Working as a librarian, Oklahoma City author Kim Ventrella saw how often children want to be frightened.
“I figured being a librarian would be a good job to have along the way since it’s really hard to be able to support yourself as an author,” Ventrella said, “and you’re surrounded by books and get to see the types of books that kids are reading. … Scary books are always one of the most popular books that kids are looking for because they like to be scared within the safe space of a book, which is nice because then you can be scared whenever you want to be, and if it gets too scary, you can just put it down and decide to stop reading. They’re also a great entrée into a more difficult topic so that you can kind of explore some of those difficult real-life issues within a fantasy world or some kind of fantastical spooky environment.”
Ventrella’s latest novel Bone Hollow, recommended for children in third through seventh grades and published by Scholastic Press, for example, explores death.
“It does affect people of all ages, even if it’s just losing a pet, which is something that happens to probably most people when they’re young,” Ventrella said, “but it’s nice if you have a way to understand that, which is what a book gives you. Again, if you’re reading it and it is too much, you can just put it down, but if you’re able to keep reading it, it will give you a new vocabulary and a new way of understanding something difficult like death so hopefully when you face it in the real world, it will actually be easier for you and you’ll be able to deal with it in a more capable way than you would have if you’d never had the experience of reading the book.”
Bone Hollow is Ventrella’s follow-up to her first published novel, 2017’s Skeleton Tree, which also discussed death but approached the topic from a different angle.
“Both deal with loss in a different way,” Ventrella said. “Skeleton Tree is the story of a 12-year-old main character who literally has a skeleton begin to grow in his backyard, and as older readers will recognize right away, and probably younger readers too, it’s not just your average skeleton, but it’s symbolic of what’s happening to his family. His little sister is ill, and so throughout the story, his family’s relationship to this skeleton grows with his relationship with and understanding of death, so it’s a spooky story but it has a really serious issue at the heart of it.”
Ventrella said she’s not really trying to frighten young readers with her writing but appeal to their budding interest in the macabre to talk about a difficult topic.
“Skeleton Tree and Bone Hollow have spooky elements, for sure,” Ventrella said, “but they’re not actually intended to be scary.”
While Bone Hollow isn’t a sequel to Skeleton Tree, Ventrella said, it is a “kind of companion novel or almost a prequel” that “expands on the mythology surrounding death in a different direction” with different characters in a new setting. The new novel begins when young Gabe falls to his death from a rooftop after attempting to rescue a chicken during a tornado. Gabe doesn’t realize he has died until after he leaves his own funeral and meets the novel’s unconventional Grim Reaper figure, a seemingly young girl named Wynne.
“He’s recruited to become what is almost like a death doula, basically,” Ventrella said. “He’s like a death character that is really there to help people process the loss of a loved one, so it’s more about how he decides whether or not he wants to follow that path.”
The first story Ventrella can remember writing was her own take on Roald Dahl’s Edgar Award-winning horror short story “The Landlady” about a bed-and-breakfast owner and amateur taxidermist who poisons and stuffs her guests. Like Dahl’s story, Ventrella’s version received its own award when she wrote it in second grade.
“I’ve always been into the creepy things; I don’t know why,” Ventrella said. “When I was 12, we had this assignment to make our own picture book, and my picture book was called The Wednesday Mourning Club — ‘mourning’ with a ‘u.’ It told the story of these five adults, and each chapter is how one of the adults lost one of their loved ones, and then they all come together and form this club to deal with their grief. At the very end, the main character dies and the very last chapter takes place at his funeral. I was like, ‘Wow, 12-year-old self. Look at you. What are you doing?’ … Obviously, I’ve had this idea that I needed to process and deal with in some way through writing, and I’ve been trying to deal with that for a really long time. I guess it finally came out.”
When Ventrella worked as a librarian, she had several suggestions for children looking for spooky books, including Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Alvin Schwartz’s folk tale anthology series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which is currently being adapted into a movie by Trollhunter director André Øvredal. Ventrella said a reboot of the book series to be published in 2020 will contain one of her own original short stories. While her novels are spooky but relatively tame in content, she said the story she wrote for the new anthology is more in the spirit of the original series, often remembered for Stephen Gammell’s gruesome black-and-white illustrations and frequently listed among the Office for Intellectual Freedom’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books due to complaints from teachers and parents about the book’s contents. Ventrella said her editor was surprised by how gory her Scary Stories story is.
Though finding the right balance between too scary and age-appropriately spooky can be difficult and she’s interested in writing for other demographics, Ventrella said middle-grade children are a “perfect audience.”
“They’re still young enough that for the most part, they still love reading books,” Ventrella said. “They’re not super jaded about it. They’re still excited about it, and they’re also at the point where they can articulate really deep questions about the world. They have lots of questions and they’re able to really understand some complex stories and topics, but they still love reading. … They get really excited when they meet you. They think you’re famous. Whenever you go to a school, they want you to sign little strips of paper for them.”
Ventrella and several other similarly minded authors offer teacher and student reading guides, writing tips and free Skype sessions with school classrooms through their website spookymiddlegrade.com. She is scheduled to sign copies of Bone Hollow 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesday at Full Circle Bookstore, 1900 Northwest Expressway, and 1-2:30 p.m. March 9 at Best of Books,1313 E. Danforth Road, in Edmond. Visit kimventrella.com.