Kids are imaginative. They want to engage with the storyline...
Carroll County Times
By Stephen Snyder, Times Staff Writer
To learn how to write children's books, local author TJ Perkins had to look no further than her daughter.
"I was very intrigued by her and her friends and the way they talked," said Perkins recently.
Perkins writes for middle school-aged children, mostly thrillers and mysteries with a supernatural bent. She has two books available, "Wound Too Tight," about a group of boys who discover a cursed pirate watch, and "Mystery of the Attic," about a 13-year-old girl who hears voices in the attic after her family moves into an old farmhouse.
It took Perkins eight years to get her first book published. Her daughter is now 18 and an art major in college. She also has an 8-year-old son who is sure to provide future inspiration.
"I take everything, the way kids talk, the way they act," said Perkins.
Writing suspense stories for middle school children can be a tricky task.
"The first thing you have to remember is that children aren't stupid," said Gwen Pfeisser, president of the Baltimore Writers' Alliance.
When writing for older children, an author has to make sure not to talk down to them. The stories have to be genuinely scary or exciting enough to hold the interest of children raised on movies and video games, but not so much as to be inappropriate.
"It's a fine balance between believability and responsibility," said Pfeisser.
Perkins took as her model books written by her childhood favorites, like Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote the first 23 Nancy Drew mysteries.
"I always wanted to tell a story as well as the authors I enjoyed," said Perkins.
Perkins was born in Gettysburg, but grew up mostly in New Windsor, in an old farmhouse that served as the inspiration for "Mystery of the Attic." She learned to type on an old typewriter and heard her share of ghost stories from her grandfather.
She loved the stories and said that ghost stories and mystery appeal to children on a very basic level.
"I think it's because every kid has experienced something kind of strange or weird," said Perkins. "I think it's just extremely appealing to kids."
She said mysteries also appeal to middle schoolers because they often feature young people solving problems and figuring out things their adult counterparts could not.
"They kind of feel empowered," she said. "They like to read about kids succeeding and accomplishing things on their own."
According to Pfeisser, many people think they can write children's books. But writing something that is appropriate and can capture a child's imagination at the same time is difficult.
"Kids are imaginative. They want to engage with the storyline," she said. "It's very difficult to come up with something fresh and inventive that will be a big hit."
Perkins' books have been used by teachers at Shiloh Middle and Charles Carroll Elementary schools. "Mystery of the Attic," which came out in May, is being considered for an Agatha Award from Malice Domestic, a mystery group in Bethesda, and an Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. She is preparing to release a new series of mystery books with Cyber Pulp Books, a print and online publisher.
The first two books in the series, "Fantasies are Murder" and "The Secret of Phantom Forest," and the sequel to "Mystery" called "On Forbidden Ground," are set to come out in the spring.
Recently, Perkins spent a morning selling and reading sections of her two books to passing children and their parents in the back of the Pour House Cafe in Westminster.At one point, a local mother named Barb Forbes came up and purchased four of her books, two for her own children and two for children she cares for during the day.
"They like mysteries," said Forbes, "and it's a local author."
Forbes said her son had heard that "Mystery of the Attic" was based on Perkins own experience in an old farmhouse as a child.
"My son thinks that is so cool," said Forbes.
She said her son loves ghost stories, but they don't scare him.
"He loves it," she said.
"You can't scare kids of today," said Perkins.
Reach staff writer Stephen Snyder at 410-857-7862 or ssnyder.lcniofmd.com.