On Saturday, I attended a panel discussion at the Children’s Literary Salon in New York City with Adam Gidwitz, author of A Tale Dark and Grimm, Kate Milford, author of The Boneshaker (that’s my great and fabulous friend!) and Michael Teitelbaum, author of The Scary States of America.
I had read about The Children’s Literary Salon in the current SCBWI bulletin and how they had free ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) available, which fellow Teen Writers Bloc member Mary and I plundered. I took this wonderful opportunity to see my pal Kate “in action” discussing the horror elements of her book, as well as getting the scoop on The Children’s Literary Salon.The panel addressed the horror genre elements of the authors’ novels.
Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker ” follows Natalie Minks, 13, who likes machines — the way they make sense, the way all the gears and cogs fit together to make something happen. When Dr. Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show stops in at her father’s bicycle repair shop because a wagon wheel has fallen off and disappeared, Natalie knows that the man is not meant to fit into the machinery of her life. Her ailing mother has told her stories of bargains made with the Devil, and of besting wickedness by looking it right in the face. Limberleg has a collection of clockwork figures that work without being wound up and never seem to run down. When Natalie begins to have inexplicable visions of the malevolent forces facing Arcane, MO, she isn’t convinced that she is equipped to fight the evil at hand. Soon almost everyone is taken in by Limberleg’s promises of miraculous healing and snake-oil cures, and it becomes clear to Natalie that she is their only hope of survival. Enhanced by full-page drawings, this intricate story, set in the early 20th century, unfolds with the almost audible click of puzzle pieces coming together. In the Gothic tradition of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (S & S, 1962), The Boneshaker will earn itself a place in the annals of stories about children and the struggle between good and evil” (from School Library Journal, plucked from Amazon.com. It does so well with summaries! I need not even worry myself with trying to synthesize).
Adam Gidwitz “reweaves some of the most shocking and bloody stories that the Brothers Grimm collected into a novel that’s almost addictively compelling, with a disarming delicacy and an unexpected good cheer. He gives fair warning that this is no prettified, animated version of the old stories. “Are there any small children in the room now?” he asks midway through the first tale. “If so, it would be best if we just…hurried them off to bed. Because this is where things start to get, well…awesome.” Many of humanity’s least attractive, most primal emotions are on display: greed, jealousy, lust, and cowardice. But mostly it’s the unspeakable betrayal by bad parents and their children’s journey to maturation and forgiveness that are at the heart of the book. Anyone who’s ever questioned why Hansel and Gretel’s father is so readily complicit in their probable deaths, and why the brother and sister nonetheless return home after their harrowing travails, will find satisfying explanations here. Gidwitz is terrifying and funny at the same time. His storytelling is so assured that it’s hard to believe this is his debut novel. And his treatment of the Grimms’ tales is a whole new thing. It’s equally easy to imagine parents keeping their kids up late so they can read just one more chapter aloud, kids finishing it off under the covers with a flashlight, and parents sneaking into their kids’ rooms to grab it off the nightstand and finish it themselves” . (from School Library Journal, another summary yanked from Amazon.com)
Michael Teitelbaum weaves stories full of “aliens, ghosts, and monsters that haunt the pages of this eerie trip around the Scary States of America. With Jason Specter — the nation’s unofficial collector of all things paranormal — as your guide, you meet the girl in Illinois who can start fires with her mind, the Skunk Ape of Florida that knocks victims flat with its stench, the mischievous Shadow People of Arkansas, the Jersey Devil, the extraterrestrials who take human organs as a souvenir of their trip to Washington, and the wailing ghost of a teenage girl trapped forever in an Oregon lighthouse. Some of these visitors from other worlds don’t mean to hurt anyone . . . and some of them do.” (plucked from Amazon.com)
Each author came to writing children’s books in a different way. Kate Milford started out writing plays and then challenged her mother, a budding children’s book author, to finish book projects to enter into a contest. They both had to finish projects, which pushed her mother to get hers finished. Alas, Milford didn’t win the contest, but started the early text of what was to be The Boneshaker. Adam Gidwitz was teaching the 1st grade when he started telling stories. The tales were so good, his students followed him around in little huddles begging him for a story (even neglecting their lunches, which all of you elementary school teachers know is a HUGE deal). Michael Teitelbaum started out in comic books and worked in a building down the hall from a children’s book publisher. After the comic book imprint he worked for closed up shop, he headed down the hall and worked as an editor at that publisher.
The wonderfully quirky and sarcastic MC, Elizabeth Bird, a powerful force to be reckoned with in the children’s/teen book market with a fantastic blog, asked a slew of interesting, thought-provoking questions. Here are some of the highlights:
Kate loves all things creepy and the strange instances in American history that she didn’t learn in middle school such as medicine shows and patent medicines. And she loves Ray Bradbury and his book Something Wicked This Way Comes. Adam implemented a curriculum on storytelling at his school and became interested in the goriness and darkness of the Grimm fairy tales. Michael was a huge Twilight Zone fan and started taking the nuggets of spooky legends and fleshing them out into stories.
Question: Are these books children’s horror? How does horror intersect with children’s books?
Kate revealed that in most of the feedback she’s gotten from kids and parents, that the parents think its horror, but not the kids themselves. Kids have told her they find the book creepy and were drawn to the oddities in her book. She believes horror enters the children’s book genre with the sense of the uncanny and when something that looks easily explainable takes on an element of the unexplainable.
Adam admits that he didn’t think of his book as horror. He revealed that he didn’t like horror until later in life and recently went through a flurry of re-watching horror films like Misery, The Shining, and The Exorcist and could see how they related to his book. He discovered the connection between fairy tales and how the horror genre takes a human anxiety that the reader or viewer has and then manifests it in the real world. He gave an example using Cinderella. The fairy tale takes the feeling of under-appreciation and gives it symbol, action, and character and realizes that fear within the structure of a story.
Michael discussed how the definition of a horror story has changed and evolved from Wolfman, Frankenstein, and Dracula to a genre where horror is synonymous with bloody, in the new tradition of Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Kruger, etc…He prefers the term “scary” story rather than “horror” story because it captures the shift from the normal into the strange.
All three authors expressed that they’ve gotten some criticism about the age-appropriateness of their books for the intended middle grade audience. Kate Milford describes the process of how they shopped her book around. First, it went around as a young adult novel, then morphed to 10 and older because adults felt 9 year-olds were too young. But Kate believes that everyone translates things differently, especially when it comes to scary stories. She also slide in that she feels parents are wimpier than their kids and she thinks there is a benefit for kids to experience fear. Adam Gidwitz put his email on the book jacket and receives great feedback from kids, but polarized adult responses. Many adults loved it and others didn’t like the intrusive narrator presence that serves as a story-telling device because his book is really full of oral stories that have been written. Michael Teitelbaum said he has been in children’s books for nearly 20 years and still doesn’t understand the age labels. He hasn’t received any criticism about the appropriateness of his book, but runs a blog where kids submit scary stories from their towns, and he says the age sweet spot is 11 and most of the kids ask: “Are these really true stories?”
(Full disclosure: This was a self-serving question since the devil makes an appearance in my book!) Each author has the devil in their respective books.
Kate emphasized that she extricated her devil from his religious constraints and uses him in the same way he shows up in American folklore as the ultimate trickster figure. She believes his presence is weaved into the fabric of America in a way that is separate than his role in religion and the Bible. Adam also agreed and his use of the devil was as a manifestation of humans’ greatest fears. A Jersey Devil shows up in Michael’s text and he concurred that the devil is part of America.
Question: So, what’s next for these authors? Will they continue to ride the train of blood, bones and gore?
Kate Milford says it’s, “Where I’m stuck for awhile.” She loves all things creepy and weird and has a prequel to The Boneshaker called Broken Lands coming out next year. Adam Gidwitz says he’s stuck in fairy tales and thinks the form is fun and loves “translating anxieties into blood.” Next up for him is another collection of retellings featuring the grandchildren of Hansel and Gretel, from A Tale Dark and Grimm, named Jack and Jill. Michael Teitelbaum will be hopping around a bit, he’s got a sports book coming out as well as other projects, but assures all that more creepy stories will be coming our way.