Author Interviews : Kat Shepherd
Debut author Kat Shepherd writes fast-paced series books with the goal of making reading a joyful experience for every kid. A former classroom teacher, Kat has also worked as a deli waitress, a Hollywood script reader, and a dog trainer for film and TV. She has graciously taken time out of her busy writing schedule to talk with us about herself and her recent publication The Shadow Hand.
Your debut novel, The Shadow Hand, Book 1 in the Babysitting Nightmares Series, hit bookshelves this past summer and it’s getting rave reviews. Can you tell us a little about the book and why you chose to write a spooky adventure series?
I write the kinds of books I loved to read growing up and still love to read now. I loved scary books, mysteries, adventures, and comedies, and it was important to me to be able to offer those same kinds of books for all kinds of readers.
BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES is a middle grade series about four best friends who must confront a new supernatural threat with each new babysitting job. THE SHADOW HAND is the first book, and it follows the story of Rebecca Chin, a really practical, together kid who considers herself a pretty expert babysitter. She’s sitting for her favorite baby, Kyle, when there’s a freak storm and the power goes out. The baby seems completely fine, but the locked window in his bedroom is suddenly open, and there’s moss on the windowsill… in the shape of a hand. And that’s just chapter one.
The creep factor escalates from there into a fun, fast-paced read full of scares and suspense, but the girls’ friendship is the true heart of the story. Think Goosebumps meets The Baby-Sitters Club. Book 2, The Phantom Hour, hits shelves on January 29, 2019.
What is your secret to making your stories appealing, even to the most reluctant readers?
I think that reading and literacy is a fundamental right for all people, and to deny anyone that right is morally wrong. I believe really strongly in listening to and respecting kid readers, and everything I write comes directly from that core mission. Before I started writing fiction, I was a classroom teacher and educational consultant. I spent a lot of time working with “reluctant” readers. Educators are now starting to call these kids undiscovered readers, because they haven’t yet discovered those books that excite them and keep them turning the pages. In working with these undiscovered readers, I found that the books they did gravitate towards tended to be series books, scary books, and books with short chapters and cliffhanger endings. So as a writer, it is my goal to meet them where they are and try to create something that gives them what they have asked for. I put a lot of care into finding the right balance in creating fun reads that still give readers some really meaty ideas to think about.
I think it can be very tempting for adults to want to limit what kids read or to expect kids to read only books that nourish them in very specific ways. However, just as eating a wide variety of foods helps keep us happy and healthy, so does reading a wide variety of books, because different kinds of books nourish us in different ways. I usually have a good four or five books I’m reading at any given time. Some are serious books, and some are much lighter. If I were only allowed to read the serious books with awards on their covers, I would spend far less time reading than I do now. I might even stop reading altogether. Because I would think to myself, “If being a reader means I’m only supposed to spend time with these kinds of books, then I just must not be a reader.” If you turn reading into work, then you’ve already lost. Because how many people want to spend their free time going to work?
What book can readers expect to see from you next?
Book 2 of Babysitting Nightmares, The Phantom Hour, will be in stores on January 29, 2019. In this installment, Clio Carter-Peterson has taken a job babysitting for the Lee family, who has recently moved into the long-abandoned Plunkett Mansion. The family is lovely, and history-loving Clio is fascinated by the beautiful old building, but soon doors start closing behind her, objects move on their own, and messages appear from beyond the grave. With help from her friends, Clio soon discovers that the mansion’s dark past might be the reason behind these frightening events, and the girls must work together to put old spirits to rest before it’s too late. This book is more of a classic spooky read than Book 1, and I think scary story fans will love the thrills and chills I’ve thrown in. I even scared myself a few times while I was writing it!
My second book series, The Gemini Mysteries (Bonnier/Yellow Jacket), debuts with The North Star on March 5, 2019. It’s an interactive mystery series set in the Twin Cities, where I live. Twins Zach and Evie Mamuya and their best friend, Vishal Desai, tag along with the twins’ crime reporter mom when she gets a call that a priceless diamond necklace has been stolen just before a high-profile auction. That’s when they meet Sophia Boyd, a new girl at school who is certain she knows the identity of the thief. The four young teens must follow the clues, which are hidden in the illustrations at the end of each chapter, to catch the culprit and find the necklace or risk it being lost forever. It’s an action-packed story that’s full of twists and turns, and I can’t wait to share it with readers everywhere.
Your website states you are a writer and an educator? Are you currently doing both? If so, what grade/subject do you teach?
I had been working as an educator right up until we moved to Minnesota, but I switched to writing full-time in September, 2017. I was a fourth and fifth grade classroom teacher from 2000 to 2009, and after that I worked as a homeschool teacher, tutor, and educational consultant for third through eight graders. The middle grades are one-hundred percent where my heart lies; those are my people. Fifth grade is my absolute favorite, and I think it is just the perfect age for teachers.
I honestly loved every subject I taught. I’m a naturally curious person, and I loved sharing that excitement and curiosity with my students. My classroom library was epic: I knew how to work those Scholastic points, so I had just about every book a kid could want, and if I didn’t, I would use my own money to buy it for the classroom. I loved helping kids grow into joyful readers, and I was also passionate about teaching them how to research and craft a written argument; I think that is vitally important. But I think my very favorite subject to teach was math. I didn’t learn to love math—and I mean deeply, deeply love the elegance and brilliance of math—until I started teaching it. I want every student to learn to love math as passionately as I do.
While living in Southern California, you and your husband hosted weekend writer retreats. How did the idea come about?
My husband and I are both connectors; we love creating community, and we have the kinds of minds that enjoy pulling together disparate ideas and figuring out how to make them work. On an adventure one day we discovered this former lodge and church camp that was about a four-mile-hike from civilization, and the new owners were eager to bring new folks in to enjoy this magical spot. We had always wanted to put together a creative writing retreat, and it was a fun challenge to adapt what we wanted to do with the limitations of a remote location: no laptops, no wifi, and an honest-to-goodness mule train if you wanted to bring in anything heavier than you could carry in your backpack. Living in Los Angeles can be exhausting; it’s a huge city with constant demands on your time and attention. We had a lot of friends who wanted to dedicate more time and attention to creating, but they were so busy with the daily grind that they weren’t able to focus on it in the way that they wanted to. Getting out in the woods and away from everything was the perfect antidote to that, and it really helped folks refill the creative well.
We’re hoping to host retreats again up in our new home state of Minnesota, so once we get settled up here we’ll be looking for a spot! I just found out our next-door-neighbor owns a little camp of cabins up north somewhere, so that might be the perfect place to start. The key will just be getting our California friends up here to make it happen!
Besides books and education, what other passions do you have, and will we see those passions featured in future publications?
I love animals, and the way that plays out in my own life is through the volunteer work I do with zoos and on behalf of homeless pets. I first started volunteering in zoos when I was in college, and I’ve gotten to work with a lot of interesting animals. Of those I got to work with directly, my favorites were tigers and small primates, although I did form a pretty strong bond with an Andean condor. I love zoos, and volunteering with them has allowed me to see how much thought and care goes into each animal’s welfare.
My passion for zoos and their role in animal care and conservation comes out a lot in my Gemini Mysteries series. In Book 1, The North Star, Sophia is working to raise money for a new gibbon exhibit. Gibbons are often known as ‘the singing apes’ for their incredible calls, and I have been lucky enough to get to sing with gibbons myself. It is one of my favorite memories, and I was so excited to be able to give readers a chance to fall in love with these special primates, just as I have, and just as Sophia does. This series also lets me raise awareness about palm oil plantations, which are responsible for the rapidly declining populations of a whole host of animals, including gibbons and their even more critically endangered cousins, orangutans. I had never heard of palm oil until one of my students told me about it a few years ago, and I love being able to use what I learned from her to help educate other people. For instance, there’s an amazing app from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo that lets you do a barcode scan of any product at a store and find out where it stands on sustainable palm oil use. It has made a significant change to my shopping habits, so any companies who still haven’t joined the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) please take note. (You better step it up, @wholefoods and @traderjoes!)
Dog rescue is a huge part of my life, because I believe it is our duty to care for our pets the same way we care for other loved ones in our lives. My husband and I always have a foster dog in our house in addition to our own two dogs, and I’ve also done other types of volunteer work with rescues and shelter intervention programs. I particularly love shelter intervention programs, which are gaining ground in major cities. Many pets end up in shelters not because they are unwanted, but because their owners are unable to keep them for financial or other reasons. Shelter intervention programs help keep pets home with the families that love them by intervening before pets are turned in. They offer low-cost vet care, free obedience training, legal help with landlord issues, and even free pet food. I love that they help both people and animals by addressing the root of the problem and working to fix it. I do have a character in the Gemini books that rescues dogs, and it’s fun to share a little bit of my passion through her.
Because the stories I write tend to be spooky or action-packed with lots of peril, I rarely include dogs in my books. There’s a reason for this! As a reader I get SO WORRIED if there is a pet in a scary story, and I would be totally preoccupied that something bad was going to happen to it. I don’t want my readers to have the same worries, so pets in my stories are rare for that reason. However, I have found a way to slip my own dogs into a few of my stories, and I promise that I’ll never let anything bad happen to a dog in my book!
If you were writing a book about your life, what would the title be?
Believe it or not, the title always comes last for me. I usually don’t come up with one until I’ve finished writing the book and had the chance to look at it as a whole. So, I hope I’ve still got a ways to go until I get to the point where my life is ready for a title. Ask me again in fifty years!