Tag Archive for Best scary stories for children

5 Questions with Dan Poblocki, Author of TALES TO KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT

What can I say? Dan Poblocki is a scary dude. Though we’ve never met, Dan and I have been criss-crossing paths over the years. We’re both upstaters (Dan’s in Saugerties; I’m in Delmar) and we share an affection for suspenseful, scary stories. Dan’s been doing great work for years and more people are beginning to notice — I picked up Liar’s Room at a recent Scholastic Book Fair — and I thought it was time to put a focus on those chilling tales that keep readers turning pages late into the night. 


1. Can you remember the first time you were scared by a book or a movie? You must have liked it, right? 

I’m not sure if it was the first time I was scared by a film, but one that has stuck in my memory over the decades was an ABC Weekend Special called “The Red Room Riddle,” a half-hour short TV movie based on a 1972 middle-grade novel by Scott Corbett. I don’t think I ever picked up the book version, but I remember some moments of the movie nearly stopping my seven-year-old heart. Two kids lured into a haunted house, getting locked in a mysterious red room, a throbbing red orb that emits a siren sound, secret passages, see-through people, and lots of fire. I rewatched it recently and it’s relatively toothless, but it gave me some insight into how little it takes sometimes to freak out a kid. It’s funny because so much of what’s in this short TV movie has ended up in my own books. Secret passages, ghosts, getting trapped in places where you don’t want to be. Fun! So apparently, yes, I did like it. But it was a funny feeling. I didn’t understand why I liked being so scared. It certainly made me seek out more stuff like it. That’s how I ended up finding books by Mary Downing Hahn, Bruce Coville, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and John Bellairs at the local library and book fairs.

2. I’m curious to know your thoughts on horror as a genre. What do you think are the virtues of scary stories? And — same question, really — why do you think so many readers keep coming back for more? 

I think one virtue of the horror genre is that it holds our attention. So, if a young reader has a hard time sticking with books, a scary one might be a good suggestion. Horror novels act as a hook, so once you get a taste for turning those creepy, creepy pages, you’ll want to seek out that adrenaline rush again and again. That’s how it was for me, at least. There are many other reasons to seek out or play around in the horror genre. One reason that I heard recently was from Ally Malinenko, author of the Bram Stoker Award Nominee, This Appearing House. Ally wrote that we don’t necessarily write horror stories to scare children. We write them to help children become brave. I couldn’t agree more. 


Oh, that’s excellent. Acclaimed horror writer Peter Straub contends that “dread” is essential for a great horror story. And I guess dread is the evil twin of suspense. That anticipatory dread we feel as we watch our protagonists head down into the basement where danger lurks. Note: This technically does not count as a question. We’re just talking!

I can get on board that a sense of dread is a precursor to suspense. I suppose it’s all in how you formulate your story. Dread leads to suspense. Suspense grabs the reader, makes them want to find out what happens next. Is all of this necessary for a story to be considered “horror?” I’m not sure, but it sounds like it might help! I wish I had something more profound to say, but I find I’m not so good at deconstructing the magic behind all of this. But dread and suspense are probably not the only ingredients for “great” horror. For me, I usually have to care somewhat about the characters before the dread or suspense kicks in, so that when the author shoves them down a chute into the darkness, I really worry for them. But like, in a good way. 


3. People sometimes worry about a book upsetting a reader. So they ask, “How scary is it?” And I’m sure that’s valid, particularly with young readers. But would you agree that one of horror’s goals is to up/set a reader? To disturb a universe? Shake ‘em up a little? Or is it just good fun? 

I don’t really worry about whether or not I’m going to upset a reader. In fact, I think what makes my particular kind of scary story slightly unique is that maybe I do try to upset the reader? Maybe not emotionally, but . . . with their expectation of what can happen in a scary story? If that makes sense?

Is this the goal of all horror? Absolutely not. I think the ultimate goal is to entertain. But entertainment can disturb a universe and also be good fun. Based on emails I’ve received, I do know that I’ve upset some readers regarding what’s happened to certain characters I’ve written. But the readers seemed capable of handling what I did to them. Some even rewrote the ending to help them cope with my tragic decisions. If that’s what you’ve got to do, that’s what you’ve got to do, and I’m fine with it. 

4. I also think that many readers, on some level, actively seek out that sensation of disturbance. To me, when we think about life, I’ve always seen growth as something that results from periods of disequilibrium followed by equilibrium. Reading a scary story tips us over and sets us right again — and we’re the ones who get to turn the pages. The reader has control. Anyway, sorry, I digress. Tales To Keep You Up at Night is a collection of short stories woven within a larger structure: Amelia discovers a dusty tome in the attic. How did that book come together for you? 

A few years back, I wrote a short story that I wanted to submit for an anthology. When that anthology didn’t work out, I realized I had so much fun with the shorter format, so I decided to write my own collection. Once I’d gotten a few more down on paper, I thought it would be cool to bind them inside the larger story of a girl who finds a mysterious book of scary stories in her grandmother’s attic. 

From there, Tales got more and more meta, especially when my editor suggested that the stories tie more directly into Amelia’s own history. After some rejiggering, Tales to Keep You Up at Night sort of turned into a novel, playing with themes of what a story can do, how a story can change over time, how stories can change us. What I think is my favorite thing about Tales is that you can read any of the stories on its own, and it stands alone and is satisfying (I hope). But if you read all the stories, they join together, telling a much bigger tale. So the reader is rewarded for sticking with it.  

Also, when I was young, I always longed to find myself inside a scary story, so this book was also a kind of twisted wish-fulfillment.


5. Could you tell us about the main character in your current work in progress, and maybe why that kid appeals to you as writer?

I’ve just put the finishing touches on More Tales to Keep You Up at Night, which releases in August of 2023. In More Tales, we follow a new character, a kid named Gilbert, who happens upon a trio of cassette tapes and an old Sony Walkman. On the tapes, someone has recorded a bunch of scary tales, and Gilbert must listen to them in order to save his big brother, Antonio, who’s been hurt in a strange accident. You don’t have to read the first book in order to understand what’s happening in the second, but those who do will discover connections between the two and see how the tales in both books open portals to a larger shared world. I had a blast writing it, and I hope readers will follow me through this next doorway.


JAMES PRELLER is the author of a wide range of books, including the popular Scary Tales series. An author of picture books and easy-to-reads, he has also written middle-grade and YA novels: Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, and more. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious EXIT 13 series for readers ages 8-12: The Whispering Pines. Book 2 comes out in August, which means that Dan and I ought to have a sequel party together at the Spotty Dog!

Thinking about Fear, Featuring a Very Short Excerpt from “Scary Tales”


It’s a classic “horror” setup: the kid alone in bed in a dark room. Common to all. We’ve felt it, we remember that zipper of fear along our spines, that feeling of something else — something other — also in our childhood rooms.

Innocence meets experience.

Or was it just the strange pleasure of jarring ourselves to full wakefulness? A feeling we craved because, weirdly, we liked it? We sought it, that roller coaster of the mind. And so we invented it?

Writing the “Scary Tales” series (grades 2-5) I’ve had been able to try my hand at some of those moments — writing comfortably within the tradition, as well as attempting to conjure new chills of my own.

Here’s a paragraph from Swamp Monster, the 6th and last book in the series.

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watching in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.

Be sure to read them all, folks. A strong addition to any classroom library, illustrated by the great Iacopo Bruno.

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Setting, Character, Plot: A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse into SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER


One mission of this blog is to pull back the curtain to share, cough-cough, some insight into my writing process. So I thought I’d gather up some images and talk about the making of my upcoming book in the “Scary Tales” series, Swamp Monster (Macmillan, July 7, 2015).


Curiously, any description of “how” a book is written is as much “story” as the book itself. And by that I mean, of dubious veracity. Who can accurately recount where ideas come from? And in what order? Like writing the book itself, any description of origins mostly feels like I’m making it up as I go along.

But anyway!

Swamp Monster is the 6th book in the series. Each story is different, a new setting with new characters, yet each one promises a “Scary Tales” experience. What attracted me to this over-arching structure, inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” TV series, was the width of possibility. The stories could be quite different, not at all narrow or typical. After writing a few that were quite conceptual — I Scream, You Scream and Nightmareland, in particular — I settled on simpler, more traditional thrills in the most recent stories: The One-Eyed Doll and Swamp Monster.

That is, I began by thinking about the scary thing.

Somehow the idea of a Swamp Monster appealed to me. In no small part because of the setting. A swamp! As I was largely unfamiliar with swamp life in particular, I had to do some research. I read about the fauna and flora of typical swamps, and soon settled in my mind that this story could take place somewhere in Southeast Texas. I found and saved random images that fed my imagination, such as these:

lrg_bald_cypress_swampSpanish Moss




Okay, so that felt pretty creepy to me. To up the ick factor, and to help explain the mutant monster, I opted for the toxic swamp gambit. The book begins:

The Dirge Chemical Plant had been dumping toxic sludge into the swamp for the past twenty-five years.

A few paragraphs down:

DRIP, DROP, SLURK. It leaked into the streams and waterways, into ponds and lakes. Poison soaked into the ground.

What about the creatures of that environment? The fish and birds and snakes and gators? The animals that drank the water daily? That swam amidst the burbling toxins? Well, most died off. But some adapted. Mutated. Learned how to feed off the toxic waste. Those creatures grew stronger, bigger, tougher.

More dangerous, too.

The pollution was the worst out on the Dead River, which ebbed into Dismal Swamp like a last, dying gasp. Hardly anybody lived out there. Nobody important. Some poor folks, mostly. And that’s where our story begins — with two boys, Lance and Chance LaRue. On this day, they were knee-deep in the foul, nasty water, swiping at mosquitoes, searching for frogs.

That was their first mistake.

Before the plot kicks into full gear, I introduce readers to the twins. Describe them and swiftly set them on the path to danger.

Character meets Setting:

The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches — no jelly to be found at home — the boys felt strong and adventurous. They went deeper into the woods than usual. The trees thickened around them, with names like black willow and water hickory. Long limbs hung low. Spanish moss dangled from the branches like exotic drapes. Snakes slithered. Water rats lay still and watched though small, red eyes. Once in a while, a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.


My original idea was basic. I was particularly intent for this story to create a strong plot-line running through the book. A direct plot like an engine on a track, no meanderings. So the boys find an egg and bring it home. Plot begins in earnest.  I soon realized that the egg would not be enough. Sure, it would hatch and Lance and Chance would discover that they were soon proud parents of a little monster.


But where was the horror in that?

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watchful in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.

That night, the boys are awakened to sound of tap-tap-tapping from inside the egg. They watch in awe as the creature hatches.

“That ain’t no turtle,” Chance said.

“Nope,” Lance agreed. “Look at those claws, those teeth. I’ve never seen nothing like it before. What do you think it is, Chance?”

“I sure don’t know,” the oldest boy replied. “But I’ll tell you what. I don’t ever want to meet the chicken that laid that egg.”

At that moment, the newborn raised itself to full height, about six inches. With an angry hiss, the creature opened its mouth wide like a boa. A blood-red neck frill rattled open. SPLAT, SPLATTER! The creature spat black gobs of goo against the side of the pail.

“Whoa, it’s a monster,” Lance whispered in a soft, appreciative voice. “Our very own swamp monster.”

And with those words, the two boys stared at each other . . . and high-fived.

At this point, I introduce a new character to thicken the broth, and we meet the spectacular Rosalee Serena Ruiz.

If someone had to discover their secret, Rosalee was the best person for it. She could spit farther, burp louder, run faster, and snap thick branches across her knee. Rosalee was a girl all right, but the boys didn’t mind. In fact, they barely noticed.

I had decided by this point, actually before this point, that my little monster was not enough. Cool, but not quite terrifying.


I needed something more. An angry mother. So Rosalee prods the boys back into the deep swamp — she wants an egg of her own — and that’s how the mother catches their scent. She hides in the water.

To my surprise, I wrote scenes from her perspective.

With a subtle movement, she glides through the black water like a hawk riding the currents of the wind.

A thought troubled her mind.

Others were out there . . . Others had come to her home, her alone-place. She had sensed them, smelled them.

So she hid, as she always did.

She moved in the safe dark, the cool dark, and she grieved again for the egg that was gone. The child she never knew. That was her loss. And then, slowly, painfully — like a cloud that gathers itself in the stormy sky — a new question formed in her skull.

Was the egg stolen?

Had it been taken . . . by the Others?

Those faces in the woods?

She had glimpsed them.

Their ugly, round eyes.

Their skin like smooth stones.

Little monsters.

New feelings began to stir inside the heart of the swamp creature.

Feelings of anger, of rage and revenge.

Her eyes opened, yellow in the black water.

Squilch, squilch, squilch.

Under cover of darkness, she follows them home.


An image came to me. The monster, wet and awkward on land, arriving at the LaRue’s house on the edge of Dismal Swamp.

Of the door opening, of her entering.

“Upstairs, quick!” Chance ordered. He grabbed the knife off the table.

The boys bounded up the stairs in threes. By the time they reached the landing — BOOM! CRUNCH! — the front door flew open, knocked off its hinges.

The swamp monster stepped into the house.

I can’t give away any more story here. You’ll have to read the book to find out the rest.

Illustrations by Iacopo Bruno, taken from the book SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER, due in stores on July 7th.


Fan Mail Wednesday #192: Kaiya from Illinois Begs a Little Bit (and I Like It)






We’re going to do this on Wednesday today, just to keep readers guessing. This letter involves a little bit of groveling . . .



I replied:

Dear Kaiya:

How did you know I like it when readers beg? It makes me feel fabulous and powerful, like a king sitting on a throne. Please, please, please beg some more.

Ho-ho, I kid. Thanks for your letter. I’m glad you liked the first book in my “Scary Tales” series, and it was awfully nice of you to say so. I liked your bonus picture too. Good artist!

homesweethorror_cvr_highrezThe way this series works is that each book is completely different. New characters, new setting. I’ve written six so far (five are currently available). I’m sorry to say that I don’t have plans to revisit the characters in Home Sweet Horror. My wish is for Mr. Finn, Liam, Kelly (and their dog, Doolin!) to find a new home close to where they used to live in Hopeville. That said, perhaps you’d like to write something about their further adventures. Maybe Bloody Mary finds a way to tag along?

Anyway, please please please forgive me!

Your friend,


P.S. I got the dog’s name from my old dog, Doolin, who passed away years ago. Doolin, named after a wicked cool town in Ireland, was the best dog I ever had (sorry, Daisy).

Give Student Writers the Freedom to Embrace Their Inner Zombies

: A variation of this essay first appeared a while back over at the fabulous Nerdy Book Club, founded by Donalyn “The Book Whisperer” Miller, Colby Sharp (the man, not the cheese), and possibly several other folks. The history is not entirely clear to me. Nonetheless! You can follow all their nerdy, book-loving, classroom-centered hijinks on Facebook, Twitter, and various other social platforms, I’m sure. 



These days, young people are crazy about zombies. That’s just a plain fact. Not every kid, of course, but a lot of them.

And I’m here to say: Use that as an advantage in your classroom. Seize the day zombie! Particularly when it comes to student writing. Some girls want to team up to conjure a story about a zombie apocalypse? Here’s a pen and paper. Go for it, ladies.


Many students, as young as third grade and on up into high school, are watching THE WALKING DEAD. The secret that quite of few of them don’t realize is that the hit television show is not about zombies at all. It’s about people surviving zombies. The zombies themselves are boring, without personality, almost irrelevant. They could be switched out for deadly fog, or World War II, a forest fire, or a tsunami. The zombies are simply a device to propel forward a character-driven story. It’s the engine that drives plot — all those pistons churning — and gives each moment heightened meaning.

That’s my point here. Any zombie story is almost entirely about character.

zombie-3-comingWhat we need to recognize is that, counter-intuitively, the zombie plot device perfectly lends itself to character-centered story. In the case of THE WALKING DEAD, it could even be argued that it’s about family, blended, modern, unconventional, or traditional.

With, okay, some (really) gross parts thrown in. Warning: Some characters in this story may get eaten. Hold the hot sauce. Ha! And why not, if that’s what it takes? If a little bit of the old blood and guts is the hook you need to lure in those writers, embrace it.

You can’t write a good zombie story without creating an assortment of interesting characters. Then you place those diverse characters in danger, you bring them into conflict with each other, you get them screaming, and talking, and caring about each other.

As, okay, they are chased by a bunch of zombies.

There’s no drama unless the writer makes us care about his or her characters. Your student writers will be challenged to make those characters come alive, become vivid and real. We have to care that they live or, perhaps, really kind of hope they get eaten alive in the most hideous way possible by a crazed zombie mob. Screaming, hopefully.

Don’t be turned off by that. Remember, it’s really all about character development, keep your focus to that. Dear teacher, I am saying this: embrace your inner zombie –- and turn those students loose. We can’t all write about dinner parties and visits from Aunt Gweneth.

What they will be writing will be no different than your typical Jane Austin novel. Except for, you know, all those bloody entrails.


There are currently five books available in my “Scary Tales” series.

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorez     nightmareland_cvr_lorez     9781250018915_p0_v1_s260x420     iscreamyouscream_cvr_highrez-198x300