Monday, March 25, 2019

Interview with Angie Smibert

Hi Angie, so happy that you could stop by Middle Grade Minded! Welcome! 

First, can you tell us a little bit about the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series and your latest book, Lingering Echoes?

Certainly! The Ghosts’ series is a bit history, a bit mystery, and a bit fantasy. It’s set in a small coal mining camp in the Southwest Virginia at the beginning of World War II. Bone Phillips (12) discovers she has a Gift, that in fact several members of her family have the Reed Gifts as her grandmother calls them. Bone’s Gift is the ability to see the ‘ghosts’ inside ordinary objects. People leave imprints on objects, particularly in emotionally charged moments of their lives. With a touch, Bone can see that moment—whether it’s good or bad. And she’s not terribly happy with her Gift. In fact, she loves stories that are not real!

In the first book—aptly called Bone’s Gift—she has to use her Gift to find out what really happened when her mother died. Meanwhile, he father gets drafted, a WPA worker comes to collect folktales in the area, and Bone has to go live with her dreaded Aunt Mattie. The latter does not end well.

In this new book, Bone’s best friend, Silent Will Kincaid, brings her a jelly jar to read. It was in his father’s dinner bucket, which Will inherited when he went to work in the mines. The jar has a peculiar power of its own: it can catch sounds. Bone has to figure out its mystery—and whether or not it has something to do with Will losing his voice after his father died.

Lingering Echoes is set around Halloween, so it also involves pranks, ghost stories, graveyards, jack o’lanterns, and, of course, Appalachian folktales. Did I mention that the series has many App folktales interwoven into it?

This series mixes history and fantasy in an intriguing way. What drew you to this type of story?

First of all, I love stories that mix genres, particularly history and fantasy. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, for instance, is one of my favorite books (so far) of this century. The Night Circus. The Golem and the Jinni. The Diviners. I could go on… They all mix history and fantasy in really interesting ways.

Mostly, though, the Ghosts’ series begged to be a mix of history and magic/magical realism. I started out exploring the place and its history. (Big Vein is loosely based a real place where my grandfather and his brothers were miners!) Then I came to realize our region (Appalachia) has its own magic born out of its history, people, nature, folktales, and so forth.  And I wanted the stories to have fairytale / folklore feel to them.

I didn’t realize that you teach young adult and speculative fiction for Southern New Hampshire University’s creative writing M.F.A. program. How cool is that? Regale us with your knowledge, pretty please. What’s your top tip for aspiring YA or MG speculative fiction writers?

The program is fairly new, so I have only been teaching YA fiction for a couple of terms. So far, I’ve noticed aspiring writers—whether in the program or elsewhere—have trouble grasping the idea of “show-don’t-tell.” And it’s actually a really tricky thing to learn and even trickier to explain or teach. How do you sink your readers into the POV character’s head so that you’re showing them the story rather than telling it? Nalo Hopkinson has a fantastic TED Ed lesson about it—and it’s probably the best explanation of ‘show-don’t-tell’ (although she doesn’t call it that) that I’ve seen yet. I defer to her for my top writing tip:

Another tip? Read a lot—in your genre and outside of it. You never know what might inspire you.

Now on to the most important topic of all: tell me about your dog. I hear he’s named after a telescope? (photo please :)

Yes, he is. Hubble is a nearly three-year-old black-lab mix. Oh, and a foster fail. ;) I fostered (and adopted ) him the summer I attended Launch Pad astronomy camp for writers. Even before the camp and even before I worked at NASA’s Kennedy Space, I was a space nut. And the Hubble Space Telescope—once the problem with its mirror was fixed on orbit—has been one of the most fantastic telescopes ever. It has produced some of the most exciting and breath-taking glimpses of our truly awe-inspiring universe so far. Hubble the dog, though, is a goofy, sweet boy who loves playing fetch, walking the neighborhood, and going to Starbucks for a pup cup.  My nicknames for him are Hubblepuff (yes, he would be a Hufflepuff if sorted) and Big Tasty (because he reminds me of Barry from the Goldbergs). 

Thanks so much to Angie Smibert for stopping by Middle Grade Minded! To find out more about Angie, visit her at

Monday, March 4, 2019

BONE HOLLOW by Kim Ventrella

Today we're presenting an interview with one of our contributors, Kim Ventrella, about her new MG book BONE HOLLOW!

What can you tell us about BONE HOLLOW without giving too much away?

At its heart, BONE HOLLOW is the story of a boy and his dog, but it’s so much more! It also features one ornery chicken, a candlelit cottage in the woods, friendship, mystery and big doses of heart and hope.

Here’s a teaser:

In retrospect, it was foolish to save that chicken. On the roof. In the middle of a thunder storm. But what choice did Gabe have? If he hadn’t tried to rescue Ms. Cleo’s precious pet, she would’ve kicked him out. And while Ms. Cleo isn’t a perfect guardian, her house is the only home Gabe knows.

After falling off the roof, Gabe wakes up in a room full of tearful neighbors. To his confusion, they’re all acting strange; almost as if they think he’s dead. But Gabe’s not dead. He feels fine! So why do they insist on holding a funeral? And why does everyone scream in terror when Gabe shows up for his own candlelight vigil?

Scared and bewildered, Gabe flees with his dog, Ollie, the only creature who doesn’t tremble at the sight of him. When a mysterious girl named Wynne offers to let Gabe stay at her cozy cottage in a misty clearing, he gratefully accepts. Yet Wynne disappears from Bone Hollow for long stretches of time, and when a suspicious Gabe follows her, he makes a mind-blowing discovery. Wynne is Death and has been for over a century. Even more shocking . . . she’s convinced that Gabe is destined to replace her.

One thing that struck me about your first book, SKELETON TREE, was how it came across as a scary mystery at first, but revealed an emotional resonance by the end. How would you compare the two books?

Readers of BONE HOLLOW should expect much the same! It’s part contemporary fantasy, part mystery, but with a strong emotional core. As a writer, I’m always looking for those moments of emotional catharsis and connection. Part of the fun for me is to take something very light and whimsical, and twist it in such a way that it reveals those deeper layers. It’s about playing with reader expectations, and also about exploring those darker topics while never losing the sense of playfulness and hope.

Where did the idea for BONE HOLLOW come from? Did you come up with this after SKELETON TREE, or was it an idea you've been developing for a longer period of time?

I came up with BONE HOLLOW after I wrote SKELETON TREE, as a way to explore the same theme from a new point of view. Although it is a stand-alone, readers who are familiar with SKELETON TREE will see how BONE HOLLOW plays with and expands on the fantasy world that I created in my first book.

My hope is that readers will come away from these books with a new perspective on life or, in this case, death. In both stories, I’ve tried to create an engaging fantasy world filled with humor, whimsy and many light touches, but I’m also wanting to explore darker topics to show that there can be light and beauty there as well. Loss is one of those things that even very young children encounter, often with the loss of a pet or grandparent, and one of my goals in both books is to help young readers develop a framework for processing their feelings surrounding death that acknowledges the sadness, but also opens the door to hope. BONE HOLLOW expands on this theme, but tackles it from the perspective of Death, rather than the other way around.

Both books have strong supernatural themes to them. I know this is something of an interest of yours. Would you like to be known for writing this type of book, or are you interested in working with other genres at some point?

For me, spooky stories are all about possibility. About discovering a magical world beyond the mundane, and I think this is why I love writing spooky. I am a terrible cynic in real life. I don’t believe in anything fun, like ghosts, magical skeletons or an afterlife, but in fiction I can explore all of those things and create a world in which unlikely possibilities really do happen.

So, yes, I LOVE writing stories featuring magical or supernatural elements, but I’m also very interested in expanding into other genres. Writing stories without fantasy elements is a huge challenge for me, and I’m ready to learn, explore and grow, while never straying too far from my spooky roots. J  

When you're writing something you know will be scary, do you have any self-imposed limits on what content you'll include? Were there any ideas you wanted to use in the story that, at some point in the book's development, you were convinced to take out because of content?

Not for BONE HOLLOW or SKELETON TREE, but I am forever being told that my stories are too creepy. Imagine that! I have a very scary short story coming out in the NEW SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK collection releasing in 2020, and I did have to cut some for that--but just one line. The editor, Jonathan Maberry, wrote, “I mean, there are some really gory descriptions, but I would have loved them as a kid.” Best feedback ever, and I was definitely that kid who would say, ‘Bring on the scary!’

That’s one of the great things about scary stories. You can always close the book if it gets to be too much.

How do you see the role of scary stories in middle grade literature?

I think scary stories have a hugely important and positive role to play in middle grade literature, but first I should probably make a distinction. I like to think of SKELETON TREE and BONE HOLLOW as spooky, rather than scary. They certainly have macabre elements, but they fit much more in the arena of magical realism or contemporary fantasy than horror. I love to sprinkle a little spookiness into heartfelt, sometimes sad, stories that focus on characters going through difficult times, but ultimately coming out with a renewed sense of hope in the end.

That being said, scary, spooky and generally creepy stories are so important. They give kids the opportunity to confront and overcome their monsters within the safe space of a book. They grab kids’ interest and have the potential to turn reluctant readers into avid readers. So, so many benefits, but I also think that using a spooky or fantastical story framework can be a great way to ease kids into a discussion of real-life difficult issues. The fantasy world adds distance between the reader and the real-world issue, creating a buffer or safety zone between the reader and difficult topics like death.

KIM VENTRELLA is the author of the middle grade novels Skeleton Tree (2017) and Bone Hollow (2019, Scholastic Press), and she is a contributor to the upcoming New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthology (2020, HarperCollins). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Kim has held a variety of interesting jobs, including children’s librarian, scare actor, Peace Corps volunteer, French instructor and overnight staff at a women’s shelter, but her favorite job title is author. She lives in Oklahoma City with her dog and co-writer, Hera. Find out more at or follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram: @KimVentrella.

Friday, March 1, 2019

How to Make Scary Stories Come Alive

“Scary, Mommy, it’s scary.” 
“Ok, honey, just a minute. Go back upstairs.”

Not exactly one of my parenting triumphs. At this point, Jessie’s pretty young, my hubby’s out of town, and I’m on an urgent family conference call. She’s seen Jurassic Park before and enjoyed being “scared.” She’ll be fine watching the sequel upstairs with her siblings. Right? Wrong.

I’d forgotten the dreaded picnic scene. You remember the one, where a little girl wanders away from her family and is mauled by tiny dinosaurs? That was too much for my little girl. But it was an excellent scary scene.

How to Write Scary

There’s lots to know when writing scary scenes, such as what type of scene you’re shooting for, how to write it for maximum effect, who your audience is, and why you’re writing something scary in the first place. 

Know the Types of Scary Scenes

Suspense: These are scenes that provoke a sense of anxious uncertainty. Readers feel brought to the edge of their seats. These are great cliffhanger scenes that keep your audience reading. Another example of a suspense scene is when the reader knows something the character doesn’t (that there’s a monster in the closet, for instance).
Spooky: Spooky scenes can include humor or poke lighthearted fun at fear. Think Casper the Friendly Ghost, Ghostbusters, or Goosebumps movies and books.
Terror: Terror scenes provoke intense fear in the reader. These may keep readers looking over the shoulder or jumping at odd noises.
Horror: Very similar to terror, these provoke an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. Horror scenes may or may not include gore.
Fantasy/Paranormal/SciFi: These are any type of scary scene with supernatural or futuristic elements
Psychological: Of course, there is an element of psychology to every scary scene. But in this case, psychology is the main factor. Examples: when the fear is all in the characters’ head, split personalities, social anxiety.

Consider Your Audience

Genre standards and audience preferences should influence how you write your scary scenes, how much gore to include, how light or heavy-handed to be with the frightening elements. In middle grade fiction, story elements can be frightening and suspenseful, but are usually not graphic. Ease your readers into frightening scenes by first having scary things rumored or happening to friends of the main characters. If you write too graphically or intensely for a younger audience, they may be too frightened to finish the book. Gatekeepers such as parents, teachers, and librarians will likely screen the book out.

Make Them Care

Scary scenes are ineffective if the reader doesn’t care what happens to your character. Create relatable characters. Show them being kind. Show their flaws. Show what matters to them, and why. Show their dreams and aspirations. Then threaten all that. Your readers will shudder.

Use Concrete Details to Make it Real

Concrete details ground readers so you can tap their emotions. Suzanne Collins does an excellent job of this in Mockingjay, the third of the Hunger Games trilogy, which is obviously YA, not MG, but still. An amazing example.

I’m referring to the scene of the girl in the yellow coat. 

Katniss is trying to blend into the crowd. A girl notices her. The reader absorbs the image of a little girl in a lemon yellow coat. Sweet. But possibly a threat, since she’s noticed Katniss. But a little girl. A lemon yellow coat. Sweet. But danger. Hmm…reader is feeling anxious.

Gunfire rips through the crowd. Katniss next sees the little girl, screaming beside a motionless woman. We are riveted, gut-punched, and feel the girl’s pain. Then bullets mow her down, too. 

These concrete details make the scene come alive on an emotional level and heighten the reader’s horror at the situation overall, as well as our fear for Katniss, in particular.

Use Setting to Heighten Emotion

Use setting elements to highlight the frightening aspects of your scene. Even a sunny courtyard can have shadows, strangling vines, and blood-red flowers. Better yet, use aspects of the scene to remind the character (and your reader) of what’s at stake. Do forget-me-not blossoms remind her of her brother's eyes? What about when the flowers are trampled and dying?

Examine the Purposes of Your Scary Scenes

Are you trying to force your character to their breaking point? If so, why? Are you showing the character develop a new strength or skill? Will this fearful situation break your character or will they triumph? Will they stick to their values or violate them? What are the mental and physical consequences of how they react?

Scary Writing Resources

Back to Jessie and Jurassic Park. I’m happy to say she suffered no permanent damage for her early exposure to something scary sans Mom. She’s an avid reader and doesn’t shy away from horror films or life’s adventures.

What are your fave scary writing tips or MG horror novels?