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Take a walk around the Salt Lake City Cemetery, and you may come across local children’s author Christian McKay Heidicker.
The graveyard is where Heidicker would often go for a walk and reflect while working on his Newberry Prize-winning book “Scary Stories for Young Foxes” and its recently released sequel “Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City”. Sometimes he even saw a family of foxes there.
With its historic tombstones and ties to several local ghost stories, Salt Lake City Cemetery is the perfect place to enjoy these mid-level novels about foxes facing the dangers of the forest and city life. . Both are creepy in a comfortable way, balancing on a fine line between real goosebumps and age appropriate. The same goes for the beautiful illustrations done by Junyi Wu.
The books also play cleverly with the tropes of traditional horror stories. (The chapters that take place in a vet’s office full of bandaged animals look like something straight out of a classic mummy movie.)
Heidicker recently spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune to talk about how he developed his ideas and the next step for the fox kits.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired the books “Scary Stories for Young Foxes”?
The idea came about because I am obsessed with “The Bears of Berenstain”. I wanted to recreate this in a medium frame. So I wrote a short story, and it was totally anthropomorphic, which meant all the little foxes were acting just like humans. They walked on two legs, they wore human clothes, they walked over to Mrs. Badger’s to buy a goose for dinner. And I pitched this idea to my agent, and he said, “No short stories, no scary stories, and absolutely no anthropomorphism.”
But I was still excited about the idea. So I brought down all the walls between the short stories to make it a global story. I added sweet things for every grunt or terrifying moment. And most importantly, I started to study foxes, real foxes as they were in nature. And incredibly, these incredible parallels began to present themselves between the fox experiences and the spooky stories we’ve all been telling each other for hundreds of years. So a rabies outbreak has become a zombie story, or a white furry thing that comes with snow that is invisible to fox eyes has become a ghost story. The sequel tells the more modern take on horror stories, so there are aliens, mummies, and robots.
How did you strike a balance between telling scary stories and being age appropriate?
It was a really interesting line to watch. First of all, I went there and read a lot of intermediate level books that really pushed the boundaries a bit, like “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman or “A Tale Dark & Grimm” d ‘Adam Gidwitz. The latter was a huge inspiration because this book is getting dark. And I realized that kids are resilient and they know more about the world than adults are comfortable with … why not create a safe space where we can discuss these things?
So I researched why we tell scary stories in particular, and that was my favorite part of the process. For example, why do we sometimes become obsessed with zombie stories? My personal theory is that it helps us prepare for pandemics or something like that. (Laughs.) But the more I thought about zombies and what they mean, the more I realized these are stories about what happens when someone we’ve already trusted is suddenly a threat. What are you doing? So by seeing each scary story with a much deeper meaning, it meant the darkness had a reason to be there.
You have suffered a backlash for your portrayal of beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter in “Scary Stories for Young Foxes”. How did this scenario develop?
I mean I’m a huge Beatrix Potter fan. A friend sent me a newspaper clipping that talked about how Beatrix Potter was known to taxidermize her subjects so that she could draw them hyper-realistically, and I thought, “No way. You just handed me my witch figurine on a silver platter. So I went back and read all the old stories again, and also read his published diary and his biography. I invented so little of her.
When I was looking at the reasons we tell scary stories, witches were really interesting because I feel like they have two sides. There is the old version, which is, “A witch is a little old woman who lives in the woods and has signed a contract with the devil and must now collect souls for him.” And I thought, “What if the devil was a contract with a publisher, and she needed to kill animals in order to imbue their souls in her stories?” Boom, we have a classic witch story. But modern witch stories are more about, “Why do men feel the need to blame women for everything that happens? Beatrix Potter was this incredibly talented science illustrator, and she was not allowed to enter the world of science, which also captures the story of the modern witch.
What was it like to learn that “Scary Stories for Young Foxes” had received a Newberry Honor?
Unbelievable. Numbness of the face. Lifestyle change.
It changed everything. It basically told me that my stories meant something to people and that I could go on. I still get chills when people mention it.
“Scary Stories for Young Foxes” explores themes like friendship, bravery and growth. Did you plan to write about these ideas or did they emerge while you were working on the book?
They definitely emerged. It’s always very interesting when you start to shape characters to see which bubbles come to the surface. You sort of follow the compass of your heart through history.
I realized two years after the publication of “Scary Stories for Young Foxes” that scary stories were shaping the lives of these kits in very different ways. With Mia [one of the protagonists], her mother understands that there has been a rabies epidemic and that she has lost all but one of her kittens. But she’s not yet ready for Mia to see this darkness in the world, so she’s lying to her. And that shapes Mia’s entire trajectory, because now Mia trusts the forest a little too much and she trusts the other foxes a little too much. Uly [the other protagonist], on the other hand, was tortured by frightening stories. His sisters used them to control him and steal his food. He is therefore too wary of other foxes and the forest. And I didn’t even think about it while I was writing it.
What can readers expect from “Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City”?
I kind of want to leave it up to the reader to decide what the story is about. But there is something interesting going on when you move from the wilderness of the forest, where you have to scold, fight and hunt to survive, to a suburban / urban setting where food spills out of trash cans everywhere. It’s a whole new way of living and thinking.
I really wanted to do this book about listening to other people’s scary stories, and not just listening to them, but also believing them – which is the struggle the main character is having. He knows something great about the world, and he can’t convince anyone to believe him. And it works in different ways throughout the story.
Will there be more Scary Stories for Young Foxes?
I thought, “What if we do fox stories internationally?” Maybe there’s a biologist who studies foxes around the world and has a companion fox with him, and then we can explore the kind of horror stories a fennec fox, a fox, would have. Japanese or a gray fox or a snow fox. These stories aren’t mine, so I’d like to pick some of my favorite mid-level writers who have this background. But there are so many tricky things about it. So no new fox stories for a long, long time.
I understand that a TV show pitch is in the works. What can you tell me about this?
We work with Lena Headey from “Game of Thrones” which is just amazing. We also have “Swamp Thing” showrunner, Mark Verheiden. He works in the field and it’s really exciting.
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