Kat Shepherd Author Interview

Q: Tell us about your books, specifically the story behind the title.
A: My Babysitting Nightmares series is a spooky middle grade series that follows the supernatural babysitting adventures of four best friends. Each babysitting job brings a new supernatural problem to solve. It’s a fun, fast-paced series full of scares and suspense, but the girls’ friendship is the true heart of the series. Think Goosebumps meets The Baby-Sitters Club. THE SHADOW HAND is the first book, and it follows the story of Rebecca Chin, a really practical, together kid who considers herself a pretty expert babysitter. But after a freak storm, baby Kyle starts acting stranger and stranger, and the girls soon discover that Kyle has been replaced with a changeling, and if they don’t find and save the real baby in time they risk losing him forever. I was so stuck on a title for this book, and nothing I came up with seemed right. Luckily my beloved friend, author Elly Swartz (FINDING PERFECT and SMART COOKIE), came up with THE SHADOW HAND and saved the day!

Book 2, THE PHANTOM HOUR, was just released last month. Clio Carter-Peterson has taken a job babysitting for the Lee family, who has recently moved into the long-abandoned Plunkett Mansion. Soon doors start closing behind her, objects move on their own, and messages appear from beyond the grave. With help from her friends, Clio discovers that the mansion’s dark past might be the reason behind these frightening events, and the girls must work together to put old spirits to rest before it’s too late. With this title I knew what kind of mood I wanted to create, and THE PHANTOM HOUR really captured that, along with some key story elements, and it connected to the series as a whole.

My second book series, The Gemini Mysteries (Little Bee/Yellow Jacket), debuted with THE NORTH STAR just yesterday! It’s an interactive mystery series set in the Twin Cities, where I live. Twins Zach and Evie Mamuya and their best friend, Vishal Desai, tag along with the twins’ crime reporter mom when she gets a call that the North Star, a priceless diamond necklace, has been stolen just before a high-profile auction. That’s when they meet Sophia Boyd, a new girl at school who is certain she knows the identity of the thief. The four young teens must follow the clues, which are hidden in the illustrations at the end of each chapter, to catch the culprit and find the necklace or risk it being lost forever. It’s an action-packed story that’s full of twists and turns, and I am so excited to share it with readers. I had the best time writing this book! And apparently all my book titles are [SERIES TITLE]: THE [SOMETHING] [SOMETHING]. So at this point I’m just going with it!

Q: Where do you get information for your books (plot, character, etc)
A; I would say at least 75% of what I write comes from somewhere in my life. Many of my characters are inspired by students I’ve taught or people I know, and a lot of my friends find their names somewhere in my books. I take little bits and pieces of everything and mash them all together to make something new. The very first time I really sat down and started writing a story as an adult, I had this moment where all of a sudden everything in my life seemed to fall into place. Suddenly all those weird family stories or embarrassing incidents had a purpose!

The other place I get information for my books is through research. When I was writing SHADOW HAND, I researched changeling legends and lore, and when I wrote PHANTOM HOUR I read books about the Spiritualist moment and Houdini’s work to disprove fraudulent mediums. TWILIGHT CURSE, which comes out in April, had me deep diving into the later days of Vaudeville theater and the rise of American cinema. For NORTH STAR I had to learn about safecracking!

And of course my own interests always manage to find their way into my books, too. I am passionate advocate for zoos and their role in animal care and conservation, and that comes out a lot in my Gemini Mysteries series. In THE NORTH STAR, Sophia is working to raise money for a new gibbon exhibit. Gibbons are often known as ‘the singing apes’ for their incredible calls, and I have been lucky enough to get to sing with gibbons myself. It is one of my favorite memories, and I was so excited to be able to give readers a chance to fall in love with these special primates, just as I have. This series also lets me raise awareness about palm oil plantations, which are responsible for the rapidly declining populations of a whole host of animals, including gibbons and their even more critically endangered cousins, orangutans. I had never heard of palm oil until one of my students told me about it a few years ago, and I love being able to use what I learned from her to help educate other people. For instance, there’s an amazing app from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo that lets you do a barcode scan of any product at a store and find out where it stands on sustainable palm oil use. It has made a significant change to my shopping habits, so any companies who still haven’t joined the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) please take note. (You better step it up, @wholefoods and @traderjoes!)

Q; What are some challenges unique to writing fantasy (scary stories and mysteries)?
A: I think one of the biggest challenges is finding the right balance. With Babysitting Nightmares I want kids to experience safe scares. Scary enough to thrill readers and keep them turning the pages, but not so scary they won’t be able to sleep. And with the Gemini Mysteries, that balance is about complexity. I think a good mystery should be devious enough that you can’t guess the end until it happens, but once everything unfolds it should feel inevitable. So it’s about leaving enough clues that the ending makes sense but not so many that the reader figures it out too soon.

Another challenge that I spend a lot of time thinking about is grounding my stories in reality. All writers have moments where we ask the reader to suspend disbelief, but we want those to be few and far between. Even a fantasy story still needs to feel like it could really happen. The rules of the world need to be consistent and the choices characters make have to fit with who they are. I do a lot of prewriting, fleshing out the characters and how the world works. World-building for Babysitting Nightmares takes a lot of time and research. Every supernatural character has to have their backstory, powers, and limitations. A ghost and a ghoul aren’t the same thing, and they can’t behave in the same way. And if it’s something that already has a place in our culture (like changelings or ghosts), I have to start from those existing rules. We have a shared understanding of ghosts, so I can’t just throw that out and create my own definition. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve had to research to try to get it right!
Q; What makes this book a perfect fit for middle grade classrooms?
A: I’m a former classroom teacher who’s worked with middle graders for over twenty years, and my primary goal as an author is to create books that kids want to read. I am particularly passionate about writing for those kids who don’t yet see themselves as readers. In my time working with these undiscovered readers, I found that the books they did gravitate towards tended to be series books, scary books, and books with short chapters and cliffhanger endings. My job is to meet them where they are and try to create something that gives them what they have asked for. I put a lot of care into creating fun reads that still give readers rich vocabulary and really meaty ideas to think about.

Teachers have reached out to me about how they have used my books as mentor texts in the classroom to teach descriptive language and “show, don’t tell.” I’ve also created a ton of educator resources on ways my books can be used to build on and support what’s already happening in the classroom. I have mini-lessons, workshop models, and even a few STEM activities. I’m in the process of updating my website, but in the meantime you can find them at spookymiddlegrade.com, along with a lots of fabulous teacher resources from other spooky middle grade authors!

Q: What’s the best thing about being a writer?
A: Writing is a great job, but it’s a difficult one. Believe it or not, it’s hard to make stuff up all the time! And it’s not really the kind of job where you can clock in and clock out and just be done; you’re always thinking about your stories or worrying about your deadline, or feeling guilty that you aren’t writing more. And it can be really lonely, holed up somewhere in front of your laptop all day.

And after a lot of those difficult writing days, I’ve discovered that what I like best about writing is the community of writers and readers that makes all the hard stuff worthwhile. I love being part of a community that supports and celebrates one another. Writers and readers are some of the kindest, most generous people I know, and I’m honored to be able to join such a compassionate group of humans. And when I visit a school, that feeling is multiplied by about one million. I have never stopped missing the classroom, so getting the chance to work with teachers and students again is such a treat. There’s nothing in the world that beats meeting a kid who’s excited about something I wrote. If my book can help a kid love to read, that’s pretty much it for me. It’s why I do what I do.

Q: What else would you like us to know?
A: I am booking school visits for Fall 2019, and I would love to come and visit your school! You can reach me through my website katshepherd.com or email me at katshepherdbooks@gmail.com

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