Finding Hope in Horror: Christian McKay Heidicker is Not Afraid to Scare Kids

The Newbery Honor author spoke with SLJ about finding horror inspiration in the natural world, the best tea for writing, and crafting stories that "tick along with the reader’s heartbeat."

Christian McKay Heidicker's middle grade horror debut spun chilling tales of two young foxes as they navigated the woods (and sinister monsters) in search of a safe home. Now, his upcoming companion novel sees foxes braving more monsters in a new, terrifying setting—the city. SLJ spoke with the Newbery Honor author about finding horror inspiration in the natural world, the best tea for writing, and crafting stories that "tick along with the reader’s heartbeat."


Photo by Kay Patino

When I read the “Scary Stories” books, I was struck by similarities to Watership Down and even Animal Farm. Do you consider these tales to be animal allegories, fables, or something else? 

I’d say it’s something else! Is National Geographic horror a genre? In all seriousness, I never set out to teach moral lessons with my books. I wanted to dig into the reasons we tell scary stories and let readers find parallels in their own experiences. Fox lives just happened to lend a great setting. Rabies becomes a zombie story that explores what happens when we can no longer trust a loved one. A camouflaged creature becomes a ghost story that explores regret. And a fur farm becomes a dystopian tale that explores what happens when the society we live in is based on a lie.

You might be surprised to hear that I’m not a huge Watership Down or Animal Farm fan (so dreary!)—but I sure don’t mind when people compare my work to them!

In prior interviews, you’ve described being young and reading or watching everything on TV to combat loneliness, which readers may especially relate to right now. My 10-year-old son wanted to know how COVID-19 affected your experience being a writer—what was your creative process like during the pandemic?

Tell your son that’s a fantastic question. After I received the Newbery Honor, I was gearing up to go on my first massive tour. When that was canceled over virus concerns, I felt disappointed, but I understood. Protecting our immunocompromised citizens was paramount. Also, I had a Foxes sequel to edit. And strangely, a whole bunch of the story’s elements were popping up in the world in real time—vaccines (yay!), untrustworthy authority figures (boo!), entire populations being lied to (double boo). So, while COVID-19 was and is a huge strain on all of us, if there was a silver lining for me personally, it’s that The City is better because I was forced to stay home and work on it. But I would gladly release a worse book if it meant all this devastation could be reversed.

On your website you mention you read, write, and drink tea. What is your preferred writing tea and how do you take it? Do you have a different tea you savor for reading versus writing?

When Salt Lake City’s sky isn’t on fire, I’ve been walking to a cozy little shop called the Tea Grotto. The baristas there have been giving me an education on a vast variety of green teas and oolongs: Monkey’s Paw, Dragon’s Well, Green Blade, Moonrise Kingdom, Oh My!, Eu de Badger, Imperial Garden, Fiddler’s Green, and Heaven’s Formosa (I made up two of those). They’re also training me in the subtle art of Gaiwan, where you steep the leaves for every separate cup. It’s meditative and lovely.

I’m slowly working caffeine out of my life though so, according to my bio, a huge part of my personality is about to be snuffed out entirely. I’m thinking of replacing it with motocross.

It is delightful to hear about the adaptation of Scary Stories For Young Foxes into an animated series! Is there anything you can share with us, especially your role in the project?

Right? I’m pretty delighted myself, as you can probably imagine. We are in early, early days. We haven’t even sold the thing yet (knock on wood for me). But the team is exquisite. I mean, Lena Headey? I’ll never get over that. We also just signed a showrunner, whose name I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you. But I had already watched one of his series, having no idea I’d work with him someday, and it was spectacular. One of the most interesting things, to me, was trying to decide whether to go with a kids' show writer, hoping they could bring the chills, or a horror show writer, hoping they could bring the smiles. I think we made the right choice.

I am a producer on the project and have been in every meeting, ensuring things are properly foxy. In fact, I just changed a part of the pitch from "they escaped" to "they fled as fast as foxingly possible." I think that proves that my role is ludicrously important.

You are set to be a writer-in-residence at the Weilenmann School 2021-22 school year. What particular areas will you focus on? What writing or storytelling tips do you want to give to students? 

I want to teach these kids that all stories have basically the same shape, no matter the medium, genre, or intended age. I want to show them that stories are little empathy machines that give our nervous systems a chance to ride the rollercoaster of transformation from the comfort of our own homes, preparing us to make our own changes when the time comes. I want to show them that humans understand change in a very specific way and that if a writer follows certain patterns, their stories will tick along with the reader’s heartbeat.

Most importantly, I want kids to understand that not only can they make their stories more life-like, they can make their lives more story-like. They can mythologize themselves. If they’re experiencing a dark night of the soul, I want to give them the tools to take a step back and recognize it as part of their hero’s journey. That we all have to go through rough times to get to the good ones. That things always change, and better days are around the corner.

Your library research for this series is commendable; people often do not understand the inquiry involved with writing fiction. What do you tell students about the research process? 

First, I tell them to make sure they’re writing something that they’re interested in. If they see the project through, they’ll be spending months if not years in that world. Next, I tell them to start simple! Research can be pretty intimidating. When I become interested in a topic, I go to the library, head to the children’s section, and read every book they have on it. That gives me a broad scope and a vocabulary to build from. Then I move to the grown-up section and pepper it with YouTube videos and articles from trustworthy websites.

Being a kindergarten science teacher in Beverly Hills taught me to never assume I know everything about a topic, no matter how straightforward that topic might seem (I could blow your mind with hippopotamus facts.) It was only on my fifty-somethingth article that I learned that foxes have metal in their eyes that is pulled by the earth’s magnetic field and that if they hunt with their muzzles pointed northward, they are forty percent more likely to catch their prey. That sort of detail puts me right inside the foxes’ heads.

You were set to tutor part-time the very day before you received the Newbery Honor phone call. What do you say to young artists who struggle with committing full-time to their art versus having a backup plan?

It was the day of! I got the call 12 hours before my first lesson!

First, I want to acknowledge my privilege. I didn’t have a backup plan. I felt the calling to become a storyteller more strongly than I felt literally anything else, and I was in the extremely fortunate position of being able to pursue it. I took odd jobs to support my writing habit, and it took almost 14 years to become successful as an author. I did work hard, but there’s a huge asterisk. When I was striving to become a writer, my mom stepped in and helped me from time to time. I always made sure to pay my own bills, but there were moments when I wasn’t sure how I would cover the rent without getting a higher paying, more time-consuming job, and my mom stepped in. I paid her back as soon as I could, but her presence and willingness to cover me between paychecks was a massive, massive leg-up. Not having a backup plan felt extremely scary to me, but compared to others’ experiences, it really wasn’t.

For those young artists who are not in such a fortunate position, I would tell them a few things. First, we’re trying to change things as a society. To make our capitalist system not so crushing and hopefully pass universal healthcare so you don’t have to worry about unexpected hospital bills while you pursue your interests that would provide the most to the world. Things are getting better. Not nearly fast enough. But we’re trying.

Second, it doesn’t take a lot of work every day to become an artist. Just persistence. I used to write a couple hundred words (half of the answer to this question) on my lunch breaks or first thing after I came home from work. If you write a few sentences or make a small sketch or record a really bad TikTok every single day, you will slowly but surely get better while building content. The more you fail, the more you’ll see a better way to do it next time, and the more likely you are to succeed.

Third, try to remove any guilt from the process. If you’ve got the artist’s blood seething through your veins, nothing will stop you from working on your art. Nothing. But that won’t happen every day. If you don’t feel motivated, if you feel overwhelmed by school or bogged down by life, take a moment and breathe instead. Tomorrow’s a new day. A new opportunity to steer your life toward a more artistic one. Pretend that everything you’ve done up to this point is perfect. Now build from there. One day, you’ll make some money off it. If you keep going, it might eventually support you.

Do you have any plans to write graphic novels, with your background in instructional comics?

So many plans. I love comics. I just read my thousandth graphic novel last year. And—throwback to Question 2—my next book just happens to be a graphic novel about loneliness! How could that be visually interesting, you ask? Just. You. Wait. Is it a spiritual successor to the trippy 1970s cartoon The Point? Maybe! Does that give any hints of what it’s about?? Not at all.

There’s actually a seven-page comic section in my YA novel Attack of the 50 Foot Wallflower. It’s based on the old "Tales from the Crypt" series and was illustrated by Sam Bosma (I was already a huge fan), and I think it turned out rad.

Ray Bradbury was one of your reading inspirations. What is it about Bradbury’s works that continually draw in readers of all ages? 

Great question. Is it the cozy spooky atmosphere? The unabashed exclamation points? Is it the call of a simpler time (that never really existed)?

Honestly, I think it’s probably the heart. Bradbury was an incredibly intelligent, empathetic man who absolutely adored trashy sci-fi and horror novels. He funneled that empathy and intelligence into genres that often lacked poetry and real human connection. The result is undeniable. I’m starting to think the best works of art might spring from an artist mastering a medium or genre by pulling from a completely different medium or genre.

What books have you read recently that made an impact on you? 

  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  • The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (NOT FOR KIDS OR MOST ADULTS)
  • Pathways to Bliss by Joseph Campbell
  • The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
  • Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna (David Lynch biography/memoir)
  • Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Quiet by Susan Cain

I’m also recording the Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City audiobook right now. And I gotta say, I’m really happy with how it turned out.

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