Spookies rejoice! Not only does September usher in the start of Spooky Season, a new book has arrived TODAY to get you in the spirit! I was so glad for the opportunity to ask Erin Petti about her newest book, THELMA BEE IN TOIL AND TREBLE.
TANIA: YOUR TITULAR CHARACTER THELMA BEE RETURNS WITH A NEW ADVENTURE FOLLOWING THE FIRST BOOK IN THE SERIES, THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE. WHAT CAN YOU TEASE ABOUT THIS NEW BOOK?
ERIN: TOIL AND TREBLE is filled with danger, witches, tacos, deep dark woods filled with unknown creatures, and pleather-clad Hollywood ghost hunters who might just botch the whole thing if Thlema’s crew can’t save the day.
There’s also a lot of growing up, which can sometimes be even scarier than ancient curses.
TANIA:THELMA IS A VERY SMART AND INQUISITIVE GIRL WITH A KNACK FOR SCIENCE. IS SHE BASED OFF ANYONE YOU KNOW IN REAL LIFE? WHY DO YOU THINK IT’S IMPORTANT TO HAVE A CHARACTER LIKE HER AS THE LEAD?
ERIN: While I was writing Thelma I kept asking the question: What if a kid was impervious to the hang-ups that often hold middle schoolers back? What if she didn’t care about what other people thought of her on a superficial level? What if she could shake off bullies like a puppy shakes off rainwater? She really took shape from there.
I think it’s important (for me, as a writer) to have an active protagonist who is filled with ideas and desires because it really moves the story forward. And for readers, I hope her bravery and intelligence, along with her foibles and missteps, light a little spark of “I can do anything too…” inside.
TANIA:IN THE FIRST BOOK, THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE, THELMA HAD TO DEAL WITH SUPERNATURAL EVENTS WHICH CONFLICTED WITH HER RATIONAL AND SCIENTIFIC MIND. HOW HAVE THE EVENTS OF THE FIRST BOOK CHANGED AND PREPARED HER FOR THIS NEXT ADVENTURE?
ERIN: In book two she’s got a whole new world view, and she’s starting to understand complexities in a whole new way. Things are not black and white. Sometimes the right choice isn’t the obvious choice. Now she truly knows that anything is possible, which makes things a whole lot more complicated. You know, growing up stuff 🙂
TANIA:ONE OF MY FAVORITE PARTS OF THE FIRST BOOK WAS THE LIVELY CAST OF CHARACTERS. WILL THEY ALL BE RETURNING, AND CAN WE LOOK FORWARD TO MEETING ANY NEW FACES?
ERIN: Yes! All Thelma Bee’s friends return in the second book and I’m so excited to introduce some new characters as well. There’s a pair of pleather-clad TV ghost hunters who make quite a splash in town, and a brand new friend named Bobby who is pure chaos and probably one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written!
TANIA: WITHOUT GIVING TOO MUCH AWAY, WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THELMA BEE IN TOIL AND TROUBLE?
ERIN: Oooh…OK, this is a tricky question because I don’t want to give spoilers! But I will say that Thelma has to team up with an old adversary while they are lost in a cursed forest…things get pretty dicey, but I really love what happens next!
TANIA: DO YOU THINK WRITING A SEQUEL IS EASIER OR MORE DIFFICULT? WERE THERE ANY CHALLENGES YOU HAD TO OVERCOME TO WRITE THIS STORY?
ERIN: I think writing the sequel was much harder, but it was also more fun! I was so worried because the characters mean so much to me and I wanted to do right by them – which made writing a little slower at first. But once I really understood the story that Thelma had to tell, the RVPS crew basically started speaking for themselves and it was an awesome ride.
TANIA: EVERY SPOOKY MIDDLE GRADE AUTHOR HAS A REASON THEY GRAVITATE TOWARDS WRITING SPOOKY STORIES. WHAT’S YOURS?
ERIN: I think that I am really inspired by the in-between spaces, be that in-between adulthood and childhood, or in-between living and dead, realistic and fantastical. The supernatural is a wonderful, huge, exhilarating question to explore and I just can’t get enough.
TANIA:HAVE YOU EVER EXPERIENCED ANYTHING SUPERNATURAL IN YOUR OWN LIFE?
ERIN: When I was in college I worked at The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, MA as a costumed tour guide. High Edwardian collars and the whole deal. My grandmother Peggy brought her psychic friend Debbie on one of the tours and afterwards Debbie told me that when we were up in the attic, and I was talking about the dollhouse there, there was a little girl ghost dressed in white watching me! But she said, no worries because it seemed like she liked having me there. My little Salem ghost girl BFF!
TANIA: WILL WE BE SEEING MORE OF THELMA BEE IN THE FUTURE? WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
ERIN: I am working on the third Thelma Bee book as we speak! The intention is to make Thelma Bee a trilogy, but I always want to leave the door cracked open to more adventure. These folks feel like really good friends now, and I will have a hard time saying goodbye.
Welcome to my interview with Author Dan Poblocki and his latest release TALES TO KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT! **Teachers, Parents: With the spooky season creeping every so slowly upon us, this is the perfect book to add to your reading list.
Amelia is cleaning out her grandmother’s attic when she stumbles across a book: Tales to Keep You Up at Night. But when she goes to the library to return it, she’s told that the book never belonged there. Curious, she starts to read the stories: tales of strange incidents in nearby towns, journal entries chronicling endless, twisting pumpkin vines, birthday parties gone awry, and cursed tarot decks. At the center of the stories lies a family of witches. And witches, she’s told, can look like anyone. As elements from the stories begin to come to life around her, and their eerie connections become clear, Amelia begins to realize that she may be in a spooky story of her own.
TALES TO KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT is the perfect next-read for fans of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark!. An excellent addition to Halloween round ups, middle grade readers will be glued to the pages, up way past their bedtimes, reading with flashlights, as they explore each of these interconnected stories. With frightening artwork at the start of each chapter, this book keeps readers engaged and terrified from beginning to end.
Hi Dan! It’s great to have you visit our spooky crypt. Let’s start with this: A description of Tales To Keep You Up At Night appears in the local newspaper. What does it say?
What do you do if you find a mysterious book in your missing grandmother’s attic? If you’re Amelia, you try to return it to the local library. But what if the librarian says the book doesn’t belong there? Amelia reads the creepy tales within – stories about bad birthday parties and scary sleepovers, about revenge gone wrong and weird rocks out in the woods, about a family of witches who may or may not have the right to be very angry – and by sunset she realizes that the stories are not just stories. Like the title of her new book suggests, Amelia won’t be getting ANY sleep tonight.
That would definitely draw in some attention.
Set the stage as the story begins and what happens when your main character Amelia sneaks into an old attic.
Amelia’s story begins when she and her family are at Grandmother’s house to finally clean it out. Grandmother has been gone for a year. Amelia’s mothers say Grandmother has passed on, but Amelia doesn’t believe it. Annoyed, Amelia sneaks up to the quiet attic and remembers a dream in which Grandmother hands her a book called Tales to Keep You Up at Night. To her surprise, the very book is lying on the dusty floor. Is this a clue about what really happened to Grandmother, or is this just another library book? Flipping through the tales, Amelia soon learns that the answer is a little bit of both, but also . . . a little bit of neither . . .
Like most of your books, Amelia’s story is grounded in spooky elements. What makes this spooky world different or unique from the other scary tales you’ve written?
Tales to Keep You Up at Night is my first foray into short stories. So that feels unique. Like many of my previous work, I was inspired by the books I read as a kid, books that kept my eyes glued to the pages, and that was my goal here, as it has been since I started writing. There are many elements in TALES that I pulled from my own previous work, and perceptive readers might catch clues about how my other books are tied together in a great big web, just like the short stories in TALES. Another unique aspect of Amelia’s story was being able to play with format; there are tales in this new book that are homages to the styles of classic American story-tellers, that are written in unusual Points Of View, and even one that is a series of journal entries. It was a fun challenge to change things up in these ways.
Sounds like a great book for all students, but especially for those reluctant readers out there.
You’ve inserted other stories within Amelia’s main story. Would you share how you made it all fit together?
It was like piecing together the biggest puzzle I’ve ever worked on. Simply put, I first mapped out which tales would be in the novel. Then, I wrote them, one by one. And as I went along, I noted characters and elements from the tales that might overlap with others. Once I understood that ALL of the tales related to Amelia’s own life, I leaned hard into making those overlapping details as strong as I could, so that the entire book reads more like a novel than a collection of tales. Though, now I can see that the book is BOTH of those things, which I think is pretty cool.
And I’m sure readers will think that’s pretty cool, too!
Do you have a favorite scene in the book?
In the tale called “The Volunteers,” a series of horrifying events befalls a family after they reject a gift of pumpkins from their witchy neighbors. By the end of the story, the main character realizes he’s all alone, in the dark, and he reflects back on his life, and his family, and what got them to this place. These little moments click together in his mind as he scrambles to write them all down. It’s a whirlwind of thought and emotion and worry about the choices he must now make, and every time I reread it, I get chills. The details feel real and true, and this makes the moment even scarier.
AUTHOR’S CORNER 🖊️
What is the hardest part about writing?
The hardest part for me is the waiting. I find that most times, I can push myself to put down words on the page easily enough (especially if I don’t think of them as overly-precious words), but then, waiting to hear back from other people about what they thought or if the manuscript will sell, and finally, everything that leads up to a book coming out into the world is so stressful. But it’s also out of my control. The best thing I can do in those circumstances is start writing something new, just for myself. That’s what I can control, and that’s what keeps me grounded. Keeps me going.
What do you believe young readers can gain from reading spooky tales?
I can talk about what I gained from reading spooky tales as a young reader: a love for turning pages to find out what will happen next; for Story with a capital S; a sense of how to solve problems that scare you; that there may be a way out of the dark if you look hard enough; that children can be (and sometimes need to be) as brave (or braver!) than any adult. And especially: If a story feels TOO spooky, you can ALWAYS put the book down and say, NOT TODAY, DAN POBLOCKI, YOU SCOUNDREL! (Trust me, I don’t mind.)
Any advice for teachers and parents out there on how to encourage middle schoolers to engage in more independent reading and writing?
Thinking back to what first got me excited and engaged: Reaching for what felt accomplishable. Sometimes those were books with lots of pictures, or comic strips, or comic books, and then, eventually graphic novels, even poetry and short story collections. I’m not saying these things are necessarily “easy” but they have an added appeal for reluctant readers that other books might not. I liked being able to finish reading something, even if it was a page or two long. So, maybe, let kids read what they want to read, don’t push them away from what you think isn’t right/ sophisticated enough for them, and then encourage them to explore what might be directly adjacent to their interests, to expand the Venn diagrams of their minds.
Inquiring minds want to know: What can your readers expect from you next?
Next up are MORE TALE TO KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT. Specifically, another novel of interconnected scary stories that piggybacks off of Tales to Keep You Up at Night with new characters, new settings – even some familiar names and faces. You won’t need to read the first collection to enjoy this next one, but it certainly won’t hurt (at least . . . I hope it won’t. I can’t make any promises!).
JUST FOR FUN🤪
Have to ask: What scares you?
Many of my early nightmares were about giant mouths filled with sharp teeth, which is weird because now that I’m a little more grown-up, I have an irrational fear of being eaten alive . . . By fish, bears, pythons, alligators, even by hungry humans! NOPE. NO WAY. (NOT TODAY.) I still have a difficult time looking at photographs of animals (especially from the deep ocean) with wide jaws and their mouths full of little serrated blades. Yowch! Please, never show me a picture of a shark. I will fall to the floor and cover my head, and then I’ll be embarrassed and you’ll be embarrassed and no one will have a good time anymore, at all, ever.
Um, yeah . . . you probably should stay away from giant teeth. LOL
Thank you for sharing your spooky tales with our readers! All the best to your from your #SpookyMG crew!
Dan Poblocki is the co-author with Neil Patrick Harris of the #1 New York Times bestselling series The Magic Misfits (writing under the pen-name Alec Azam). He’s also the author of The Stone Child, The Nightmarys, and the Mysterious Four series. His recent books, The Ghost of Graylock and The Haunting of Gabriel Ashe, were Junior Library Guild selections and made the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list in 2013 and 2014. Dan lives in Saugerties, New York, with two scaredy-cats and a growing collection of very creepy toys.
About the illustrator: Marie Bergeron was born and raised in Montreal. After studying cinematography, she attended École de Design. Her style is inspired by many things, including films and games, contrasting a more graphic approach with organic strokes. Her clients have included Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., Fox Entertainment, and more.
*So Readers, what do you think about Dan’s new book?
Here we are, on this magical, mysterious day to celebrate the launch of…(drumroll)…DAYBREAK ON RAVEN ISLAND by Fleur Bradley! Look at all these guests! And all this glitter! Golly!
I’m making my way now to the talented Fleur for an interview. Fleur, oh, Fleur! Hi there! I hope you’ll let me ask you a few questions, starting with this one…
This party venue is perfect! Tell us why you chose it.
You know, there’s nothing like an abandoned prison and a flock of ravens to set the mood… Also, there are always plenty of ghosts—er, guests to make for a hoppin’ party without having to send out invitations. They just show up.
You look fantastic. Who are you wearing?
Thanks! I decided to wear my best cargo pants, so I have plenty of room for flashlights, skeleton keys to mysterious locked doors, and my phone of course.
Spectacular, and I love the feathers sticking out from the pockets!I see all the yummy goodies over there. What kinds of treats are you serving?
It’s been a challenge to get good food to Raven Island, but I made the best of it. There’s some canned soup and day-old bread for dinner, and I think there might be a random energy bar floating around. Of course I did bring cupcakes. It’s no party until there’s cake…
Now, of course, every party must have a theme. How would you describe yours?
I would say it’s Alfred Hitchcock meets the Twilight Zone… Watch out! The ravens come swooping down sometimes, especially when you’re trying to eat a cupcake. There’s a raven leader named Poe; watch out for her.
Ooo, Poe. The master of Ravenhood. Now for party favors! What are you giving away?
There’s a whole ring of old skeleton keys—Tori, Marvin and Noah tell me they unlock the secret to Raven Island. You can take one, if you think you can survive the night on Raven Island. There’s also an old diary that holds a lot of secrets to a prison break long ago, but I wouldn’t touch that if I were you.
And games! Let’s play!
Tori is all about playing soccer, but there’s no soccer ball to be found. She’s a little cranky about that. We’re playing ‘run from the ghosts,’ ‘duck from the ravens,’ and ‘what does that key unlock?’
Seriously, now, give us the skinny on your book. All the bells and whistles.
All kidding aside (that was pretty fun, though), here’s the book jacket description of Daybreak on Raven Island. It’s out on August 23rd, and I hope you’ll consider reading it!
From the critically acclaimed author of Midnight at the Barclay Hotel comes a thrilling new middle grade mystery novel inspired by Alcatraz Prison.
Tori, Marvin, and Noah would rather be anywhere else than on the seventh-grade class field trip to Raven Island prison. Tori would rather be on the soccer field, but her bad grades have benched her until further notice; Marvin would rather be at the first day of a film festival with his best friend, Kevin; and Noah isn’t looking forward to having to make small talk with his classmates at this new school.
But when the three of them stumble upon a dead body in the woods, miss the last ferry back home, and then have to spend the night on Raven Island, they find that they need each other now more than ever. They must work together to uncover a killer, outrun a motley ghost-hunting crew, and expose the age-old secrets of the island all before daybreak.
Fleur Bradley has loved puzzles and (scary) mysteries ever since she first discovered Agatha Christie novels. She’s the author of numerous mysteries for kids, including Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, which was on many award lists, including the Reading the West, Agatha and Anthony Awards, Sasquatch Award, and won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, Sunshine State Young Readers Award and the Colorado Book Award.
A reluctant reader herself, Fleur regularly does librarian and educator conference talks on ways to reach reluctant readers. Originally from the Netherlands, she now lives in Colorado with her family and entirely too many rescue animals. Find out more about Fleur at http://www.ftbradley.com and follow her on Twitter @FTBradleyAuthor.
We’re still months away from Halloween, but the spookiness never ends at Spooky Middle Grade Books, and this August is no exception. Three of our Spooky MG authors have wonderful new spooky MG books coming out this month and I’ve interviewed the authors today.
Aug. 23: DAYBREAK ON RAVEN ISLAND by Fleur Bradley. Fleur Bradley is also the author of the award-winning mystery Midnight at the Barclay Hotel (Viking/Penguin Random House). Her story The Perfect Alibi appeared in Mystery Writers of America’s middle-grade anthology Super Puzzletastic Mysteries, edited by Chris Grabenstein (HarperCollins). Fleur regularly does (virtual) school visits, as well as librarian and educator conference talks on reaching reluctant readers. Originally from the Netherlands, she now lives in Colorado Springs with her family, and entirely too many rescue animals. Find out more about Fleur on her website: www.ftbradley.com and follow her on Twitter @FTBradleyAuthor.
Aug. 30: UNMASKED (FRIGHT WATCH 3) by Lorien Lawrence. Lorien Lawrence is a writer and middle school English teacher from Connecticut. She has creative writing degrees from Wheaton College and Bath Spa University. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found hunting ghosts with her family.
(In slightly less spooky new releases, my new chapter book series, GEMSTONE DRAGONS, launches this month too! The first two books arriving Aug. 2 aren’t too spooky, but book 3, coming out Dec. 27 is, proving that even December is spooky!)
Now let’s hear from these great authors about their August spooky MG books:
Samantha: Tell us about your new book.
Ally Malinenko:This Appearing House is the story about a girl, Jac, on the cusp of her 5 year anniversary of a cancer diagnosis, who discovers a House at the end of the street that is more than what it seems. When some neighborhood challenge her and her best friend Hazel they get trapped in the House and as they move from one terrifying room to the other they come to understand that the House has a personal connection to Jac. And the only way out is through.
Fleur Bradley:Daybreak on Raven Island is an Alcatraz-inspired scary middle-grade. When three kids miss the ferry after a field trip to Raven Island, they have to solve the mystery of a decades-old prison escape and a current murder mystery, all while outrunning some very scary ghosts (and a flock of ravens). The short answer: it’s Alfred Hitchcock for kids.
Lorien Lawrence: UNMASKED is set in the Fright Watch universe, but it features a new main character. Her name is Marion, and she’s a monster-maker/budding special effects artist. On Halloween night, she creates a sea creature mask that accidentally possessed her crush. Despite her social anxiety, she must go to the school dance to stop her monster/crush from wreaking further havoc on her classmates.
Samantha: What inspired this story?
Ally: I was diagnosed with cancer 8 years ago but more than talking about cancer I wanted to talk about trauma. This Appearing House is a book that exists to help kids navigate the trauma – and the last few years have certainly been that. The word cancer is in the book only a few times because I wanted every kid who has been through something to see themselves in Jac. I wanted them to see that it’s okay to be angry at an unfair world and that just because this thing happened to them, didn’t mean that they were broken. Jac’s art teacher teaches her about Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing pottery using gold to seal the cracks. In this tradition the broken item is not repaired, it is remade. And just like that pottery kids who have been through trauma, have been remade. I want them to see their cracks lit with gold.
Fleur: After Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, which is lightly spooky, I wanted to write a scarier book. Taking Alcatraz as a jumping-off point, I created my own island, with an abandoned prison, a lighthouse, a morgue, and a cemetery. It was fun to push the paranormal element for this book and imagine what might’ve happened to the prisoners who escaped Alcatraz. What if they made it off?
Lorien: I’m OBSESSED with special effects and the art of monster making. I’ve always wanted to dive into that world (but I’m not remotely artistic!)
Samantha: Let’s talk about setting. Each of you have created fun and spooky settings for your stories. What inspired them and why did you choose these settings for your stories?
Ally: The Haunted House is usually a metaphor for a diseased mind, but in my book it is a metaphor for a diseased body. When the House first appears Jac thinks she is hallucinating – a sign that her cancer has returned. To prove that it is real she has to physically go into the House. I liked toying with that notion. In so many Haunted House stories I’m always wondering why the people don’t leave. But for Jac, she can’t. She had to go in to prove she was okay and now she has to go through it to survive.
Fleur: Alcatraz has such a wealth of stories, I really wanted to have some fun exploring the what-if questions. But then creating the fictional Raven Island, modeled after Alcatraz, gave me room to do what I want as a writer. It was a lot of fun.
Lorien: The fictional town of South Haven is based on my Connecticut hometown. It’s VERY New England, very spooky, loaded with urban legends and folklore. It’s a very “kids on bikes” type of town, and I wanted that to translate in my books.
Samantha: How much are you like your main character? Or if you’re more like another character in your book, which one?
Ally: I think every character I write is a little bit like me. With Jac, she bottles things up and when confronted has trouble talking about things and I think that is very much something that I do. She’s a secret keeper because of her trauma. She doesn’t want anyone to know what she has been through because she’s worried it will be all that they can see then. But once she learns to face what happens she realizes she’s more than that and that other people know it.
Fleur: I’m probably most like Noah in Daybreak on Raven Island. He’s afraid of a lot of things, and doesn’t like breaking the rules. I wish I was more like Marvin in the book: he just jumps right into adventure…
Lorien: I’m a lot like Marion in UNMASKED. She is creative and has an anxiety disorder – something I grew up with. And like me, she uses her art as an outlet and a way to express herself. When I feel my anxiety spiking, I write. When Marion feels her anxiety spiking, she creates monsters. My other protagonist in STITCHERS and COLLECTORS – Quinn – was very confident, which is not at all how I was as a kid.
Samantha: Many spooky books delve into deeper themes, like grief, anger and healing. What are some of the themes you explored in your book and why?
Ally: As I mentioned before it’s definitely about trauma but it’s also about grief and anger. Jac is angry. She’s angry that she went through this terrible ordeal. She’s angry that she’ll always worry that it will come back – that at any moment her life could be rerouted. She spends a lot of time worried she’s going to die young and navigating grieving what she has already lost. But in the end, it is Hope and Healing that gets her through.
Fleur:Daybreak on Raven Island is my pandemic book: I wrote and edited it during Covid lockdown. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was exploring the theme of loneliness. Each of the three kids in the book carry a secret around, something that bothers them but they’re too afraid to share. I hope that kid readers will feel a little braver in sharing anything they’re struggling with. It’s no good to be alone with your worries and problems.
Lorien: The first two books in FRIGHT WATCH deal with grief: I had just lost my father when I started the series, and Quinn loses her dad at the beginning of STITCHERS. In UNMASKED, the focus shifts to mental health. Anxiety and depression were a part of my adolescence (and anxiety still is), so I wanted to write about a character who also experiences those things.
Samantha: Why do you love writing spooky/horror stories for kids?
Ally: I loved horror books as a kid – even though I was a definite scaredy cat! I love writing horror cause horror does something no other writing, except maybe comedy, can do which is to elicit a physical response in a reader. I love that challenge. But I also love that horror teaches kids how to slay the real life monsters when they show up. I believe it’s important for kids to navigate fear in a way that feels safe. Horror books are Safe Scary. It knows that kids will last the night.
Fleur: Horror is so fun, and I love combining it with mystery. It’s great to explore those things you’re afraid of and shine a (flash)light on them. Horror shows kids that the monsters are either not that scary, or that they can be slayed.
Lorien: Because horror is electric! You HAVE to read through to the end. And it’s way more hopeful than people give it credit for. We see kids being brave and conquering their deepest, darkest fears (both internally and externally).
Samantha: When you were growing up, what was your favorite spooky book?
Ally: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was definitely my most read. Those illustrations alone would give me nightmares! But I also loved Mary Downing Hanh’s Wait Till Helen Comes.
Fleur: I didn’t read a lot of horror until I was an adult, I’m sad to say… It’s fun now to catch up and discover horror for kids. There are so many great books being published!
Lorien: SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK hooked me in kindergarten. (I know – probably too young, but hey, it was the 80s!)
Samantha: What’s your current favorite modern spooky book by someone other than the authors in this interview, because we know they’re all brilliant? 🙂
Ally: I recently read The Clackity by Lora Senf and loved it. It’s a great story with so much heart (the best kind of horror) and just the right amount of frights.
Stop and drop everything, because you can now buy The Clackity by our Spooky MG friend Lora Senf…! This hot-off-the-press scary MG is now available at booksellers everywhere.
Here’s the story (and the amazing cover):
Reminiscent of Doll Bones, this deliciously eerie middle grade novel tells the story of a girl who must enter a world of ghosts, witches, and monsters to play a game with deadly consequences and rescue her aunt.
Evie Von Rathe lives in Blight Harbor—the seventh-most haunted town in America—with her Aunt Desdemona, the local paranormal expert. Des doesn’t have many rules except one: Stay out of the abandoned slaughterhouse at the edge of town. But when her aunt disappears into the building, Evie goes searching for her.
There she meets The Clackity, a creature who lives in the shadows and seams of the slaughterhouse. The Clackity makes a deal with Evie to help get Des back in exchange for the ghost of John Jeffrey Pope, a serial killer who stalked Blight Harbor a hundred years earlier. Evie must embark on a journey into a strange otherworld filled with hungry witches, penny-eyed ghosts, and a memory-thief, all while being pursued by a dead man whose only goal is to add Evie to his collection of lost souls.
Does this not sound dynamite?? Pass the cake for this book birthday, the Spooky MG authors are celebrating!!
**This post was originally published on Medium. Find me over there @kimventrella to read my other articles for writers.**
My first middle grade novel came out with Scholastic in fall 2017, and I’ve learned a lot about marketing since then. I am not a marketing expert, and I do believe that only publishers can significantly move the needle in terms of sales. By significant, I mean that publisher activities can generate thousands or tens-of-thousands of sales. Having a title featured in the Scholastic Book Fairs can do that, for example. You probably can’t.
But that’s not to say you shouldn’t promote your books as a traditionally published author. I actually love marketing and promotion, because I adore events, live for making cute graphics, and eat up the chance to mingle with readers and fellow writers.
Also, school visits are the only time I get to feel famous as an author. I once had a student rush up to me after a visit and ask me to sign their forehead in Sharpie. I reluctantly declined, but I have had students cry and cheer telling me how much they loved my books. And that is SUCH a good feeling. It’s the kind of promotional juice that actually feeds the writing spirit.
I want to talk about those kind of activities in this article, along with a breakdown of what hasn’t worked, why, and some special considerations for marketing middle grade.
Middle grade (MG) readers are typically eight to twelve years old. They’re not on Twitter or Facebook. They may be on TikTok, but if so they’re probably more focused on funny cat videos than authors. This means that none of our social media efforts as MG authors are reaching our target audience directly.
Kids also don’t have credit cards, or the ability to drive themselves to their local bookstore and buy whatever they want. But don’t despair, because the first step in marketing MG is to identify who is buying our books. This is generally librarians, teachers, and parents, i.e. the gatekeepers.
Keeping this in mind, I tailor my social media presence to these gatekeepers, especially on Twitter where educators seem to be most active. Teachers love connecting with authors online, and they especially love winning free books. Much of my effort on Twitter has been focused on gaining teacher followers through fun giveaways.
I’ve found these giveaways to be the best way to reach my target audience on social media, i.e. educators. And many teachers have gone on to schedule virtual or in-person school visits with me, the real sweet spot when it comes to marketing MG.
Social media is also a great way to build a network of fellow authors. In fact, you may notice early on that most or all of your followers are other writers. This isn’t so great when it comes to reaching your actual target audience (i.e. readers), but it is great in terms of A) finding new friends and making the whole promotion thing more fun and B) creating opportunities for cross-promotion.
Back in 2018, I helped organize an author collaborative called Spooky Middle Grade that’s still going strong today. We have a private chat where we share, rant, talk business, and plan fun spooky events for kids. Our main activity throughout the years has been our 30-minute virtual Q&As that we offer to schools across the country (and world!).
I’ll talk more about the amazingness of school visits later on, but one thing I’ve also gained from this group has been the opportunity for a little backup on social media. If I have an important post that I’m hoping will get some traction, I ask my Spooky MG pals for help. Those extra retweets upfront can be a huge help in getting my tweets seen.
Am I selling a zillion copies thanks to a few extra retweets? No. Do I feel less terrified that literally zero people will like something I tweet, sending me into a spiral of gloom and self-loathing? Yes!
There are definitely plenty of other ways that networking with writers has helped me over the years, apart from Spooky MG. But the benefits are usually on the touchy-feely, intangible side. I’ve made great friends through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), for example. Hey, I’ve even sold a few books at conferences and events where they invited me to speak.
But would I call the various writing groups I’m connected to sales opportunities? Not so much. *A wise person once said that you can’t expect to sell fiction at a non-fiction (i.e. craft-centered) event. So true. But I’ve gained knowledge, friends, experience as a speaker, and a venue for promoting my non-fiction stuff (i.e. editorial services and courses for writers).
So go forth and network. And if you can find opportunities to network with teachers, even better. I have participated in NCTE (a national conference for teachers), as well as numerous NerdCamps (events where educators come together to talk literacy, often with authors invited as special guests). These happen in regions across the country, and can best be found with a quick search on Google or Twitter.
*Footnote: I believe that wise person was Lindsay Buroker from the self-publishing podcast Six Figure Authors, but don’t quote me on that.
This is the biggie. School visits are the one time that middle grade authors get to pitch their books directly to kids. And they’re pretty magical. Not only do kids at school visits assume you are famous, but you have the rapt attention of an entire class, grade, or school. If you give an engaging presentation, you could not only make a ton of sales that day, but potentially get kids excited enough to tell their parents and friends about the book.
This is marketing in its most direct form. Try getting the attention of 500 kids all at once on social media (remembering they’re probably not even on the platforms you use). So the big question is, how the heck do you actually schedule school visits?
I wish I had a magic formula for this, because I could definitely use one. My key strategy (apart from connecting with teachers at events or on the socials) has been to email school librarians information about me and the visits I offer. In my experience, it’s almost always the librarian (or media specialist) who’s responsible for scheduling authors, so that’s the person you need to reach. I have even resorted to sending physical postcards on occasion, because librarians don’t always have time to read emails from random authors (assuming we’ve never met).
My response rate with this strategy has gotten better over time, as I’ve become more well-known in the community with each new release. But it can be tough as a brand new author. It can be especially tough if you write about difficult topics for kids — many of my books deal with death and grief, for example. But I’m a fun-filled person, promise! Still, I’ve noticed that authors with more upbeat books do seems to have an easier time scheduling visits.
But don’t let that deter you. If you haven’t already, make sure you have a decent website describing your school visit offerings. Include details like pricing, virtual options, types of presentations, travel details, etc. And don’t expect librarians to magically find your new website. Share it far and wide, with the right people, and soon you too can have kids begging you to sign their face in Sharpie.
Oh, and my #1 tip for the actual presentation? Energy! The content isn’t as important as how you sell it. Remember, you’re giving a performance, so make it one that gets kids excited and leaves them talking.
Another great step in your marketing journey is to make friends with local booksellers, especially from independently owned stores. Best of Books, an amazing indie here in Oklahoma, handles sales for most of my school visits. These wonderful folks can connect you to local events, talk you up to readers, and help you coordinate sales of your books at school visits or conferences.
Aw, the classic book signing. We all know the drill. You show up to find a table at the front of the store with huge signage of your face and a line around the block. The rest is a whirlwind of raving fans and lightning fast Sharpie work.
This may happen to you, or you may show up to an unmarked table in the back of the store and spend the next hour talking up your books to random strangers.
Don’t get me wrong, signings can be super fun, and they’re kind of a rite of passage in the author world. I’ve had successful launches where friends, family, and the rare unknown fan turned out to show their support. I’ve also had signings where you sell six or seven copies to people who happen to be wandering through Barnes & Noble at the time. And I’ve had signings where it was literally me and the crickets.
Here’s the thing with book signings, and I think this applies to most areas of marketing and promotion. You can sell a ton of copies if you’re already a bestseller with a huge fanbase. If not, you’re unlikely to attract new fans through signings, apart from the handful of delightful strangers who stumble upon your table.
That said, I still love signings, because they make me feel fancy. And who doesn’t want to be reminded that they’re fancy once in a while? If you’re scared that no one will show up, take my advice and hold a joint signing with one or more author pals. Sitting at a table while customers awkwardly avoid eye contact is way more fun with friends.
And it is helpful to bring bookmarks with your website and social media info so people can find you online. Strangers may want to internet stalk you before deciding to buy your books. And, hey, they may even swing back around to your table before you leave, or decide to buy a signed copy later (assuming the store asked you to sign any leftover stock).
We’ve mostly been talking about how to get the word out after launch (school visits, hooray!), but what about before launch? This is when people start talking about pre-order campaigns, street teams, and all that jazz.
Here’s my take on pre-order campaigns (you may sense a theme going forward). It can be super fun prepping all the snazzy swag you’ll give away when someone pre-orders your book. But once again, this is not likely to gain you any new fans. Your swag would have to be pretty darn amazing to convince someone who has never heard of you to pre-order your book AND send proof of purchase. And the typical bookmark, pin, or mug with artwork from the book (that remember, they’ve never heard of) is unlikely to be convincing.
But pre-order campaigns are a great way to reward loyal fans and to direct readers, who were already planning to buy your book, to do so early. Publishers use pre-order numbers to determine print runs and how many marketing dollars to put behind a book, so they are super important.
But the reality remains that the pre-order campaigns getting huge numbers are for books that fans already wanted.
Does that mean new or mid-list authors should give up on pre-order campaigns altogether? Maybe. Or, you can follow my motto and do what’s fun. If you love swag and want to reward your fanbase (no matter how small), then you do that pre-order campaign! And if you direct twenty or thirty readers to order early, instead of waiting for release, then bonus points. It may not make a blip on the publisher’s radar, but it sure can’t hurt.
We talked earlier about the power of author networking. Having writer friends who can help boost your posts (even a few retweets here and there) can be super helpful. Street teams take that to the next level. These are groups of fans, reviewers, readers (in our case, mostly educators) who agree to help get the word out about your new release. Usually they do this in exchange for an advanced reader copy, access to a private group or chat, and exclusive news, giveaways, or contact with the author that’s not available outside the group.
In organizing street teams for my last two books, I created a Google Form for participants to tell me what grades they work with, why they want to join, and how they plan to promote the book.
Then I created a private Facebook group where I shared news, excerpts, information about giveaways, etc. to try to build excitement. My earliest members received physical ARCS (advanced reader copies) to read, review, and hopefully pass on to friends. I asked members to help me promote certain social media posts and to share about the book online.
It was a fun experience, but here’s the thing about street teams for middle grade. First, all the old adages apply. A) You’ll get out of it what you put into it. B) You’ll get more interest if you’re already a well-known author. But I would add another thought here, which is that teachers (your primary audience for street teams) are extremely busy. They don’t have the time to fangirl online the way that other super fans might.
I certainly got some boosts and reviews from my amazing teams (each had about 20–25 members), but it was tough asking my already overextended crew to stay engaged for months and months leading up to release.
And the majority of a street team’s activities will come in the form of promoting social media posts. That’s awesome, but we’ve already seen that social media reaches the gatekeepers of MG, not the actual readers. This is another aspect that makes the fandom for MG different from adult or YA and harder to engage directly. Remember, your street team members are not kids. They’re adults who will be sharing your posts with other adults.
I mentioned reviews. One way that street team members can be wonderfully helpful is by leaving you reviews on Amazon. Some members will follow through on this, others won’t. The more consistently you engage with the group, the more likely they’ll be to actually leave you a review after release.
If you’re interested in starting a street team, it’s time to begin connecting with educators and MG book review groups on Twitter. Use the strategies I’ve mentioned (like running teacher-specific book giveaways) to build your following, so that when you reach out for street team members, you’re talking to the right people.
And then try to keep up excitement in the group by offering early reveals and exclusive giveaways in the months leading up to release. Street teams may not be a magic bullet, but a few loyal fans can go a long way to helping you have a successful launch.
These are kind of a thing of the past, but I bring them up here because I paid for friends to create a BEAUTIFUL book trailer for my debut. And I paid a lot. Did they make a wonderful animated trailer that I could use at school visits? Yes. Did Scholastic even share it on their website around release? Sure. Is it so, so gorgeous and amazing? Indubitably. But was it in any way worth the money in tangible terms (like actual sales generated)?
But it was my first book, and I had gotten a very nice advance after selling at auction. So, at the time, I was like, hey, I’ll probably never do this again, but won’t it be super cool? It was cool, but I could also really use that money right about now 😉
Websites, Bookmarks, and Ways to Get Fancy
No one will ever, ever visit your author website unless they specifically Google your name. Okay, I might be exaggerating. They might Google your book, or stumble on a popular blog post by topic (assuming you write some), or follow a link you post on social media. But your website is not a tool for gaining new readers. It is a tool for existing readers to learn more about you, your books, and your school visit offerings.
With that in mind, I do not think a fancy author website is necessary. If you have tons of disposable income to spend on a beautiful site, fair enough. But if you just want to create a professional place for kids to find more info about you for school book reports, then cheaper is better. Personally, I use a super basic WordPress.com site, because I couldn’t even be bothered to use WordPress.org.
It has been perfectly sufficient. And, unlike folks I know who have spent thousands of dollars on designer sites, it costs about $100 a year.
Bookmarks and swag are another way to get fancy. I do enjoy having bookmarks for big events, and GotPrint is my favorite company for ordering them so far (at last check, it was $32 for 1,000 bookmarks). But again, bookmarks are nice rewards for people who have already purchased your book. They’re unlikely to gain you new readers, apart from a few folks who happen upon you at signings and other events.
With all types of swag, I go back to my cardinal rule. If it’s fun, do it, but don’t expect it to generate sales.
The Bottom Line
Promoting middle grade books is very different than promoting books for other audiences. Your readers aren’t on social media, so you have to identify and connect with gatekeepers. If you’re like me, a large percentage of your sales won’t even come through regular outlets (like bookstores), they’ll come through school and library purchases.
It’s important to know who you’re targeting, how you can reach them, and how you can use your efforts most effectively. When in doubt, think about the fun vs. tangible benefit ratio. If the fun level is off the charts, then maybe it’s okay that you’re not getting any tangible benefit in terms of sales. If the activity is unlikely to generate many sales AND it’s not fun, head for the hills.
You only have so much time and energy, and it’s important to use both wisely.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KIM VENTRELLA is the author of The Secret Life of Sam (HarperCollins), Hello, Future Me, Bone Hollow and Skeleton Tree (Scholastic). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Her most recent middle grade novel, The Secret Life of Sam, was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2020. Bone Hollow was chosen as a Best Book for Kids 2019 by New York Public Library, and Skeleton Tree was nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal in the UK. For the latest updates, follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.
Look closer . . . what do you think is in the girl’s hands? Or in the pictures behind her?
Nice answers! Well, I don’t see specific things, but I do sense a bit of shock and some awe. Maybe a sliver of curiosity, too. And a cat. But I guess a cat is specific. #shrugs Any hoot, before I share the rest of this amazing book cover, here’s a bit about this spooky tale which is set for release in January 2023 by Holiday House.
The Addams Family meets The Westing Game in this exhilarating mystery about a modern magical dynasty trapped in the ruins of their once-grand, now-crumbling ancestral home.
Twelve-year-old Garnet regrets that she doesn’t know her family. Her mother has done her best to keep it that way, living far from the rest of the magical Carrefour clan and their dark, dangerous mansion known as Crossroad House.
But when Garnet finally gets summoned to the estate, it isn’t quite what she hoped for. Her relatives are strange and quarrelsome, each room in Crossroad House is more dilapidated than the last, and she can’t keep straight which dusty hallways and cobwebbed corners are forbidden.
Then Garnet learns the family secret: their dying patriarch fights to retain his life by stealing power from others. Every accident that isn’t an accident, every unexpected illness and unexplained disappearance grants Jasper Carrefour a little more time. While the Carrefours squabbles over who will inherit his role when (if) he dies, Garnet encounters evidence of an even deeper curse. Was she brought to Crossroad House as part of the curse . . . or is she meant to break it?
Written with loads of creepy atmosphere and an edge-of-your-seat magical mystery, this thrilling story reads like The Haunting of Hill House for preteens. Perfect for late-night reading under the covers.
So, fellow readers who love some spook and creep in their books, what comparison got you first? The Addams Family reference or The Haunting of Hill House?
Haha! I know! They both got me, too. Well, enough with all that. Here’s The Carrefour Curse cover in all it’s spookiness!
INSPIRATION BEHIND THE BOOK🌟
When I was very young, I fell in love with the supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows. (My mom was a fan.) The show centered on an old house and a family with a menacing family patriarch. There was magic and mystery and the nearby ruins of an older, larger house. When the main character went traveling into the past century, the “Old House” was restored to its former glory, blowing my childhood mind. Many of these elements made it into The Carrefour Curse, mashed together with a haunting Ambrose Bierce vignette about two men who found a room full of dead people that later disappeared, taking one of the men with it.
DIANNE K. SALERNI is the author of middle grade and YA novels, including Eleanor, Alice, & the Roosevelt Ghosts and Jadie in Five Dimensions, both Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections, and The Eighth Day series, nominated for seven state award lists. Her eighth book, The Carrefour Curse, is a spine-chilling mystery inspired by Dianne’s love of all things gothic, but especially the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. Dianne was a Pennsylvania public school teacher for 25 years before leaving the profession to spend time hanging around creepy cemeteries, attending ghost hunting classes, and climbing 2000 year-old pyramids in the name of book research. In her spare time, she volunteers at her local animal rescue shelter, walking dogs and serving the needs of the feline overlords.
Thank you so much for sharing in Dianne’s exciting cover reveal! Make sure to come back in a few months, when we release more about this eerie story with a full interview with Dianne.
This week, I sat with spooky crew member Ira Marcks to discuss his graphic novel, Shark Summer. In addition, I wanted to learn about his creative process and get the skinny on his new book, Spirit Week, available October 25, 2022. So, without further ado, let’s wade into the spine-chilling waters of graphic novels.
Lisa: What inspired you to make Shark Summer?
Ira: I’ve always wanted to make a comic about kids on a summer adventure. But I could never find a way into the story that didn’t seem like it’d been done before. Then one day I was reading a book about the making of JAWS and I thought to myself “wow, what a wild, madcap summer that must have been for the cast and crew.” It got me thinking… is there a more iconic summer adventure than the one JAWS captured on film? Suddenly, I had my inciting incident; a sleepy New England island is overrun with a Hollywood production. Now, all I had to do was decide what happens to the people who live there behind the scenes.
Lisa: What can readers expect from the story?
Ira: A fast paced, nostalgia infused, summer adventure about new friendships, filmmaking, and the creepy secret history of a New England island!
Lisa: What were some of the challenges of turning this story into a graphic novel?
Ira: The most difficult part of the process was trying to find the right balance of cartoon humor, horror movie tropes, and real world consequences. Shark Summer takes place on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1974 during the filming of JAWS. While I worked hard to convey the geography and spirit of this time and place, there were also choices to be made about how to use these elements to tell an inspirational comic for kids. My editor Andrea Colvin deserves a lot of credit for helping me find the best way to tell this story.
Lisa: How long have you been interested in comics? Is this what you wanted to do when you “grew up”?
Ira: Comics are a balance of drawing and writing so while I loved to draw as a little kid, I soon realized that I couldn’t tell a good story with a comic unless I practiced my writing. Putting those two skills together inevitably led me to making comics! I’ve always been good enough at it to keep a few people interested in what I was working on, and I built my ‘career’ from there.
Lisa: What’s the best writing advice you have received?
Ira: I like the quote by fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett that goes “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” Which is to say, the later drafts are intended for the reader. I think it’s important to distinguish a first draft from the rest of the process. To be honest with yourself is crucial to the early stages of a project. So when you bring other cooks into the kitchen and begin to edit and clarify the story, there will always be a seed of truth left from that first draft you wrote for yourself.
Lisa: I see you have a new graphic novel coming out on October 25, 2022. Please tell us about Spirit Week.
Ira: It’s kinda like a sequel to Shark Summer. In the second book we join Shark Summer’s aspiring filmmaker Elijah Jones as he heads off to Colorado to make a documentary about a reclusive horror writer who has been living at a certain infamous hotel.
Ira Marcks is a graphic novelist based in Upstate NY. He make comics, teaches comics, and podcast about cartoons. His books have been recommended by The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and American Library Learn more: https://lnk.bio/iramarcks
This week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Marina Cohen to ask about her new middle grade novel, SHADOW GRAVE. Of course, our meeting took place in a remote mansion at midnight. Waves crashed on the nearby cliffs as I lit candles for our interview. Or, you know, something like that.
KIM: The tagline for SHADOW GRAVE is “This town has a secret it will kill to keep…” Tell me more.
MARINA: On a road trip, 12-year-old Arlo, his sister, Lola, and mother become stranded in an old logging town in the mountains of New Hampshire. The town folk are peculiar and some less than friendly. As well, something dark and mysterious lurks in the surrounding woods and when Arlo discovers this secret, it places him and his family in jeopardy. Unfortunately, to tell you more would be to give away the secret…
KIM: Arlo is afraid of everything, but mostly losing his mother. How do you play around with supernatural versus real-life fears? Do you think there’s a special way to do this in MG?
MARINA: Not every book is right for every reader and not every reader enjoys horror. But those who do can handle more than adults often give them credit for. Middle-grade readers bring their own experience to a book and adults often forget they bring with them a deeper knowledge and understanding of the world than younger readers, who experience the darker concepts in my novels on a far more superficial level. So, to answer your question, yes—there is a special way to handle the dark “real-life” horrors in middle-grade. It’s less about the what and more about the how. You must tread lightly on darker subjects, never use graphic violence, gratuitous gore, or unnecessary details. Provide the reader just enough information to give them a soupçon of the “real-life” horrors. As with most things in life—less is more.
KIM: Tell me about the cover and cover artist for SHADOW GRAVE. How did they capture the essence of your story?
MARINA: Hannah Hill is the brilliant cover artist. She has done a superb job of capturing some of the creepy elements of the story—the shadowy figure, the imposing house, and if you turn to the back, the graveyard. The color palate she has chosen is stunning and hopefully will not only catch readers’ attention but give them a slightly unsettled feeling.
KIM: What are you hoping readers will take away from SHADOW GRAVE?
MARINA: It’s been said that if you examine a writer’s works you will find reoccurring themes. Personally, I find myself often writing stories that deal with choice and consequences. Shadow Grave is (hopefully!) a creepy story that will engage readers and give them more than a few shivers—but it’s my hope it will also leave them with big life questions to ponder. At its heart, SHADOW GRAVE is about the human experience, the choices we must make, the paths we choose, and where these paths lead—which is ultimately to the same place—onward. It’s not decision, but rather indecision that is the enemy.
KIM: You’re known for your “twisted chiller(s)” according to Kirkus Reviews. What inspires you to write such shivery tales?
MARINA: Writers write the kinds of stories they love to read. Essentially, we write for ourselves. I love to read horror, mystery, and thrillers—therefore, I aspire to write the same. There is actually a scientific explanation behind the heart-pounding edge-of-your-seat-thrills we enjoy. It has to do with neurotransmitters and hormones release when your body feels the fear, but your brain knows you’re completely safe.
KIM: What advice would you give to writers interested in tackling middle grade?
MARINA: The best advice I can give—the one given to me long ago—is you must read a hundred books in the age group and genre you wish to write. If you’d like to write a middle-grade horror, you must read middle-grade horror. This will allow you to learn from experienced writers, to see what appeals to your target audience, and, from the business perspective, to get an idea of what is selling.
KIM: If readers like SHADOW GRAVE, which of your other spooky books would you recommend they read next?
MARINA: I’d say if readers enjoy this novel, they should give either THE DOLL’S EYE or THE INN BETWEN a try. A BOX OF BONES leans a little too much into fantasy for some horror fans’ liking.
I recently attended a conference called Scares that Care in Richmond VA. It was my first conference since publishing my debut Ghost Girl and I was excited to be on a panel. We talked about our childhood horrors and if they made their way into our books. At first, I thought there was nothing in Ghost Girl that related to the nightmares I had as a kid but the more I thought about it the more I realized I was wrong.
There was. This guy:
I saw Nightmare on Elm Street at too young of an age at a friend’s sleepover. Or maybe it wasn’t that I was too young but maybe just too fearful. Either way that knife-gloved nightmare found it’s way into my brain and refused to budge. First it was the claw I was afraid of. But then over time, that changed. Then I was just afraid of the man himself and at night I thought he would be standing in the corner of my room.
As I grew up I developed a very healthy fear of home invasion. The Strangers is a nightmare movie for me. But it wasn’t until this panel that I realized that my fear of home invasion linked directly back to my fear of seeing that Freddy in the corner of my room.
In Ghost Girl, the first time my main character Zee sees a ghost, it has invaded her home and is hiding in her living room. The original scene was actually written to take place in her bedroom but my editor felt that the bedroom needed to be a safe space and now, linking it all together, I see why.
So i thought I would chat with some of my Middle Grade Spooky friends and see how the things they were scared of found it’s way into their books.
Hi all! First off, why don’t you introduce yourselves, friends.
Bradley: I’m Fleur Bradley, author of various middle-grade mysteries, some with supernatural and horror elements in them. Midnight at the Barclay Hotelis a younger MG with a lighter haunted vibe; my upcoming book Daybreak on Raven Island is definitely scarier and digs deeper into horror themes. I like to mix mystery with horror in my books. I aim to write for reluctant readers (I’m one myself) with hopes of encouraging kids to enjoy reading for life.
Lawrence: My name is Lorien Lawrence. I’m a seventh grade English teacher from Connecticut, and I love to write stories based on my haunted little state. My current horror series, Fright Watch, follows a small group of middle schoolers as they investigate paranormal mysteries in their town. The first book is called The Stitchers; the second is The Collectors; the third, Unmasked, is out in August!
Malinenko: Excellent! And I should say, I’m Ally Malinenko, author of Ghost Girl and the forthcoming This Appearing House (8/16/2022). So, what would you say got you into horror in the first place? What was your gateway? For me, it definitely started early with Scooby Doo cartoons and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Bradley: My gateway to horror was TV before books. I loved The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt and The Outer Limits–so the the more supernatural side of horror. I also watched my share of Alfred Hitchcock movies and TV; I like to blend a little humor into horror like those shows did, just so I don’t start to take myself too seriously or scare myself too much.
Lawrence: My gateway to horror happened in kindergarten. The library was in the basement of the school – already creepy! – and the librarian read to us from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. (I KNOW!) And it was terrifying but also electric. I’ve been trying to chase that electricity ever since. And it’s contagious. You give a reluctant reader a horror book, and they will absolutely read to the end to find out if the protagonist makes it out safely. I can’t think of another genre that gives results like that.
Malinenko: Me neither! That’s something I love about Horror. But wow, Lorein, KINDERGARTEN and you were already hearing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? I wouldn’t have lasted. What about you, Erin?
Petti: Honestly, sometimes I think that I just came into the world with ghost stories braided into my DNA, but for this exercise I went way back, and I found it. I remember the first time I felt that buzzing, dizzy, glorious fascination with the paranormal.
When I was three years old, my mom bought me a Talk N Play. It was the mid-80’s and this was the height of technology, as far as I was concerned. The Playskool Talk N Play became my office. I would sit in my living room every day for hours, eating cheerios and paging through these choose-your-own-adventure stories, and listening to the accompanying cassettes. I loved all of the adventures but there was one that had me absolutely, positively enraptured.
The Haunted House Mystery. It was dark and dangerous! There were mazes filled with ghosts, and an overcast graveyard to pick through. But most memorably…a staircase that went down to the basement. I remember sitting there, frozen in fear and exhilaration, about to choose whether to descend into the darkness.
I was three!
I was terrified!
I was in heaven.
There have been so many amazing ghoulish stories that have shaped my tastes and my creativity – but I think The Haunted House Mystery was my very first glimpse of the wonderful world of scary.
Cohen: My mother immigrated to Canada from Germany and so the first bedtime stories she read to me were in German. They were not the sugar-coated fairytales we tell our children today, but rather the original dark, and at times quite macabre, stories meant to educate children of the consequences of bad choices and evil deeds. Beware of wolves that might eat you and cannibal witches that live in cookie houses. If you are lazy and vain horrible things might befall you. And of course, as all little mermaids know, there is not necessarily a happily-ever-after. I listened, equal parts enthralled, equal parts horrified, to these beloved tales told to me over and over and I enjoyed the thrill of the dark settings and creepy plots and characters all while feeling safe and snug in my bed. I’d move on to enjoy Nancy Drew mysteries that had dark undertones, like The Mystery at the Moss-covered Mansion and the Sign of the Twisted Candles, and later, Poe, Lovecraft, and eventually Stephen King and Anne Rice.
Malinenko: Well it looks like all our gateways were a little bit different but one thing is for sure – Horror got us YOUNG. Has that gateway, or any of your childhood fears, found its way into your writing?
Bradley: I (still) have a definite fear of the dark and enclosed spaces–those usually end up making their way into my books. Daybreak on Raven Island is partially set inside an abandoned prison, so I got to explore that fear. I think MG horror is a great way to take those very scary things and have kid characters find a solution within a fictional realm. Even if you get locked inside a dark room, there’s always a door out (or maybe a friend who will open that door for you). Now there’s some metaphors…
Lawrence: The reason Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was SO scary is because the stories were based on folktales. It’s easy to convince yourself that there is a truth to them. No monster or ghost is scarier than one that may ACTUALLY get you. I became pretty obsessed with folklore at a really young age, and even though I had a ton of nightmares from reading about the ghosts of my hometown, they absolutely made it into my writing. The Stitchers and The Collectors are based on on Connecticut folklore, specifically the Ladies in White and the Goodie Basset witch.
Petti: I think that there’s a particular mood–a wonderful, thrilling, mysterious atmosphere that I’m always chasing in my work. There’s the edge of real danger, but there’s also the warm glow of humor and play near at hand. My early childhood spooky obsessions all had this beautiful feeling and this particular balance. Capturing this kind of energy is always my goal in storytelling, and it’s absolutely the world that Thelma Bee lives in.
Malinenko: And what about you Marina? Did Nancy Drew’s mysteries find their way into your books?
Cohen: Settings are very important in any novel but in horror particularly so. Often, the setting takes on the role of a character—at times it represents the antagonist itself. I’ve set my novels in old, decrepit houses, dark lakes, deep forests and certainly one can find the influences of the old fairytales at work here. As well, the theme of choices and consequences weaves its way through many of my novels thanks to these old tales. I often include an element of mystery to my horror novels—which I can attribute to Nancy Drew. And of course, my works have been heavily influenced by Poe and Lovecraft whose stories often leave readers wondering as to what was real, what was imagined, and what might just lie beyond the human experience.
Malinenko: Fascinating! Looks like our childhoods never really get left behind, do they? At least not the fears! Nice to think the stories that stuck with you have found their way into your own stories that will do the same for a whole new generation of kids! Thanks for chatting with me, spooky friends!