What do you get when you combine a host of writers, fireside-style storytelling sessions, lots of laughs and plenty of spooks? Annie Graves and The Nightmare Club: the sleepover that’s not for wimps!
An amazing collaborative series for seven to eight year olds, Little Island has recently added two more books to their Nightmare Club series and Writing.ie was on hand to get the lowdown.
Here, as books 5 and 6 in the series are published, we look at how the series came about and the impact it had on the authors. Frankenkids, a brilliant debut from David Maybury, is the terrifying tale of mad scientist Fraser and his parrot-cat-monkey Pamela as two boys find themselves in the wrong place on Halloween. The Wolfling’s Bite by award-winning children’s author, Oisin McGann, tells the story of a dastardly toy and its desire for meat…and blood. In keeping with the first four books in the series.
The Annie Graves series is an innovative and refreshing idea. Humour, storytelling and spooks, all ingrained elements of Irish culture and reminiscent of a bygone era. As Oisin describes it, the Nightmare Club books are “short, funny, creepy, and easily read”. But how did the project start and what was the process like for the writers involved?
“The Nightmare Club is slightly my baby,” says author Deirdre Sullivan, “Or I was present at its hellish, demonic birth anyway. I told a spooky story to some children and it went really well, and was chatting to Siobhán (Parkinson) on a train journey from Dublin to Galway about it, and we kind of came up with the idea for a series of horror novellas for children. We met up with Kevin Stevens, Alice Stevens, Katherine Farmer and Elaina O’ Neill to pool even more ideas on top of the already glistening pool of train-journey ideas, and eventually those ideas turned into books. With illustrations in (by Glenn McElhinney).”
For David Maybury, debuting his writing career with the series was a “strangely understated” experience. He explains, “Booksellers, publishers and book-people know it’s me, but no one else really has a clue, so it’s fun sneaking around being a ninja author.”
Anonymous ninja authors? A great concept – as demand shows – but the idea of different storytelling characters telling the stories of others is reminiscent of the Irish storytelling tradition of the seanchaí. Does this mean the Annie Graves series is aimed at an Irish readership? In what ways does it have a global appeal?
“I think children everywhere love to be terrified,” says Deirdre, quickly adding, “that’s the main reason I became a primary school teacher.” Scary teacher or not, Deirdre has a point. An attraction to fear is universal, spanning all ages – and The Nightmare Club certainly hits the mark for the younger audience. For Oisin, the horror element was also part of the project’s attraction. He says,
“It was a short, sharp piece of writing that I was able to do quickly, but could imagine enjoying as a kid. Horror’s an easy sell – but finding the balance between scary enough and ‘you-gave-my-child-nightmares-you-creep’ is an interesting challenge.”
So when it came to the writing process, the collaborative approach must have presented its own challenges. How did the writers make sure that the voice and style of each book matched?
Alice, author of Mirrored, explains: “A lot of the credit has to go to the editors of the project. They set down some ground-rules from the outset to ensure we approached the stories in a similar manner. They made sure we were in sync when it came to the type of language we used, the target audience and the style of narration. We had a number of meetings together where we discussed ideas and technique and shared our stories with one another. So in a way, we had our own Nightmare Club.”
“But an important element of these stories is that they are told by different narrators,” Alice continues. “Each story is described by a different kid in the Nightmare Club. This allows for different voices, styles and approaches, like you would have in any fireside chat or ghost-story session. Some of the kids are spooky, others nervous, some brazen. The voice of Annie Graves, the author, really brings these stories together and gives them coherence and makes them all part of a larger narrative.”
“We had the children tell the stories,” adds Deirdre. “Each of the stories has a different protagonist and the framing story is that they are all at a slumber-party, hosted by Annie, where the invitees have to tell a stroy – and if it isn’t scary enough, they’ll be sent home. This allowed us the freedom to write in our own voices, while still forming part of a coherent whole.”
And as David points out; “the guys behind all of the Annie Graves’ stories are game for (almost) anything so pretending to be a 13 year girl who happens to live in a big old creepy house just comes naturally.”
So what about the young readers? How do they respond when they realise the series is written by a variety of authors?
“They take it in their stride,” says Katherine. “It’s very obvious that ‘Annie Graves’ is a fictional character, and it’s no shock to learn that the stories by ‘Annie’ are written by multiple people instead of one person.” In fact, having multiple writers is part of the attraction. “I don’t think too many of the readers know it until we turn up,” says David, “and it is always fun seeing if they can guess which one belongs to you.”
Speaking of the character of Annie, the young Miss Graves who doesn’t want to grow up – is writing children’s fiction a way to stay ever young?
“It certainly helps,” says Oisin. “Look at anybody who works with kids (and enjoys it), or has to be able to relate to kids. They never lose their sense of fun. That’s half the trick – remembering how easy it is to have fun when you’re a kid.”
“It was really fun and challenging writing for 7 to 8 year olds,” adds Alice. “One thing that was initially difficult was making sure that my writing style was appropriate for the age group. The language in my first draft was definitely a bit too complicated and I kept having to tone it down and tone it down. I had forgotten what it was like to be seven or eight and what I was reading at that age. So I had to imagine being a seven years old again; there was definitely a bit of voluntary regression, which I enjoyed. Also, talking to my cousins of that age helped me figure out what was appropriate in terms of language and in terms of subject matter…”
“…Writing the story reminded me of reading at that age and one thing I remembered was that I really liked creepy stories and dark stories. So I was determined that my story would not flinch from being scary. My sincere hope is that it frightened a lot of children.”
Deirdre also explains… “Well, I can only speak for myself but I dyed my hair green this week and am instantly charmed when people ask about the health of my two guinea-pigs. This clearly marks me as a stern and responsible grown-up, well suited to doling out moral instruction to the youth of today.”
If you haven’t yet experienced the Annie Graves Series, you can find out more information by visiting the Little Island website. In our follow-up article, we’ll be taking a look at the effects of writing collaboratively.