Halloweekend Reading! 5 Under-the-Radar Books to Make You Shiver

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Fun fact: Halloween originated in Ireland as the festival of Samhain, where the line between the world of the living and the dead is thinnest.

As a lover of all things dark, spooky, gothic, mysterious, and eerie, you can get why this hoilday is my scene. Especially when it comes to books. If you don’t have a creepy reading list for this weekend, never fear. I am here to help with books you may not have thought of. And give you nightmares. Let’s begin.

1. HANGSAMAN by Shirley Jackson

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Now, you know Shirley. She wrote The Lottery” and a lot of other books that probably freaked you out. This title is one of her lesser known works, but is so FOR SHAME. First of all, it’s based on real experiences of Jackson herself AND the real-life disappearance of a college student in the 1940s. The main character, Natalie, goes to college to escape the pressures of her controlling family and winds up involved in some dark stuff. It’s not a book that’s very committed to reality, so you’ll have to judge for yourself which of the unsettling events are real. You’ll also be deeply unsettled. Enjoy.

2. THE FALL by BETHANY GRIFFIN

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This was my favorite book of 2014. THE FALL is smart, dark retelling of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe, told from the perspective of the ill-fated Madeline Usher. If you’re anything like me that’s all you need to know and you’re already on your way out the door to procure a copy.

3. THE CORN MAIDEN AND OTHER NIGHTMARES by Joyce Carol Oates

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Joyce Carol Oates is a legend, but sometimes I feel her horror writing doesn’t get enough credit. This collection is amazing. First of all, anything involving children and corn is creepy. I read this a few years ago and still vividly remember specific lines from these stories, which range from one about children conducting a strange ritual to one about trepanning to one about seriously messed up twins. Lots of good stuff to creep you out and have you fliching as you turn the page. Perfect for those nights you want to light some candles and read creepy stories out loud in the dark to your roommates and family to freak them out. Wait, no one else does that? Just me?

4. SERVANTS OF THE STORM by Delilah S. Dawson

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FIRST OF ALL THE COVER OF THIS IS FREAKY AS HELL. The longer you look the worse it gets. This is some Samara level creepy. This is the kind of book I recommend if you love spooky atmosphere. It’s set in Savannah after the city has been devastated by a hurricane, leaving the city prey to rot, disease, and demons. The main plot is about a girl trying to determine if her best friend (thought drowned in the storm) is still alive. There were some things about this book I didn’t love, but a grimy, haunted Savannah, already the most haunted city in the US in real life, is totally worth the ride.

 5. BLACK CHALK by Christopher J. Yates

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This is an under the radar read for those of you who like to get your chills from the psychological. Six best friends at Oxford University play “The Game” – a silly competition of childish dares. Slowly, however, The Game escalates into something horrible. Fourteen years later, the consequences of The Game rear their head, and the players must meet again for a final round. “Who knows better than your best friends what would break you?”

Enjoy the terror, folks! And have a safe and happy Halloween!

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Let’s Talk About Middle Grade! Content, Voice, Issues, and More

If you’re a middle grade author, you’re in luck! Lots of agents and editors are on the hunt for middle grade in this YA-dominated writing world, myself included. Anytime I get a middle grade query I’m excited to take a peek. It really is a wonderful age to write for, and there’s a reason that we remember all the books we read at that age so fondly.

With that I wanted to talk a bit about this age range, which is an age range not a genre (a mistake I see often), and the common challenges that come along with writing for it. While there is a bit of a higher demand for middle grade projects from agents right now, you still hear many saying that they just aren’t seeing the kinds of projects they want to see. In my opinion MG is one of the toughest areas to nail. If you can do it, agents will be after you. Promise!

P.S. All of the books pictured in this posts are great choices to make yourself a little MG reading list, if you’re looking to read more in this range and learn about writing in it. They are all amazing books that do fantastically different things, so reading a few (or more) would be a great way to see the range of what a MG book can be. Also ask your librarian or bookseller to hook you up!

mg counting   mg mixed   summer serafina

Age Range
So first, let’s talk about what middle grade is. Middle grade is the step between chapter books and YA, for ages roughly 8-12. Within that you’ll have lower middle grade (for the younger end of the spectrum – think things like THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX or FRINDLE) and upper middle grade (more mature, complex books for the older kids – think THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE or HOOT). Of course, there can be some variation, but generally lower means shorter and less complex, suitable for a kid in 2nd – 4th grade. Upper is for older kids as they bridge to YA and allows for more serious subject matter, more sophisticated writing and humor, etc. That’s not to say that lower MG books (or books in lower age ranges) are not sophisticated (because, lord, they can be), so think of the difference as both reading level and emotional accessibility.

A good rule of thumb is to take a look at what age the protagonist of the story is and remember that it’s normal for kids to read about kids who are either their age or a little older than them. The cutoff for a MG protagonist is generally 12 – any older and we’re getting into YA territory. Writing difficulty plays a part as well. If you’re writing middle grade, it’s important to think about how your manuscript fits for readers. The leap from 2nd grade to 5th or 6th grade is pretty big! Which kids do you imagine picking your book off the shelf?

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Content pt. 1 – Stories to Tell

Bearing in mind that MG is not a genre unto itself, remember that you can basically write anything here. I, for example, want to see all kinds of genres in MG – mystery, fantasy, contemporary, historical, and more. MG is an area where agents and editors are loving to see some outside-the-box thinking at the moment. Your story doesn’t have to be about school, doesn’t have to have dragons, doesn’t have to have anything you might think of when you think “kids book.” It certainly can, of course! But there is so much more room for different kinds of stories than ever before. Explore them all!

One note of course is that while there may be adult characters in your story, your story should definitely focus on your children characters and be told from their perspective. For example, don’t write a chapter from mom’s perspective about getting your character ready for school, lamenting about kids misbehaving, etc. If you’re telling a father-daughter story (side note: can someone please tell a father-daughter story), we want the daughter’s perspective, not dad’s. Know your audience!

As long as your story is oriented around your kid characters, one of the beautiful things about MG is that it’s significantly less trend-driven than YA. For example, it’s really really hard to sell a dystopian YA novel right now, because we just had the whole HUNGER GAMES thing. MG doesn’t quite operate this way, with huge trends that rise and fall so dramatically. There are some, and you should definitely know what’s out there, what’s working in the market, what will stand out, etc. But there is much more freedom in this age range. I most commonly hear editors say they will jump at any MG that has a good story and really nails the MG voice. That’s a very broad window to shoot for, and it gives you a lot of opportunity to tell the kind of story you want to tell. That said, you’ve gotta know what kind of stories are flourishing in the market as well as what readers are connecting to.  This involves reading what’s been published. Consider this your official excuse to go read a ton of kids’ books. For *research.*

mg stall   mg circus   mg summer

Content pt. 2 – How Much Is Too Much? 

No matter what kind of story you wind up writing, you want to do it justice, of course. Here is the biggest mistake I see in MG queries that I pass on – underestimating the reader. Kids are so smart and perceptive. They have a wide, complex range of emotions. They can understand a lot more than you think if you just gently guide them to the water. I see many submissions that lack subtlety and depth because the author is afraid that kids won’t get what they’re saying. Show them the story.  Kids will get it. Let them make the leap.

Middle grade books have dealt with all sorts of serious topics – war, death, illness, divorce, friendship, first love, class issues, peer pressure, politics, loss – the list goes on and on. You may worry about whether or not these things are MG-friendly as you’re writing. My rule of thumb is that what is more important is a mindful presentation of these elements rather than the thing itself. Death is a part of life. Violence can be scary. Illness is sad. Sometimes your friends turn out to be not so friendly. Sometimes your parents don’t get along. Kids really do get all this stuff. You can definitely present it to them (if that’s the kind of story you’re writing). Just be mindful of the presentation – don’t be overly detailed, gory, or gruesome. Use common sense and trust your readers to handle the story. They will do so beautifully.

Two exceptions here are sex and swearing. Those typically age a story up into the YA range. If there’s an f-bomb in your book, it’s definitely not MG. Otherwise, though, don’t shy away from the hard stuff, if you’re writing a hard story. (You can also write a fun, light story with none of this, that’s okay, too!). Just remember that all kids deal with hard stuff and fun stuff. It might be nice for them to have a book alongside them to know they’re not alone.

mg moon   mg holes   mg fairyland

 

Voice and Characters
On that note, apply the same logic to your writing and characters. MG writing should not be dumbed down (another sadly common issue I see). Don’t be afraid to use big words! In fact, many published MG books have writing that is just as complex as a YA novel. The only difference is presentation, like I said above.

Here is 100% serious advice, to nail both voice and characters in MG: if you’re writing for kids and have kids in your life, use them as a resource. Talk to them. If you’re basing your writing on what you imagine kids at the MG reading age to think or be, or what you remember from many moons ago, it will not feel genuine, and will likely do this gross but often well-intentioned thing of turning your kid characters into flat, one-dimensional beings that say things like “Gee whiz!” or complain all the time. Seriously! I honestly don’t know exactly how this happens, because I don’t think anyone knows kids like this in real life. But for whatever reason when writing for this age group, many authors struggle to make reality appear on the page.

The reality is that kids are people, which we sometimes forget as adults who generally have to do a lot of things to keep them alive. If in your real life you take care of kids as a parent or otherwise, it might be even harder to separate yourself from that role and see kids as characters with the autonomy and agency that will drive your story forward. But you have to, or the story won’t work! It’s honestly one of the hardest things about working in this age range. However you overcome that obstacle, it’s one of the most important things to get right. (Hint: if you aren’t sure if you have this problem, have a kid read your work.)

Writing for middle grade when you’re an adult involves taking a step outside yourself and seeing the world, a challenge, a relationship, again through the eyes of a child, remembering that “young” is not a personality trait or a worldview. Every kid in your story should have their own. So, talk to some kids in your life. If you don’t have any children in your life to chat with, time to go to your local independent bookseller and pick up that big stack of middle grade books.

mg george   mg liesel   mg witches

I wanted to write this post to address some of the issues I see with new authors who are writing MG, and I hope it helped! Like any writing, MG comes with practice and research – it being for kids doesn’t get you off the hook. I, for one, am very excited for this time in MG – there are many talented folks out there writing it and it’s a great time for it in publishing. I’m looking forward to seeing many fabulous MG queries in my inbox!

10 Books on My Summer TBR

Memorial Day weekend is upon us, officially kicking off the start of summer. The internet is flooded with summer reading lists at the moment and I’ve got a pretty hefty one myself, with a mix of old and new. I know I’m always curious what other people are planning to throw in their beach bags or lay out with by the pool, so I thought I’d share ten books that I’m planning to crack open in the sunshine – and maybe get some recommendations from you guys!

summer tbr girls

1. THE GIRLS by Emma Cline (Random House, June 2016) – Surprising no one, this is on my list (and everyone else’s). Coming of age loosely inspired by followers of Charles Manson with a dash of California desolation. All that heat getting to a young girl’s head. Who doesn’t like a nice, dark summer read? It’s definitely one of the hottest releases of the season, and something I’ll be snagging up as soon as it pubs.

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2. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE by (Perennial Classics, 2009 re-issue, original pub 1933) – I’m planning to dip into some lesser known classics this summer, and this slim little number is at the top of the list. First of all, the cover (a re-issue from Harper superbly done) is awesome. The novel is about a progressive female teacher at a girls’ school in Scotland who endeavors to groom her female students into her ideal, while the girls clamor for her favor. I’d actually never heard of this book until I found it on a list of books under 200 pages worth reading, and now I can’t wait to check it out.

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3. I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson (Dial, 2014) – I still haven’t gotten around to this 2014 big release from the author of The Sky is Everywhere about a a pair of fraternal twins dealing with love and growing up, so I’m planning to read it this summer. I tend to take a bunch of YA books with me on vacations and trips, rather than adult books, so perhaps I’ll bust this baby out for a long weekend read. Nelson is known to be a contemporary YA powerhouse, and this book is supposed to require a lot of tissues. Can’t wait to be sniffling into my pool towel. Side note: the paperback cover (the version I own) is gorgeous, though the hardcover one above is also eye catching.

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4. YOU WILL KNOW ME by Megan Abbott (Little Brown, June 2016) – One day, I will probably be banned from singing the praises of Megan Abbott on the internet, but today is not that day. Anyone who knows me knows she’s among my favorite authors and I gobble up everything she writes with relish. Her latest is about a gymnastics prodigy whose world is rocked by a violent death. Girls playing sports + noir vibes + maybe murder? Abbott took on a similar formula with DARE ME and nailed it for me, and she’s only become a better writer since then, so I can’t wait to see her take a stab at this new world. It’s a given that this will land on my shelf and then in my hand when I go to the park to lay in the grass and read it, eating popsicles, probably.

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5. MODERN ROMANCE by Aziz Ansari (Penguin Press, 2015) – Embarrassingly I borrowed this from a friend LAST summer and keep getting sidetracked from it, so I still have it in my TBR pile. I was much more interested in this topic when the book came out, but I love Aziz so I’ll be reading for his humor (and to give my friend her book back!). I also studied some sociology work of Eric Klinenberg (who is vaguely credited here as a co-author? maybe wrote the intro?) in college a lot, so I’ll be interested to see how he factors in. Seems like a good summer nonfiction pick, even if I’m a little late to the party on this one.

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6. INLAND by Kat Rosenfield (Dutton, 2014) – Rosenfield wrote one of my all time fave YA mysteries, AMELIA ANNE IS DEAD AND GONE. I was super excited for this sophomore novel from her, about a girl who has a somewhat sinister connection to the ocean (think: drowning death of her mother, an unexplained illness involving water in the lungs). It’s a dark kind of story that I think has a touch or two of magical realism. It’s another one that kind of slipped through the cracks for me after I bought it, so I’m excited to pick it up in the next couple of months when hopefully I might be close enough to the ocean to really set the scene. Gotta demand reading atmosphere, people!

summer dept

7. DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jenny Offill (Knopf, 2014) – This is a book I remember seeing everwhere when it pubbed and it never really caught my eye. About a month ago I was browsing a bookshop and found the paperback edition. I picked it up and flicked through. It seems to play with structure and form which is always something that pique my interest. The story is an emotional portrait of a marriage on the path to ruin. I love paths to ruin! I’m thinking this will be a devour in one sitting kind of book for me. Just goes to show how my reading interests change over the years, and things I wasn’t intrigued by before can all of a sudden become interesting. Also how bookshops are great at encouraging you to pick up things you may have never thought of. Go browse.

summer serafina

8. SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK (Disney/Hyperion, 2015) – I’m looking forward to representing some middle grade titles as I build my list, so this summer I’m planning to read a bunch of recent releases to broaden my horizons within the age group a bit. This adventure/mystery about a young girl who secretly lives in the basement of a wealthy estate with her maintenance man father definitely sounds up my alley. When children on the estate start disappearing, Serafina and her dad get tangled up in the mystery. I’ve mentioned several times I’m on the look out for MG and YA projects with a father/daughter narrative, so this will be good pick for me, I’m sure!

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9. THE SONNETS AND A LOVER’S COMPLAINT by Willian Shakespeare (Penguin Classics, 2000 reprint) – I’ve been dipping in and out of this collection of the Bard’s sonnets for a while now, and I’m determined to finish it this summer. Like most I studied some of these in school, but I feel like I was dumb then and not good at reading poetry. Now’s a chance to read them as an adult. I will probably read a couple of them a day all summer rather than rushing through. As for a Lover’s Complaint, I honestly don’t know much about it so will be interesting to see what that is!

summer unexpected

10. THE UNEXPECTED EVERYTHING by Morgan Matson (Simon & Schuster, May 2016) – This was a huge May release just in time for summer from one of my favorite YA authors.  Matson is a funny, smart, contemporary queen and her books always have the best premises. I’m very excited for this one about a politician’s daughter whose perfect plans are changed by a scandal. Like Matson’s other books, this seems like a great poolside read that hits that YA sweet spot of readable and well-written. The cover screams summer and also makes me want ice cream and dog friends.

So that’s my summer starting list! I hope to read a lot more than these as well. If you’ve read any let me know in comments or on Twitter what your thoughts were. Also if you have any summer must-reads on your list (old or new), I’d love to hear them 🙂 Feed the TBR pile, people. Happy Memorial Day!