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Does it need repeating? The past year-plus has been scary and stressful. This is especially so for kids, who, unlike their parents, have not even been able to hide in their home office/closet, rewatch The Sopranos or any of the other things growns-ups have been doing to relieve tension. Which makes us wonder how some of the kidlit authors who are known for intentionally scaring their readers are faring right now. Nathan Whitlock spoke to Kelley Armstrong and Kenneth Oppel, both of whom have published some brilliantly (and much-beloved) unnerving books for young readers.
Why do you two enjoy scaring young people so much?
Kenneth Oppel: God, writers have been scaring children since there was literature. Any time a writer has written any kind of book that was considered appropriate or edifying for children, it has involved some element of fear. I mean, fairy tales are terrifying a lot of the time! Even benign things like Beatrix Potter – they’re adorable bunnies, but hanging over them is the fear they’re going to be baked into pies. I mean, it’s real Hannibal Lecter kind of stuff a lot of the time. Kelly, do you actually think of yourself as a “writer of scary stories,’ or is it that you write stories in which fear is an inevitable component?
Kelley Armstrong: I don’t set out to write things that are scary, but it’s one of those emotions that I enjoy pulling in. Because I was definitely that kid looking for all those scary books, scary comics, scary TV shows, or watching horror shows on late-night cable when my parents thought I was sleeping. So I want to write the kinds of things that I would have enjoyed as a kid, and that definitely involves fear – and having to face that fear.
KO: I wasn’t allowed to watch scary movies, but I would find friends who had more permissive parents, and I would get those friends to tell me the plots. I feel like because I got these bastardized versions of horror movies and scary stories, I was even more terrified, because sometimes the things that really freak you out are the things that you don’t see, or that you augment with your own personal little toolkit of self-imposed horrors.
Read more in this series
- Why is YA so popular? We ask authors Leigh Bardugo, behind the new Netflix series Shadow and Bone, and Marie Lu
- Authors Deborah Ellis and Wab Kinew talk about writing true stories for young readers
- Cartoonists Jillian Tamaki and Gene Luen Yang discuss what draws young audiences to comics
- How Canadian kidlit stars Jon Klassen and Matt James come up with smart stories for young readers
I was lucky enough to have three older brothers and very inattentive parents, so I was exposed to things like Jaws and American Werewolf in London and even Apocalypse Now – which is a whole other level of scariness – when I was, like, 10.
KO: In a bizarre way, I think scary stories are kind of cozy and comforting a lot of the time, because they’re these little self-contained experiences – you can close the book, and they don’t usually seep into your life. And the kids in scary stories have a lot of power, they have a lot of autonomy, and they triumph over these scary things in the end.
Are you either of you feeling anything different about creating scary stuff right now, when kids are inundated with larger threats they have no power over? Do you feel a different sense of responsibility?
KO: My only responsibility as a writer, I think, is to tell the best story I can. I have many strong feelings, and I vote for them, I give to causes; but when I write, I write because I have what I think is a thrilling idea. In the case of my last three books, the Bloom trilogy, I didn’t know when I was writing them that they would come out pretty much in total sync with a global pandemic – which is a mixed blessing. When your books are about a global ecological disaster, by comparison real life seems a little more manageable. So I’m just trying to tell a good story.
KA: My take is exactly the same: I’m writing the book that I want to write. I’m not trying to monitor or self-select anything for the current audience – they will do that self-selecting themselves. But it has been more difficult to write certain types of dark stories during the pandemic.
KO: You mean, just because of your own personal mental health? Or what you think the audience might want?
KA: No, no – definitely not thinking of the audience. Just from a personal perspective, it’s been tougher. When this all started, I had just sold a YA [young adult] novel, a dark contemporary thriller. I spent almost the entire year struggling to write it because I couldn’t put those teens in a dark place in the contemporary world. I finally had to tell my publisher that I need an extra year. And I switched over to writing my middle-grade series, which is a fantasy world with monsters and lots of danger. I had no problem at all because they will conquer the monsters. So as a writer I needed that, rather than the more real-life darkness.
KO: Yeah, I’m only writing about puppies and piglets now. No more wasps.
Kenneth, I read and reviewed your novel The Nest, and that book really unsettled me. And again, I watched Apocalypse Now when I was 10, so if it’s unsettling me… While reading it, I kept having the thought, “Is this for kids?”
KO: I think kids sometimes have a higher threshold for the weird and unusual than adults. Because adults have that protective impulse and more life experience. But kids have a way of compartmentalizing these stories – I don’t think they bring them into their lived experience. Also I feel like you can get away with a lot more on the page than you can, say, on a screen.
KA: I have scenes where I’m like, yeah, this is mildly disturbing. But readers will say, “That was so scary!” It’s what they’re bringing to it.
That makes me wonder if either of you ever chafe at some of the strictness around the children’s book categories around ages. My six-year-old enjoyed The Hobbit, for example, but that’s not a book aimed at six-year-olds. Do you ever find yourself wanting to give kids more than a reading level or category is allowing for?
KO: I hate all the age groups and designations like “middle-grade” and “new adult.” It’s a restriction on your potential audience. And it’s a relatively new thing – in the eighties and nineties it was just “juvenile fiction,” and that could be anything [aimed at] eight to 18 years old. Harry Potter was middle-grade fiction, but by the end of it, that stuff was intense – it wouldn’t be sold as middle-grade now. I’ve written books that I feel an eight-year-old could read – Silverwing or Airborne or The Nest – but a 16-year-old could read it, too. Publishers label these things because bookstores need to shelve them, and librarians need to classify them, so it ends up in a certain section. I think it’s dumb – I can understand why they do it, but it has nothing to do with who is right for what book.
KA: Definitely. It’s not a warning-label system. And I say that because people get confused, especially with YA – they get confused about what YA is in the sense of: Is everything in every YA book fine for every teen? They have different ideas about what is appropriate in terms of darkness, violence, profanity, sexual content – which is obviously not the same for a 13-year-old as it is for a 17- or 18-year-old. And then you have adults being uncertain about reading YA or reading middle-grade, and saying, “That’s not written for me.” Well, no, it’s written for a particular age group, but that doesn’t mean you can’t read it if you’re older – or if you’re younger! I’m sure Kenneth had the same thing of reading books that were considered too old for him when he was young. You’re always reading “up.”
NW: Have either of you ever had an editor or publisher come back to you and say, “We love this book, we love the story, but this one scene – we gotta pull that back because this is for 14-year-olds”? Have you ever had that pushback?
KO: Once, but it wasn’t for a scary book – I’ve never had anyone say, “This is too scary, you need to tone it down.”
KA: My first middle-grade book was co-written with a friend, Melissa Marr, and we had one scene that takes place in the afterlife, and the river was full of the dead – you know, zombies. I did that quite graphically, and our editor came back and said, “Are you sure that won’t scare girls?” You can imagine what my response to that was. “If you believe it will scare boys and girls, I will look at it. But if you’re worried it will scare only girls, I’m not touching it.” So it did not get touched. We never had complaints, but we’ve certainly had readers say how much they enjoyed that scene.
This interview has been condensed and edited.