Posts Tagged scary stories

Spooky Roundtable: Oh, The Horror!

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
Marina @marinacohen
SA @SA_Larsen
Rob(ert) Kent @MGNinja


Two Book Giveaway and Interview With Jonathan Rosen

I’m thrilled to interview Mixed-Up Files member Jonathan Rosen and celebrate the release of his middle grade novel, From Sunset Till Sunrise. Huge congratulations, Jonathan! I’d love to know how you came up with the idea for From Sunset Till Sunrise and some of the changes your story went through before publication.  

Hi Mindy!

The idea for From Sunset Till Sunrise, was actually just a continuation of the ending of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies. When I wrote Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, I did so with the intent/hope that it might become a series. At least, I left open the possibility, by ending it by mentioning there might be a vampire moving in. I just loved working in this genre of horror/humor and hoped to continue. It’s a lot of fun taking horror tropes and twisting them. When Sky Pony talked about a sequel, it was before Cuddle Bunnies even came out. So, there was some discussion about what to make the next book about, but since the ending already had vampires, and they liked it, we just went with it.

Cuddle Bunnies played with movies like Gremlins and Fright Night, and From Sunset Till Sunrise also uses Fright Night, but there’s a lot of From Dusk Till Dawn and other vampire movies in there, as well.

As far as changes, there really weren’t too many, though I did go back and forth on who the main villain would be. But, there weren’t many others.


I read and loved the first book in this series, Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, and will never look at stuffed animals the same way again. I plunged into From Sunset Till Sunrise, excited to see Devin, Tommy, and Abby again, and noticed that you gave just enough information for new readers to quickly catch up on what’s been happening in Gravesend. Can you share some tips for writing a series?

I think series are fun, but challenging. In From Sunset Till Sunrise, I alluded to what happened in Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, but never specified. That way, the sequel could stand on its own for new readers. They didn’t have to read the first one. But, if you did read the first one, there was still enough of a continuation for you to get references that new readers wouldn’t. When references are mentioned, the series reader can just smile and know exactly what is meant, but the newbie still has an idea.

It’s definitely tricky. Because, now we have established characters. Even though I did reintroduce them, and you get an idea of their personalities, it’s extra fun if you’ve already gone on the ride before. You amp up what they did the first time around, which for me, I loved pushing Tommy even further.


Tommy had so many zany ideas in the first book, I didn’t think it was possible to push him even further—but you definitely did that! You also let us see a lot more of spunky Abby in this book, which was awesome.

Your books are so funny—and you often make me laugh on Facebook and Twitter, too. When did you realize you had a great sense of humor, and how has it helped you?

Does it sound immodest to come here and say, “I always knew I was funny”? Well, I did! ? But, kidding aside, humor was/is a huge part of my life. Most of my family had good senses of humor. My immediate family and my uncle, as well. And, those are the types of movies and books that I gravitated to. As a kid, I watched so many old comedies with my dad, and they really were a great way to learn things like timing, and set-ups. Humor has always been a part of my life, and as you said, it has helped me, since I was very shy, quiet, and nerdy. And, like a lot of people with the same traits, humor was a self-defense mechanism. You’re not getting picked on, if you’re making people laugh. Well, that is if you’re not making a flippant remark that gets someone angry. ? As you get older, your humor starts standing out for different reasons. You start getting noticed for it, in good ways.


You not only have humor, you have a lot of heart, too. Thank you so much for giving us a glimpse of your childhood and why humor is such a big part of your life.


Between your humor and the surprising spooky elements, your books are awesome for everyone, including reluctant readers. They’re fast-paced fun reads! Do you have any advice for anyone who is trying to encourage kids to read?

Thanks for saying! First, I always let kids read what they want. I wasn’t a reluctant reader, but I read everything. Books, comics, magazines, etc. As long as someone is reading, I think that’s great. I have a reluctant reader at home, and quick chapters, with funny, fast-paced action, seems to work.


I love the creative ways Devin and Tommy protect themselves in your books—including bubble wrap, water balloons, and Super Soakers. This could definitely inspire teachers, media specialists, and parents to ask kids to write the creations they’d come up with if they were sucked into an adventure with Devin and Tommy. Any suggestions for a writing exercise they can use?    

Writing for Devin and Tommy is one of the most fun things about this series. As I said earlier, it’s fun to take the regular tropes and twist them in a fun way. I made a list of so many things, and I wound up using only a small portion them. The key is to look up all the tropes for a particular monster or myth and see what you can do to substitute or replace any of them. In From Sunset Till Sunrise, Devin and Tommy are facing vampires without Holy Water around, so they had to improvise. A little garlic powder mixed into water balloons did the trick there, but look at the tropes and play with them. See what you can come up with.


That sounds like a fun writing exercise! I’d love to see the inventions kids come up with.

What type of research have you had to do when writing middle grade novels?

I am sooooo big on research. Names, myths, lore, everything. In my books, a lot of the characters also have names which mean things. Including the vampires. But, I do like to research everything I can while writing. Geography, history, etc. I researched all the ways to be able to defeat certain monsters. The characteristics of monsters. I want to take the familiar and mix them up.


What are you working on now?

My agent is starting to take something else out on sub, while I’m in the middle of another two humorous, middle grade books.


Ooh, I can’t wait to hear more about them when you can share. We need more of your amazing humorous middle grade books! Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know?

I just want them to know that I’m grateful for them. Seriously. I get such a rush out of knowing that someone is enjoying my book. It means everything to me. Also, please feel free to reach out. I have usually answered most messages.

Hopefully, I’ll have some news to share soon about other works of mine!

Thanks again, Mindy!


You’re welcome, Jonathan. I loved reading your books and interviewing you.

Find out more about Jonathan on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  You can also read Jonathan’s interview when Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies was released. 

Enter the Rafflecopter widget below for a chance to win a signed copy of both Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies and From Sunset Till Sunrise. Thank you so much for this generous giveaway, Jonathan!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies

Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.

That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever? This is a very funny “scary” book for kids, in the same vein as the My Teacher books or Goosebumps.


From Sunset Till Sunrise

Devin Dexter and his cousin Tommy just saved the city of Gravesend from the menace of magical, malicious Cuddle Bunnies brought to life by the warlock, Herb. But there’s no rest for the wicked, as a new mysterious neighbor moves in across the street. At night. With a coffin. Tommy immediately jumps to conclusions as he thinks this can only mean one thing: Vampires.

Devin isn’t so quick to believe, as he is struck by the neighbor’s daughter, a girl his age. Even though Tommy points out that they have never seen her during the day. Yet when she invites him to a dance at her school–the Nosfer Academy of Talented Understudies–how can Devin say no? Tommy, though, realizes that this is an opportunity. After tackling a wizard last winter, surely they can protect Gravesend from some measly vampires, right?


The winner will be announced on Sunday, August 26. This giveaway is open to anyone in the U.S.  Good luck, everyone. 🙂

Interview with a Character ~ Brightwood by Tania Unsworth

I’m so excited to introduce you to Tania Unsworth’s main character and basic facilitator of the middle grade fantasy Brightwood – “Brilliantly conceived . . . entertaining and heartfelt.” —Kirkus Reviews

Meet Daisy – an imaginative and determined girl who is willing to fight for the only home she’s ever known.

Hi, Daisy! It’s great to meet you.

It’s great to be here. Thank you very much.

Tell the readers about Brightwood Hall, the only home you’ve ever known.

I love my home. It’s filled with treasures and secret passageways and enough supplies to last us just about forever. Sometimes I go down the driveway and look through the gates at the outside world, and wonder what other people’s houses are like. I was born in this house, and I’ve never been out, not even once. As for my rat, he’s called Tar, and he’s not really mine. He appears when he wants food, which is most of the time because he is obsessed with eating. Tar is very chatty. I know he can’t really talk, but he seems to. It’s hard to explain. As for the ‘explorer ghost’, her name is Frank, and she’s not really a ghost at all . . .

Whoa . . . you just blindsided me with the end of that response. I am so intrigued! What are some of your favorite things and ways to pass the time?

Brightwood is full of animals. I like feeding and looking after them. My favorites are the peacocks. Years and years ago, there were only two of them. Now there are dozens of them running around wild.

They run around wild? That must be funny.

I also like cooking – I taught myself from books in the library. Our basement is filled up with hundreds of boxes of food and groceries, so I can always find the ingredients I need. I go to school every day in the ballroom. My mum teaches me. Sometimes I wonder whether my life is different – even strange. But I don’t have anything to compare it to. Do other kids do their lessons in a ballroom? I just don’t know…

It must have felt strange being alone in the house when Mr. Gritting first arrived. What did you think of him?

When my mum didn’t come back, I tried not to worry, although she’d never been late home before. I kept telling myself there was a reasonable explanation, but when she hadn’t returned by evening, I knew something bad must’ve happened. I was scared when Mr. Gritting arrived in his car. Apart from my mum, I’d never seen another person in my life before.

This must have been so hard for you. You are a strong girl, Daisy.

I wanted to trust him, I really did. And he seemed quite friendly to begin with. But something about him didn’t seem right. Maybe it was the way he acted – as if he owned the place.. Or maybe it was the moment he said, “I have to take care of you” that made me realize the truth. Mr. Gritting was not my friend, and he wasn’t going to help me. He was planning to do the exact opposite.

Would you share something you learned about yourself throughout this book journey?

I’ve learned I’m braver than I knew.


A door creaks open and someone shuffles into the room.

Oh my gosh! What a lovely surprise! Tania, your creator, is here. 

*Daisy blushes*

Daisy, care to share what you really think of your creator? *I smile, and she smiles back.*

Okay. I think she was a little bit like me when she was a kid. She made things up – people and places – and they seemed real to her, even though she knew they weren’t. When you’re a child it’s far easier to believe two opposite things at the same time. I happen to know that she had an imaginary friend, whom she blamed whenever she got into trouble. One day, during a long drive, she blamed him for pinching her sister on the leg. Her father stopped the car and told him to get out, and that was the last she ever saw of him. As far as she knows he’s still there, on the side of the road.

Haha! I think I really like her father. It was wonderful meeting you, Daisy. Best of luck on your future adventures. Thank you for joining us. I’m going to chat with Tania for a minute.

Hi Tania! I’m thrilled you’ve dropped by, again. Real quick, tells us your favorite thing about writing this book.

I got very fond of Frank. Even when I’d finished the book she refused to go away. When a reader sent me a letter telling me how much she liked BRIGHTWOOD, I felt compelled to answer as if I was Frank. And for nearly a year, Frank persisted in sending this reader at least a dozen further letters, recounting her adventures with Sir Clarence in the Amazonian jungle. I had to really put my foot down before she finally stopped.

That is very cool! It’s wonderful you have such a strong connection to Frank. I’m sure the lucky recipient reader loved this.

What can your readers expect next from you?

My latest book THE GIRL WHO THOUGHT HER MOTHER WAS A MERMAID, will be published in July 2018 by Zephyr/Head of Zeus. As you might guess from the title, it’s a mermaid story, but with a dark and unexpected twist…American readers can preorder it on

Ooh, sounds like a fantastical read kids (& adults like me) will love! Best of luck to you always. Thanks to you and Daisy for spending time with us.


Tania Unsworth is the author of THE ONE SAFE PLACE, BRIGHTWOOD, and THE GIRL WHO THOUGHT HER MOTHER WAS A MERMAID. She moved from the UK in her twenties, and now lives with her family in Boston, Mass. Find her on her Website and Twitter.