With the beginning of a new school year
in the mix, an occasion that many students and teachers find horrifying, I
thought it’d be good to have Claire Legrand stop by to discuss horror in
middle-grade books. It’s a tough thing to pull off in MG—horror—because you
need to observe the line between scary and too
scary, and Claire, whose debut THE CAVENDISH HOME FOR BOYS AND GIRLS, is here to
offer her take. She is in the midst of a long blog tour, so check out the link at the end of the post to see where she'll be next. First, here’s a bit about Claire.
Claire Legrand is a Texan living in New
York City. She used to be a musician until she realized she couldn’t stop
thinking about the stories in her head. Now a full-time writer, Claire can
often be found typing with purpose on her keyboard or spontaneously embarking
upon adventures to lands unknown. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is her first novel,
due out August 28 from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. Her second
novel, The Year of Shadows, a ghost story for middle grade
readers, comes out August 2013. Her third novel, Winterspell,
a young adult re-telling of The Nutcracker, comes out Fall 2014.
So, without further adieu, here is
Claire to talk about horror in MG.
(and Fun Parts!) of Writing MG Horror
At first, I didn’t like calling Cavendish a horror novel. “Horror”
sounded so uncouth, so bloody and gory. It brought to mind cheesy slasher
movies like Friday the 13th or—heaven
help me—the Child’s Play movies
(i.e., Those Movies That, Though I Have Not Seen Them, Traumatized Me For Life
Simply By Being on a Shelf in Blockbuster Where I Could See Their Covers). When
people say “horror,” it can elicit a revolted response from certain readers.
Most people love comedies, or dramas, or action-adventure stories. But horror?
To me, horror has always been a niche genre of storytelling that only a certain
minority of people can stomach and enjoy.
Before selling Cavendish, I’d always called it a “dark fairy tale,” and I still
like that classification. Cavendish
is the kind of story you read to your children before bed, along with other
tales about witches and kidnapped kids, dark fantastical creatures and towns
that aren’t quite right.
But I’ve come to realize that, broadly
speaking, Cavendish is horror. Pure,
straight-up horror. Terrifying, unthinkable things happen, and not everything
turns out okay for our heroes in the end. I’ve accepted this genre
classification wholeheartedly. Why? Well, first of all, “horror” is a much
easier label to explain than “dark fairy tale.” But there’s another reason,
Writing horror, quite simply, is fun. Especially writing horror for kids.
Why wouldn’t I want to embrace this?
Uncovering the darkest parts within
yourself and then writing about them, preferably in a safe apartment with lots
of lights and cuddly blankets, is a great way to exorcise fears (although I am
still terrified of bugs, even after writing Cavendish).
Returning to the mindset of 9- to 12-year-old kid thirsty for scares, a kid
ready to believe anything, read anything, be scared by anything, no matter how
outrageous (Slappy the ventriloquist dummy from R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps books come to mind)? That’s fun, and liberating, like riding a
roller coaster for the first time, or closing the bathroom door and saying
“Bloody Mary” three times in the dark . . . and surviving. That’s the kind of pure thrill we seldom experience as
adults, simply because we’ve experienced it so many times. The rush has
But as a kid in bed with a flashlight or
sitting around a campfire with his friends, reading about things he’s never
dared to imagine? Things that have always crept around the edges of his mind
like vague shadows he was afraid to focus on for too long? That kid will
remember those first horror books, those first deep scares, for the rest of his
life. As an adult, he’ll see that book on the shelf, and shiver, and grin, and remember
the exact way his heart pounded as he flipped frantically through those last,
terrifying pages. I know I remember the first time I read The Dollhouse Murders. The
Painted Devil. A Darker Magic. Night of the Living Dummy. They all
scared me deep down to my bones. And now, even though I will probably forever
fear dolls, dummies, or anything resembling dolls and dummies, I wouldn’t trade
those literary experiences for anything.
For all the delicious glee that comes
with crafting a child’s future psychological idiosyncrasies, writing horror for
children can be extremely challenging, too. How scary is too scary? How dark is
too dark? (My grandmother, who responds to all my writing with a kind but
bewildered, “Where does all this dark stuff come from, Claire Bear?” would
probably say that Cavendish is too
scary and dark. But I disagree!)
When writing Cavendish, I only once stopped to think, “Is this too scary? Is
this too much?” (And I think you’ll
know which element I’m referring to once you read the book.) Aside from that, I
wrote exactly the kind of scariness that had haunted me as a young reader, the
kind of pure, raw scariness that you find in the darkest of fairy tales.
Nothing so unsophisticated as people jumping out from dark corners or monsters
with drooling black gums. No, the scariness that hooked me as a child, that
still haunts me to this day, was the elemental horror. The horror that someone
could take over your mind. Make others forget about you. Make you forget about yourself. Change you, forever, and in
such a way that you wouldn’t notice, or even care.
That kind of horror poured out of me
when writing Cavendish. I didn’t
actually worry if it was too scary for kids because kids are smart. They can
handle reading about dark, terrible things because they are so incredibly open,
so accepting of the fact that there is evil in the world and so hopeful that it
can be beaten.
What I did worry about at times—and this
was after the book was written, once I began revisions—was whether parents would find it too scary.
Teachers. Librarians. I think older readers scare more easily than their child
counterparts. Maybe it’s that they’ve experienced real horror in the world, and
seen how it so often can’t be beaten.
Or it’s that they want to protect their children from even a fantastical,
literary version of that horror for as long as possible.
Whatever the case, it was a real concern
for me in the revisions stage, and it was a concern for some at my publishing
house as well. Would the horror in Cavendish
be too . . . well . . . horrifying to sell to the people buying these middle
grade books, i.e., the gatekeepers?
The two things I focused on to get me
through revisions, through these doubts and questions about whether or not I’d
gone too far, were the following two mantras: Trust your readers. And trust
The first mantra, trust your readers, I’ve already addressed. Kids are smart, savvy,
and resilient, and they’ll be much more receptive to books and reading in
general if neither coddles them or tries to hide them from darkness.
The second mantra, trust your story, is all about authorial accountability. If sitting
down to write middle grade horror, consider the following: What story am I trying to tell? What tone am I trying to convey? What
scary elements are necessary to communicate these things? And then, once
those questions are answered, write exactly
that. As with all the best horror stories, whether book or film, it’s not
about how many scares you can fit into one story. It’s about what kind of scares, and how they’re fit into the story, and how they serve the story. Gratuitous violence, gotcha! moments, and gore may provide superficial shock value. But
they don’t enhance a story’s core; and, even more importantly for authors of
children’s literature, they could make booksellers, parents, and other gatekeepers
Tell the story you need to tell, and use
horror elements that are appropriate for that story. Just as, if I were writing
a young adult novel, I wouldn’t insert gratuitous sex scenes or cursing just to
be “edgy,” so would I refrain from inserting gratuitous horror elements in any
story, but especially a middle grade story, just to get cheap scares.
After all, the best horror stories are those
that make us work for the scares, those that take their time setting up a world
and characters that feel real and relatable. That way, when the true horror
begins, the story doesn’t need to rely on camera tricks or their literary
equivalent to scare its readers. The story only needs to play out as it was
meant to, a tale of normal people in a normal world that’s going slowly,
irrevocably bad, and the heroine fighting to save it—even if her victory comes a
little bit messily.
Make sure to check out the rest of the Cavendish Blog Tour here!
To win a hardcover copy of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls from
Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, fill out the form below!
Contest is U.S./Canada only. Contest ends September 22nd.
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