As part of my Seriously Spooky Month I asked some of my favourite spooky authors to write a guest post for My Best Friends Are Books. Today I’m joined by author and illustrator Elys Dolan. Elys is the author and illustrator of three picture books, Weasels, Nuts in Space, and her latest book, The Mystery of the Haunted Farm. I love Elys’ books, both for her quirky stories and wonderful illustrations. Elys joins me today to talk about the making of The Mystery of the Haunted Farm. Thanks for joining me Elys!
Writing Spooky Books for Children: The Making of The Mystery of the Haunted Farm
If you like ghost stories and agriculture then my new book, The Mystery of the Haunted Farm, is the picture book for you. In this book Farmer Greg discovers some very spooky things happening down on his farm so he ﬂees to called for help:
And who you gonna call when things go ‘BAH!’ in the night?
The Three Pigs Ghost Hunters of course. The pigs explore the farm to try and ﬁnd out what’s causing the haunting and along the way they meet some bizarre, spooky and something rather sticky creatures. Below you can see them investigating the zombie duck pond but there’s even more creatures lurking on this farm including ghost cows, a frankenhorse and of course The Mighty Donkula to name just a few.
I had a brilliant time creating a book with a spooky theme but when writing and illustrating a story that deals with things that could be seen as scary you sometimes have to tread carefully. In my experience though many children love things that are a little scary. The more gruesome it is the more fascination it seems to hold. This is of course variable depending on the child but it’s a trend I’ve notice when doing school visits and other literary events. I ﬁnd it’s parents and other adults who tend to be more cautious.
I was quite determined that this book would be more funny than frightening though. For instance in the zombie duck spread there’s exposed brains and eyes falling out which could be quite gory but I’ve combined it with lots of slapstick, ridiculous facial expressions and general silliness which seems to negate any gore. Also I ﬁnd using animal characters provides another degree of separation and can be more amusing than if the same things were depicted with human characters.
Whilst making Haunted Farm I found that working in an international market can also effect the kind of scary or spooky things you can include in a book. Originally it was intended to have a very different storyline. I had a totally different plot planned out centring around Farmer Greg releasing The Curse of the Phantom Chicken upon the farm by accidentally eating some cursed eggs:
I even had an origin story for the curse and everything:
Once the curse is released it turns the farm animals into monsters which gives us all the zombie ducks, vampire bats and Frankenhorses that the ﬁnal book contains. Again the pigs are called in and eventually they subdue the phantom chicken and everything goes back to normal (sort of). But alas this story wasn’t to be.
My publisher was worried about the curse element of this story and how that would work in the U.S market. It’s quite important to be able to sell a picture book in the U.S because it’s such a big market and it can make a book ﬁnancially viable. They felt that the phantom chicken could be seen as too occult and that might upset certain readers with the references to witchcraft. In fact they decided that having any real ghosts in this book could be a bit tricky so I had to be very careful about how I handled them. You’ll have to read the book to see exactly how I did this because it’s a major spoiler!
To ﬁnish I think I might point out a couple of my favourite bits in the book. I’m a big fan of horror movies and you can probably guess that I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from movies such as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy etc but there’s a couple of other ﬁlm references in there that I hope some of the grown ups might recognise.
First up you can see climbing the stairs in the farmhouse there’s the shadow of a Nosferatu chicken:
At the barn there’s a Jack Nicolson sheep as seen in The Shining:
And ﬁnally I was very pleased be able to squeeze in a bit of a ghostbusters/farming pun at the chicken coup:
The Mystery of the Haunted Farm by Elys Dolan is published by Nosy Crow and out now. You can ﬁnd out more about Elys and her work at elysdolan.com and elysdolan.tumblr.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook at @ElysDolan and facebook.com/elysdolanillustration.