Tag Archive for James Preller Scary tales

Great Article: “Horrors! This Child Is Reading Horror!”

Thanks to Google Alerts, I found this terrific & timely article by Paula Willey in The Baltimore Sun. Willey does a great job here, writing calmly and directly about the value of “scary books” for (some) young readers.

My lovely daughter, Maggie, some years back. To our surprise, she loves horror. Loves it!

My lovely daughter, Maggie, some years back. To our surprise, Maggie loves horror. Loves it!

Personally, I got into scary books late in life, after many school visits where I met young readers who loved that shivery, edge-of-the-seat feeling. This is not just a Halloween thing, btw. An affection for horror goes year round. After raising two boys who never cared for horror — and openly said so, I should add — my sweet Maggie came along and she loves those creepy, crawly feelings. Go figure.

Another reason why I wrote “Scary Tales” in the way that it’s written — short, fast-paced, easy-to-read, series format — was because of all the reluctant readers I’ve met over the years. I’ve had them in my own kitchen, munching Doritos, blithely telling me how they don’t like books. So I challenged myself to write stories that attempted to be so entertaining & enjoyable that even these boys would read to the last page (they are, alas, almost invariably boys). I wanted them to experience that proud, “I just finished a whole book” feeling. And to then realize, “Hey, I kind of liked it. I’ll try another.”

In the old days of publishing, we’d call books in this category “Hi-Lo.” High-interest, low-reading level. My estimation is that “Scary Tales” is written somewhere on the 3rd-grade level, but with stories that appeal all the way up to 6th grade. The look is cool and edgy, so there’s no stigma to reading “baby” books.

Here’s a snip from the article. Thank you for the kind mention, Paula Willey!

ONE-EYED DOLL.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from  SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL.

Picture, if you will, a smiling, well-adjusted child. She’s tucked into a corner of the couch, reading happily, quiet but for the occasional giggle. Is that an “American Girl” book she’s reading? A silly fractured fairy tale? On the cover, you spy a slime-drenched, bloody snake; the title is spelled out in dripping, neon-bright letters: “The Zombie Chasers: World Zombination!”

Horrors! This child is reading horror!

Many grownups are a little uncomfortable when a kid exhibits a taste for stories of terror and mayhem. They worry that their children will become desensitized to violence or will have nightmares. Some just want their kids reading “better” books. There’s a perception that scary books like the “Goosebumps” series by R. L. Stine are of low literary quality and have no value.

It’s true that “Goosebumps” books, along with series like James Preller’s “Scary Tales,” “Spooksville” by Christopher Pike and P. J. Night’s “Creepover,” are short, formulaic, and written at a fairly low reading level. However, librarians know that these books sometimes play a crucial role in inviting children into reading, or helping a reader bridge the gap between books he is beginning to find “babyish” and longer books with more complexity.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Many people who grew up to be very accomplished readers — and writers — claim to have read nothing but “Goosebumps” for years when they were kids.

In addition, children are very aware of their ability to handle scary stuff. When I help a child pick out a book, I’ll often ask, “How do you do with scary books?” Of all the questions that I ask during the book selection process, this is the one they answer most forthrightly: “No scary books!” or “I can handle medium-scary.” And then there’s the little angel who proclaims, “The scarier the better!”

 

For the full article, click here.

Paula Willey is a librarian at the Parkville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. She writes about children’s and teen literature for various national publications and online at unadulterated.us. 

 

 

Thoughts on Books: Please Disturb

“The writer whose words are going to be read by children 

has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact

that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough 

than many people realize, and they have an openness

and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts

which many adults have lost.”

— Madeleine L’Engle

 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of disturbing readers.

Shaking them up.

In fact, I believe that many readers, consciously or unconsciously, crave the experience.

When I think about personal growth — perhaps in viewing my own three children — I imagine that it can be characterized by periods of equilibrium, followed by passages of disequilibrium, followed (hopefully) by a new, higher level of equilibrium.

Comfort, discomfort, growth.

 

disturb-the-universe

 

I came to understand some of this through my experience writing my first “horror” series, Scary Tales, for young readers. I placed horror in quotes because, well, it’s not that scary; nobody gets hurt, everything turns out okay in the end. Every time. But, sure, there are some clammy palpitations along the way.

I often visit schools and the response to “scary” in grades 3-5, particularly, is wildly enthusiastic. Kids love this creepy stuff with its twisting plots, and they have long before I ever entered the scene. But I’ve also learned that there is a lot of fear out there — from adults. The redoubtable gatekeepers. A question I’ll hear at Book Festivals: “Will this book give my child nightmares?”

Of course, I don’t know the answer to that. How should I respond?

SWAMP_MONSTER_Esec02_ES_loresOkay, I’m a parent. I get it, mostly. We don’t want our kids to wake up screaming, scared out of their minds. And to that end, we don’t want to irresponsibly expose them to content that might be developmentally inappropriate. Well, a caveat there: Most people have no problem, bizarrely, with “inappropriate” content if it’s on TV or a movie. Even something as cherished as the Harry Potter books and movies — where characters are murdered, and the stories get continually darker as agents of pure evil plot death and destruction. Everybody is fine with that! But a story about a kid trapped in a cave with bats? Or unfriendly snowmen guarding a castle? Or a swamp monster?

Those things might prove . . . upsetting.

And here’s the thing: Maybe we like scary stories exactly because of that disturbance. On some deep level, maybe even unconsciously, we want to be disturbed. Because we know that it is necessary to our growth.

What does the reader learn, after losing her balance, when she discovers, Whew, I’m actually okay. I survived this.

Might there be value in that discovery?

I recently got a letter from an 8th-grade reader who was disturbed by a scene in my middle-grade novel, Bystander, where a boy, Eric, gets beaten up. It upset his sense of fairness. In the letter-writer’s mind, “Eric was being very friendly,” and he “didn’t deserve to get beat up.”

The scene bothered this reader. It shook him up a little. A part of him preferred that it didn’t exist at all.

And I think, well, good. It was supposed to do that. It was designed to make you feel something. These are the troubling scenes we remember our entire lives.

Speaking of scary, how about the Teletubbies in black and white?

Speaking of scary, how about the Teletubbies in black and white?

Now I’m not talking about pure shock, artlessly rendered. The head lopped off and bouncing, boing-boing-boing, down the carpeted staircase. Though, I guess, that might have value too. I’m talking about the fiendish clown in Stephen King’s It. Or the heartbreaking moment of when Travis is forced to shoot his rabid dog in Old Yeller. The moments that give us dis-ease.

I think that’s one of the things that good books can do for us. They disturb our tranquility a little bit. Which is also why, an aside, this entire notion of eliminating “trigger books” in the college curriculum is so misguided. The notion is that some people might be upset if they encounter certain kinds of things, or triggers, in assigned books: a mother with cancer, a rape, social prejudice, world hunger, whatever their personal trigger might be. Some believe that students should be warned about these triggers, in the hope of avoiding them.

We wouldn’t want anyone to be upset.

And I think: Good luck with that.

And also: Isn’t that kind of the point?

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno, from Scary Tales: One-eyed Doll.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno, from Scary Tales: One-eyed Doll.

When I’m not writing Scary Tales, which is most of the time, I tend to write realistic fiction. My books have included childhood cancer, fistfights, bullying, suicide, lost pets, and car accidents. Scary stuff, life.

A book, of course, is a safe way for a child or adult to address different fears. A book can be mastered. A book can be closed. It can, simply, not be read at all. Or put aside to be read another day when the reader feels prepared. And then, on that day, guess what? The reader miraculously survives. Calm is restored.

“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.”

— Neil Gaiman

Excerpt from SCARY TALES #3: GOOD NIGHT, ZOMBIE — with Amazing Art from Iacopo Bruno

Illustrations by the amazing Iacopo Bruno.

To set the scene, three 5th-grade students find themselves accidentally locked in the school building after hours. The doors are chained shut. Strangely, the wifi is out, phones and computers have gone dead. So they go seeking the mysterious night janitor for the key to get out. Please note: The first two books in the series — I Scream, You Scream; and Home Sweet Horror — will be available on July 9th. This third book in the series, Good Night, Zombie, will be published in late September.


The stairs led to a metal-plated door. Behind it, Esme heard what she imagined to be the shuffling of boots, the jingling of keys, and a man sitting heavily in a chair. Carter knocked twice and, receiving no reply, pushed the door open.

An ancient man sat in the corner of the room at a small, gray desk. He stared at his visitors through red-rimmed eyes. His skin was grayish-yellow. And his sunken, narrow cheeks gave off a skeletal appearance. Thin hair grew from his otherwise bare skull in wisps, like odd tufts of white grass. He wore blue workingman’s trousers and a red flannel shirt.

He looked half dead, and Esme stifled a gasp at the sight of him.

The ancient man did not appear happy to see three students appear in his closet office. He held a glass jar in one hand, and a fork in the other. He stabbed at a blood-red cube of meat from the jar and pushed it past his lips. He never moved his eyes from the uninvited guests.

“Venison,” he spat with a gruff voice. He speared another cube of meat and held it before his face. “Deer meat. Kill it and butcher it myself. Care for a taste?”

No one accepted his offer.

“Didn’t think so.” He chomped on the bloody flesh. A trickle of blood dribbled down his chin.

“Are you the guy who locked us in?” Carter finally spoke up.

The ancient man leaned back in his chair, reached to his belt, and splashed an enormous key ring on the desk. There had to be fifty keys of every size and shape.

“Are you going tell us which one?” Carter asked.

The ancient man wiped his lips with the back of a sleeve. “No,” he replied.

“Excuse me?” Esme asked.

“You don’t want to go out there,” the night janitor said. “Not tonight, you don’t.” He rose painfully and shuffled toward the heavy door, which he shut behind them with a firm hand.

Arnold grew alarmed. “Ha! Well, yeah. I’m not sure you understand, Mr. -–“

“Van Der Klemp,” the old man said.

“Mr. Van Der Klemp,” Arnold repeated. He helplessly pointed a thumb toward the ceiling. “We accidentally got locked into the school, see, and -–“

The old man didn’t seem to be listening. He rubbed a large hand to his stubbled chin, noted the time on his wristwatch, and closed his eyes as if waiting for something to pass. He counted in a dry whisper, “Three, two, one.”

The lights flickered and the room went dark.

SCARY TALES SNEAK PREVIEW: Art & Excerpt from Book #2, “I Scream, You Scream”

I just got to see the illustrations for Book #2 in my upcoming SCARY TALES Series: I Scream, You Scream. Actually, what I saw was most of the art placed on the typeset pages, with some pages blank, art still-to-come. It’s exciting to see a book come together, especially one where the illustrations by Iacopo Bruno are such a big part of the overall appeal.

The good news, I’m in a sharing mood.

At about the middle of the story, after all hell has broken loose, two characters, Samantha and Andy, find themselves hiding in a cave. The way out was blocked. They had to explore the cave to find a new means of escape. Which gave me an idea — bats!

Here’s the scene from the manuscript:

The tight passageway opened up to a large cavern, with a ceiling at least fifteen feet high. “Wow,” Sam said. “Look at this place.”

Andy looked, as requested.

“But what’s that disgusting smell?” Sam complained.

She moved the beam to the rock floor. It was covered in some kind of thick, greenish slime. It smelled rank. Sam worked hard not to gag.

A steady trickle of droplets hit the rock floor. Plink, plink, plink. “Do you hear that?” Sam asked. “Could it be water falling from a stalactite?”

“No, not water,” Andy said. “I think it is called ‘guano.'”

“‘Guano’?’

“Bat droppings.”

Sam gulped. Bats. She hated bats.

Sam aimed the flashlight at the ceiling and stepped back in horror. The ceiling was alive. The roof of the cave was writhing, squirming, crawling with hundreds — no, thousands upon thousands — of bats. The bodies of mice, with human faces. Sam felt woozy, on the edge of panic.

This was worse than homework.

Way worse.

Oh, I should say another thing about my writing process here. When I realized that I was going to include bats in the story, I remembered that classic scene when Indiana Jones remarks, “Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?”

Part of the genius behind that scene was the script had previously established Indy’s fear of snakes. We learned it early in the movie and promptly put it away. So when he confronts the snakes, we know this isn’t just another obstacle for our hero. He’s facing one of his deepest fears.

Now, admittedly, my little book is operating on a simpler level. And I want to be careful about how scary to make this for my readers. So I went back to the first chapter and, while talking about Sam’s bravery (in the context of a thrill ride in an adventure park), I planted a seed:

Nothing frightened Sam Carver. Nothing, that is, except for dentists, bats, and homework. The usual things. Dentists, of course, with their fat fingers fumbling in your mouth. But bats creeped Sam out the most, with their leathery wings and tiny teeth and weird human faces.

I’m sure ideas for the cave scenes came from the light research I did on the topic. And, look, “research” is far too strong a word, implying more rigor than I applied. It was more a matter of casting about for inspiration by sorting through source material. I read about cave explorations and the bats of Bracken Cave in Texas, and tried to learn a little about bats in general. I even wandered over to Youtube, which can often be a spectacular research tool. This short, one-minute video really inspired me. BTW, pause on the video at 0:35, then look at the illustration below. I wonder if Bruno watched the same Youtube clip?

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After their first bat discovery, Sam and Andy had to overcome their fears to figure out a way that the bats could help them escape the cave. They wake ’em up. Which led to this short paragraph:

It was amazing. Even beautiful, in a way. The bats flapped and flew to the far end of the cavern and spiraled up, and up, through a shaft of light.


I found another video that I particularly liked, this one a bit longer, which offered more information. I decided that Andy would be the character who knew something about bats. He was an expert, the way many boys his age can reel off facts about baseball, or trains, or most anything that’s captured their imagination. They absorb like sponges. After that, I had what I needed to write those brief scenes in the cave with Sam and Andy lost in the dark . . . with all those bats.

Gosh, I hope readers find these books.

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