With the Halloween season upon us, witchy children’s books are getting a lot of love—and rightfully so. They’re thrilling, chilling, and often a little bit zany . . . a truly magical combination that many middle grade readers just can’t seem to get enough of.
THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE by Josh Roberts is one such recent title. In this book filled with magical mayhem, thirteen-year-old Abby Shepherd discovers she and several of her schoolmates are witches—and the only line of defense between the town of Willow Cove and a dangerous, secret past. With the help of a few friends, Abby’s coven squares off against the threat encroaching on their hometown, and ultimately learn that the line between good and evil isn’t always so easily discerned.
Out from Owl Hollow Press earlier this year, The Witches of Willow Cove has been accruing a lot of attention from readers and critics alike. It’s earned starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews, and was also named one of the Best Indie Books of September by Kirkus.
Now, Roberts is hard at work on the sequel—however he agreed to take a break in order to chat with me about the recent success of the book and the thrilling, chilling and sometimes painful experience of writing book two.
Rebecca Moody: We talked a year ago, before the book was published, about spooky middle grade novels and what makes them fun for readers. But what was the most fun thing about writing The Witches of Willow Cove?
Josh Roberts: Fun? What do you mean, fun? Writing is torture! It’s long hours hunched over a keyboard, and too much coffee, and never enough time, and always getting the best ideas when you can’t sit down and work on them! Fun? Ha!
Okay, so I’m mostly kidding. But it is hard work, and I could never have completed The Witches of Willow Cove if I’d ever really stopped to think about all the potential obstacles standing in the way of publication, so what drove me then (and continues to drive me with my current manuscript) is the joy I take in living with these characters and crafting a story that brings out the best and worst in them.
The time I spend thinking and planning and imagining conversations between characters—that’s always been the fun part for me. I’m fortunate because I loved every minute of writing The Witches of Willow Cove . . . even when I hated it.
RM: The Witches of Willow Cove, which is your first novel, has earned some pretty high accolades from readers and book reviewers, not to mention two starred reviews from Kirkus and The School Library Journal! How does it feel to have your work receive this kind of attention? What do you find most gratifying?
JR: It’s unreal. Like totally, unbelievably, dream-come-true levels of unreal. I’ve been known to occasionally re-read my Kirkus and School Library Journal reviews just to make sure they haven’t somehow changed their minds.
Getting a starred review is the kind of thing you never even let yourself dream about, let alone two of them! That kind of recognition means so much to me because The Witches of Willow Cove had a very long and difficult road to publication, and there were times I honestly believed it must not be good enough. Why else would it get so many rejections?
As gratifying as the trade reviews have been, though, it’s so much cooler to hear from the readers who’ve discovered the book and found something personally meaningful to them in it. I guess you could say that’s a little bit validating, too. Writing is such a personal and vulnerable pursuit. You leave a piece of yourself on every page. It feels good when people respond well to it.
RM: You’re currently working on a second book, which will be a sequel to The Witches of Willow Cove. What has it been like for you to return to this world and these characters?
JR: In some ways it feels like I never left. I always envisioned The Witches of Willow Cove as a pilot episode of sorts: a standalone story that would establish the characters and world, lay down some ground rules, offer a satisfying conclusion . . . but also hint at darker things to come.
So, even as I was writing the first book, I had ideas all along for where I could take things in subsequent books. I mapped out some story beats and character moments I wanted to hit in future books, if I were lucky enough to find an audience for the series.
Earlier this week I just finished a scene in the sequel, for example, that I first imagined three or four year ago! I love these characters so much, and I’m doing such mean things to them in book two, but I swear it’s for their own good. They’ll be stronger and wiser when they make it through, I swear. Or at least the ones who survive will be.
RM: So you always intended to write a sequel, then?
JR: I’d always hoped to write the sequel (and beyond), and the nice thing now is that because I was able to seed a lot of hints and foreshadowing into the first book, I’m able to deliver on some of those promises now in the sequel. I always like reading series where you can look back after it’s done and see how everything was part of a design all along. I don’t like it so much when it feels like things were being made up on the fly and the pieces don’t quite fit the way they should.
RM: Aspiring writers know how hard it is to write (and publish!) a first book, but what you frequently hear from published writers is that Book Two is even harder. Why do you think this is often the case, and does this match your experience?
JR: I think there’s a lot of self-imposed pressure after your first book is published. “Okay, you did it once, but can you do it again?” It’s natural to worry that maybe the answer is “no.” I know I’ve wrestled with those fears.
For me, writing a sequel to The Witches of Willow Cove is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I already know a lot of the characters, and I’ve lived with the basic idea of what happens next for a while now. So, there are some built-in advantages. But there are drawbacks, too.
Writing a sequel comes with its own special set of challenges. You want to write something that satisfies people who enjoyed the first book, but doesn’t feel too similar or safe, either. I’ve always thought the best sequels are the ones that feel like a natural continuation of the story, but also expand our understanding of the characters and world while introducing new challenges and new characters.
The classic example for people of my generation is The Empire Strikes Back, which is in my opinion a nearly perfect sequel. Not for the “I am your father” moment (sorry, spoilers!) but because the characters grow, their relationship dynamics evolve, and the world of Star Wars seems to get so much bigger.
That said, I think the formula of Empire Strikes Back has been copied a bit too much by other series. Second installments these days tend to be darker, force some sort of artificial shock moment (“Nothing will ever be the same!” and “Everything you thought you knew was wrong!”), and end on a cliff-hanger. In my opinion, the only way you can make that work is if you understand why it worked for Star Wars, and not just copy the formula because it worked for Star Wars.
My sequel, which is called The Curse of Willow Cove, will definitively not end on a cliffhanger. If you’re going to buy a book, you ought to get a whole book with a beginning, middle, and end. I really believe that. So, like the first book in the series, this sequel will set up future installments with hints of what’s to come—but it’ll be a complete story in and of itself.
RM: Is there anything more planned for these characters beyond Book Two?
JR: I have a three-book arc planned out in pretty solid detail, and I know exactly how I want it to end. That said, I do have some ideas for where the story could go from there if I chose to continue it. I don’t know if I will. I’m only going to keep writing these books for as long as I think I can bring something new and different and entertaining to each one. There’s nothing worse than a series that overstays its welcome and diminishes with each new volume.
Still, I love these characters, and who knows what kind of curveball the third book will throw at me? The sequel to book one is already veering off in some entirely unexpected directions!
RM: Without any spoilers, can you give us any hints of what’s to come for Abby and her friends?
JR: Eight months have passed since the end of The Witches of Willow Cove. Abby is fourteen now, and she and her friends are really coming into their powers and feeling like they have the whole teenage witch thing figured out. So, naturally something has to come along and take them down a notch or two.
The world will get bigger as the coven travels beyond Willow Cove and encounters witches from other parts of the world. We’ll meet the Council of Witches that was hinted at in book one. Mysterious new characters will appear, and old friends will vanish . . . or worse.
There will be relationship drama and breakups. Something very ancient and very sinister will sink its teeth into Willow Cove. And, who knows, maybe someone who’s supposed to be dead will find a way back to the land of the living?
RM: That sounds incredible! I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us about it!
Looking for more information about The Witches of Willow Cove and author Josh Roberts? Read his bio below or check out his website. You can also find his book at independent bookstores or at big retailers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon.
An award-winning travel writer and editor, Josh Roberts has written for publications as varied as USA Today, The Boston Globe, and Business Insider. These days, Josh writes the kind of middle-grade novels he always enjoyed when he was a kid growing up in a spooky Victorian funeral home. His debut novel, THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE, publishes today by Owl Hollow Press.