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?
One of my personal favorite spooky activities is to consult an oracle deck, especially when I’m feeling indecisive or confused about a situation.
I decided to create a deck of oracle cards based on books by our Spooky MG authors that you can use for guidance! (For entertainment purposes only).
Simply print the sheets out (preferably on a thicker card stock) and cut along the lines to create your very own deck of 25 spooky cards!
For best results, consult the cards in a quiet space where you will not be disturbed. If you’d like, light a candle or incense to add some atmosphere! Take several deep breaths and try to clear your mind of any thoughts. When you feel ready, gently shuffle the cards as you ponder a question you might have. Even if you don’t have a specific question the cards will give you a topic to reflect upon.
Draw a card and consult this guide for its meaning:
RESILIENCE: You may feel stuck but this is the time to push forward! Trust your inner spirit and know that you can face anything life throws at you.
LOGIC: Sometimes our imaginations can get carried away. Try to bring yourself back to the facts and look at things objectively. Ask for a second opinion or clarification if needed.
SECRETS: What secrets are you keeping close to your chest? Would it feel better to share them with a trusted person? Why do you keep your secrets? Is it from loyalty or fear?
POWER: Recognize your own power. Take up space. Let yourself be heard! This card may also appear when you are feeling oppressed by something or someone. Acknowledge your strengths!
DOORWAYS: Opportunities could be heading your way. Keep your eyes open for new challenges that could lead to good rewards. Don’t be afraid to try new things!
GIFTS: Everyone has inner gifts. What are yours? See this card as an opportunity to express gratitude for the gifts in your life.
DECISIONS: This card will often appear when you are at a crossroads or need to make an important choice. Sometimes it can be paralyzing, but trust your intuition!
ILLUSIONS: Be wary of people and situations who might be trying to deceive you. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut. Things aren’t always as they seem.
MISCHIEF: This card is about bending the rules. It invites you to “play hooky” from your responsibilities and do something fun for yourself. It could also mean that someone is trying to push your buttons deliberately, so watch out!
ADVENTURE: When this card comes up, there’s a good chance you’ll have an opportunity to travel or try something new and exciting. Or, if things have been too routine, this card can nudge you to break out of your comfort zone and be more spontaneous!
CURIOSITY: It’s healthy to be curious and ask questions. Don’t always accept things at face value. This card encourages you to explore and dive deeper into the situation at hand.
MYSTERY: This card can show up when you feel lost or confused. But, like any good mystery, there will be clues you can follow. This can be a reminder to be more observant and to listen more intently.
CHALLENGES: You might see this card when you are going through a difficult time. This card encourages you to learn from the obstacles in our path. What can we gain from our conflicts?
FAMILY: This card reminds you to connect with the people closest to you. It may show up when you’ve been too busy to focus on family, and is a gentle reminder to reassess your priorites.
HUMOR: Try to think of the last time you laughed so hard you cried. If it’s been too long to recall, this card is a reminder to invite more laughter and joy into your life. Watch a funny show or allow yourself to act silly!
HISTORY: Sometimes the past comes back to teach us. Sometimes we still need to heal from old memories or experiences. This card encourages you to face your past to give you the tools you need to move forward.
FEAR: What are you most afraid of? How is this holding you back from things you want to achieve? Sometimes fear can be healthy. It can keep us safe. But sometimes it can prevent us from taking necessary risks.
COMPETITION: If this card shows up, you may be trying to prove something. Or jealously could be involved. Competition can be a good thing – it can give us drive and inspire others. But try not to get too wrapped up in always being number one.
ANXIETY: In these times, it’s normal to feel anxious. But this card invites you to take a closer look at the things that are giving you stress. Sometimes we just need to talk to someone to make it better. It’s ok to ask for help.
COURAGE: This card reminds you of how brave you can be. Courage doesn’t mean being unafraid. It means pushing forward despite your fears. Courage also has many forms. For some people, it can be as simple as speaking up.
CONTROL: When this card shows up, you may be feeling a loss of control in your life. Sometimes it’s ok to let go and not manage every detail. It’s also ok to set boundaries with other people who are trying to control you.
GRIEF: Sadness and loss are a part of life. This card can show up when you are mourning something, whether it be a person, a pet, or even a lost opportunity. It’s ok to take the time you need to process your grief and heal from it.
FRIENDSHIP: This card reminds us to lean on our friends and to trust others to help you. Sometimes it shows up when you’re feeling lonely, and it’s a reminder to reach out to those who care. It’s also a nudge to stop being reclusive and to get out more!
RESPONSIBILITY: This card can show up when you feel overburdened or stressed. How can you delegate tasks or ask for help and support? This card may be a reminder to be more organized or take time for self-care.
MAGIC: This card can indicate that a surprise is on its way. It’s about the unexpected, the serendipitous, and the strange! Life is full of twists and turns. Embrace it!
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!
When writing a story—whether it’s spooky or not—an author needs to include the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). I love to do a presentation with students to help them incorporate these senses into their stories and better bring their scenes to life.
One of my favorite senses to highlight is TASTE. While it’s not always as easy as some of the others to readily include, the sense of taste can immediately transport a reader into a story.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. I’m sure at least one of these examples caused your mouth to water a bit. For certain, you could quickly identify the difference between the sweet chocolate and the hot, tangy salsa.
Food creates the opportunity to include the senses of SIGHT, SMELL, and TOUCH as well. That bag of fluffy, glistening, buttered popcorn in your hands is warm and a bit lumpy. The fragrant steam rising to your nose is totally tempting. When you include food in your story, you have a great opportunity to pull a reader in with numerous sensations.
Okay, enough writing tips for today. Now for the important part—some actual spooky food treats! No—not any of the over-the-top gross food I had such a fun time inventing for my monster stories. The recipes below may look a little ghastly, but they will be amazing taste delights.
½ Cup of creamy or crunchy peanut butter
2 Tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Stir these ingredients together. You may need to microwave the mixture for 10-15 seconds to blend smoothly.
½ Cup of old fashioned oats
½ Cup of crispy rice cereal
2 Tablespoons of cocoa powder
2 Tablespoons of mini chocolate chips
Add these four ingredients and stir lightly until combined.
Broken blue corn tortilla chips (for bat wings)
Tube of white icing gel and extra mini chocolate chips (for eyes; or candy eyes)
When forming the mixture into balls, carefully add a wing on each side. For the eyes, I squeezed out two drops of icing and put a chocolate chip on top. Or you could use this same method and place a candy eye on the icing drops.
This recipe makes about 10-12 bats. They won’t hang around long though. They are too yummy!
Carrot sticks (I used a small bag of baby carrots.)
Guacamole dip (I used a prepared dip, but you could make your own as well.)
Top each carrot with a dollop of cream cheese. Attach almond (aka: fingernail). Stick in a bowl of guacamole dip.
Our stuffed animals stare at us with their button eyes while we sleep, and we can’t be completely sure they stay where we put them. Dolls? Equally freaky, if not more so. Puppets? Stop. (There is a reason the villains in my first book were evil puppets.)
So it seemed only fair that when the kids in Twist, my book that comes out this month, had a bunch of monsters to defeat, they’d use toys to do it. It’s about time toys pulled their weight.It was a lot of fun, actually. Toys lend themselves well to weaponization. What parent hasn’t stepped on a Lego during a midnight bathroom trip and been convinced they were going to lose their foot? And there’s no alarm system as freaky as a Speak and Spell that accuses you suddenly out of the darkness. We all understand why Kevin McCallister used paint cans as booby traps in Home Alone…they’re heavy. But toys…toys are diabolical. They bring a level of psychological warfare to the table that’s hard to beat.
I mention this because while I love inventing creatures both friendly and foul, my favorite trick is presenting the commonplace, slightly askew. Familiar objects can send chills down your reader’s spine in the right context. That’s why the little wind-up primate with his clashing cymbals is so horrifying in Stephen King’s short story, “The Monkey.” It’s why a trail of Reese’s Pieces can lead to almost-unbearable levels of tension. And it’s why the juxtaposition of a Dungeons and Dragons miniature with a real-life danger doesn’t minimize the threat for the viewer, but gives them a focal point that makes them even more nervous.
Familiar objects like toys are wonderful elements in a scary story, specifically because they’re so benign…until they aren’t. Once you’ve noticed how not-quite-right they are, you can’t unsee it. I know, this is a terrible thing I’m doing to you right now, but I am, after all, a spooky author. It’s literally my job. Of course, turnabout is fair play. So…
The next time you pick up your pencil (or ask your students to pick up theirs) why not pose the challenge of making a beloved childhood toy scary? If that doesn’t float your boat, if you really truly won’t be happy unless you can create a monstrous threat, see if your characters can solve that larger-than-life problem with household objects so basic, they’d normally overlook them completely. Especially if they’re toys! I guarantee good, spooky fun…besides, you’re already halfway there! Admit it: the Elf on a Shelf freaks you out.
A little over a year ago, a bunch of us spooky authors came together to stage a Halloween giveaway. The contest proved to be so successful for us, that we decided to stay together on a regular basis. Now, when you have what is essentially a group of strangers come together, you really don’t know what you’re going to get.
Well, I’m going to tell you.
Over this past year, this group has become very close. We’ve become writing confidantes, an emotional support system, and most importantly, friends. For anyone who writes, you know how important it is to have someone who can do any of those things for you, and fortunately, we all now have sixteen other people who fit that description.
I’m writing this because at the end of the year, you take stock of everything. So, this is me taking stock.
First, I want to thank everyone in the Spooky Middle Grade Group for being friends and always being there to discuss writing. Talk fears and triumphs, giving support and giving advice. Commiserating and celebrating. All of you are always there, and thank you.
Thank you to the teachers, librarians, and students, who have been a huge part of our year. We’ve loved doing these group Skype sessions with all of you. We’ve appreciated your kindness, hospitality, and support. Because of all of your enthusiasm, this group has been very busy, and for that, we thank you.
But most importantly, thank you to all our readers. We love getting on these calls and have students ask us about our process, and even better when they ask specific things about our books, and tell us how much they’ve enjoyed them. It is not a lie or overstating truth to say how much it thrills us to see how we connect with readers.
To everyone, we wish all of you a very happy holiday season, a happy new year, and look forward to visiting, and chatting with all of your classes in 2020!
Jonathan Rosen and your Spooky Middle Grade team:
Josh Allen, Sarah Cannon, Samantha Clark, Lindsay Currie, Tania Del Rio, Janet Fox, Sheri Larsen, David Neilsen, Victoria Piontek, Cynthia Reeg, Lisa Schmid, Kat Shepherd, Angie Smibert, Kim Ventrella, Jacqueline West
Happy November, spookies! This is the best time of year for curling up with a spooky read. One of my absolute favorite books this Halloween season was SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES by Christian McKay Heidicker. Not only does it feature my favorite animal, but it’s filled with a bunch of haunting and beautiful illustrations by Junyi Wu.
Here’s a little description to entice you:
The haunted season has arrived in the Antler Wood. No fox kit is safe.
When Mia and Uly are separated from their litters, they discover a dangerous world full of monsters. In order to find a den to call home, they must venture through field and forest, facing unspeakable things that dwell in the darkness: a zombie who hungers for their flesh, a witch who tries to steal their skins, a ghost who hunts them through the snow . . . and other things too scary to mention.
Christian was kind enough to take time from his busy touring schedule to talk to me about his terrifying book!
TANIA: SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES is the most original book I’ve read in some time! What was your inspiration for this story, and why did you choose foxes, in particular, to tell your tale?
CHRISTIAN: Well, thank you!
I was inspired by the Berenstain Bears—specifically The Spooky Old Tree and Bears in the Night. When I originally wrote these stories, the foxes wore little vests and deerskin boots and they walked down to the market to buy a goose from the badger grocer. But when my agent politely informed me that that anthropomorphism doesn’t sell, I started making the stories as scientifically accurate as I could.
As far as why they’re foxes . . . I have no idea! They just came to me, as lovely as flames in my imagination. Whenever students ask me Why Foxes during school visits, I tell them that I woke one night with teeth piercing my throat and found a fox pinning me to the bed with her jaws. Another fox stepped into the moonlight on my pillow and told me I needed to write this book or else . . .
TANIA: The foxes in your book face danger that is real and yet appears supernatural through the lens of the protagonists. It reminded me of the power of children’s imaginations when interpreting things they can’t quite grasp. Was it challenging to write through the eyes of a young fox or to balance the realistic with the anthropomorphic?
CHRISTIAN: It was challenging! The parallels between classic horror tales and the lives of foxes came easily, but selling that through the perspective of the kits was tough (especially the Golgathursh). Anytime I grew overwhelmed, I’d just take a step back and reestablish the boundary of the stories: Does it parallel a classic horror tale?/Could it happen to foxes? From there, I just had to figure out which details to include.
TANIA: I was admittedly surprised by how dark this book was at times, especially regarding death. And yet, it also felt appropriate, given that the natural world can be an unforgiving place. The foxes’ behavior and environment felt very true-to-life and there was even a surprising appearance by Beatrix Potter which has made me see her in a whole new light! Did you do a lot of research into her character or animal behavior for this book?
CHRISTIAN: I was surprised by the darkness too! And yes, I did a ton of research.
The more I learned about foxes and classic horror tropes, the more the events started to choose themselves. I worried about how scary it was getting at first, but then I watched Planet Earth with my soon-to-be-stepdaughters and noticed that they didn’t cry when innocent animals were eaten. They were upset, but they seemed to understand that this was a part of the natural process. From that point forward, I started to think of the book as National Geographic Horror. So long as I added a bit of coziness for every flash of teeth, I knew the stories would remain palatable.
The fact that Beatrix Potter taxidermied many of her subjects before she sketched them is true, by the way. I’m sorry I have to be the one to break it to everyone. (Okay, not that sorry 🙂 )
TANIA: In the book there is an explanation for why scary stories are important for young foxes. Why do you think scary stories are so important for young readers?
CHRISTIAN: I could try to do this justice. But I’ll just quote Neil Gaiman instead:
“. . . if you are keeping people, young people, safe from the darkness . . . you are denying them tools or weapons that they might have needed and could have had.”
I think that about sums up my feelings.
TANIA: What are some of your favorite spine-tingling reads?
CHRISTIAN: Speaking of Neil Gaiman, I *adore* The Graveyard Book and Coraline. I also really love the Turn of the Screw, the Berenstain Bears (as mentioned), and Ghostopolis. I don’t see that last one getting enough cred.
Obviously, I love a lot of horror novels by adults too, but I try not to recommend those to young readers.
TANIA: What are you working on next? Anything else you’d like to share with our Spooky MG readers?
CHRISTIAN: You might be happy to hear that I’m working on a sequel to Foxes. It takes place many decades later in the city that has replaced the Antler Wood. It will involve Mia’s and Uly’s and Mr. Scratch’s descendants, and it will retell modern horror tales instead of classic ones. If rabies was a zombie story in the old one, the fox fur farm in the new one is dystopian horror.
I’m not sure if you’ve seen the Foxes book trailer, but we put a lot of work into it:
Christian McKay Heidicker reads and writes and drinks tea. Between his demon-hunting cat and his fiddling, red-headed fiancée, he feels completely protected from evil spirits. Christian is the author of Scary Stories for Young Foxes, Cure for the Common Universe and Attack of the 50 Foot Wallflower. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. cmheidicker.com