The author of the Jigsaw Jones Mysteries ventures into chilling territory in his latest series, Scary Tales, which launches July 9 with Home Sweet Horror and I Scream, You Scream. James Preller calls the project, to be published by Feiwel and Friends, a “massive departure for me. I’ve always really adhered to realistic fiction. If someone had said that I would be writing a novel about zombies outside of a school – that happens in the third book – I would have said, ‘That’s ridiculous!’ ”

Though the series delves into the paranormal, Preller doesn’t entirely forsake the real. “What’s really interesting to me is how the other characters, ordinary people, respond to and interact with those zombies,” he says. “When I visit schools, I tell kids that the two most important words for a writer are, ‘What if?’ With this series, I’m giving myself new freedom, and I’m really having fun with it.”

A casual conversation at BookExpo America in 2011 sparked the idea for Scary Tales. The series’s editor, Jean Feiwel, senior v-p and publisher of Feiwel and Friends, recalls sitting at a table during the Speed Dating with Authors program with Patty Norman, children’s specialist at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma, Calif., and children’s events coordinator for the chain’s six stores. “Patty mentioned that there was a real need for more scary stories for the chapter-book audience – books like Goosebumps, but a little younger,” says Feiwel, who edited that R.L. Stine series at Scholastic.

Feiwel took Norman’s comment to heart and approached Preller, whose Jigsaw Jones books she had edited (also while at Scholastic). His more recent works, including middle-grade novels Six Innings and Bystander, and Before You Go, his debut YA novel, were published by Feiwel and Friends and edited by editor-in-chief Liz Szabla.

“I feel strongly that he is an author who can do anything,” says Feiwel of choosing Preller to write Scary Tales. “He is open to ideas, and then makes them completely his own. The idea of Scary Tales resonated with him, and I was happy that he wanted to flex a different muscle. The books are scary, but he also adds an emotional dimension that gives them much more depth and makes the story hang on longer.”

As Preller began charting a course for Scary Tales, his fondness for old Twilight Zone episodes fueled his imagination. “I love that the show spans a number of genres, from science fiction to gangster stories,” he says. “I wanted to do something similar with Scary Tales. I see these books existing on a broader canvas than just being scary. The series is not going to be just one ghost story after another. Each will be different, though all will have an intellectual twist at the end.”

In addition to its premise, Preller was also drawn to Scary Tales’ reading level. “I hear from teachers and librarians that kids love scary books and that there isn’t much that is fresh and new in that area,” he says. “And I hadn’t written anything for the second- and third-grade audience for a while, and I wanted to get back to that.”

As part of a five-city tour, Preller will visit Norman’s store on October 22 for what the bookseller calls “an event with the lights out.” She has high hopes for Scary Tales. “Sales of early chapter books are growing like crazy, and I think having a little scary edge is unique,” she says. “Kids want to read things that make them feel grown up-ish and this package really looks good. The books are unlike anything that’s out there now, so they will stand out.”

Preller is also pleased with the look of Scary Tales, which is illustrated by Italian artist Iacopo Bruno, and is hopeful that the series will provide kids with “a positive, fun reading experience” and will snare reluctant readers. “To attract reluctant readers who might need an easier read, a book can’t look babyish,” he says. “But if it looks cool, they’ll pick it up. I’m hoping the series will reach those readers, especially boys.”

The third Scary Tales installment, Goodnight, Zombie, is due in October. Feiwel says that at least three additional volumes will follow. “We are very hopeful, given the success of Goosebumps and other scary series that have come out in the past, that there will be room for even more Scary Tales books.”.

Preller, whose oeuvre also includes picture books (among them A Pirate’s Guide to Recess, illustrated by Greg Ruth, which Feiwel and Friends released on June 17) isn’t sure what his next authorial move will be. “I’ve never written a pure science fiction story and I really want to do that,” he says. “And I’ve always wanted to write historical fiction – perhaps a novel featuring the Iroquois set in New York State during the Revolution. And since writing Sixth Innings I’ve thought about doing more sports stories. Jean and Liz have been very supportive, encouraging me to pursue my muse and follow my inspiration – wherever it might take me.”

Home Sweet Horror by James Preller, illus. by Iacopo Bruno. Feiwel and Friends, $14.99 July ISBN 978-1-250-01886-1; paper $5.99 ISBN 978-1-250-01887-8

I Scream, You Scream! by James Preller, illus. by Iacopo Bruno. Feiwel and Friends, $14.99 July ISBN 978-1-250-01888-5; paper $5.95 ISBN 978-1-250-01889-2