Monsters in the Mist, by Juliana Brandt–review and interview

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If you (or other young readers in your life) are looking to make spring spookier, Monsters in the Mist, by Juliana Brandt (May 3, 2022, SourcebooksKids, is just the book you need!  

Whenever Glennon’s dad goes away for work, his mom moves him and his little sister out of the house.  They used to go stay with their grandma, but now she has died, and their mom has taken them to stay with a relative they’ve never met who’s a lighthouse keeper on a remote island in Lake Superior.  Glennon counts the days till they get off the island.  

With just a few more days to go, the island is slammed by an early winter storm.  A ship wrecks on the nearby coast, and the three survivors shelter in the lighthouse.  And Glennon becomes convinced that something more than an ordinary Lake Superior tragedy has happened.  One of the survivors seems horribly…not right. 

This is right at the beginning of the book, so there is no build up of suspense–it is right there at the start!  But there is definitely build up of the creepy–things are more and more Wrong, and more impossible to explain away, until Glennon and his sister realize they are in mortal peril from supernatural forces, trapped on an island that will not let them leave.   And the gothic horror ratchets up even further to a tremendous climax with twists I didn’t see coming!

As the supernatural horror builds, so does the readers understanding of the verbal abuse and anger Glennon’s gotten all his life from his father; it’s clear early on that he and his sister have PTSD, and that not all is well with their mother either.  Having to deal with an unbearably awful situation on the island, though, helps Glennon start to untangle himself from years of damaging undermining from his father, and this real-world positive progress is a welcome contrast to the gothic darkness crashing around the cursed island. (There’s an author’s note at the end, clarifying how Glennon’s memories of his father’s words that surface during the story are real abuse, discussing how this has affected him and his sister, and encouraging young readers in similar positions to seek help from trusted adults).

In good middle grade fashion, Glennon and his sister are the catalyst for their escape, but they couldn’t have done it without grown-ups willing to put themselves at risk to make it happen.  Also as is the case with many good middle grade books, there’s an intelligent cat who helps for a given value of cat-help. Both things I liked.  I also liked all the ghost ships (what a wide variety of obsolete vessels there are in the harbor these days! think the kids, more or less,  and yet no transport is available off the island….) and the nods to real maritime misfortunes of Lake Superior.  The awful undead rats swarming around the island, are, however, not likeable….

In short, though I personally would have liked a bit more about life on the island before it became a place of nightmares, to ground the story in reality before the reality explodes, Monsters in the Mist is a powerfully spooky and thought-provoking read, and one I appreciated lots, 

Monsters in the Mist is Juliana Brandt’s third book, the first two being The Wolf of Cape Fen (2020) and A Wilder Magic (2021), both from SourcebooksKids.  As well as being an author, she’s a kindergarten teacher with a passion for storytelling that guides her in both of her jobs. She lives in her childhood home of Minnesota, and her writing is heavily influenced by travels around the country and decade living in the South.

And now it is my pleasure to welcome her to my blog! (my questions are in bold)

What was the inspiration for Monsters in the Mist? (hopefully not a disastrous boat trip on Lake Superior).

Goodness, the inspiration came from many places, although no, it definitely didn’t come from a disastrous boat trip on Lake Superior! I did find a lot of direct inspiration from Lake Superior itself, though, mostly from Split Rock Lighthouse – a lighthouse in Two Harbors, MN. I toured this lighthouse in October on a very blustery day. I knew immediately that I needed to use this setting for a book. I created my own version of that lighthouse and stuck it on an island that is a very real (and yet very fake!) island on Lake Superior. In the 1700s, a mapmaker drew an extra island on Lake Superior. Mapmakers kept inserting the same island on their own maps, even though no such island actually existed on the lake. It took a few decades before cartographers realized it wasn’t real. I thought that history was fascinating, and it made me wonder what that island would be like if it were actually real.

What bit of the book do you hope your readers will love most, and/or perhaps be most horrified/scared about?

I hope readers love the spookiness of the story. I tried to create my own monsters for this book, and I hope they’re both scary and fascinating. I wanted my monsters to be sympathetic; I wanted people to understand how they’d become so monstrous and why they’d chosen the path they had. And also that while we can be sympathetic toward the monsters, it doesn’t mean that their behavior or their choices are excused. I would very much like readers to walk away with the message that the words we choose to use with one another matters deeply.

I appreciated that the town librarian specifically recommends Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, to the kids–an excellent choice. Was there a specific reason you picked this book?

Howl’s Moving Castle is my absolute favorite book! It’s one that’s stuffed full of all the things I enjoy most about stories – magic and surprising twists and a wonderful monster. In the scene where the book is mentioned, the librarian is talking about reading what makes you happy, and for me, Howl’s is a book that never fails to make me happy. I was so excited to include mention of it in my own book because of how much it’s meant to me over the years.

Monsters is your first book since things are moving toward normal again, fingers crossed…. Your first book, The Wolf of Cape Fen, will always have a special place in my mind (Here’s my review). Not only did I enjoy it lots, but when it came out, just a few weeks into the pandemic in the spring of 2020, it was the first book I picked to order from my local independent bookstore as a show of support for authors and indies, so I have powerful memories tied to it. What was it like, having your debut book come out at such a fraught time?

It certainly wasn’t easy. The shift from planning in person events and making plans for trips and book tours to cancelling everything and switching to online events (before we really knew what online events could look like!) was a difficult transition. It certainly wasn’t the experience I thought debuting would be. At the same time though, I was incredibly supported in the book community and by my friends and family. I truly felt like everyone rallied around me. It’s also helped me truly appreciate everything I’m able to experience with Monsters in the mist, now that I’m able to schedule in person events again.

With your third book, are you able to get a chance to do more of the author-ish things that the pandemic shut down?

Yes! I have wonderful events planned throughout May and into the summer. This past week when Monsters in the Mist published, I was able to have my first in person book launch. It was everything I wanted to experience the first time around, and I’m so glad to have finally been able to have that! It’s truly wonderful to be able to talk with people in person and celebrate books in an actual bookstore, instead of online. I have school visits and writing classes and bookstore events scheduled. It’s all an absolute delight to be able to plan.  (here are her upcoming events)

and finally, what are you working on now?

Secret projects! I have a few manuscripts in the works, but as of now, they’re all in the “in between” moment. Hopefully they’ll become projects that I can announce publicly soon.

and even more finally, is there an interview question that you have a really good answer for that I haven’t asked? 

At my bookstore event, I was asked a very good question that I’ve never been asked before. “How have my books changed me?” We talk about readers being changed by books, but books change authors too! I think that my books have helped me become a braver, more honest person. Writing a book is such an introspective process, for me, and with each one I write, I end up asking deep questions of myself, about who I am and who I want to be. It really can be a transformative experience.

thanks so much, Juliana!  And best of luck with your ongoing projects!  And now I shall go listen to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald–“The lake it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy…”

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