NOTE: I don't post to this blog super-duper often anymore, because I'm busy writing, well, books. (Read more about that here.) For more up-to-date, day-to-day ramblings, visit my Facebook page.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Back to School, 50 Years Late

My first school visit of the 2014-15 school year was worth the wait! I returned to my home elementary school, Pawnee Elementary, on December 3. Pawnee and I were born the same year—1965—and we’ve both aged gracefully, if I say so myself. I was proud to help my school celebrate their 50th anniversary (the celebration is going on throughout this school year).

I attended Pawnee in the 1970s for my second through sixth grades. Back then we had blacktop beneath the monkey bars (the safety warnings consisted of: Don’t fall off), tornado drills in the civil defense shelter, and open doors throughout the school day. Things are a little different now. The brand-new office is a high-security operation with cameras and a buzz-in system outside the locked front doors. The playground has new equipment and something soft to land on, as well as a fence around the whole area. Kids don’t walk home for lunch anymore.

But in so many ways, it’s the same old Pawnee. The teachers care deeply about students. The kids laugh a lot. The library still has all the magic of storytime. The school secretary collects names of students who earn Panther Pride through their achievements; their names are read during the morning announcements. Some kids dream of making movies or studying dinosaurs. Some even dream of writing books and seeing those books in print on someone’s shelf. I can’t wait to see what they achieve. Go Panthers!

To make the visit even more special, librarian Cheryl Roberts and art teacher Lorie Sjostrom had the kids do projects related to The Key & the Flame, and presented me with several gifts:

Lorie Sjostrom's castles:

Some of the student artwork displayed in the front-hall trophy case:


Pawnee pride and Key & the Flame pride!

For more photos and a writeup about the presentation, check out the news story at the district website.

Monday, November 3, 2014

November Giveaway

For the last month almost all of my reading has been creepy! I sought out the best October scares for all ages and reviewed them on this blog. Now I'm giving away whichever one you'd like to win! Click on the titles of the books (and one film) below to read my reviews, then enter to win. To see all the reviews in one go, click here.

by Mary Downing Hahn
horror/ghost story ages 8+
the ghost of a girl long dead lures children to their doom

by Alvin Schwartz
horror/ghost stories ages 9+
anthology of folk tales & urban legends guaranteed to chill

by Josh Malerman
horror/thriller  ages 15+ (written for adults)
an unseen horror is intent on taking down civilization

a film directed by Craig Gillespie; screenplay by Marti Noxon
horror/vampires rated R for language and bloody scares (but not heavy gore/sex)
a handsome vampire moves in next door to a high school kid


1. U.S. entrants only, please.
2. Be sure to note the book/film you want to win AND WHY.
3. Giveaway prizes will be brand-new books/DVD delivered to you via They will be paperback editions unless the book is still available only in hardcover (or choose a Kindle ebook edition of you wish).
4.  This giveaway ends 12:01 AM NOVEMBER 11.
5. There's a new giveaway every month! CLICK HERE to receive a brief email every time a new giveaway is posted on the blog. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, October 31, 2014

Final Scare: BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman

Title: Bird Box
Author: Josh Malerman
Pub info: Ecco, 2014; 262 pp
Genre / Audience: horror / suspense / written for adults
Caveats for Younger Readers: Very tense with some after-the-fact gore (discovery of dead bodies and the like), but readers 15+ can hack it; no sex

Goodreads summary:
Most people ignored the outrageous reports on the news. But they became too frequent, they became too real. And soon, they began happening down the street. Then the Internet died. The television and radio went silent. The phones stopped ringing. And we couldn't look outside anymore. Malorie raises the children the only way she can; indoors. The house is quiet. The doors are locked, the curtains are closed, mattresses are nailed over the windows. They are out there. She might let them in. The children sleep in the bedroom across the hall. Soon she will have to wake them. Soon she will have to blindfold them. Today they must leave the house. Today they will risk everything.

status: finished 10/29

My impressions:
This book is pure Hitchcockian tension. It's all about what dangers might lurk around the next corner, the fear of the dark, the fear of the unknown. This superfast read keeps you on the edge of your seat the same way the films Paranormal and Blair Witch Project did. Somewhere out there lurk creatures who will drive you insane if you look at them; you will kill yourself and possibly others. They have cut you off from your neighbors, your community, your government. You cover your windows; you don't dare leave the house--until you must.

Did this book give me nightmares? No, but it kept me very tense all the while I was reading it. Perfect for a dark and stormy night.

About Josh:
Josh is the lead singer and songwriter for the rock band The High Strung. He lives in Ferndale, Michigan. Bird Box is his first novel. He has also written a Halloween thriller novella called Ghastle and Yule.

You can find Josh on his band Facebook page and his Twitter feed. 

Need more scares? Every Friday in October I dished up a new one! Search for the tag Scare of the Week to see them all. Stay tuned for the upcoming giveaway to win one of these spooky titles.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

BLOG TOUR STOP: Annie McMahon!

Congratulations to Annie McMahon, author of the middle-grade contemporary novel Adventure on Nemesis  Mountain! I'm honored to be a stop--almost the caboose!--on her blog tour. For a full schedule of stops, including giveaways, interviews, and more, go to the blog schedule here.

Title: Adventure on Nemesis Mountain
Author: Annie McMahon
Pub info: Amazon Digital Services, 2014; 65 pp; available in paperback and ebook formats
Genre / Audience: contemporary MG (ages 8-12)
Caveats for Younger Readers: none; easy reading, would be ideal for a reluctant reader

Goodreads summary:
Emilio would rather eat a slimy worm than miss the fifth grade field trip. Nemesis Mountain must be full of rare leaf specimens and bugs for his collection. Besides, he needs a break from the playground and Hans’s nonstop teasing. His excitement is squashed when he gets lost in the woods with his worst enemy.

Alone in the forest, the two boys battle to survive the harsh wilderness, facing challenges that will change their lives forever.

My impressions:
Adventure on Nemesis Mountain is a fun, engaging read. McMahon quickly establishes the roles of Emilio as victim and Hans as bully early on in the story. When the two boys get lost together on a school field trip, McMahon deftly brings them first closer together, then further apart, letting the reader see a gradual (but not linear) journey to greater understanding. The tension stays ratcheted up just enough to keep the pages turning fast.

I'd have liked to have seen a bit more in this story. At 65 pages, it's pretty brief, and maybe more buildup at the beginning would fill it out. But as a fast-moving, easy-reading chapter book, young middle-grade readers will eat it up. The writing is straightforward, and there are some nice touches of humor and suspense, even if occasionally the dialogue doesn't quite ring true for kidspeak. Emilio's knowledge of nature coupled with Hans's courage and athleticism would make a fun pairing for a future book as well.

About Annie:

Annie McMahon is originally from Canada but now lives in New Jersey. She has a degree in computer programming, but her life took an unexpected turn and she ended up writing stories and articles instead of computer programs. Now she uses every spare minute to write children’s novels and to help other writers succeed.

Her three children have been the inspiration behind many of her short stories, over forty in total. Her flash-fiction story, "Paradoxical Neighbor," has been published by Nelson Education in a book for 10th graders, Nelson Literacy 10.

Annie has a certificate in copyediting, moderates a critique group for children's writers, and is the editor at UK Children's Publishing.

You can find Annie on her Twitter page and blog, where she regularly offers helpful tips for writers and readers. Currently, Adventure on Nemesis Mountain is available in paperback ($6.99) and ebook ($2.99) formats from Amazon at this link.

Annie is generously offering several copies of her book in this Rafflecopter giveaway. Enter below and good luck! (Note: All entries will go to Annie's attention, not my own, so please direct any questions to her. Thanks!)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, October 24, 2014

Scare of the Week: WAIT TILL HELEN COMES

Title: Wait Till Helen Comes
Author: Mary Downing Hahn
Pub info: HarperCollins, 1987; 192 pp
Genre / Audience: horror/ ghost story / MG ages 8+
Caveats for Younger Readers: Precocious readers will have no trouble with the length or language in this book, but it's pretty scary

Goodreads summary:

Heather is such a whiny little brat. Always getting Michael and me into trouble. But since our mother married her father, we're stuck with her ... our "poor stepsister" who lost her real mother in a mysterious fire.

But now something terrible has happened. Heather has found a new friend, out in the graveyard behind our home--a girl named Helen who died with her family in a mysterious fire over a hundred years ago. Now her ghost returns to lure children into the drown! I don't want to believe in ghosts, but I've followed Heather into the graveyard and watch her talk to Helen. And I'm terrified. Not for myself, but for Heather ... 

Status: finished

My impressions:
This isn't one of those books I read as a kid. I read it as an adult, just recently, to see if it's as scary as other readers think. I can't say that as an adult, I was very frightened, but if I'd read this as a kid, I'd have been pretty creeped out. The idea of a ghost that lures children into danger--a kid ghost, no less!--is properly scary, and Hahn does a nice job of creating a spooky atmosphere with the isolated church that becomes their home, the stepfather who never believes what protagonist Molly has to say, and the truly terrible stepsister. Nothing gory here, but there are chills aplenty for the 12-and-under set.

About Mary:
A former children's librarian, Mary has been writing children's books for over thirty years and is a perennial favorite with readers. Her books have sold more than two million copies and consistently win state children's choice awards. Mary's work spans a variety of genres—historical fiction, contemporary fiction, and fantasy—but she is best known for her ghost stories and mysteries. Wait Till Helen Comes was her first novel. Her most recent book is Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls (Clarion Books, 2012), a YA novel based on the true story of the murder of two girls in 1955. Kirkus's starred review of Mister Death called it "an engrossing exploration of how murder affects a community."

Read about Mary and her many books for middle-grade and YA readers here, on her website. Librarian Annaline Johnson from Laredo, Texas, created a deliciously creepy trailer for Wait Till Helen Comes. Watch it here.

Need more scares? Every Friday in October I'll serve up a new one. Search for the tag Scare of the Week to see them all.

Friday, October 17, 2014


There's nothing I like better than a chill October day full of swirling leaves, ominous skies, and scares aplenty. I don't know why humans love to be frightened, but I count myself among those who do. It was the same when I was a kid. In that spirit, I'm going to bring you some of my favorite scares every Friday. Today's is the classic Alvin Schwartz collection, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Title: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Author: Alvin Schwartz
Pub info: HarperCollins, 2011 (orig Scholastic 1981); 128 pages
Genre / Audience: horror anthology / ages 10+ 
Caveat to Younger Readers: Well, it's horror--there are dead people doing things dead people oughtn't. But it's nothing terribly graphic. However, read on for more info ...

Goodreads summary:
Some boys and girls were at a party one night. There was a graveyard down the street, and they were talking about how scary it was.
"Don't ever stand on a grave after dark," one of the boys said. "The person inside will grab you."
"A grave doesn't scare me," said one of the girls. "I'll do it right now. . . ."
Welcome to the macabre world of Scary Stories, where folklorist Alvin Schwartz offers up the most alarming collection of horror, dark revenge, and supernatural events of all time. Here is a selection of extraordinarily chilling tales along with spine-tingling illustrations by renowned artist Stephen Gammell.
My impressions:
These stories scared me silly when I was a kid. I must have read this collection over many times, because it's stuck with me. Recently I checked it out of the library to see if the scares still held.

Well, yes and no. The stories are genuinely creepy--though a large section of the book is dedicated to silly/funny "scary" tales--but the writing is not terrifying. The stories are told in a straightforward, unadorned style, and are quite short. Schwartz took his inspiration from urban legends and folktales from different countries. (As an adult, I was most interested in the bibliography he supplies in the back.)

But here's the kicker: The illustrations, depending on which edition you get, can be truly frightening. The original edition featured black-and-white drawings by Caldecott Medal winner Stephen Gammell, and I realize now that it was the drawings coupled with the stories that kept me up nights as a kid. Indeed, it's been theorized that the drawings are what's landed this book on the radar of banned-book enthusiasts, along with its two sequels. When HarperCollins released a 30th anniversary edition, however, Gammell's controversial artwork was gone, replaced by illustrations by Brett Helquist (A Series of Unfortunate Events). While Helquist is a talented artist, his depictions don't have the haunting, unearthly, and frankly terrifying quality of the Gammell illustrations. The Horn Book praised the new edition, calling it "handsome and accessible; now young readers have a choice of how scared they want to be—just a little, or a whole lot." Take your pick according to your comfort level, but when I was a kid, I wanted to be scared a whole lot--always. Click here to read an interesting comparison (with illustrations) between these two editions.

About Alvin (from Amazon):
Alvin Schwartz is known for a body of work of more than two dozen books of folklore for young readers that explore everything from wordplay and humor to tales and legends of all kinds. His collections of scary stories--Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Scary Stories 3, and two I Can Read Books, In a Dark, Dark Room and Ghosts!--are just part of his matchless folklore collection. Schwartz died in 1992.

About Stephen:
Stephen Gammell, who won the 1989 Caldecott Medal for Song and Dance Man (written by Karen Ackerman), also won the Caldecott Honor Medal for The Relatives Came (written by Cynthia Rylant). He lives with his wife in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Read more about Alvin Schwartz in this New York Times obituary. Click here for yet another take on Gammell's eerie artwork for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Need more scares? Every Friday in October I'll serve up a new one. Search for the tag Scare of the Week to see them all.