Monsters are as big a part of Halloween as ghosts, vampires, and pumpkins. They feed off of our fears and they’ve been around for quite some time. Today, an interview with Nina Hess. She is the author of A Practial Guide to Monsters.
Fuse #8: The rise in guides to magical creatures of one sort or another has really risen within the last few years. Whether you’re dealing with dragons, sprites, or monsters, kids apparently love systematic guides. How do you account for this?
NH: Kids love to get the facts; and this kind of guide is extra fun because it presents fictional information as if it were nonfiction. It allows kids (and grownups) to believe that monsters and magic are real. From a book business-perspective, I think the rise can be attributed to our friend Harry Potter who broke open the door for fantasy to be accepted in the mainstream, leading to more and more publishers thinking about how to take the “sudden” popularity of fantasy and bring it to as many formats as possible. But the truth is, fantasy books for kids were around long before Harry Potter, just as fantasy guides have been around for years. One inspiration for the monster guide was a book published in the early 1980s, called Secrets of Gnomes by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen. As a kid, I spent hours reading the detailed accounts of gnome day-to-day life and poring over their diagrams of gnome homes and machinery. I wrote stories about gnomes and made gnome villages and many more nerdy things that I probably should not admit to in public. I hope there are kids out there who will grow up to become writers, editors, or moviemakers because they spent hours reading A Practical Guide to Monsters, memorizing how tall a vampire is, imagining what ogres eat, and poring over the map of the werewolf lair.
Fuse #8: A Practical Guide to Monsters seems to lend itself easily to a fictional spin-off. Is this in the works in some way? Would you be interested in such a project?
NH: In fact, the book is already loosely linked to a fictional series published by Mirrorstone called Knights of the Silver Dragon, in which three kids—a wizards’ apprentice, a thief, and a twelve-year-old boy—solve mysteries and fight monsters in their town. But there are discussions of the possibility of a series that is more directly tied to the book. We’ll see!
Fuse #8: Talk a little about your work in the past. A quick glimpse of your books shows that you’ve done mostly work for kids on the younger end of the spectrum until now. Why the change to slightly older mythical material?
NH: My first book published in the trade market was an early reader, called Whose Feet? (Random House, 2003) and I’ve written about a dozen nonfiction early readers for the educational market. I love the challenge of trying to write a fun story to inspire kids to want to read, while still keeping it within a structure that makes it accessible to beginning readers.
I get to moonlight as a writer, but my day job for the past ten years has been as a children’s book editor. I’ve been a fan of fantasy books since childhood (if you couldn’t guess from my obsession with the gnomes), but I’d always worked at houses who didn’t publish fantasy for one reason or another. So when I was offered a job at Wizards of the Coast to launch Mirrorstone, their children’s book imprint of fantasy fiction, it was really a dream come true. Wizards of the Coast has been publishing fantasy for years—hundreds of books and games featuring amazing monsters of all shapes and sizes. I knew these monsters and all the intricate lore behind them would have huge appeal to kids. So I proposed to our editorial director that we do a line of picture books for kids featuring all of these wonderful fantasy creatures. I asked Lisa Trutkoff Trumbauer to write the first one, A Practical Guide to Dragons, and our managing editor suggested that I write A Practical Guide to Monsters, partly because I had direct access to our vast monster library for research. (Yes, we really have a library in our office filled with monster resources!) Even though it’s fiction, in many ways it felt like writing nonfiction. I still had to do a lot of research to make sure I got all the “facts” right and found out things I had never known before, for instance: Did you know werewolf babies look exactly like human babies, with a little extra fuzz? And of course, I wanted to pick out all the kid-friendly details and spin it in a way that kids would enjoy reading. So though it probably seems like a monstrous leap to go from writing nonfiction early readers to writing a guide to fantasy beasts, to me it was a pretty natural extension of things I’d been doing all along.
Fuse #8: A love of monsters will probably not go out of style, but the public’s appetite for them someday may. Do you see that happening or are monsters going to retain their popularity from here on in?
NH: I think monsters will always be popular. Halloween has only become bigger and bigger over the years. Monster movies have been a mainstay since the invention of cinema. What would we do without werewolves? It would be a dark and terrible world, I have no doubt.