The Best Spooky Middle Grade Audiobooks for Family Car Trips

About a month ago, I got an email from Shepherd Books, a Goodreads-alternative website (we all want a Goodreads-alternative website, right?) that lets authors create a list of five recommended books on any topic that they think their readers will enjoy.

I didn’t have to think for more than five seconds about my topic of choice. It’s middle grade horror audiobooks.

I am amazed by how strong my opinions are on this subject, given that my only published book isn’t middle grade, but here we are. I like spooky kidlit. My kids, unsurprisingly, also like spooky kidlit. Earlier this year, we started listening to spooky audiobooks on the drive to school or to Cub Scout camp.

It was a revelation.

I’ve always known that a narrator can make or break an audiobook, but I never realized how much harder it is to find an excellent middle grade narrator than an excellent adult narrator–and that goes double for horror. We found readers who told grisly ghost stories as though they were reading to preschoolers at circle time, with high-pitched voices and ludicrous emoting. We encountered readers who seemed terrified that they would scar their young listeners for life if they did scary voices or allowed their protagonists to show too much fear, so they read the stories in a lifeless monotone.

And then we found readers who brought the material to life.

I’ve compiled a list of the five best audiobooks we’ve found so far at Shepherd Books. Do check it out!

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New adult short story!

I am incredibly excited to announce that my new short story, #BloodBossBabes, has appeared as episode 676 of PodCastle! PodCastle has been a dream market of mine for roughly ever, so I’m happy to see my horror satire there. You can read it here.

As PodCastle warns on the site, this story comes with a content warning for blood, violence, and multilevel marketing, and is rated R for bloody sacrifices for thirsty gods (and also for an f-bomb in the audio version). Don’t listen to this with your Mother Ghost-loving kiddos in the room.

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Virtual Mother Ghost Storytime on Friday, March 27th!

We’re all stuck inside, and the Maryland Superintendent of Schools just announced that isn’t changing any time soon. It’s the right call, but I’m crawling up the walls, and I’m sure you are, too.

Fortunately, a ton of free resources popping up from the kidlit community. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has a list of readings, crafts, virtual school visits, and more, and they’re updating it every Friday as new content pours in. Many children’s publishers have relaxed their copyright rules for the time being, allowing authors to share their work online to help library-starved families (libraries, I’m missing you most of all right now). There’s so much kindness and generosity in the kidlit community, and I’m honored to be part of it.

If you’re interested in having some spooktacular fun without leaving the house, I’ll be doing a virtual Mother Ghost reading on Facebook Live on Friday, March 27th, at 1 PM Eastern.

I made this ghost in kindergarten! Now he visits kindergartens!

I’ll be bringing my full box of props with me. There’ll be puppets, Halloween decorations, rubber spiders, witch hats–and, of course, spooky nursery rhymes. These readings are so much fun for me, and I hope that they can bring some fun to other cooped-up families, too.

If you miss the live reading, Sleeping Bear Press is generously allowing it to remain publicly available online through June 30th, so you can still check it out! I’ll put up the link to the actual video once it exists, since for now it’s just “go to my Facebook page and wait for the video to appear.” You can also RSVP for the event and get a reminder here.

See you Friday!

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Two MOTHER GHOST readings in Baltimore!

It’s that time of year again–I’ll be reading Mother Ghost not once, but twice on Saturday, October 19th! One reading is in the morning and the other is in the afternoon, so no matter when your little monster naps, you should have options.

At 10 a.m., I’ll be reading at the Ivy Bookshop on Falls Road. I read there last year as well, and it’s a wonderful place–the kind of cozy bookstore that you could curl up in for hours. Plus, the people who work there are fabulous.

Then, at 1 p.m., I’ll be heading over to the Children’s Bookstore on Harford Road. I’ve never been there before, but I’m excited. It’s a Baltimore institution!

It’s so exciting to be doing readings again. Part of why I wrote a children’s book about Halloween is the fact that Halloween turns me into a great big seven-year-old. Now, every year, I get to put on a witch’s hat, put on little finger plays with spooky props, and watch kids giggle with delighted disgust as I pretend to eat a rubber spider. It’s such a blessing to be a part of something exciting for these kids.

If you want to see me being a big Halloween-loving dork, pick up a signed copy of Mother Ghost, and support some local independent bookstores, come by and say hi on Saturday!

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When You Can’t Write Every Day

I recently reread On Writing by Stephen King. I owe this book a tremendous debt; not only did it give me a treasure trove of writing gems that have stuck with me since the first reading (“Don’t say you can’t cut something because it’s good–it had better be good if you’re being paid to do it” comes to mind), but it got me started on submitting my short stories for publication. It’s an excellent book for writers, Stephen King fans, and writers who are Stephen King fans, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Read this book!

But. (You knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) There are a handful of points where King takes on a my-way-or-the-highway approach. One is discovery writing–outlining kills the joy of writing for King, and he assumes that the same must be true for everyone. It isn’t. Take the plotting or pantsing approach that lets you finish your story.

The other, and the one I wanted to talk about today, is writing every day. Like many authors, King recommends a strict wordcount quota. There’s a good reason for this. When I do revisions, I can reeeeeeally tell if I wrote a certain chapter after taking a hiatus. When I go too long without working on a project, I lose touch with my characters’ voices. They talk like bad fanfic versions of themselves, and the narrative loses its sparkle and personality. The whole thing takes on the feel of an exhausted trudge from one plot point to the next as I flounder about, trying to get my bearings in the story again.

The trouble is that “write every day” feels more like a cruel joke than a serious piece of advice. Naptimes are the only part of the day when the Pumpkin isn’t crawling into my lap and trying to swat at my laptop, and I have to use part of those precious naps on little things like personal grooming and making sure the electric bill is paid. Before the kids were born, I was a teacher, and it was nigh impossible to find writing time when I was grading essays and midterms. When I couldn’t write every day, I’d  get into a funk–because writing every day is what real writers do, and if I didn’t,  I wasn’t a real writer, right?–and eventually, I’d end up not writing at all.

This counts as writing, right?
(“DESPAIR”by hwhoo-hwhare is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

If you’re in the same boat, it’s OK. Even if you don’t write every day, you can find a writing schedule that works for you. I went from writing a short story or two every year to hammering out a rough draft of a novel in a year, and it wasn’t because I suddenly got more free time; it’s because I figured out how to write regularly without writing every day. This is what worked for me; if it works for you, go for it.

*Schedule writing time every week before worrying about every day. If you’re reading this, chances are that you can’t grab onto that elusive hour a day that you’re supposed to write. That’s okay! Chances are that you can schedule at least an hour a week–or maybe more.

Look over your schedule, find a time (or two!) that you’re generally free, and set that time aside for writing. It can be just a little at first; the important thing is to make it a habit. Before life got in the way, I would meet a friend after church every Sunday to write. Now, I try to set aside one night a week as leftover night, and when my husband gets home, I write instead of cooking.

There’s a free hour in here somewhere, I promise.
(“SONY Schedule”by Kaba is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

*Remember that writing a sentence a day is still writing every day. It sounds silly, but it may be the single best piece of writing advice I can give you. If you write a sentence today, even though you aren’t scheduled to write until three days from now, congratulations! You wrote something today that wasn’t there yesterday. You kept the story fresh in your head, and put yourself in touch with your narrative voice. When I sit down for my scheduled weekly writing session, I have a much easier time sliding back into the story when I’ve written as little as  a paragraph or two in the preceding week. What’s more, if you write a sentence, you may find yourself writing another, and another, and another . . . or you may just have time for that one sentence before you get back to the daily grind.  But no matter what happens, you wrote.

*Set a weekly quota, not a daily one. If you’re only writing more than a sentence on one or two days of the week, it’s self-defeating to have a daily quota, isn’t it?

If all you do this week is fill these two pages, you’re two pages ahead of where you were last week.
(“319-365: Starting a New Chapter in Life”by Rina Pitucci (Tilling 67) is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

*Know your work habits when setting that quota. If you set yourself a high quota and fail to meet it, will you give up? If you set a low quota, will you just settle back into it and never reach higher? Chances are you’ve been playing with this “write every day” thing long enough to know which category you fall into. I’m a giver-upper, so my initial weekly writing quota was a staggering one page per week. (Laugh all you want, but I had two kids under three at the time, so that was an improvement.) I chose that number because I wasn’t currently meeting it, but I knew that I could. When I met my quota for a few weeks, I gradually upped it. Before the Pumpkin was born, I’d worked myself up to a weekly quota of ten pages–two pages a day with a break on weekends. That’s actually better than the page-a-day quota I set myself when I tried (and failed) to write every day. The difference was that when I eased into it, I actually reached that goal.

Now that the Pumpkin is here, I’m back to two or three pages a week. That’s okay. I’ll get there.

Now, if you’re not like me, you might find that a low bar encourages you to slack off, while a high bar gives you the challenge you need to spread your wings. Great! Start with five to ten pages a week from the get-go.

*Have some way of holding yourself accountable. This, alas, is a case of “do as I say, not as I do” right now. Back when I had a weekly writing date with a friend, I was MUCH more productive than I am now. If I skived off writing one week, I was standing her up, so I would only cancel when it was important. On Writing Excuses, Mary Robinette Kowal has mentioned having writer dates over Skype; I need to try that, since it would allow me to have writing dates with out-of-state friends or friends without access to their cars (and would cut travel time out of that precious hour of writing). You could also try emailing a friend after your bloc of writing time to let her know how much you wrote that day, or using a productivity app (I love Habitica for this) that rewards or pings you depending on whether or not you write.

If you have the willpower for it, you could even say that you aren’t going to watch your favorite show or buy that new board game until you write a certain number of pages; I have never managed to make that work for me, but my husband  has a huge pile of board games that he’s gotten as rewards for completing various tasks, so to each their own.

This isn’t even half of them.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to get yourself writing more, but it worked for me. I’d love to hear about other people’s stories. How did you get yourself  to write more often even when  you were swamped?

A version of this entry appeared in April 2016.

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It’s . . . been a minute, hasn’t it?

So. You know what cuts into blogging time?

Babies. Babies cut into blogging time.

Even when they’re adorable little babies who can be posed to look like Steve Harrington from Stranger Things.

The cutest baby in the world poking his head through a cardboard cutout.
Yes, this very baby.

I mean, I’m very protective of my kids’ images on public media and all, but look at this baby.

I’m hoping to be able to start uploading my old blog posts from Weebly onto here now that our long national teething nightmare has ended. I’m hoping.

We’ll see what Mr. Scoops Ahoy has to say about that.

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Interview with Jenna Grodzicki!

My agency sister at Storm Literary, Jenna Grodzicki, recently interviewed me for her blog! It was a lot of fun talking about Mother Ghost, coffee, picture books, and the major area where I fail as a Halloween enthusiast.

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. . . and now it’s in stock!

Thank you so much to everyone who waited patiently while supply caught up with demand! Mother Ghost is officially in stock at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Target, and more!

For my fellow Baltimore/Washington area residents, I’m hoping to hold a book launch soon, and will have details as soon as I know them. Scheduling is on the tricky side, though, because my “book baby” will be joined by a more literal baby in the next couple weeks, and we all know that he’ll decide to show up the day before the launch party. I’ll definitely be at the Baltimore Book Festival on September 29th, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing other Halloween and rhyme enthusiasts there!

I’ve said “thank you” a dozen times, but I can’t say it enough. Thank you. You’re all amazing.

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We came home from our annual trip to Ocean City today . . . and there was a giant box on our doorstep.

A box full of author copies. 


A very happy author holding her copy of Mother Ghost

There was also apparently a HUGE rush in pre-orders, which is AWESOME. Thank you all so much–I’m in awe of how much support you’ve given for this book, and for how many other people out there have Halloween-loving little monsters (or are Halloween-loving little monsters at heart!).

The flip side of this is that demand has outstripped supply for a couple weeks, which you probably already know if you preordered. The books are ready to go and absolutely gorgeous, but they’ll be getting there closer to August 15th than July 15th. That’s still plenty of time before Halloween, though, and I can officially say that when you get it, it’ll be worth the wait. The illustrations look even better in person than on the electronic proof, which is saying a lot.

Thank you all so much again! This has been one heck of a journey, and I still can’t believe there’s a book out there with my name on it.

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Pope Francis and a velociraptor walk into a bar . . .

I’m disappointed by the lukewarm reviews for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, because I think Jurassic World is one of 2015’s two best encapsulations of the themes of Laudato Si.

No, really!

In case you’re not the type to cite papal encyclicals on a regular basis, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home was Pope Francis’ first encyclical and came out in May 2015. It’s typically described as “the climate change encyclical” . . . but it’s so much more than that. Although care for the environment is the primary theme of the encyclical (and it goes well beyond climate change, throwing in deforestation, deliberate hunting of endangered animals, pollution, and just about any environmental theme you can name), Pope Francis also issues a scathing critique of consumerism and “throw-away culture.” We abuse the Earth because we see it, not as a beautiful home that God created for us and entrusted to our care, but as a system of resources to exploit. That mentality, Pope Francis argues, inevitably causes us to treat our fellow human beings as things to be used as well. If we end our exploitation of the environment, we take a step toward ending our exploitation of the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, people of other races or ethnicities . . . everyone.

A smiling Pope Francis waves at the camera.

Cheese and crackers, I love this guy. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Coincidentally, 2015 also brought us a pair of movies that perfectly encapsulated the themes of an encyclical that the creators couldn’t have read beforehand (unless George Miller and Colin Trevorrow have precognitive powers). The best, hands down, was Mad Max: Fury Road. In fact, after reading Laudato Si, I commented that “We are not things!” would actually work as well for a subtitle as “On Care For Our Common Home.” Many other writers have alluded to how perfectly Fury Road sums up a hellish world that cares nothing for the Earth or the people who live there except as means to an end. It should headline any Laudato Si film festival.

And, yes, I genuinely think Jurassic World should be in that film festival, too.

I want to make it clear that Jurassic World is nowhere close to Mad Max in terms of thematic richness. You could talk about Mad Max for hours without getting to the bottom of the all its ideas, or even all its connections to Laudato Si specifically. (Who would have thought that a movie with a flame-throwing guitar would be so dang smart?) Jurassic World is a popcorn movie about a dinosaur slugfest. Nonetheless, it offers a positive counterpoint to the bleakness of Mad Max. Mad Max gives us a world gone wrong; Jurassic World gives an idea of what a world gone right might look like.

Image from Mad Max of graffiti reading "We Are Not Things"

Mad Max, helpfully summing up Laudato Si in four words.

Of course, Jurassic World has its fair share of disordered relationships to nature–it’s about mad science, for heaven’s sake. The best example of this is Indominus Rex, the movie’s genetically engineered dinosaur Big Bad. Trevorrow has said in interviews that he intended Indominus partly as a commentary on entertainment, but also as a commentary on consumerism:

“The Indominus was meant to embody our worst tendencies. We’re surrounded by wonder and yet we want more. And we want it bigger, faster, louder, better. And in the world of the movie the animal is designed through a series of corporate focus groups. . . We’re surrounded by so much of this marketing and just being told on a regular basis that you have to like this, you will go here, you want this.”

Even though the “wonder” that Indominus usurps is a different batch of scientifically created dinosaurs, I can’t help thinking of paragraph 34 of Laudato Si when I think about her, or about anything that pulls us away from the true beauty of creation:

“A sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

“Ever more limited and gray”–those words might haunt me more than any others in the encyclical.

An image of Indominus Rex coming out of the forest.

Sorry, Indominus, but the Pope says real dinosaurs are better.

As a whole, the scientists of Jurassic World tend to treat Indominus and the other dinosaurs as “things” instead of living creatures (there’s Mad Max again). This is most obvious in the way that they talk about the dinosaurs, referring to them as “assets” and using the pronoun “it.” (Compare to Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady–who we’ll get to in a minute–who consistently calls them “animals” and refers to them as “she” or “her”). Additionally, Indominus is raised alone in captivity, which the movie implies is the root of her viciousness (Trevorrow confirmed this in an interview with io9, comparing her to a real-life example of a tiger that escaped captivity and went on a killing spree). The scientists aren’t thinking about her needs as a living creature; they’re just thinking of what will be the most cost-efficient way to present their attraction.

Once again, Pope Francis has their number. In paragraph 33, he reminds us that “it is not enough . . . to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ [or assets?] to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves.” The Pope is saying this in context of extinction, reminding us that all creatures give glory to God whether they provide some tangible benefit or not, but it’s also a useful reminder for anyone who works with animals. Even if they happen to be cloned dinosaurs.

So yes, there’s definitely cautionary content in Jurassic World–but by itself, the cautionary content isn’t much to write home about. It would be easy for Jurassic World to be a didactic story about a bunch of evil, clueless scientists and the victimized dinosaurs who eat them. It’s a trap that too many environmental movies fall into, pitting humanity against nature as though a healthy relationship between the two were impossible. That’s not enough. If we say that people will always be at war with creation, there are two logical conclusions: either we mournfully declare that’s “the way things have to be” and pat ourselves on the back for our realism as we bulldoze another rainforest, or we’ll fall into a misanthropic paradigm that says the world would be so much better without us darn humans around. Pope Francis warns against this misanthropy in paragraphs 90-91:

“This is not to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility. Such notions would end up creating new imbalances which would deflect us from the reality which challenges us. At times we see an obsession with denying any pre-eminence to the human person; more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure. . . . A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.”

We need a model of a proper relationship with nature in order to imagine how stewardship of creation might look.

And that’s where Owen Grady comes in.

Chris Pratt's Owen Grady holds a pack of velociraptors at baywith nothing but his body language.

Owen and his pack of clever girls.

Owen Grady, the velociraptor trainer, gives us that model of an ordered relationship with nature. He isn’t some Poison Ivy-style extremist who hopes that the raptors will devour those worthless nature-hating humans; he loves and respects the raptors as living creatures, but would never sic one on a fellow human being. Trevorrow’s version of raptor social structure is familiar to anyone who’s studied wolves or dogs–they hunt in packs, with an alpha at the lead. Grady has earned the respect of the raptors and established himself as their alpha, and this works for the betterment of both the raptors (who have the healthy social structure that their instincts demand) and the humans (who know the pack alpha doesn’t want to eat their faces).

Of course, there’s no point in Laudato Si where Pope Francis says, “By the way, if we ever clone velociraptors, you should respect their pack dynamic while keeping humans safe.” (He does point out that the idea of having “dominion over every animal that moves upon the Earth” should be understood as a “mutual responsibility” with humans “caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving” those creatures, but green theologians have been pointing that out for decades.)  However, throughout the encyclical, Pope Francis repeats the ideas of relationship and equilibrium. Humans are meant to be in equilibrium with nature, living neither as Captain Planet villains nor as ecoterrorists; humans are also meant to have a proper relationship with nature, understanding and loving it instead of seeing it as something separate from ourselves. In turn, this will lead to greater equilibrium within human societies and stronger relationships with our fellow humans.

It’s not hard to see the principles of equilibrium and relationship with nature in Grady. Grady’s dominion over the velociraptors is rooted in his relationship with them as animals, not as assets (and animals with humanizing pronouns at that); it’s also rooted in his desire to see humans and animals in proper equilibrium, with humans as neither helpless prey nor corporate predators.

Chris Pratt leading a pack of raptors on his motorcycle. This movie is so dang cool.

If you live in equilibrium with nature, you can be this awesome.

Sadly, Jurassic World doesn’t extend these themes to equilibrium and relationship with human society, which is part of why it can’t match Mad Max in Laudato Si perfection. (The film has the opportunity to explore this with Claire Dearing, whose disordered relationship to the “assets” is a reflection of her disordered relationship to her sister’s family, but it never develops that beyond a shopworn “workaholic needs to enjoy the better things” story.) Still, it remains one of the few environmental movies that seems to love people of good will as much as it loves nature, and shows us what “people of good will” might look like. Instead of pitting humanity against animals, it shows them working together in harmony–and gives us cool dinosaur fights in the process. For that, it’s always going to have a place on my Laudato Si viewing list.


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