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The hilariously frightening, middle-grade novel Nightmares! is a Texas Bluebonnet nominee and the first book in a trilogy about a boy named Charlie and a group of kids who must face their fears to save their town.
Charlie Laird has several problems.
1. His dad married a woman he is sure moonlights as a witch.
2. He had to move into her purple mansion—the creepiest place in Cypress Creek.
3. He can’t remember the last time sleeping wasn’t a nightmarish prospect. Like even a nap.
What Charlie doesn’t know is that his problems are about to get a whole lot more real. Nightmares can ruin a good night’s sleep, but when they start slipping out of your dreams and into the waking world . . . well, that’s something only Charlie can face. And he’s going to need all the help he can get, or it might just be lights-out for Charlie Laird.
Praise for the Nightmares! Series:
Nightmares! (Bk 1) is a Texas Bluebonnet Nominee
"Charlie Laird, who learns fear will eat you alive if you feed it, makes an impression, and...readers will want to accompany him again."—The New York Times Book Review
"A touching comical saga...about facing things that go bump in the night."—US Weekly
"Comical antics, cartoonish spot illustrations, and creepy villains make for quite an entertaining read."—Booklist
"Succeeds at scaring and amusing in equal measure . . . Sweet, charming, and imaginative."—Kirkus Reviews
"An engaging and creative story...woven with a generous amount [of] humor."—VOYA
"There's humor and a fairly high ick-factor."—School Library Journal
"Cleverly crafted...This novel presents just the right mix of 'scary and humorous.'"—ILA Literacy Daily
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About the Author
Kirsten Miller grew up in a small town just like Cypress Creek, minus the purple mansion. Now she lives and writes in New York City. Kirsten is the author of the acclaimed Kiki Strike books, the New York Times besteller The Eternal Ones, and How to Lead a Life of Crime. Nightmares! is the first novel she has written with Jason Segel. You can visit her at kirstenmillerbooks.com or follow @bankstirregular on Twitter.
Read an Excerpt
It was five minutes past midnight, and a boy was gazing down at Cypress Creek from the window of an old mansion on the town’s highest hill. It was an odd-looking building. The front porch was overrun by a jungle of potted plants. Thick green vines crept up columns, and lady ferns and blood flowers fought for every patch of moonlight. An octagonal tower sprouted straight from the house’s roof, and the entire structure was painted a dreadful shade of purple. Anyone who saw it might assume that the mansion’s occupants were a bit on the strange sideand yet the boy at the window appeared perfectly normal. He had sandy blond hair and no visible tattoos, scars, or hideous warts. But judging by the miserable expression on his face, something was terribly wrong.
His name was Charlie Laird, and he’d lived in Cypress Creek all twelve years of his life. He and his little brother, Jack, had grown up in a house just down the street. In fact, Charlie could see the old place from his new bedroom window. A different family of four owned it now. Every night, Charlie watched the lights in his former home go out and imagined the kids snuggled up nice and safe, tucked into bed by their mother and father. He would have given almost anything to trade places with them. It had been three months since he’d moved to the purple mansion on DeChant Hill with his brother and father. And it had been three months since Charlie Laird had gotten a good night’s sleep.
Charlie took a step back from the window and saw his reflection in the glass. His skin was the color of curdled milk, and dark bags sagged beneath his red-rimmed eyes. He sighed at the sight and turned around to start his night’s work. Thirty-eight heavy boxes sat in the center of the room. They were filled with video games and comic books and Little League trophies. Charlie had unpacked nothing more than a few changes of clothes. The rest of his belongings were still stowed away in their cardboard boxes. And every night, before he lay down in his bed, he would move them. Nineteen boxes were used to block the door to the hall. The other nineteen were pushed against the bathroom door, though that often proved quite inconvenient.
It would have seemed ridiculous to anyone else. Even Charlie knew the barricades couldn’t stop his bad dreams. But the witch who’d been visiting him every night for three months wasn’t like other nightmares he’d had. Most dreams faded, but he couldn’t forget her. She felt just as real as the nose on his face. So when the witch swore that one night soon she’d come drag him away, Charlie figured he should take her threats seriously. He just hoped all the boxes could keep her out of his room.
She’d already gotten as far as the hallway. The first time he’d heard someone sneaking through the house, Charlie had just woken up from a nightmare. The sun’s rays were peeking over the mountains, but the mansion was still and quiet. Suddenly the silence had been broken by the creak of rusty door hinges opening. Then the floorboards groaned and there were thuds on the stairs. The footsteps were heavy enough to be an adult’s. But when Charlie worked up the nerve to investigate, he found his father and stepmother still asleep in their bed. A few nights later, he heard the same thing again. Creak. Groan. Thud. His father said that old houses make noises. His brother thought the place might be haunted. But Charlie knew there was no such thing as ghosts. He’d been searching for almost three years, and if they’d existed he would have seen one by now. No, Charlie Laird had far bigger problems than ghosts.
The thirty-eight boxes were waiting. Charlie stared at the daunting task in front of him and wondered where he’d find the energy to complete it. His nightmares had gotten worseand every night he fought a losing battle against sleep. Now his eyelids were drooping and he couldn’t stop yawning. As usual, he’d stood by the window until midnight, waiting for his father and stepmother to go to bed. He didn’t want them to hear him sliding the boxes across the floorboards or grunting as he stacked them against the doors. But staying up was growing harder and harder. He’d tried taping his eyes open, but Scotch tape was too weak and duct tape pulled out his eyebrows. Pacing just made him dizzy. And while he’d heard that a full bladder could keep sleep at bay, every time he tried chugging water at bedtime, he ended up frantically shoving nineteen boxes away from the bathroom door. So a few weeks earlier, when all else had failed, Charlie had taken his first trip to the kitchen for a cup of cold, leftover coffee. It always made him gag, and sometimes he had to hold his nose just to get it all downbut the coffee was the only thing that kept him awake.
Charlie tiptoed to his bedroom door, opened it slowly so the hinges wouldn’t squeal, and took a peek outside. He was relieved to see that the hallway was dark. He preferred it that way. The walls were lined with old paintings that were far creepier when the lights were on. He listened closely for signs of movement and then sock-skated awkwardly toward the stairs. Past his brother’s room. And his father and stepmother’s. He was almost outside the last door on the hall when he heard ita high-pitched laugh that nearly sent him sprinting back to his bed. Behind the last door lay the stairs to the tower. And at the top of those stairs was a room known in the family as Charlotte’s Lair. The door was open a crack, and Charlie heard the sound of a fat cat’s paws padding down the wooden staircase. A pale golden light leaked out into the hall.
His stepmother was still awake.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Jason Segel
Screenwriter, actor, and musician Jason Segel needs no introduction. We've loved him as burnout Nick Andopolis on Freaks and Geeks, as brokenhearted Peter in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and as the brother (and creator) of Walter, our favorite new Muppet. Now Segel takes on the role of YA author, co-writing a dark and harrowing adventure with New York Times–bestselling author Kirsten Miller.
The first chapter in a planned trilogy, Nightmares! is the story of Charlie Laird, twelve years old and scared to go to sleep. Charlie's mother has died three years earlier, and much to his horror and surprise, his father has remarried. A strange and creepy woman who's moved into the strange and creepy mansion on their street. Our story begins three months after Charlie, his little brother, Jack, and their father made their home in the creepy purple mansion, where Charlie is having nightmares in which a red-haired witch seeks to eat and torture him. And now she's started threatening to come into the real world and kidnap Jack. When she finally does, Charlie must venture into her terrifying nightmare realm, replete with ghastly creatures, to find and save his little brother.
Poetic and enthralling, Segel's foray into literature is nothing short of magic, the kind of book one wishes upon children and the young at heart. The debut author took some time to talk with us about Nightmares! What follows is an edited transcript of our phone conversation. ? Gili Malinsky
The Barnes & Noble Review: So I was at BookCon [and heard your talk about Nightmares!, but] tell me how this whole thing came about. [The book began as] the first screenplay that you wrote?
Jason Segel: Yeah! I had just finished a show called Freaks and Geeks, and when that ended I didn't quite know what to do next. I was in sort of an in between phase, age wise I'm like a giant man, so I was too big to play a kid anymore and too young to play a doctor or lawyer. . . . And Judd Apatow took me aside and said the only way that you're gonna make it is if you're gonna start writing your own material. And he literally taught me how to write. And the first thing that I wanted to write . . . was Nightmares! I had terrible nightmares when I was a kid, but also, I think the tone that I most responded to was that Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey, Tim Burton, Jim Henson–y tone. It's just who I am, you know, I've had Muppets posters on my wall since I was a kid. And so I set out to write Nightmares! in the vein of those Roald Dahl stories about the disenfranchised kid who finds out that he's actually chosen for something special. I wanted to dig deep, too, about what kids' biggest fears really might be. And the idea of a kid forgetting, and the people around him forgetting, his mother who passed away, it just seemed like not a surface issue. I was really interested in attacking that.
BNR: How do you mean not a surface issue?
JS: Well, it wasn't like a superficial fear of being afraid of spiders. I wanted to dig deep into what fears are really based on. . . . When we have nightmares, in my opinion, it's your brain processing really deep-seeded fears and they sort of manifest in these archetypes, whether it be witches or spiders or snakes, but there's usually something underneath it that's deeper.
I think part of what the book is getting at is we're told to dismiss our fears. . . . This idea of Irish stoicism where people stop talking about their feelings because they're afraid of being perceived as weak. Kids don't communicate the way they used anymore because there's this Twitter, social media generation where, you know, one false word and you could get mocked by your classmates. Part of the message is it is OK to be afraid and it's OK and even important to talk about those things with your friends and with your parents. I think that there are myriad reasons why a kid might not talk about some of the things that they're actually afraid of.
BNR: So, just as an aside if you had been told by Judd Apatow to write roles for yourself. What role would you have taken [in this film] you must have been, like, twenty, when you wrote this?
JS: Yeah, I always really related to [one of the nightmare creatures, Dabney the clown. He has really strong ideals but is also incredibly goofy and little bit odd. When I picture Dabney in a movie it's done with complete seriousness but with, like, 10 percent overacting. The way a clown's emotions are all 10 percent exaggerated.
BNR: I think probably 25 percent exaggerated.
JS: Yeah, well, when you start at 15 percent overacting it's just 10 percent added.
BNR:You have the extra goof already built into your delivery.
BNR: So, you really wanted to delve deeper into the world of fears. . . . How did you see this manifest, that this is a generation that is especially discouraged from being afraid or being vocal about their fears?
JS: Well, I think that one thing that I kept at the front of my brain is my sense of childlike wonder. I never really lost that and movies like Goonies sort of caught me at an age where you're at a fork in the road and there's this track that you're about to get on. Elementary school leads to junior high leads to high school leads to college leads to your job. And catching kids at an age where you can remind them that there is magic was a really important thing to me. I've always kept that in my mind and it served me really well. I'm not really afraid of much because I've found in my own life that it's doing the thing that you're afraid of that always leads you to the greatest reward. And that was just the message I wanted to pass on. You see it a lot in math class. At some point, at some age, kids just decide, "I can't do this anymore." They make this weird proclamation, "I'm not good at math," and it really is just fear of getting through being bad at something until you're good at it.
BNR: But how did you know that this particular generation is more afraid than others? Are you looping yourself into this generation so that you can say, I have experience being told, in particular, that I'm not allowed to be afraid?
JS: Well, I can't really speak to other generations because I only know my own experience? But I think that the business that I'm involved in, and I've been doing it since I was seventeen, is a scary one. And I have my hand in a lot of different things I write music for the movies and I write the scripts and I wrote this book and I act in them and in my opinion, I think there's some things I'm very good at, but it's not that I'm gifted at all of these different things? It really is that I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid at something not working out and not afraid of being bad at something until I'm good at it. And I just felt like, as adults, you look around and you see people in various states of fear and it can make them be defensive or it can make them be afraid to try new things. It just seemed to me like fear is behind all of that and [I wanted to] remind kids as they enter into this world. To be afraid is an important thing.
BNR: You'd seen it manifested in the adults around you and [you decided,] this is gonna be for kids. About them dealing with their fear, uprooting it from the beginning.
JS: Yeah, because they're about to enter into this world and there's not really an off ramp once you get going.
BNR: So it was always going to be for kids?
JS: Yeah, it's always been for that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Labyrinth, Goonies age, which I think adults can enjoy as well because I think all of us have sort of a childlike wonder about us if we dig deep enough.
BNR: I think you've definitely hit on something that is universal.
JS: Aw, thanks! I think Harry Potter did it really well, too. Giving people wish fulfillment. I think that the reason, like, Harry Potter or Charlie and Chocolate Factory (and hopefully, Nightmares!) . . . people respond to it of all ages is that everybody's big desire is that they're meant for something more. You have this mundane life and you're plucked out of it and thrust into this world where you've actually been chosen.
BNR: Right, there's something special about you that enables you to see something deeper [as Charlie is able to, having been granted the power to enter the nightmare realm]. That Harry Potter franchise, though... J. K. Rowling knows what's up.
JS: Yeah. BNR: I hope that you guys get to meet and that she reads Nightmares!
JS: Ugh, that would be amazing.
BNR: So tell me how this ended up being a book.
JS: Well, I think it was around when I did Muppets. I got to see kids come into set and interact with Kermit and the other Muppets. And when I saw the suspension of disbelief that goes on where kids are looking directly at the puppet, even though there's a puppeteer sitting right next to it, I realized that there's something really special about a book. Each kid has their own personal experience with [it]. . . . They get to imagine it however they want. And I thought it was really neat to let the story live that way for a little while, where each kid got to create their own nightmare world. That's the neat thing about nightmares. They're birthed by your own imagination.
. . . [I] got in touch with Kirsten Miller, who's an amazing author, and started talking about how to structure it as a book and together we conceived of Nightmares! as this trilogy.
BNR: Let's talk about Charlie. He's a troubled kid with a really good heart. Tell me about developing that character.
JS: Sure. Charlie, who's sort of our hero, when we find him at the beginning of the book is paralyzed by his fear. He's an angry young boy who feels very isolated. He has an amazing group of friends around him who are trying to support him, but he hasn't learned to communicate what it is that he's really afraid of, even to himself. So the story is really about Charlie, with the help of his friends, learning that his feelings are OK, and it's OK to walk through them. And he doesn't have to put on a happy face anymore. The nightmare world is really a metaphor. It's a vehicle for him to go on this journey of acceptance.
BNR: Charlie's true fear really comes into fruition and he has to deal with it head on. Do you think that, deep down, he knows what he's [been] afraid of?
JS: I don't think he does. I think that where Charlie is now, and I think where a lot people are, is they know they have uncomfortable feelings, they know they're angry but sometimes those feelings are scary. People know deep down that when they confront those feelings, they're going to reach the conclusion that it's they themselves that have to change. That's at the root of everything. The only thing you have power over is yourself. Charlie is not ever going to be able to bring his mother back, so it's going to be his feelings that have to move.
BNR: Yeah. So, you touched on this just now when you were talking about the metaphor. I think what's really interesting about reading this story is because we're seeing it through Charlie's eyes, he is essentially creating these two worlds for us: the nightmare world and reality.
BNR: Which is really cool. As an adult reading it, I feel I get to decide if [the nightmare] world is even real or he's just seeing it because he needs to see it.
JS: That's right, yes.
BNR: Because we're talking about two worlds that he has essentially created, tell me about the nuances of Charlie that inform the characteristics of these worlds.
JS: Well, the nightmare world, as all nightmares are, they're sort of an analogue of what we deal with in real life. We really deconstruct our version of the real world. So the nightmare world is sort of Charlie's real world experience with his fear manifested. It's manifested in the architecture and the landscape and also the tone of the creatures that inhabit it. So Principal Stearns is President Fear and President Fear is how Charlie feels about his principal. In the nightmare world, what you really get to see is how Charlie feels about the real world.
BNR: Right, and everything is heightened. So tell me, what is a hero?
JS: Oh, I always think that the best version of a hero is somebody who walks through their fears. I really spent time thinking about the hero's journey when I first wrote this. I had just read a book called The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, which is sort of an extrapolation of Joseph Campbell's teachings. So Charlie really does go on the hero's journey. He's a young guy who has issues he needs to deal with. There's a call to adventure and in rescuing his brother he has to deal with the things that have been holding him back. It's a classic hero's journey.
BNR: So a hero is less of a person that exists as a hero and more of an action that they have to go through.
JS: I think so. You know, we're not talking about a superhero, but even the best superheroes have to do this. A real world hero is somebody who does things in spite of being afraid. It's not somebody who's not afraid. It's somebody who takes their fears head-on.
BNR: I know both from five minutes ago when you mentioned it, and from the talk that you gave at BookCon that [magic] is this looming thing in the air that's a presence in your own life. But tell me more about it. Tell me what magic is.
JS: I think that . . . You know, I've never tried to define it but thinking about it now I guess I think magic is the promise that more exists than what we've been told is possible. I think we're sort of told what the ules are, you know, of life. In a right-on-the-nose kind of way, a magic show, you know the rules of physics and gravity and then you watch somebody defy them. I think that in a greater, real-world kind of way the magic I see is when somebody defies the rules of how we've been told things have to operate. You're only capable of this, you should accept that this is the way things are. And then to watch somebody break out of those shackles, you know, real-world Houdini, kind of makes me believe anything is possible.
BNR: So can you give an example in your own life?
JS: I mean the odds of me doing any of these things I do are stacked against me incredibly. The odds of getting a movie made and getting a book published or writing songs that end up in a movie, everything is telling you this is not possible.
BNR: But it's happened and it keeps happening.
JS: Yeah, that's right. And I really do believe that it's strictly because I'm not afraid.
BNR: So how does magic manifest itself in Nightmares!?
JS: I think that one of the ways it manifests itself is this one plus one equals three element of friendship. It's one of the lessons I learned from the Muppets, this idea that we're stronger together than we are apart. Charlie's mother, when she passes away, says to Charlie, two will always be stronger than one, talking about Charlie's relationship with his little brother, Jack. The book and the series will end up being a real discovery of that lesson. That the two of them combined don't just equal two. The power of family and the power of friendship creates something much greater than the sum of its parts.
BNR:How much you can achieve by working with people and believing in other people . . .
JS: Yeah, people are really afraid to ask for help, and there is an amazing strength and power in collaboration.
BNR: So what lies ahead for Nightmares!?
JS: Well, we started working on book two. We have a really, I think, beautiful and exciting plan for the way the trilogy unfolds that includes prophecy and some other neat adventures that the nightmare themselves go on. Seeing the nightmares venture out of nightmare realm is one of our plans.
BNR: Oh, cool. Oh my God I can't wait. I'm gonna be buying this book for, like, every birthday.
JS: Oh that's so cool because I'll tell you, one of the things that was really important to me, a remnant of when I was a kid, was the book as an object. Being able to hold the thing and have it feel special and use the best material . . . was a really neat thing to me. Something that people can hide under the covers with and read. But there's nothing to me like holding a book that you feel is special and your own.
September 9, 2014