As a spooky MG author, I read a lot of spooky MG books, and one of my favorite things is meeting new wonderfully creepy and creative beasts. Spooky books have all kinds of villains, and they generally feed some fear of the main character. In fact, the Beast in my own book, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, is directly from the Boy’s biggest fears.
Here are some of the beasts I love from spooky MG books:
In TWIST, something has made Neha’s drawings literally come alive on the page. At first it’s cute and fun, until some beasts invade her sketchbook. When the characters escape to the real world, the beasts want to come too. TWIST has a number of beasties, but the big bad is The Howler, the biggest, baddest, most terrifying beast to come out of Neha’s friend Eli’s imagination. My imagination can conjure up some pretty scary monsters, so I can imagine The Howler is scary!
In this Pura Belpré Honor Book, Nestor has just moved to his latest new town, this time living with his abuela. Nestor has the unique talent of being able to talk and understand animals, and he quickly discovers that animals all over this neighborhood are going missing because a tule vieja is terrorizing his town. Shapeshifters can be really scary because you never know what’s the actual monster, and that’s one of the things that’s so spooky about Adrianna Cuevas’ tule vieja. In the book’s author’s note, Adrianna talks about how she changed the legendary tule vieja for this story. The original is scary, but her’s is terrifying.
Having grown up in the Caribbean, I love reading books set there. Tracey Baptiste grew up in Trinidad and uses the island and its folklore for this fantastic spooky series. It features Corinne La Mer, who claims she’s not afraid of anything—which quickly lets us know she’s going to have to face something scary! Sure enough, she does: The Jumbies. When the evil jumbie Severine wants to take over the island for all the jumbies, Corinne must learn ancient magic to stop Severine and save her home.
What’s worse than a horde of angry outlaws? A horde of angry zombie outlaws! That’s exactly what young Keech Blackwood has to deal with in the LEGENDS OF THE LOST CAUSES series, starting with Bad Whiskey Nelson (love that name!). Set in the Old West, these books have a new twist on the zombie apocalypse, and it’s so so scary.
I know what you’re thinking: Cuddly bunnies are not beasts…but these are! In NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES, the hottest new Christmas toy is coming alive and terrorizing the town of Gravesend. Soon Devin Dexter and his cousin Tommy are on the trail to save their town from the mob of bunnies and the warlock controlling them. It’s hilarious and scary all rolled into one.
There are plenty more fantastic beasts in spooky middle grade books. What are you favorites?
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
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.
There’s one holiday that most of us associate with scary stories—and it doesn’t fall in December. In the US, at least, Halloween is the season for everything dark and strange and spooky. Meanwhile, the December holidays are all about coziness and comfort and light, whether that light comes from a row of burning candles or a twinkling tree.
And that’s our loss. After all, what could be cozier than sitting around a crackling fireplace while the wind howls outside, shivering over a great ghost story?
Early storytellers got this. The tradition of telling scary tales in winter goes back centuries, to ancient celebrations of the winter solstice. On the longest, darkest nights of the year, the divide between the realms of the living and the dead was believed to be especially thin. Clans gathered around Yule fires to share strange tales, letting light and warmth keep the icy dark at bay. (You can’t have firelight—or strings of glowing fairy lights stapled all over your house—without darkness, after all!)
The tradition survived through Shakespeare’s time—“A sad tale’s best for winter,” he wrote in The Winter’s Tale. “I have one. Of sprites and goblins.”—and had a boom in Victorian England, when writers like Elizabeth Gaskell and Algernon Blackwood penned wintery ghost tales, and Charles Dickens published what might be the most famous ghost story of all: A Christmas Carol.
(“The Last of the Spirits,” by Harry Furniss)
So for everyone who’s ever listened to the lyrics of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow… There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…”) and thought: Wait. What?—yes, the winter holidays are a perfect time for scary stories. Maybe it’s time for all of us creepy book lovers to bring the tradition back.
Want an eerie, wintery MG read to spark your own Yule celebration? Here are some options:
–The Crowfield Curse, by Pat Walsh (2010). Set in a chilly medieval abbey and its surrounding woods, this tale of goblins, buried secrets, and dark magic is rich with historical details and unsettling mystery—plus, Walsh captures the cold of winter so vividly, you’ll want to read it beneath a thick blanket. Or two.
– Dead Voices, by Katherine Arden (2019). The follow-up to Arden’s popular Small Spaces moves from autumn into wintertime, featuring a snowbound ski lodge and the ghosts that haunt it. Pour yourself some cocoa and dive in.
– The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken (1962). The godmother of all gothic MG fiction. An isolated manor in the snowy British countryside? Cruel, conniving servants and mistreated but resourceful children? Packs of howling wolves everywhere? What’s not to love?
– Greenglass House, by Kate Milford (2014). This Edgar Award-winning mystery is a bit like a game of Clue set in a remote inn during a brutal snowstorm, but with richer characters and greater depths.
– Ghosts of Christmas Past, edited by Tim Martin (2018). While not strictly a middle grade book, this collection features short stories by many authors who are well-known to MG and YA audiences (Neil Gaiman, E. Nesbit, Kelly Link, etc.), and has a little something for everyone, from short and darkly funny pieces to classic, truly haunting tales.
Happy holidays, and happy reading!
Jacqueline West is the author of the NYT-bestselling dark fantasy series The Books of Elsewhere, the MG mystery Digging Up Danger, and the Schneider Family Honor-winning MG fantasy The Collectors and its sequel, A Storm of Wishes. She loves creepy stories, warm fires, and hot coffee, and at this time of year, you can probably find her enjoying all three at once. Visit her at www.jacquelinewest.com.
Hi J, thanks so much for taking the time to hang here at Spooky Middle Grade! Since this site is a community of spooky authors, I figured I’d throw out a broad question first:
What first drew you to the world of horror and the macabre?
I’ve always loved monsters. I feel like they’re the ultimate expression of creativity. You can make a great fictional human character, and that’s fine. Good job. Add them to the massive pile of great fictional human characters. It’s right beside the massive pile of great real-life human characters. But you come up with a new monster? You’ve done something special.
The macabre might’ve gone along with that infatuation. I tell people it’s like having a favorite color. I don’t know why I like dark green. I just do. I don’t know why I think the human skull is the most interesting object on the planet or why I find the ambiance of a 17th century graveyard so appealing. I just do.
You run a very popular blog, ODD THINGS I’VE SEEN (OTIS). Can you tell us a bit about that? How did it come about?
OTIS is an ongoing chronicle of my visits to weird sites and artifacts. I’ve seen thousands of oddities in the 11 years that I’ve been doing OTIS. The project has enriched my life to the point I’m thinking about starting a religion based on it. Especially since the whole project started out of boredom and loneliness and low self-worth and lack of writing projects and other sad things. Gave me a reason to get outside. To see stuff. To exercise my ability to wonder. It also gave me something to write about when I desperately needed it.
Can you give us a few favorite haunts you’ve visited for OTIS?
The Capuchin Crypts in Rome (especially the Pelvis Room!); the Cushing Brain Collection at Yale; the everburning ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania; a rest stop full of carnivorous lilies on the coast of Oregon. My favorites change every day.
Your non-fiction books have garnered a lot of attention and critical acclaim. Did the initial ideas spring from your travels for OTIS, or had you always wanted to focus on that specific subject matter?
OTIS started it all, 100%. If it weren’t for that project, I might still be unpublished. It gave me material, it gave me an expertise, it taught me writing discipline, it helped me practice nonfiction, it gave me enough of an audience to support the first book. And the second book. And has probably kept me in the publishing game to this day.
Your first MG novel, DEATH AND DOUGLAS, hit the shelves this past October. Can you talk a bit about your experience delving into the world of MG fiction?
Ha. It’s so different from my nonfiction experience. My nonfiction readers contact me and basically chat shop. They tell me the stuff they’ve seen and we exchange tips and experiences. It’s a really cool author-reader relationship.
Middle grade is a little…boggling. Seeing my book in the kid’s section of a bookstore surrounded by Dr. Seuss art and images of Harry Potter and Disney characters is surreal. Getting invited to give talks at elementary schools feels…not right. My eldest daughter coming home from school to tell me this friend or that friend read Death and Douglas and liked it is not something I know how to react to.
Get this, earlier this year, somebody showed me an Instagram photo of a middle-grade girl (someone I didn’t know) dressed as Douglas for National Book Week at her school. That gets me teary and is completely formidable and is something I’ll remember the rest of my life.
DEATH AND DOUGLAS, deals with some pretty intense subject matter. More so, I’d say, than any middle grade horror I’ve read in a long time. Did you ever struggle with the idea of it being too dark for younger readers? If so, how did you find that balance?
Oh man, thanks for saying that. I wanted to push it as far as I could. I wanted it to seem dangerous. When I was a kid, the books that opened my mind and addicted me to reading me were the ones I thought my parents would disapprove of if they knew what was in the book. They were my first experiences of independence. And I wanted Death and Douglas to seem like that. I wanted it to be a book that kids slid out from beneath their mattresses and read by flashlight under blankets after their parents went to bed. The difficult part was, I also wanted to write it in a way that parents would actually be okay with the story if they read it themselves. Well, the cool parents, anyway.
Plus, I like saying that I wrote a kid’s book about a serial killer.
That said, I gave my wife the first third of my current WIP, and she thinks it’s too scary for kids. I don’t know if she’s a cool parent.
In D&D, The Mortimers are a family of morticians. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated with our society’s views on death. Did you set out to write a book set around a funeral home and mortician culture, or did that come later as the initial mystery began to unfurl?
I wanted to write a book about a kid in a morbid setting. That was the impulse. Since Neil Gaiman already wrapped his stupid, talented, bestselling fingers around the graveyard with The Graveyard Book, I looked for a different morbid setting. The funeral home worked out nicely. It gave me the chance to really turn up the morbid influences on what is otherwise a pretty ordinary kid. And write a scene in which a couple of kids sneaking into an embalming room at midnight.
As a fellow New Englander, I felt you captured the feel of October and Halloween in NE so well. Have you noticed any regional Halloween differences/traditions throughout your travels? Who do you think does it best?
New England does it best. It’s why I moved up here from the DC area ten years ago. As to why Halloween is so rich here, I think it’s the quality of our foliage and the style of our architecture and the age of our tombstones. We’ve hanged witches and disinterred vampires here. It’s the birthplace of King and Poe and Lovecraft. Jackson did most of her best work here. The entire area sprang from colonists who fully believed in a rich world of monsters who all wanted to devour their bodies and souls. It’s just a spooky place. But I also love the Hudson Valley of New York. That place is awe-inspiring during the autumn months, as well.
Sadly, Halloween has passed, but here at Spooky MG, we like to keep the spirit alive year round. What are some of your favorite horror films or television shows? Any recommendations for our readers?
My unholy trinity of horror movies is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, and Pumpkinhead. A movie I’d recommend that came out this year is The Witch in the Window. It’s low-budget film from Vermont that is a sweet and spooky tale of a father and a son and a house. You could watch this with middle-graders. Probably. I tried, but my eight-year-old ran out of the room the first time said witch popped up in said window.
What advice would you give to our audience of aspiring young writers?
Write. Keep writing. Finish what you’re writing. Start something new. Finish that, too. See life through a glowing screen with magically appearing letters. That’s my fiction writer advice, anyway. The nonfiction writer in me would like to politely interject that they also need to go out there and see stuff. Everything. Shove it through the black holes in your irises until your frontal lobes are swollen and hurting and your fingertips are tingling to get every piece of information saved up onto the white screen.
So that’s the advice. Feed both the black holes and the white screen.
Give us one fun fact about yourself
I own one of Ray Bradbury’s jackets
J.W. Ocker is the Lowell Thomas and Edgar Award-winning author of strange travelogues Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe, A Season with the Witch, and the Grimpendium books. He is also the creator of OTIS; Odd Things I’ve Seen (oddthingsiveseen.com) His latest book is a work of children’s fiction, Death and Douglas, a Halloween mystery novel about a boy, his funeral home, and the killer who keeps filling it. Ocker’s work has appeared in the Boston Globe, CNN, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and other places people stick writing. He’s from Maryland but has lived in New Hampshire for a decade. Visit him at oddthingsiveseen.com