Book Lists

Writing Middle-Grade Spooky Stories: Interview with Diane Telgen, Jay Whistler, Jenn Bailey, and Jules Heller

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Today, I’m pleased to welcome Diane Telgen, Jay Whistler, Jenn Bailey, and Jules Heller to Mixed-Up Files. These authors share their experience of writing work-for-hire spooky stories for the middle grade audience.

Welcome to Mixed-Up Files, Diane, Jay, Jenn, and Jules!

  

 

Suma:  Could you tell us what your Haunted series book/books are about?

Diane: The “Spooky America” series explores local legends about haunted places and famous ghosts. It takes volumes originally published for Arcadia’s adult “Haunted America” series and reworks them for a middle-grade audience. In The Ghostly Tales of West Michigan and The Ghostly Tales of Pittsburgh, I focused on one particular location, so the stories could involve houses, ships, or places of business. In The Ghostly Tales of Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses, all the stories involve lighthouses, but the ghosts themselves vary between keepers, their families, and sailors.

Jay: I was fortunate enough to work on THE GHOSTLY TALES OF SAN ANTONIO shortly after I moved to the area in late 2020. While the title suggests ghost stories, the book is really about the history of San Antonio, beginning with the first Spanish settlers in the 1500s, moving to the fights over control of the territory, the civil war, and ending with the middle of the twentieth century. I knew Texas had been its own country before it became a state, and I think we all know the legend of the Alamo. But there is so much more to Texas and to San Antonio. I have a new appreciation for my adopted hometown as a result of this book.

Jenn: I wrote the Haunted Newport book, which tells spooky tales and ghost stories from in and around Newport, Rhode Island.

Jules: My book is THE GHOSTLY TALES OF THE FINGER LAKES, a collection of eighteen spooky stories from Western Central New York State. From an early draft of the introduction: Whatever your style, I promise there’s a story here for you. You like music? Listen close and you’ll hear the piano music of Miss Eunice Frame, resident ghost of the Sampson Theatre. You’re more interested in math? Help me count the strange deaths (and funerals) at the Erie Mansion.You prefer art? Read on for colorful stories of ghostly stains on basement walls that can’t be covered up. Science is more your thing? Try to explain what causes apparitions to be seen in an old doctor’s office. You enjoy a good mystery? Maybe you’ll be the one to figure out what scared the restaurant owners of the Dove Building so much they left town without bothering to pack their bags. No matter the subject, the tales you’re about to read will thrill and amaze you. Some are funny, some are sad, and some may or may not be one hundred percent true . . . who’s to say what’s a local legend, and what’s an honest haunting? You might have to decide for yourself. But I guarantee that in these pages you’ll find many surprises: secret societies organize kidnappings, ghosts lock people in bathrooms, heads go missing, skulls are found, and there might even be a sea monster at the end. You’ll have to read on to find out.

Suma: What was the one thing you paid attention to, while writing a haunted book for the middle-grade audience?

Diane: Of course I wanted to choose stories that were appropriate for kids–I stayed away from really lurid legends, or those that didn’t have a lot of detail. And I also had to make my language and style more appealing for a young audience. But most important, I had to provide the historical context for kids to understand the stories. If they understand the importance of lighthouses on the Great Lakes in the nineteenth century, or how colonial settlers would have seen Pittsburgh as the western frontier, they’ll more easily connect with why these historical figures became ghosts. As I like to say, “ghosts are just history trying to get your attention.”

Jay: The source material on some of the chapters challenged me to make it age-appropriate for middle-grade readers. Writing about the tragedy of the Alamo requires a deft hand to make the horrors of war less brutal. In another chapter, I needed to find a more delicate way to describe the red-light district in San Antonio, especially when referring to nocturnal activities. I think many kids will understand the euphemisms, or at least guess at their meaning, but there’s no need to be as frank as one might be with adults. Nor do kids need to know the gruesome details of some of the murders that gave rise to some of the legends.

In addition, I tried to respect that kids of this age may not be ready for truly scary stuff. There will always be the kid, like me, who loves watching old scary movies, reading classic horror, or telling ghost stories during sleepovers. But plenty of kids are just beginning to test the boundaries of what they can handle. I wanted to respect the readers enough to give them a bit of a shiver while reading while still allowing them to go to sleep with no worries about things that go bump in the night.

Jenn: I wanted to make sure to create the right atmosphere – that involved including bits of history, perhaps giving some backstory to explain why this event might have happened at this time, and why there might be a ghost story attached to the area. Just saying a hotel or beach is haunted isn’t enough. The middle grade audience is savvy and curious, and they want to know Why this happened. They want to know what, how, and when. You have to put some context – or dare I say meat – on those old, withered, spooky bones.

Jules: There’s a distinction between “beguiling” and “offputting” that can be a wobbly tightrope to tread. The things that kids find “too scary” are often not what adults assume.* The Arcadia editors had a specific list of scary topics that were no-gos for their audience (assault, etc.) but I tried to keep as much of the fun, interesting, just-plain-weird kind of scary as possible, because I remember being that odd reader who devoured bizarre assassination attempts and torrid conspiracies. Ghost stories shouldn’t lead to actual nightmares, they should provide conversation starters that make people avoid you (or seek you out specially) at parties!
*I remember a brilliant essay about how parents tried to tone down Red Riding Hood by having the woodcutter chase the wolf away at the end, rather than killing him. They thought less gore meant more kid-friendly; the kids said “no, that means the wolf is STILL OUT THERE.”

Suma: How did you go about making place a character in your stories?

Diane: I opened each book with a short historical introduction, to introduce readers to what made each place unique. So for West Michigan, the forests, beaches, and Lake Michigan all became recurring characters. For Pittsburgh, its journey from frontier fort to Steel City, USA became an important theme. And for Michigan’s Lighthouses, the storms of the Great Lakes became a furious antagonist!

Jay: Each chapter in my book focused on a particular place, so I made sure to include details about buildings, what they looked like, when they were built, what purpose they served and how that changed over the years. I shared landscape details and included tidbits to make it come alive. For example, in one story, I talked about why the owner of the property built a stage-coach stop. Then I explained how long the trip from point A to point B would take with a horse and carriage, how often they would need to stop, and what it would feel like being jostled about in the carriage with only a wooden seat under your backside. I want kids to not only see these places in their minds but also feel what it would be like to experience life as the characters in the story would. How would it be to see an elevator operator in a blue suit and gloves float out of a defunct elevator and beckon you inside?

Jenn: By talking about the people that inhabited it. What kind of people would live there? Why would they live there? Connect a certain type of person to the place – Newport was founded in 1639 on a promise of religious freedom and equality. These people were escaping the intolerance of Massachusetts. So you connect a certain type of person to the place, and then connect the reader to that type of person and you’ve got a reader who can envision characteristics and qualities about the location. Newport is a beautiful seaside city but there are a lot of those. You have to sprinkle the history of an area into these stories so they become individualized and relatable.

Jules: This is the big secret about these stories (certainly in my book, likely in many others): we don’t actually have any “true” or “real” characters to start from EXCEPT for the places. So much of this history is handed down from unreliable or unreportable sources, that in order to turn it into something readable and honest you have to take hefty liberties with the facts. Details about specific people can sometimes be brought in from old photographs, but personalities, motivations, even whole sections of The Plot have to be spun out of thin air. Thus, the grounding realness of the story comes from the physical place itself, which you as the storyteller can point to and say “You can visit the place where this happened! You can see the stains on the floor, hear the wind whistling through the broken window shutters!” Building on a foundation of the tangible remnants of the story, turning the locations themselves into historians and storytellers, lends credence to the rest of your cast and gives them some weight of their own.

Suma: What did you enjoy most about the process of working on this project?

Diane: I love history, so digging into the local details behind a particular ghost provided so much fun!

Jay: My favorite aspect of this project, aside from learning more about San Antonio, was challenging myself to take material kids typically find deadly boring—history—combine it with material usually reserved for adults—the “horror” genre—and make it appealing to middle-grade readers. I grew up watching the black-and-white horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s. I read my first Poe story when I was eight. I began reading Stephen King when I was in seventh grade (way before the Goosebumps books became popular). Working on this book brought back those memories and inspired me to create a similar experience for my readers. Perhaps one day, there will be an author who becomes the next Clive Barker because they read the entire Spooky America series and discovered not only a love of history and horror but of storytelling, too.

Jenn: Learning more about my hometown. Rhode Island is the smallest state in the U.S. and often overlooked, but it played a huge role – sometimes positive, sometimes negative – in the founding of this country. It was rather crucial during WWII as well. It was delightful to be reminded of some of the attributes of Newport that make it such a special place. I have my own personal reasons to love it, I was married in Newport, but it was a joy see this place through fresh eyes.

Jules: Quite honestly, it was just nice to have a project, any project, to work on at that point in the pandemic. I had some scheduling hiccups with the editors and ended up with a tight timeline for the manuscript, so I had to dive in head-first and stay under for a couple weeks straight, getting words on paper. It was energizing, a little hectic, but at the time just what I needed to rejuvenate my creative process. It also gave me an excuse to reorganize my physical work area, which is always a bonus!

Suma: What is your advice for writers doing work-for-hire projects like this one?

Diane: As with any project, knowing what your editor expects is important. But it’s crucial when writing within a series, because your individual book needs to fit within the volumes that have gone before you. So always make sure you have a style guide to follow, and communicate clearly about the schedule. Work-for-hire projects, especially in series, often have little wiggle room!

Jay: Work for hire can be a great way to make connections in the literary community. You learn to work on deadline and under stringent expectations. But it can also take away time from the personal projects you want to work on. So it’s crucial to know exactly what you sign up for.

With that in mind, make sure you know specific deadlines for every phase of the project. It’s okay to insist the entity you are working with details everything. The same goes for the expected end product. What exactly do they want you to deliver? This includes content and format. What is the revision process? Do you get a final review to make sure they haven’t substantially changed anything that would make it factually inaccurate? Who holds the copyright? For how long? If they hold the copyright, will it ever revert to you? What is the pay? Do you get free or discounted author copies? Are there royalties? If not, do you have a chance to hand-sell copies on your own to boost your bottom line? If so, what help do they provide you with marketing? Most importantly, get it all in writing. And don’t let someone tell you a contract isn’t necessary. It is.

Jenn: I’ll be blunt. You aren’t going to make a lot of money so you better enjoy yourself. This was a topic and a location I already had an interest in. It became a bonus that someone was going to pay me to explore and do research. Also, keep your creative brain firing for any other kinds of stories or characters or settings you can take away from the project and use in other writings. During my research I stumbled upon a fascinating person I want to focus on for a picture book. Work-for-hire projects can feed your other work so keep an open mind and stay curious!

Jules: You’ve probably already been told to be flexible, be ready to have things go sideways from the original plan. That was certainly true for me with this project! But I think I would refine that advice to say, be clear with yourself and your editors about where your flexibility extends, and where it doesn’t. If you have scheduling constraints, state them and then stick to them. If you have communication needs, make them and advocate for them. Timelines can shift, scope can expand or contract, but you are the one who gets to decide what changes are acceptable and what is a bridge too far. And if you make those decisions ahead of time, you can write them into your agreements and contracts, so you can “Per my previous email…” whenever the need arises!

Diane Telgen enjoyed reading so much as a child that she would read anything and everything, even the encyclopedia! That’s probably why she grew up and started writing reference books about history and literature. Now she writes both fiction and nonfiction for young readers. She earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Jay Whistler was born on Halloween and grew up in a haunted house. She loves listening to ghost stories, whether real or imagined, and willingly explores haunted places on her travels across the country and around the globe. Even so, she will always be afraid of the dark. The boring part is that Jay has her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Jenn Bailey’s debut picture book, A FRIEND FOR HENRY, won ALA’s 2020 Schneider Family Honor Book award, was named a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, was chosen as a 2021-2022 Virginia Reads selection, and received other honors. Jenn welcomes the following books onto the shelves soon: MEOWSTERPIECES (Magic Cat/Abrams, 2022); THE 12 HOURS OF CHRISTMAS (Little Brown, 2023); HENRY, LIKE ALWAYS (Chronicle, 2023); and HENRY TBD (Chronicle, 2024).

Jenn also works as a freelance editor at Angelella Editorial. When she isn’t writing or editing, she is baking pies and tending to her assortment of cats and dogs.

Jules Heller landed in New York State sometime in the last century and has been exploring the nooks and crannies of its landscapes—and legends—ever since. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Jules has co-edited a collection of Halloween tales for young adults, and runs dozens of library programs for kids of all ages on every topic from mythology to memes. They have just moved into a hundred-year-old house in the greater Syracuse area, and are happily cohabitating with their new roommate, resident ghost Giuseppe.

New MG Releases: January 2022

WE MADE IT!! This past year was a tough one for many, but 2022 is wide open for hopeful days ahead and, of course, more books to keep us laughing and feeling, take us into the minds of different characters, and transport us to fascinating places and times. And there are plenty of new books launching just in January. Here are a few to check out in the first month of this new year.

 

The Unforgettable Logan Foster, #1, by Shawn Peters

Packed with superheroes, supervillains, and epic showdowns between good and evil, The Unforgettable Logan Foster from debut author Shawn Peter shows that sometimes being a hero is just about being yourself. Logan Foster has pretty much given up on the idea of ever being adopted. It could have something to with his awkward manner, his photographic memory, or his affection for reciting curious facts, but whatever the cause, Logan and his “PP’s” (prospective parents) have never clicked. Then everything changes when Gil and Margie arrive. Although they aren’t exactly perfect themselves–Gil has the punniestsense of humor and Margie’s cooking would have anyone running for the hills–they genuinely seem to care.

But it doesn’t take Logan long to notice some very odd things about them. They are out at all hours, they never seem to eat, and there’s a part of the house that is protected by some pretty elaborate security. No matter what Logan could have imagined, nothing prepared him for the truth: His PP’s are actually superheroes, and they’re being hunted down by dastardly forces. Logan’s found himself caught in the middle in a massive battle and the very fate of the world may hang in the balance. Will Logan be able to find a way to save the day and his new family?

 

Tiger Honor, by Yoon Ha Lee

Sebin, a young tiger spirit from the Juhwang Clan, wants nothing more than to join the Thousand World Space Forces and, like their Uncle Hwan, captain a battle cruiser someday. But when Sebin’s acceptance letter finally arrives, it’s accompanied by the shocking news that Hwan has been declared a traitor. Apparently, the captain abandoned his duty to steal a magical artifact, the Dragon Pearl, and his whereabouts are still unknown. Sebin hopes to help clear their hero’s name and restore honour to the clan.

Nothing goes according to plan, however. As soon as Sebin arrives for orientation, they are met by a special investigator named Yi and his assistant, a girl named Min. Yi informs Sebin that they must immediately report to the ship Haetae and await further instructions. Sebin finds this highly unusual, but soon all protocol is forgotten when there’s an explosion on the ship, the crew is knocked out, and the communication system goes down. It’s up to Sebin, three other cadets, and Yi and Min to determine who is sabotaging the battlecruiser. When Sebin is suddenly accused of collaborating with the enemy, the cadet realizes that Min is the most dangerous foe of all…

 

Northwind, by Gary Paulsen

This stunning novel from the survival story master, set along a rugged coastline centuries ago, does for the ocean what Hatchet does for the woods, as it relates the story of a young person’s battle to stay alive against the odds, where the high seas meet a coastal wilderness.

When a deadly plague reaches the small fish camp where he lives, an orphan named Leif is forced to take to the water in a cedar canoe. He flees northward, following a wild, fjord-riven shore, navigating from one danger to the next, unsure of his destination. But the deeper into his journey he paddles, the closer he comes to his truest self as he connects to “the heartbeat of the ocean . . . the pulse of the sea.”

With hints of Nordic mythology and an irresistible narrative pull, Northwind is Gary Paulsen at his captivating, adventuresome best.

 

 

Snow Leopards and Other Wild Cats, by Mary Pope Osbourne and Jenny Laird

Track the facts about snow leopards and other amazing wild cats in this nonfiction companion to the bestselling Magic Tree House series!

When Jack and Annie came back from their adventure in Magic Tree House #36: Sunlight on the Snow Leopard, they had lots of questions. Where do snow leopards live? Why are they endangered? Which wild cat has the longest fangs? How do lions hunt? Find out the answers to these questions and more as Jack and Annie track the facts about snow leopards and wild cats from all over the world.

Filled with up-to-date information, photographs, illustrations, and fun tidbits from Jack and Annie, the Fact Trackers are the perfect way for kids to find out more about the topics they discover in their favorite Magic Tree House adventures.

 

 

Physics for Curious Kids: An Illustrated Introduction to Energy, Matter, Forces, and Our Universe!, by Laura Baker

Young readers can discover the wonders of physics with this inspirational and accessible book, brought to life by full-color illustrations.

This vibrant jacketed hardback is packed with clear, colorful, and engaging explanations of the world of physics, including matter and motion, space and time, energy and forces. Supporting STEM learning, this book is an ideal supplement to school education as it covers many core topics in an entertaining and easy-to-understand way.

Big new concepts pop off the page thanks to colorful diagrams and an engaging, energetic text. Kids will relish sharing them with friends and family!

 

Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler, by Ibi Zoboi

From the New York Times bestselling author and National Book Award finalist, a biography in verse and prose of science fiction visionary Octavia Butler, author of Parable of the Sower and Kindred.

Acclaimed novelist Ibi Zoboi illuminates the young life of the visionary storyteller Octavia E. Butler in poems and prose. Born into the Space Race, the Red Scare, and the dawning Civil Rights Movement, Butler experienced an American childhood that shaped her into the groundbreaking science-fiction storyteller whose novels continue to challenge and delight readers fifteen years after her death.

 

 

 

Overground Railroad (The Young Adult Adaptation): The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, by Candacy Taylor

A young reader’s edition of Candacy Taylor’s acclaimed book about the history of the Green Book, the guide for Black travelers

Overground Railroad chronicles the history of the Green Book, which was published from 1936 to 1966 and was the “Black travel guide to America.” For years, it was dangerous for African Americans to travel in the United States. Because of segregation, Black travelers couldn’t eat, sleep, or even get gas at most white-owned businesses.

The Green Book listed hotels, restaurants, department stores, gas stations, recreational destinations, and other businesses that were safe for Black travelers. It was a resourceful and innovative solution to a horrific problem. It took courage to be listed in the Green Book, and the stories from those who took a stand against racial segregation are recorded and celebrated.

This young reader’s edition of Candacy Taylor’s critically acclaimed adult book Overground Railroad includes her own photographs of Green Book sites, as well as archival photographs and interviews with people who owned and used these facilities. The book also includes an author’s note, endnotes, bibliography, timeline, and index.

On the Move: Home Is Where You Find It, by Michael Rosen

In a masterful new collaboration, personal poems and poignant art illuminate the experience of refugees and immigrants everywhere.

That’s why
it can happen again.
It does happen again.
It has happened again.

Some of Michael Rosen’s relatives were lost before he was born, in the Holocaust. First, he wondered about them. And he wrote poems. Next, he searched for their stories. And he wrote poems. Then he found their stories. And he wrote poems. Now, in a companion book to The Missing: The True Story of My Family in World War II, Michael Rosen has brought together forty-nine of his most powerful poems, exploring the themes of migration and displacement through the lens of his childhood in the shadow of World War II, the lives of his relatives during that war, and migration, refugees, and displacement today and tomorrow, here, there, and everywhere. Throughout, atmospheric watercolors from master illustrator Quentin Blake evoke the hardship, exhaustion, isolation, and companionship of being on the move. At once intimate and universal, On the Move probes the power of art to adapt, bear witness, and heal.

 

Martin Luther King: The Peaceful Warrior, by Ed Clayton

Follow the inspiring life of Martin Luther King Jr. in a moving, vital, and informative book by an author and an illustrator with close ties to Dr. King’s family.

Martin Luther King Jr. devoted his life to helping people, first as a Baptist minister and scholar and later as the foremost leader in the African-American civil rights movement. An organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott and cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. As a result of his actions, the United States Congress passed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. This book’s powerful story and important message, originally published in 1964, remain as relevant today as they were more than fifty years ago. With a new foreword by the author’s widow, Xernona Clayton, the text has been reviewed and updated for a new generation and features striking new illustrations by Donald Bermudez.

 

Ain’t Burned All the Bright, by Jason Reynolds

Prepare yourself for something unlike anything: A smash-up of art and text for teens that viscerally captures what it is to be Black. In America. Right Now. Written by #1 New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jason Reynolds.

Jason Reynolds and his best bud, Jason Griffin had a mind-meld. And they decided to tackle it, in one fell swoop, in about ten sentences, and 300 pages of art, this piece, this contemplation-manifesto-fierce-vulnerable-gorgeous-terrifying-WhatIsWrongWithHumans-hope-filled-hopeful-searing-Eye-Poppingly-Illustrated-tender-heartbreaking-how-The-HECK-did-They-Come-UP-with-This project about oxygen. And all of the symbolism attached to that word, especially NOW.

And so for anyone who didn’t really know what it means to not be able to breathe, REALLY breathe, for generations, now you know. And those who already do, you’ll be nodding yep yep, that is exactly how it is.

 

Happy New Year to all our MUF blog readers–wishing you a reading-filled 2022!

Paired Texts: Inspired by Classics

Need a last-minute gift idea for a middle grade bookworm? Or maybe you’re a teacher, librarian, or homeschooling parent on the lookout for some fresh literature lists or features for the new year? Consider pairing together a retelling, sequel, or inspired tale with the title that preceded it.

  • Reading paired texts is a great workout for MG readers’ critical thinking skills, especially when they think critically about the context of the classic work (such as the time period in which it was written).
  • The comparing/contrasting of two stories is a lesson goal that can be tailored to a wide variety of learning styles and levels.
  • Reading two related texts fulfills important core standards in educational settings.

Or if someone on your gift list simply enjoys thinking about stories and writers in cool and comparative ways, reading a modern retelling, sequel, or companion novel alongside its classic predecessor might be a cozy way to spend some winter afternoons. Here are some ideas for paired titles you might consider for your classroom, library, or personal gift-giving.

Hena Khan’s More to the Story is inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In More to the Story, a modern American Muslim family faces challenges that compare to the March family’s conflicts of a century-and-a-half ago in Alcott’s classic.

Rajani LaRocca’s Midsummer Mayhem is subtly inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Midsummer Mayhem features Indian American protagonist Mimi who uses both culinary skill and magic to solve the mysterious goings-on in her household and town. For the Elizabethan classic, consider an introductory adaptation like this comics-style version if your middle graders aren’t ready for Shakespearean verse. This author also wrote Much Ado About Baseball, a companion piece to Midsummer Mayhem which Kirkus calls an “homage” to the bard’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Lou Kuenzler’s Finding Black Beauty is a spin on the story of Anna Sewell’s classic Black Beauty, retold from the perspective of groom Josephine who masquerades as a boy in order to find the horse she loves when they become separated.

Sequels to children’s classics The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett include Holly Webb’s Return to the Secret Garden and The Princess and the Suffragette. Hilary McKay’s Wishing for Tomorrow is a sequel to A Little Princess as well.

A variety of writers compile new perspectives on Alice’s adventures in Return to Wonderland, a collection of retellings of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas sees a modern-day retelling and new perspective from young protagonist and time traveling teen Greg Rich in Stuart Gibbs’s The Last Musketeer.

Wishing everyone the best in your holiday seasons and new year!