To honor the very scary month of October, we asked five frightening fiction writers (well, their books are, anyway) to talk about writing novels sure to give middle grade readers the willies.
Marina Cohen is an elementary school teacher with a Master’s degree in French literature; she’s the author of several award-nominated middle grade and upper middle grade horror novels for children and young teens including THE INN BETWEEN, THE DOLL’S EYE, GHOST RIDE, and coming in 2019, A BOX OF BONES.
Josh Berk has written four books for kids and teens. Author Saundra Mitchell is his co-author for the comic horror story CAMP MURDERFACE, due out Spring of 2020, about two kids who go to a camp in 1980s Ohio that has a mysterious and terrifying past that refuses to stay buried.
Robert Kent writes middle grade novels under the name Rob Kent: BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES and the upcoming BANNEKER BONES AND THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. He runs the popular blog for writers, MIDDLE GRADE NINJA.
Michael Dahl lives in a haunted house in Minnesota. He is the author of more than 100 books for kids, including the series LIBRARY OF DOOM, RETURN TO THE LIBRARY OF DOOM (too bad there wasn’t a Son of Library of Doom!). His new newest series is the SCHOOL BUS OF HORRORS.
S. A. Larsen loves to explore imaginary passageways to hidden worlds with all sorts of creepy creatures. She also thinks cemeteries are cool. Her work includes the award-winning middle grade fantasy-adventure MOTLEY EDUCATION, and she has just finished Book 2 in the series, DEAD ALLEY, which will be out next year.
What made you want to write scary stories?
Michael: I’ve always read kids’ books, and still do. That’s my favorite area of literature. And I started horror because I myself am frightened of lots of things. Lots. From jewelry to airplanes to wet paper to monkeys. I knew I could draw on those strong emotions to write something real and genuine.
Marina: I think a story can be exceptionally creepy when told through the point of view of a young protagonist. There’s a greater contrast when you juxtapose innocence with evil, don’t you think? Although my novels are middle-grade, beware—my stories can have some pretty dark elements.
S.A.: I’ve always been drawn to the intrigue that lies beneath the surface of scary books and films. I guess it made me feel brave. Plus, I love cemeteries. In high school, I’d walk around our local cemetery taking in all the names of those who’d passed on and wonder who they were and what kind of life they led. Of course, my mind would play tricks on me, making me think I saw something move from a nearby tree or gravestone. And crypts have always fascinated me. We think we know what’s in there, but do we really?
Rob: The scarier stories were always my favorites growing up. Scary stories aren’t always good, but they’re rarely boring. Now that I’m an adult writing books for kids, I’m mindful to write the books I would’ve most wanted to read when I was a kid dreaming of growing up to write books for kids. Not to compare myself to J.K. Rowling (dream on, self), but I think some of the scariest books for MG readers are the Harry Potter books. I always thought the scariest thing in the whole series was that Ron’s pet rat was secretly a grown man in disguise for years sleeping in his room.
Why do you think kids like to be scared?
S.A.: There are a lot of areas of real life that can be scary. I think being spooked with fictional horror can feel safe and even funny at times for kids. The anticipation of what’s coming next is a big draw. It feels like risk-taking, thus making them feel brave. I remember watching scary movies with my best friend in junior high. We’d hold pillows to our faces in anticipation of what was coming, scream once it came, and then laugh silly right after.
Marina: It’s fun! That is, for those of us who enjoy heart-pounding edge-of-your-seat-thrills. Truthfully, I believe there is science behind it. (I love science and fit it into my stories whenever I can!) It has to do with neurotransmitters and the hormones released when the body feels fear. You can get a huge rush out of feeling scared when your brain actually knows you’re completely safe. For some people, being scared simply makes them happy.
Josh: Life is scary, so if things get really scary in the book/movie/whatever but then work out okay, that can give you hope for life doing the same. It’s controlled fear, fun like roller coasters. If you felt like a roller coaster would actually kill you, I think attendance at amusement parks would be much lower. That’s just a guess, as I can’t go on roller coasters, as anything spinnier than an office chair makes me barf. (Also please don’t spin my office chair too quickly.)
Rob: There are very real reasons to be afraid of the world and anxious about our tenuous position in it. Lots of bad things could happen to us at any minute and from time to time, they do. Whatever our problems are, usually they’re not as bad as someone being chased and possibly devoured by a monster. And if your problems are that bad, you should be running to safety, not reading.
Who/what is the scariest character in your book?
Michael: In the School Bus of Horrors it’s the bus. And the bus driver. This strange bus shows up at different schools on different days, maybe for a field trip, or it’s the after-school bus, or it might be the bus taking the high school football team home from an away game. No one can really see the driver. He sits behind an opaque, plastic security wall around the driver seat.
I’m sure the book is super scary, but the cover for FRIDAY NIGHT HEADLIGHTS totally cracked me up.
S.A.: Seeing how MOTLEY EDUCATION utilizes creatures from Norse mythology, some readers might think it’s the fire giant that chases the kids through the boneyard (aka cemetery) or the ginormous serpent that invades Motley’s gymnasium. Maybe even Fenrir the wolf, whose paws are the size of small trucks. But I’d say it’s the doors that keep appearing to Ebony Charmed, the main character. She never knows what she’ll find behind each door.
Josh: In CAMP MURDERFACE, there are ghosts and murders and a near drowning in a pit of dry bones. But the scariest thing has to be the Vampire Devils. I honestly don’t like talking about them too much as I have sort of convinced myself that they are real, and I am afraid of them.
Marina: I try to layer my stories with all sorts of creepy characters and concepts. What kids find scary in my stories is not as scary for adults. What adults find most frightening seems to slip past my young audience. In THE INN BETWEEN, young readers find the basement scene and the character they discover there creepiest. Adults find Emma’s disappearance far more frightening, as it’s unfortunately far more real. Similarly, in THE DOLL’S EYE, young readers find the kobold and the dolls scary, whereas adults know it’s definitely the father character who is creepiest.
Rob: The giant robot bees in Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees. I’ve been unusually afraid of bees since I was a kid and I’ve long had a recurring nightmare about being chased by all-metal bees the size of cars. They’re the scariest monsters in any of my books for any age group, and Banneker Bones is the only character I’ve written about who’s brave enough to face them (with a jet pack and smoke bombs and a bunch of gadgets).
What was deliciously scary for you as a kid?
S.A.: We used to spend summers up to camp when I was a kid. Our nights consisted of a fire, roasting marshmallows, and playing hide and seek. I loved playing hide and seek in the creepy woods.
Josh: I was a very anxious child (and adult) and to be honest don’t really know what “deliciously scary” feels like. I know it’s a thing that other people have experienced but I do not recall such a feeling.
Marina: I’ve been drawn to scary things ever since I can remember. My mother used to read to me from an old book of German fairytales that were pretty dark. Even at a super young age my favorite Saturday morning cartoon was Scooby-Doo. But I’d say what frightened me most as a kid—and even now as and adult—was what was not said. Not seen. What was left to the dark recesses of my imagination. In seventh grade my teacher took our class to see a high school performance of The Monkey’s Paw. That slow knock, knock, knock leaving me to imagine what might await me on the other side of the door was most deliciously frightening.
Oh my gosh, I had the same experience with my mom reading me The Monkey’s Paw!
Rob: The Witches by Roald Dahl. I can’t imagine anything scarier than being a boy trapped in the back of a hotel conference room and discovering the women occupying it are actually witches (unless they were bees disguised as witches). I’ve written a long review on my love for that book and discussed it in a podcast.
Michael: I loved monster movies: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Godzilla. The Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys in Oz. And I was a huge fan of “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” My cousins and I watched that TZ episode one night with William Shatner trapped on the plane with a monster out on the wing — “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” — Yikes! We watched it at my cousins’ house, which was a former logger boarding house in the middle of nowhere in northern Minnesota. Nothing around but miles and miles of fields and trees. And anything lurking in the darkness.
That particular TZ episode has stuck with me for oh, half a century now. I still sometimes think I’ll see that creature when I’m flying at night!
What was too scary for you as a kid?
Josh: Oh, everything.
Rob: I was frightened of Darth Vadar, the Audry II from Little Shop of Horrors, and even Large Marge from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I was embarrassingly easy to frighten, which probably led me to writing horror as an adult. Horror is more fun when you get to be the one doing all the scaring. Scares you receive when you’re a child stay with you the rest of your life. Writing scary stories for kids is a big responsibility.
S.A.: One night when I was eight or nine years old, I tiptoed downstairs to catch a glimpse of the scary movie my mom was watching. It was The Shining by Stephen King. She was pretty angry when she found me, and I think I slept in my parent’s room for a week after that.
Michael: I watched an old TV movie about the pharaohs and the building of the pyramids. At the end of the movie, an evil queen gets trapped, buried alive inside the pyramid by giant slabs of stone blocking all the passageways. I was sure a stone slab was going to come down through my doorway and trap me forever in my bedroom! I still get nightmares about that.
Writing horror for middle grade, how do you tell when scary becomes too scary?
Josh: I am a bad judge of this because as I might have mentioned, everything is too scary for me. I was legit terrified by ARE YOU MY MOTHER? as a kid. Is it just me? Probably. But that bird loses his mom and then his mind?! No, a lion is not your mother, bird–you’re a bird. Neither is a construction vehicle. You are clearly delusional and mad with grief. He seems forever destined to wander around as a deranged orphan.Who wrote this, Cormac McCarthy? The happy ending doesn’t make up for all the trauma, P.D. Eastman!
Marina: Not every book is right for every kid, and not every kid enjoys scary things. But those who do can handle more than adults often give them credit for. Readers bring their own experience to a book, and adults can forget they bring with them a deeper knowledge and understanding of the world than younger readers who experience the darker concepts at a far more superficial level. What you won’t find in my books is graphic violence and gore or language and content inappropriate for middle grade readers. What I promise is more than a few shudders and shivers and hopefully some deeper messages to ponder about life and death, survival, tradition, choices and consequences, bravery, and humanity.
S.A.: I tend to write these scenes with more creepy description than action, which feels safer, and I always interject humorous dialog from the characters to balance out the horror or scary parts. I also make sure to give the characters an obvious way out or rescue from the scene, even though I rarely let the characters use it. This comforts the reader that the characters will somehow make it out.
Michael: There are certain things I decide outright that I will not include in a scary story. Kidnappings, gore, abusive parents, anything to do with the Slender Man. This is my own personal list of taboos. I don’t have a lot of pain in my stories. They are creepy and chilling and unsettling and sometimes, gross. But I make sure to not cross the lines that I have set for myself. And I visit schools throughout the country, so I can talk with students, and most importantly librarians and teachers, to see how the kids are reacting to my books. So far, so good. And at every school, when I ask the kids if they want to hear a scary story, from Kindergarten to 6th grade, they all raise their hands!
Find these chilling authors on Twitter:
Josh & Saundra:@joshberkbooks @SaundraMitchell
Rob(ert) Kent @MGNinja