friend and book buddy, Stephanie Robinson, if she wanted to co-author it with me, and happily she agreed. Stephanie and I both love books; we love to read and talk about the stories. So, we started writing and talking about Fairday and the adventures of the Detective Mystery Squad (DMS). 

Stephanie: After Jess asked me to work with her on changing her poem into a story the ideas began emerging from all over the place. We would meet, talk, brainstorm, and dissect each other’s ideas. Each time one of us shared something we would spark new ideas in the other person. Some of the elements of Fairday’s story have appeared in my dreams and others that have happened in my everyday life.   

  1. Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans! 

Jess: In a way, all of our characters are a mix of different people that we’ve known throughout our lives. Banner, particularly, is a close comparison to one of our high school friends, and Dif, well, he’s sort of a conglomerate of those mean kids that everyone has come across from time to time, but people can change, of course. 😉

Stephanie:  As a teacher I see many personalities in the classroom. It has been helpful to add elements to characters like Marcus and Dif from my observations.  A friend of my husband’s family was called Brocket, and I have always loved the name. Jess and I borrowed it for Marcus because he deserved a cool last name, after all he is Brocket the Rocket. 

  1. How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell? 

We are big fans of “write what you know”. We end up sprinkling in pieces of scenes we observe, funny things that have happened to us, and small details from our lives. Many of our real adventures are woven into the fictional ones.

  1. What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Do those books influence your writing? 

Jess: I loved the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary- and Ellen Tibets was one of my absolute favorite stories. I also really enjoyed fairy tales and books about space and astronomy. 

Stephanie:  I started out in first grade as a struggling reader and once I got the hang of it I couldn’t get enough! I devoured books growing up. Some of my favorite authors were Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Roald Dahl. I loved fairy tales and Shel Silverstein poems. I read every Nancy Drew book and the Little House series. I wanted to be Nancy and Half-Pint! I read a mix of genres and the Fairday Morrow series blends genres- so I think I was influenced by my reading for sure. 

  1. What are you working on now? 

We are currently working on book 3 in the Fairday Morrow series- Fairday Morrow and the Master’s Emporium.  It’s a lot of fun to write and it’s exciting to see what other secrets the Begonia House has in store for the DMS and all the places their case will take them. 

  1. What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?  

We mostly write by the seat of our pants, but we both spend hours talking about our ideas and characters. So technically, we do a lot of verbal outlining and occasionally we map out our ideas on paper. We change things as we write though! We speak daily about Fairday and her adventures. We flush out characters, storylines, and everything else both in person and on the phone. Our meetings have always been productive and helped us to be on the same page. We use Google Docs, which allows us to write in one document from anywhere. Usually one of us starts a chapter and the other person goes in and starts working their magic- adding, deleting, and crafting the writing until it’s a blended expression of both of our ideas. We agreed early on that we would always be honest with each other and that we wouldn’t take things personally. From the beginning we wanted to create the best story we could, and we knew that we would need to put our egos aside. Luckily, we have always had a relationship in which we could tell the other person exactly how we felt. It was a blast writing together!

  1. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Jess: Be yourself. It’s important to love what you’re doing and continue to work because you enjoy the process. If you take your projects seriously and make time for them to flourish, you’ll feel your own sense of validation. It’s important to protect creative time and space and keep up the practice- there is no failure or wrong or right in art, it’s all worthwhile, and your skills will develop as you continue to craft your writing.

Stephanie: Write at your own pace and use a process that works for you. It is easy to look at other writers and compare yourself to them. Some people write fast, some are like me, and the pace is a bit slower. That is okay! I appreciate that there are writers who can sit down and type thousands of words. I tend to nitpick over words and sentences. Learning to be comfortable with your process will allow you to enjoy yourself. Don’t lose sight of why you are writing and don’t worry about the rest. Creating stories is fun!

  1. Where can we buy your books? 

Thanks for asking! You can buy our books at your local bookstores, and if they don’t have them on the shelves they can order them for you. 

Our books are also available at: 

Amazon Indie BoundBarnes and Noble

Connect with Jessica Haight and Stephanie Robinson:

Author WebsiteBlogFacebook Twitter Instagram

A Chat with Allan Woodrow-Author of The CURSE of The WEREPENGUIN

Today, I’m super excited to welcome Allan Woodrow to the blog! Allan is the author of the new MG novel, The Curse of The Werepenguin, with Viking Books for Young Readers. I loved every minute of this hilarious story. I think you will too.

For now, take a moment to get to know more about the author. 

Here we go . . . .

Lisa: Tell us about The Curse of The Werepenguin.

Allan: Bolt Wattle is twelve years old and an orphan. He thinks he’ll never have a family. But then he is sent to live with a mysterious Baron in the far-away country of Brugaria. Oddly, the Baron appears to be a 12-year old boy. Even more oddly, and much more terribly, the Baron turns into an evil penguin at midnight. As far as families go, it’s pretty much rock bottom. Bolt is bitten by the Baron and has just three days to figure out a way to break the curse and defeat the Baron, or he’ll become an evil penguin creature forever and join the Baron’s horrible penguin army. Along the way he’s helped by a bandit girl, chased by members of a crazy whale cult, and has to enlist the help of a depressed housekeeper and a cackling fortune teller. As you probably guessed, it’s based on a true story.

Lisa: How did you come up with the idea?

Allan: I’ve always enjoyed old monster movies like Dracula and The Wolfman, and thought it would be fun to twist those in a more comical way. Sure, a half-wolf creature is horrible, but who decided that wolves were the only were-creatures around? What about were-fleas and were-aardvarks? Penguins tend to raise their young and are (mostly) monogamous. Also, they’re funny. They were a great animal to weave into a were-creature horror story with a heartfelt message about the importance of family, in whatever shape and form that family comes in.

Lisa: Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans!

Allan: No, I don’t base my characters on real people. I may borrow someone’s name, but that’s about it. My characters all have a small sliver of me in them though–I tap into my own emotions and experiences as a starting point and go from there.

Lisa: How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?

Allan: When I was a kid my teachers told me to “write about what you know” and I always thought that meant I couldn’t write about astronauts unless I was an astronaut, or did a lot of research about astronauts. And while that’s true, I think that also refers to emotions. You can’t write about love unless you know how to love. When you write about anger, you tap into those times you were angry. So my real-life experiences come into play because of the emotions I felt at those times. Hopefully, I can take those emotions, put them into the heart of a character, and make the scene feel like it could really have happened. I’ve never been a were-penguin, but everyone has felt lonely at one time, or felt like they didn’t belong, or yearned for…something. How can I bottle those feelings and drip them into a character’s head so the audience can understand the confusion, pain, and feelings of an unwanted penguin monster?

Lisa: What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Do those books influence your writing?

Allan: I always tell kids to read what they love to read, whether that’s comic books or graphic novels or penguin horror stories (preferably, penguin horror stories). When I was in elementary school, I was encouraged to read books that were parent-or-teacher approved. I didn’t like a lot of those, and it turned me off reading for many years. I can’t say any book I read as a kid influenced me, other than I don’t want to write books that I wouldn’t have read when I was nine-years old. Sometimes kids tell me that they didn’t like to read until they read one of my books…that’s the most rewarding part of writing children books.

Lisa: What are you working on now?

Allan: The Curse of the Werepenguin will be followed by Revenge of the Werepenguin and Battle of the Werepenguins (the title of that last one might change). Revenge is done, but I’m still working on Battle.

Lisa: What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Allan: I love this question, because I ask it all the time and some writers blink and aren’t familiar with the expression. I am 100% a plotter. I write 20-40 page outlines of my books before I sit down. I still sometimes change things, but then I go back to the outline and change that and see what other things need to shift. Only then do I make the change in the manuscript.

Lisa: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Allan: Nothing writes itself, and the only way to get better as a writer, is to write. If you really want to be an author, find time to write, every day if you can. It’s easy to make excuses not to write. But serious writers ignore those excuses, even when they really, really want to be doing something else, such as answering blogger questions…Which means, I need to get back to work!

Thanks so much for visiting the Spooky MG, Allan. I hope this wasn’t too scary!

To learn more about Allan Woodrow and his books visit Allan Woodrow.

Allan’s Books Include: 
The Curse of the Werepenguin
The Liberty Falls Elementary Series
  Field Tripped 
  Class Dismissed
The Pet War
The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless

And many other books, some written under secret names
Coming Summer, 2020: The Revenge of the Werepenguin


A Chat with Heather Kassner, Author of The Bone Garden

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The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner

Release date: August 6, 2019

A spooky and adventurous debut illustrated fantasy novel about a girl made of dust and bone and imagination who seeks the truth about the magic that brought her to life.

“Remember, my dear, you do not really and truly exist.”

Irréelle fears she’s not quite real. Only the finest magical thread tethers her to life―and to Miss Vesper. But for all her efforts to please her cruel creator, the thread is unraveling. Irréelle is forgetful as she gathers bone dust. She is slow returning from the dark passages beneath the cemetery. Worst of all, she is unmindful of her crooked bones.

When Irréelle makes one final, unforgivable mistake by destroying a frightful creature just brought to life, Miss Vesper threatens to imagine her away once and for all. Defying her creator for the very first time, Irréelle flees to the underside of the graveyard and embarks on an adventure to unearth the mysterious magic that breathes bones to life, even if it means she will return to dust and be no more.

“[Evokes] the dreamy tone and themes of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book . . . an impressive new fairy tale that will appeal to fans of Lisa Graff’s subtly magical stories.” ―Booklist

“This magical story―and the brave girl in its pages―will haunt you in the best way.” ―Natalie Lloyd, New York Times bestselling author of Over the Moon

Version 6I love a spooky middle grade novel as much as the next gal, that’s why I am so excited about this interview with debut author, Heather Kassner. Close the curtains, pull up the covers, and let’s get spooky! 

1. Tell us about The Bone Garden.

The Bone Garden tells the story of a strange dust-and-bone girl named Irréelle whose greatest fear is that she isn’t real. A girl who has to be brave and ever hopeful as she navigates the graveyard (and the passageways beneath the graveyard) and seeks the magic that brought her to life—and could return her to dust.

  1.  How did you come up with the idea?

The idea for The Bone Garden started with the very first line, which came to me before anything else. “She descended into the basement, tasked with collecting the bones.” I caught a glimpse of a girl holding a candle in the dark, and from there, I followed her down a twisty staircase to see those bones for myself—and to learn who she was, who tasked her with this strange chore, and, of course, what the bones were used for.

  1. In what ways do you identify with Irréelle?

Irréelle is both vulnerable and hopeful, and having just been laid off from work when I wrote this story, I was feeling much the same. But it went deeper than that too. She also took on many of the feelings I had when I was younger, and which many kids can likely relate to—of being awkward or different or strange, of believing what others say about you, of thinking that you don’t always belong. What I wanted for Irréelle most of all was to be brave and hopeful enough to face the darkness in her life, just as I was trying to do for myself.

  1. The setting for your story is so unique. What is your process for world-building?

Imagining the world of a story, creating its very atmosphere, is one my favorite parts of writing. What helps me develop the world is visualization, specifically, picturing everything in my head as if it were a movie. With my eyes closed (and most often lying in bed), I bring a scene to mind and walk through it, exploring every shadowed corner.

  1. What are you working on now?

I recently submitted copyedits for my second book, a middle grade fantasy that comes out on August 4, 2020, called The Forest of Stars. It’s about a magical, windswept girl whose feet never touch the ground and the search for her father at a magnificent—yet shadow-filled—carnival beneath the stars.

  1. What message do you hope young readers will gain from reading your story?

My hope for younger readers reading The Bone Garden is the same hope I have for Irréelle—to be able to see their own worth unclouded by the perception of others. To trust in their true hearts and to know there is always a place they belong.

  1. What has been the most surprising thing about being a debut author?

When I drafted The Bone Garden, I didn’t know anyone else in the writing community. So being a debut author, the biggest surprise (and what I’m most thankful for) has been getting to know other writers. Making writing friends—and reading one another’s amazing stories—has made this entire experience all the more fun.

  1. If you have one piece of advice for our readers who are aspiring authors, what would it be?

A story I’m working on now came from a dream, and if I hadn’t forced myself to grab paper and pen (when all I wanted was to roll back over and sleep) the idea probably would have slipped away. So, if an idea pops into your head, write it down right away, as many details as you can. Don’t trust that you’ll remember it later.


Heather Kassner loves thunderstorms, hummingbirds, and books. She lives with her husband in Arizona, waiting (and waiting and waiting) for the rain, photographing hummingbirds, and reading and writing strange little stories. The Bone Garden is her debut novel.

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