Rotten Rhymes and Terrible Tales

Halloween is approaching and marks the perfect opportunity for children and families to enjoy an old-fashion scare.  Marcos Gabriel, author and illustrator of the new book Rotten Rhymes and Terrible Tales, takes you to plenty of spooky places throughout the book and taunts readers with musings.

Gabriel, a writer and illustrator based in Los Angeles, took time out to chat with about his new book. The father of two has always been fascinated with spooky stories and ghoulish drawings. He’s contributed to the marketing of major children’s movies such as “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”, “Alvin & the Chipmunks”, and the upcoming “The Smurfs”.

Why scary poems for kids?
You know, it wasn’t that I had set out, at first, to just come up with a bunch of scary poems for young readers.  I was really just trying to write something that I would’ve loved growing up.  I put myself in my nine-year-old self, and thought, what does that kid think is cool?  What does that kid want to read?  Growing up, I loved Shel Silverstein and Roal Dahl, and this collection of creepy stories called “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell.  And I thought, wow, if someone had combined those worlds – scary stories, fun poems, creepy drawings – then my nine-year-old self’s mind would’ve been blown.

You have kids yourself?
I do, a five-year old and a two-year old.  And my five-year old’s opinion greatly influenced the collection.  When I first started putting it together, I had way fewer illustrations, because, for me, that’s definitely the toughest part.  But I noticed she wanted to skip over any of the poems that didn’t have a drawing, and then I’d say, “Okay, guess I have to do another drawing … and another … and another,” until the whole thing ended up being illustrated.
That’s funny – I think most people would assume the drawings would be easier.
For most people, I’m sure it would be.  But for me, it was all about finding the right balance between scary and fun.  With the poetry, it’s a little easier.  You can pick the right words to make it funny and scary at the same time.  And then it’s up to the reader’s imagination – they can make it as ghoulish as they want in their heads.  But for the drawings, it’s a different story.  What you see is what you get, and if a reader has a particular vision in their head, I don’t want to ruin it.

What comes first?  The illustrations or the poems?
Usually the poems, although a few of the pieces in the book were definitely written with the drawing in mind.  And, occasionally, I’ll just draw a strange looking character, and go, “Hmmm … I wonder what his story is?”  And then I’ll write a poem around that.

You go through a full range of scares in the book – zombies, monsters, haunted houses, that “thing” under the bed, and more.  How did you pick your subject matters?
Lists.  Lots and lots of lists.  Listen, if you’re looking for it, there are plenty of things that could potentially scare you all around you.  So, I’d write down mini-thoughts – spiders, shadows, clowns, whatever – and then let them cook for a while, thinking about what could make them unique.  Because it wasn’t enough for something to be scary – for it to work, there had to be an interesting and quirky story around it.

Let’s talk about the tone – how did you keep things from going too far while staying scary and interesting?
First of all, I’d always keep my own kids in mind, because at the end of the day, this was something I knew I’d be sharing with them.  So if it felt like something I wouldn’t want to read aloud to them, I’d rework it a bit until it played right.  And my wife is a great resource as well – she’s a 6th grade teacher, so once I had a new poem written, I’d recite it to her and say, “Is this the kind of thing your kids would be reading in the classroom?” If she said yes, I knew I was onto something.

Why do you think kids like to be entertained by the scary stuff?
It’s exhilarating.  Scary things are what imagination is all about.  Sure, monsters don’t exist – but what if they did?   What would they look like?  In the dark there, right in shadows of the closet – what could be in there?   Presented the right way, it’s exciting stuff.  It’s what young readers are drawn to, whether they read it themselves, or they have the poems read to them… which, by the way, is how I think these poems should be experienced.

You think they should be read aloud?
Of course.  That’s the fun of a scary story.  It’s about sharing it, about huddling close together, listening for what comes next.  It’s about sharing an experience, and all the fun you can have while doing it.   Kids have been telling spooky stories to each other since the day fire was discovered. 

What that scary story was about…
Probably something concerning a cave and a saber-toothed tiger.  Hey … that gives me an idea.

Something for Rotten Rhymes and Terrible Tales part 2?
Oh, most definitely.  That’s the great thing about these collections – as long as the sun still sets at the end of every day, and the shadows and darkness creep in while we sleep, there will always be plenty of stuff to write and draw about.


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