Writing Creepy for Kids Without Scarring Them for Life!

I met Hilary Wagner when I was inadvertently drawn into one of the legendary Rat/Possum Twitter wars with Hilary representing Team Rat, and Jen K. Blom representing Team Possum. I tried to call a truce between them, then eventually gave up when I realized their good-natured teasing would go on regardless of me. The blessing that came out of that battle was my opportunity to get to know Hilary Wagner a little better. She is witty and exuberant, an absolute delight to know.

Hilary lives in Chicago with her husband, Eric, and their two children. She loves stories that make her smile when she reads the ending, but leaves her sad that she has no more left to read. She also loves speaking engagements and will even bring her famous rats when she comes. What I love about Hilary is her ability to render a dark tale for children and make the story both engaging and friendly. Hilary’s debut novel, Nightshade City, is scheduled to be published on October 2010 by Holiday House books:

Deep beneath a modern metropolis lies the Catacombs, the kingdom of mutant rats of superior intellect. Following a bloody coup, the once peaceful democracy has become a dictatorship, ruled by decadent High Minister Kildeer and vicious Billycan, a demented former lab rat and now head of the Kill Army.

Three young orphan rats — brothers Vincent and Victor and a clever female named Clover — rebel against the Ministry, joining forces with Juniper, Billycan’s archenemy. Juniper and his maverick bank of followers, helped by a tribe of earthworms, plot to overthrow their oppressors and liberate the citizens to create a new city: Nightshade City. This impossible-to-put-down animal fantasy, set in a brilliantly imagined subterranean world, explores timeless themes of freedom, forgiveness, the bonds of family, and the power of love.

If you want to keep up with Hilary, you can follow her on Twitter, friend her on Facebook, visit her blog where she talks about writing middle-grade novels, or visit her web page for Nightshade City. Please help me welcome the energetic, Hilary Wagner:

Writing Creepy for Kids Without Scarring Them for Life!

by Hilary Wagner

When you look at your average selection of middle-grade novels, many of them, in fact a good majority of them have scary elements. To me, the reason for this is quite simple: how can you have a primo middle-grade adventure novel, creepy mystery or fantastic fantasy without a bit of fear factor in it? That would be downright boring.  Who wants to read about a boy wizard, who’s good at magic and occasionally deals with giant spiders and evil sorcerers, but nothing bad ever happens to him — everyone just sits around all nicey-nicey casting harmless spells on tea and crumpets? Okay, maybe that’s a purposefully exaggerated example, but you get the picture . . . scary is fun, scary is engaging!

A little bit about me: One thing I can tell you, I’m a connoisseur of creepy and of course kids’ books. Ever since I was little, I’ve loved being scared, not terrified out of my wits mind you, but delightfully creeped out! If a book of mine ever becomes a movie I pray that Tim Burton is involved! While I adore all the holidays, Halloween ranks high on my list and I think many readers feel the same way.  Why else would vampires and werewolves, witches and wizards (and creepy rats) be so darn popular?

Now clearly, in middle-grade stories, lots of blood and guts is not what we’re going for, nor are we going for knife wielding, serial killing maniacs, in other words, no Jason or Freddy type guys. I don’t see something like that hitting the middle-grade shelves anytime soon (at least I hope).  So, when writing scary for kids, it has to be done right, or else parents would never get any sleep, constantly being bombarded with screaming petrified children, barging into their rooms at all hours of the night, because they heard something go bump!

I think a fantastic example of making scary not so scary is Rick Riordan’s, Percy Jackson series. In Book I, The Lightning Thief, there are several fear-provoking moments, but with his use of humor and Percy’s perspective, Riordan effectively takes the terror out of situations, yet still making it harrowing and thrilling.

For example, in chapter four, Percy faces one of his first foes — The Minotaur. Normally, a giant monster/bull/man, ready to rip a kid limb from limb could be quite unsettling to your average middle-grader, but the first thing Riordan does when describing the Minotaur, is throw him in a pair of bright white, Fruit of the Loom underwear.  That’s right, good ol’ tighty-whiteys — instantly, knocking the number on the terror scale down from a ten to a seven and making all boys and girls out there snicker at the narrative. Later in the scene, the Minotaur grabs Percy’s mother, but instead of something violent happening to her, she merely dissolves into shimmering light, no blatant cruelty to Percy’s sweet mom — again pushing things down another notch or two on the horror meter and finally, Percy’s love for his mother turns his fear into anger — allowing him, a scrawny twelve-year-old, to defeat the Minotaur, making the impossible possible for any kid — hence, way less scary!

So, as you can see, the way a scene is described (character description, setting, perspective) is everything when writing scary for children. If you haven’t already, please read The Lightning Thief.  It’s a great example of how this type of writing is done right. Rick Riordan has got this down to a true science! 

In Nightshade City, there are a few moments which can be classified as scary. In one scene, there is a fight between two opposing rats, quite a heated battle, wherein one loses an eye — rather messy business, no?  I wanted to portray the fight in a way that would make it less scary than it truly was.  I did so by having Juniper, one of the actual combatants in the brawl, describe it in his own words to Vincent Nightshade. 

In the scene, Vincent asks him if he’d still like to talk about it and Juniper tells him, “Of course, I do!  That’s the meat of our tale.  Every fellow loves a good gruesome yarn! Come sit with me on this hard and uncomfortable floor and I’ll let you in on the particulars.”  I wanted to set the scene of a grown rat relaying the tale to a younger one, making it less scary, because Juniper came through it all right, and he’s eager to share this chilling piece of his history to young Vincent — a boy just coming into his manhood.  When all is said and done, though mentally taxed, Juniper still throws in his own brand of manly humor.  Juniper looked exhausted.  “Now that, my boy, is why I wear this fetching patch, so as not to frighten little children or sicken others from finishing their meals.”  

At the very end of Nightshade City, there is another unnerving scene in which Vincent and his brother are in the thick of it, facing a terrifying foe.  Despite the fatal threat, Vincent is dead set on protecting his brother at all costs, using his brain over brawn in order to protect him. When I wrote this scene, I wanted to make it clear to young readers that when you love someone, nothing else matters — love overpowers our fear — that even a kid can win if his heart is in it. I’d love to talk more about the scene, but I can’t give much more away than that until after the book comes out!

I think the best way to start tackling scary scenes in children’s literature is to go back in your own head and figure out what scary books you loved as a kid and why. Buy them and read them again. Discover what hooked you and why those books not only creeped you out, but became favorites! Authors of note in writing scary: Rick Riordan, Neil Gaiman, Reade Scott Whinnem, Holly Black and the list goes on!  If you want an oldie but a goody, I recommend the The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder — full of creepy and simply a fantastic book, not to mention a Newbery Honor winner.

Teresa, thanks so much for having me! Talking creepy is great fun! I have a creepy scene to write myself, best get to it while I’m inspired!

xoxo — Hilary

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About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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8 Responses to Writing Creepy for Kids Without Scarring Them for Life!

  1. jaekaebee says:

    AW! What a great post!

    Even if it IS about rats!! 🙂

  2. Thanks for having me, T! This was so much fun!

    xoxo — Hilary

  3. Great post, Hilary! I know finding that line and not crossing (too far over!) can be tricky.

  4. I saw the title of the post on Facebook earlier but couldn’t get here until now, thought instantly Rat Girl would invoke the power of humor, not in the least because she has it in spades.

    Oh, and H-bomb, I predict that Burton gig will arrive for Edward’s book. I’m just sayin’.

    Great topic, T. You have a gift for priming in-depth interviews.

  5. Carolyn V says:

    Great post Hilary! =)

  6. Faith Hough says:

    This was really interesting, Hilary!
    Did you ever read what Roald Dahl wrote about writing scary things for kids? Something about–you can tell them that an escaped zoo animal ate James’ parents–but you can never show them… Not sure how I feel about this, though it worked for his stories!

  7. Tim Burton directing the film version is a dream we share.

  8. Pingback: Writing Creepy For Kids « Doug Solter.com

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