The creepiest place to read this Newbery Award-winning author’s newest book

Christian McKay Heidicker talks scary stories, his Newbery Honor and all things foxes

(Photo courtesy Christian McKay Heidicker) Salt Lake City author Christian McKay Heidicker was one of four recipients of the 2020 Newbery Honors for children's literature.

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Take a stroll around the Salt Lake City Cemetery, and there’s a chance you’ll cross paths with local children’s author Christian McKay Heidicker.

The graveyard is where Heidicker often went to walk and think while working on his Newbery Honor-winning book “Scary Stories for Young Foxes” and its recently released follow-up “Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City.” He even saw a family of foxes there sometimes.

With its historic headstones and ties to several local ghost stories, the Salt Lake City Cemetery is the perfect place to enjoy these middle-grade novels about fox kits who face the dangers of forest and urban life. Both are spooky in a cozy way, balancing on a fine line between genuine creepiness and age-appropriateness. The same can be said for the beautiful illustrations done by Junyi Wu.

The books also cleverly plays with tropes from traditional horror stories. (Chapters that take place in a vet’s office full of bandaged animals feel like something straight out of a classic mummy movie.)

Heidicker recently sat down with The Salt Lake Tribune to talk about how he developed his ideas and what’s next for the fox kits.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(Photo courtesy of Macmillan Publishers) The cover of "Scary Stories for Young Foxes," by Salt Lake City author Christian McKay Heidicker. The book was named as a Newbery Honor winner in 2020.

What inspired the “Scary Stories for Young Foxes” books?

The idea came because I’m obsessed with “The Berenstain Bears.” I wanted to recreate that in a middle grade setting. So I wrote a short story, and it was totally anthropomorphic, which meant that all of the little foxes acted exactly like humans. They walked on two paws, they wore human clothes, they strolled down to Mrs. Badger’s to buy a goose for dinner. And I pitched this idea to my agent, and he said, “No short story collections, no scary stories and absolutely no anthropomorphism.”

But I was still excited about the idea. So I broke down all the walls between the short stories so that it became an overarching story. I added sweet things for every snarl or terrifying moment. And then most importantly, I started studying foxes, real foxes as they were in nature. And unbelievably, these incredible parallels started to present themselves between fox experiences and scary stories that we have all told each other for hundreds of years. So a rabies outbreak became a zombie story, or a white furred thing that comes with the snow and is invisible to fox eyes became a ghost story. The sequel tells the more modern version of horror stories, so there are aliens and mummies and robots.

How did you strike a balance between telling scary stories and being age appropriate?

That was a really interesting line to look at. First of all, I went and I read a lot of middle grade books that really pushed the boundaries a little bit, like “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman or “A Tale Dark & Grimm” by Adam Gidwitz. The latter was a really big inspiration because that book gets dark. And I realized that kids are resilient, and they know more things about the world than adults are comfortable with... Why not create a safe space where we can discuss those things?

So I looked into why we tell particular scary stories, and that was my favorite part of the process. For example, why do we become obsessed with zombie stories sometimes? My personal theory is that it helps us prepare for pandemics or something. (Laughs.) But the more I thought about zombies and what they mean, the more I realized that these are stories about what happens when somebody that we once trusted is all of a sudden a threat. What do you do? So in viewing each scary story with a much deeper meaning, it meant that the darkness had a reason for being there.

You’ve taken some backlash for your portrayal of beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter in “Scary Stories for Young Foxes.” How did that storyline develop?

I want to say I’m a huge Beatrix Potter fan. A friend sent me a newspaper clipping that talked about how Beatrix Potter was known to taxidermy her subjects so that she could draw them hyper-realistically, and I thought, “No way. You just handed me my witch figure on a silver platter.” So I went back and I reread all of the old stories, and I also read her published journal and her biography. I made up so little about her.

When I was looking at the reasons why we tell scary stories, witches were really interesting because I feel like there are two sides to them. There’s the old version, which is, “A witch is a little old woman who lives in the woods and who has signed a contract with the devil and now must collect souls for him.” And I thought, “What if the devil is a contract with a publisher, and she needs to take animals’ lives in order to imbue their souls into her stories? Boom, we have a classic witch story.” But modern witch stories are more about, “Why do men feel the need to blame women for everything that happens?” Beatrix Potter was this unbelievably talented scientific illustrator, and she was not allowed into the science world, so that also captures the modern witch story.

What was it like to get the news that “Scary Stories for Young Foxes” had received a Newbery Honor?

Unbelievable. Face numbing. Life changing.

It transformed everything. It basically told me that my stories meant something to people, and that I could keep going. I still get chills when people mention it.

“Scary Stories for Young Foxes” explores themes like friendship, bravery and growing up. Did you plan on writing about those ideas or did they emerge as you worked on the book?

They definitely emerged. It’s always really interesting when you start shaping characters to see what bubbles to the surface. You’re just sort of following your heart’s compass through the story.

I realized two years after “Scary Stories for Young Foxes” was published that scary stories shaped these kits’ lives in very different ways. With Mia [one of the protagonists], her mom understands that there’s been a rabies outbreak and she has lost all of her kits except one. But she’s not ready for Mia to see that darkness in the world yet, so she lies to her. And that shapes Mia’s entire trajectory, because now Mia is a little too trusting of the forest and she’s a little too trusting of other foxes. Uly [the other protagonist], on the other hand, has been tortured by scary stories. His sisters have used them to control him and steal his food. So he’s overly wary of other foxes and the forest. And I didn’t even think about that while I was writing it.

What can readers expect in “Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City”?

I kind of want to leave it up to the reader to decide what the story is about. But there’s something interesting that happens when you go from the wilds of the forest, where you have to snarl and fight and hunt to survive, to a suburban/urban setting where there’s food just spilling out of the trash cans everywhere. It’s a whole new way of living and thinking.

I really wanted to make this book about listening to others’ scary stories, and not only listening to them but believing them — which is the struggle that the main character has. He knows something big about the world, and he can’t get anybody to believe him. And that operates in many different ways throughout the story.

Will there be any more “Scary Stories for Young Foxes” books?

I’ve had the thought, “What if we do fox stories internationally?” Maybe there’s a biologist who studies foxes around the world and has a pet fox who goes with him, and then we can explore what sort of horror stories a fennec fox would have, or a Japanese fox or a gray fox or a snow fox. Those stories are not mine, so I’d want to handpick some of my favorite middle grade authors who do have those backgrounds. But there are so many tricky things about that. So no new fox stories for a long, long time.

I understand that a TV show pitch is in the works. What can you tell me about that?

We’re working with Lena Headey from “Game of Thrones,” which is just unbelievable. We also have “Swamp Thing” showrunner Mark Verheiden. He’s working on the pitch and that’s crazy exciting.

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