Writing Ghost Stories for Young Audiences
I came on this monthly theme by an accident of breaking my book budget in March. And let me just say, March feels like two years ago. But I covered this in a previous post, so you can hop over there and I’ll stop being a gripe about it:
Despite having to go to my plan B reading list, I’m extremely glad it worked out this way!
I’m a big fan of ghost stories, even though I’m not real big on gore, violence, or perversion. Turns out, my good friend Savannah is a gem of a person with a keen ear to what pleases my picky book taste. Without being specifically told what I was looking for, she plucked out two of these marvelous middle grade spookies and we then dug out several more.
Mary Downing Hahn dominated the list, though Savannah’s collection of her ghostly tales isn’t complete. With four of her works in my pile, I decided to make this list do double duty and arranged to read them in the order in which they were published. I wanted to see how this author developed between 1987 and 2008. That’s 21 years of writing, and spooky isn’t her only genre. I wasn’t sure how this would work out, but I wanted to see what I could glean from it.
I have never felt more encouraged as a writer.
This was the best thing I could have done at this point in my life. I do not exaggerate here. The growth of this marvelous author from my first read to the last is huge, and not one of them bombed out for me.
Each had familiar elements and a few pet themes. The stories rounded out with unique elements and vastly strengthened supporting characters. The spooks themselves blossomed, all of them memorable.
I did read other authors this month, and you’ll see that in the reviews at the end of the post (they’re also posted on Goodreads), but the majority of what I take away from this month is writing-focused, specifically in writing good ghost stories.
I posted quite a while ago about constructing a good ghost story (Plotting a Great Ghost Story), but ghostly tales for a young audience have a few more specific traditions and elements:
- Main characters are separated from what is familiar. They move somewhere new, go on a trip, or their family gets a new member. Whatever the characters counted on as safe gets shifted and opened up to the unknown. A lot of times ghost stories are location-based, so that’s a popular approach.
- Belief turns something simply scary into an active story. At some point the story shifts from tension to fantasy adventure, and that usually happens when the question “is something out there?” is answered. In Hahn’s stories, it’s usually as soon as a conversation happens with the ghost where everyone’s aware who is living and who is dead. Then the characters focus on making right whatever was done wrong.
- Communication and trust break down. If everyone believed everyone in a ghost story, a good chunk of the tension would be gone and the tale would be an adventure, not a traditional ghost story. Doubt and resisting evidence play a big role in creating motivation and tension. If everyone believed little Johnny when he said his uncle murdered the neighbor’s kid, who is now haunting the house, there wouldn’t be as much of a story as there would if Johnny had to prove this was real.
- Well-structured pacing is essential and no scene should be wasted. Whatever happens in a ghost story should happen fast enough to surprise the reader as well as the characters, but without unseating the reader. In campfire-style stories, hauntings get “credibility” if encounters occur frequently and over a long period of time, but those types of stories aren’t about resolution, they’re about teasing the unknown.
- The ghost/spirit/haunt should be credible, at least within the world of the story. A big thing in these stories is rules and boundaries – in the middle of all the unknown, there are some things to cling to that are clearly set. In Took, Old Auntie takes a girl every 50 years like clockwork. In The Old Willis Place, there are rules for how to behave, what to do and not to do, and who to talk to. In Wait Till Helen Comes the ghost has a pattern of behavior that’s been repeated enough to be accepted as part of her character.
I love a good ghost story. I especially like knowing I can read it, get goosebumps, and not have to worry the story will go out of my comfort zone. These are books I hope to keep on my shelves for kiddos in the family when Halloween rolls around again!
Middle Grade Spooky Reading List:
Not spooky, but good anyway.
This first read was off the “award winners” shelf. Old, tattered, and lovely, just like a good school copy should be. Even smelled nice and old. Bit like dusty A/C and paste – total elementary school smell.
I enjoyed this for being a solid historical fiction for a middle-grade audience with a gentle romance. I’m no fan of romances, but this was soft enough it worked out nice. I enjoyed it! Didn’t fit with my theme, but I’m glad it was in the pile.
This was the first of Mary Downing Hahn’s ghost stories. It’s the earliest of the stack of hers I borrowed, published in 1987.
And, well, you can tell it’s an early book.
The one gripe – and it’s not really a gripe considering this is written for an age group where the majority wouldn’t worry about this – was the parents of the main characters having no real jobs. One does pottery and the other paints. They buy an old home with a little property in the country so the kids can entertain themselves and proceed to retreat to their respective creative spaces to ignore the kids for the majority of the day. Every day.
I’ve noticed, since I do love a good ghost story, a lot of spooky plots rely on communication issues. Someone doesn’t listen, another person doesn’t trust or validate, there are pre-existing walls up as far as who is more likely to listen to whom, etc.
The issues in the family of the story are fierce ones and there were points where I wanted to curse these adults for being completely incompetent at parenting and having a relationship at all.
However, from the perspective of a middle-grade reader, that could just add to the spooky nature of the story. Been a long time since I was that age, and I don’t write for this audience either. Maybe at this point those are issues that need to be brought up. Just seems kind of raw for kids to hear.
She does really well at pointing out how adults are people with flaws, though. That’s refreshing.
It’s going to be a bit tough to avoid spoilers here, but I’m going to try.
Hahn has her own ghost theory that makes things much easier to work with as far as writing goes. Helps hugely with plot, especially.
She chooses a perspective in this one that’s really challenging. I think it’s really effective, and the image of a real haunted house turned out nice. The Old Willis place is what everybody thinks of for a haunted house, and she makes it feel very real without relying on stereotypes. A particularly nice touch was an automated chair lift on the stairs of the place – not something you’d think about in a haunted mansion, right? But it makes tons of sense in context.
I did really enjoy her devices, even though I’d personally use them differently.
These all kept getting better and better.
This one really did haunt me, and not just for the powerful way she repeated some effectively spooky images, but for how she did her messed up adults again. This book was published in 2007, well past the sheltered-kid era. She gives her main character a mother with depression (which doesn’t magically go away after the story, which I appreciated), a father just trying to do his best, an aunt with eccentric coping mechanisms, and a very impressionable young cousin which can be a behavior issue waiting to happen.
Hahn’s characters just kept getting stronger. The storytelling improved too, using more tools, pulling in more aspects of how the ghost’s origin story would have affected people. There was an odd choice there at the end of the story, where the ghost hangs around a bit after the main character learns this is really a ghost. There’s an odd kind of relationship that develops, a tentative friendship, that felt out of place until I thought how this was really the main character getting face to face with her own discomfort with death.
I don’t want to get literary here, but it’s scenes like those that say something to the kids reading. Both the main character and her cousin confront fear of how physical death is, kind of sharing this terror, but rather than avoiding it that scene puts the main character in the same room with death, repeatedly, until it’s no longer scary.
The premise makes this one stand out, though the system is familiar to Hahn’s other books.
I loved the caretaker and the cook. I’d want them around in a supernatural situation for sure!
One other thing I appreciated was a really frightening ghost. In most of the other Hahn stories, the spirits are redeemable. I love a good happy ending as much as the next person, but this one was just as satisfying while not being apologetic about a truly terrible person and the damage they caused.
I also liked the adults in this story. They’re positive characters and allies, which is nice considering it’s common for parents/adults in middle grade stuff to be more of a problem than a help to the main characters.
While I’m thinking about it, it’s worth noting the playful way she finds to use titles and lines from classic children’s stories.
I had to go out and buy this one. Kind of breaks my budget month, but I figured I could donate it to Savannah’s collection as a thanks for letting me borrow so freely.
Really liked this one. I’ll probably have the image of Bloody Bones, the giant, skeletal razorback boar that prowls the woods, stuck in my mind for quite some time.
The whole thing made better use of setting, I think, than any of the others I read. She dipped into the traditions of small town southern towns, not just for her specters, but for how to defeat them as well. That gave me a serious case of the happies!
Again, ran out of books and had to get another one. Tax season’s done, so my reading has sped up with these short ones. Borrowed it from Savannah again.
Neil Gaiman is already one of my most trusted authors, though I know “favorite” is the preferred term. I use trusted instead, because I think all authors should be trusted to deliver a good story. Not all of them are, so it’s a high compliment in my book to say they are. If I did have favorite authors, I’d be passing up my high-variety book diet to read more of their work, and so far that hasn’t happened in a lot of years.
I was already a fan of the movie (and I am happy to call Laika a firm and clear favorite) and I’d had this one on my TBR list for ages. Thankfully the stars aligned for a read and I loved it. I was discussing with a friend how “punchy” it is compared to the movie. The creature is far more evil, her tactics more direct, and her nature far more unnerving. Coraline was better center stage, without the supporting character the movie threw in.
I did miss the attention paid to the garden, but that was just one of a couple touches that make the movie great in itself. The book is a force on its own, little wonder they wanted to do it up into a movie as well. I adore them equally.