When I was a school librarian, I liked to explore fantasy worlds with students. I’d read books to them and book talk new selections. As an author myself, I’ve always liked to create excitement in students—not only with reading but also in creating their own characters and stories.
Many students though found the writing process daunting. One way I would ease their way into crafting a fantasy story was by taking them through the simplified steps of drawing a dragon. The students then could each write their own dragon story or poem. There’s something about being physically attached to a creature that makes it easier to create a story about it.
At this time of year, (or all year long according to us spooky authors) it’s fun to not only write spooky stories but craft spooky art as well.
Here are crocheted dragons by Samantha Clark, celebrating the release of her two GEMSTONE DRAGONS chapter books which premiered in August.
In tribute to my main character, FRANKENSTEIN FRIGHTFACE GORDON in FROM THE GRAVE, I personalized a small candy jar with Frank’s face. The jar is perfect for holding a Gory Grape Eyeball—or candy of your choice. It’s a super simple project. I drew Frank’s face on a piece of paper that fit inside the jar—then I traced the drawing on the outside. I used black, white, and blue Sharpie pens to draw and color in Frank’s face on the outside of the jar.
Now it’s your turn! Choose one of your favorite fantasy characters and bring them to life in whatever medium you chose!
If you need inspiration, I’ve included a spooky example below. Have fun!
RETURN OF THE MUMMY
Here are directions for creating a mummy rising from its coffin!
I used the book, SPOOKY THINGS: Making Pictures by Penny King and Claire Roundhill, to provide an idea. But I improvised with many of the components, and that’s what makes each art project so unique—just like each spooky story.
Find a sturdy background for your artwork—I used an old manilla folder but a piece of cardboard or poster board would work too. I cut a sponge into a rectangular brick then dipped it in alternating paints to make the crypt-like stonework behind the mummy’s coffin.
For the tomb’s floor, I used some chocolate sprinkles. The book suggested brown rice but I didn’t have any on hand. Smear a layer of glue below the sponged wall and press the sprinkles/rice into the glue.
At this point, I helped my artwork dry more quickly by blowing hot air on it with a blow dryer set on low.
Next, I cut out my head, hand, and leg pieces from a discarded cereal box in my recycle bin. I tore thin strips of toilet paper and wrapped them around each piece. On the back of each piece, I used wrapping tape to hold the TP in place.
I glued two googly eyes on the head and drew the mouth with a Sharpie. You could draw the eyes as well or cut out eyes from construction paper or other recycled paper.
The directions called for a discarded tube—like paper towel or toilet paper—cut in half, length-wise. But I didn’t have any empty tubes, so I improvised by shaping some recycled box paper into an open box. I used masking tape (applied horizontally) to hold the coffin together. The tape also provided some dimension and the appearance of planks—like a real coffin. All I had to do then was color over the masking tape with brown acrylic paint.
At this point, you can tape/glue your head, hand, and leg into place on the coffin. If you are gluing the pieces, make sure they are totally dry before proceeding with the next step.
I doubled-up a strip of wrapping tape (or you could use double-sided tape) to hold the coffin in place on my backdrop. Then I stapled it at both ends to keep secure. You could glue the coffin at this point, rather than taping and stapling. If you do, it will have to remain flat and dry completely before you can display it upright.
I stamped the background with a few bats and jack-o-lanterns. Some Halloween cobwebs would look quite lovely too. Or you could cut out spiders, bugs, or other creepy crawly things to add to the delightfully frightful scene.
I’m sure Oliver, the mummy character in my books, would be impressed with this picture. Why, I think I hear him whispering a new story into my head right now. I bet, if you listen closely, your monster creature will want to tell its story too—and you’re just the person to write it all down!
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?
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.
Here at Spooky Middle Grade, we’re always saying that spooky books aren’t just for Halloween—they’re good all year round. And to prove it, here’s a list of some spooky books coming out this spring and summer that we can’t wait to read:
THE BEAST AND THE BETHANY BOOK 2: REVENGE OF THE BEAST written by Jack Meggit-Phillips and illustrated by Isabelle Follath In this second book in the series that’s described as Lemony Snicket meets Roald Dahl, prankster Bethany tries to turn over a new leaf, but gets thwarted in the funniest and most spooky ways at every turn. Out MARCH 22 from Aladdin
STORM written by Nicola Skinner Doll Bones meets Lemony Snicket in this middle-grade adventure about a girl who, after she dies in a freak natural disaster that wipes out her whole town, must navigate her temper even when she’s a ghost. Out MARCH 29 from HarperCollins
WITCHLINGSwritten by Claribel A. Ortega This new book from the New York Times best-selling author features 12-year-old Seven Salazar, who, after being put in a coven for witches with little power, must fulfill an impossible task to gain her full power and become the witch she always knew she could be… or be turned into a toad, forever. Out APRIL 5 from Scholastic
FREDDIE VS. THE FAMILY CURSE written by Tracy Badua In this fun and spooky middle-grade adventure, Filipino-American Freddie Ruiz finds a family heirloom that he thinks will break his family’s curse, until he discovers that his cranky great-granduncle Ramon is trapped in the heirloom and the evil spirits responsible for his death have returned with a vengeance. Now Freddie and his cousin Sharkey have 13 days to break the curse, or join Ramon in an untimely afterlife. Out MAY 3 from Clarion Books
WILDSEED WITCH written by Marti Dumas This MG contemporary fantasy tells the story of how social-media-loving tween Hasani’s summer plans of building a makeup YouTube channel are drastically changed when she’s sent to Les Belles Demoiselles, a literal charm school that teaches generations of old-money witch families to harness their magic. Out MAY 10 from Amulet Books
LET THE MONSTER OUT written by Chad Lucas A mix of Stranger Things and The Parker Inheritance, this story is about Bones Malone, who feels like an outsider as one of the only Black kids in his new small town. But when things in his town start getting weird, Bones and his friend Kyle Specks find a mysterious scientist’s journal and have to push through their fear to find some answers. Out MAY 17 from Amulet Books
THE CLACKITY written by Lora Senf This eerie spooky MG is reminiscent of Doll Bones and about a girl who must enter a world of ghosts, witches and monsters to play a deadly game if she’s going to rescue her aunt. Out JUNE 28 from Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Plus these spooky MG books are coming out on paperback:
ROOT MAGIC written by Eden Royce Out APRIL 5 from Walden Pond Press
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Mystery at the Mansion. The Serial House. Circus Gone Wrong. The Photo. Sewer Circus. Did we Spookies write these fine scary tales? No! A class of Junior Spookies (Spooky Irregulars, maybe?) at Northside Middle School did. Mrs. Forney’s class of amazing 7th graders even published them in an anthology called, aptly enough, A Collection of Short Stories from an Amazing Group of Seventh Graders. I had the distinct honor to hear them read their collaborative stories on Feb 15th in the NMS library.
Work on their stories, though, started about a month before that. Librarian Lauren Sprouse contacted Spooky MG to set up a free 30-minute Skype Q&A session for Mrs. Forney’s English class. She let the students listen to the collaborative story we did for the Reading to Your Kids podcast. This inspired the class to write their own collaborative stories! When they Skyped with us in January, the students were armed with questions not only for us about our own books and writing but also about the whole collaborative story writing process. The class left the Skype session pumped to work on their own group stories. Since I live in the same city, I happily agreed to go hear the tales once they were done!
How did they do it? First, Mrs. Forney took notes on our answers to the students’ questions and gave each a copy to help them write their stories. She adapted how we wrote our collaborative story to suit her class. We had worked from a writing prompt given to us by the podcast host, and then each of us wrote a segment of the story without really planning what came next. Luckily, it worked out pretty well. Mrs. Forney provided each of her groups with a prompt. However, she let each group brainstorm, write, and revise its story together. She’s extremely proud of both their stories and how hard they worked! And I was impressed with the stories, too!
On the morning of February 15th, after all the groups read their awesome stories, I turned the tables on them—and asked them questions about their process. They shared that the hardest parts were coming up with the ideas and then editing/revising the stories. Some groups eagerly talked about how they came up with great names for the characters, often based on people they knew or even family members. We talked a bit more about writing in general–until it was time for photos. (See above!)
You can do this, too!Are you a librarian or teacher who’d like to do something similar with your class? Here’s a super quick lesson plan/checklist for teaching Spooky collaborative stories in your classroom:
Set aside class or library time for each group to brainstorm ideas, write drafts, revise, and practice reading. (NMS students took about a month to do this, along with other class work.)
Publish stories in a booklet, complete with student signatures and a cool cover!
Try this variation: Instead collaborating, your students could write their individual own spooky stories based on a theme or prompt.
If your school is in the Roanoke, Virginia area, I’m happy to listen to more stories! I won’t speak for the other Spookies, but you might be able to persuade one that lives near your school to make a visit. OR you could schedule a follow-up Skype for us to listen to stories!
Of course, you don’t have to write collaborative stories to Skype with us!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.