Mystery at the Mansion. The Serial House. Circus Gone Wrong. The Photo. Sewer Circus. Did we Spookies write these fine scary tales? No! A class of Junior Spookies (Spooky Irregulars, maybe?) at Northside Middle School did. Mrs. Forney’s class of amazing 7th graders even published them in an anthology called, aptly enough, A Collection of Short Stories from an Amazing Group of Seventh Graders. I had the distinct honor to hear them read their collaborative stories on Feb 15th in the NMS library.
Work on their stories, though, started about a month before that. Librarian Lauren Sprouse contacted Spooky MG to set up a free 30-minute Skype Q&A session for Mrs. Forney’s English class. She let the students listen to the collaborative story we did for the Reading to Your Kids podcast. This inspired the class to write their own collaborative stories! When they Skyped with us in January, the students were armed with questions not only for us about our own books and writing but also about the whole collaborative story writing process. The class left the Skype session pumped to work on their own group stories. Since I live in the same city, I happily agreed to go hear the tales once they were done!
How did they do it? First, Mrs. Forney took notes on our answers to the students’ questions and gave each a copy to help them write their stories. She adapted how we wrote our collaborative story to suit her class. We had worked from a writing prompt given to us by the podcast host, and then each of us wrote a segment of the story without really planning what came next. Luckily, it worked out pretty well. Mrs. Forney provided each of her groups with a prompt. However, she let each group brainstorm, write, and revise its story together. She’s extremely proud of both their stories and how hard they worked! And I was impressed with the stories, too!
On the morning of February 15th, after all the groups read their awesome stories, I turned the tables on them—and asked them questions about their process. They shared that the hardest parts were coming up with the ideas and then editing/revising the stories. Some groups eagerly talked about how they came up with great names for the characters, often based on people they knew or even family members. We talked a bit more about writing in general–until it was time for photos. (See above!)
You can do this, too!Are you a librarian or teacher who’d like to do something similar with your class? Here’s a super quick lesson plan/checklist for teaching Spooky collaborative stories in your classroom:
Set aside class or library time for each group to brainstorm ideas, write drafts, revise, and practice reading. (NMS students took about a month to do this, along with other class work.)
Publish stories in a booklet, complete with student signatures and a cool cover!
Try this variation: Instead collaborating, your students could write their individual own spooky stories based on a theme or prompt.
If your school is in the Roanoke, Virginia area, I’m happy to listen to more stories! I won’t speak for the other Spookies, but you might be able to persuade one that lives near your school to make a visit. OR you could schedule a follow-up Skype for us to listen to stories!
Of course, you don’t have to write collaborative stories to Skype with us!
Today is an exciting day here on Spooky Middle Grade.
#SpookyMG author Kim Ventrella is celebrating the release of her middle grade novel BONE HOLLOW, and you’re invited to the party! We’re going to show off her super eerie cover, share details about the book, and chat with Kim about her creation. Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post to see the HUGE GIVEAWAY Kim’s offering up. So read on!
DEATH IS ONLY THE BEGINNING…
In retrospect, it was foolish to save that chicken. On the roof. In the middle of a thunder storm. But what choice did Gabe have? If he hadn’t tried to rescue Ms. Cleo’s precious pet, she would’ve kicked him out. And while Ms. Cleo isn’t a perfect guardian, her house is the only home Gabe knows.
After falling off the roof, Gabe wakes up in a room full of tearful neighbors. To his confusion, none of them seem to hear Gabe speak. It’s almost as if they think he’s dead. But Gabe’s not dead. He feels fine! So why do they insist on holding a funeral? And why does everyone scream in terror when Gabe shows up for his own candlelight vigil?
Scared and bewildered, Gabe flees with his dog, Ollie, the only creature who doesn’t tremble at the sight of him. When a mysterious girl named Wynne offers to let Gabe stay at her cozy house in a misty clearing, he gratefully accepts. Yet Wynne disappears from Bone Hollow for long stretches of time, and when a suspicious Gabe follows her, he makes a mind-blowing discovery. Wynne is Death and has been for over a century. Even more shocking . . . she’s convinced that Gabe is destined to replace her.
Hi Kim! I’ve got to say, when I read your blurb, I chuckled at saving a chicken. 🐔 And the rest of the description totally reeled me in, which will surely do the same for young readers. So let’s dive right in.
Spooky minds want to know what fascinates you about writing spooky books?
For me, spooky stories are all about possibility. About discovering a magical world beyond the mundane. I’ve always said that my life motto is, “I want to believe.” It’s from The X-Files, ha!, but it’s so true!
*fist pumps The X-Files*
I am a terrible cynic in real life. I don’t believe in anything fun, like ghosts, magical skeletons or an afterlife, but in fiction I can explore all of those things and create a world in which unlikely possibilities really do happen.
Care to share some of your favorite spooky books from your childhood?
I love, love scary stories! As a kid, I was hugely into the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections, with the terrifyingly beautiful black-and-white artwork. I was also a huge fan of Roald Dahl, especially his short stories.The Landlady was my favorite! I performed it as a reader’s theatre and wrote my own short story based on the same premise back in second grade.
Oh, and speaking of Scary Stories… Jonathan Maberry is editing a reboot of the Scary Stories franchise, called New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and I am super excited to have a story featured in that collection called ‘Jingle Jangle.’ It’s set to release in 2020, so get prepared to be scared! Whoa, that rhymed 😛
That is spooktastic! Congratulations! 🎉 Can’t wait to read this collection.
Let’s turn to BONE HOLLOW. How would you sum up this book?
At its heart, Bone Hollow is the story of a boy and his dog, but it’s so much more! It also features one ornery chicken, a candlelit cottage in the woods, friendship, mystery and big doses of heart and hope.
Were you ever afraid or hesitant to write Gabe’s death? Did you think it might be too much for young readers or why do you think it’s okay to explore?
I write books in the hope that readers will come away with a new perspective on life or, in this case, death.
That’s a wonderful goal.
Like with Skeleton Tree, I’ve tried to create an engaging fantasy world filled with humor, whimsy and many light touches, but I’m also wanting to explore darker topics to show that there can be light and beauty there as well. Loss is one of those things that even very young children encounter, often with the loss of a pet or grandparent, and one of my goals is to help young readers develop a framework for processing their feelings surrounding death that acknowledges the sadness, but also opens the door to hope.
What’s your favorite thing about Gabe? About the world you created in Bone Hollow?
Gabe has had a rough life, but he hasn’t let it harden his heart. He displays this persistent optimism in the face of overwhelming difficulties that I so totally admire. In Bone Hollow, readers will enter a misty woodland valley lit by flickering candles and night-blooming flowers. Nearby, they’ll find a maze with strange plants and dreamlike specters around every corner. I would love, love to visit Bone Hollow in real life one day!
Oh, and I forgot about Gabe’s humor! It was so much fun coming up with some of his syrupy southern sayings, like “Ollie’s bottom was itchier than a flea on a hot plate.” Love it! I wish I really talked like that.
Care to share the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
So many options!!! I think the piece of advice that continues to inform my writing the most is to focus on impact. Every word you write should be deliberately chosen to achieve a certain impact on the reader. And I mean that mostly in the broader, story-wide sense, although it also applies to the sentence level. Ask yourself, ‘What emotional journey do I want my reader to take?’ If you can identify those emotional beats that you want the reader to experience, then you can use that as a skeleton for your novel. It was a mindset shift for me from just writing ‘cool stuff,’ to writing action designed to have a specific impact on the reader. And did you see how I worked skeletons in there? Haha!
Being quite fond of skeletons💀, why yes I did notice. Nicely done!
Please tell your readers what they can expect next from you.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m very excited for New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, set to release in 2020! I also have a few other projects coming down the pipeline, so check my website for more updates on those soon.
Exciting times are coming your way, Kim. We can’t wait to see where they take you! Thank you for sharing yourself and BONE HOLLOW with the world and your spooky crew here on Spooky Middle Grade. And . . .
KIM VENTRELLA is the author of the middle grade novels Skeleton Tree (2017) and Bone Hollow (2019, Scholastic Press), and she is a contributor to the upcoming New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthology (2020, HarperCollins). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Kim has held a variety of interesting jobs, including children’s librarian, scare actor, Peace Corps volunteer, French instructor and overnight staff at a women’s shelter, but her favorite job title is author. She lives in Oklahoma City with her dog and co-writer, Hera. Find out more at https://kimventrella.com/ or follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram: @KimVentrella.
February is most notably known as the month of romance and chocolates. But there’s a lesser realized secret about the love month, one that slithers between the days, between each week. It steals a nibble here, and one there, creeping against the darkness, invading the shadows. Suspense blooms. Tensions bloat. You might even feel the need to hide beneath a pillow. Maybe mask your face behind your favorite book.
So you wait . . . and wait . . . until the pages tatter and thin, gripped in your clenching fingers, & you’re sure you can’t take anymore . . . Then . . . You guessed it.
February is also the month of horror!
Yup, and more precisely Women of Horror. It even has its own hashtag #WomenOfHorror. Very cool, I know.
In honor of Women of Horror month, I thought it would be fun to explore middle grade women horror writers.
Let’s begin with the chilling shivers of award-winning author Mary Downing Hahn. Mary is a former children’s librarian (Woot! #bookhero), who changed her course to write full-time and travel around the country sharing her love of books. She writes the gamete of genres from realistic fiction to contemporary fantasy and is known for her intriguing plot lines and magical way of gifting her characters their individual voices. Two of her books instantly come to my mind – Wait Till Helen Comes, and Deep and Dark and Dangerous.
Holly Black is also an icon for the creepy and the macabre with her eerie tale Doll Bones and her collaboration with Tony DiTerlizzi in The Spiderwick Chronicles. Holly loved writing from an early age, and that’s a good thing for us. She’s been nominated for and has won numerous writing awards as well as staking her claim on the New York Times Best Sellers list early on in her career. Basically, she’s utterly (creeptastically) brilliant.
Another fabulous woman of horror is Marina Cohen. She grew up in Canada and is a true lover of a good ghost story. Especially the real ones. To this day, she’s drawn to the fantastical and all things creepy. (A girl after my own 🖤!) For me, her middle grade novels The Inn Between and The Doll’s Eye are fabulously uncanny and spine-chilling.
These women horror authors, like many others, stir the soul and curiosity of the mind with supernatural tales that lure the reader in with the promise of intrigue, challenge, adventure, and some serious spook!
Here’s a list of a few other women horror writers. There are many, many more. Feel free to share the horror and add more middle grade woman horror writers in the comments! I’d love to expand this list.🖤
Patricia McKissack, Rebecca Promitzer, Charolette Salter, Katy Towell, Rose Cooper, Jasmine Richards, Christine Hayes, Jessica Miller, Kate Milford, Marika McCoola, Kelly Barnhill, Andrea Portes, Annette Cascone & Gina Cascone
And yes, I ended with number thirteen . . . #Mwhaaaaaaa ☠️
Here at spookymiddlegrade.com, our pets play a big role in our writing. I asked a few #SpookyMG authors to share stories about how their pets impact their writing.
Kim Ventrella & Hera
Yes, I had to put my dog first 😛 because she’s just too darn cute and she’s been a huge influence on my writing!!! True story, I wrote Skeleton Tree while sitting in a dog bed, while Hera sat on the couch behind me looking over my shoulder. She was basically my first editor, and she gave up her bed so I could have a comfy seat.
She also inspired me to write a story with a dog best friend, i.e. Bone Hollow, and that book is actually dedicated to her 🙂 She’s totally different from Ollie, though, Gabe’s best friend in Bone Hollow. Ollie has a wiggly, carefree spirit, but Hera is a total ball of nerves. She has a major phobia of people and other dogs. Example: when I first brought her home, I had to carry her outside, and if she saw someone walk past the window of their condo (inside) from 200 yards away, she would race back to our house shaking. It would take her 20-30 tries before she could get up the courage to pee. Now, she’s way braver and more comfortable in her environment, but she’s definitely a one-person dog.
Kim Ventrella is the author of Skeleton Tree (2017) and Bone Hollow (2019), both with Scholastic Press. She’s also a contributor to the New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthology coming in 2020 from Harper Collins.
Tania del Rio & Boba & Max
I have two dogs named Boba and Max. Max is a Chihuahua mix about 10 years old, and Boba is a 9 month old corgi puppy.
Max is usually content to lay at my side while I write and it’s nice to have her act as my little personal space heater on cold or rainy days. She’s got really soft ears that I like to pet whenever I’m stuck on a scene and need a moment to think. She’s the “pawfect” writing buddy!
Boba, on the other hand, has a lot of energy and gets jealous of my computer. If I’m not paying attention to him, he lets me know it by crawling onto my lap and getting in the way! He also likes to bark in my face- rude! It can be a bit challenging to get anything done with him around, so I try to take him on a long walk or visit the dog park so that he’ll sleep for a few hours while I work.
Even with the distractions, it’s nice to have pets to keep me company while I write and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
My dog, Parker, is a three-year-old rescue, who we find to be the sweetest dog ever. He’ll usually curl up on the couch next to me when I’m writing. I’ll run ideas by him, and he points out whether or not there are any plot holes. He’s good like that. But mostly, he helps me because whenever I want a break, or am stuck on something, I turn around, pet him, and he basically lets me know that I’m doing okay.
I decided to do a critter photo shoot. As you can see, Wicket the hedgehog is a little shy. He’s often rolled up into a little defensive ball of spikes. And even after two years, our cats still don’t know what to make of him. Nym, our black cat, is a serious cuddle bug (and deceptively hefty). She’s usually stalked around the house by our youngest, Zelda, whose quite the handful. I have a theory she’s part squirrel! She loves her big sister, as you can see by the kiss! These three keep me company when I work from home, never far from my keyboard.
This is Sadie, my newest writing pup (on the right)! With her being so active I’ve had to move to the kitchen area to keep an eye on her while I write. Makes for an interesting word count . . . and sometimes not much! 😁
The photo collage is of our fur babies that have been with us a while. Molly the cat is my true writing feline, though. She insists on sitting in my lap while I write when I’m in my office. And Chloe is the jokester of the group. I have a video of her literally dancing on my desk and laptop while I was listening to music and writing. Super cute! 🐾
This is Mr. Bingley. We’re in constant competition over who gets to claim the desk chair or the top of the desk. Mr. Bingley usually wins. He has also laid claim to my spooky fairytale wallpaper, and he loves to rub against it. This would not be a problem, except it’s a flocked wallpaper, and his yellow fur clings to it like magnets to steel. As a result, a small portion of my daily writing time has to be spent vacuuming my wall.
This is Kailash. He’s about 5 years old now, and super friendly and like all Labs he still has a lot of puppy in him. In fact, getting him to sit still for this photo took a bit of wrangling.
He’s too big to get up on my desk (thank heavens) but he’ll occasionally try to crawl into my lap as I’m working. Mostly he is a walking companion, and I walk to get ideas so he’s a great help there.
We’ve never not had a dog for more than a couple of months. And at times a guinea pig or two, a rat or two, and a horse. We’d have a cat but our son is very allergic. But we love Kai. He’s got a big heart and loves everyone.
Sadly my dog Holly recently journeyed to dog heaven. She was a constant companion, always ready with ideas and the ability to find perfect napping spots in my office. I can still hear her barks of encouragement, and I know there will be a very special dog in my next spooky story.
Here’s a graphic of my editorial “staff” – Hubble, Maggie, Brick, and Stella. All of them are rescues. I have a two-year-old Lab mix named Hubble (yes, as in the telescope. I am also a space nerd.). He’s a foster fail, btw. I fostered him for the SPCA two summers ago, fully intending to keep him. Maggie (tortie) and Brick (gray) are about 8 1/2, and I got them together when they were just 8 weeks old–also from the SPCA. I picked Maggie out, and then Brick grabbed me from the next cage. They bicker just like the Tennessee William’s characters they’re named for. Stella is the most recent addition. About a year old, give or take, she was living under the porch of the empty house next door. I, of course, was feeding her on my porch–and when the weather turned really, really cold, she got very friendly, and dammit, I took her in. She is a petite sweetie who’s quite happy she adopted me.
More often than not, my guys distract me from writing since I work at home. My previous dog, Bridget, did inspire the dog in Memento Nora! As an animal lover, I tend to give my characters pets. Uncle Ash–in the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series–has three dogs, all named after beaches in the Carolinas, who follow him everywhere. Plus the third book of the series will feature a ghost dog.
I am super excited to welcome our very own Kat Shepherd to the blog!!! Her new book, THE PHANTOM HOUR, releases today!! I recently had a chance to chat with Kat about her new book, a brand new mystery series and much more.
Q: You have a passion for animals, traveling and the outdoors, among many other interests. How have those passions found their way into your writing?
A: Like any author, I pull a lot from my own life to put into the stories I write. Lots of my characters are based on former students of mine or other people I know, but there’s always a little bit of me in there, too. In the newest Babysitting Nightmares book, THE PHANTOM HOUR, Clio shares my passions for travel and history and glimpses into the past. And in Book 2 we’ll meet Ethan, who has a really strong connection with animals. I train and foster dogs, so I really wanted to put a character in the series that reflects my own bond with animals.
Because I write suspense, I rarely put pets in my scary books, and there’s a really good reason for this. Anytime I see a pet in a scary movie or book, it immediately distracts me, because I get so worried that something is going to happen to it. (I blame Stephen King for this. Animals rarely fared well in his books!) So I intentionally avoid putting pets in, because I don’t want my readers worrying about them like I always did. But in PHANTOM HOUR I couldn’t resist bringing back my favorite dog, Wesley. He passed away in 2013, and I miss him every single day, so it was wonderful to get to write about him and see him come alive on the page. It was a little like getting to spend time with him again.
Q: Tell me more about microphilanthropy. Does it ever crop up in your books? How can readers get involved?
A: It’s important to me that my protagonists be kind and show compassion and generosity. Not because I’m trying to teach some big lesson to kids or anything, but because I have to spend a lot of time with my characters, and I don’t really like to be around people that aren’t kind or compassionate. Generosity and compassion are driving forces in my life; they absolutely give my life direction and purpose. That’s not to say that I am this supremely generous and compassionate person, but those are the qualities I am continuously striving toward. Failing to get there a lot, but always trying.
One of the biggest challenges of my life was that I have always wanted to be this great philanthropist, but I don’t really have any money. So in trying to figure out how to give meaningfully when the size of your wallet doesn’t match the size of your heart, I started pursuing a concept I call microphilanthropy. It’s based on the idea that you don’t need a lot of money to make positive, measurable change in your community. You just need people.
Basically, it’s crowdfunding, but rooted in the community. I find local organizations that need small, concrete projects funded: a science club at the library, blankets for the zoo’s chimpanzees, emergency rental assistance to keep a family from becoming homeless. Each project costs anywhere from $100 to $1200. Then I throw a party and invite the organizations to come a pitch their projects to my party guests. Then everyone at the party puts whatever money they can spare into jars we set up for each project. At the end of the night we count up and distribute the money, and the organizations go on to fund their projects. The average donation about $10 or $20 per person, but when you pool that money together, it makes these incredible things happen.It creates a really strong connection between people and their communities, and it feels really powerful to see that you made something amazing happen. The best part is seeing the excitement on my guests’ faces when they realize that they are the reason the library has a science club now, or a family didn’t lose their home. It wasn’t some rich person who did that. It was us.
I actually just wrote up a little how-to guide for folks who want to throw their own microphilanthropy party. They can email me at my website katshepherd.com, and I’m happy to send it over or help them strategize.
Q: What should readers expect from Book 2?
A: While Book 1 of Babysitting Nightmares took the girls into the Nightmare Realm, Book 2, THE PHANTOM HOUR, feels a little more grounded in this world. Clio gets a job babysitting for the Lee family, a new family who has moved into an abandoned old mansion at the edge of town. The Lees are lovely, and Clio is thrilled to get the chance to explore the old mansion… until she starts to realize it may be haunted. Luckily Clio has help from her friends and Aunt Kawanna, and she also gets some unexpected help from her new friend, Ethan, who has a few secrets of his own. Readers should expect a spooky ride of suspense, thrills and chills as Clio works to unlock the mansion’s mysteries before it’s too late.
Q: Are any of the thrills and chills from BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES based on real-life experiences?
A: Several generations of women in my family have had regular contact with ghosts. Ethan’s Great-Grandma Moina is based on family stories, but I made her backstory a lot more exciting than my own family’s. For my own great-grandmother ghosts very matter-of-fact and not at all mysterious; they were just around all the time. It was much more fun to make Moina a glamorous, professional medium who performed big, showy seances! To figure out how to do that I did a lot of research on the Spiritualist movement and the history of psychic mediums in the US. I even went to a seance in an old Victorian mansion! What I learned was that there were lots and lots of seances back then, but not a whole lot of ghosts. The magician Harry Houdini helped prove that most of the so-called mediums were faking it and using tricks and illusions to fool people into thinking that they were seeing and talking to ghosts. I’m not sure if I was disappointed or relieved to learn that!
Like the house in PHANTOM HOUR, my own house was vacant before we moved into it. We are only the third owners, and the last person who lived there was a woman who had lived there for 40 years. After she died her daughter held onto the house for another decade because she couldn’t bear to give up something her mother had loved so much. So we felt a little worried when we moved in that might find her ghost hanging around.
A few months after we moved in I went to bed early and my husband was still awake. For some reason he always keeps his dress shoes on after work, and it can be annoyingly loud when he walks around the house. I was awakened by his footsteps in the middle of the night, and I was super irritated that he hadn’t taken off his shoes. But then I rolled over and my husband was asleep next to me! I woke him up, and we both heard a man’s footsteps walking through the house. Our burglar alarm had been set and our dogs were sleeping peacefully, so we knew it couldn’t be an actual person. For some reason nothing about it felt scary at all, and we just went back to sleep. Our house was built by a judge, and we wonder if it was his otherworldly footsteps we heard. So we did end up having a ghostly encounter, just not with the ghost that we expected!
Q: What advice do you have for young fans who may be interested in writing their own stories?
A: I think one of the best things writers can do is to read a lot. Reading helps give you an instinct for story and language; you learn by seeing how other people do it. I also think it helps to read critically, with the eye of a writer. Read for enjoyment, but then take a minute to think about why you loved the story and what made it so good. Then think about those moments that weren’t so good. Did the story drag? Were there parts you got bored, or the action moved too fast? Reading like a writer is a big part of how I developed my own storytelling style and voice.
The other big part of writing your own stories is to WRITE THEM! Put them in a notebook, get a cool journal, or learn to type and store them electronically. If you’re excited to write but feel stuck for ideas, sometimes fanfic is a really fun place to start. Think of your favorite book and write a sequel, or choose a character from a book you love and put them on a new adventure. Create a mashup of your two favorite series. What would happen if the characters met? Spooky stories are also a great way to get started, because it automatically puts your writer’s imagination into overdrive! I teach a spooky story writing workshop, and I’m always happy to email aspiring writers the ideas and exercises I use to get started.
Once you get your stories down on paper, make sure you share them! Writers need readers. Ask your friends and families to read your work and share any moments where they got confused or needed more description, as well as those parts that made them laugh or jump out of their seats. Take that feedback and use it to make your story really sing. Writing a first draft is important, but revising is where the magic really happens. Most writers I know absolutely love to revise, because it lets us forget all the nitty-gritty and just focus on making the story the best that it can be.
Q: What can readers expect next from Kat Shepherd? I hear you may have a new mystery series coming later this year?
A: I have a new mystery series The Gemini Mysteries, that debuts on March 5 with THE NORTH STAR. I have been a huge mystery fan for as long as I can remember; so much so, in fact, that I have a mystery-themed tattoo sleeve that continues to evolve as I add more favorites to it. One of the things I loved most about mysteries is the interactive experience of reading one. You’re constantly taking in information, evaluating, predicting, and then re-evaluating based on a changing landscape of clues. So exciting as a reader, and such a great tool as a teacher! This series is especially fun because there is a picture at the end of every chapter with a clue hidden in it, and the reader gets to work alongside the detectives to find the clues that lead to the next step in the mystery.
It’s been fun for me, because Babysitting Nightmares and Gemini Mysteries are so different, but there is a lot of crossover between mystery and horror. I like to write fast-paced adventures with a little bit of humor and lots of suspense, and I think both series allow me to do that. I hope my readers will have as much fun reading them as I have writing them!
Hi everyone! Tania here. I’m happy for the opportunity to interview author Claribel Ortega whose debut middle grade novel, GHOST SQUAD, comes out this fall. We may have to wait a little while to get out hands on it, but check out this description in the meantime:
The hurricane-swept town of St. Augustine is the only home Lucely Luna has ever known. It’s the same home her father grew up in, and his parents before him. In fact, all of the deceased relatives in the Luna family now live as firefly spirits in the weeping willow tree in their backyard.
Shortly before Halloween, a mysterious storm appears on the radar heading towards St. Augustine, causing Lucely’s firefly spirits to lose their connection to this world. In an effort to save them, Lucely finds a spell to bring them back to life, but accidentally brings more spirits to the town than she’d planned. Ghosts start showing up all around town, some more dangerous than others, wreaking havoc.
Lucely will have to band together with her best friend and occult buff, Syd, along with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head on, save the town, and save her firefly spirits all before the full moon culminates on Halloween.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? I can hardly wait! Now, let’s get on with the Q+A.
TANIA: I’m very excited to read GHOST SQUAD which sounds very spooky, indeed! But, reading the description, I’m also intrigued by its family themes and elements of magical realism. Can you talk a little bit about how your own background has influenced your story?
CLARIBEL: I’m excited you’re excited about Ghost Squad! The story is very close to my heart and directly influenced by both my childhood and my experience with loss. As a kid, I used to catch fireflies in glass jars with my late, older brother. My family is from The Dominican Republic and we have mythology that says fireflies are the souls of our loved ones who have passed on, and that those fireflies are watching over us. I loved the idea of still having my brother around, looking out for me and that led to Lucely Luna’s story!
TANIA: As an author, why do you think spooky stories are important for young readers? Do you think it’s possible to get too dark or scary when it comes to writing Middle Grade fiction?
CLARIBEL: I think it is definitely possible to get too dark (in fact there was one scene I had to cut from Ghost Squad because it was too scary!) but it also varies on the reader. I was reading Stephen King at a pretty young age, he was my transition into adult books after Ghost Bumps. Did I have nightmares? Yes. Do I recommend it? Also yes.
TANIA: What are some of your favorite spooky books or movies and why?
CLARIBEL: So, I am a giant chicken with spooky movies and will read the Wikipedia plot before I watch to make sure I can handle it lol. I prefer scary movies that don’t rely on jump scares and have a frightening twist at the end (Like THE SKELETON KEY or THE SIXTH SENSE) but normally I lean into the not actually scary but sort of campy/fun spooky movies like CLUE or GHOSTBUSTERS. I can handle a lot more when it comes to books, and as I said I love Stephen King and anything true crime or serial killer related because it’s fascinating!
TANIA: Have you personally ever seen a ghost or experienced the supernatural?
CLARIBEL: I have. Once at my old house, I was constantly seeing a little girl running through the hall out of the corner of my eye. I never said anything until one day I was standing by the stairs next to my older sister and saw her. We both flinched at the same time then looked at one another, eyes wide like “You saw her too?” It was creepy, but I wasn’t necessarily scared. I don’t think she meant us any harm.
TANIA: What advice would you give a young, aspiring writer? Is there something you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
CLARIBEL: Your career might not unfold how you expect it to but that doesn’t make it any less worth celebrating. Things take a long time in publishing, and it’s okay if things don’t pan out the way you planned, the goal is longevity not instant success. Focus on the things you can control, like your writing, be willing to fight for yourself when you need to, and remember to celebrate the good not just focus on the bad.
And there you have it! We’ll be keeping an eye out for Claribel’s book and cover reveal. In the meantime, you can follow her on Twitter or Instragram. Also visit her website to sign up for her newsletter.
“Fear is a steal trap,” Gran advises Evangeline, the heroine of my debut middle grade novel. EVANGELINE OF THE BAYOU is the story of twelve-year-old Evangeline Clement, a haunt huntress apprentice studying the ways of folk magic and honing her monster-hunting skills. As soon as her animal familiar makes itself known, the only thing left to do is prove to the council she has heart. Then she will finally be declared a true haunt huntress. Of course, things do not go as planned for Evangeline. And when she and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to resolve an unusual case, she must summon her courage to defeat a powerful evil that’s been after her family for generations.
Gran goes on to warn Evangeline, “Fear keeps you from moving forward. It binds up your courage as well as your smarts.” These wise words of Gran’s hold true for nearly any situation we encounter, whether it be hunting monsters or writing essays.
As the leader of a local writers group for the past dozen years, and having been a member of numerous critique groups, I’ve learned that one thing we creatives all have in common is fear. And we have a lot of them, like: showing our writing to family and friends, getting our work critiqued by other writers, not knowing how to begin our stories, not knowing how to end our stories, or not being able to come up with any new ideas. But one of the most common fears I’ve seen is that of simply getting started, rallying the courage to just jump in and begin the writing of that novel, memoir, or short story. I call it “freezing on the high-dive”. Taking that initial leap can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be.
After discussing this topic with numerous fellow writers over numerous coffees and teas, I’ve come to suspect this particular fear stems from the mistaken belief that we have to get our words right the first time, that somehow a perfect stream of brilliance must flow straight from our head and onto the blank sheet of paper. This unrealistic expectation can lead to a lot of frustration and writing resistance. Fortunately, there are a few easy techniques writers of any age and any writing level can incorporate to defeat their fear of writing and get their words moving forward. These simple tips can be applied to everything from the writing of novels and essays, to the writing of thank you notes.
The first step is to think of the writing process as one that uses two distinct parts of your brain: the creative side and the editorial side. Going into a project while trying to use them simultaneously is when many of us run into trouble. The two parts do not play, or work, well together.
Once you’ve accepted the fact that you’ve essentially just carved your brain into two halves, the next step is to hush that editorial side. Reassure it that it will have its turn to make corrections and clean things up later, but for now it’s Creative’s turn to play. Allow your imagination to run wild and free. Let go of rules and logic. There are no right or wrong ideas in this phase of your project. Don’t worry about choosing the perfect word, and don’t worry about things like spelling and punctuation. That’s Editor’s job for later on.
If you’re still having trouble coming up with ideas, here’s another helpful tip: just start writing. Write anything, even if it’s simply the words, “I don’t know what to write.” There’s something almost magical about the act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, that gets the creative tap flowing. Taking away all those expectations of perfection will conquer that fear of not being able to think of anything to write.
Now that you’ve got some great ideas and images, and maybe even some really cool lines of dialogue, let your creative side take a rest. This is the time to set your internal editor free. Allow it to get to work picking and choosing what elements to use, what order to put them in, and making sure the grammar, spelling, and punctuation are all up to snuff.
This is the technique I used while writing EVANGELINE OF THE BAYOU, and I’m using it now as I work on the sequel. Keeping the creative half of my mind separated from the editorial half has helped me defeat my fear of just diving into the writing. It’s helped me overcome my worry that my writing is too sloppy, nonsensical, and filled with mistakes. I know that by setting my creative side free to do what it does best, it’ll provide me with fun, fresh, and unexpected ideas. Sometimes it delivers more ideas than I can use, or ideas that are in need of further research and tweaking, but that’s okay, because I know I’ll soon be unleashing my editorial side to make my words all shiny and clean.
If you haven’t done it yourself, you’ve seen someone else do it. They reach a scary moment in a book, or a jump scare in a movie, or even stumble upon a prankster who jumps out at them from behind something– and instead of screaming, they burst out laughing.
What is it that makes us laugh when all signs point to “AHHHHHH?” Scientists have a handful of theories:
Some say it’s a sort of peace offering– an instinctive reaction to confrontation. Laughing shows we’re not looking for a fight, so whatever’s coming at us will hopefully back down and go away.
Others suggest that laughing is a way to manage our fear. When we laugh in the face of danger, we’re trying to convince ourselves things are less dire than they seem.
But my favorite explanation (and the one that makes the most sense in connection with scary stories) is that laughing when we’re afraid or crying when we’re happy actually balances us out emotionally.
Speaking as a reader, one of the things I love most about middle grade is the way our main characters are centered in their family and community– I draw deep satisfaction from the inherent wholeness and balance of middle grade worlds. As a writer and lifelong smart aleck, shared humor is one of my favorite things to write; to me, it’s a sign of a close, happy community. I can’t imagine penning a family or town where people don’t joke, tease, and mildly snark.
As you read this, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. It’s conflict, not happiness, that drives a story. Especially a spooky story!” You’re right, of course. But it’s also important to remind the reader what your characters are fighting for. Shared humor reinforces a sense of belonging and reminds us what we like about certain characters. Conversely, humor meant to embarrass or bully someone hardens our hearts against a villain.
Wisecracks are also the perfect opportunity to illuminate individual personalities and relationships between characters in a “show, don’t tell” way. For example, when a group of kids has to cross dangerous territory, a competitive best friend or sibling might say, “Hey, your shoe’s untied!” in order to get a head start. The competition between the characters gives them the courage to face the peril.
On the other hand, a nervous friend who’d rather be at home under the covers is more likely to resort to gallows humor, like, “It’s my night to feed the dog. He’s going to be seriously crabby when I die and his bowl is empty.” How other characters respond to this joke will be revealing. Are they impatient? Reassuring? Or do they toss another joke right back?
If you love writing stories with lots of scares, laughter can also provide some much-needed contrast. I adore a runaway horror story as much as the next spooky author, but like true joy, intense fear is hard to sustain. Worse, fear actually gets exhausting after a while. Raise your hand if you write to exhaust your readers. No? Then consider providing moments of levity to give them a break.
This is all well and lovely and I mean every word, but don’t be fooled– I’m no altruist. There are lots of upbeat reasons to put some banter in your book, but you can also use laughs to trap the unwary. I love to use humor to lull my readers into a false sense of security. Then, when it’s time for the next creepy moment, I’ve got them exactly where I want them! So, if you haven’t tried mixing jump scares with jokes, I highly recommend it. You don’t have to be a serious person to deliver some serious scares!
About the Author
Sarah Cannon, author of Oddity, has lived all over the U.S., but right now she calls Indiana home. She has a husband, three kids and a misguided dog. Sarah holds a B.S. in Education. She’s a nerdy knitting gardener who drinks a lot of coffee, and eats a lot of raspberries.
I love a good mashup. My two favorite T-shirts are mashups, one of The Little Prince and Star Wars and another of Back to the Future and Tin Tin. They’re the best.
What is a mashup? If you haven’t heard of these ingenious things, mashups are where you take two things that aren’t usually together and put them together in a new, unique and wonderful way. Like Star Wars and Snow White, my third favorite T-shirt, where the designer used that classic picture of Snow White surrounded by forest animals and birds and swapped her for Princess Leia in the same pose.
Here’s another: the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas (that’s the movie in the picture above). I love this movie, and this is one of many story mashups that blend different types of stories to make something new, unique and wonderful. In this case, it’s spooky and Christmas and musical. Three types of stories you wouldn’t ordinarily think go together, but if you’ve seen The Nightmare Before Christmas (and if you haven’t, I highly recommend you rush to watch it — after you’ve finished reading this post, of course), you’ll know it is indeed unique and wonderful.
Blending a spooky story with another genre is one of my favorites to write. It keeps the spooky element but also takes it further. Like with my book, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, the boy is lost on a mysterious beach where everything is trying to hurt him. That’s the spooky part, but he’s also trying to discover what happened to him, so there’s mystery too. Plus there’s magical elements to the story, so it’s also contemporary fantasy.
Here are some other examples of spooky mashup books:
If you haven’t read these yet, do! They’re fun, and you’ll learn about spooky mashups. Reading is one of the best ways to learn about writing. (Also, all these books are in our Spooky Reading Challenge, so you could win prizes!)
But how can you come up with your own spooky mashup ideas?
For this, I want to borrow from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world (a series that’s mostly fantasy but also has some spooky). Remember the boggart from HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN? If you don’t, check out the entry on the Harry Potter Fandom wiki. Since boggarts change into your biggest fear, Professor Lupin teaches Harry and his friends that the best way to combat them is to think of something funny so the boggart will be both! Ron Weasley’s biggest fear is a giant spider, so he imagines a spider wearing roller skates. Pretty funny, huh?
This is like mashups. Taking two things that ordinarily wouldn’t go together to come up with something new, unique and wonderful.
You can use this idea to create your own spooky mashup. Step 1: Think of something spooky. Step 2: Think of something that’s very different. It can be something funny, an action you love doing, or a different type of story that you love to read.
For example, say in step 1, you think of werewolves. They’re pretty spooky. Then in step 2, you think of skateboarding.
Now, with the help of a what-if question, you can turn this into a mashup story. What if a kid had the chance to compete in the world’s best skateboarding contest, but the night before he’s bitten by a werewolf? And the contest is at night and during the full moon? And the kid discovers that a group of werewolves are planning to be at the contest to attack everyone in the audience???
When this group of “spooky authors” first began chatting it emerged that many of us had graveyard experiences as kids.
Now, I don’t think that having such a might-be-creepy background is a requirement for writing spooky books, but it is interesting. Right?
I have my own graveyard experience. My dad was an Episcopal priest, so we lived next door to the church, which meant next door to the graveyard. This was a very old New England church. And a very old graveyard. But that didn’t bother me. I found my own secret spot inside the graveyard, where I would take my reading, and my homework, and my daydreams. It was a little nook with a big headstone on one side and overgrown shrubs on two other sides, so I could sit there completely hidden for hours. I never thought of it as scary…then. Of course, there was also an underground mausoleum with a broken door, and I looked inside that tiny dark place more than once – on a dare, but also because I was curious.
Did I see ghosts in that graveyard? You can ask…
I’ve asked some of my fellow spooky authors to tell us about their graveyard “hooks”:
Jonathan Rosen: I grew up in a section called of Brooklyn called Gravesend, which was settled in around the 1640’s. Such a creepy name, and as a matter of fact, that’s why I named the town in my book, Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, Gravesend. I figured, why make anything else up? The reality is creepier than what I could come up with. I lived right next to Gravesend Neck Road, and if you followed it all the way, it led to a really old cemetery, which we used to go exploring. It was right in the middle of a neighborhood, near homes. So creepy that everyone was living around it, with tombstones dating back hundreds of years. I was fascinated by that and it always spurred the imagination of what it was like to live right next to this old cemetery.
S.A. Larsen: As an elementary-age child, I used to visit our town cemetery often with my grandparents. By the time I was middle school and high school age, both my grandparents had passed away, and I found myself drawn to that same cemetery – which I preferred to call the boneyard much like my main character, Ebony Charmed in Motley Education. I’d stroll what felt like endless rows of graves after graves, lifetimes after lifetimes. I could create unseen worlds and playgrounds for the dead. (I think that’s why I fell in love with Lydia the first time I watched Betelgeuse; she got me.) Sometimes, when I’d find an interesting name etched on an old tombstone, I’d sit and stay a while. And crypts? They were way cool! Who was in there? Were they really in there? OMGosh, I needed to know! Weird? Maybe, but I was completely fascinated by who these people were, what kind of life they led, and what they left behind. I was never frightened there; not really. Of course, there were times my mind would play tricks on me, fooling me into thinking I saw something I didn’t. And then there were the times during middle school when a group of use would wait until dark, sneak into the cemetery (no telling!), and scare the screams out of each other. I just loved that!
Sam Clark: I didn’t live next to a graveyard, but when I was doing my A-levels in England, I used to walk home from school and there was a graveyard smack bang in the middle of a short cut. And, given that it was an old English town, the graves were ancient. Many had slabs of concrete over the actual grave, as well as headstones, and a lot of the slabs were broken. It was easy to imagine bony fingers inching around the broken pieces and pushing up! In the summer, it wasn’t too much of an issue. I’d walk through there, but I’d walk quickly with eyes darting around to make sure no zombies were rising. In the winter, though, when it got dark around 4pm, I only took the short cut once. I accidentally got locked in the graveyard and had to climb the gate on the other side to get out. I scrambled up that gate so fast! I walked the long way home after that.
Jan Eldredge: A few times a year, my parents would take us to some of the cemeteries along the Mississippi Gulf Coast so we could tend to our family gravesites there. At one particular cemetery, there was a statue of a little boy angel standing a few rows over from my great-grandmother’s grave. From the time I could walk, until I grew too old for such things, I would always wander over and talk to him. Many years later, I went back to that cemetery, hoping to see my little angel friend again, but he was gone. I don’t know what happened to him. My guess is that he’d been damaged in a hurricane and the caretaker had hauled away his remains.
It’s funny how I never really thought about it, but graveyards appear in many of the stories I’ve written. I actually find them to be beautiful and peaceful places . . . as long as I visit them in the daylight.
Patrick Moody: I grew up in a very close knit neighborhood in Trumbull, CT. A small public library sat at the bottom of the street, and up the hill, rounding a corner, where my house stood, a long rock wall separated Hilltop Circle from the Nothenagle Cemetery (that’s quite a name, isn’t it?). The cemetery was a mix of old and new. The first people to be laid to rest were the Nichols family, who’d founded the area in the late 1600’s. Their plots were set with stone monuments towering seven or eight feet tall, entire lines of the family collected together behind wrought iron fences. The Nichols were in a corner, where the forest had begun to creep in over the grass, like it was coming to swallow up the graves. That part of the cemetery was perpetually covered in shadow, and if there was ever a truly spooky spot, that was it.
Myself and the other neighborhood kids loved exploring the cemetery. It was our playground. Our sanctuary. Being an old boneyard, it didn’t get many visitors. For us, it was a place where we could be free, out from under the watchful gaze of those ever curious “grown ups”. None of us found the place scary, at least not in the daytime. We’d walk through the rows, reading the names inscribed in granite and marble, and would talk about the lives of the people laying sleeping beneath our feet. I think that’s where my knack for storytelling really began. I was endlessly curious about the residents of the yard. What they were like in life. Who their families were. What they did for a living. How they saw the world through the eyes of their time.
We would take grave rubbings from the more artistic markers, and I was endlessly fascinated by the images of angels, and in some cases, figures from other cultures’ mythologies. Norse and Celtic runes were there in good numbers.
At night, on those summertime Saturdays when we didn’t have a care in the world, the cemetery became a magical place. As fireflies danced between the rows, we’d play hide and go seek, using the graves, bushes, and trees as our hiding spots. Sometimes we’d play capture the flag, or flashlight tag. When we didn’t really feel like chasing each other in the dark, risking tripping over a gravestone (or breaking it…that wouldn’t have been good), we would post up in a comfy area, usually inside the Nichols family plot behind those fences, and try to best each other with our scariest ghost stories.
We walked a fine line between embracing the inherent “scariness” of the graveyard, and looking at it as a place of practicality: literally, seeing it as a place for the dead to be lain to rest. You can either be scared, or at least mildly creeped out, or you can be interested in the cultural aspects of it. I found myself clinging to both: the ghostly aspects, and the way that we as Americans (or in a broader sense, the Western world), view and experience death.
Needless to say, the cemetery shaped me. Probably in some ways I haven’t even recognized. But I do know that I wouldn’t be a writer today, or an artist of any kind, had I not spent my youth dodging between those tombstones alongside my friends, exploring our moonlit kingdom of granite slabs and towering statues.
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