In the dark world of The Thickety: A Path Begins (HarperCollins/Tegen, May), 12-year-old Kara’s mother has been executed for the ultimate sin—magic—and Kara lives a precarious life as a suspected witch. The success of author, teacher, and filmmaker Jerry White’s debut has been “surreal,” he says. It’s strange and satisfying to see his elementary school students read it—in an impressive show of support, the PTA bought a copy for every school family—and he’s become used to kids reacting to the startling ending, or demanding what comes next. The most surprising aspect of publishing? “The amount of time it takes to update social platforms—Twitter and Facebook.”

White has been a storyteller from the get-go. He first told stories about the pandas on his bedroom wallpaper, and in middle school he published his own stories, mimeographing them for the benefit of classmates. He read voraciously—Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King—and favorite books included Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. He was so enamored of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain that he never read the final book (The High King), because “once I read it, the story would be over. I may read it on my deathbed.”

As far as his own writing, he wrote his first book 15 years ago and saved it on floppy disks, but lost it when he failed to back them up. His second, a middle-grade novel about a boy who grows up in a graveyard, bore too close a resemblance to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (although sections of it were tweaked for The Thickety).

Many novelists get their start with short stories, but White learned about narrative arc and story structure as a writer for Escape Goat Pictures, a book trailer and short film producer in Staten Island, N.Y. One of his projects, a 2007 film called Path, about a girl living next to a mysterious wood, was the genesis of the idea that became The Thickety.

White began writing The Thickety in 2010, and it took him longer than he’d first assumed—“as a teacher, I thought I’d be able to write all summer,” he says. But with a growing family, it just didn’t work that way. Once the book was finally complete it made the rounds to more than 40 agents, generating some interest. But it wasn’t until White sent the manuscript to a client of Escape Goat, HarperCollins publicist Kim VandeWater, that the book had its big break. White was on holiday at Disney World with his family when he got the call: VandeWater had passed the manuscript along to editor Sarah Shumway at Katherine Tegen Books, who was interested in buying it. “My initial reaction,” he says, “was complete and utter fear that the deal would fall through. It was really hard to focus on Mickey and Goofy and having a good time for the rest of the week, so in an odd sort of way it was both the best and the worst vacation of my life.”

Once she acquired the manuscript, Shumway encouraged White to target the series at a middle-grade audience, and helped him temper the more intense scenes, such as the execution of Kara’s mother. “Ironically, the edits made the book darker,” says White. “It was more effective to hint at what was happened instead of spelling it out.”

Those edits included excising scenes written from the point of view of Grace, the insincerely sweet, reprehensible antagonist who is Kara’s chief tormenter. Readers may be surprised to learn that Grace was White’s favorite character to write—he describes her as a delightful sociopath. “It doesn’t occur to Grace that she is wrong, and she is sincerely surprised that anyone would disagree with her.”

The Thickety series, previously a trilogy, will now be a quartet (White is about 100 pages into the third book) and will further explore the fantasy world in which Kara’s home island of De’Noran is only a small part. In book two, scheduled for March 2015, readers will learn more about the sinister forest called the Thickety, the terrifying demon Sordyr, and Kara’s budding—and often dangerous—magical powers.

Asked about reactions to the grim themes of the book—repression, scapegoating, and the dark desire for power that afflicts even the best people—White says he is surprised that adults consider it as dark as they do. “Kids appreciate a book that respects them and don’t trust those who talk down to them or condescend to them,” he says. “They know that risks are real and that characters will die.” They know, as Kara learns, that the use of magic has its consequences. On a book tour of schools, White has been taking a survey of what’s scarier: clowns or the dark? Creepy kids or dolls? Based on the answers, his next series should be about clowns, cockroaches, and spiders. In the meantime, fans have three more Thickety books lying in wait.