Jan. 27 was supposed to be Christian McKay Heidicker’s first day at a tutoring job he took to make ends meet.
Instead, the Salt Lake City author got a phone call at 4:30 a.m., notifying him he’d just received one of the highest honors in children’s literature.
“When my phone buzzed at 4:30, I instinctively rolled over and clicked it off,” Heidicker said. “Then I slowly raised my head from my pillow and said, 'Wait. Robocalls don’t usually come at 4:30 in the morning.”
The prize was a long time coming for the 37-year-old author. He’d spent a decade writing fiction for children and young adults before his first book, “Cure for the Common Universe,” finally was published in 2016, he said. Two years later, he finished “Attack of the 50 Foot Wallflower.”
“Scary Stories for Young Foxes,” illustrated by Junyi Wu, follows two fox kits through a world of monsters — a risky proposal at first, Heidicker said.
“I set out to honor the old Berenstain Bears horror stories, like “Spooky Old Tree” and "Bears in the Night,” he said. But his agent warned him the idea violated three norms of children’s book publishing:
“No short story collections, no anthropomorphized characters and no monsters,” Heidicker said. “Those kinds of books just were not going anywhere.”
So Heidicker massaged his idea to sidestep those objections. He merged the stories into a novel. He modeled the main fox characters after the behavior of actual foxes to make them less human-acting.
“I tried to make it as scientifically accurate as possible in terms of what a fox’s experience is actually like in the wilderness,” he said.
And he used the monsters only as a frame for things that would actually happen to foxes.
“It became a retelling of classic horror tales but through the eyes of baby fox kits," he explained, “so that a rabies outbreak is a zombie story, a woman who taxidermies foxes is a witch story and a creature that has white fur camouflaged by the snow is a ghost story.”
SPOILER ALERT: Some animals die. As they do in real life. The rules of ecology, it turns out, guided Heidicker to an intersection of nature writing, horror traditions and children’s storytelling.
“I have killed characters off in stories and books before. But when it came time to have nature take its course [in ‘Scary Stories,’] I was devastated," he said. “I had never had that experience before. I had even read writing advice where it was like, unless it’s going to hurt the story to have that character die, don’t do it, because then you’re just putting it in there for shock value. I had to take a step back and say, ‘Does the story need this?’ That’s when I realized I had created something that was living. By combining classic horror with all of these very real fox kit traits, the foxes were living for me.”
The book initially may be hard to come by after the Newbery recognition, but Catherine Weller, co-owner of Weller Book Works at Trolley Square, said she hopes to have a supply by next week. The store placed an order with the publisher last week and is down to two copies, she said.
“Once a book gets a [Newbery Honor]," she said, “it’s instantly out of stock.”
Even before the award, copies were not long for the shelves, she said. “Oh, it is a fantastic book!” Weller cheered upon learning it had won a Newbery Honor. “We loved this book. It’s great.”
The John Newbery Medal went to “New Kid,” written by Jerry Craft. Three other Newbery Honors recognized “The Undefeated,” by Kwame Alexander; “Other Words for Home,” by Jasmine Warga; and “Genesis Begins Again,” by Alicia D. Williams.
The Newberys, awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the ALA, are selected on this criterion: “To the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”