Christian McKay Heidicker stepped onto the scene in 2016 with Cure for the Common Universe, a YA novel about video game addiction, before releasing his sophomore YA novel, horror movie homage Attack of a 50 Foot Wallflower, in 2018. His middle grade debut, Scary Stories for Young Foxes, garnered him the 2020 Newbery Honor; with his latest, Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City, Heidicker brings more vulpine horror for young fans. PW spoke with Heidicker about the importance of horror for children, the animated adaptation of Scary Stories, his work as William Shivering, and more.
The Scary Stories for Young Foxes books are fairly dark for middle grade. What draws you to horror for young readers?
I like to knock down walls in fiction, and there are more walls in children’s literature than anywhere else. I think there are some things that kids absolutely do not need to hear about until they’re grown. But there are other things, scary things, that I think kids need to know before they enter this increasingly complex and, let’s be honest, terrifying world.
I love this quote from Neil Gaiman: “I personally believe that if you are keeping people—young people—safe from the darkness, then, when the darkness shows up, you are denying them tools or weapons that they might have needed and could have had.” I want to give kids those tools so that when the darkness—a pandemic, global warming, social unrest—inevitably shows up, their nervous systems will have already taken a practice ride on the rollercoaster of terror, and they might just be ready to face the real thing.
There’s also the hilariously true Maurice Sendak quote where he warns kids never to tell their parents what they know because it would terrify them. Kids are aware of way more than we as grown-ups are comfortable with, especially with the internet, so why not give them a safe space to come to understand those bewildering or unsettling things they’ve stumbled upon? The stories in Foxes get dark, for sure, but they all have value in the real world. What happens when you can no longer trust a once beloved adult? Rabid Miss Vix as a zombie figure. What happens when your life has more value as a product than an independent spirit? It’s fun to scare kids, but at the end of the day, I want them to be wiser and stronger for it.
A belated congrats for the Newbery Honor! Did receiving the Newbery Honor for the first Scary Stories installment affect your writing, or your plans for the second book?
Absolutely. It did two things. First, it made me believe in myself as a storyteller. It forced me to accept that my work does have value and that all the years I spent sacrificing other parts of life to hone my craft were worth it. The thought still brings me to tears a bit. It also put an immense pressure on me to deliver something that good again.
I had already written a draft of The City by the time the first Foxes came out. It was planned as the latter half of that first book, but Mia and Uly [the main characters in the first book] ended up snatching the story and romping off with it, and I was only too happy to let them. The Newbery gave me the pressure-slash-excuse to dig much deeper into the themes of why we tell scary stories. My writing became simultaneously more joyful and more stressful, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Did your approach change at all between the books? How is The City different from the first installment?
So. Many. Ways. I didn’t want to rest on my laurels by taking my formula of finding parallels between horror tropes and real-life fox experiences and simply continuing the thread. I mean, I did do exactly that [laughs], but I wanted to challenge myself to make it feel as fresh as the first one while still carrying on the spirit. The fact that this story takes place in a more modern setting helped enormously. Haunted woods were replaced by haunted alleys, caves with basements, slavering beasts with automated machines, etc. The way foxes get food is entirely new—garbage cans, factories, buried pets—so their hunting instincts have been dulled, but the many challenges of the city keep their whiskers sharp in other ways. They’re almost like a different species.
Even more interesting, I think, is that the themes in modern scary stories are much different than those in classical ones. Dystopias and alien abductions and robot stories speak to a much different society than zombies, vampires, and witches did. Finally, there’s the core of what I want my readers to explore in themselves. If the first Foxes book was about finding survival and resilience in scary stories, this one, to me at least, is about the power of listening to others’ scary stories and believing them. Even making their problem your own if you can. I think the world could use a bit more of that these days.
What is the process of adaptation like for the Scary Stories animated show? What’s it like serving as executive producer?
Right now, we’re just trying to figure out how to sell the thing! Knock on wood for me. We have an unbelievably talented team—Lena Headey! And Swamp Thing’s showrunner! But there are many challenges in selling a TV show, especially one as scary as this. So we’ve been digging down to the core of each story and looking for ways to express that onscreen without being too grotesque, but also ensuring that a young audience will walk away with the tools they need to face the darkness in the real world. It’s a completely different challenge than writing books, and it honestly makes me grateful to be a novelist. [laughs]
Were there any inspirations for the framework of the Scary Stories books? Why did you find foxes to be the ideal vehicle for themes of loss and anthropogenic change?
That framework was a late addition! The original Scary Stories for Young Foxes short story was an homage to the Berenstain Bears’ spookier installments. The characters walked on two hind paws and went to Mrs. Badger’s shop down the lane to buy a goose for dinner. Because it was much more anthropomorphic, there was a sense of safety about it—of order and humanity minus the unpredictability of nature. The glowing light of the treehouse, so to speak. Once I started to write the book and make it much more scientifically accurate, I realized I still needed that cozy feeling. That way, my readers could soothe their nerves a bit between the scares, while Mia and Uly remained in semi-harrowing conditions. Those in-between sections functioned as a safe space where young and/or sensitive readers could take a breath and decide if they wanted to continue.
Of course, for the second book, I’m trusting that my young kit readers have grown up a bit. That they can handle a lot more now that they’ve survived the first adventure. Winter has closed its jaws around the Antlerwood. The storyteller himself might be a threat. And maybe most unsettlingly, there are no moms to lick away the shivers this time around.
As far as why they’re foxes... they just seemed the most aesthetically pleasing when I closed my eyes and started to daydream.
Can you talk a bit about your work as William Shivering? How did your Thieves of Weirdwood series come about? How does your style differ for those compared to ones you write under your own name?
William Shivering was a name I found, and reversed, in Finnegan’s Wake when Wasabi [the creators of the Weirdwood universe] told me to pick a pen name since no one knew who I was. Fair, for sure, but that changed after I won the Newbery Honor and they stopped the printers to put my real name on it. This, as you can imagine, was pretty gratifying.
The most fascinating thing, I think, about my work as Shivering is how different the palate is from Foxes. Foxes have limited capabilities when it comes to specific movements and expressions—or humans have fewer descriptions of them, at least. They have fewer references for metaphors and similes. They even have a limited number of colors they can see. This all amounts to the simplest words and sentence construction. With Weirdwood, I literally have the entirety of imagination—well, in 1907—to play with. My brain can tumble down little pocket-worlds. I can have a bat-winged asylum made of marshmallow, or a little ghost girl who can possess once-living organic objects and manipulate them.
I started writing this series because I needed money to survive as an author. But I’ve really fallen in love with the characters. I’m finishing up the trilogy now, and in this final volume, I get to touch on what we’ve been building toward this entire time. There’s a Veil that separates the Real from the Fae. On one side is everything material we know and live with. On the other are all our dreams and nightmares manifested. Nightmares of Weirdwood explores what happens when one of our main characters dedicates his life to maintaining that Veil—fixing Rifts and keeping Fae-born from running amok in urban cities—while the other main character decides that tearing down the Veil and giving magic to everyone is more morally sound. It’s intense, and I’m stoked about it.
Are there any current or upcoming projects you can talk about?
The minute (okay, the day) I turn in Nightmares of Weirdwood, I’ll start work on my first graphic novel. It’s about loneliness. And it’s the most excited I’ve been about an idea since I came up with Scary Stories for Young Foxes. I want to tell you more. I want to scream about it from the rooftops. But I’m going to save that energy and channel it into the work itself. I hear graphic novels can take a mighty long time to complete, and like every other project, I’m counting on that excitement to see me through.
Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City (Scary Stories for Young Foxes #2) by Christian McKay Heidicker, illus. by Junyi Wu. Holt, $17.99 Aug. 31 ISBN 978-1-250-18144-2