Bestselling romance author Amalie Howard steps onto the middle grade scene with her speculative novel, Bumps in the Night. In the book, a rebellious, passionate 12-year-old named Darika Lovelace is sent to Trinidad to live with her superstitious grandmother for the summer. While there, she’s confronted with the unbearable humidity but also a peculiar iguana and the alluring, tropical atmosphere of her maternal homeland. Darika encounters a set of mysterious characters who all warn her about the evil that lurks in the forest, which is also connected to her absent mother. PW spoke with Howard about Caribbean folklore, climate change, and pivoting to speculative fiction.

Can you take us through your transition from writing romance to speculative fiction, and how you adjusted your approach to interest middle grade readers?

Technique, craft, and storytelling are important when you’re writing any kind of book [as well as] familiarizing yourself with story structure, length, content, and readability. [It] also helps to read other bestselling novels in the age range or the genre. I used to teach a creative writing class for teens where we covered the basic structure of a novel: understanding [what makes a] compelling beginning, the inciting event, the character’s goals, motivation in conflict, and a satisfying resolution. I think the biggest thing is to catch and keep younger readers’ attention.

What are some of your favorite Caribbean folklore stories, authors, or books?

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste. She’s [also] from Trinidad. I remember reading it in 2015 and thinking, “Wow, the storytelling is incredible.” I wish I had had it to read when I was a child. I grew up mostly with European mythology, and the Caribbean is so rich in folklore, and seeing it on the page is such an incredible experience. As far as what I read as a child, a lot of the stories were serialized in my local newspaper, the Trinidad Guardian. A man who wrote stuff that I read was [folklorist] Al Ramsawak. He wrote more than 300 serialized children’s stories in the ’70s and ’80s. Other books on my radar are Shakti by S.J. Sindu, a graphic novel about an Indian American girl who has ancestral magic monsters, curses, and friendships. Another one is Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne, which is based on Bajan folklore.

What inspired you to weave social issues such as climate change into the plot?

I didn’t set out to use magic and folklore to address climate change. But there is a line in Bumps in the Night where one of the side characters blames an earthquake and the recent atmospheric happenings [on humans not respecting the earth]. Papa Bois [the antagonist] is from a French patois word meaning “father wood” or “father of the forest.” From that mythology, he is the protector of forests, plants, and animals. He’s half human, half animal. Some of the folklore talks about him punishing you if you treat the forest or animals badly or selfishly, or if you disrespect the land. He’s not violent but he can be. I adored being able to inject magical [elements] with real environmental issues.

After writing this book, do you still consider yourself primarily a romance writer, or are you exploring other ways to identify yourself and your work?

I think I just want to be seen as an author and writer. I grew up reading Grimm's fairy tales. I was published at 12 for a poem written with my English teacher, Mrs. Joy Moore, at St. Augustine Girls High School [in Trinidad]. My first published story was young adult science fiction and fantasy, and then I went into romance. So coming back to middle grade and speculative fiction was a bit of a journey. I think [writing this book] was kind of an homage to my obsession with reading as a child.

Bumps in the Night by Amalie Howard. Delacorte, $17.99 Feb. 20 ISBN 978-0-593-64587-1