Interview with Anica Mrose Rissi

Author Anica Mrose Rissi

Spooky Middle Grade (a.k.a., The Spookies): Today we are so excited to feature the wonderful Anica Mrose Rissi, author of numerous, fabulous books — from picture books to chapter books to YA thrillers, you name it! We could spend all day talking about Anica’s incredible Anna, Banana chapter book series, or her amazing picture books, but today we’re particularly excited to talk about Anica’s upcoming spooky short story collection for middle-graders, Hide and Don’t Seek: And Other Very Scary Stories.

Before we get started, let’s check out that nerve-jangling cover illustrated by Carolina Godina:

The Spookies: Welcome, Anica! What a beautiful, haunting cover! We’re so very happy you could join the Spooky Crew today! Could you kick us off with a little bit of backstory about your upcoming collection? How did the story ideas come to you (i.e., all at once, or slowly but surely)? Give us the scoop!

AMR: Boo! Thanks for having me.

I’m joining you today from my childhood home on an island off the coast of Maine (this is Stephen King country: the movie Pet Sematary was filmed nearby), which is also where I wrote most of the twenty spooky stories—some funny, some spine-tingling, some hide-under-the-covers scary—found in Hide and Don’t Seek. Just over my shoulder, there’s a shadow box in which three crocheted dolls are trapped (my mother’s idea of good wall art). Their faces are pressed to the glass, their arms are spread wide, and their eyes never blink. Is it any wonder I was inspired to write spooky stories here?

Two summers ago, I wrote the collection’s opening story, about a game of hide-and-seek that never ends, to amuse myself and my nieces. It was a fun way to procrastinate from the work I was supposed to be doing, so I wrote another, and another. I completed thirteen scary stories that summer in a thrilling creative whirlwind, and read them aloud to any friends who would listen (an important step in my revision process). After my editor at HarperCollins/Quill Tree, Rosemary Brosnan, bought the collection, I added seven more scary stories, playing with not only fears but also formats: One story is told entirely through text messages, another through letters sent home from camp. A few are in verse. One is the script of a play. There’s even a story narrated by a very good dog.

This book was a lot of fun to write!

The Spookies: You definitely know how to make readers bite their nails in suspense (*points to Anica’s YA thriller, Nobody Knows But You*). Did you find the process very different when writing spooky, suspenseful stories for middle-graders, versus writing for a YA audience? Did you find any similarities in the process?   

AMR: In Nobody Knows But You, my YA novel about an intense friendship formed over a single summer at camp—a summer cut short by murder—the psychological suspense builds over the course of the whole book, so the pacing is pretty different. With Hide and Don’t Seek, part of the fun is that the stories are short (the longest has 2,350 words but the shortest has only 62), so I got to pack scares, suspense, chills, and surprises into every page. Both books have a dark sense of humor, but the humor in Hide and Don’t Seek is overall sillier and more playful than the humor in my books for older readers. Nobody Knows But You has some deeply cerebral moments, whereas Hide and Don’t Seek is designed to engage readers’ senses with scary sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and corporeal feelings.

The Spookies: Have you come away with a particular favorite in the collection? If so, why is it your favorite? Does it give you more nightmares than all the rest?  

AMR: “The Girl and the Crow” is the story I revised the most times, and it’s the one I find most terrifying—perhaps because, despite it featuring a talking crow, it feels very real to me. You can read it as a straight-up classically horrifying fairy tale, but I hope its underlying themes will spark thoughts and conversations about boundaries and consent, gender dynamics, and the danger of teaching girls they must always be “nice.” A corresponding story, “The Boy and the Crow,” expands the allegory and examines how patriarchal structures and systemic racism are toxic and harmful to even their beneficiaries. I’m proud of those stories. I hope they’ll make readers shudder and think.

The Spookies: Do you have any favorite creepy authors or books that you find especially inspiring or influential?  

AMR: Oh, I was definitely inspired by my love for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its sequels. I haven’t revisited the series since childhood, but I remember its scariest moments—and the experience of reading them—vividly.

The Spookies: What monster, legend, piece of lore, or ghost tale scares you the most?

AMR: I can read almost anything but I’m a total scaredy-cat when it comes to watching horror—even horror lite. Friends tease me because I had to quit Buffy the Vampire Slayer after only one episode. It gave me too many nightmares!

The Spookies: If you had a single piece of advice to give an aspiring writer of spooky stories, what would it be?

AMR: Focus on the senses! What scary sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations can you incorporate into your story to make it more evocative and memorable?

The Spookies: Okay, let’s do something a little more . . . adventurous. We’re going to give you a noun, and we want you to write a two-sentence horror story based on each. Are you up for the challenge?

AMR: Eeep! Okay.

The Spookies: Then let’s start with . . . GRAPE JELLY.

AMR: When I stuck my finger in the jelly jar, I expected a warm, sticky squish. I did not expect something inside the jar to reach out and poke me back.  

The Spookies: Yikes! Good one! How about . . . PUPPY LEASH.

AMR: The other ghosts moan and rattle their chains, searching for justice and vengeance…but not Myrtle. She whistles and whistles all through the night, one hand clasped to the spot where her heart doesn’t beat, the other holding the leash of her poor lost pup.

The Spookies: Ooooh, excellent creepy vibe! Now let’s do . . . MOON BEAM.

AMR: “Don’t worry,” he said, pulling a soft quilt up to the boy’s chin. “The Murderbeast can only enter your room on a moon beam, and I’m certain we’ve closed those curtains tight.”

The Spookies: Okay, that one is the creepiest yet! Last but not least, how about a super tough one: ELEPHANT. 

AMR: The ground shook and the beast roared. Slippy the Clown’s painted-on smile didn’t budge, but her eyes grew wide and her shoulders trembled as the World’s Tiniest Ballerina rushed past her, leaping toward the exit, and shouted, “That is not a normal elephant!”

The Spookies: Wow, you really were up to the challenge! Well done! (And after that Moon Beam story, we won’t be sleeping for days.) Thanks so much for your time, Anica! We’re stoked about the release of Hide and Don’t Seek: And Other Very Scary Stories, creeping into the world in hardcover, audiobook, and ebook on August 3, 2021!

AMR: Thanks, Spooky Middle Grade! I hope it scares you silly.

Don’t forget to preorder Anica’s collection here, add it to your Goodreads here, and be sure to check out her other amazing work while you’re at it!

Spooky Middle Grade on YouTube

The Spooky Middle Grade authors have a new YouTube channel! That’s right, you can find a variety of videos aimed at readers in grades 3-8, including Book Club Live, author interviews, spooky variety shows, writing tips and more!

Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find on our channel. Don’t forget to subscribe now so you never miss a new video!

Summer Spooktacular

Book Club Live

On-Demand School Visits

Author Interviews

Check out our new YouTube channel for more Spooky Middle Grade fun! Subscribe now!

Teachers, want to learn more about our free 30-minute author Q&As? Your students could meet four #SpookyMG authors in one amazing virtual visit. Schedule your FREE Q&A today!

Spooky Authors Branch Out

We spooky authors don’t always write spooky books! My next book is decidedly different: Carry Me Home features twelve-year-old Lulu whose family lives in their car (Simon & Schuster, August 24). Things go from bad to worse when Lulu’s dad disappears, leaving her to care for herself and her sister without letting anyone know that they are homeless and abandoned.

You can find out more at www.janetsfox.com.

I’ve interviewed some fellow spookies – Samantha Clark, and Victoria Piontek – about their new “non-spooky” titles.

1. Before we start on the “break-away from spooky”, please remind readers of your spooky titles.

Sam: Thank you, Janet! THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST is my spooky book. The story is about a boy who wakes up on a mysterious beach with no memory of who he is or how he got there. All he knows is that this can’t possibly be his home, so when he sees a light shining over a wall of trees, he decides to gather up his courage and follow it. Along his journey, he must face all his biggest fears to gain his memories back and find his home. Those fears are where the spooky comes in, because the Boy is all alone in a strange place and he’s scared of a lot. There are spooky sounds, spooky magic, and like the book’s title suggests, a Beast lurking around. Veeery spooooky.

Victoria: My spooky book is THE SPIRIT OF CATTAIL COUNTY. The story is about Sparrow, a girl struggling to come to terms with her mama’s death. Sparrow doesn’t have many friends. Some kids believe her house near the swamp is haunted. Others think there’s something “unusual” about her. But Sparrow’s not lonely — she has a best friend who’s always with her. He sits with Sparrow on her porch swing. He makes her smile by playing pranks in church. Yet Sparrow is the only one who can see him . . . because the Boy is a ghost. So when her mama passes away, Sparrow doesn’t give up hope. After all, if the Boy can linger after death, then surely Mama can return as well. But the Boy has a secret of his own, one that Sparrow needs to uncover before the ghost will lead her to Mama. To solve the mystery, Sparrow joins forces with some unlikely allies — Maeve and Johnny, siblings from a family of town outcasts –and Elena, a visiting child fortune-teller. 

2. Tell us about your upcoming “non-spooky” book: title, publisher, date, and a brief synopsis.

Sam: I actually have two non-spooky books coming out next. Just like THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, ARROW is published by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster and comes out on June 22, 2021. It’s not so spooky, but it has some parts that are scary in a different way. It’s about a 12-year-old boy with a limb difference called Arrow who’s the only human living inside a hidden rainforest. He was raised by the Guardian Tree, which uses the earth’s magic to keep the forest hidden from those who have sought to exploit and kill it. But now the magic veil is deteriorating and the forest is dying. Humans from the outside world find a way in, escaping their brutal world. Their arrival sets off a chain of events that leave Arrow with a devastating choice: be accepted by his own kind or fight to save the forest that is his home.

A week later, on June 29, 2021, I’ve got another non-spooky book coming out, HOLLYWOOD, which is book two of the AMERICAN HORSE TALES series from Penguin Workshop. In this book, 12-year-old Juniper loves to help her father train their horses for movies and TV shows. When her horse best friend Able gets the chance to audition for Juniper’s favorite TV show, Castle McAvoy, Juniper sneaks into the trailer so she can make sure he gets the part. Against her dad’s wishes, Juniper accidentally gets both Able and herself hired for Castle McAvoy, and while this is a huge dream come true, Juniper quickly learns that getting your dreams is harder than she had thought.

Victoria: My “non-spooky” book, BETTER WITH BUTTER (Scholastic Press), comes out on July 20, 2021.

BETTER WITH BUTTER is about twelve-year-old Marvel, a girl who is afraid of absolutely everything — amusement park rides, food poisoning, earthquakes, and that big island of plastic floating through the ocean. She also obsesses about smaller worries like making friends, getting called on by the teacher, and walking home alone.

Her parents and the school therapist call her worries an anxiety disorder, but Marvel calls them armor. If something can happen, it will. She needs to be prepared.

But when Marvel stumbles on a group of older kids teasing a baby goat that has mysteriously shown up on the soccer field, she momentarily forgets to be afraid and rescues the frightened animal.

Only Butter isn’t any old goat. She’s a fainting goat. When Butter feels panic, she freezes up and falls over. Marvel knows exactly how Butter feels and precisely what Butter needs–her.

Soon, the two are inseparable, and Butter thrives under Marvel’s support. But Butter also helps Marvel. Everything is better with Butter by her side, and Marvel starts to imagine a life in which she doesn’t have to be so afraid . . . until she’s told she might have to give up Butter forever. 

3. What was the inspiration for this new book?

Sam: A few different things inspired me to write ARROW. First a boy with one hand who lived in a tree popped into my head. I didn’t know what his story was until I had to listen to trees getting ripped down in my neighborhood to build more gas stations when we already have a lot. I was born in Guyana and went into the Amazon was I was very little, so rainforests have always been close to my heart. The more I got to know Arrow and his Guardian Tree, I realized that they were trying to save not only their home, but all the forests of the world.

Just like Juniper and Able, I auditioned for the AMERICAN HORSE TALES series. Penguin Workshop was starting this new series of books about girls and their horses and I pitched them the story for HOLLYWOOD. They loved it and hired me to write the whole thing. It was my first contemporary story with no magical elements, and while I love to write spooky stories and magical stories, it was fun to try something different.

Victoria: There were two inspirations for this book. The first was my experiences with generalized anxiety and raising a child with anxiety. The second was my childhood experiences with animals.

Growing up, animals were a big part of my life. Both my parents are gentle people who love to rescue broken things and nurse them back to health. There have been dogs, horses, squirrels, birds, pigs, and a very special goat.

Jennifer was bouncy and funny and followed me to the school bus every morning. At the end of the day, she’d be waiting for me. I don’t know how she knew when the bus would drop me off, but she was always there. Her faithful greetings made each day better. I’ve always wanted to write a story about a goat and the power of friendship between humans and animals. BETTER WITH BUTTER is that story! 

4. How does it feel to have a book coming that isn’t spooky?

Sam: It’s good and bad. I LOVE spooky stories, so I kind of wish these books had some spooky parts in them. But it’s also fun to have some different types of stories coming out. I also hope these will reach different readers and maybe those readers will want to branch out into my spooky story too.

Victoria: It’s fun to have a contemporary book coming out because it reaches different readers. However, like THE SPIRIT OF CATTAIL COUNTY, BETTER WITH BUTTER is a very personal story, so it feels the same in many ways.  

5. Do you have another spooky – or non-spooky – book in the wings? Tell!!

Sam: I do have some more books coming out in 2022! I can’t talk about them yet, but I can tell you they’re magical and fun. I also have a few very spooky stories that I’m working on and I hope they’ll be coming out in the future to scare more readers. Bwah ha ha…

Victoria: I have one of each. However, both are in the early stages at the moment, so I don’t have much to share yet. Keeping my fingers crossed, I’ll be able to say more soon!

6. Where can readers find out more about you and your books?

Sam: My website is SamanthaMClark.com, and I’ve got lots of extra goodies on there for readers, parents and teachers. In fact, I’ve also got Thank You Gifts for anyone who preorders ARROW, including a tree that will be planted for EVERY preordered copy. You can find out more and register your preorder for gifts and a new tree planted at https://www.samanthamclark.com/arrow/ 

Victoria: On Instagram and Twitter @victoriapiontek or on my website at www.victoriapiontek.com, where I have teacher resources and information on how to get some adorable pre-order swag for BETTER WITH BUTTER.

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! 

Seven Spooky Summer Scares

By David Neilsen

Here at SpookyMG, we pride ourselves on saying that Spooky is Year Round. That means that while we adore Halloween (and as I live in Sleepy Hollow Country, Halloween is my own personal Christmas), there is no need to wait until October to read a spooky tale.

In that spirit (pun intended), I thought I’d list a few of the things about the warm, sunny season of Summer which we are about to enter that truly terrify me.

Seven Spooky Summer Scares:

HEAT: Hot things bother me. I am not a huge fan. Of course, I’m even less of a fan of cold things, so there ya go. But really hot things–like walking barefoot on the pavement while being followed by a three-headed monster, or standing still in the sunlight for hours afraid to move because of the gruesome slime creation that is only attracted to movement, or the sunburn that peels off your back and then transforms into an evil doppelganger made of your own burnt flesh–just freak me out.

INSECTS: They tend to come out in the Spring, but don’t go away until the chill of Winter freezes their little wings or feet or other appendages. I hate it when a swarm of these things buzz about my head, desperately trying to suck out my blood or gnaw on my flesh, one little itty-bitty bite at a time. You know that story about the kid who set his soda down on the wall, and when he picked it up and drank it, it felt lumpy, and then when he poured it out it was littered with ants? That was me. Honest-to-God. 12 years old. I have never recovered.

THE END OF SCHOOL: This terrifies me because the end of school means CHILDREN. Specifically, EVIL CHILDREN with nothing to do, so they hunt the neighbors, or hide out in creepy garages trying to raise the dead. Bored children are, perhaps, one of the true evils in the world. You’re walking down the street, minding your own business, when suddenly you notice that you are surrounded by about six of the little devils (they always hunt in packs) and you just know they’re looking for a human sacrifice.

THE ICE CREAM TRUCK: Don’t get me wrong, I love ice cream. It’s the trucks that frighten me. They slowly inch down the street playing the slightly-warped music that acts as a siren call to evil children (see above). Who drives these trucks? What are they really selling? They have a hypnotic effect over the younguns, and even some adults are often caught with a wistful, teary-eyed look on their face when that music enters their ears. And that’s just weird because nobody actually has any fond memories of an ice cream truck. We are simply drawn in by the IDEA of the ice cream truck. It’s mind control, plain and simple as a hammer to the forebrain. Evil mind control.

THE BEACH: Sand gets everywhere. And the things that live in the sand get everywhere. And they come out when you least expect them and crawl over your face and infest your body with spores. Other beach evils include: sharks, boating accidents, jet skis, crabs, poisonous sea anemonies, and kids playing frisbee, because they are always terrible and that frisbee becomes a spinning circle of death in their hands. A spinning circle of death that is coming for you.

VENTRILOQUIST DUMMIES: What? You don’t equate ventriloquist dummies with Summer? You should. They live for the season when their shiny bodies can almost seem real on a late summer evening when the light hits them just right and they are walking toward you and telling you to stay calm, that everything’s going to be fine, that you have a new master. And their eyes are always open. They are always looking at you. Judging you. Imagining various sharp implements sticking out of you. You see, they really just want to shove their hand inside your body. Fair is fair, right?

SLIP ‘N’ SLIDES: There was this kid in my neighborhood who went on a Slip ‘N’ Slide and broke his knee. AND HE DIDN’T HIT ANYTHING. He just slid down the slippery, wet plastic and when he reached the bottom, his knee was broken. The next week, another kid slid down it and came up with massive rug burns on both shins. His legs were red for days. And yet just a couple of days later, that Slip ‘N’ Slide was out again, waiting for the next victim. Thing is, nobody knew whose it was. It didn’t actually seem to belong to anybody. It was just the neighborhood Slip ‘N’ Slide. And it had it out for the kids.

These are just a few of the fight-worthy things about Summer. I’m sure you can come up with a dozen more. Because Spooky is Forever.

Have a good Summer.

Op-Ed From a Black Kitty

I think we need to have a talk. I have a few major grievances.

There’s a lot—I mean a LOT—of fake news out there about black cats. We get a seriously bum rap. Especially around Halloween. That’s the day for treats and dressing up, not for hating on all us black kitties. Who doesn’t like treats? I get plenty. And who doesn’t like to dress up on occasion? I do it myself when the mood strikes.

Dressing Up For Halloween

Let’s start with my biggest pet peeve. Black cats mean bad luck.

Absolutely bogus. For starters, everyone knows you make your own luck. You don’t need a black cat to do that for you. So don’t put your pessimistic attitude on me. Having a little trouble winning at Poker? Not my fault! Be a better card player.  

Here’s another doozy. Some people claim we black kitties are familiars for witches, and that we can change into a human shape and spy on people for witches or demons. Complete rubbish. Humans are boring. Why would I ever want to shapeshift into one? The only time I change my shape is when I need to sit in a pot. That’s. It.

If I Fits, I Sits

Another common misconception: We hate water. Apparently it burns us, or turns us into a red, gooey blob. Well, I’ve got news. We can have as many baths as we want and not melt like the Wicked Witch of the West. Next question.

Bath Time

Afraid of sunlight, you say? Nope. I’m rather fond of going out in the sunlight. Unlike vampires, a little morning sun never hurt a single black kitty.

Sunbathing

Okay, admittedly, sometimes black kitties like to howl at the moon like werewolves. But that doesn’t make us wicked. Far from it. We’re just extremely in touch with our moon phases. Nothing wrong with that.

Singing the Song of My Catfolk

Oh, and just because we have black fur doesn’t mean we aren’t completely photogenic. I mean, just take a look at this side profile. Can you say KITTY GORGEOUS?

Beauty Shot

The negative attitude about black cats exhausts me.

Fed. Up.

National Black Cat Appreciation Day is August 17, 2021. Adopt yourself a black kitty, snuggle it, give it plenty treats, and above all, appreciate it. We might just bring you a little good luck.

Oh, and adopting a blind kitty won’t hurt anything either.

#BlindCatsRock

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

Ophelia McLelland is the author of numerous best-selling books on superstition and lore, most of which are out of print (but still hugely popular in places you’ve never been). A spiritualist and medium to the cat realm, she is a professional piano player and an advocate for the blind cat community. A resident of Oklahoma, Ophelia lives with her cat sister, Millie, her dog sister, Sophie, and three human pets, one of which writes spooky, adventurous middle-grade novels that aren’t very popular. Follow her on Instagram: @opheliakittycat

Adventures in Book Design

By Lorien Lawrence

Today I’m welcoming Jade Rector to the Spooky Middle Grade blog! Jade is an illustrator and book designer-extraordinaire who JUST SO HAPPENED to design my upcoming Fright Watch book: The Collectors.

Ever wonder what it takes to make a book cover sparkle from the shelves? Let’s get into it!

Jade Rector

LORIEN:  Hi Jade! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I can’t wait to learn more about the artistic side of publishing. Speaking of, would you mind introducing yourself? Can you also give a little background about your job? What does a typical day at Abrams look like?

JADE:  Of course – Hi, Lorien! Thanks so much for reaching out, this is such a blast. My name is Jade Rector – I’m a queer illustrator living in Chicago, Illinois. I’m currently a Junior Designer over at Abrams Kids. I started as a Design Assistant in 2019, and I’ve loved every second! I work in a variety of our imprints and on many different book formats, but I have a particular fondness for picture books and middle grade, especially when it’s funny or scary. A typical day at Abrams for me involves a lot of meetings, emails, communication with my team – and, of course, a ton of design!

LORIEN: Wow, it sounds like your day job involves more teamwork than I realized! Speaking of teamwork, how do you and your team come up with concepts and ideas? I mean, when it comes to fonts, colors, word placement, symbols – ohmygosh! There are so many options! How on earth do you choose?

JADE: Oh, what a great question. My favorite thing about publishing is the intrinsic collaboration, it’s such a team sport. The initial choices are always tough, absolutely, but it’s very fun to jump into a new project and try new designs! Everything starts with our close collaboration with the editorial team, as they let us into the world of the books we’re working on (Emily Daluga and I have had the most fun chatting about the cover of THE COLLECTORS!!!). After designers ascertain the mood, work with illustrators, and puzzle together the content, many folks in the publishing group have a chance to take a peek and voice their thoughts. Every department has important opinions and it’s an ongoing conversation – ultimately, we are all doing our best to make sure each book succeeds as best it can, which is really great.

LORIEN: Do you have a favorite type of cover? A style that makes you stop in a bookstore and ogle?

JADE: Ooooh, absolutely! When I’m shopping for myself and I’m in the picture book section, I always float towards styles like that of Jon Klassen, Christian Robinson, Julie Morstad, Carson Ellis….I am a big fan of soft, multimedia collage. As for novels, I’ll pick up any horror and humor with illustrative covers, especially if it’s decked out in neon inks or gold foil. Fun effects and great illustration are the way to my heart!

LORIEN: OK, this is why get along: you had me at NEON and FOIL. 😉

Let’s chat about inspiration. I’m probably at least a decade older than you, but when I was a kid, video rental stores were a thing. One of the reasons I got into horror was because I used to walk up and down the aisles looking at all the rad covers. Is there a cover of a book (or movie) that you saw as a kid that made a lasting impression?

JADE: HAH, we’ve intersected there! I miss video rental stores every day. I’m from a small town outside of Chicago, and some of our local spots lasted well into the mid-2010’s. Streaming is convenient, but I miss wandering the aisles, too. (As a side note, this is such a fun question – I’ve been googling movie covers for an hour!)

The cover of THE RING still haunts me in the best way, and I love the cover of MEMENTO. INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE was totally foundational, too…Hilariously, the most lasting impression was probably the entire CHILD’S PLAY series, albeit negative. I hate that puppet!!!

LORIEN: I’m with you: I HATE ALL PUPPETS! Not just Chucky – any kind of puppet. OK, now I’m thinking about puppets, so maybe we should change the subject!

It needs to be stated on record that you’re an amazing artist in your own right (and EVERYONE reading this post should check out Jade’s website and follow her on Instagram @jadearector PRONTO!) How would you describe your artistic style?

JADE: Oh, thank you so much for the kind words!! I would describe my work as bright, friendly, goofy… and occasionally a little bloody. I love drawing cute and fashionable kids with their pets, but I also end up drawing many, many vampires. Humor is one of my goals with the majority of my illustration, particularly when it’s narrative, so I think that’s a leading factor as well.

LORIEN: LOVE that you draw vampires! There can never be enough vampires, as far as I’m concerned.

Have you ever thought about making your own graphic novel?

JADE: Eep, yes! I would love to create a graphic novel about queer ghosts/vampires/aliens/etc, etc, etc eventually. It is a lot of work, but I hope that it’s eventually in the cards. Back in 2018 I put together a short comic titled GOTH RULES (again – very silly), and the amount of work even in that was unbelievable…but ugh, so fun, and so worth it to have that graphic flexibility with the narrative!

Lorien: I can’t imagine how much work goes into all that! But I love your style – I’d be so up for a Jade Rector graphic novel down the line!

I’m sure having a job in publishing takes up a lot of your creative energy (in a good way!) How did you get into publishing?

JADE: I got my BFA in Illustration (with a minor in education) at Columbia College Chicago. I’d originally intended to go into animation, but in my junior year I took a course called Culture in Young Children’s Literature with Katie Paciga, and it totally changed my path. I applied for internships at a variety of publishers and ended up interning with Candlewick Press – such a game changer! Before the end of my senior year I applied to more publishers, including Abrams – my professor Elio had worked with Abrams before and got in touch with his editor….and here we are! I started as a Design Assistant right after graduation. I am so grateful for the support of my school and community, and so thrilled to be in publishing now. Making books is truly the dream!

LORIEN: Are there any trends in book design that you’re loving right now? And are there any that you are ready to say goodbye to?

JADE: Oh, my heart…I love the bold neons, crazy shapes, and doodle explosions that are so in right now. I am VERY excited to say goodbye to extreme minimalism – I love a great pop of color and fun!

LORIEN: I’m totally with you on saying goodbye to minimalist covers. Bring on the color!!

OK, ready for the spooky-themed rapid round? Favorite Halloween candy?

JADE: Kitkats, black licorice, and root beer barrels!

LORIEN: Favorite monster?

JADE: Vampires – all of them – are my ride-or-die!

LORIEN: Favorite scary movie?

JADE: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is my absolute favorite!

LORIEN: And finally: Do you believe in ghosts???

JADE: What a great question. I’d say 50/50 – I want to believe!!!!

LORIEN: Wow, Jade, this was a blast. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me!

JADE: Lorien, thank YOU! I had so much fun going through these questions – it was my pleasure!

Follow Jade on Instagram at @jadearector and visit her website: http://www.jaderector.com

Bone Tree by Jenna Lehne

Today I’m welcoming Jenna Lehne to the Spooky Middle Grade blog. Her debut middle grade novel, BONE TREE, releases today! Let’s take a look at that gorgeous cover with artwork by Uliana Babenko.

Kim: First things first, can you describe your book Twitter-style, in 280 characters or less?

Jenna: When Elsie’s best friend dies, she uses an ancient tree with resurrection powers to bring him back, angering a spirit in the process. When she discovers the tree is powered by tortured souls, she has to choose between keeping her BFF or freeing the ghosts. 

Kim: Ooh, intriguing! Now for the real challenge. Can you finish these sentence starters?

My main character wants…

Her best friend back and her life back to normal…the way it was before Roman got sick.


My favorite scene to write was… 

I think the final scene is my favourite. I don’t want to spoil it, but I’m a sucker for a great goodbye scene. It was really cathartic to get to write out my own goodbye to Elsie, Roman, and the Bone Tree and still have it be a part of the story.


The hardest scene to write was…

When Elsie wakes up to the phone ringing in the middle of the night, announcing that Roman had died. The whole chapter was like carving my worst memories out of my head and putting them on paper. 


I hope readers will…

Enjoy the story. I’d love it if it creeped them out, be stoked if they cried haha, but really I just want BONE TREE to be something they finish reading with a smile on their face.


Spooky stories can…

Open up new genres to reluctant readers. Ghosts freaked you out? You should try dragons next!


One surprising thing about me is…

I never wear matching socks and I love freeze-dried candy.

Kim: Love it! If you have more questions for Jenna, I’m doing a live interview with her TONIGHT on my Facebook page. If you miss the live recording, don’t worry. You can always watch later at https://www.facebook.com/kimventrella.


Kim: Jenna’s debut novel BONE TREE is available now! Pick it up wherever books are sold.

ABOUT JENNA LEHNE

Jenna Lehne is a tea-sipping, horror-loving mom of two boys and a cat named Lemons. They live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, though unfortunately not in an igloo. Jenna is a former Pitch Wars mentor, contributor on the blog MidnightSocietyTales.com, and her middle grade debut, BONE TREE, is out April 2021 from Blue Bronco Books.

Beasties in Spooky Middle Grade

As a spooky MG author, I read a lot of spooky MG books, and one of my favorite things is meeting new wonderfully creepy and creative beasts. Spooky books have all kinds of villains, and they generally feed some fear of the main character. In fact, the Beast in my own book, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, is directly from the Boy’s biggest fears.

Here are some of the beasts I love from spooky MG books:

The Howler from TWIST by Sarah Cannon

In TWIST, something has made Neha’s drawings literally come alive on the page. At first it’s cute and fun, until some beasts invade her sketchbook. When the characters escape to the real world, the beasts want to come too. TWIST has a number of beasties, but the big bad is The Howler, the biggest, baddest, most terrifying beast to come out of Neha’s friend Eli’s imagination. My imagination can conjure up some pretty scary monsters, so I can imagine The Howler is scary!

The Tule Vieja of THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ by Adrianna Cuevas

In this Pura Belpré Honor Book, Nestor has just moved to his latest new town, this time living with his abuela. Nestor has the unique talent of being able to talk and understand animals, and he quickly discovers that animals all over this neighborhood are going missing because a tule vieja is terrorizing his town. Shapeshifters can be really scary because you never know what’s the actual monster, and that’s one of the things that’s so spooky about Adrianna Cuevas’ tule vieja. In the book’s author’s note, Adrianna talks about how she changed the legendary tule vieja for this story. The original is scary, but her’s is terrifying.

The Jumbies of THE JUMBIES series by Tracey Baptiste

Having grown up in the Caribbean, I love reading books set there. Tracey Baptiste grew up in Trinidad and uses the island and its folklore for this fantastic spooky series. It features Corinne La Mer, who claims she’s not afraid of anything—which quickly lets us know she’s going to have to face something scary! Sure enough, she does: The Jumbies. When the evil jumbie Severine wants to take over the island for all the jumbies, Corinne must learn ancient magic to stop Severine and save her home.

The Zombie Outlaws of the LEGENDS OF THE LOST CAUSES series by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester

What’s worse than a horde of angry outlaws? A horde of angry zombie outlaws! That’s exactly what young Keech Blackwood has to deal with in the LEGENDS OF THE LOST CAUSES series, starting with Bad Whiskey Nelson (love that name!). Set in the Old West, these books have a new twist on the zombie apocalypse, and it’s so so scary.

The Cuddle Bunnies of NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES by Jonathan Rosen

I know what you’re thinking: Cuddly bunnies are not beasts…but these are! In NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES, the hottest new Christmas toy is coming alive and terrorizing the town of Gravesend. Soon Devin Dexter and his cousin Tommy are on the trail to save their town from the mob of bunnies and the warlock controlling them. It’s hilarious and scary all rolled into one.

There are plenty more fantastic beasts in spooky middle grade books. What are you favorites?

Spooky Poetry in Middle Grade Books

Well hello, all you spooky readers! It feels like forever since I’ve chatted with you here in our #SpookyMG Crypt. And, yes. I have missed you.

*taps jagged fingernails*

So today, I’m bringing you a special treat! 🍬 In celebration of World Poetry Day (March 21st), I thought it would be fun to spotlight middle grade books, authors, or segments within MG stories that utilize poetry. I even have some examples from our very own authors.

Adding poetry in the form of a structured poem, song lyrics, scattered thoughts of a character, or even a spell from a favored wizard (Harry Potter) to a novel can do a many things.

Take Shel Silverstein use of poetry. He created quite the visual with this one. (Not to mention, I’ll be looking behind my back all day, now.)

When singing songs of scariness. 
Of bloodiness and hairyness, 
I feel obligated at this moment to remind you 
Of the most ferocious beast of all: 
Three thousand pounds and nine feet tall —
The Glurpy Slurpy Skakagall — 
Who’s standing right behind you. 

THE WORST – NIGHT, NIGHT KIDS

And then there’s THE GIVING TREE, which has been widely debated as an example of the sacrifice of parenthood or the way NOT to parent a child. Nonetheless, the use of structure throughout the story is brilliant. The staggering of sentences and thoughts, reactions from either the boy or the tree draw readers attention. It’s almost as if Shel was clapping his hands or pointing with his finger to say ‘Here, pay attention to this.’ The prose stops abruptly at places, yet subtly at others. The flow and placement of the poetry lends strength to the mood and tone as well. Here’s just a brief excerpt:

Can you give me a house ?’
‘ I have no house,’ said the tree.
‘The forest is my house,
but you may cut off my branches and build a house.
Then you will be happy.’

And so the boy cut off her branches,
and carried them away to build his house.
And the tree was happy.

I chose this segment for the limited about of words used and for the emotions it conjures. The break used between the lines is a perfect pause for the reader to ponder the word ‘happy’ and then be stunned by the word ‘cut’ in the next line – one word that causes pleasure, one word that causes pain.

Of course, I also must mention Edgar Allan Poe and his use of subtle yet eerie language. Here’s an example from the end of his poem ALONE.

From every depth of good and ill

  The mystery which binds me still:

  From the torrent, or the fountain,

  From the red cliff of the mountain,

  From the sun that round me rolled

  In its autumn tint of gold,

  From the lightning in the sky

  As it passed me flying by,

  From the thunder and the storm,

  And the cloud that took the form

  (When the rest of Heaven was blue)

  Of a demon in my view.

ALONE

Even without the first parts of this poem, you can see how he uses each line to draw the reader deeper into the imagery and mood he’s creating. And then WHAM! he hits you with the last line.

Poetry can . . .

  • bring a sudden or a subtle change to the flow of the story
  • introduce internal thoughts of a character in an unusual way
  • capture imagery in ways that urge readers to use their own imagination
  • be used with illustrations or graphics (IMHO, I love it when a book does this!)
  • be a great way to sprinkle clues or foreshadowing (I also love this one.)
  • shed light on specific details the author wants the reader to pay close attention to
  • create a diversion for the reader – opposite of the above point.
  • move the plot along more quickly or slow it down
  • set, increase, or change the mood and tone of a scene or plot point
  • deliver details of the world or setting in a fun way

And we could go on and on . . .

Or maybe just show a few examples of these using our very own authors!

If you have or have found additional ways adding poetry to spooky MG books can strengthen the story, leave it in the comments below! We’d love to hear.

Thank you for reading and chatting up spooky middle grade books with me!

Sheri☠️