Writing Tool: The Pandemic Attic Notebook

Anyone else having a little trouble concentrating these days?

Ugh.

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

…Well, you know.

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

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

Here are the basics:

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

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

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

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

lamp Attic Notebook

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

SCARY TIMES

Spooky Middle Grade Authors Talk About Writing During the Pandemic

man wearing a black face mask
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

 

During these difficult days, I reached out to the Spooky MG Authors to see how they were coping and if they had an advice for other writers. Here’s their responses:

 

Sarah Cannon

I’m honestly writing more, because my kids’ schedules and working outside the home add logistics that steal a lot of hours from my day. Being quarantined removes all of those things. My day job is a s busy as ever, but I’m back to my old writing routine of settling in around 8 or 9 pm, having a bit of downtime, then writing until I’m too sleepy to keep going.

My main recs, especially for those who typically leave the house to write or write when the kids are gone, are: Use cancelling headphones and music. Any day it’s warm enough, write outside, or kick everyone else outside. Wait ‘til they’re all on tech (or withhold tech until you’re ready to write) then write like the wind. If you’re on Zoom all the time and are sick of screens, go analog and use a notebook.

 

Kim Ventrella

The hard part for me is focus. I’ve done a ton of book promotion and graphic design tasks since quarantine started, i.e. stuff that I can easily do while my brain is somewhere else. The hard part has been conjuring the kind of deep emotional focus I need to write a novel. I’m getting better at it, but it’s taken a while to regain that ability to turn off the real world.

 

Lisa Schmid

I have started a new chapter book series, kind of a Dr. Dolittle Jr. meets bugs with a STEM twist. I have been kind of stuck, so I ordered some books on bees and bus and a few chapter books to get me inspired.

 

Tania Hackett

I’m struggling to write despite currently working from home, which means I have two extra hours in the day that I would normally spend commuting. The only way I’ve been able to write is through Zoom writing sprints or write-ins. Something about hear hearing other people clacking away keeps me motivated. Otherwise I have no focus to sit and write. I feel so anxious all the time.

 

Sheri Larsen

When the Covid-19 scare began, I was mapping out an altered view of an old idea I had for an MG story. I didn’t think the outside world would creep in. But it has. Even turning to my go-to inspiration of research hasn’t helped. Cyberspace is corroded with all the negative, making it hard to research online. I find myself dazing off thinking about all the possibilities. It’s not all tear drops and woes, though. I’ve spent precious time with my husband and kids, and I’ve also had extra time to guide our German Shepherd in her training, which is almost as tough a feat as writing this next MG. I’ve also cut out most of my news watching over the past week or so and turned to prayer, which has cleared my mind. I’ve been able to point some meat on my story ideas, so I’m headed in the right direction.

 

Samantha Clark
I have been writing during the pandemic, but it has been difficult. My motivation is that I’ve been on deadline for my next book, ARROW, so I’ve been forced to get to the page. But it has still been hard to focus. My better days are ones when I don’t look at the news and what’s going on with the outside world. I still want to know what’s going on, but I’ve been trying to limit it to afternoons and only a couple times a week.
When I can focus on my writing, I’m finding it wonderful to be in the story’s world and outside of my own for a short period. To stay focused, I’ve also been trying to find the beauty in my own life, the trees, flowers, birds out the window.

 

Janet Fox

I’ve been able to work on a new book. That’s the good news. But I have a book out late this summer and who knows how that will come together? And another out next summer.

Mostly however, I’m anxious. Both my husband and I are in the compromised group. Our son lives in Seattle. I do not want to get this virus. And I’m worried for the world.

But we have a cabin in the mountains, and that has been such a safe place in the midst of this – it’s remote but has (poor) internet and no television, so we can truly get away. That’s why I’ve been able to write. Being able to walk, to breathe clean air, to feel safe at a distance – that’s a true gift I wish I could share.

 

Angie Smibert

I’ve gotten very little writing done. Part of that is because I’ve had a ton of teaching work to focus. I’ve tried to write but grading other people’s writing has been easier. One thing I’ve done, though, is set up a Zoom write-in with my local writers’ group—plus one or two others. One of my crit partners and I had been meeting in person every Friday afternoon for a couple hours at a coffee shop—pre-pandemic—and it really helped to focus us. (I’d even started something new.) So now we’re meeting via Zoom. Usually 3-5 of us at a time. We chitchat a bit, but mostly we just write (or work). One week we did a table read of my friend’s sitcom for him. That was blast. We’ve also done our monthly manuscript critiques this way.

 

Jacqueline West

I had a baby in winter, and then, you know, the world turned upside down, and now I barely know where I am. Writing-wise, I’m pretty much unmoored. I’m alone all day with one five-year-old and one four-month-old and no childcare (my parents were helping with the baby, but we haven’t seen them or anyone else in over a month and a half). If I get up around 5 am, before anyone else is awake, I can sometimes squeeze in a tiny bit of writing, and that is saving my sanity. But by the end of each day, I am mentally and emotionally DONE. The strange thing is: I am overflowing with story stuff right now. I have four big projects bubbling, and poems and short stories popping up, and all I want to do is sit down somewhere quiet with a giant cup of coffee and lose myself in other worlds, maybe for a very, very long time. But I can’t. And I have no idea how long it will be before I will get to focus that way again, which is a question so big that I try not to think about it at all.

 

Cynthia Reeg

For the first few weeks of the shelter-at-home, as the true impact of the pandemic descended, I couldn’t write at all. I had started a new MG story prior to the chaos, but as the magnitude of the pandemic took hold, I went totally blank. I had to start doing practical stuff like housework, cooking, baking—I’ve learned how to make a sourdough starter and fresh breads! I guess I needed to see something positive accomplished—if only for a short period with the housecleaning anyway. Then with the encouragement of my writers’ group through our weekly Zoom sessions, I made myself start working on my story again. Writing became a way to filter out the real world and retreat to another world, if only for a little while. Although at our last writers’ meeting, we discussed how much our WIP will need to reflect our current changed world—virtual learning, masks, no crowds. It is indeed a challenging time, but I find great comfort in our efforts to stay connected and supportive through it all.

 

A few final tips to help keep your writing on track:

  • Make a Progress/Accountability Chart
  • Set goals—daily, weekly, monthly
  • Carve out a specific writing time/schedule
  • Challenge yourself to generate new ideas
  • Finish a project you’ve already started
  • Or if you just can’t write, participate in webinars or other learning tools on improving your craft

 

The plus side of this crisis—extra reading time. We hope you’ve jumped into some great stories. We will do our best to continue writing them for you!

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Interview with Tania del Rio, Author of The Thirteen-Year Curse

Today I’m thrilled to chat with Tania del Rio, author of the Warren the 13th series! Her latest book, The Thirteen-Year Curse, releases today!!! You can also check out an interview with Tania on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/spookymiddlegrade/. Watch it live 3.24.2020 at 1 PDT or visit our page to view the recording.

Let’s dive right in. What should new readers know about the world of Warren the 13th?

The Warren the 13th series is about a hardworking boy who is the lone bellhop, fixer-upper, concierge, maid service, and manager of his family’s ancient hotel. He does it all, with no thanks to his lazy uncle and evil aunt, who may or may not be a witch. Warren starts off the series as a lonely boy who is trying to honor the memory of his dead father but through the course of his adventures he gains new friends—and enemies—and unlocks some surprising mysteries about his beloved hotel!

What should readers expect in this latest volume? Can you give us any scintillating details w/out spoilers?

It’s tough to say too much without spoiling anything, but I can say Warren’s adventures take him to uncharted territory upon the open seas. His beloved pet and best pal, Sketchy, is kidnapped and Warren must solve riddles and clues if he has any hope of rescuing his friend. Along the way he’ll contend with ornery pirates, sea witches, and circus clowns—not to mention an enormous beast known as The Great Eight!

What has been the best part of working on Warren the 13th?

I love the zany cast of characters and seeing where Warren’s adventures take him. Even though I work from a detailed outline, as I write new surprises often pop up and I find myself adding things in I’d never expect. Also, collaborating with Will Staehle, the designer and illustrator of the book, is a lot of fun.

Tell me more about the illustrator. You’re also known for your amazing illustrations, so how did that partnership work?

Will and I have known each other since we were freshmen in art school, many years ago! We’ve had a lot of creative collaborations over the years, including creating a small press comic company, and editing a tutorial book on manga style art. Will originally conceived of the character of Warren in art school and shared the concept with me. I actually wrote the earliest draft of Warren’s story back in 2004! So it’s been a very long process bringing it to shelves. Even though I am also an illustrator, Will’s incredible design sense and his unique style is the only way Warren could ever be brought to life. My own art style just wouldn’t work for this project.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a new middle grade adventure that is best described as Latinx Sailor Moon meets Coco. It’s about three friends who end up in a darkened world populated by alebrijes, colorful and folkloric animals. The girls must band together to restore the sun and find their way home, before all is lost.

How can readers get in touch?

I can be reached on Twitter, @taniadelrio and Instagram, @taniadelrioauthor. I absolutely love hearing from my readers, so please visit me online!

Tania Del Rio is a professional comic book writer and artist who has spent the past 10 years writing and illustrating, primarily for a young audience. Her clients include Archie Comics, Dark Horse, and Marvel; she is best known for her work writing and drawing the 42-issue run of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She is also the author of the WARREN THE 13TH series published by Quirk Books. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her online at http://taniadelrio.blogspot.com/.

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

First Look Interview: Whispering Pines by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski

Today, I’m thrilled to give readers a first look at the new middle grade novel by the writing team of Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski, Whispering Pines!!! Welcome Heidi and Kati! We’ll show off that beautiful cover soon, but first can you pitch your new book to us Twitter-style, in 280 characters or less?

X-Files meets Stranger Things in this contemporary horror MG about a UFO-obsessed girl determined to find her missing father, and a ghost hunting boy now being hunted by a ghost of his own—that of his older brother—who team up to save their town from supernatural forces.

Yes!!! I love everything from that pitch! Aliens, ghosts, mysterious supernatural forces. Why do I feel like this book was written specifically for me?

Next, I challenged Heidi and Kati to finish these sentences about the book:

The one thing Rae Carter wants is to…

KATI: Find her missing father.

HEIDI: Couldn’t have said it better myself. 😉 In the meantime, she also wants to learn how to fit into Whispering Pines.

Caden Price knows more than most about the mysterious town of Whispering Pines, including…

HEIDI: …the fact that there is a world hidden beneath their own, and his town serves as the gateway.

KATI: Unfortunately for Caden, he’s not the only one who knows this. Just as he’s not the only one who’s figured out that the Price family holds the key to unlocking that world.

My first thought when I saw the cover was…

HEIDI: Wow! So delightfully creepy!

KATI: Same. I loved it immediately. Diana Novich is such a talented illustrator.

And, without further ado, let’s take a look at that gorgeous cover:

Whispering Pines

So beautiful and mysterious! I love the lighting, and did you catch that ghost hand?

Finally, I challenged Heidi and Kati to a little Lightning Round!

  • What was your favorite spooky story as a kid?

KATI: I actually didn’t like reading spooky stories as a kid – I got nightmares too easily. I used to wait for Heidi to read a book first so she could tell me if it was scary or not. Sometimes she lied about it. >: (

HEIDI: “Lied” is a little harsh. I was just trying to broaden your horizons. And it worked! Now you love reading horror. You’re welcome, by the way. ; p  I loved R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, especially “Let’s Get Invisible.” That ending has stayed with me for years.

  • Do you believe in the supernatural?

KATI: Definitely.

HEIDI: Me too. I think anything is possible.

  • What tips do you have for kids interested in writing spooky stories?

HEIDI: Read and watch spooky things. And play the “what if” game, trying to think of the scariest possible outcomes. And then invest in a good night light.

KATI: Also when you’re writing, try to create scenes that scare you. If you can scare yourself, you’ll scare your readers.

  • What’s the coolest costume you’ve ever worn for Halloween?

KATI: Actually, my coolest costume was simple black clothing that I wore when I worked at a haunted house – it helped me blend into the shadows so I could scare people.

HEIDI: One time I was a crayon. That was pretty wild.

KATI: I remember that costume! Pretty sure I was that same crayon the next year. I don’t think “cool” is how I’d describe it, though. ;D

Final question: Can readers expect more adventures set in Whispering Pines? 

KATI: We are currently working on an as-yet-unnamed sequel.

HEIDI: Yes, lots more planned for Whispering Pines!

Yay!!! Looking forward to it!

WHISPERING PINES releases September 1st, 2020 through Aladdin/Simon & Schuster.

Kati and Heidi_author photo_Positive Vista Photography

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski are a writing team of two sisters. Heidi is afraid of all things that go bump in the night, but watches shows like the X-Files and Stranger Things anyhow. Kati enjoys reading about serial killers and the apocalypse, but secretly sleeps with a nightlight. They believe that the best way to conquer fear is to share it with as many people as possible, so between the two of them, they love creating stories full of all the things that scare them most. They are the co-authors of the Mystic Cooking Chronicles trilogy.

Find Heidi on twitter and instagram: @hidlang

Find Kati on twitter and instagram: @ktbartkowski

Or visit their website: www.HeidiandKatiBooks.com

 

SPOOKY FOOD SENSATIONS

Cookies

FRIGHTFUL FOOD THAT’S AWFULLY GOOD

When writing a story—whether it’s spooky or not—an author needs to include the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). I love to do a presentation with students to help them incorporate these senses into their stories and better bring their scenes to life.

One of my favorite senses to highlight is TASTE. While it’s not always as easy as some of the others to readily include, the sense of taste can immediately transport a reader into a story.

Fudgy chocolate. Buttered popcorn. Salty peanuts. Spicy salsa. Even monster cookies.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. I’m sure at least one of these examples caused your mouth to water a bit. For certain, you could quickly identify the difference between the sweet chocolate and the hot, tangy salsa.

Food creates the opportunity to include the senses of SIGHT, SMELL, and TOUCH as well. That bag of fluffy, glistening, buttered popcorn in your hands is warm and a bit lumpy. The fragrant steam rising to your nose is totally tempting. When you include food in your story, you have a great opportunity to pull a reader in with numerous sensations.

Okay, enough writing tips for today. Now for the important part—some actual spooky food treats! No—not any of the over-the-top gross food I had such a fun time inventing for my monster stories. The recipes below may look a little ghastly, but they will be amazing taste delights.

Bat

BITE-SIZE BATS

IMG_5228

½ Cup of creamy or crunchy peanut butter

2 Tablespoons honey

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

IMG_5229

Stir these ingredients together. You may need to microwave the mixture for 10-15 seconds to blend smoothly.

IMG_5230

½ Cup of old fashioned oats

½ Cup of crispy rice cereal

2 Tablespoons of cocoa powder

2 Tablespoons of mini chocolate chips

Add these four ingredients and stir lightly until combined.

IMG_5231  IMG_5232

Broken blue corn tortilla chips (for bat wings)

Tube of white icing gel and extra mini chocolate chips (for eyes; or candy eyes)

When forming the mixture into balls, carefully add a wing on each side. For the eyes, I squeezed out two drops of icing and put a chocolate chip on top. Or you could use this same method and place a candy eye on the icing drops.

IMG_5233

This recipe makes about 10-12 bats. They won’t hang around long though. They are too yummy!

WITCH FINGERS

Witch

Carrot sticks (I used a small bag of baby carrots.)

Blanched almonds

Cream cheese

Guacamole dip  (I used a prepared dip, but you could make your own as well.)

IMG_5224

Top each carrot with a dollop of cream cheese. Attach almond (aka: fingernail). Stick in a bowl of guacamole dip.

IMG_5225  IMG_5226

Almost like magic—witch fingers to snack on.

IMG_5227

I hope you scare up some of these goodies soon!

 

An Interview with Alex Aster, author of EMBLEM ISLAND: CURSE OF THE NIGHT WITCH

Hi everyone! Tania here with another interview with a debut middle grade author, Alex Aster! Her book, EMBLEM ISLAND: CURSE OF THE NIGHT WITCH, comes out on June 9th and looks absolutely spooky! I was so excited for the opportunity to chat with her about her work!

TANIA: Hi Alex! Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book, EMBLEM ISLAND: CURSE OF THE NIGHT WITCH and the inspiration behind it?

ALEX: Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch is set on an island where everyone is born with markings on their skin that dictate their future, talents and role in society—and follows a character that will go to great lengths to change his fate. To reverse a deadly curse, Tor and his two friends must cross Emblem Island for the first time, with only an ancient book of legends as their guide, and monsters from those same stories in their path. The idea for this world came from a story my Colombian abuela first told me as a child: La niña con la estrella en la frente. In the story, a girl earns a magical marking on her skin for following the rules, while her sister earns a terrible marking for breaking them. In addition, many of the monsters the characters encounter trying to reverse the curse are inspired by other Latinx legends I grew up loving, like La Llorona, La Patasola, and La Ciguapa.

TANIA: As a Latinx author, how does your background influence your storytelling?

ALEX: Growing up, my abuela was the storyteller of the family. I learned storytelling from her, and how to create stories from the cuentos she would tell us. As you know, Latinx myths are generally very dark, so that definitely influenced my craft. Even though I’m writing middle grade, the monsters are supposed to be a little scary, and the stakes are always high, the same way they are in Latinx legends.

TANIA: Your book seems to tackle some dark themes including the fate and facing death. Why do you think scary topics like these are important for young readers?

ALEX: I think no matter what you’re writing, the stakes should be high. In this story, the stakes are that if they can’t reverse the night witch’s curse, Tor, Engle, and Melda will die. Obviously that’s scary, but if the stakes were any lower I don’t think it would warrant them crossing a super dangerous land for the first time! Also, I think even though eight to twelve years old seems young, this age group has encountered themes like fate and death before—and it’s definitely an ode to dark Latinx children’s stories (which I heard when I was five years old…thanks, abuela!). Instead of serving as a cautionary tale, these themes are meant to make the world feel more real, and hopefully get the reader thinking—if I was born in a world where my fate was predetermined, would I try to change it? Even if the stakes were high?

TANIA: What’s your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

ALEX: Probably somewhere in the middle. For Emblem Island, I had a pretty clear picture of what was going to happen, and fleshed out the specific obstacles/creatures/places the characters would encounter on their journey as I was writing. For the second book in the series though, I know exactly what will happen since I had to write a very detailed synopsis for foreign rights.

TANIA: What are you working on next? Also, feel free to plug or promote anything else you’d like in this space.

ALEX: I’m working on book two! Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch is the first in a series, so that has my focus right now.

Thanks for having me!

TANIA: Thanks for your time, Alex! Spookies, you can follow Alex on Twitter to learn more about her and her work!

A TWIST of a History

Sarah Cannon’s TWIST is on the shelves Tuesday 2/11! I took a moment to interview her about one aspect of this wonderful middle grade novel…

When we were chatting about TWIST you mentioned that the story is set in a, let’s just say, familiar time period. When is it set and how familiar is it?

Twist is set in 1983, the year Michael Jackson first moonwalked, the year Return of the Jedi came out, and the year *before* there was any such thing as Jordans. I was a middle grader myself at the time, so I have strong memories of my neighborhood, my school, and 80s culture. It was also the year most of America finally had access to cable, which changed the way we played…those big, complicated outdoor games became much more like fanfic and much less like original worldbuilding. And I’ve always found that divide interesting.DDR_JKT-template.indd

You also said that it was fun revisiting some of the things from your childhood, with the benefit of hindsight. What are they and how did they inspire you?

Well, first of all, before Chuck E. Cheese was a thing, there was an even creepier pizza establishment with an animatronic band. I won’t name names, but it’s possible it inspired a fictitious pizza parlor in my book…which I proceed to destroy even as I celebrate it. So that was satisfying and fun. My characters fight and trap monsters with 80s toys, which was entertaining to write. I also had to immerse myself deeply in my own memories of everything from sensory details to the rules of the games we played. It was extremely satisfying to build a fantasy world around these things.

What’s one favorite memory from those years?

For me, it’s less the Spielbergian neighborhood in which I lived, and more the wild spaces around/behind/within it. For example, there was a vacant lot that would flood in the spring, and suddenly there would be tadpoles, frogs, nesting red-winged blackbirds– smack in the middle of my neighborhood. It was almost a pop-up ecosystem, the way we think about pop-up restaurants now. It was amazing, and then it was gone. There was still a farm behind my house, on the other side of a drainage ditch…that’s where the scary story Eli reads in class is set. There were pastured cattle back there, and one of my neighbors kept horses on that pasture. Red-winged blackbirds migrated through that area in such huge numbers that they blotted out the sky, until all I could see was the flash of the red and yellow on their wings. Like Court, one of the characters in my story, I gravitated toward those places, even when I wasn’t allowed to be there.

Lightning round…favorite things from the 1980s…

Food?

A week ago I would have had a hard time answering this question, but someone on twitter brought up fruit wrinkles! I had forgotten all about them, but they were a huge improvement on fruit roll-ups, which tasted like the plastic sheet you peeled them off of. Capri Sun also tasted like the space-age bag, btw. I was incensed when I drank one recently and it tasted like juice…kids today have it easy! And I’ll add a vote for Toaster Strudels, because warm pastry was fancy compared to past alternatives.

School subject?

Oh, totally Language Arts. I was that kid who’d finish our reading assignments early because I had them tucked behind my math book. My fourth-grade teacher had a big claw-foot tub in her reading center and made a gigantic celebration out of Scholastic book orders. Her room was basically paradise.76763929a2b0631f25b5dbcac8109846

Clothing?

Crop pants and jelly bracelets.

Hairstyle? 

I hadn’t started spraying my bangs as high as they could go yet, but I was definitely rocking ribbon barrettes.

Music?

Whatever was playing on our local station, because it was usually blasting on the bus. But definitely the Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson (though I was not quite obsessed enough to sport a glove on one hand like some of my classmates, I DO remember the premiere of the Thriller video in ’82. TWIST has a lot of referential chapter titles, because I am punny and ridiculous and could not resist. There’s also a Spotify playlist of songs referenced in the book.

Movie?

In ’83, “Return of the Jedi”, no question.MV5BOWZlMjFiYzgtMTUzNC00Y2IzLTk1NTMtZmNhMTczNTk0ODk1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTAyODkwOQ@@._V1_

Book?

I read everything I could get my hands on, but I was definitely immersed in spooky stories at that age…before Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Daniel Cohen was putting out collections of terrifying tales. His Ghostly Animals collection kept me up at night! Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Witch series just about turned my hair white. And Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt” probably sealed my fate as a spooky author. My best friend and I were also completely obsessed with Narnia.

Thanks, Sarah – I know your readers will love this book!

Toying With Spooky Stories: A Writing Prompt

Let’s just be honest: toys are creepy.

Our stuffed animals stare at us with their button eyes while we sleep, and we can’t be completely sure they stay where we put them. Dolls? Equally freaky, if not more so. Puppets? Stop. (There is a reason the villains in my first book were evil puppets.)

Canva - Fluffy Stuffed Animals
They like to watch you while you sleep.

So it seemed only fair that when the kids in Twist, my book that comes out this month, had a bunch of monsters to defeat, they’d use toys to do it. It’s about time toys pulled their weight.It was a lot of fun, actually. Toys lend themselves well to weaponization. What parent hasn’t stepped on a Lego during a midnight bathroom trip and been convinced they were going to lose their foot? And there’s no alarm system as freaky as a Speak and Spell that accuses you suddenly out of the darkness. We all understand why Kevin McCallister used paint cans as booby traps in Home Alone…they’re heavy. But toys…toys are diabolical. They bring a level of psychological warfare to the table that’s hard to beat.

I mention this because while I love inventing creatures both friendly and foul, my favorite trick is presenting the commonplace, slightly askew. Familiar objects can send chills down your reader’s spine in the right context. That’s why the little wind-up primate with his clashing cymbals is so horrifying in Stephen King’s short story, “The Monkey.” It’s why a trail of Reese’s Pieces can lead to almost-unbearable levels of tension. And it’s why the juxtaposition of a Dungeons and Dragons miniature with a real-life danger doesn’t minimize the threat for the viewer, but gives them a focal point that makes them even more nervous.

Canva - Brown Haired Female Doll
She’s sad because you won’t share…your soul.

Familiar objects like toys are wonderful elements in a scary story, specifically because they’re so benign…until they aren’t. Once you’ve noticed how not-quite-right they are, you can’t unsee it. I know, this is a terrible thing I’m doing to you right now, but I am, after all, a spooky author. It’s literally my job. Of course, turnabout is fair play. So…

The next time you pick up your pencil (or ask your students to pick up theirs) why not pose the challenge of making a beloved childhood toy scary? If that doesn’t float your boat, if you really truly won’t be happy unless you can create a monstrous threat, see if your characters can solve that larger-than-life problem with household objects so basic, they’d normally overlook them completely. Especially if they’re toys! I guarantee good, spooky fun…besides, you’re already halfway there! Admit it: the Elf on a Shelf freaks you out.

Doesn’t he?

Canva - Grayscale Photo of Giraffe and Monkey Plastic Toy on Floor
Start here: the monkey is waving at…

 

 

Map Your Way Through SCRITCH SCRATCH by Lindsay Currie & Win A Classroom Giveaway!

I’m always excited to take on the blank page when writing a post for Spooky Middle Grade. Let’s me stretch my creepiness a bit. Even more so when I get to share spooky goodness from one of our own crew. AND when I get to offer a bookish giveaway!

*Spooky Alert*
Check us out on Twitter for a SCRITCH SCRATCH giveaway!

But first, here’s the cover to Lindsay’s upcoming release.

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Releasing September 1, 2020 from Sourcebooks Young Readers!

For fans of Small Spaces comes a chilling ghost story about a malevolent spirit, an unlucky girl, and a haunting mystery that will tie the two together.

Claire has absolutely no interest in the paranormal. She’s a scientist, which is why she can’t think of anything worse than having to help out her dad on one of his ghost-themed Chicago bus tours. She thinks she’s made it through when she sees a boy with a sad face and dark eyes at the back of the bus. There’s something off about his presence, especially because when she checks at the end of the tour…he’s gone.

Claire tries to brush it off, she must be imagining things, letting her dad’s ghost stories get the best of her. But then the scratching starts. Voices whisper to her in the dark. The number 396 appears everywhere she turns. And the boy with the dark eyes starts following her.

Claire is being haunted. The boy from the bus wants something…and Claire needs to find out what before it’s too late.

Page Break Skull

Yup, I am all EEK! over this cover. I love the taillights! So, let’s learn a little more about Lindsay’s book.

Hi Lindsay! *waves* I’m excited to share with our middle grade audience a few sneaky secrets about SCRITCH SCRATCH. Let’s begin with how you got the ideas for the world you created here.

Chicago has a lot of really ghostly history, so I love to set books here whenever possible. The idea for this specific book, though, came in pieces. I actually thought of the ghost first, then built the story around that! Seems a little backward, but it worked well in the end.

Did you learn any cool (or really spooky) information while researching to write this story?

I’m such a sucker for old Chicago history that yes, I find I discover something new with the research for every book! During my research phase for this book, I actually went on a ghost tour bus with my husband!

Okay, super cool. 👻

It was in October, and we had a fabulous time experiencing the charged atmosphere of every spine-tingling stop! I have to admit, even though I’m done researching, I’d totally do one again. They’re a fun blend of history, mystery, and ghosts!

What would you say is your favorite part of the story?

Oooh, tough question. I’d have to say that my favorite part of SCRITCH SCRATCH isn’t a physical scene, but the personal journey my main character, Claire, is on throughout the book. Claire is like many of us – filled with ideas about the world we live in, but occasionally hesitant to explore notions that are unfamiliar or different. She’s really into science and that doesn’t offer a lot of gray areas when it comes to things like the paranormal. If she can’t see it, or prove that it exists, Claire doesn’t believe in it. But her father’s ghost tour and the ensuing trouble it causes her forces Claire to take a second look at her beliefs and consider that maybe, just maybe that gray area exists after all.

That said, I’d by lying if I didn’t say that the scary scenes are super fun, too. I worked hard with my editor, Annie Berger, to make sure we were really amping the fear factor up for those readers who love a good fright!

This definitely sounds frightful!

Can you share with us why you feel MG readers will relate to Claire’s journey?

Claire faces so many familiar challenges that I believe many readers will identify with her. For one, her best friend, Casley, seems to be moving on.

Aw, that’s a tough one.

She’s hanging out with someone else more, someone who wears makeup and is more mature than Claire thinks she is. I think we’ve all experienced that in life and it’s painful, not to mention confidence-shaking.

I can see that. Thank you for sharing some of SCRITCH SCRATCH with us. Can’t wait for its release!

READERS: I know a sneaky secret that Lindsay will reveal sometime during this week, so make sure to stay tuned to her Twitter feed and to ours! HINT: it’s handy-dandy & ghostly!

To learn more about SCRITCH SCRATCH and Lindsay, visit her WEBSITE. Want to make sure you get a copy of the book? Hop on over to Lindsay’s favorite Indie bookstore THE BOOK CELLAR and pre-order it so she can personalize it for you before they ship!

#SCRITCH SCRATCH Classroom Giveaway!

Lindsay bookmarks

 

#Teachers, #Librarians, #Educators – hop on over to Twitter to enter for your chance to WIN a Classroom Bundle of signed bookmarks & book plates from Lindsay to celebrate SCRITCH SCRATCH’s upcoming release!

Wishing you the spookiest of luck!