Love Letters to Our Favorite Libraries

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

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

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

The Zona Gale House/Portage Free Library

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

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

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

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

Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)

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

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

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

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

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

Halloween Mini Golf

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

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

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

Lisa Schmid (OLLIE OXLEY AND THE GHOST)

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

Spooky Poetry in Middle Grade Books

Well hello, all you spooky readers! It feels like forever since I’ve chatted with you here in our #SpookyMG Crypt. And, yes. I have missed you.

*taps jagged fingernails*

So today, I’m bringing you a special treat! 🍬 In celebration of World Poetry Day (March 21st), I thought it would be fun to spotlight middle grade books, authors, or segments within MG stories that utilize poetry. I even have some examples from our very own authors.

Adding poetry in the form of a structured poem, song lyrics, scattered thoughts of a character, or even a spell from a favored wizard (Harry Potter) to a novel can do a many things.

Take Shel Silverstein use of poetry. He created quite the visual with this one. (Not to mention, I’ll be looking behind my back all day, now.)

When singing songs of scariness. 
Of bloodiness and hairyness, 
I feel obligated at this moment to remind you 
Of the most ferocious beast of all: 
Three thousand pounds and nine feet tall —
The Glurpy Slurpy Skakagall — 
Who’s standing right behind you. 

THE WORST – NIGHT, NIGHT KIDS

And then there’s THE GIVING TREE, which has been widely debated as an example of the sacrifice of parenthood or the way NOT to parent a child. Nonetheless, the use of structure throughout the story is brilliant. The staggering of sentences and thoughts, reactions from either the boy or the tree draw readers attention. It’s almost as if Shel was clapping his hands or pointing with his finger to say ‘Here, pay attention to this.’ The prose stops abruptly at places, yet subtly at others. The flow and placement of the poetry lends strength to the mood and tone as well. Here’s just a brief excerpt:

Can you give me a house ?’
‘ I have no house,’ said the tree.
‘The forest is my house,
but you may cut off my branches and build a house.
Then you will be happy.’

And so the boy cut off her branches,
and carried them away to build his house.
And the tree was happy.

I chose this segment for the limited about of words used and for the emotions it conjures. The break used between the lines is a perfect pause for the reader to ponder the word ‘happy’ and then be stunned by the word ‘cut’ in the next line – one word that causes pleasure, one word that causes pain.

Of course, I also must mention Edgar Allan Poe and his use of subtle yet eerie language. Here’s an example from the end of his poem ALONE.

From every depth of good and ill

  The mystery which binds me still:

  From the torrent, or the fountain,

  From the red cliff of the mountain,

  From the sun that round me rolled

  In its autumn tint of gold,

  From the lightning in the sky

  As it passed me flying by,

  From the thunder and the storm,

  And the cloud that took the form

  (When the rest of Heaven was blue)

  Of a demon in my view.

ALONE

Even without the first parts of this poem, you can see how he uses each line to draw the reader deeper into the imagery and mood he’s creating. And then WHAM! he hits you with the last line.

Poetry can . . .

  • bring a sudden or a subtle change to the flow of the story
  • introduce internal thoughts of a character in an unusual way
  • capture imagery in ways that urge readers to use their own imagination
  • be used with illustrations or graphics (IMHO, I love it when a book does this!)
  • be a great way to sprinkle clues or foreshadowing (I also love this one.)
  • shed light on specific details the author wants the reader to pay close attention to
  • create a diversion for the reader – opposite of the above point.
  • move the plot along more quickly or slow it down
  • set, increase, or change the mood and tone of a scene or plot point
  • deliver details of the world or setting in a fun way

And we could go on and on . . .

Or maybe just show a few examples of these using our very own authors!

If you have or have found additional ways adding poetry to spooky MG books can strengthen the story, leave it in the comments below! We’d love to hear.

Thank you for reading and chatting up spooky middle grade books with me!

Sheri☠️

Historical Spooky MG

Happy October, readers and writers!

This month, some of us here at Spooky MG have been talking about historical–or historical-ish–creepy middle grade books: why we write them, what we love about them, which ones are recent favorites.

Read on to find out what we had to say — and if you haven’t already, be sure to check out our *giveaway* of all of these marvelous historical MGs over on Twitter!

(To enter: Retweet the giveaway post and follow @spookymgbooks. Bonus entries for tagging friends! Open from 10/4 to 10/9 at midnight EST. Winner announced 10/10/20. US only.)

Janet Fox – author of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE and THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS

Why do you like to write historical spooky books?
I love historical books, and adding that spooky element raises the stakes to a whole new level. But, in fact, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, my first spooky historical, became a historical work first and a spooky book second. It was an organic process of finding that I had an antagonist who was so evil that she took the story to a different level. In The Artifact Hunters, my second, because it’s a sequel I used many of the same elements (setting, time period, some characters) and so the spookiness was baked in. But I do love twisting historical elements (castles) with creepy ones (ghosts).


Tell us a bit about your book. What drew you to the period in which your book is set?
The Artifact Hunters (as well as Charmed Children) is set during World War Two. There are a number of things that drew me to that time period. First, I could separate the children from their parents during the London Blitz – because children were, truly, sent away during the bombing to keep them safe. Second, there have long been rumors that Hitler was obsessed by the occult, and wanted to use those practices to further his aims, and how creepy is that? And third, the threats to my characters could come both from the evil antagonist and the war itself.

What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend?
I recommend The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. It’s one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read. Set in Victorian times it reads like a Poe story, with orphaned children, a terrible curse, and a terrifying monster. I loved every spine-tingling atmospheric moment.


Jacqueline West — author of THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE and LONG LOST (coming 5.11.21)

Why do you like to write historical spooky books? 
My books often begin with a setting. Locations—especially rambling, odd, old buildings—are irresistible to my writing brain. I want to wander around inside of them all, and explore every dusty nook and corner, and discover all the secrets of their pasts and presents. And when I write about them, I get to.

Tell us a bit about your book. What drew you to the period in which your book is set?
My first series, The Books of Elsewhere, was inspired by a strange old house in my hometown. While most of the story is set in the present day, the past is central to the book: The looming stone house that Olive Dunwoody moves into is filled with the history (and secrets) of the house’s former owners. Getting to unfold that history was one of the most exciting parts of writing the books. 

And my next middle-grade book, Long Lost (coming in May 2021!), takes place in an old New England town with a public library that used to be the home of a wealthy and mysterious local family. There’s a story-within-a-story in this one, so I got to explore the house and town as I imagine them today and as they were a century ago. The book itself is about how the past tangles with the present, and about how, even when people vanish, their stories can live on and on and on.  

What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend? 
Hoodoo, by Ronald L. Smith. It’s set in rural Alabama in the 1930s, and it’s the story of a twelve-year-old boy from a family of folk magicians who has to help his dead father’s spirit find peace while fending off a mysterious visitor called The Stranger. The time and place are so richly captured, and the whole thing is unique and deep and creepy and wonderful.  


Josh Roberts – author of THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE

Why do you like to write historical spooky books?
I believe history is all around us, and it affects our lives in a million invisible ways every single day. I wanted to explore this idea in my debut novel, The Witches of Willow Willow Cove, which is a contemporary story that’s centered around a historical mystery tied to the Salem Witch Trials. I think the more we understand what has come before us–and why it happened–the better we can understand the context of our own lives. Plus, the mysteries of the past are just incredibly fun to write about!


What drew you to the period in which your book is set?
I was born and raised in New England just a few towns over from Salem, Massachusetts. Growing up, the Witch Trials were always a big part of our local lore. I remember learning about that period as a kid growing up in the 1980s, and then discovering that the witch scare extended far beyond Salem and even into my own home town. When I set out to write The Witches of Willow Cove, I drew upon my memories of a contemporary childhood and what it was like to discover my town’s ties to this very dark period of local history. From there it was an easy step to imagine modern day kids like my main character, a seventh grader named Abby Shepherd, discovering even deeper ties to the Witch Trials and how that might affect her life in exciting and unexpected ways. 


What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend? 
My go-to recommendation is The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange. It’s a beautiful story of friendship, trauma, and recovery set against a backdrop of ghostly woods and spooky old houses in WWI-era England.


Angie Smibert – author of THE GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS series

Why do you like to write historical spooky books?

I love historical books—with a twist. The history is certainly fascinating itself, but I’m really a spec fiction writer, so I like a little something else going on, such as a good ghost story or a bit of magic or magical realism. The spooky element raises the stakes and just generally makes the story more interesting.

What drew you to the period in which your book is set?

The setting drew me in first. The Truce—and the whole Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series—happens in a small coal mining community in Southwest Virginia. The place is loosely based on McCoy, Virginia, where my mother and her family (and several generations before her) grew up.  I set the story in 1942 because this was the peak of the coal mining in our area—and yet it was also a time of great change. The US was fully involved in World War II by that time. Men were leaving the mines to fight in the war. Rationing had started. Women were working in factories. People were dying. This was the perfect time period for a protagonist who wants everything to stay like it had been. (Be cruel to your protagonists!) And my protagonist, twelve-year-old Bone Phillips, is going through a great change, too. She discovered her Gift, the ability to see the ghosts inside ordinary objects, and she was not happy about it!

This is a place that doesn’t really exist anymore. After the war, the mines began to shut down, really changing everything. Now you can drive through the area and never realize there were once coal mines there.

What other historical spooky mg book would you recommend?

I loved The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by MT Anderson and Eugene Yelchin, so I decided to look up some other things Yelchin had written. Delightfully spooky and a little offbeat, The Haunting of Falcon House is set in late 19th Century Saint Petersburg, Russia. Young Prince Lev, a budding artist, must leave his mother to take up his noble duties at Falcon House. There he discovers a dreadful family secret in this haunted mansion that makes him question his role and the aristocracy. The book includes many of the Prince’s drawings.


To win a copy of each of these books — THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE, VOL 1: THE SHADOWS, THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE and THE TRUCE, *PLUS* our recommended titles, THE NIGHT GARDENER, HOODOO, THE SECRET OF NIGHTINGALE WOOD, and THE HAUNTING OF FALCON HOUSE — make sure to find us on Twitter: @spookymgbooks.

Happy reading!