Archive for Scary Tales

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #266: All About Monsters


Sam writes . . .


Dear Mr. Preller,

HI! My name is Sam. I am in 4th grade. I was wondering if I could interview you for a school research project. my topic is monsters. I can send the questions by email if it is convenient for you.
And the next day . . .

Hi Mr.Preller! These are the interview questions.

 1) what is the most common monster?
 2) what are common monster traits?
 3) why are monsters feared?
 4) how are most monsters created?
 5) how do your monsters act?
 6) how did you create your monsters?
Thanks for making the time to do this!
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream.”

I replied . . . 
You should know that I don’t know any monsters personally — and I mean, monster-monsters, not monstrous people or events — we all c8ef36cf51ff34e2a2e8e1bbed323631have a little monster inside us, I believe — so I’m not sure I have the exact brand of expertise you seek. For my “Scary Tales” series, for example, I usually make up “monsters” that I imagine might frighten a reader, or frighten me, though I have yet to write a story about a monster-dentist. Talk about scary! I could call it, THE ROOT CANAL! Or, I don’t know, THE BRACES TIGHTEN!
(I never had braces, but the idea terrifies me.)
Another scary title for a monster story might be, oh, THE CONGRESSMAN!
Yikes, horrifying. 
So I guess in that sense monsters can come in all shapes and sizes. Not necessarily swamp monsters or werewolves or zombies.
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: The One-Eyed Doll."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: The One-Eyed Doll.”

Anyway, that said, let me try to answer your questions, Sam.
1. The most common monster? The one under your bed.
2. Common traits? They like to hide in dark places.
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: Swamp Monster."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: Swamp Monster.”

3. Monsters are feared because they are . . . other. Different. Not us. But the reverse can also be true. In my book Swamp Monster, the creature from the swamp, the so-called “monster,” simply wants her baby back. An egg has been stolen from her. She’s a loving mother. So I ask you, as I did in the book, who is really the monster in that story? I guess it depends on your point of view.

4. Monsters are created from the dark places in our imaginations. Once they are dreamed up, they are free to go about as they please. There’s no putting the toothpaste back into the tube, so to speak.
5. Like every other character in a book or story, monsters want something. The question is always: What does this character want? In The One-Eyed Doll, the “monster” — I use quotes here, because I’m not always comfortable labeling these creations as monsters — wants to be a real girl. Not a monstrous desire at all. But of course, in order one_eyed_dollesec01to get what she desires . . . well, that’s the scary part. The wanting can be a sort of disease, a sickness that allows you to do horrible things. Greed is the kind of disease that can turn ordinary people into monsters. They want what they want. When I think of monstrous people in our world, the common characteristic is a lack of empathy. They don’t care about anyone else but themselves. Selfish, greedy. They don’t care who they hurt as long as they get what they want. Once you begin to think about how someone else might feel . . . once you walk around in someone else’s shoes, see life from their point of view . . . that’s when you lose your ability to be a monster.
(These are complicated thoughts, Sam, and I’m not sure I’m articulating them well, but maybe worth a conversation with a teacher or parent or some friends. There are so many types of monsters in the world, it’s hard to keep them sorted out. Can you be a bully if you truly, deeply think about how your target feels? Can we rip the immigrant father away from his children if we truly succeed in imagining their hearts and minds? Can we pollute a river if we care about our planet and the people who live on it?)
To me, a monster is almost always deeply egocentric, unable to think of anyone else’s feelings but his/her own.
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: Nightmareland."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: Nightmareland.”

6. How do I create them? The glib answer is that, as a writer, my job is to make things up. And I do that piece by piece, characteristic by characteristic. When I wrote a book about bullying, Bystander, the character who was the “monster” in that story — a boy who did 9780312547967monstrous things — I made sure that he was attractive in many respects. A good-looking kid. A smooth talker. Nice smile. That’s what made him especially dangerous. He didn’t appear, at first, as a monster. Quite the opposite. Sometimes the scariest kid in class is four feet tall and wears blonde pigtails and has a terrific smile. And sometimes the monster might be childhood illness, as in my book Six Innings. Or a mother’s cancer in The Courage Test. Not something I made up, but recognized as a actual terror in the real world. But again, let’s get back to traditional monsters, and what the monster wants. In Good Night, Zombie, the monsters are zombies. They aren’t complicated. They just want to eat. Unfortunately, we’re on the menu!
Thanks for your questions.
I’m curious. What are you going to do with them? 
My best, 
James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #261: Aloha, Cody!


Oh, that face!

This is Cody, a precocious 5-year-old from Hawaii who just read his first chapter book all by himself. He’s also a contest winner. I actually have a hard time giving away free books on my blog. I try, and sometimes succeed, but generally don’t get a big response. People don’t read blogs that often — and I totally understand that — and, I suspect, if they are like me, they likely figure, “Oh, I never win anything anyway.”

Cody’s mother wrote:

My 5 year old Kindergarten son just picked “Good Night, Zombie” out at the library on November 2nd. This was his first chapter book EVER! He just finished it this morning before school. When I was googling the book to see what reading level it was, I came across the contest…that just ended. However. He was excited to do it and I was excited to share with you that my little guy loved the book. He told me after reading it that he had to get number one and three books (since the one he chose is number three). I wanted to thank you for your book!! My son enjoyed it…and got a little scared too! Which made me happy because I knew he was comprehending what he read. 


I replied by sending Cody two books. While I think “scary” is highly individual in how readers respond to it, I wanted to give Cody a mellower option so tossed in a signed Jigsaw Jones, too. Five years old felt a little young to me. But again, as I half-apologetically tell kids (in grades 3-up) on school visits, “Nobody gets murdered in these books.”

They groan, good-naturedly, in disappointment.


By the way, I loved Cody’s mom’s comment that she was happy he got a little scared because it showed he understood what he was reading.

I don’t think it’s the end of the world if a reader gets a little scared, either. The heart goes boom-boom-boom. I think it’s in those moments of disequilibrium, of “up-set-ment,” when learning takes place.

I believe I’m in the business of disturbing the universe. It’s my job.



Pulling the Plug: Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out


Pulling the plug.

I’ll be honest, this is something I struggle with at times. The time-suck of the endless scroll, the dopamine hit we get from a like or a click. The internet experience can be like pulling on a crack pipe. It’s so easy for us to lose our way in the web of social media, lose our grounding in the natural world.

So today I share this image from the Japanese translation of Nightmareland from my Scary Tales series. I’d love to give credit to the illustrator, but I honestly can’t make head or tails of this language.

Carry on. And good luck to you, dear reader, in your efforts to unplug, echoing that idealistic 60s concept of tune in (to your deeper self, at the bottom where there is no “self”), turn on (to the natural, spiritual world), drop out (unplug from addictive, distractive social media).

During the Day, I Don’t Believe in Ghosts . . .



Found this meme the other day and it made me laugh. I believe that kids know what they like and don’t like, what works for them and what, well, doesn’t. In a room full of peers they might all raise they hands when asked if they like scary stories, but privately they might answer differently. It’s important to me on school visits to respect that distinction. I don’t talk about these books below 3rd grade and always in terms of the creative process — asking “What if?” questions — developing story ideas.

At book festivals I’ll meet young readers who looooove this series. They are disappointed there are only six titles. (I know that feeling; so am I.) Other kids reach a little hesitantly for one of the books. Drawn to it, curious, but unsure. Maybe Mom stands behind them, a little unsure herself. One tip I share is that if they are at all worried about it, maybe they should first try reading it during the day time. Like the meme says, it’s much easier to believe in scary things when the lights go out.

Here’s a piece of art from the great Iacopo Bruno from Nightmareland. I think of this one as my most Twilight Zone-inspired story, less scary, more twisty. But your mileage may vary.


Play the “Scary Tales” Matching Game and WIN A FREE BOOK!

NOTE: I ran this contest last year (2016), and I’m doing it again. AND ALSO: The odds of winning are not as hard as you might suspect. HINT: Nobody reads blogs anymore!

Welcome, Fearless Readers! Here we are nearing the ghostly season when things go bump, and squish, and hooowl in the night.

I wish remind educators and young readers that the books in my “Scary Tales” series will make your life better by upwards to 63% or less.

No one gets murdered in these stories, everybody comes out okay, but the suspense might rattle your cage. Here’s how you can win a free book.

Yes, free book.

I’ll show six illustrations below by the great Iacopo Bruno, one from each of the “Scary Tales” titles in random order. Beneath that, I’ll list the titles. You or (hopefully) your students or children need to match the illustrations with the correct titles. Then send an email to me at under the subject heading SCARY TALES. Entries must be received by October 20th. On that date, I will send a signed book to six randomly-selected fearless readers who respond with their best answers. (Don’t have to be right!)

Please feel free to share this page with friends and foes and fish and fowl alike.

Illustration A:


Illustration B:


Illustration C:


Illustration D:


Illustration E:


Illustration F:


Now match the illustration to one of these six titles:

1. Home Sweet Horror

2. I Scream, You Scream

3. Good Night, Zombie

4. Nightmareland

5. One-Eyed Doll

6. Swamp Monster