Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City – An Exclusive Excerpt
You read that correctly. Today, it is my great honor to present to you an exclusive excerpt from the upcoming Christian McKay Heidicker novel, SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES: THE CITY, the companion to the 2020 Newbery Honor recipient Scary Stories for Young Foxes. Once again, Mr. Heidicker takes us into our deepest fears. Once again, Junyi Wu is on hand to provide appropriately haunting imagery. But there’s a twist. This time, you get to tell all your friends that you read a part of the book early.
Here’s a description:
The heart-stopping companion to the 2020 Newbery Honor recipient Scary Stories for Young Foxes, chronicling the adventures of three fox kits desperate to survive the terrors of a frightening new world.
Fox kit O-370 hungers for a life of adventure, like those lived long ago by Mia and Uly. But on the Farm, foxes know only the safety of their wire dens and the promise of eternal happiness in the White Barn. Or so they’re told. When O-370 gets free of his cage, he witnesses the gruesome reality awaiting all the Farm’s foxes and narrowly escapes with his life.
And you know what? I have a lot of questions. Questions that need to be answered before we go any further with this excerpt reveal. So let’s talk a bit to Mr. Heidicker himself to get the low down on what exactly is going on here.
Betsy Bird: Christian! So good to speak with you here. How have you been holding up during these strange COVID times?
Christian McKay Heidicker: Betsy! Always a pleasure! Oh, y’know, ups and downs. I’m happy to be here talking to you though.
BB: You are too kind. And I think I can speak for large swaths of people when I say that we’re all incredibly excited about this follow-up to SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES. So give us a feel for the creation of this sequel. Did you always intend to make one? Did winning a Newbery Honor for the first SCARY STORIES up the ante?
CMH: I’m incredibly excited for you to read it!
I had actually completed a draft of THE CITY before the first FOXES came out. In fact, it was originally meant to be the second half of the first book. But then, like fox kits do, Mia and Uly snagged the story and ran off with it, making it all their own. I was happy to let them have it.
And hoo boy did the Newbery honor ever put the pressure on. I completely reinvented the sequel from the ground up at least three times. If there’s anything more precious than a patient editor, I don’t want to hear about it.
BB: Can you give us a bit of a sense as to what the latest book is about?
CMH: The story picks up many many moons after the events of the first with some fox kits who may or may not be descendants of our previous heroes. Instead of badgers and snakes and traps, these new foxes must survive cars and poison and exterminators and . . . other things I don’t want to spoil. The story starts in a much more harrowing place than the first one. The stakes are higher. And the theme extends beyond the importance of scary stories for survival. It asks what else scary stories are for.
BB: I’m sure one thing a lot of people are wondering is whether or not this new FOXES book will do what the first book did and replicate different kinds of horror stories on its pages. Is that the case?
CMH: Absolutely. If FOXES was a retelling of classic horror tales, THE CITY is a retelling of modern ones. This time, the horrors parallel the mummy and alien abductions and . . . more things I don’t want to spoil.
BB: Let’s get a bit into the technical nitty gritty. I’m completely fascinated by the thought process that goes into writing books for kids that contain any kind of spooky element. Your books seemingly owe more to the Adam Gidwitz school of fright rather than, say, the Alvin Schwartz, but maybe that’s unfair. When writing scary stuff for kids, is there any author, for kids or otherwise, whose work you look to in particular?
CMH: That’s completely fair! Gidwitz was a big inspiration. Many years ago, I wrote a version of FOXES that was basically an homage to the spooky Berenstain Bears books (shout out to your podcast, Betsy). The only difference was that it was pretty brutal. I hadn’t been published yet and wasn’t sure what middle grade could get away with. So I started reading, and I took cues from the opening page of Neil Gaiman’s GRAVEYARD BOOK, Miggery Sow’s story from Kate DiCamillo’s TALE OF DESPEREAUX, Adam Gidwitz’s GRIM trilogy, and one my favorites, GOOD MASTERS, SWEET LADIES. (The cover of that book is so unassuming. But then you open it, and it guts you.)
Of course, I adored SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK when I was a kid. But revisiting them as an adult, I found them to be pretty toothless. You realize that Stephen Gammelll’s illustrations do a vast majority of the heavy lifting. (When it comes to the scariness, that is. The stories themselves are extremely important from a folktale perspective.) Actually, those illustrations informed Junyi Wu, FOXES’ unbelievably talented artist, who manages to walk the fine line between fairy tale National Geographic and scribbly, dripping horror. I thought she did a spectacular job on the first, and I can say without reservation that her illustrations are much scarier in this one.
BB: (Sorry, I’m still so pleased you mentioned GOOD MASTERS, SWEET LADIES as an influence . . . and I’m back). Where do you draw the line when it comes to frightening stuff on the page? Do you write the piece and tend to get reeled back by your editor or do you reel yourself in?
CMH: I actually reeled myself in too much in the beginning! My effervescent editor, Christian Trimmer, helped me find the line. There were places where he would suggest I push it to the absolute limit. I’d say, You’re kidding, and he’d say, Nah. Then I’d go off and make it super graphic. (The rabbit who’s skinned in the first book? His blood is on Christian’s hands.) Then we’d discuss, and I’d walk it back a bit until we found the right balance. There’s one scene in particular in the new book that Christian is wholly responsible for. Just thinking about it awakens the nerves in my teeth.
BB: Did anything get left on the cutting room floor when you wrote this book?
CMH: Oodles. In one of the stories, there’s a dog food factory that was once called VAMONOS DOG CHOW (“Put the hustle back in that old hound!”) The N on the sign had fallen off, along with half of the O so it read VAMO IS. If you unscrambled the letters, you could find the inspiration for that particular story. Another of the stories was once called RE-VACCINATOR as a tip of the hat to one of the more horrifying seventies movies I watched in my research.
But those are little things. There was an entire werewolf story in THE CITY’s first draft. It examined the shame side of monstrosity, and it paralleled foxes’ experiences with skin mites. I’m always shocked at how many harmonies I discover when I explore the parallels between horror and fox science. (For example, mites become more active during the full moon! And there’s a process in creating vaccines that actually makes the solution glow electric green—much like a particular poster for a particular horrific seventies film.) But yeah, that werewolf is lost to the ages. Or maybe it’s just in the shadows, waiting to strike again.
BB: Any chance for a third fox book on the horizon?
CMH: I honestly didn’t think I had anywhere to go after this. I mean, if I reach beyond classic and modern horror tales, I come to . . . future foxes? Foxes in space? These ideas would, unfortunately, break the formula of horror + scientific accuracy = a pretty good time.
But then I had an idea of making an international volume. I would write the framing story from the perspective of a biologist’s pet fox, whose owner is traveling around the world studying different fox genus/species. Whenever a new fox is capture, he or she would tell their story to our red fox. I’d invite authors with roots in several different countries to do their own spins on say, Saharan horror stories for fennec foxes or Inuit horror stories for snow foxes or Native horror stories for gray foxes (who predate red foxes in this country by a stretch). This could significantly broaden my young (and old) readers’ horizons for what a scary story can be. Not to mention my own.
But I’ve been warned that anthologies are a long and arduous road and tend to get lost in the shuffle after they’re published. I’ve got a few things cooking right now, and I’d rather not bleed this dry. So, for the time being this is the last Foxes book.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
CMH: I’m currently finishing up NIGHTMARES OF WEIRDWOOD (the last in the trilogy; has the world ever ended in a MG book before?), and then—Augh! I’m so excited about my next project, I could scream. (I guess I already did.) But the thing about exciting ideas that are still years away is you don’t want to let any air out of the tires, y’know? So I have to keep it to myself for now. But this is the most excited I’ve been since I dreamed up Foxes.
Again, thank you for having me, Betsy! Keep slaying like you do.
And now, ladies and gentlemen . . . . the excerpt:
WINTER HAD ARRIVED in the Antler Wood.
Clouds spilled across the sky, darkening as they came. Their faces were a drizzled gray that shifted with the wind. They sneered and mourned, cackled and wept, as they bled the warmth from the air and withered the last of the green things. They stretched their mouths, miles wide, and emptied their frozen throats.
They buried the world in white.
Rabbits huddled in their warrens. Squirrels squeezed into their trunks. Deer sought pockets beneath the pines, lest the storm spot them with its shifting faces and end them with its claws of ice. The wood grew so deathly quiet no creature dared disturb it.
No creature save the foxes, that was.
Three kits romped through the first heavy snowfall of the season, discovering it with their whiskers and paws. They bounded up plumes of frost and tackled one another in gratifying crunches, disrupting as much of the pristine landscape as foxingly possible.
“I can make a blizzard!” the alpha said. She clamped onto a branch and brought an avalanche down onto her siblings’ ears.
“I can make a snow lizard!” the beta said, belly-flopping in the white, legs splayed, leaving an impression behind.
The runt watched his sisters command winter with their very muzzles, and he stuck his face into the snow without any plan for what would happen next. The snow ran right up his nostrils, and he sneezed an icy spray.
“Nope!” the runt cried, trying to squint the flakes from his face. “I hate it! Let’s go back to the den. Let’s go back to the den forever.”
The alpha panted clouds into the crisp air. “Ma said we can’t set paw in the den without a fresh catch each.”
“She also said she’d pluck a whisker for every snowflake we drag inside,” the beta said, then gnawed a white clump from her tail.
The runt pawed at his numb muzzle to make sure it was still there.
The alpha tried not to laugh. “Move around,” she instructed him. “It’ll thaw your hunting instinct.”
The runt attempted a hop across a fresh stretch of snow and then vanished, his berry-brown fur enveloped in white. The alpha felt a squeeze in her chest. Because she was the biggest, she was responsible for her siblings when their mom wasn’t there. Her whiskers worried over their every movement.
The runt’s ears popped out of the snow, and the alpha’s tail relaxed.
He paddled his paws like he was drowning, trying to reach solid crust. “I can’t do it! I can’t even walk!”
“Guess you gotta starve then!” the beta said, romping deeper into the trees. “Ha ha!”
The runt gave up trying to escape the drifts and rested his muzzle on his paws, his shiny eyes reflecting the winter wood.
“Don’t worry,” the alpha said. She grabbed him by the scruff and helped him to a bare patch beneath a branch. “If you don’t catch anything today, I’ll help you take our sister down and we’ll eat her.”
The runt’s whiskers curled into a wicked grin, then fell slack. “Wait—but not really though, right?”
The alpha rolled her eyes.
“Come on!” the beta called. “Time to hunt, runt!”
The runt bounded after her. “Mom told you to stop calling me that! Why can’t I just be Omega? Or how about what if you call me the Fang?”
The alpha let them go. She tested the snow with her paws until she found a section that held her weight, then delicately padded across it. It was nice having a little distance from her siblings. The runt and the beta were about as stealthy as forest fires. This hunt would most likely end with the alpha catching three critters and giving one to each of her siblings so their mother would let them back inside.
The alpha turned her ears downward. She swiveled them left, then right, searching for the tickle of rodent activity beneath the shifting ice. But she didn’t hear a skitter. Not a squeak. The buried earth was frozen to stillness. Her siblings’ reckless paws had probably frightened away the prey for a hundred tails in each direction.
Ears still perked, the alpha noticed the earth wasn’t the only thing that had gone quiet. Her siblings hadn’t made a sound in minutes. Not a yelp. Not a whimper.
“Beta?” she called. “Omega?”
The snow-laden branches caught her voice and froze it.
She sniffed out her siblings’ groove of doubled paw tracks and bounded along them. The snow grew deep, and deeper still, rising past her ears. She had to leap to see a single flash of the forest before falling back to white.
Her siblings were nowhere to be seen. Their scent was lost on the frosted air.
She went faster.
A few leaps later, the alpha smelled blood. Fresh blood. It colored the wind, salty and warm. Her nose twitched while her belly pinched in fear.
Was that a fox’s blood she smelled?
The alpha bounded ahead, refusing to let the snow get the best of her paws. The stench thickened, leading her to the green-needle scent of a pine tree. Its branches were weighted by piles of white, trapping the shadows beneath it.
She took a breath. Then another. And then she nuzzled through the snowy needles, sticking her muzzle into the darkness within … where she spotted two bushy tails. The runt and the beta. Their blood still in them.
“You are so dead,” she said, slipping beneath the branches. The bed of brown needles was soft and prickly against her paws. “When I tell Mom you ran away, she’s gonna nip your ears to stubs.”
Neither of them responded. They stared at something half obscured by the trunk. The alpha saw the thing’s fur and lunged forward, placing herself between it and her siblings. Her lips curled around her fangs while her hackles grew sharp.
A fox lay on his side. Blood foamed in the corners of his lips and crusted in the fur of his belly. He had a small cut at the base of his ear.
The alpha’s hackles softened when she saw that the fox’s chest was as still as the needles beneath him.
“What do you think got him?” the beta whispered.
“What do you mean ‘got him’?” the runt asked. “Things don’t get foxes. We get things.”
The alpha sniffed toward the fox’s wounded stomach and smelled something like rotten eggs.
“Should we bury him?” the beta asked.
“Ooh!” the runt said. “Or what if we drag him back to the den? I call this as my catch!”
“No,” the alpha said. “He might have curses.”
Now that she knew the fox wasn’t a threat, she wondered what had killed him. Their mom would want to know. The alpha swelled her chest, trying to be bigger than her fear, and she took a step.
“What are you doing?” the beta hissed.
“I want to see what happened to him,” she whispered, creeping closer.
“What if whatever killed him is hiding behind that trunk?” the beta asked.
“What if whatever killed him is burrowing around in his dead body, waiting to jump out and burrow into you?” the runt said in a single breath.
The alpha gritted her teeth. As always, her siblings were not helping.
She proceeded slowly and reached the fox. But she couldn’t find his wound. She lowered her muzzle to nudge him over and—
The fox gasped to life.
The beta yelped while the runt whimpered, and they both dove through the branches. The alpha slowly backed away, muzzle lowered, lips snarling, hackles rising to deflect the Stranger’s fangs.
The Stranger’s eyes were wide with fear. “Who’s there?” he said, his voice gummy with blood.
The alpha kept her distance. He was bigger than she was, and she wasn’t sure she could fend him off, even with his injuries.
“Please,” the Stranger said, his voice ragged. “I won’t … hurt you. I need … your help.”
The alpha bent her legs, ready to dive through the branches, grab the runt and nudge the beta, and not stop running till they reached the den.
But then the runt popped his head through the needles. “Whaddaya need help with?”
“Phht!” the alpha huffed, silencing him.
“See?” the beta whispered to the runt from behind the branches. “Stuff like this is why you’re not gonna survive till spring.”
The runt scowled.
“We can’t help you,” the alpha growled at the Stranger. “You need to leave this place.”
“Please,” the Stranger said. “I must … tell you … what happened. If you don’t listen…”
His voice trailed off in a gurgle, leaving the alpha to try and finish the thought.
Quiet fell beneath the pine. The alpha and the Stranger breathed. She gazed behind the Stranger and through the pine tree’s parting branches, along the smear of red, which trailed across the winter wood.
The beta stuck her head through the needles. “No hurt in listening, right? There are two of us and only one of him.”
“Three of us!” the runt said.
“And he’s hurt,” the beta said.
The alpha looked at her siblings, heads poking through the needles, noses wet and shiny. She sniffed toward the Stranger’s bloody path, as blinding red as the snow was white. She wished her mom were there.
“We can listen for a while,” she told them. “But if I say run, you run.”
The siblings slipped through the branches and shook the snow from their fur.
“What did this to you?” the alpha asked the Stranger.
The Stranger licked red from his lips. “I cannot … start … at the end.” His rattling breath refused to catch.
The alpha eyed the drifts outside the pine, the clouds coiling across the sky. The foxes’ hunt would have to wait until the sun broke through and stirred the prey from their hiding places.
“Go home, Omega,” she said.
“No way!” the runt said. “You go home! Except, wait. Actually don’t. Stay here with me.”
“You heard her,” the beta said. “Go be with Mom. We’ll come back soon.”
“Fine. I’ll go home.” The runt flopped onto his side. “If you drag me.”
The alpha considered doing just that, but the thought made her teeth hurt.
She gave in and sat before the bloodied Stranger, pointing her nose so her siblings sat a tail behind her. The runt kneaded the needles with his paws, seeming to have second thoughts about staying.
“Is this a, um, scary story?” he asked.
“Yes…,” the Stranger said. “But it isn’t … like the others. There are no wild beasts … No famine. No … frozen tails. Nothing found in a forest.” Wincing, he raised his head to look at them. “This is not a story about survival.”
The fox siblings glanced at one another. What other kinds of stories were there?
“It begins,” the Stranger said, “on a farm…”
“I love farms!” the runt said. “Farms have chickens. I like chickens. I like to shake them till they die.”
The alpha flashed him a warning look.
“It wasn’t that kind of farm,” the Stranger said.
Thanks to Christian for his fantastic answers and to Kelsey Marrujo and the good folks at Macmillan for this excerpt reveal and interview. Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City is on sale August 31st.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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