February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Spine-Tingling Stories for Older Readers

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Spellbinding, shocking, and satisfyingly spooky, these collections of creepy tales will rivet youngsters and raise goose bumps galore. Share them in the classroom to introduce and explore basic short story elements, discuss narrative voice, and analyze point of view. Students can examine two or more tales and discuss or write about how each author handles these story fundamentals, citing examples from the texts.

Several offerings included here invite comparison to folklore and well-known literary tales and encourage consideration of the themes and components commonly used in traditional works. Introduce the genre and subgenres of horror fiction and initiate a discussion of what make a story scary; students can refer to the texts to identify particular motifs and writing techniques. Share a variety of tales to inspire creative writing and/or art projects and have youngsters spin their own spine-chillers.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Shivers
throughthewoodsEmily Carroll invites readers to take a walk Through the Woods (S & S/McElderry Bks., 2014; Gr 8 Up) and into a frightening and fascinating realm. This gripping graphic novel presents five terrifying tales that flicker with folkloric elements, classic horror tropes, and unwholesome twists of fate. Set in various time periods and locales, the vignettes all feature protagonists alienated from those around them by circumstances, making their perspectives all the more insular and unsettling.Stranded in their snowbound home, a middle sibling watches helplessly as her two sisters are taken away by a mysterious stranger with “a wide-brimmed hat” and teeth-filled smile; a lonely young bride hears a ghastly song emanating the walls and digs up the shocking truth about her husband’s first wife; an introverted girl suspects that there is something hideous and heinous hiding beneath the skin of her brother’s beautiful fiancée.

Striking artwork expands each tale’s plot, setting, and themes. Action sequences and close-up images unfurl with cinematic flair, while touches of ruby red—a setting sun, a cloak, flushed faces, a blood-stained skirt—permeate the pages. The interplay between text and pictures skillfully transports readers to that place that can only be glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye, where dusky shadows hide dastardly doings and nightmares reign supreme. The result is eerie, elemental, and absolutely enthralling.

twistedfairytalesMaura McHugh and Jane Laurie’s Twisted Fairy Tales (Barron’s, 2013; Gr 8 Up) pares down 20 classic stories to their most petrifying cores and permeates them with dark undercurrents, gruesome details, and subtle coming-of-age themes that will resonate with teens. In “Little Red Hood,” for example, independent-minded Charlotte encounters a wolfish man on the forest path to her grandmother’s house and staves him off with a dagger (barking out a hash laugh, he responds, chillingly, “Aren’t you a delicious surprise”). Later on, tucked away in Granny’s bed and looking more wolf than man, he forces a mug of foul-smelling “wine” on Charlotte (it’s blood), before revealing his identity and intent (“Kiss me, Little Red Hood, and I will feast on your flesh”). No woodcutter is needed here: Charlotte smashes him in the face (with said mug), flees the scene, and seeks out the help of a stout-hearted washerwoman to eliminate the danger once and for all.

From familiar offerings (“The Cinder Wench,” Sleeping Beauty,” “Pinocchio,” and more) to lesser-known entries (the ballad-based “May and the Elf Knight” or “Godmother Death”), the stories glimmer with malevolent motivations, horrifying happenings, and, often, surprisingly hopeful endings. The text is presented on parchment-style backdrops, and line drawings of iconic objects—Snow White’s poison apple or fancy shears for Rapunzel—are sprinkled throughout (along with splattered drops of crimson). The dramatic full-page mixed-media artwork has the look of fashion illustration and provides a modern sensibility to the once-upon-a-time ambiance.

Have students examine these two volumes and discuss how the illustrations help to convey characterization, setting, themes, and meaning. What does the artwork add to the reading experience? They can select a fairy tale and compare it to other versions of the same story. How are the plots and themes similar or different? What types of elements have been added to make these tellings bloodcurdlingly effective?

Portentous Places
cabinetofcuriositiesAuthors Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne gleefully jump into their roles as curators of a magical museum housing “a strange, shivery collection of objects, each one telling its own dark and morbid tale.” The result is The Cabinet of Curiosities (Greenwillow, 2014; Gr 5-8), a repository of 36 stories that are organized into sections addressing eight loose themes (“Cake,” “Love,” “Tricks,” etc.), each introduced by the curators’ correspondence.

Some of the offerings have the timeless quality of a folktale or the enchanted aura of fantasy, while others are crisp and contemporary. In addition to dire deeds and menacing monsters (everything from a miniature house that scrabbles through shadows on spider legs to the scaly long-nailed creatures that hide in jungle deeps), there are also challenges to be faced and choices to be made. A boy and his twin sister unleash a phantasm from an old tin that proffers good luck but feeds on violence; a girl gets more than she expected when she enters a tomb as part of a middle school clique initiation; a youngster abused by a cruel aunt nurtures a litter of hungry wolf pups in the forest and then releases her own inner beast.

Alexander Jansson’s dusky sketches add to the ominous atmosphere. Representing a variety of genres, narrative styles, and tones, all of the stories are well-written and original. Select several tales to compare and contrast, or examine the different entries in a thematic section and analyze how each author handles that particular motif.

onthedayidiedCandace Fleming sets her creepy collection in a graveyard for teenagers, a forgotten and overgrown spot discovered late one moonlit night by 16-year-old Mike Kowalski. One by one, nine adolescent apparitions narrate the hair-raising events that occurred On the Day I Died (Schwartz & Wade, 2012; Gr 6-9). Spanning time periods from 1870 to the present day and settings that highlight various Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs, all of these tales, according to the author, are made the more eerie by incorporating “a kernel of truth” (real places and historical events identified in endnotes).

Among the mesmerizing and macabre offerings are the recollections of Scott (1995-2012), who didn’t believe in ghosts until he visits a long-abandoned insane asylum to shoot his senior photography project and never returns; Rich (1965-1981), who takes a one-way ride in his best friend’s “puke-beige” Chrysler after it is tricked-out with a mysterious stallion-shaped chrome hood ornament; and Evelyn (1877-1893), long made miserable by her always-favored, often-mean twin sister, who comes across a mysterious magical mirror at the Chicago’s World’s Fair and discovers the monster hidden within the “frozen depths” of her soul.

Spanning the gamut from gothic to grotesque, supernatural to psychological, the entries can be used to introduce horror sub-genres (there’s even an Edgar Allan Poe-esque offering and a retelling of W. W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw”). In addition, try initiating a discussion about the author’s underlying notion: do the best scary short stories include elements of truth?

Monsters Everywhere
monstrousaffectionsEdited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, Monstrous Affections (Candlewick, Sept. 2014; Gr 9 Up) compiles 15 tales that entertain readers while encouraging them to contemplate what it means to be a monster. From vampires and ghosts to a likeable half-harpy just coming into his wings, an imagination-stirring assortment of creatures inhabit these pages. Holly Black’s “Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)” introduces a spirited protagonist who looks beyond the surface of a much-feared spiderlike alien to find an intelligent and kindhearted ally. Patrick Ness’s “This Whole Demoning Thing” shows how keyboard-playing Angela—who, like her bandmates, shifts back and forth from freakish “normal face” to demon “Aspect” (in her case, scaly and fire-breathing), finds her true self in playing music. Kathleen Jennings’s graphic-novel short provides a contemporary, humorous, and romantic take on the three wishes theme. Also included are offerings by popular young adult (YA) authors Paolo Bacigalupi, Cassandra Clare, M. T. Anderson, and Sarah Rees Brennan. In addition to the idea that the behavior of humans is often much more monstrous than that of supernatural beings, other teen-grabbing themes explore love and friendship, finding one’s place in the world, loneliness and alienation, and self-discovery. These tale go beyond plot-induced chills and thrills and leave readers with much to think about and discuss.

unnaturalcreaturesA collection selected by Neil Gaiman provides broad literary perspective by presenting 16 stories about Unnatural Creatures (Harper, 2013; Gr 9 Up) penned by classic science fiction and fantasy writers as well as several contemporary authors.

Cartoonist Gahan Wilson’s tale (first published 1972) weaves together abstract graphic images and narrative to describe a thing that begins as a black spot on a white linen tablecloth and gradually expands into a flesh-eating menace. In Frank R. Stockton’s “The Griffin & the Minor Canon” (1885), the behavior of a group of frightened townspeople proves to be much more monstrous than that of dreaded titular creature. Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor tells a story about a misunderstood 12-year-old girl who has the rare ability to speak to poisonous snakes and is dubbed “Ozima the Wicked” (2013) by the inhabitant of her small village; though they make her an outcast, she risks life and limb to protect her neighbors when an evil serpent descends from the heavens. Caribbean author Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Smile on the Face” (2004) combines mythical elements with a contemporary setting to tell what happens when an insecure teen swallows a pit dropped from the creaky creepy cherry tree that has been speaking to her from her yard. Other stories vivify werewolves, mermaids, and more. Each entry is introduced by Gaiman, who briefly sets the scene and provides food for thought and ideas for classroom discussion.

Sinister and Satisfying
undermyhatEighteen well-known fantasy and YA authors brew up beguiling tales for a collection entitled, Under My Hat (Random House, 2012; Gr 9 Up)—to be specific, a tall, black, pointy witch’s hat (editor Jonathan Strahan starts things off by musing about this iconic accessory in his introduction). In Diana Peterfreund’s “Stray Magic,” a compassionate young woman who works in an animal shelter taps into her previously undiscovered magical abilities to reunite a lost canine familiar with her master. Charles de Lint tells about two brave and resourceful “Barrio Girls” who take on a malicious and murderous brujá by consulting the local wise man and learning the magic needed to kill the witch with kindness (literally). Ellen Klages’s “The Education of a Witch” presents an unnerving look at formative moments in the life of a young girl, and Delia Sherman’s folktale-like “The Witch in the Wood” blends self-discovery with romance as two shape-shifters meet in the forest under dangerous circumstances and fall in love. In Jane Yolen’s “Andersen’s Witch,” a story that is part biography and part fairy tale, young Hans summons the mysterious Ice Maiden to make a wish that will determine the course of his life and career as successful digter (poet). Varying settings, narrative approaches, and magic-making protagonists enchant readers and provide opportunity for comparison.

defythedarkAlso built around a theme, Defy the Dark (HarperTeen, 2013; Gr 8 Up), edited by Saundra Mitchell, contains stories about events that occur under the cover of darkness. Ranging greatly in style and subject matter, the offerings glimmer with mystery, romance, adventure, and menace. In Dia Reeves “The Dark Side of the Moon,” a love-struck boy journeys to his girlfriend’s home in Portero, Texas, a town where monsters are commonplace, to ride the fabled night trolley and prove his bravery once and for all. Carrie Ryan’s disquieting “Almost Normal” reveals how four friends witness the arrival of a deadly zombie horde from a rollercoaster car stuck at the top of the tracks. Christine Johnson’s “Shadowed” merges medieval setting with fairy tale elements and horror to tell the story of a cursed young woman who must remain always in the dark or be murdered by her own shadow. The featured authors interpret the premise in many different ways. Share some of these stories and set students free to write their own creative works based on the same theme.

yellowcakeMargo Lanagan’s Yellowcake (Knopf, 2013; Gr 9 Up) serves up 10 short stories ready to be sliced off and savored. Beautifully told and startlingly unique, each tale immediately immerses readers in the aspects and atmosphere of its particular world.

Some offerings find their roots in literature: “Catastrophic Disruption of the Head” presents a re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinderbox” that deliberates upon the devastating costs of war and power seized violently; “The Golden Shroud” retells “Rapunzel” from her lover’s impassioned point of view (he’s aided in his rescue mission by magically animated cut-off locks); and “Ferryman” describes the unexpected origins of a mythological character.

Other tales are freshly wrought: in “The Point of Roses,” a boy’s psychic ability to identify objects hidden from sight has incredible effects in the physical world; despite her family’s desperate efforts to keep her earthbound, a boy’s mother ascends into “The Clouds on High;” and “An Honest Day’s Work,” inspired by the shipbreakers of Bangladesh, tells how a group of laborers secure a gigantic humanoid beast brought down from the ether and dissemble it into usable parts. Motifs of empathy, sacrifice, fear, revenge, love, and loss are woven into the entries, deftly tethering this exploration of things odd and unbelievable to the more-familiar workings of the human heart. Emotionally complex, intricately imagined, and thought-provoking, these haunting stories make wonderful fodder for sharing in the classroom, and analyzing the nuts and bolts of the writing as well as the poignant and profound themes.

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those referenced in the above books and classroom activities:
RL 9/10.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
RL 8.5. Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style.
RL 9/10.5. Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within…, and manipulate time…create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.
RL 9/10.9. Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work.
W 8.3-11/12.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
SL 8.1-11/12.1. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions….

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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  1. These are all interesting and challenging books to read for. These collections of creepy tales really gives youngsters now to raise goose bumps galore. They surely love that especially those who loved suspense and shocking stories. Thanks for sharing.