I recently had the opportunity to interview Ally Malinenko about her newest book, Ghost Girl. This middle-grade story is perfect for Fall, and is sure to get you in the mood in Halloween and spooky season! You can read my full review here.
Where did the inspiration for Ghost Girl come from?
Ghost Girl came from my childhood, a character who wouldn’t leave me alone, music, and a little bit of heartache. I’ll explain!
I grew up in a small town in the Hudson Valley, much like Knobb’s Ferry (though the cemetery was not nearly as cool). My best friend was a boy who lived around the corner and we spent a lot of time wandering the nearby woods and making up stories. In the book my main character tells three spooky stories and one of them is one that I made up when I was a kid. We also drew eyes on tree knots as a means of protection. As for Zee, she’s lived in my head for close to a decade and kept trying to slot her into different stories and it never worked. One day as I was leaving the subway, I was listening to an song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds called Tupelo. It starts with a crash of thunder and it hit me. A big storm! And a stranger comes to town! And then Zee had her story. And finally, the heartache: I spent 7 years revising and rewriting a YA science fiction book that landed me an agent but didn’t sell. I was crushed. So, I went back to my first love – middle grade spooky books and wrote something that brought me so much joy! It was nice to fall in love with new characters again!
I love the theme of “words have power” — why do you think it’s important for this theme to be in a middle grade novel?
Because they do. Words can heal or harm. They can be a weapon or a salve. And kids know this. So much of this book is about bullying and the power of words. Scratch uses words to hurt people, draining them by giving them everything they want. Zee uses stories to understand her new strange world. And I thought it was important to talk about the times that words get stuck – like when Zee doesn’t know what to say about Elijah’s father bullying him. Words are how we understand each other. Stories create empathy and I think that is important for kids to realize.
I loved seeing a young female with a male best friend! This was normal for me growing up but a lot of people thought it was weird. Why did you choose to have Zee and Elijah be best friends?
Zee and Elijah’s friendship is absolutely based on my childhood best friend, Dan. We were (and still are) thick as thieves. And I never thought it was weird that my best friend was a boy and I wanted to normalize that.
How do you balance horror elements in a middle grade story to make sure they aren’t “too scary” for young readers?
With a really good editor! There were definitely things that we needed to scale back. For instance, when Zee first encounters the ghost in the living room, that scene was written for it to happen in Zee’s bedroom and my editors was like “Absolutely not, Ally. The bedroom is a safe space,” which is something I didn’t even consider. I tried to think of the things that would have freaked me out when I was younger too. It’s a fine line but the good news is kids know what they can handle and adults need to trust them with that. I have nieces who couldn’t finish Ghost Girl because it was too scary and then I know other kids who ate it up. Horror isn’t for everyone but for the kids that love a good scare – those are the kids I’m writing for because that was the kid I used to be! And still am!
Do you have plans for this to become a series, with more about Zee and her special gift?
I don’t. It was written and sold as a standalone. I wouldn’t refuse if there was a chance to tell another story, but it would have to be a really good idea. I’m okay with this being the story they’re in. I love a good standalone.
There’s a scene in your book where Zee finds herself, unknowingly, holding the hand of a ghost. Is this a nod to The Haunting of Hill House, which also includes a similar scene? (It’s one that still haunts me, so I needed to know!)
It is absolutely a nod to The Haunting of Hill House, and you are the first person to catch that reference and it makes me so happy! I absolutely love Shirley Jackson and Hill House is my second favorite of her book. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is my absolute favorite.
What’s your favorite spooky book to read during Fall?
I have so many! But I also read spooky books year-round. One of my new favorites right now is To Break a Covenant by Alison Ames. It’s a YA book about a group of girls that must explore a haunted mine. Alison is amazing with the scares but just as amazing with balancing it with such fierce wonderful friendships. The kind of friendships you had when you were younger where you would do crazy things like explore haunted mines together in order to help each other! I highly recommend it!