Talking with Mary Downing Hahn

Book Links Sept. 2008 (vol. 18, no. 1)

By Angela Leeper

Upper elementary school through middle school

The award-winning author discusses the inspirations behind her hair-raising ghost stories.

Although Mary Downing Hahn has written historical fiction, realistic fiction, and picture books, she is probably best known for her ghost stories. The veteran author has garnered starred reviews, spots on the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults list, Edgar Award nominations, and state awards too numerous to count, not to mention winning the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Yet readers might be surprised to learn that she began her writing career as an artist.

Hahn describes her early storytelling days: “I came to writing through drawing and reading, my favorite subjects in school. As a result of reading incessantly, I began making up stories of my own, but I told them in pictures, not words. By the time I was 13, my picture stories had become too long and complicated to tell without words. That’s when I began thinking of becoming a writer and illustrator of children’s books.”

While Hahn did teach art at a junior high school for a short period and worked as an illustrator for the PBS children’s reading series
Cover to Cover, she admits, “It was not until I was in my thirties and working as a children’s librarian that I had the confidence to think I might be able to write a book good enough to send to a publisher.” Since the publication of her first novel,
The Sara Summer, in 1979, she has written more than two dozen books for children and young adults.

“I still love to draw but have given up the idea of becoming an illustrator,” the author says. Her fans from the last three decades are certainly glad that she changed her profession to writing. In the interview below Hahn discusses the appeal and background of her ghost stories as well as her latest works.

AL: Why do you think children love ghost stories?

Hahn: When I wrote my first ghost story, I had no idea children loved scary reads. I certainly didn’t—when I was a child I was terrified of ghosts and graveyards and awful things lurking in the dark. I would not have read
Wait till Helen Comes! Either children are braver now or they are so afraid of the real world that they escape into ghost stories. Maybe they enjoy the thrill of being scared because they are safe in their own homes and know the story’s protagonist will triumph over the ghost.

AL: In your stories children are firm believers in ghosts while most adults are skeptics. Do you find this true in the real world?

Hahn: I certainly believed in ghosts when I was a child, but I don’t remember any adult professing such a belief. Now I think adults are just as likely as children to believe in the unseen. Many librarians and teachers at the schools I visit share eerie experiences with me—but not when children are present. Children also tell me stories about their own experiences with ghosts. I must say most of the stories I hear are very convincing. I also know many adults who do not believe in ghosts.

In a story, I like to cast the adults as skeptics. Without the help of grown-ups, children must rely on their own courage to save or banish restless spirits.

AL: In your latest ghost story,
All the Lovely Bad Ones, the spirits of tormented children and their abuser, all of whom once occupied a nineteenth-century poorhouse, are awakened. Where did you get the idea for this tale? Was any research involved in the writing process?

Hahn: The idea began in New York State many years ago when I stayed at an inn located in a renovated building on a poor farm. Two empty and deteriorating buildings flanked the inn—dark and foreboding, especially at night. The owner took me on a tour of one of the buildings, showing me the low-ceilinged rooms and describing the harsh life the inhabitants led, working long hours on the farm in all sorts of weather, eating little, and living in ­inadequately heated buildings. Scariest of all were the cells in the basement where the “insane” were kept. Saddest of all was the burial ground where numbered stones marked the graves. It took me at least 15 years to come up with
All the Lovely Bad Ones.

AL: Have you ever experienced your own supernatural event?

Hahn: I think I saw a ghost in Olathe, Kansas, but I might have been dreaming. I was the only guest in a large Victorian bed-and-breakfast. Waking in the middle of the night, I saw a man in nineteenth-century clothing standing at the bureau with his back to me, emptying his pockets of loose change. I tried to cry out, but couldn’t make a sound. When he turned and saw me, he gave me a frightened look and ran from the room. The owner told me she had long believed the house was haunted. She’d sensed benign presences she thought were the ghosts of the man and woman who originally owned the house.

AL: You have said that your early childhood was a difficult time. How did this time period affect your writing? Do any of your own experiences show up in your books?

Hahn: Until I was old enough to go to school, I was left in the care of a less than kindly grandmother who frightened me with her superstitious beliefs, most of which had to do with dying. She was of a deep and dark melancholic disposition, and by the time I was six years old, she had become increasingly senile. I confess that every scary old person in my books is my grandmother in some disguise or other. She is most like herself in
Daphne’s Book, but she’s also old Maude Blackthorne in
The Time of the Witch, Miss Cooper in
The Doll in the Garden, Old Edward in
Time for Andrew, Miss Willis in
The Old Willis Place, and, most frightening of all, Miss Ada in
All the Lovely Bad Ones. I suppose you could say I’m still trying to exorcise her—but obviously I have not succeeded.

AL: After writing more than two dozen books, is there anything that still challenges you as a writer?

Hahn: Every new book is a challenge from start to finish. Each time I begin a story, I fear I will not be able to complete it; or if I do, my editor will reject it; or if it’s published, no one will read it; or if they read it, they won’t like it.

AL: During your time as a children’s librarian and an author who has made numerous school visits, what have children taught you about writing?

Hahn: Children have taught me that they love a good story—especially if it’s scary. Or funny. Or exciting. Or magical. Just so it’s not boring. I love their enthusiasm and excitement. I love the questions they ask and the projects they make in honor of my visit. I love their openness.

AL: What will readers be treated to next by Mary Downing Hahn?

Hahn: My next book is
Closed for the Season, a story that began several years ago when I crept through a hole in a fence to photograph the ruins of the Enchanted Forest, a nursery rhyme theme park for children. I’d taken my daughters there and watched them explore Cinderella’s castle, race over the Rainbow Bridge, and pose for pictures in the mouth of Willie the big blue whale. They spun round and round in Alice’s Tea Party Cups and bought candy at the Witch’s Cottage. Closed for many years when I made my illicit entry, the park had become a desolate ruin, grown over with vines and weeds. I knew I’d use it in a book someday, but it took ages to work out the plot—a mystery instead of a ghost story.

Sampling Hahn

All the Lovely Bad Ones: A Ghost Story. 2008. 192p. Clarion, $16 (9780618854677). Gr. 4–7.

Deep and Dark and Dangerous: A Ghost Story. 2007. 192p. Clarion, $16 (9780618665457); paper, $5.99 (9780547076454). Gr. 4–7.

The Doll in the Garden: A Ghost Story. 1989. 144p. Clarion, $16 (9780899198484); paper, $5.95 (9780618873159). Gr. 4–7.

Look for Me by Moonlight. 1995. 208p. Clarion, $16 (9780395698433); paper, $6.99 (9780547076164). Gr. 7–10.

The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story. 2004. 208p. Clarion, $16 (9780618430185); paper, $5.95 (9780618897414). Gr. 4–7.

Time for Andrew: A Ghost Story. 1994. 176p. Clarion, $15 (9780395665565); paper, $5.95 (9780618873166). Gr. 4–6.

Wait till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story. 1986. 192p. Clarion, $15 (9780899194530); paper, $5.95 (9780547028644). Gr. 5–7.

Witch Catcher. 2006. 240p. Clarion, $16 (9780618504572). Gr. 4–7.

Angela Leeper is an educational consultant and writer in Wake Forest, North Carolina.