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On a scale from one to six, how many screams can you handle? It’s a question Jon and Di Nelson are asking with their new book, Spooky Stuff: Back Pocket Bonfire Tales Vol 1. Though it’s geared towards 10-12 year olds, this book of short stories is good for the whole family. Heck, it had me shaking in my boots and I’m a grown man (most of the time).

“Most parents we’ve talked to have actually read it out loud to their kids instead of the kids reading it themselves,” says Di Nelson of the six-story collection that recently hit #1 in its category on Amazon – it’s officially a ‘Hot New Release’ in the Children’s Category.

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During a time when people have often felt isolated and lacking connection, this is a great opportunity for families to bond over a shared love of reading. I mean, who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned scary story?

“Campfires and storytelling – we grew up on that stuff,” says Jon. He and Di actually went to the same camps growing up, only to meet years later at a reunion party. They spent the first few years of their relationship writing letters back and forth and realized they had a similar style. They knew their shared love of books and writing would lead to a co-writing project at some point, and when they found themselves in a lockdown, they decided the time was right.

“It’s been really important for us to have something other than monotonous days of isolation,” says Di. “Especially with our two little ones around.” Their kiddos are only 1 and 3, so they had to get creative about how they’d dedicate their time. “I’m doing most stuff during nap times and Jon’s doing stuff in the evenings.”

Writing Spooky Stuff has truly been a combined effort. They came up with the stories together; one person would write the story out, and then they’d pass it to the other to edit. Sometimes they’d start from scratch again, but it was always fun, says Di.

“When we sat around talking about ideas for these stories, we laughed so much,” she says. “It’s pretty hilarious trying to come up with scary stories for kids. It worked really well to sit around with a beer at night and come up these ridiculous ideas.”

And as an art teacher, Di loved taking on the project of illustrating the book. From a child screaming in fear to the gloved hand of cranky ol’ Mr Frook, the pictures offer a visual element that goes a long with younger readers. They are a great addition especially because they’re not gruesome.

Instead of buckets of blood and gore, the stories are instead clever and suspenseful in the style of Stephen King. Di is the daughter of a published author, and she reflects on having a lot of books around growing up, especially by King. Jon has always been a big reader as well and studied theatre and playwriting in university. As a playwright who’s had his work picked up in Toronto theatre houses, Jon’s understanding of plot arcs is easily transferable to short stories and it pays off in this collection. Creating an arc in a short story can be difficult, but these two have succeeded in bringing the right amount of ‘pity and fear’ into these digestible tales.

Spooky stuff is resonating with parents and kids as it harkens back to a time prior to cell phones and screens, focusing instead on dynamics between siblings, neighbours, teachers, and friends. All of the stories include tender moments of friendship or silly family dynamics, which is the larger theme of the stories, but they’re wrapped in a suspenseful and succinct plot line that will definitely engage the youngsters of all ages.

“All of the stories revolve around the wilderness,” says Di. “They all take place outdoors. We were going for a classic feel with these stories.”

My favourite is the Swamp Island Camp, which only has a one-scream rating (I’m such a wuss). It reminds me of days spent at summer camp meeting new friends and learning new skills. It certainly has all the elements of a spooky campfire tale, one that kids will get a kick out of.

“Kids love that scared feeling,” says Jon. “The most popular books from my youth were the ones on snakes.” He’s spot on there – I went through a snake phase myself, as well as spiders and dinosaurs. There’s a strong pull to read about scary things from a safe distance. We’re programmed to be attracted to that which spooks us.

The tales are well-written in a relaxed style, with relatable, archetypal characters dealing with all the crap that kids have to deal with – bullying, overbearing parents, strict teachers, and of course those annoying siblings. The believable characters add to the suspense since they come off like people we know. It pulls us in.  

“We hope it’s a book that kids actually want to pick up,” says Di. Judging from the responses their getting and the #1 spot on Amazon, I’d say that kids are already picking it up. If you want to pick one up for yourself, just head to their website or email them at spookystuffbook@gmail.com

Written by Jesse Wilkinson

Photos by Sarah Goldman

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