Interview with Christian McKay Heidicker, author of Scary Stories for Young Foxes

Scary Stories for Young Foxes

Happy November, spookies! This is the best time of year for curling up with a spooky read. One of my absolute favorite books this Halloween season was SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES by Christian McKay Heidicker. Not only does it feature my favorite animal, but it’s filled with a bunch of haunting and beautiful illustrations by Junyi Wu.

Here’s a little description to entice you:

The haunted season has arrived in the Antler Wood. No fox kit is safe.

When Mia and Uly are separated from their litters, they discover a dangerous world full of monsters. In order to find a den to call home, they must venture through field and forest, facing unspeakable things that dwell in the darkness: a zombie who hungers for their flesh, a witch who tries to steal their skins, a ghost who hunts them through the snow . . . and other things too scary to mention.

Christian was kind enough to take time from his busy touring schedule to talk to me about his terrifying book!

TANIA: SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES is the most original book I’ve read in some time! What was your inspiration for this story, and why did you choose foxes, in particular, to tell your tale?

CHRISTIAN: Well, thank you!

I was inspired by the Berenstain Bears—specifically The Spooky Old Tree and Bears in the Night. When I originally wrote these stories, the foxes wore little vests and deerskin boots and they walked down to the market to buy a goose from the badger grocer. But when my agent politely informed me that that anthropomorphism doesn’t sell, I started making the stories as scientifically accurate as I could.

As far as why they’re foxes . . . I have no idea! They just came to me, as lovely as flames in my imagination. Whenever students ask me Why Foxes during school visits, I tell them that I woke one night with teeth piercing my throat and found a fox pinning me to the bed with her jaws. Another fox stepped into the moonlight on my pillow and told me I needed to write this book or else . . .

TANIA: The foxes in your book face danger that is real and yet appears supernatural through the lens of the protagonists. It reminded me of the power of children’s imaginations when interpreting things they can’t quite grasp. Was it challenging to write through the eyes of a young fox or to balance the realistic with the anthropomorphic?

CHRISTIAN: It was challenging! The parallels between classic horror tales and the lives of foxes came easily, but selling that through the perspective of the kits was tough (especially the Golgathursh). Anytime I grew overwhelmed, I’d just take a step back and reestablish the boundary of the stories: Does it parallel a classic horror tale?/Could it happen to foxes? From there, I just had to figure out which details to include.

TANIA: I was admittedly surprised by how dark this book was at times, especially regarding death. And yet, it also felt appropriate, given that the natural world can be an unforgiving place. The foxes’ behavior and environment felt very true-to-life and there was even a surprising appearance by Beatrix Potter which has made me see her in a whole new light! Did you do a lot of research into her character or animal behavior for this book?

CHRISTIAN: I was surprised by the darkness too! And yes, I did a ton of research.

The more I learned about foxes and classic horror tropes, the more the events started to choose themselves. I worried about how scary it was getting at first, but then I watched Planet Earth with my soon-to-be-stepdaughters and noticed that they didn’t cry when innocent animals were eaten. They were upset, but they seemed to understand that this was a part of the natural process. From that point forward, I started to think of the book as National Geographic Horror. So long as I added a bit of coziness for every flash of teeth, I knew the stories would remain palatable.

The fact that Beatrix Potter taxidermied many of her subjects before she sketched them is true, by the way. I’m sorry I have to be the one to break it to everyone. (Okay, not that sorry 🙂 )

TANIA: In the book there is an explanation for why scary stories are important for young foxes. Why do you think scary stories are so important for young readers?

CHRISTIAN: I could try to do this justice. But I’ll just quote Neil Gaiman instead:

“. . . if you are keeping people, young people, safe from the darkness . . . you are denying them tools or weapons that they might have needed and could have had.”

I think that about sums up my feelings.

TANIA: What are some of your favorite spine-tingling reads?

CHRISTIAN: Speaking of Neil Gaiman, I *adore* The Graveyard Book and Coraline. I also really love the Turn of the Screw, the Berenstain Bears (as mentioned), and Ghostopolis. I don’t see that last one getting enough cred.

Obviously, I love a lot of horror novels by adults too, but I try not to recommend those to young readers.

TANIA: What are you working on next? Anything else you’d like to share with our Spooky MG readers?

CHRISTIAN: You might be happy to hear that I’m working on a sequel to Foxes. It takes place many decades later in the city that has replaced the Antler Wood. It will involve Mia’s and Uly’s and Mr. Scratch’s descendants, and it will retell modern horror tales instead of classic ones. If rabies was a zombie story in the old one, the fox fur farm in the new one is dystopian horror.

I’m not sure if you’ve seen the Foxes book trailer, but we put a lot of work into it:

Christian McKay Heidicker reads and writes and drinks tea. Between his demon-hunting cat and his fiddling, red-headed fiancée, he feels completely protected from evil spirits. Christian is the author of Scary Stories for Young FoxesCure for the Common Universe and Attack of the 50 Foot Wallflower. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. cmheidicker.com

Have a Spooky Summer

Hello Spookies! I hope you’re enjoying your summer so far, but if you’re like me, all you can do is count down the days until the fall and all that comes with it: cooler weather, shorter days, and most of all…Halloween!

We still have a ways to go, so why not make the most of what’s left of our summer by injecting a little spooky into it?

I recently saw the horror film, MIDSOMMAR (Warning: definitely NOT for kids!). To summarize, it’s about a group of friends who travel to Sweden to visit a friend’s quaint village for some summer solstice celebrations, but things are not as pleasant as they seem at first. What struck me most about the film was that it was a scary story set in the middle of summer in broad daylight. How rare it is to be so frightened by something that looks bright and cheery on the outside! The scares aren’t hidden in dark shadows, but are displayed in plain sight, which makes them even more horrifying.

The movie inspired me to think of ways to incorporate spooky things into summer stories for kids. After all, we here at Spooky Middle Grade are all about celebrating spooky stories ALL year long. So here’s a few ideas for all you aspiring spooky writers out there.

CARNIVALS

What says summer more than a carnival? Warm nights filled with the scent of funnel cake, and the sound of screams from kids on all the whirly-rides. With all the blaring lights and noise, it wouldn’t be too hard for a creepy thing to escape unnoticed amongst the crowd. How about a grotesque creature that hides among the plush toys that are offered as prizes at the ring toss? Or how about a creepy traveling carnie who guards the entrance to the fun house? What if some of the screams you hear are not just kids having fun…but screams of horror? Why not take it a step further and have all the carousel animals come to life and go on a rampage? Or a mysterious power outage that plunges the entire carnival into darkness (not to mention getting stuck on a ride, 100 feet in the air!). Do I even need to mention evil clowns? The possibilities are endless!

CAMPING

For anyone who’s ever shared scary stories around a campfire, you already know that this summer activity is perfect for bringing on the spooky! The woods at night are filled with countless possibilities: Bigfoots and sasquatches, howling wolves, hooting owls, and glittering eyes spotted among the foliage. The shadows cast by the fire are distorted and strange, and every snap of a twig could spell danger. Of course, these are all common tropes, so why not think outside the box? How about coming across a helpful troop of scouts who turn out to be possessed by evil spirits? Or how about finding a creepy tent that is a portal into another world? Or maybe your campfire circle accidentally summons a demon with a voracious appetite for s’mores?

BEACH

This may seem like the least obvious setting for a scary story – but think again. A lively beach boardwalk could incorporate some of the spooky elements mentioned in the carnival section above, but the ocean offers many opportunities for scares as well. Man-eating sharks, poisonous jellyfish, mysterious things brushing your toes in the murky waves (and no, it’s not just seaweed!), creepy sea pirates and mer-creatures are just a few of the things that can ruin a good beach day.

Again, you can challenge yourself to think beyond the obvious and come up with surprising and unexpected scares: corn dogs that bite back, beach sand that turns into quicksand, a kid digging up a cursed object, or coming across an ANTI-life guard! Or how about applying some sun-scream by accident?

However you choose to make your summer spooky, make sure you have fun with it. And don’t worry, autumn will be here before you know it!

BE A SPOOKY REBEL

One of my favorite things about art, whether it be painting, music, writing, or even cooking, is learning the rules…and then breaking them!

Mind you, this only applies to creative endeavors – breaking the rules in real life doesn’t have quite the same effect, but thankfully it’s a lot more fun to be rebellious in your projects…especially when writing spooky stories!

So what are the “rules” of spooky stories? They vary, but here are some common elements that you’ll find in any scary story:

SETTING: This is one of the most important elements of any scary book, show, or film. The setting creates the perfect atmosphere to frighten your characters…and your readers. Classic settings are gothic mansions, abandoned hospitals, haunted graveyards, ancient crypts, and foggy swamps and forests, to name a few. Needless to say, these places are often dark and shadowy – perfect for hiding ghouls and other foul surprises. By choosing the perfect setting, a lot of the work is done for you, and you can focus on other spooky things like…

CHARACTER: Part of what makes a scary story so terrifying is that you care about the characters and what happens to them. As you watch them enter a dark basement alone, or lose their phone, or trip on a root while trying to run away, you feel invested in their journey to beat the odds and survive. For this reason, the protagonists of a good horror story are often sympathetic characters. Often they are good, kind people. They’re innocent, and perhaps a little naïve…the exact opposite of whatever they’re facing. The stakes are always high with these characters—there’s a lot to lose if they don’t succeed, whether it be a loved one, or even the fate of the world itself.

Writing good characters also includes writing good villains, and there’s nothing as satisfying as creating the ultimate spooky antagonist. The possibilities are endless: ancient beings like vampires or monsters and ghosts, mad scientists, creepy animated dolls, clowns, and evil dentists…you get the idea!

PLOT: The final piece to the spooky puzzle is the plot. If you watch and read a lot of horror, you’ll notice certain tropes that show up time and time again. For example, when characters split up to investigate something, you just know something bad is going to happen. If there is a phone or a getaway vehicle…it most likely won’t work. And when the bad guy is defeated at the end and everyone think they’re safe…that’s rarely the case! Even though we know what to expect when watching or reading spooky stories, it’s still scary because you never know when the next thing will jump out at you, or what it will be. Also, a good spooky story excels at building suspense, setting the scene and the possibility of something bad happening. Sometimes the long descent into an ancient tomb is just as scary as whatever might be lurking inside.

So now that we know the basic rules of spooky stories, how can we break them?

SETTING: Challenge yourself to make a setting that normally isn’t scary into something that is. How about a video game arcade where all the games start flickering and malfunctioning at the same time? Or a dog park where all the dogs stop and stare at something their owners can’t see? Or a grocery store where you pull a jug of milk from the shelf….only to see something lurking behind it. By taking your spooky story into unexpected places, this gives you the opportunity to create new rules about what is scary.

CHARACTER: Just like with setting, try new and unexpected ways of creating characters. Maybe your hero isn’t as innocent as they seem. Maybe they USED to be the monster in someone else’s scary story and now they’re the ones being chased down. Maybe your protagonist is afraid of something that no one else is…pickles, for instance! If you write a story about evil killer pickles you’ll be able to make your reader see through your protagonist’s eyes and think twice about their favorite snack.

You can also have fun experimenting with new ways to create villains. One of the spookiest villains in Harry Potter is Dolores Umbridge. She looks like a benign old woman, dressed in pink, with decorative kitten plates on her wall, but she’s one of the most chilling and sadistic characters in the entire series. Even Stephen King, the master of horror, praised her character as “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.”

Think about ways you can make the ordinary…extraordinary. Think of the least scary thing you can, and find a way to subvert it into something terrifying! Our own authors in the Spooky Middle Grade group are great at this. Take Jonathan Rosen’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES or Kat Shepherd’s BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES series.

PLOT: This one is the hardest to break the rules with, because so much of spooky writing depends on the balance of suspense and surprise. I would suggest that if you break the rules in spooky writing, choose only two of the three categories to do it with. For example, if you want to experiment with setting and character, keep the plot structure more traditional. But if you want to break the plot and character rules, keep the setting more traditional, or else your story might not resemble something spooky at all.

The key thing is to experiment and have fun. Even if you break every rule in the spooky book, you can be secure knowing you won’t end up in spooky jail….

…or will you? MWA HA HA HA!

An Interview with Claribel Ortega, author of GHOST SQUAD

Hi everyone! Tania here. I’m happy for the opportunity to interview author Claribel Ortega whose debut middle grade novel, GHOST SQUAD, comes out this fall. We may have to wait a little while to get out hands on it, but check out this description in the meantime:

The hurricane-swept town of St. Augustine is the only home Lucely Luna has ever known. It’s the same home her father grew up in, and his parents before him. In fact, all of the deceased relatives in the Luna family now live as firefly spirits in the weeping willow tree in their backyard.

Shortly before Halloween, a mysterious storm appears on the radar heading towards St. Augustine, causing Lucely’s firefly spirits to lose their connection to this world. In an effort to save them, Lucely finds a spell to bring them back to life, but accidentally brings more spirits to the town than she’d planned. Ghosts start showing up all around town, some more dangerous than others, wreaking havoc.

Lucely will have to band together with her best friend and occult buff, Syd, along with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head on, save the town, and save her firefly spirits all before the full moon culminates on Halloween. 

Sounds great, doesn’t it? I can hardly wait! Now, let’s get on with the Q+A.

TANIA: I’m very excited to read GHOST SQUAD which sounds very spooky, indeed! But, reading the description, I’m also intrigued by its family themes and elements of magical realism. Can you talk a little bit about how your own background has influenced your story?

CLARIBEL: I’m excited you’re excited about Ghost Squad! The story is very close to my heart and directly influenced by both my childhood and my experience with loss. As a kid, I used to catch fireflies in glass jars with my late, older brother. My family is from The Dominican Republic and we have mythology that says fireflies are the souls of our loved ones who have passed on, and that those fireflies are watching over us. I loved the idea of still having my brother around, looking out for me and that led to Lucely Luna’s story!

TANIA: As an author, why do you think spooky stories are important for young readers? Do you think it’s possible to get too dark or scary when it comes to writing Middle Grade fiction?

CLARIBEL: I think it is definitely possible to get too dark (in fact there was one scene I had to cut from Ghost Squad because it was too scary!) but it also varies on the reader. I was reading Stephen King at a pretty young age, he was my transition into adult books after Ghost Bumps. Did I have nightmares? Yes. Do I recommend it? Also yes.

TANIA: What are some of your favorite spooky books or movies and why?

CLARIBEL: So, I am a giant chicken with spooky movies and will read the Wikipedia plot before I watch to make sure I can handle it lol. I prefer scary movies that don’t rely on jump scares and have a frightening twist at the end (Like THE SKELETON KEY or THE SIXTH SENSE) but normally I lean into the not actually scary but sort of campy/fun spooky movies like CLUE or GHOSTBUSTERS. I can handle a lot more when it comes to books, and as I said I love Stephen King and anything true crime or serial killer related because it’s fascinating!

TANIA: Have you personally ever seen a ghost or experienced the supernatural?

CLARIBEL: I have. Once at my old house, I was constantly seeing a little girl running through the hall out of the corner of my eye. I never said anything until one day I was standing by the stairs next to my older sister and saw her. We both flinched at the same time then looked at one another, eyes wide like “You saw her too?” It was creepy, but I wasn’t necessarily scared. I don’t think she meant us any harm.

TANIA: What advice would you give a young, aspiring writer? Is there something you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?

CLARIBEL: Your career might not unfold how you expect it to but that doesn’t make it any less worth celebrating. Things take a long time in publishing, and it’s okay if things don’t pan out the way you planned, the goal is longevity not instant success. Focus on the things you can control, like your writing, be willing to fight for yourself when you need to, and remember to celebrate the good not just focus on the bad.

***

And there you have it! We’ll be keeping an eye out for Claribel’s book and cover reveal. In the meantime, you can follow her on Twitter or Instragram. Also visit her website to sign up for her newsletter.