Bestselling YA author Kiersten White (Paranormalcy; the Camelot Rising series) has released the first installment of her debut middle grade Sinister Summer series, Wretched Waterpark. It pits intrepid twins Theo and Alexander Sinister-Winterbottom against the nefarious owner of a gothic amusement park, in a mystery that combines impish humor with gentle frights. PW spoke with White about pivoting to writing for a middle grade audience, how horror can help relieve anxiety, and why it’s important to laugh at the macabre.
Wretched Waterpark reads like an old-school caper. Were you an avid mystery reader when you were younger?
Yeah! I love mysteries because I like scary things, but horror was too much for me so some mysteries served a parallel purpose. The first series I ever loved was The Boxcar Children. I loved the cleverness of [those books] and figuring things out [as a reader] alongside the kids.
What made you land on the quasi-Victorian imagery present in the first book of this series?
I had wanted to write a middle grade series for a really long time and I couldn’t figure out my way in. Then a few years ago I misread a tweet as being about a ‘gothic waterpark’ and I was like, “A gothic waterpark?!” I couldn’t get the idea out of my head because [those two things] are kind of opposites: waterparks are colorful and tropical, and gothic sensibilities are not those things. I kept coming back to that idea and how I could use it in a children’s series. That led me to the Sinister-Winterbottom children and the idea of taking typical summer vacation activities and twisting them into the absurd.
This is your first middle grade series. How did the writing of this compare to developing the YA series that you’ve done in the past?
No offense to my YA series but it’s so much more fun! It’s just so joyful. I love to lean into absurdity, and absurdity is not something that there’s a big market for in YA. With middle grade, though, everything is arbitrary when you’re a child; the rules are just the rules because somebody says they are. The world doesn’t make sense even when adults explain it, but you take their word for it. Also, I really enjoyed not having to describe being attracted to someone! It was really fun just getting to navigate an adventure and build this spooky gothic waterpark around children and explore things that way. I would write a million of these books! I hope that sort of joy comes through on the page because I genuinely love these books.
How did you handle blending the macabre with humor?
I feel like horror and humor are two sides of the same coin. It’s looking at something normal and shifting it ever so slightly so that it’s revealed in a new light, and that light is either terrifying or hilarious. I have three kids and my youngest has always been this strange combination of golden-retriever-puppy human but his room was entirely decorated with skeletons. He’s always had this pull to the macabre and I did, too, as a child, so I think blending those things was a pretty natural thing for me. So I think it’s really fun, in middle grade, getting to indulge those macabre sensibilities but in a safe way. Kids can have those spooky sensibilities but there’s no active threat; there’s nothing there that’s going to scare them. My son, when he was reading this, said, “Mom, I like these books because just when it feels like something is going to be scary, it turns out that it’s funny instead.” That was really what I was trying to accomplish. I have my own test audience—it’s wonderful.
The names of the park rides are particularly memorable. Where did you come up with names like “Cold, Unknowable Sea” and “Oblivion?”
I really like gothic sensibilities—look at the Brontës. And Frankenstein is one of my favorite books. Things were always “sublime” and there were these sort of over-the-top descriptions. So instead of the typical waterpark ride names I wanted them to be something that you would hear and think, “I don’t want to go [in] there!” When I was a kid I loved water parks but they were also very, very frightening to me. I didn’t want to go on the water slides, I found the wave pool entirely overwhelming. I was convinced I was going to die the whole time I was there but the only harm I ever came to was sunburn. So giving these rides over-the-top, very dramatic, almost scary names reflected how I felt when I was a child.
Much of your writing can be considered horror. Do you find that reading something creepy or unsettling can be a paradoxically comforting way of processing anxiety?
I really, really do. I’m a very anxious person. I was a very anxious child. I think there’s a lot of value in being able to access those feelings. To feel scared, to feel tension through a character—because it’s happening at a remove. You can close the book. You also know that there’s going to be a resolution, which we don’t have in life. I feel like it’s really important for kids to think, in a safe [environment], “What would I do if I were in this circumstance? How would I feel?” I also really feel like kids have the ability to know what they’re ready for. All of my kids have put down books [because] they didn’t like the way they felt while they were reading them. So I do think there is a lot of value in having a wide variety of stories and types of stories available to children so that they can access these feelings and these outlets. [They can] also self-select: if they’re not ready for something they’re going to put it down.
What are your plans for the Sinister-Winterbottom children?
Oh, so many plans! They have many more odd vacations ahead of them. They’re going to make some new friends and they’re going to discover more about why their parents are gone and why they’re having such a deeply sinister summer.
Wretched Waterpark (Sinister Summer #1) by Kiersten White. Delacorte, $16.99 June 7 ISBN 978-0-593-37904-2