Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
Hoping you’re all having a great start to the new year! And for that new year, I thought I’d start you off with a treat. As some of you may know, right before Halloween, I joined up with several other authors of spooky books to plan a giveaway for Halloween. Well, we had so much fun, that we decided to keep the group going and start SpookyMiddleGrade.com or SpookyMG. The main focus of the group has been to show that spooky-themed books are important for kids, year-round, and not just at Halloween time.
Today, I was fortunate enough to gather a great collection of them, including a few of our own Mixed-Up Files team, to discuss Spooky books and what they mean to kids.
So, let’s get right to it!
JR: Please introduce yourself to everyone, along with the title of your book.
VP: My name is Victoria Piontek and I wrote a book called The Spirit of Cattail County.
SC: Hi everyone! I’m Samantha M Clark, the author of THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster).
KS: I’m Kat Shepherd, and I write fast-paced adventure series for middle grade readers. My spooky series, Babysitting Nightmares, is a four-book series that debuted last June with THE SHADOW HAND. People have described it as a mash-up of The Baby Sitters Club meets Goosebumps. Book 2, THE PHANTOM HOUR, comes out January 29.
DN: Hello! My name is David Neilsen, and I’m the author of two Middle Grade novels, Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom and Beyond the Doors. I live Sleepy Hollow-adjacent (next door in Tarrytown, NY) with my wife, two children, and two very domineering cats.
SC: I’m Sarah Cannon, author of Oddity.
SL: Hi, S.A. Larsen here, but you can call me Sheri. I’m the author of the Norse mythology fantasy adventure Motley Education.
JF: Hi! I’m Janet Fox, the author of six books from picture books through young adult, fiction and nonfiction. My “spooky” book is THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE (Viking, 2016), a story set in a creepy Scottish castle during World War 2. (I’m working on a companion novel now that will be out in 2020.)
KV: My name is Kim Ventrella, author of SKELETON TREE and BONE HOLLOW.
JE: Hello everyone. I’m Jan Eldredge, wife, mom, cat person, tea drinker, and spooky middle grade author. I was born and raised in Louisiana, but now live in Florida in a house that might be haunted. EVANGELINE OF THE BAYOU, aka WITCH GIRL in the U.K., is my debut novel. It’s a spooky mystery adventure story about a twelve-year-old bayou girl who hunts ghosts and monsters.
PM: I’m Patrick Moody, author of THE GRAVEDIGGER’S SON. Thanks so much for having me!
JR: What do you love about spooky books?
VP: One of the things I love about spooky books is learning the story behind the story. Often, there is a mystery or a backstory about why spooky things are happening, and I love that discovery because it usually makes the scary parts less frightening. I also love lush settings and brave characters. A lot of eerie books have rich descriptions, and it is impossible to have a scary story without a heroic protagonist.
SC: Everything! Oh, you want specifics. J What I love most is the surprises. Spooky books are all about things that go bump in the night, jump out of closets, creep up behind you… They’re about that anticipation, which is both scary and mysterious and so fun. And since it’s not really happening to you the person, but to you the reader, you can experience the scary without the danger.
KS: I have always loved spooky books because spookiness is a great way to let our imaginations play. If I walk into an old abandoned building, my brain goes wild! I’m already thinking of what life used to be like there and what might have made the inhabitants abandon it, and what kinds of leftover ghouls could be lurking about, and why. Anytime we’re scared our imaginations are working overtime, and it’s fun to take that rich substrate and put it to work to create a story.
DN: I love stories that challenge readers to walk on the dark side. Spooky stories have no boundaries, no rules. Anything is possible.
SC: I love having my mettle tested! What would I do in that situation? Can I even stand to read about it without having to stuff the book under my pillow for a while? Will my favorite characters persevere, or let me down?
SL: I love how the tension and suspense created in spooky stories always grabs me; or maybe it’s me that grabs it because spooky book matter/subjects make me think beyond the here and now, and to what might be possible. They keep my attention and ignite my curiosity. #shrug Anyway, I always want to read more.
JF: I really love the mystery part of spooky books – the questioning of reality, the unfolding of events beyond “normal” control. And the catharsis that comes with reading something that is scary when you’re in a safe place.
KV: Spooky stories are inherently hopeful, because they hint at possibilities beyond the mundane. The classic stories are all about underdogs outwitting evil, and who doesn’t love an underdog? For me, these stories are more often about redefining the darkness. What we think of as scary or even evil is often misunderstood. My stories re-examine the darkest parts of our world, like death, adding in big doses of light, whimsy and hope.
JE: I love that spooky books grant us the ability to explore dangerous, frightening, and creepily-atmospheric worlds, all from the comfort of our safe, everyday lives.
PM: I’ve always loved playing around with the idea of fear. How does it affect us? How would my protagonist respond to it? When spookiness is embedded into a story, it leaves the reader unsettled. No one is safe, and something eerie is lurking behind every corner. It keeps us turning those pages. It also allows the author a chance to really get deep into myth and world building.
JR: Why do you think it’s important for kids to read spooky/scary books?
VP: Books in all genres offer readers the opportunity to explore life without having to personally experience the challenges book characters face. It is like a rehearsal for the real world. When kids read spooky stories, they get to explore and examine their fears while still being completely protected, and sometimes that ends up easing their fears.
SC: Great question! Kids love spooky books because they love surprises and getting scared. But spooky books are the perfect way for children to test their boundaries with their fears, as well to grow their courage. They learn through the characters acting bravely, and they learn that happy endings can happen despite scary times. These are so important for kids to know.
KS: The number one reason I think it’s important for kids to read scary books is because they want to. I love telling scary stories, but the main reason I write spooky books is because kids ask for them. I respect and care about my readers, and it matters to me that I write the kind of books that kids love to read, because they deserve that. Aside from being a writer I’m also an educator, and there’s a whole lot of great brain stuff that happens when kids read spooky books. They’re practicing all kinds of metacognitive strategies, like making predictions, asking questions, and forging connections. And they’re also practicing a lot of important emotional work. Books are the safest place I can think of for kids to practice being scared, to practice getting out of dangerous situations, to practice saying, “This doesn’t feel right to me. I think I’m going to close the book and walk away.” Spooky books give kids zero-stakes situations where they can work out some of these emotionally complex scenarios. And offering kids the kinds of books they love means they have a great time doing it.
DN: Kids need to read age-appropriate spooky stories to stretch their boundaries. The world is not all bunnies and dandelions. There is darkness out there, and kids will eventually encounter it. By reading spooky stories, they are able to better prepare for the unknown.
SC: Our most closely-held fears are often our least rational ones…including the fear of the unfamiliar. In spooky plots, characters’ early fears are often misdirections– distractions from the real threat. Just as sci-fi gives us the freedom to explore possible futures, and fantasy affords us the opportunity to explore good versus evil in a context divorced from the everyday, spooky books offer us metaphors that allow us to examine fears that are holding us back, and conceive of actions we could take to defeat fears that may actually come calling.
SL: Books with spooky or scary elements explore the same life-themes that contemporary stories do, only they use a bit of shock and awe to keep the reader on his/her toes. Spooky tales are thought-provoking and challenge some of life’s biggest questions. They also show kids that fear is part of life – fear of the dark, fear of taking a test, fear of not making the team – that it can be overcome, and, in the end, they are better for facing it.
JF: Kids today have a lot to contend with – things that are really scary and unpleasant. As with any story, we read to learn how to handle ourselves in uncertain or new situations. I think spooky books – especially those that depict the scare factor with care – offer a way to visit those emotions in a safe manner and learn coping mechanisms indirectly through a character’s experiences.
KV: My ‘scary’ stories are all about children who learn to redefine their relationship with death. Death is something that everyone experiences, even children, and SKELETON TREE and BONE HOLLOW allow readers to explore this difficult topic within the safe space of a book.
JE: Spooky books can be very empowering for kids. When they read about characters their own age defeating villains, while armed with little more than their courage and wits, they feel they too can accomplish big things. Spooky stories also provide safe opportunities for kids to explore fear and experience a sense of danger.
PM: I think it’s important for kids to see characters overcoming their fears. With spooky books, those fears take real, physical form. They’re named and identified, and set as obstacles to overcome. Scary books have high stakes, which offers unbridled excitement and a sense of urgency, which I think readers of all ages crave in a good story. And what better way to inspire kids than to provide them with a protagonist who must overcome desperate odds against something completely terrifying?
JR: What was your first introduction to scary books, or the one that made you want to write it?
VP: The first scary stories I read were by Edger Allen Poe. As a kid, I loved those stories even though they terrified me.
SC: I didn’t set out to write spooky books. My stories just steered in that direction, and I’ve never looked back. But I always loved to be scared by the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
KS: Goosebumps and a lot of other kid-friendly scary books didn’t come out until I was a teenager, so as a middle-grader reader I read scary story anthologies, YA horror, and Stephen King. Most of those books were way too scary for me at that age, and I had a lot of trouble sleeping! I also didn’t see myself reflected in many of those books: they were mostly written for boys and about boys, and I felt like I was just supposed to go along for the ride. So Babysitting Nightmares came out of the idea of writing the kinds of books that I wish had existed when I was a middle grade reader.
DN: I was pulled into the world of the spooky when I was introduced to H. P. Lovecraft. I had always been a fan of science-fiction and fantasy, but had never really ventured much into the darker realms of those genres. Lovecraft’s work mesmerized me, his mixture of sci-fi and horror, the way fear of the unknown is such a strong theme in his work. That touched a nerve in me. I wanted to explore the unknown.
SC: Oh, goodness. I can think of a few. Harry and the Terrible Whatzit by Dick Gackenbach was an early love of mine. Harry’s mother goes downstairs to the cellar and doesn’t come back up right away. He goes to save her and confronts the two-headed monster living there. When I got a bit older, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Witch series scared the stuffing out of me. (It also made me want to be a writer like Lynn’s mom!) I also started reading Stephen King way too young…twelve or so, which makes me shudder when I look at my own twelve-year-old. So many tidbits from his books still haunt my dreams and waking thoughts.
SL: This is going to date me, but I remember loving Gus Goes to School, part of the Gus the Ghost book series by Jane Thayer. It was one of the first times I saw the paranormal personified. Gus was merely a little ghost that wanted to attend school. But it was as a teenager, after I read Salem’s Lot for the first time, that I knew this genre was totally my thing.
JF: When I was about 12 I discovered Agatha Christie. Now I know that her stories are mostly mysteries, but I’ll never forget reading “Ten Little Indians” and feeling completely creeped out by a scene in a study involving a sleepy victim and a bee sting…It was subtle, clever, and very scary. It took me a long time to sit alone in a room with my back to a window.
KV: The first scary story I ever wrote was basically my version of Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady,” in which this elderly woman owns a guesthouse and murders and taxidermies all of her guests. It won a writing contest in second grade :-). I also adored the SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK collections, and I am super excited to report that I will have a story in the upcoming reboot set to release in 2020: NEW SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK.
JE: Aside from being mesmerized by my older brother’s CREEPY and EERIE comic books, 13 GHOSTLY TALES, a Scholastic Book Club book, drew me to it like a moth to a flame. Anything could have been revealed on the pages behind that spooky, ghostly, pink cover. The promise of fear and dread was too much for me to resist. Giant black cats, skeletons in the attic, bony hands reaching from the grave, this terrifying little book delivered it all.
PM: My first introduction, which I’m sure is fairly common among writers of spooky/scary books, was SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, along with the GOOSEBUMPS series and old copies of the TALES FROM THE CRYPT comics. From there, I found authors like Christopher Pike, Caroline B. Cooney, and William Sleator.
JR: What’s your all-time favorite spooky/scary book?
VP: I really like Interview with a Vampire. It is so creative, and it wasn’t really that scary. In fact, it made me less terrified of vampires.
SC: Hmm, I don’t have favorites, but I love The Witches by Roald Dahl, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and the classic Grimm fairy tales.
KS: That’s a tough one! Certainly Stephen King’s IT was one of them, although I do find it problematic now. But what I think I loved most about it was that it captured so much of my experience of childhood, in the sense that when you’re a kid you feel like there’s an entire world that adults can’t see and don’t seem to know anything about. There was just this overwhelming feeling of being alone, like the problems you had weren’t fixable by adults. They were things you had to figure out on your own, no matter how big and insurmountable they might be. I think (and hope) that our culture is changing and adults are more on the ball with what’s happening with kids’ lives, but my own childhood wasn’t like that.
DN: I actually loved Steven King’s Revival. It’s one of his more recent books, and it is his homage to Lovecraft. It toys and hints and plays with your expectations, until finally smashing you against the wall in the final chapter. When I read his ending, I was floored. I think I hid under the covers for a couple of days.
SC: Again, it has to be a Stephen King novel, though Kelly Link wrote a short story called “Monster” that persistently freaks me out. The King titles that had the most influence on me would have to be Firestarter and IT, but some of his short stories like “The Raft” and even “Trucks” still affect me in strange ways.
SL: This is so hard, but I’ll go with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There was something about the way this creature yearned to be real and accepted that gave him a humanness that offset the horrific and grotesque way he came to life. I really didn’t like Dr. Frankenstein, though. Close second favorite scary books: Carrie & Salem’s Lot by Stephen King.
JF: I have to say that my all-time favorite is Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I love the way he weaves together humor, a commentary on social problems, and really scary moments (Marley’s appearance in the door knocker, and oh, that creepy third ghost of Christmas yet to come!) To me, that story has everything.
KV: Hmm…you like to ask the tough ones, huh, Jonathan? I suppose I would have to pick THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman, because it has that perfect mixture of darkness and whimsy that I just love.
JE: My all-time favorite scary book is CORALINE by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman creates such a perfect spooky atmosphere, completely immersing readers into Coraline’s creepy world. And I’ll be honest, the Other Mother and her obsession with sewing buttons onto Coraline’s eyes horrifies me. After reading this book, I’ve never been able to look at buttons the same way again.
PM: It’s a tie between THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS by John Bellairs, and THE HALLOWEEN TREE by Ray Bradbury.
JR: What’s your favorite movie in the genre and what influence has it had on you?
VP: I don’t like scary movies. I’m an imaginative person, and the visuals in movies really stick with me. However, I did really enjoy The Others and The Sixth Sense. I love the twists at the end.
SC: I’ve always loved ghost movies, and my favorites are Poltergeist and The Lady in White. But I also love Gremlins and Goonies too. They all do a great job of piecing out the scary parts in small doses and building them up as the story goes on. So great!
KS: I hate horror movies, because I can’t stand gore or jumpy-outies, those moments that startle you and make you scream. I do like creepy and suspense, but I’ll rarely watch those movies more than once. I loved Get Out, and I was actually able to sit all the way through it without fleeing to the movie theater lobby. I loved the atmosphere and creep factor of The Others and The Woman in Black, but in both of those movies I had to hide out in the lobby for a while or pull my hoodie over my eyes and curse myself for ever deciding to see it in a theater! I think the biggest influence those kinds of movies had on me was relishing the creep factor and giving my stories lots of atmosphere. I also learned that the suspense is much more fun and satisfying than the ending where everything is revealed. So I always want my own stories to relish in the suspense as long as possible. I stretch those scenes out, because that’s the delicious feeling that lovers of scary stuff really love.
DN: I don’t generally see scary movies. I have my friends see them and then they tell me the stories. I don’t need to see Freddie Kruger kill people, but I like to hear the backstory behind how he came to be such a monster. But if I had to pick one of the few I have seen, I’d go with the original Blair Witch Project. Whatever else it may have been, it created massive amounts of fear with things like sticks and handprints and rocks. Not a single CGI monster in sight.
SC: I am much less bullish on scary movies than scary books. My brain already fills in the blanks without help from special effects. Ironically, one of the movies that gave me the most sleepless nights was The Blair Witch Project, probably precisely because it left huge gaps for my imagination to fill.
SL: I am a huge movie buff, so I have many! Hmm…my favorite is probably Children of the Corn (1984) or April Fool’s Day (1986). With COTC, I found children turning on their parents so forcefully interesting; in a cinematic and story structure sort-of-way, not in real life. (Just clarifying.) It showed me that stories can explore the unnatural, and the sense of intrigue can be greater in the unexpected or the not socially acceptable. For AFD, I absolutely fell in love with the structure of this story and how many different mini arcs threaded inside. I remember having zero idea where each scene was taking the next – other than people coming up dead. But once the end revealed the truth, I was like Yay!
JF: Here’s an interesting little fact about me – I cannot watch scary movies. Nope. No way. I’m a very visual person and I assimilate those images too deeply. Reading scary is one thing but seeing scary – it’s not happening.
KV: I love the movie LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, and I think it reflects the aspect I love most about horror, i.e. the opportunity to redefine what we think of as evil.
JE: I had to really think on this before I could narrow it down from my list of favorites. But since it’s the one we watch every year during the Halloween season, I’m going to say that THE FRIGHTENERS is my favorite scary movie. I really appreciate any film that can scare me and yet make me laugh. This movie does that most excellently. As an added bonus, it’s filled with a cast of fascinating characters, both dead and alive.
PM: That’s a tough one! I would say my favorite is the Evil Dead series, especially Army of Darkness. That really inspired me to write not only spooky stories, but action-packed fantasy, as well. The Monster Squad was another big one for me.
JR: Before we go, tell us, what scares you?
VP: Um…pretty much everything. I’m basically a chicken.
SC: Taxes. Oh, you mean like scary scary. 😉 Big spiders, for one. Also frogs, because they jump out at you so quickly. And I’m not too in love with heights. If I’m ever on a rooftop looking at a giant spider when a frog jumps on me, I’d better remember all the bravery I’ve learned from all the spooky books I’ve read.
KS: I have a bunch of existential fears, but the most concrete fear I have is honestly cockroaches. They are super-disgusting, carry diseases, and whenever you see one that means there are hundreds more you aren’t seeing. They’re basically indestructible and can survive nuclear war. Plus they crawl into people’s ears and noses, and they’re everywhere! That’s like the definition of a monster in a horror movie.
DN: Lots of things. Bugs. Needles. Watching those reality-tv surgery shows. Actually, in my entire life, the one thing that probably scared me more than anything was a rubber mask of a goblin/monster/demon creature that my friend freaked me out with when I was about 10. I’m still angry at him.
SC: Zombies terrify me, because they are completely and utterly implacable. Even a monster might be reasoned with, but never a zombie.
SL: You’ll probably think this is foolish, but I do not like carwashes. You know, the ones you drive your car through, in a building with all sorts of huge brushes, rags, whippers, suds, squishy noises, and tons of water. I have this fear of the thing breaking down and me drowning inside my car. Weird. I know.
JF: Loss. I think I’ll leave it at that.
KV: Another tough one. One reason I love spooky and fantastical stories so much is that I’m probably the world’s biggest cynic. I don’t actually believe that there’s anything out there that’s magical or that defies understanding (in either a good or an evil way), and I think that’s why I feel compelled to write ‘spooky’ stories, to create worlds where magic does exist. I guess I’m afraid of no longer being able to tell those stories.
JE: You might expect a ghost or a monster to be the thing that scares me the most, but it’s not. The idea of getting abducted by aliens and then being flown away onboard their spaceship is absolutely terrifying to me. At least with monsters here on earth, you have a chance of running away from them. But when you’re hurtling through the cosmos inside an alien craft headed to an unknown planet light years away, there is no escape.
PM: This might be a weird one, but the deep, dark depths of the ocean. My greatest fear, and a frequent dream I have, is being in a submersible, dropping deeper and deeper into that liquid darkness, and looking out of the window only to see a gigantic eye opening. Boiled down, I would say it’s the fear of the unknown. H.P. Lovecraft would have a field day with that one.
JR: I want to thank all of you so much for joining me today, and look forward to reading more about spooky books!
To follow the SpookyMG team:
Well, that’s it for now, my Mixed-Up friends. Hope you enjoyed and until next time!