Scaring Children for a Living: Writing Horror for Middle Grade and Young Adult

Scaring Children for a Living: Writing Horror for Middle Grade and Young Adult

By Ty Drago

The release of my novel RAGS through eSpec Books in the coming weeks marks my fifth published horror novel targeted to YA or Middle Grade readers. RAGS tells its story through the eyes of 16-year-old Abby Lowell, who must navigate through one supernatural terror after another in order to save the people she loves. Her journey is harrowing, suspenseful, and often a bit gory. But that’s horror in the nutshell, isn’t it?

The challenge arises when the writer has to balance traditional horror elements with the demands of a younger audience. Miss the former and the story comes off as more of an adventure than true horror. Miss the latter and readers will shy away. 

Let me elaborate.

Traditional horror novels are paced slow. Don’t believe me? Have a gander at Stephen King (back when he was still penning the scary stuff). Then check out Joe Hill, Dean R. Koontz, and even H.P. Lovecraft. In horror, one builds tension by “filling in the reader’s blanks,” describing the texture of the air, the nuance of a thrumming heart, the bitter coppery tang of blood. Every sensory experience of the character in the thick of things drags the reader from scene to scene. Anticipation is the order of the day—and all else, including action, takes a back seat to it.

But that’s problematic when you’re writing for kids. Today’s young people live in a very fast-paced world. Slow burn stories, however effective with adults, tend to lose a YA’s or MG’s interest and engagement. One can’t simply lead a juvenile protag through Shirley Jackson’s Hill House relying on atmosphere, metaphor, and good-old-fashioned suspense to carry the plot.

For kids, things have to happen.

In RAGS, the action starts on page one. This is key. The days of “It was a dark and stormy night…” are over, especially in the younger markets. One must grab the adolescent reader by the throat and yank them right into the middle of the goings-on. And the goings-on should be fast-paced, action-packed, and a bit gross. 

More than one teacher has questioned me on that last point, wondering (sometimes in a bit of a “judgey” way) if my stories need to be quite so explicit, especially given that they’re pointed at kids. My answer almost always takes them by surprise, that the gore is there precisely because my readers are younger. I should probably admit that I rather enjoy the taken-aback expression I get when I make this statement. Perhaps not unexpectedly, I rather like shocking people. Call it an occupational hazard…

After all, I scare children for a living.

But here’s the flip side: I’ve had many a parent come up and thank me for my writing style, insisting that their “reluctant readers” can’t stop gushing about my books. It’s flattering and extremely gratifying, in no small part because it’s nice to know that these folks share with me a fundamental understanding of today’s kids.

In the twenty-first century, YA and MG readers have seen it all. They grew up watching The Walking Dead, NOS4A2, Preacher, and that ilk. They gobble up slasher movies and stories of blood-sucking fiends. Believe me, they don’t fear the gore. Rather, they want to soak it in, if only to prove to themselves and the world that they “can take it.” RAGS and my UNDERTAKERS series draw on that desire and mirror it back at them.

Mind you, I don’t write violence for its own sake. Everything that happens in RAGS, and quite a lot does, serves a vital narrative purpose. The titular character (minor spoilers) is, by its nature, a creature of violence, an avenger turned anti-hero through its relationship with a gentle teenage girl. But to be true to the character, to make that character as real as I can for the kids who will be experiencing it, I have to present those experiences in unflinching, uncompromising prose. 

In other words: things happen.

The suspense is still there, of course. An atmosphere of dread is vital to every horror story. In the case of RAGS, the “haunted house” trope is presented in the form of a derelict amusement pier, but the spookiness and sense of impending menace persist all the same. RAGS is a horror story, and the events it describes are meant to engross, surprise, and yes shock, all in the name of entertainment.

It’s a bit of a tightrope, but one I walk with pleasure. Partnering with a young reader—and make no mistake, that’s what it is: a partnership—requires every bit of empathy a writer can muster. Unlike perhaps every other creative medium, writing is an intimate artform. Every performance is one-on-one, author and reader, and the writer’s end of the bargain is to draw from the reader exactly the emotions that the reader came to give.

So, yes, one could say I scare children for a living. But the thing is: that’s what they come to me for.

And I try very hard not to let them down.



By Ty Drago

Genre: Horror, Dark Fantasy, Paranormal, Urban Fantasy
Tropes: Heroine’s Journey, Superpower/Origin story, surviving the foster care system, underdog against
the crime syndicate.
Setting: 1982 Atlantic City, Steel Pier, Atlantic City Boardwalk
Cover Copy
Atlantic City, 1982
One cold December night, sixteen-year-old Abby Lowell and her foster sister are rescued by a
mysterious and deadly figure in rags and a large hood. Abby never learns his name and never sees his
face, but he’s obviously good with that black-bladed knife of his, very good.
Abby dubs him “Rags.”
But Rags isn’t done, not by a long shot. With her foster family under threat from the ruthless Bernards,
who are determined to tear down their dilapidated hotel in favor of yet another casino, Abby finds herself
in desperate need of a defender. A part of her is relieved when Rags returns to protect her again. And
again. And again.
Now, with an army of thugs and a terrifying Voodoo witch hunting her, Abby must not only
understand the dark truth behind Rags. She must accept that truth, frightening as it is, before it’s too late.

Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo.

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