Friday, September 28, 2012

Blog Tour: Keeper of The Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

Today is my day to feature Shannon Messenger on her blog tour for the release of her debut novel, Keeper of the Lost Cities. Special thanks to Katie, from Mundie Moms, for organizing the tour (visit this link for more info, and extra giveaways). Anyway, I could go on about what a great friend Shannon is, or about how much my kid loved her book, but I think it's probably best to let her get to her guest post. Take it away, Shannon:

I can't tell you how excited I am to be here, today. Project Mayhem is one of my favorite middle grade blogs, so it's so much fun that I get to come hang out with you guys. I promise I will try not to break the awesome around here!

I've been asked to talk today about 5 books I loved as a kid--which is awesome because dude, I LOVED books growing up. But it's also like--AHHH HOW CAN I POSSIBLY LIMIT MY LIST TO FIVE?????????????????

I've forced myself to be good though, so here they are (in random order because I refuse to pick favorites)


by Frances Hodgson Burnett

What little girl DOESN'T love this book? There is just something so timeless and endearing about it. I love every word. THE SECRET GARDEN is equally amazing. But A LITTLE PRINCESS was the one I read over and over and over.


by Robert Lawson, Florence Atwater

I know they recently made a movie out of this, and I have yet to see it and find out how much they changed it. But I hope not a lot because I thought this book was pretty much perfect as a kid. And yes, I may have tried to convince my parents I needed a pet penguin.


by Lynne Reid Banks

I loved the whole Indian in the Cupboard series (what kid doesn't want a magic cupboard that brings their toys to life????) but this one was my favorite because it takes readers back in time and history to find out how the cupboard came to be. And she had quite a few tricks up her sleeve with that!


by: Beverly Clearly

I read and adored pretty much everything Beverly Cleary wrote, but my two favorite characters were Ramona Quimby and Ralph S. Mouse. I mean, look at his little helmet--DO YOU GET MORE ADORABLE THAN THAT??? I think not.


by: Louis Sachar

Okay, I know this is a collection of short stories instead of a novel, but dude, I loved each and every one of them. I actually loved all the Wayside School stories, but I will never forget Mrs. Gorf and her evil ability to turn her students into apples. If you haven't read this book you NEED to.

Gah--there's so many more I want to feature--but I'm trying to be a courteous little guest author, so I will stop right there. But feel free to tell me about the books you loved in the comments.

And thank you so much to Project Mayhem for having me. I will now hand your blog back to you, and let you guys get back to the mayhem causing! *waves* *blows kisses*

Now, about the book:

Twelve-year-old Sophie has never quite fit in. She's not comfortable with her family and keeping a secret—she's a telepath. But then she meets Fitz, who tells her the reason she has never felt at home is that, well, she isn't. But Sophie still has secrets, and they're buried deep in her memory for good reason: the answers are in high-demand. The truth could mean life or death, and time is running out.

By: Shannon Messenger
Published by: Simon & Schuster
To Be Released on: October 2nd, 2012
Purchase from:
Simon & Schuster
Barnes & Noble
SIGNED Copies from Once Upon a Time (Must order by October 2nd)
The Book Depository

And, about the Author:

SHANNON MESSENGER graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she learned that she liked watching movies much better than making them. She also regularly eats cupcakes for breakfast, sleeps with a bright blue stuffed elephant named Ella, and occasionally gets caught talking to imaginary people. So it was only natural for her to write stories for children. Keeper of the Lost Cities is her first middle grade novel. Let the Sky Fall, a young adult novel, will follow in Spring 2013. She lives in Southern California with her husband and an embarrassing number of cats.

Follow Shannon:

And finally, a giveaway:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Winner of Susan Lubner's The Upside of Ordinary

Thanks to the wonders of, the winner of Susan Lubner's THE UPSIDE OF ORDINARY is:

(I'm e-mailing you now to let you know, Jen.)

Thanks, everyone else, for reading the post and commenting. Project Mayhem appreciates your support.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Well, it's official.  I've gotten my feet wet in the publishing process, and now, nearly six months out, I'm toweling them back off again and sorting through exactly which puddles I want to splash through from here on out.  Storybound launched in April 2012, and, true to the testimonies of those who have gone before, releasing the first book is quite the whirlwind of obsessive anxiety, innumerable bookmarks and other sundry self-promoting bits, and blog posts, interviews, and more blog posts.  I'm not complaining, mind.  It was quite the ride.  But now that things have slowed, I'm ready to re-evaluate the process and determine which components were truly helpful, which I actually enjoyed doing, and which sent my stress-meter through the roof.

Not to worry, this will not be an incredibly long post outlining all the "thou shalt nots" for the debut author.  Instead I want to focus on author visits.  In the year preceding my launch, I was fortunate enough to meet up with some other local debut authors, and that group (with the fittingly apocalyptic title of "The Harbingers of Doom") was a fabulous support as well as a great resource for cooperative events.  We did several local appearances together which not only maximized the numbers of attendees but cemented our friendships and the capacity for mutual angst-ing over the entire publishing process.

That being said, I'm not altogether sure the events were "successful".  While most drew on average ten to fifteen people (excepting the dreaded event where we had one - yes ONE - attendee.  Ugh.), it seemed that we primarily reached other local writers, friends of friends, and the occasional very welcome MG or YA reader.  That in itself was lovely, of course, because what author in her right mind doesn't enjoy chatting books and writing with other people who love to talk books and writing?  But the reality of being a midlist debut author is that you haven't yet build a readership.  In fact, word is just seeping out about your book, and the odds of someone who has actually read it coming to a local event in the first months after launch are very slim indeed.

So while author events are fun (there's nothing like being handed a fat stack of your own books to sign) and provide the fabulous opportunity to connect with booksellers and librarians (you wonderful bookish folk, you!), they were not opportunities where I connected with readers of Storybound.  Enter Skype, that heretofore mysterious term I had heard thrown around by my expat friends but had ignored until now.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to do a Skype author visit with the kids' book club at Changing Hands Bookstore in Arizona.  After accepting the invitation, I fumbled my way through the online Skype tutorial, and at just the right moment, had a lovely virtual chat with kids who love books, and, even more thrilling, had read Storybound.  Perhaps I'm several years too late, and those of you who don't dwell in the 1990s where I bide my time in a wifi free and Luddite existence are yawning and tabbing over to the next blog post in your reader.  But for the rest of us, for those who muddle their way through the latest online trends, this is one worth checking out.  The savvy folks over at skypeanauthor have even set up a virtual network to connect interested authors with teachers, librarians, booksellers, and, ultimately, readers.

I, for one, am sold.  Not only is the virtual author visit an easy way to connect with specific readers, but it provides a welcome informality that seems fitting for a middle-grade event.  While I may be stumbling my way through the Skype menu, my middle-grade readers are not.  This is old hat to a generation that keeps in touch with grandpa via a regular Skype date or checks in nightly with mom when she's on a business trip.  I found the energy and enthusiasm of the kids to be a welcome surprise, and the necessary brevity of a virtual event kept my presentation streamlined.  Without question, I'll be adding Skype visits to my newly-revised list of author "Must-dos" before Story's End launches next year.

What about you, Mayhemers?  Authors, what are your favorite ways to connect with readers?  And readers, have you ever participated in a Skype visit?

Monday, September 24, 2012


Tracy Barrett has fans everywhere. Some of her biggest might be in Cairo, speaking from experience. My youngest, Cyrus, has gobbled up her entire MG series, The Sherlock Files, and I have joined him. We've created our own little book club that has expanded to an embrace of the original Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories. What more can any author ask? Inspiring the young and the not-so-young to love her books and those she touches in her writing. In addition to the Sherlock Files, Tracy has other books well-loved by her readers. Book lovers should check out her history and myth-inspired works, like King of Ithika and Dark of the Moon,as well as Anna of Byzantium. As an author and  professor and adventurer, Tracy Barrett is an inspiration. She is joining us today.


Thank you for inviting me to be a guest here, Eden!

In the fall of 1984, with my dissertation on a medieval Italian poet half-finished, I accepted a one-semester teaching job at Vanderbilt University, filling in for a professor of Italian who was going on leave. Just one semester.

In the spring of 2012, I finally said “good-bye” to that job. In the meantime, I finished my dissertation, and taught every Italian class at Vanderbilt from 101 through literature and civilization. I never sought tenure, preferring to spend my weekends and summers raising my children to writing academic articles. Later, I also discovered a love of writing books for young readers.

I always worked hard, but during my last year at the university, it was non-stop. When I wasn’t teaching or prepping a class, I was writing. When I wasn’t doing either one, I was climbing the steep learning curve of my new volunteer position as U.S. Regional Advisor Coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a post I accepted a year before I resigned from teaching. Seven days a week, all day long, I worked.

When the day job ended, at first it was hard for me to take time off. While I’ve never believed that you have to write every day—there have been many days, even weeks, when I didn’t write a word, and I managed to publish nineteen books in eighteen years—now I didn’t have an excuse not to. Classes started without me. The SCBWI learning curve smoothed out. I have no syllabi to put together, no book orders to place, no tests to create and then grade, no faculty meetings to go to (yay!), no kids at home, a husband who’s retired, a self-sufficient cat (is there any other kind?), and an elderly dog who sleeps most of the day.

So I had no excuses. If I wasn’t going to write more than I used to, why did I quit my day job? After all, in a list of best day jobs for writers, The Writer magazine (August, 2011) listed “college professor” as no. 1. Had I made a terrible mistake in quitting? To prove that I hadn’t, I kept my butt glued to my desk chair. I started four (!) new projects, hoping one of them would grab me. All summer I felt guilty every time I left my home office.

As the leaves turn and we’re finally getting some relief from the heat that has blistered Middle Tennessee for months, I’m discovering that I have to find a new pattern for this new season of my life as well. I’ve narrowed my four projects down to two. I turn off my computer before dinner. I’ve declared Tuesdays “no-work” days: I catch up on email, read my friends’ Facebook posts, knit, read for pleasure (what a concept), go to a matineé—anything but write or revise. Research is permitted if it means reading a book that I would read for pleasure even if it weren’t useful for one of my works in progress. If I get a brilliant idea for something I’m working on, I’m allowed to write it down—as long as what I write fits on one standard Post-it. And usually, the next day it doesn’t seem so brilliant after all.


I’ve lost the social life that used to surround me at the university, so I don’t turn down any invitations. If a friend asks me to lunch, I go. I still organize monthly gatherings of non-tenure track faculty and attend weekly get-togethers at a local pub with another group of friends. I’m taking advantage of travel that I couldn’t do previously because of conflicts with the academic calendar.

Since I started this schedule, I find that I’m much more relaxed, and paradoxically, more productive. I finished and revised a manuscript that was a loooonnng time getting done, and revised another one. I’ve made nice headway on the two new projects.

I expect to fine-tune my new “season” as I go along, but for now, this is what works for me. If you’re afraid to take time off because “a writer writes every day,” give it a try. If the thought of not touching your computer in the evening gives you hives, grit your teeth and see if you can do it. You can always go back to your old schedule. But you might just find that leaving your work primes the pump, and maybe you, like me, will be a better writer and a happier person for doing it.

Tracy Barrett has written nineteen books, both fiction and nonfiction, for readers in elementary school through high school. She loves history and mysteries, which are combined in her Sherlock Files series, which has been translated into three languages. The first book in the series, The 100-Year-Old Secret, has been nominated for nine state awards. She also loves Greek myths and has written two books that retell Greek myths in new ways, King of Ithaka and Dark of the Moon.  She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she blogs at Good-Bye, Day Job!


Friday, September 21, 2012

The Upside of Ordinary by Susan Lubner

The Upside of Ordinary by Susan Lubner (Holiday House; October 1, 2012) 
(Project Mayhem received an ARC from the author for review.)

Hi, Mayhemer Michael G. here. Thanks for joining me as I rave about this debut Middle Grade novel from writer Susan Lubner. (She's pubbed by Holiday House, who also publish Hilary and Dawn--so there's a lot of Mayhem love to go around.)

First, here's the story (from the Holiday House website): 

Jermaine Davidson wants to be famous: limo-riding, camera-flashing, crowd-cheering famous. She decides to become the first eleven-year-old producer and star of a reality TV show about her life. Her family quickly tires of her following their every move, filming them night and day. But life around the Davidson house is dull, so Jermaine starts staging events to elicit more drama, excitement, and humor. Her unbridled ambition leads her to alienate her best friend over a disastrous make-over episode, send her arachnophobic mother packing, turn an emotional family crisis into a tacky mystery segment, and ruin her mother's chances to win the annual pickle palooza. Filled with remorse, Jermaine turns her talents to making amends and in the process learns the upside of being part of a loving but ordinary family.

 My Five Favorite Things about the novel:

  1. A strong character arc. Jermaine is a completely believable preteen. She is so determined to win fame, that she stages some appalling stunts to make her reality show more exciting. But as events begin to snowball, she realizes the pain she's caused, and takes steps to make amends.
  2. A strong supporting cast. From Jermaine's older sister, Zelda--to her parents, aunt and uncle, and best friends--Susan Lubner has created a tremendous ensemble. I found myself nodding at the reactions of Jermaine's mom and dad to her escapades--and could totally believe the anger Ro (Jermaine's best friend) feels when she ends up with hacked-up hair.
  3. Believable use of modern technology. I know, I know. Writers struggle with all the modern gadgets and gizmos available, and how to incorporate them effectively in a narrative. Susan Lubner's decision to use a video camera to record all of Jermaine's stunts is skilfully done.
  4. Effective use of 1st Person, Present Tense. You hear a lot of grumbling from writers and publishing people about this narrative strategy. When done poorly, it can indeed fall flat. But it works wonderfully here, for a character who lives in the moment.
  5. A satisfying ending. I won't give it away, but let me know after you read the novel yourself if you thought the ending was as satisfying as I did. (Hint: the competition result.)
  6. Bonus Favorite Thing: Pickles. What more can I say? Crunch. Yum.
Susan Lubner
Now, I'm honored to be able to share the short interview I had with Susan Lubner, titled Fabulous Five questions:

1) You published several picture books before you wrote THE UPSIDE of ORDINARY. What made you try your hand at middle grade? Really it was just that I had this idea for the novel and it wasn’t something that was going to work for a picture book topic-wise. I was actually a bit nervous to attempt to write a whole novel, the process is so different, but I was excited by the new experience and challenge, and I enjoyed it!

2) Your main character's name is Jermaine--and she's 11. Where did you come up with that name? When I first started writing the story I was going to have the parents be big Jackson 5 fans. But I changed my mind about that as I went along …I wasn’t sure my readers would be that familiar with the group and it didn’t seem to be a necessary part of the storyline. But I love the name Jermaine (and okay, I love Jermaine Jackson too!) so I decided to keep that in the book.

3) Like Jermaine, are you a fan of reality TV? If so, what shows do you like? I do like reality TV. I like the “talent” shows (American Idol, Cupcake Wars, Iron Chef) and so do my daughters and we watch those together. I don’t want to throw myself under the bus by admitting to a few others I enjoy (ahem…housewives…). I generally record those shows and then “allow” myself to watch them when I am folding laundry or working out  on my treadmill.

4) Do you LOVE pickles and HATE spiders as much as Jermaine's mom does? YES and YES!!! I crunched my way through a lot of pickles while writing The Upside of Ordinary. and the habit seems to have stuck.  I used to reach for a stash of M&Ms when I worked and needed a break or had writer’s block. Now I go to the fridge for some pickles! As for spiders…just typing the word gives me the shivers.

5) We can't wait for another book from you. What is your next project? I finished a chapter book that I am about to revise (it may go from chapter book to middle grade novel…) and I am just polishing up a picture book manuscript that I will be sending off to my editor very soon.

Thanks so much, Susan! 

You can learn more about Susan Lubner and her writing on her appealing website. She's also newly on Twitter @Slubner, so go follow her there.

BIG BONUS: For every comment, you have the chance to win a copy of THE UPSIDE OF ORDINARY after its release on October 1st. Bonus entries will be given for tweeting (#PMGiveaway) and/or mentions on Facebook. International Entries welcome. Winner will be announced on PM on Thursday September 27th.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Books are like Blue Jeans

I had a pair of green jeans in high school. I thought I was pretty cool.

I think I've figured it out. When my first book first hit the shelves, I'd get very upset whenever I read a review that was, well, not so nice. It really used to hurt me that someone didn't like something I put my very heart and soul into. It's like calling your child ugly or something.

Mom jeans rocked 90210!
Since then, I've learned to let that stuff roll off my back. If it's bad, it's bad, and there's nothing you can do about it--or at least nothing you should do. You may have noticed over the last couple years, there have been several author online meltdowns, wherein an author gets a bad review on goodreads or someone's blog and takes out their anger on the reviewer and all sorts of mayhem follows. I don't need to tell you that's not a wise thing to do for several reasons, but I do get it. I understand how a writer can feel personally injured after reading a scathing review. It's never fun. 

All I can say is, wow, just wow.
So, for any of you out there who have books available to the public and have gotten bad reviews, even nasty ones, or any of you who've gotten a rejection letter or two or three or a hundred, maybe try to think of it in these terms: Books are like blue jeans. If ever there was one thing in a person's closet (male or female) that is hard to buy and open to wearer interpretation it's blue jeans. Never in my life have I tried on such similar articles of clothing and looked so bad or so good (or so ridiculous) from one pair to another. It's almost as if the jean gods are playing tricks with the mirrors. These jeans make you look hippy, these jeans make your butt look big, these jeans make you look like you have no butt, the list goes on and on. Well...books are like that too.

Yeah...never gonna happen--NEVER!
I've tried on jeans from top designers, willing to shell out the cash to get the look of jean awesomeness I'm hoping for. I've bought the exact same pair of jeans my friend looks great in, only to find out, on me, not so great. I've bought cheap jeans, vintage jeans, boys' jeans, still without much luck in the "you are rocking those jeans!" department. Okay, I'm sure by now you're starting to get my point. Books are very much like blue jeans. What I think is a top ten book, may be so utterly boring to you, you want to hurt yourself at the thought of reading it and what you think is the greatest achievement of literary genius ever written, I may think is about as exciting as forensic accounting. 

Does he know we can see his undies?
We don't all like the same things, we just don't. It's human nature. So the next time your partial manuscript gets rejected or you read a biting review about your latest middle-grade novel, don't sweat it! At least it doesn't make your butt look big! ;)

Create as though there are no Critics
Amen to that!

Thanks all!


Monday, September 17, 2012

On Persistence and Plowing

I love to hear author's publication stories. Here's mine.

It was 2004. While driving to meet my writing group, I happened to catch an interview on NPR with Adrienne Young, a folksinger just starting out. She talked about her first album, inspired by some advice she’d gotten while struggling to make it as a musician:
If you want to do this with your life, stay focused and see this through. You’ve got to plow to the end of the row, girl.
That simple phrase – plow to the end of the row – was enough to push Adrienne to continue. It became the title of both her album and lead song.

I can’t quite explain what that interview meant to me, hearing an artist choose to create despite the struggle, to push against fear and sensibility and make it “to the end of the row.” I’ve carried this image with me for years, the plant metaphor standing in for artistic endeavor, the plow the unglamorous slog needed to dig deep and make it to the end.

Sometimes I find it funny I’d choose a profession so bent on forcing me to wait, so full of uncertainty and disappointment. An almost foolish optimism kept me working, trusting that the next editor or the next agent or the next story would be the one to launch my career. I’ve haunted mailboxes and inboxes, waiting for something positive to come through. I’ve ceremoniously sent off manuscripts, chanting, “Don’t come back!” (entertaining postal workers, for sure). I’ve journaled again and again “this next editor is a perfect match!”, managing somehow to keep on plowing in midst of little validation.

After twelve years of writing and hundreds of rejections, I sold my first book, May B., a historical verse novel about a girl with her own challenging row to hoe. May’s determination carried me through a rocky publication experience: losing my first editor; the closing of my Random House imprint, Tricycle Press; the weeks when my book was orphaned, with no publishing house to claim it and its future uncertain; the swooping in of Random House imprint, Schwartz and Wade; edit rounds six, seven, and eight with editor number two; and finally, May B.’s birth into the world this January, only three months behind its original release date.

Though each row’s length varies, they’re still mostly lonely, not very straight and loaded with stones. But the soil has gotten better as I’ve worked it, and each little sprout I’ve planted has been stronger than the last. And I keep at it -- plowing, planting, hoping, dreaming -- because I’m made for this. And knowing this is enough to continue, enough for my work to thrive.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Illustrations in middle-grade novels

Middle-grade might be far from picture books, but that doesn't mean our novels lack in art. Illustrations in middle-grade novels, to me, are an unexpected but delightful surprise. Because novels more often than not contain no illustrations at all, finding little bursts of art is like uncovering a loonie in a pile of dimes and nickels. (In case you're American and/or don't know what a loonie is: here you go.)

And here, when I speak of illustrations, I include everything small-scale yet intricate chapter headings to full-page illustrations. This comprehensive article from Publishing Crawl on the design process covers many behind-the-scenes details on the process of choosing an illustrator and decisions on illustrations; it's definitely worth a read.

 But on a more simple, reader level,  I wanted to share some personal favourites. I adore chapter heading/first page drawings, like the kinds found in Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier:

And take a look at the in-chapter drawings from The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy:

Text + art will always be a winning combination in my opinion. (I could go on and on about typography art... but that'd take an entire other post.) So what do you love most about illustrated middle-grade novels?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hungry? Middle Grade Books for the Cooks among Us

Hungry? Me too. That’s why the topic of this post today is about middle grade books that have something to do with cooking and include recipes. These sorts of books have been very popular in the last few years. Even before the rise in reality television cooking shows, books with a cooking aspect have been popular in adult fiction, especially in cozy mysteries. Apparently, restaurant owners and bakers stumble across dead bodies far more frequently than the general population. It makes sense books with recipes and some sort of tie-in to cooking would also be popular in middle grade. Many kids that age want to learn to cook, seeing it as an adult skill. (They don’t yet realize the drudgery of cleaning up!)

Anyway, my daughter (12) has been on kick to read as many of these books as possible. These books are sweet and quiet, good for kids who don’t necessarily want a swashbuckling read all the time. Here’s a few of our favorites. If you know of more, please list them in the comments and I’ll edit the post to add a list at the end.

THE TEASHOP GIRLS by Laura Shaefer
Three best friends who call themselves the Teashop Girls find their friendship strained as they all begin to pursue different interests, and one girl, Anne, feels left behind. Anne starts to work at her grandmother’s teashop, but when it looks like the place will be closing, the girls try to find a way to keep it open. Good recipe: Scumptious Oatmeal Chip Cookies

STIR IT UP by Ramin Ganeshram
Anjali Krishnan works in her family’s roti shop in Queens, but she really wants to become a celebrity chef. When she gets a chance to compete on a kid’s reality cooking show, she’s thrilled, only to find her parents’ beliefs clash with her dreams. Good recipe: Deema’s Easy Curry Chicken

PIE by Sarah Weeks
When Alice's Aunt Polly passes away, she takes with her the secret to her world-famous pie-crust recipe. In her will, Polly leaves the recipe to her crabby cat Lardo, and leaves Alice with the responsibility of caring for Lardo, but no one knows where the recipe is. Everyone in town wants to either find it, or come up with their own version to bring back the tourists who came for Polly’s pies. Good recipe: Buttermilk Pie

~Dee Garretson

Monday, September 10, 2012

Down to Earth Middle Grade Science Fiction

I like my Sci. Fi. a little on the realistic side and The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh fits the bill nicely.

A tiny snippet about The Green Book without any spoilers:

"We are at Shine, on the first day," says Pattie, when, as the youngest member of the group, she is given the honor of naming the new settlement. Refugees from the dying planet Earth, they, along with other ships, have been sent into space in the hope that some of them will survive to continue the human race. But the success of Shine remains doubtful as crops fail and provisions brought from Earth dwindle.

I like this book so much that I’ve reread it a few times since discovering it about 12 years ago, and even though it is a middle grade novel I’ve used it successfully with high school students because the themes in it are for all ages. I’ll probably use it with my fifth grade class later this year.

It is a cool combination of survival and group dynamics, and what they find on their new planet is just plain amazing. At a little over a 100 pages it is a quick read, but the story will linger in your brain.

What’s your favorite middle grade science fiction title?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Guest Post & Giveaway with Claire Legrand

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.

The Challenges (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, too.

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 diminished.

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 your story.

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 balk.

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.

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