I always love interviewing debut authors. I once heard Judy Blume say that she loves reading debut books because it’s the first time she gets to know a new voice, and I can’t agree more. It’s very exciting. So that’s why I’m excited to go behind the spooky scenes of the debut middle-grade novel SUMMER OF L.U.C.K. with the book’s author, Laura Stegman.
Laura is a Los Angeles-based author and arts publicist. She loves reading, L.A. Dodgers baseball, classical music and theater.
SUMMER OF L.U.C.K. tells the story of three kids who meet at a summer camp. When they hear mysterious calliope music coming from an abandoned warehouse, they sneak inside and discover that it bursts into a magical carnival. They meet a ghost called Leroy Usher, who asks for their help convincing his family to restore the carnival to its former glory.
Sounds spooky! SUMMER OF L.U.C.K. is out now from INtense Publications and a sequel is coming out in 2021.
What was your inspiration for this book?
By way of background, Summer of L.U.C.K. is about three kids finding their way to self-acceptance with the help of a ghost who haunts a magical carnival. It was inspired by my favorite middle grade book, The Diamond in the Window, whose 11-year-old main character was the same age as I when I read it. She had freckles, like me, and, she hated her freckles. So did I. But this character learned to accept her freckles — and herself. Not only was it one of the first times I recognized myself in a book, but it also made me feel like I wasn’t so alone. Decades later, this book still spoke to me so powerfully, which moved me to write Summer of L.U.C.K. I hope it will mean as much to readers today as The Diamond in the Window meant to me.
What’s the best part of writing about ghosts and ghostly carnivals?
Writing about ghosts exercises my creativity because there are no limits to what I can come up with. It’s fun to devise whatever wild, magical elements and rules I can imagine. And threading those elements through real-life lessons about friendship and perseverance was a thrill. For example, Summer of L.U.C.K.’s three kids struggle with speaking in some form or another – one stutters, one is just learning English, and the third simply stops talking. So when the ghost, who can’t rest until his family is reconciled, needs their help, he grants them power to communicate telepathically. As a result of helping the ghost and his family, the kids learn to find their voices. To create L.U.C.K.’s ghostly carnival, I started with memories of the amusement parks I visited with my family as a kid. Then, I built on those. Though L.U.C.K.’s rides and games don’t exist in real life, I wish they did!
Do you have any real life ghostly experiences?
Interesting question! The answer is, “Not really,” but I’ll tell you this. My Dad passed away in October. Even though he was very old, it was a bit sudden and unexpected. For the first week or so, I “chatted” with him via “Dear Dad” letters. Every night, I wrote to him about what was going on and how much I missed him. In one of the letters, I asked him for a sign. And a day or so later, as I was falling asleep, I got something that I’ve chosen to interpret as that sign. This “ghostly” process was really helpful in transitioning from my dad’s and my daily phone calls to saying goodbye.
What’s your best spooky writing advice?
Establish the rules for your readers so they’re very clear. Then let your imagination run wild!
Great advice! Find SUMMER OF L.U.C.K. at Bookshop.org, or buy from Children’s Book World for an autographed copy with an official bookmark.
November 2nd is set apart on our National calendar to celebrate authors and all that encompasses. Think about it. We all have read something that has been published and written by someone else. Whether for school, work, or play, we’ve all read the written word. And yes, some of us have been fortunate enough to have our own words read by others.
So we thought it appropriate to honor some of our very own author inspirations, those who’ve helped us learn or reflect on ourselves, and escape the every day through the words they’ve written and the stories they’ve shared. Here’s a few of our spooky authors sharing some of their favorites.
I tend to look fondly on authors who gave me enjoyable female characters in fantasy when I was a kid…representation has improved so much that it can be hard to believe how sparse strong girl characters were in fantasy in the 70s and 80s! Works that pop out for me include the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, The Girl With the Silver Eyes, by Willo Davis Roberts…and I know people will quibble with Jane Drew from Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, but I loved her. I also devoured fairy and folktales of all sorts, because they’re so rich with symbolism, and because they can be both terrible and beautiful at the same time.
I’m going to “vote” for Kathi Appelt, partly because she was so generous to me early on in my career, and mainly because her Newbery Honor book The Underneath became my model for the kind of books I want to write.
Recently, I’ve been inspired by Frances Hardinge, author of CUCKOO SONG, as well as many other beautiful books for young readers. Her books push the boundaries of imagination in ways that feel like a challenge. Every book contains a certain proportion of familiar and strange elements, usually tending toward the familiar. But Hardinge tackles truly strange concepts with both emotion and dexterity. Another recent inspiration is Akwaeke Emezi, author of PET. This novel manages to be utterly down-to-earth and soaringly surreal at the same time, while playing with language and exploring universal questions in ways that feel personal. The mixture of realism and magic reminds me of my favorite author in college, Sony Lab’ou Tansi.
There are lots of authors that I love for their books, but there are some true standouts because I love their books AND they’re amazing people who give to others selflessly. I was so inspired by the way Laurie Halse Anderson seemed to experiment with words in WINTER GIRLS and it made me realize that I could push boundaries too. Then I met Laurie and realized she’s as generous with her heart as she is with her craft. I felt the same way with Kathi Appelt, whose work and advice both directly impacted THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST. Read Bethany Hegedus’ words in GRANDFATHER GANDHI or RISE, to name just a couple of her books, and you see that she’s got a caring soul. But she’s also always been a cushion for me in my own writing career, lifting me up. And Cynthia Leitich Smith and Lesa Cline-Ransome are the same. Their works are brilliant, but outside of that, they go out of their way to be open, transparent and supportive to writers who are coming up behind them. These are only a handful of the authors who have inspired me and continue to inspire me every day. I hope to carry on their legacy and be the same kind of supportive author to other writers around me.
Growing up, I moved around a lot. As a result, I didn’t have lasting friendships, so books became my constant companions. I wanted to write a story that might help someone else get through a difficult time. So many authors gave that gift to me. I wanted to pay it forward.
I love, love, love The Chronicles of Narnia. To this day, I read the series at least once a year. It’s like getting a hug from an old friend. I’ve also read all of the Oz books, starting with, of course, The Wizard of Oz. I am a massive fan of Roald Dahl. Danny, The Champion of The World, was my favorite. But I think the book that resonated with me the most was The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. It was about the daughter of a migrant worker. I related to her hopes, fears, and dreams on so many levels.
My first thought whenever asked about authors that have inspired me is always Jane Austen. To think of the ‘age’ in which she wrote, where women were thought less in society, astounds me and has given courage to pursue my own stories. More modern inspirational authors for me would be Kate Dicamillo, author of THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX, Alice Hoffman, author of NIGHTBIRD, and Katherine Applegate, author of WISHTREE. These woman are strong and resourceful, creating characters that tug at the heartstrings and stay with readers for years to come. Whether magic of the heart or tangible magic, they write carefully crafted worlds, journeying readers to places within themselves they didn’t know existed.
Authors have been inspiring hearts and minds for centuries. Whether through fiction or nonfiction, their ability to challenge our thinking often has caused humanity to step out of its comfort zone, to reflect on more than what can be seen. They make us seek the truth hidden beneath the psyche and root out evil in its place. Their words give us the courage to self-reflect, to grow, and to change, making the world a better place than when we first arrived here. But, through their devotion to storytelling, they also share the most intimate places of themselves with us. Finding strength, courage, and drive in their journeys is an exercise we can use in every aspect of our lives.
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” ~ William Wordsworth
Our entire spookymg author crew wishes the spookiest of Thank yous to all those explorers of the written word and to all those yet to come.
Kory Merritt is an amazing author and illustrator with a creatively creepy book–NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS–that released last month, just in time for Halloween. We are so excited to host him on our spooky blog and learn more about his art and his writing.
What inspired you to write NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS?
I’ve always loved spooky stories. As a kid, my favorite book characters were always the creatures–Gollum from The Hobbit, the sea-rats from Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. Even as an adult, I still love reading books with strange and imaginative monsters: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Thee Jumbies series by Tracey Baptiste, numerous classics by legends like Stephen King and Tananarive Due. Now more than ever, it’s fun to escape to monster land.
So when my amazing agent, Dan, suggests I try writing and illustrating a spooky story, I was thrilled. I actually, originally wrote and illustrated a version of No Place for Monsters back in 2011, when I was an art teacher, and posted it on a comics syndicate website called GoComics. My agent suggested I take the basic concept of a memory-snatching monster and remake it as a middle-grade book.
Your previous MG title is The DreadfulFate of Jonathan York. Why do you like to write spooky stories?
I do my own illustrations (I’ve illustrated more books than I’ve written) and I love drawing toothy, creepy characters. So it’s fun to build stories around the creatures in my notebooks.
What interesting things did you discover while working on your latest story?
My awesome editor and agent both convinced me to trim down the prose narrative and let the pictures tell the story when possible. There’s still test, but I think the writing and pictures work in tandem.
How did you transition from comics to MG stories? And how long dose it take you to create such a lavishly illustrated story?Please tell us how the process of mixing the story and illustrations comes together.
I broke into MG as an illustrator for a comic book/graphic novel series based on the online game Poptropica. I think No Place for Monsters could be considered a graphic novel even though there is a prose text, since there are many places where the pictures take over the narrative. It was an easy transition.
It took several months of rough drafts and talks with my agent before he accepted it and sold it. Then it took about four months to illustrate a fully inked draft of No Place for Monsters (summer and fall 2018), and then several more months for edits and revisions with my editor.
What books are you reading now or plan to read next?
Right now, I’m reading The Last Last-Day-of Summer by Lamar Gilese. It’s a zany romp that reminds me how creative great MG books can be. I also started listening to audiobooks last year (I can listen and illustrate at the same time, which is nice). I’m listening to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin, and the new audio-drama of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (which is one of the few Neil Gaiman books I’d never read before).
Who do you feel was the biggest influence on your becoming an author and illustrator?
I mean, of course my parents–both classroom teachers, both encouraged a lot of reading and exploration and creative pursuit. As for professional writers . . . tough one. Going to have to say the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett. Love his books. As for illustrator . . . Bill Peet, Bill Watterson, and Brian Selznick (who was kind enough to give me a quote). Also Gina Pfleegor, who I used to teach with, and who is one of the most talented artists/illustrators I’ve ever met.
How have you adjusted your marketing/promotional plans with the pandemic?
I’m being very careful and social-distancing, so that means no in-person festivals or visits. I’m about to start virtual visits with classrooms. I used to be a public school K-6 art teacher, so I have plenty of classroom experience. Some of the visits are workshops: Students write stories, and I try to illustrate parts of them. It’s fun, and since I don’t have to travel, I don’t have to postpone illustration work.
Can you share anything about a new story you’re working on?
I’m doing another book with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Fall 2021. It’s a follow-up to No Place for Monsters, with some of the same characters, and plenty of new creatures. It’s set in a haunted school. As a former art teacher, I find the school setting easy to write about. Much of it is told through “found footage”–illustrations seen through the view of cameras and phones. Sort of like an illustrated Blair Witch Project. It’s experimental. Hope it works!
What is your advice to aspiring authors and illustrators?
Read, write, and draw as much as possible! Read lots of books: prose books, books with lots of pictures, books with no pictures. Books by a wide variety of authors. Books outside your comfort zone. Write and draw and try to get things published locally. You’ll write and draw stuff that will be embarrassing in a few years, but hopefully you’ll have developed and honed your style. And have fun! You should love writing and drawing even if only a few people see it. If it’s a chore, or if you only want to write/draw for money . . . Well, that’s not a good sign. It could be years, or never, before you make any substantial money. Have a day job or a “Plan B.” Having a great career in a creative field can always be your end goal, but it’s very difficult to get there, so writing and drawing and making up stories should be fulfilling and fun no matter what stage you’re at.
Thanks so much, Kory, for sharing your thoughts and insights! I’m sure everyone will enjoy your entertaining monster stories! Please, keep them coming. 🙂
Kiki Macadoo and The Graveyard Ballerinas is one of my favorite books of 2020. It’s a spooky adventure that leaps off the page and into your heart. The moment I finished reading this magical tale, I knew I wanted to interview Colette for the Spooky Middle Grade Blog.
1. Tell us about Kiki Macadoo and The Graveyard Ballerinas.
When eleven-year-old Kiki MacAdoo and her talented older sister go to Mount Faylinn Dance Conservatory for the summer, they ignore the brochure’s mysterious warning that “ballets come alive” in the nearby forest. But after her sister disappears, it’s up to Kiki to brave the woods and save her from the ghost sylphs that dance young girls to their deaths. As Kiki unlocks the mysteries of Mount Faylinn, the ballet of the ghost sylphs, Giselle, simultaneously unfolds, and Kiki is swept away in the adventure of a lifetime.
2. How did you come up with the idea?
When I was young, my mother used to tell me the haunting story of the ghost sylphs in the ballet, Giselle. My mother was a classical pianist, and on some nights when I was little, she would play music from the ballet and let me stay up late. I would lower the lights and tiptoe through the living room, pretending I was lost deep in the forest. When my mother would count out the chimes of midnight for the ghost ballerinas to rise, I always shrieked—even though I loved every minute of it. That ballet always held a special place in my heart, and I thought a retelling of it would make a perfect children’s fantasy. Of course, I had to embellish it by adding a lot of additional creepy stuff to the original story!
3. Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans!
Some of my characters often have similar traits to people I know (including yours truly). For instance, I wear glasses, and I was a dancer, so I have that in common with Kiki. I also love chocolate chip cookies! I also had a best friend named Susan (who later moved to Orlando). We took dance classes together in New York when we were young, and we’re still friends today. I didn’t grow up with a sister like Kiki, but I did have a brother. Like Kiki and Alison, we got on each other’s nerves sometimes, but underneath it all, we always loved and stood by one another.
4. How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?
As I mentioned above, I was a dancer and studio owner, so I know the struggles students experience and how hard it is to excel in dance. I also always loved to draw and paint like Kiki ever since I was young. In addition, I also believe I actually saw a flower fairy when I was a child. We had a bouquet on the table, and out of nowhere, a tiny face from one of the yellow flowers popped out and stared at me! A second later, it shot back into the petals. Unfortunately, that never happened again.
Another incident I incorporated in the book happened when I was an adult and running my own dance studios. At the end of one of my recitals, I was alone onstage making an announcement when an overhead stage light crashed to the ground, just missing my head!
5. What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Do those books influence your writing?
When I was young, we didn’t have the vast assortment of children’s books as we do now. But I always loved old fashioned fairy tales, Madeline, The Little Prince, and Dr. Seuss books. Another book I particularly enjoyed was Little Women. I loved the fact that a woman wrote it over 150 years ago, and since Louisa May Alcott’s great-grandparents were my four times great-grandparents, her book always held a personal meaning for me. I loved the coming-of-age theme and the relationship between the sisters. I also loved how determined the character Jo was and how she refused to fit into the mold of what was expected of women back then. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or not when I decided to feature two sisters in my story.
6. What are you working on now?
I am currently finishing a sequel to Kiki MacAdoo, which is also quite spooky. I also have an historical YA that I’m editing and a number of other ideas brewing.
7. What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I would say that I am a bit of both—a planster. I need to have a fairly good idea where my story is going before I begin. But I am not one of those authors who can write intricate outlines. I do an abbreviated one using pen and paper in a notebook and on index cards. I also scribble random notes on scraps of paper throughout the house as ideas come to me.
8. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Read as much as you can, especially in your genre. Also, study all the books on the craft of writing that you can get your hands on. When you finish a manuscript, try to find a trusted critique partner who is not afraid to be honest. It also helps to follow Query Tracker, MSWL, and Publisher’s Lunch to keep posted on what agents and editors are signing.
And finally, I would tell them not to give up. If you enjoy writing and it’s in your heart, it’s never too late to follow your dreams.
About the Author
Colette Sewall is an award-winning writer who spent the majority of her life as a dancer and studio director. Since she has also worked as a medical assistant, flight attendant, actor, and artist, she believes she is like a cat with nine lives. She is a direct descendent of one of the judges who presided over the infamous Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692, which can be a bit awkward when she runs into a descendent of one of the accused witches. She lives on the eastern end of Long Island with her husband and psychic German shepherd, Gracey, and is in desperate need of more bookshelves. When she is not writing middle grade or young adult novels, she is probably perusing one of her favorite libraries or used bookstores. She is a member of the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators and is represented by Britt Siess of Martin Literary Management.
Happy Halloween Greetings! We are all members of Spooky Middle Grade Authors. And we are all published by small presses—indie presses not connected to the big publishing houses. In order to share some insights on working with small presses, we’ve answered a few questions for you. Plus, we’ve each shared a favorite book from another small press—perfect for Halloween (or anytime). AND–there will be a spook-tac-u-lar GIVEAWAY too!!! Keep reading…
Question One: What are the benefits of being published by a small press?
Tania: My publisher, Quirk Books, only publishes 25 books a year. Being one of those 25 meant I got a lot more focus and attention than I would have at a bigger publisher, competing against dozens of other titles. I felt like my publisher really cared about my book, as well as me as an author. They even sent me and the illustrator on a multi-city book tour for each of our books, something I wouldn’t have thought was possible for a small press!
Sheri: One great aspect about smaller publishers is that they are able to give an author more personalized attention. Most are quite attentive to the author’s opinions and views when it comes to the cover art and other aspects of strengthening a manuscript on its way to final print. I’ve also found that they are flexible with discussing content edits. This is so comforting because it shows they value your vision as the creator of the story and that they truly want to honor your work. Smaller publishers also tend to have owners and staff who are published authors themselves, so relating to all aspects of the publishing world comes easily to them. I have felt very respected by my smaller publishers.
Cynthia: Small presses are often open to unsolicited queries, so even if you don’t have an agent, you can submit. And often their response time and the acquisition process are much faster than a traditional publisher, which means your book can become a reality in a shorter time period. For a debut author, a small press can provide a learning course on traditional publishing; acquisitions, working with an editor, rewrites, copyediting, advance publicity, book launch, school and bookstore visits.
Josh: My debut novel, THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE, was published in May by Owl Hollow Press. I’ve loved everything about working with them. Whenever I have a question, I can call or email directly with the publisher, and she’s always open to hearing my ideas and suggestions. I was given an incredible amount of input into my book’s cover, and they worked closely with me to craft the back cover copy, too. They’ve been an enthusiastic partner and cheerleader for my book from the moment they called to offer me a contract. And, since then, they’ve worked tirelessly to promote it.
Lisa: My publisher provided me with a schedule at signing and met every deadline. I had an excellent editor who was patient and understanding. Also, they took into consideration my thoughts and ideas for the book cover. Overall it was a great experience.
Question Two: What are some disadvantages of being published by a small press?
Tania: Obviously with small presses there is usually a lower budget which means lower advances and less money for marketing and advertising, which can sometimes lead to less than stellar sales. That said, I’ve been happy to see how well the Warren the 13th series has done, especially after being translated and printed in so many other countries!
Sheri: The main pause I had for signing with a smaller publisher would be the small size or lack of their marketing budgets. As unfortunate (and somewhat unfair) as it might sound, marketing is a huge part of a new novel’s book-life. It’s what gets each book into the hands of readers, students, teachers, and librarians. It can be done without a huge marketing budget; just makes it more challenging.
Cynthia: If you don’t have an agent, you must do your own contract negotiations. If so, it’s good to seek help with this either through author friends or SCBWI sources. Small presses don’t have the recognized name power that big publishing houses have. Their production process is usually different as well. Books may be only available in Print On Demand or in paperback and ebook. These issues can greatly limit the availability and desirability of a book, especially children’s books for school and library use. In addition, the price per book published by a small press is often twice the cost of a bigger publisher, creating another negative for sales.
Josh: The one thing you absolutely have to understand and make peace with when going into a deal with a smaller press is that it’s not going to be automatic that your book will be on bookshelves at major retailers. Small presses have smaller budgets and limited footprints in brick-and-mortar chains like Barnes & Noble. In my case, this was something we talked about before I signed with my publisher, and since publication they have worked closely with me in my self-marketing efforts to help me reach bookstores all across the country. As an author, the thing you want more than anything else is for your books to find an audience. With a small press, you have to work really hard at that (but then again, as I’ve seen a lot recently, the same often holds true for debut and midlist authors with big publishers, too). The good news is that the internet is a great equalizer. People are finding my book through all of our online outreach, and that feels great.
Lisa: A small press does not have the same outreach as a big publisher, which means you won’t get as much exposure. Nor do they have the marketing budget. Most of the heavy lifting came down to me. Once I stopped attending events and marketing on social media, my sales slowed down.
Any further advice to share?
1. Do due diligence on researching any small presses you are submitting to. There are many small presses with big reputations and high quality publications. There are others that are unprofessional and produce inferior products. Research their financials and royalties. Discuss how long your book would generally stay in print. Try to talk with other authors at the press to see if their experience has been good.
2. Team up with other debut/small press authors (Sweet 16 & Spooky MG)
3. Present a professional front: website; FB, Amazon, Twitter, etc.
4. Keep writing your next book!
If you are a member of Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, you can find detailed listings of current children’s publishers. Some of the small presses are listed under the sections on Small Press, Religious Press, Educational Press, and also in their general list of publishers. All this information is found in THE BOOK: Essential Guide to Publishing for Children. (www.scbwi.org) When you are looking for small presses, search independent (indie) presses, regional presses, university presses, and niche presses.
Diverse Book Recommendations & Giveaway!
Each Spooky MG Author on this week’s panel is excited to giveaway a copy of his/her own book and another diverse book from a small press as well.Teachers & Librarians, for your chance to win ALL of these books, please see the directions below and at @SpookyMGBooks
I’ve selectedJulieta and the Diamond Enigma by Luisana Duarte Armendariz, which is a really charming and fun mystery about a girl named Julieta who is traveling abroad with her art-handler dad when they stumble upon a thief stealing a cursed diamond from the Louvre! It’s published by Tu Books, a middle-grade imprint of the independent publisher,Lee & Low Books, which is a minority owned publisher focusing on multicultural and diverse books.
I’m so excited to share THE RED CASKET by Award-Winning Author Darby Karchut! It’s the second book in her Del Toro Moon series, published by Owl Hollow Press. It’s got a generation’s old battle, all sorts of creepy, and even a ‘Viking-sized’ witch. Yup. I’ve known Darby forever. She’s one of the first writers I met online way back when I dared to try social media and begin my journey as a writer. In addition to being a brilliant writer, Darby is a sweet person and a wonderful support for the writing community. Instead of me blathering on about this book, let me share the blurb with you.
Never trust a witch.
For four hundred years, generations of the Family Del Toro and their battle-savvy warhorses have secretly guarded their corner of Colorado from all things creepy. But when a menacing woman with some wicked witch powers shows up at the Del Toro ranch and demands the return of the Red Casket, twelve year old Matt Del Toro must team up with his best friend Perry—along with the warhorses Rigo and Isabel—to out-wit, out-ride, and out-fight one Viking-size sorceress.
I chose this book because of its spooky story, of course, but also because it revolves around Latino folklore characters. The book is second in the Vincent Ventura Series (written and illustrated by Garza), so there are plenty of these fast-paced mysteries to enjoy. I like how the main character, Vincent, is determined to solve this mystery, even when he believes a witch is involved and great danger lies ahead. It’s a face-paced, short adventure story with plenty of surprises. This series is bilingual—which is another great plus!
My pick isCurse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster, published by Sourcebooks Young Readers. It’s a debut novel full of magic, adventure, and spookiness steeped in Colombian myths. I loved the race-against-the-clock pace and synthesis of real-world Latin American folktales into the world-building. It’s also the first in a series and I can’t wait for the next one!
Week Three of this #spookyseason we’re giving away the amazing group of #mglit books shown above–celebrating Small Presses. Plus, a copy of our own books pictured in this post! RT & F by 10/23 to enter. US only. #spookyMG month of #giveaways #bookgiveaway #kidsneedbooks #kidlit. To enter, visit @SpookyMGBooks
Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. A former Spanish and ESOL teacher, Adrianna currently resides in Austin, Texas with her husband and son. When not working with TOEFL students, wrangling multiple pets including an axolotl, and practicing fencing with her son, she is writing her next middle grade novel.
The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez is about a boy from a military family who’s used to moving to a new town every few years. When he finally gets the chance to live with his grandmother in New Haven, Texas, his one goal is to make sure that no one finds out his biggest secret- he can talk to animals. But when a tule vieja, a witch that can transform into animals, starts threatening his new home, Nestor must decide whether to risk revealing his secret to save his friends.
How did you get the idea for the story?
There’s a slight chance (and by slight, I mean 100% true) that I was sitting in a high school faculty meeting four years ago, doodling in my notebook as I tried to pay attention. I thought about how my family had just moved to Texas and how my son had lived in five houses in six years. He’s always asking me hypothetical questions like “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” or “If you could be any animal, what would it be?” From those ideas, I came up with Nestor—a Cuban-American boy with a secret ability, looking for a home.
And I don’t think I missed any crucial information from that faculty meeting while I brainstormed.
Ha! We won’t tell. 😉 Can you tell us more about the real-life tule vieja legend?
The tule vieja is a legend from Panama and Costa Rica, two countries I lived in when I was younger. She’s a bit different from the tule vieja I present in my book since the traditional tule vieja has permanent animal features like bat wings and crow feet. She also walks around topless… perhaps not the best look for a middle grade story? She’s very similar to the legend of La Llorona, since she can be found snatching unruly, truant children off the streets. I thought it would be more fun to connect the tule vieja to Nestor’s animal communication ability by having her kidnap New Haven’s pets and livestock in a bid to increase her power.
She’s also fully clothed.
Are any of the characters in the book like you? Can you secretly talk to animals like Nestor?
I’d love to say that I’m brave like Nestor or that I can cook and sew like his abuela. But, alas, I fear I’m most like Cuervito, the snarky raven that pesters Nestor, and Val, the coyote with a penchant for making jokes in serious situations.
And most of the communication I have with animals tends to be one-sided arguments with my dog and cat about how I’ve already fed them.
I hear you! I have the same conversation with my dogs. They never believe me! What’s your favorite thing about writing spooky stories like this one?
I love the ability of spooky stories to be a vehicle for exploring deeper themes and issues. For someone like me with the attention span of a single-cell bacterium, action-packed, quick-paced scary stories are an accessible way to address themes of family, belonging, and identity. Also, showing young readers someone like them overcoming monsters, both imaginary and real, is something I treasure as an author.
Absolutely! Did you have a favorite spooky book, movie or character growing up?
I was obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe growing up. I had an illustrated anthology of his poems and short stories that I read constantly. The Pit and the Pendulum was my favorite short story of his because I was enthralled with how Poe’s gruesome descriptions put the reader directly in the scene. To prove I wasn’t a completely blood-thirsty child growing up, I also loved his poem Annabel Lee. That one definitely ushered in my strong emo phase as a teenager. My poor parents.
Oooh, I love Edgar Allen Poe! I have a pop-up version of his The Raven. It’s awesome. What’s your biggest fear?
You know in horror movies where a character sticks their hand in the garbage disposal because they think it’s broken, only to have it suddenly turn on? Yeah, that’s not my biggest fear. How about when you turn off all the lights in your bedroom so you have to race and jump on top of your bed before anything lurking below can grab you by the toes? That’s not it either.
My biggest fear has nothing to do with the supernatural or anything imaginary. There’s a scene in The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez where Nestor’s mom mistakes two high school ROTC students for an Army mortuary affairs detail coming to tell her something has happened to her husband. That was my fear every day for the years my husband was deployed as a military policeman. Writing Nestor was a healing way to process those emotions and use my fear to show young readers a way to confront separation and grief.
Wow. That’s a deep fear a lot of readers will experience. It’s wonderful that they can learn to deal with it through your book. You’ve got another book coming out next fall. Can you give us a sneak peek into what it’s about?
I’m so excited for my next book, Cuba in My Pocket! It tells the story of a young Cuban boy who immigrates to the United States by himself in the 1960s. I based it on my father’s experiences and I’m so thrilled to honor him with this story. It will also clearly show that my sarcasm and snark is genetic.
Fantastic! I can’t wait for CUBA IN MY POCKET, and I know all our readers can’t either.
We’re continuing our month of #SpookyMG giveaways with an amazing selection of titles dealing with important topics like grief, racism, segregation, bullying and much more. Today, the #SpookyMG team members are dropping by the blog to share why they chose their giveaway selection.
I chose THE GIRL AND THE GHOST by Hanna Alkaf because I love stories that not only cast a magical spell, but also have a big heart. THE GIRL AND THE GHOST is not just about a spirit, it’s also about navigating friendship and difficult choices. I hope readers love this story as much as I do.
Victoria Piontek is the author of THE SPIRIT OF CATTAIL COUNTY, a Bank Street College Best Book of the Year and a Sequoyah Children’s Masterlist selection. As a kid, she was lucky to have a menagerie of pets, including a goat that liked to follow her to the school bus each morning.
Samantha M. Clark
JUST SOUTH OF HOME by Karen Strong has so many things I love to read about: ghosts, secrets, mysteries and laughs. Having sat on a panel with Karen and listened to her talk about her influences for the book, I also know it comes from her heart. JUST SOUTH OF HOME is Karen’s debut middle grade novel, and I’m looking forward to reading more books from her.
Samantha M Clark is the award-winning author of THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST and the forthcoming ARROW (summer 2021), both published by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster. She has always loved stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
I chose THE FORGOTTEN GIRL by India Hill Brown, because it pairs a chilling ghost story with an important exploration of racism and segregation. I love books that beautifully interweave “scary” elements with universal threads of love and friendship. Add to that the discussion of uncovering and addressing real-life horrors from our past, and this book makes a perfect read, especially for the spooky season.
This month, some of us here at Spooky MG have been talking about historical–or historical-ish–creepy middle grade books: why we write them, what we love about them, which ones are recent favorites.
Read on to find out what we had to say — and if you haven’t already, be sure to check out our *giveaway* of all of these marvelous historical MGs over on Twitter!
(To enter: Retweet the giveaway post and follow @spookymgbooks. Bonus entries for tagging friends! Open from 10/4 to 10/9 at midnight EST. Winner announced 10/10/20. US only.)
Janet Fox – author of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE and THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS
Why do you like to write historical spooky books? I love historical books, and adding that spooky element raises the stakes to a whole new level. But, in fact, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, my first spooky historical, became a historical work first and a spooky book second. It was an organic process of finding that I had an antagonist who was so evil that she took the story to a different level. In The Artifact Hunters, my second, because it’s a sequel I used many of the same elements (setting, time period, some characters) and so the spookiness was baked in. But I do love twisting historical elements (castles) with creepy ones (ghosts).
Tell us a bit about your book. What drew you to the period in which your book is set? The Artifact Hunters (as well as Charmed Children) is set during World War Two. There are a number of things that drew me to that time period. First, I could separate the children from their parents during the London Blitz – because children were, truly, sent away during the bombing to keep them safe. Second, there have long been rumors that Hitler was obsessed by the occult, and wanted to use those practices to further his aims, and how creepy is that? And third, the threats to my characters could come both from the evil antagonist and the war itself.
What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend? I recommend The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. It’s one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read. Set in Victorian times it reads like a Poe story, with orphaned children, a terrible curse, and a terrifying monster. I loved every spine-tingling atmospheric moment.
Jacqueline West — author of THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE and LONG LOST (coming 5.11.21)
Why do you like to write historical spooky books? My books often begin with a setting. Locations—especially rambling, odd, old buildings—are irresistible to my writing brain. I want to wander around inside of them all, and explore every dusty nook and corner, and discover all the secrets of their pasts and presents. And when I write about them, I get to.
Tell us a bit about your book. What drew you to the period in which your book is set? My first series, The Books of Elsewhere, was inspired by a strange old house in my hometown. While most of the story is set in the present day, the past is central to the book: The looming stone house that Olive Dunwoody moves into is filled with the history (and secrets) of the house’s former owners. Getting to unfold that history was one of the most exciting parts of writing the books.
And my next middle-grade book, Long Lost (coming in May 2021!), takes place in an old New England town with a public library that used to be the home of a wealthy and mysterious local family. There’s a story-within-a-story in this one, so I got to explore the house and town as I imagine them today and as they were a century ago. The book itself is about how the past tangles with the present, and about how, even when people vanish, their stories can live on and on and on.
What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend? Hoodoo, by Ronald L. Smith. It’s set in rural Alabama in the 1930s, and it’s the story of a twelve-year-old boy from a family of folk magicians who has to help his dead father’s spirit find peace while fending off a mysterious visitor called The Stranger. The time and place are so richly captured, and the whole thing is unique and deep and creepy and wonderful.
Josh Roberts – author of THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE
Why do you like to write historical spooky books? I believe history is all around us, and it affects our lives in a million invisible ways every single day. I wanted to explore this idea in my debut novel, The Witches of Willow Willow Cove, which is a contemporary story that’s centered around a historical mystery tied to the Salem Witch Trials. I think the more we understand what has come before us–and why it happened–the better we can understand the context of our own lives. Plus, the mysteries of the past are just incredibly fun to write about!
What drew you to the period in which your book is set? I was born and raised in New England just a few towns over from Salem, Massachusetts. Growing up, the Witch Trials were always a big part of our local lore. I remember learning about that period as a kid growing up in the 1980s, and then discovering that the witch scare extended far beyond Salem and even into my own home town. When I set out to write The Witches of Willow Cove, I drew upon my memories of a contemporary childhood and what it was like to discover my town’s ties to this very dark period of local history. From there it was an easy step to imagine modern day kids like my main character, a seventh grader named Abby Shepherd, discovering even deeper ties to the Witch Trials and how that might affect her life in exciting and unexpected ways.
What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend? My go-to recommendation is The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange. It’s a beautiful story of friendship, trauma, and recovery set against a backdrop of ghostly woods and spooky old houses in WWI-era England.
Angie Smibert – author of THE GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS series
Why do you like to write historical spooky books?
I love historical books—with a twist. The history is certainly fascinating itself, but I’m really a spec fiction writer, so I like a little something else going on, such as a good ghost story or a bit of magic or magical realism. The spooky element raises the stakes and just generally makes the story more interesting.
What drew you to the period in which your book is set?
The setting drew me in first. The Truce—and the whole Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series—happens in a small coal mining community in Southwest Virginia. The place is loosely based on McCoy, Virginia, where my mother and her family (and several generations before her) grew up. I set the story in 1942 because this was the peak of the coal mining in our area—and yet it was also a time of great change. The US was fully involved in World War II by that time. Men were leaving the mines to fight in the war. Rationing had started. Women were working in factories. People were dying. This was the perfect time period for a protagonist who wants everything to stay like it had been. (Be cruel to your protagonists!) And my protagonist, twelve-year-old Bone Phillips, is going through a great change, too. She discovered her Gift, the ability to see the ghosts inside ordinary objects, and she was not happy about it!
This is a place that doesn’t really exist anymore. After the war, the mines began to shut down, really changing everything. Now you can drive through the area and never realize there were once coal mines there.
What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend?
I loved The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by MT Anderson and Eugene Yelchin, so I decided to look up some other things Yelchin had written. Delightfully spooky and a little offbeat, TheHaunting of Falcon House is set in late 19th Century Saint Petersburg, Russia. Young Prince Lev, a budding artist, must leave his mother to take up his noble duties at Falcon House. There he discovers a dreadful family secret in this haunted mansion that makes him question his role and the aristocracy. The book includes many of the Prince’s drawings.
To win a copy of each of these books — THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE, VOL 1: THE SHADOWS, THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE and THE TRUCE, *PLUS* our recommended titles, THE NIGHT GARDENER, HOODOO, THE SECRET OF NIGHTINGALE WOOD, and THE HAUNTING OF FALCON HOUSE — make sure to find us on Twitter: @spookymgbooks.
Spooky Middle Grade has lots to celebrate!! A number of new releases, and a new Bookshop, are worthy of attention.
Our new Bookshop Store is officially open. In case you don’t know, Bookshop is a platform that supports independent booksellers by allowing you to buy directly through them online, and they give a percentage of proceeds to booksellers.
Spooky Middle Grade has opened a store where you can view all our most recent releases, find a way to order directly from our indies, or place an order through Bookshop.
And take a look at our most recent releases, from earliest to just-about-published:
Josh Roberts, The Witches of Willow Cove: It’s not easy being a teenage witch. Seventh grader Abby Shepherd is just getting the hang of it when weird stuff starts happening all around her hometown of Willow Cove.
Adrianna Cuevas, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez: In this magical middle-grade debut novel, a Cuban American boy must use his secret ability to communicate with animals to save the inhabitants of his town when they are threatened by a tule vieja, a witch that transforms into animals.
Lorien Lawrence, The Stitchers: “The chills come guaranteed.” —Stephen King The start of a spine-tingling new horror series perfect for fans of Stranger Things and Goosebumps.
Janet Fox, The Artifact Hunters: Isaac Wolf can travel through time. But he’s also in a race against it. With tensions in Prague rising at the height of World War II, Isaac Wolf is forced to leave home with nothing more than a small backpack and a pendant in the shape of an eternity knot. His parents believe the pendant will keep him safe–if he can discover what it really means.
Lindsay Curie, Scritch Scratch: “This is a teeth-chattering, eyes bulging, shuddering-and-shaking, chills-at-the-back-of-your-neck ghost story. I loved it!”―R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series. For fans of Small Spaces and the Goosebumps series by R.L Stine comes a chilling ghost story based on real Chicago history about a malevolent spirit, an unlucky girl, and a haunting mystery that will tie the two together.
Kim Ventrella, The Secret Life of Sam: The timelessness of Bridge to Terabithia meets the wonder of Big Fish in this bittersweet, magical story, perfect for fans of Barbara O’Connor, Lisa Graff, and Dan Gemeinhart.
Obviously, all of us at Spooky MG love creepy stories. And we love the ones written for young readers with a special fierceness.
But I wanted to know about the books that genuinely terrify us—or that terrified us when we were young and impressionable, and that may have given us writing (or nightmare) material for years to come.
I’ll knew what my own answer would be:
Like pretty much everyone else in my Elder Millennial/Oregon Trail generation, my third grade mind was blown by Alvin Schwartz’s SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. I was terrified by those collections, and I adored them—probably for the same reasons. My friends and I would read them aloud at sleepovers, poring over Stephen Gammell’s illustrations, scaring ourselves catatonic. On my own, I would turn back to certain stories or images again and again, seeing if they were as frightening as I remembered. They always were.
If I had to pick a few stories that really dug their hooks into me, I might say “The Bride” (Gah, “The Bride”!!), “The Wendigo” (Its frozen, empty eeriness hit this upper Midwesterner hard), or “Me Tie Doughty Walker,” where the protagonist’s dog begins speaking in strange nonsense words, and is answered by a voice that comes from somewhere in the darkness outside his little cottage… The thought of that one still makes me shudder.
I know some grownups who say they were scarred by these books, and who wish they hadn’t read them when they were small. I suppose I was scarred by them too. But I’m weirdly grateful for it. Without them, I’m not sure what dark and terrible things would be missing from my imagination. And now I get to play with those dark and terrible things when I sit down to write creepy stories of my own.
So, what books for young readers scared—or scarred—my fellow Spookies?
Sarah Cannon (ODDITY, TWIST)
Before SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK or GOOSEBUMPS, there was an author named Daniel Cohen who used to put out scary story collections, and GHOSTLY ANIMALS in particular scared the pants off me. There was a ghost that was a skunk with a human face, which was so completely out of left field that it blindsided me…it hadn’t even occurred to me to be scared of such a thing before! Also, Phillis Reynolds Naylor’s Witch series (WITCH WATER, WITCH’S SISTER, etc.) scared me half to death, mostly because the villain was a scary old lady neighbor. The adults could *see* her, they just thought the kids were being fanciful. But they weren’t, and the scary incidents that illustrated this were extremely real to me.
Samantha M. Clark (THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST)
The book that terrified me most as a kid was actually THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. I was terrified that the Witch was going to turn me to stone and horrified about all the animals that had been turned to stone. The idea still haunts me to this day. I’ve never been able to look at realistic statues without wondering if a person is trapped inside…
Tania del Rio (WARREN THE 13TH series)
So a book that scared me as a kid was The BFG by Roald Dahl, which is funny because it’s not even a scary book, at least not compared to, say, THE WITCHES. And even though BFG literally stands for big FRIENDLY giant, I still used to lay awake at night terrified that an enormous eye would peer into my bedroom window or that a massive hand would reach through and whisk me away. Even the idea of a giant man blowing pleasant dreams through a long horn creeped me out. It didn’t help that I had tall poplar trees in my backyard and at night, their silhouettes looked like giants wearing long cloaks! 😬
Janet Fox (THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE)
I hate to say it, but almost nothing I read as a kid scared me. Even the grownup books. Even DRACULA. But put me in front of a mildly scary movie – even today – and I will have nightmares for weeks, months, years. I don’t know if that helps, but it’s the truth. And maybe why I can write scary books today.
Lorien Lawrence (THE STITCHERS)
Lorien Lawrence (THE STITCHERS)
The first scary story that comes to mind is “The Green Ribbon” by Alvin Schwartz from his IN A DARK, DARK ROOM collection. I remember a librarian reading this to my class as kindergarteners – which seems bizarre now because it’s SUCH a scary story, even by today’s standards! We were all sitting on the carpet, huddled together, just listening. I could not stop thinking about it for days afterwards. It definitely gave me nightmares, but it also left me wanting more. I’m sure that read-aloud jump started my love of all things spooky!
Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)
Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)
I have to admit that I was a Nancy Drew addict—these creepy, spooky, mysterious books always appealed to me. Plus, I enjoyed trying to solve the puzzle, and they were easily accessible at the small local libraries where I lived when I was an MG reader. But I also remember how creepy and chilling the GREEN KNOWE books by Lucy M. Boston were. Loved them! And often I would ready spooky Clyde Robert Bulla books like THE GHOST OF WINDY HILL. First and foremost in monstrous books for me were fairy tales and folklore stories, which were again easily accessible and often taught at school.
Kim Ventrella (THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM, THE SKELETON TREE, etc.)
As a kid, I always found myself yearning for stories that both transported me and reflected my experiences, and those experiences weren’t always roses and rainbows. Books that tackled tough topics or delved into the scary or macabre, rather than frightening me, made me feel accepted and understood. They validated my experience and gave me courage. I especially loved SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, mostly thanks to the disturbing, ethereal imagery. Unlike other scary books for kids, that collection didn’t sugar-coat things. I remember being in fifth grade and getting super upset when I read a book (that shall remain unnamed :P) where the ‘monster’ turned out to be some big misunderstanding, basically a Scooby Doo ending. I wanted the monsters to be real, so that I could see kids overcoming true evil. I longed for that catharsis. The funny thing is that now, as an adult, my books with ’spooky’ themes are all about finding light, whimsy and wonder in the midst of darkness. The spooky elements are there partly to lessen the blow of the real-life tough topics I address, like loss and grief. But I think the two needs are connected, i.e. the need I had as a young reader to see kids overcoming true evil, and the recognition that, as an adult, real life is much more terrifying than any kind of fantasy monster.
Jacqueline West is the author of THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE, THE COLLECTORS, and DIGGING UP DANGER, as well as the YA horror novel LAST THINGS. Visit her at http://www.jacquelinewest.com, or find her at jacqueline.west.writes (Instagram) or @JacquelineMWest (Twitter).