Interview with Author Kaela Rivera

One of my favorite spooky reads of the year is CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS by Kaela Rivera. It blends Latinx mythology and folklore with a heartwarming story about a young girl who must risk everything to save her sister from the terrifying El Sombrerón.

Living in the remote town of Tierra del Sol is dangerous, especially in the criatura months, when powerful spirits roam the desert and threaten humankind. But Cecelia Rios has always believed there was more to the criaturas, much to her family’s disapproval. After all, only brujas—humans who capture and control criaturas—consort with the spirits, and brujeria is a terrible crime.
When her older sister, Juana, is kidnapped by El Sombrerón, a powerful dark criatura, Cece is determined to bring Juana back. To get into Devil’s Alley, though, she’ll have to become a bruja herself—while hiding her quest from her parents, her town, and the other brujas. Thankfully, the legendary criatura Coyote has a soft spot for humans and agrees to help her on her journey.
With him at her side, Cece sets out to reunite her family—and maybe even change what it means to be a bruja along the way.

Author Kaela Rivera was kind enough to answer some of my most burning questions about her fantastic book.

TANIA: Hi Kaela! One of the things I loved most about reading CECE was recognizing some spooky and familiar characters from Latinx folklore like El Cucuy and La Llororna! Could you talk a bit about the research and inspiration that went into your rich worldbuilding of Cece’s world? 

KAELA: Sure thing! For inspiration, I leaned heavily into the stories my abuelo told me about growing up in Mexico when he was a kid and preteen. For research, I used the Mexican Beastiary by David Bowles, researched heavily on the internet (which led to a lot of weird, obscure findings about geology and maps of quarries that are barely even talked about in the book), and some of my own ideas, of course, to put spins on traditional stories.

TANIA: A big theme in CECE is familia. Both the ties to the family you were born into as well as the family you create as you become more independent. In your book Cece decides to train to become a bruja so she can rescue her sister from El Sombrerón. This independence leads to some rifts between her relationship with her parents, as well as the discovery of a new family with the criaturas she befriends along the way. Were you a lot like Cece when you were her age and what does familia mean to you?

KAELA: Honestly, Cece is who I want to be when I grow up. As a kid, I definitely had big feelings like Cece and didn’t feel safe expressing them. I often doubted my value, just like she does, and felt unsafe. But Cece chooses to stay vulnerable and kind—while fighting for what’s right. She doesn’t sacrifice one for the other. That’s what I want to do, and who I feel I can be, but it’s a journey to get there I could gush about my little emotionally intelligent girl all day, haha, so I’ll wrap it up there!

Familia, to me, is the building block of life. It’s the first protective community you’re given, the first one you’re a part of, the first place where you’re meant to flourish and grow and develop. I believe whole-heartedly in that ideal. And that’s also why it’s so painful and frightening when a familia doesn’t live up to that ideal. People’s choices can turn the most precious, sacred, safe place in life into a frightening, unsafe place—which is so opposite to its proper nature.

In CECE, I wanted to explore and address how that can feel for children—getting a mixture of love and protection, as well as apathy or even hostility. Every familia, like every person, comes with good and bad. It’s about what you choose to grow and foster, and as Cece chooses her friends and to embrace her strengths and good qualities, so her familia will have to learn to choose where they stand as well. I’m excited about exploring that more in the sequel. More on that later!

TANIA: Your book is one of the spookiest books I’ve read this year, especially when Cece ventures into the world of brujas and criaturas! Why do you think it’s important that kids read about scary things?

KAELA: Haha thank you! I find scary kids’ books important because, honestly, kids go through scary things. I think scary stories can help address the fear kids carry around and don’t know what to do with. It shows them that everyone faces horrors. And perhaps most importantly to me, it shows them that, when they are afraid and surrounded by frightening things, action can be taken, dragons can be slayed, and hope still lives. Because of the sheer power of contrast, I think scary stories actually help emphasize joy, hope, courage, and goodness. And that’s an empowering thing, at the end of the day.

TANIA: In addition to folkloric scary things like brujas and criaturas, you also touch on some real-life fears surrounding alcoholism and abduction/non-consent. I thought you handled these very skillfully for a middle-grade audience. Can you speak a bit more on your experiences and challenges in writing for young readers in general? What led you to writing middle-grade as opposed to YA or adult?

KAELA: This is kind of a funny story, despite the heaviness of the topic. So originally, CECE was a YA novel! I hesitated when my publisher said they wanted to buy it—but as an MG book. At its core, CECE’s themes very much center on abuse as well as kindness (to speak to that necessity of contrast I mentioned earlier), and I didn’t want to lose that. But after a discussion with my editor, they were supportive of me retaining those themes while stepping back some of the more—ahem, gory—details. I’d always wanted to write MG, though, so I just got to do it sooner than I’d expected!

And honestly, I’m glad. I think that CECE addresses a lot of things I needed to hear when I was that age—about how life is frightening and painful, just as it is beautiful and hopeful. That’s probably my favorite thing about writing middle-grade generally, actually. For some reason, there’s more room to let those both live together in the same space—heartbreak and healing, joy and pain, magic and fear—in MG than in older audience spaces, or that’s been my experience. And I love the wholeness of that.

TANIA: If you could pick one criatura to be your own personal companion, who would you pick and why?

KAELA: I wish I could pick any of CECE’s main crew—Coyote, Little Lion, Kit Fox, and Ocelot—because I love them all in their many different ways! But if I have to pick, I’d probably want Coyote to be my companion. Is it because I have a big soft spot for him because it took so long to nail down his character, or because he’s powerful, or because he’s willing to fight his inner demons to have your back? Probably all of that and more.

TANIA: I’m so excited to hear there will be a sequel to CECE. What can you tell us about it now?

KAELA: Oooooh, me too! Thank you! Well, first off, it’ll be out Fall 2022. So soon! And all of this is technically subject to change, but just to whet your appetite a bit . . . . In CECE 2 (official title pending), I’ll be taking readers into Devil’s Alley for a heist, revealing more about Juana’s time there, and delving into the long-forgotten secrets of the curanderas with Cece! Plus, you may even get to meet Tía Catrina in person.

You might be able to tell that I’m just, you know, a tad excited for readers to see how much worldbuilding and adventure is coming next! Ahem. Just a little.

TANIA: Anything else you’d like to share with our spooky readers? Where can they connect with you online?

KAELA: Well, CECE will also have a third book (Fall 2023)! I’ve emphasized the sequel mainly, but I’m also excited for the third one to wrap up this main adventure in Cece’s world.

Besides that, you can get more updates on the sequel and third book if you subscribe to my newsletter (sign up on the home page of my website, kaelarivera.com)! I also run giveaways and offer free perks through my newsletter, so it’s not a bad place to hang out. Otherwise, you can find me on Instagram or Twitter!

TANIA: Thank you so much, Kaela! I hope all our Spooky Middle Grade readers check out your wonderful series!

Love Letters to Our Favorite Libraries

Like a lot of writers, I grew up in libraries.

The public library in my little Midwestern hometown was a cramped single-story brick building wedged between the police station and a busy downtown alley—but to me, it was a wonderland. I spent hours huddled in its narrow aisles, reading and scribbling away…and sometimes playing Oregon Trail on its single computer. I thought anything could be found in that tiny library. Any story. Any fact. Any truth.

The library in my new MG mystery/ghost story Long Lost is nothing like the one in my hometown. Instead of a squat office building, it’s a vast Victorian mansion, donated to the town by a long-dead local heiress. It was inspired in part by the old public library in Portage, Wisconsin, where the home of Pulitzer-winning author Zona Gale (1873 – 1938) was deeded to the city to serve as its library after her death. I never got to visit that spot myself—the Portage Public Library moved to a much larger/less unique location in 1995—but a few years ago, I heard it described by a local librarian who grew up in the area, and that idea wove itself into a story I was already constructing. Librarians: Giving us the info we need when we don’t even know we need it!

The Zona Gale House/Portage Free Library

Whether it’s housed in a strip mall or a mansion, pretty much every writer I know has a library (or two or three) that is extra special to them—a library that helped shape them, or that inspires them, or that gives them shelter and community and all the amazing free reading material any bookworm could ask for.

So here are a few of Spooky MG’s love notes to our libraries.   

Janet Fox (ARTIFACT HUNTERS, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE)

I grew up in a small midwestern town with a wonderful library. My grandmother would come to visit once or twice a year. She was totally deaf from the age of twelve, and a voracious reader – she especially loved mysteries, but romances, dramas, historical novels – she read anything and everything. And she read fast. My mom would have to go back to the library for a new selection every couple of days when Grandma visited, and she had to be careful not to check out the books Grandma already had read, so Mom developed a strategy: she put a tiny set of initials, “KES”, in pencil, on the back inside end paper, up in the corner, in books Grandma read. I wonder whether there are still any old KES books in that library today.
-Janet Fox

Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)

Libraries saved my life—or at least expanded my world in ways that would never have been possible otherwise. As a child I was enthralled with reading and stories, but I lived in a small rural community without even a school library. I first envisioned heaven when I was in fourth grade and we moved to a town with a public library. I couldn’t believe the abundance of books—all free for the taking. That began my library love and support. The love would continue through my life as I pursued a graduate degree in Library Science and went on to work in both public and school libraries. I took great pleasure in sharing books and information with students, helping them to love the wonder awaiting them within a library.

Cynthia at story time, with a bunch of new library-lovers

David Neilsen (DR. FELL AND THE PLAYGROUND OF DOOM, BEYOND THE DOORS)

My local library, Warner Library, serves two villages: Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. Therefore, Halloween is our big holiday. For a few years, we created an indoor 18-hole mini golf course. It was a one-day affair, all the holes were created by volunteers, and it raised a ton of money for the library.

Our library is more than a library, it is a focal point of the community. Events like this, as well as a murder mystery I put together, help give it a life outside of the normal uses. But it is central to our community. I recall during Hurricane Sandy when everybody lost power. The library had power, and people came from all over to plug in and charge their phones or computers. You’d walk into the reading room and there were people on the floor. It really served as a lifeline during that time.

Halloween Mini Golf

Kim Ventrella (BONE HOLLOW, SKELETON TREE, THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM)

Before becoming a full-time author, I worked in public libraries for ten years. For people who haven’t visited their local library in a while, it’s easy to forget what a vital role libraries play in community life. Libraries provide computer access, training and a world of information to customers who otherwise can’t afford it. They offer rich literacy and STEAM-focused programs for children, in a time when the arts are being cut from school budgets. Libraries host job fairs and free health screenings. They provide a meeting space for community groups. Many find unique ways to support local artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Plus, customers frequently get the chance to see librarians in costume.

Can you find Kim? Hint: She’s playing Lord Licorice…

Lisa Schmid (OLLIE OXLEY AND THE GHOST)

Growing up, I moved around quite a bit, so I was always the new kid in town. As a result, I didn’t have a lot of friends. But I could always count on a library as a safe harbor. So when I started getting tagged in posts from friends who had spotted OLLIE OXLEY AND THE GHOST at my local library, I was positively giddy. It didn’t take long before I jumped in my car and raced to Folsom Library to take this picture. Pure joy! 

Creating Spooky (and Not-so-spooky) Settings

In spooky stories, setting certainly cannot be generic. It’s the place that often makes the story spooky. A haunted house. A dark forest. A dank basement. A graveyard. Of course, “normal,” everyday places can be spooky as well—depending on what’s happening and how well you use the setting. But, if you can’t convey the spookiness (or any other aspect), then even inherently scary places will come off generic, too. So I wanted to share a few tips of conveying and using the setting in your stories.

Spooky settings cannot be generic!

Setting Tips:

  • Know your world. Build a complete one in your head. Know what things look like, where they are, what they sound like, what they smell like, etc. Otherwise, you can’t portray setting convincingly on paper.
  • Only share a bits and pieces of the world, though. Think of the world/setting of your story as an iceberg. You need to know the whole thing, but you’re only going to show the reader the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
  • Show the setting through your POV character’s eyes. Imagine you’ve put VR goggles on your POV character. What does he or she notice? (BTW, I think the real trick in writing well is striving to keep your reader connected to the story and the world through your POV character’s eyes. Little things like POV slips or lack of setting, for instance, distance the reader from the story.)
  • Select really concrete details to help your reader visualize the setting. Don’t just say the door opened. The oaken slab creaked open.
  • Don’t drop big blocks of exposition to explain setting (or the world). You can’t totally avoid exposition, but huge blocks of it will knock your reader right out of those VR goggles.
  • Do sprinkle clues about the setting and world throughout the action and dialogue. (Not in the dialogue, though. Interweave very brief setting descriptions or directions between what characters say.)
  • Establish the setting every time you open or close a scene—and whenever you change location within a scene. You don’t need to spell out where the characters are in the first sentence but do give the reader some hints within the first few sentences.
  • Don’t forget all the senses. But don’t overdo it—or under do it. Think about what the POV character would notice.
  • Use setting to reflect the mood of the character. If the POV character is scared, for instance, this is going to color how she sees the world around her. Plus you can convey that fear (or joy or sadness) through how you describe the setting.
  • Use setting to show the passage of time.
  • Use setting to foreshadow events.
  • Use setting to ….

I could go on about setting, but you get the idea.  If you want to know more about uses of setting, look into Eudora Welty’s “Place in Fiction.” She felt setting was an underappreciated tool in our writer’s toolkit.

BTW, I did a session on creating a sense of place in fiction at the Roanoke Regional Writers’ Conference this year. I talked about setting and about to imbue it with a particular sense of place. See the first entry under Fiction on my For Writers’ page.

Happy reading–and spooky writing!

Angie

“An intriguing blend of history and magic” – Kirkus
angiesmibert.com
@amsmibert

Spooky Collaborative Stories in the Classroom

Mystery at the Mansion. The Serial House. Circus Gone Wrong. The Photo. Sewer Circus. Did we Spookies write these fine scary tales? No! A class of Junior Spookies (Spooky Irregulars, maybe?) at Northside Middle School did. Mrs. Forney’s class of amazing 7th graders even published them in an anthology called, aptly enough, A Collection of Short Stories from an Amazing Group of Seventh Graders. I had the distinct honor to hear them read their collaborative stories on Feb 15th in the NMS library.

Mrs. Forney’s class of amazing 7th graders (and me) posing with their amazing anthology.

Work on their stories, though, started about a month before that. Librarian Lauren Sprouse contacted Spooky MG to set up a free 30-minute Skype Q&A session for Mrs. Forney’s English class. She let the students listen to the collaborative story we did for the Reading to Your Kids podcast. This inspired the class to write their own collaborative stories! When they Skyped with us in January, the students were armed with questions not only for us about our own books and writing but also about the whole collaborative story writing process. The class left the Skype session pumped to work on their own group stories. Since I live in the same city, I happily agreed to go hear the tales once they were done!

How did they do it? First, Mrs. Forney took notes on our answers to the students’ questions and gave each a copy to help them write their stories. She adapted how we wrote our collaborative story to suit her class. We had worked from a writing prompt given to us by the podcast host, and then each of us wrote a segment of the story without really planning what came next. Luckily, it worked out pretty well. Mrs. Forney provided each of her groups with a prompt.  However, she let each group brainstorm, write, and revise its story together. She’s extremely proud of both their stories and how hard they worked! And I was impressed with the stories, too!

On the morning of February 15th, after all the groups read their awesome stories, I turned the tables on them—and asked them questions about their process. They shared that the hardest parts were coming up with the ideas and then editing/revising the stories. Some groups eagerly talked about how they came up with great names for the characters, often based on people they knew or even family members. We talked a bit more about writing in general–until it was time for photos. (See above!)

You can do this, too!Are you a librarian or teacher who’d like to do something similar with your class? Here’s a super quick lesson plan/checklist for teaching Spooky collaborative stories in your classroom:

  • Schedule a free 30-minute Skype Q&A with us!
  • Listen to our collaborative story podcast.
  • Have students prep questions for Skype Q&A.
  • Grill us with questions!
  • Break students into groups of 3-5 students.
  • Assign each group a writing prompt.
  • Set aside class or library time for each group to brainstorm ideas, write drafts, revise, and practice reading. (NMS students took about a month to do this, along with other class work.)
  • Publish stories in a booklet, complete with student signatures and a cool cover!

Try this variation: Instead collaborating, your students could write their individual own spooky stories based on a theme or prompt.

If your school is in the Roanoke, Virginia area, I’m happy to listen to more stories! I won’t speak for the other Spookies, but you might be able to persuade one that lives near your school to make a visit. OR you could schedule a follow-up Skype for us to listen to stories!

Of course, you don’t have to write collaborative stories to Skype with us!

Spooky Stories All Year Round

There are many different types of spooky stories. Some feature humor, adventure and straight-up chills, while others explore sensitive topics and tug at readers’ emotions. No  matter what type of story you love, spooky books have a place in the classroom, library and beyond all year round, not just at Halloween. To delve deeper into this topic I spoke to some of today’s foremost authors of middle grade spooky stories.

Jan Eldredge

Why do you write spooky stories?
I guess I write spooky stories for the same reason I love to read them. They allow us an escape to dangerous, exciting worlds, worlds that we get to explore from the comfort of our safe, everyday lives.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Spooky stories are chock full of benefits, particularly for young readers! Reading about young protagonists defeating evil can be very empowering for children. Spooky stories can also provide safe ways for kids to explore fear and experience a sense of danger, sort of like trying on a costume to see what it feels like to be someone else for a while. Spooky stories are great reminders that our boring lives aren’t quite so bad after all.

S.A. Larsen

Why do you write spooky stories?
For me, spooky stories are like passageways into the unknown and the misunderstood, mysteries that keep me on the edge of my seat. I’ve always been curious about the great beyond and the aspects of life we can’t see – like what really goes on inside a cemetery when none of the living are watching. Writing spooky tales with otherworldly or ghostly elements gives me the freedom to explore life themes such as the importance of family, self-esteem and confidence, and friendship in new and unexpected ways for young readers.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Tales with spooky and eerie elements explore the same important life struggles, hopes, dreams, and challenges that contemporary stories do. They also help kids see that fear is a part of life – fear of change, fear of a new school, fear of taking a test – and helps them see and workout solutions to overcoming fear. These are universal emotions and challenges that can be discussed throughout the year. The possibilities are endless!

Janet Fox

Why do you write spooky stories?
Really, the spooky part of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE was accidental! My original idea was more mystery/fantasy, but as I wrote the antagonist she became darker and darker and more nuanced for it. And the darkness of the antagonist reflected something in my own mood, something I needed to sort through. But my son said something recently that was inspired in this regard. He said that he loves dark, spooky stories because that one tiny glimmer of hope within the darkness – even if it’s just a candle – can feel like a brilliant light. And I thought, yes. That’s what I like, too. Magnifying the light in the darkness or the happiness within the spookiness. That’s the secret.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
I would say that’s why spooky stories are always in season – they offer that recognition that hope flickers brilliantly in the dark.

Samantha M. Clark

Why do you write spooky stories?
I get scared easily when I’m reading spooky stories, but I still love them. Spooky stories get my blood pumping, and I need to know if everything’s going to end safely. When it does, it helps me know that when I’m scared in real life, everything can be okay. So when there’s an opportunity to put some spookiness into my own stories, I jump at the chance. Getting scared can be fun, especially when we know we can always close the book if we need a break.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Halloween is, of course, when we celebrate spooky stories the most, but reading spooky stories is fun and good for us at any time. They remind us that it’s okay to be scared, and show us that we can be brave just like the characters in the stories. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'” And with spooky stories, we can build courage and confidence safely while facing our fears within the pages of the books and with the characters as our guides and companions. Spooky stories help us grow, and that’s a good thing every day.

Jonathan Rosen

Why do you write spooky stories?
I’ve always loved spooky stories. Much more so than horror. I like the creepiness factor of the unknown. What’s there lurking in the shadows? The mystery, to me, is much scarier and interesting, than having the monster actually appear on the stage. Why is the ghost there? What’s the story behind it? How was that monster created? I loved these stories as a kid, and always felt fascinated by them. I like to write to my younger self and kids who were like me.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
There is no bad time to read scary stories. Yeah, they’re much better to read at Halloween time, but the kids who love them, don’t want to be relegated to one season a year for books. Kids like to be scared, to a degree, but then they know they can put the books away. They’re safe again. I also read a long time ago, and it’s true, spooky stories give kids the consequences of not following rules. Your Mogwai will turn to a Gremlin if you don’t follow them. Your vampire neighbor can get in your house, if you don’t follow the rule about not inviting him in. Spooky stories also open the mind to think of different possibilities. I know when I read them, I always went searching for more. More stories about the subject. I wanted to read about haunted places. The times when the ghosts came from. I think reading leads to more reading.

Kim Ventrella

Why do you write spooky stories?
I have always been interested in the intersection of darkness and whimsy. I love the space where macabre tales meet deeply-felt emotions and discoveries. Adding a spooky element allows me to explore difficult real-life topics in a way that I find more palatable and easier to understand.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Spooky stories aren’t just about Halloween. They’re about exploring the mysterious all around us, searching for new possibilities, confronting our deepest fears and stepping out into the darkness to find that courage and resilience that resides within us all.