Spooky Stories for Scaredy-Cats and Why Author Justine Pucella Winans Loves Reluctant Heroes

Guest post by The Otherwoods author Justine Pucella Winans
Justine Pucella Winans (they/she) is a queer and nonbinary writer who lives in Los Angeles with their husband and two adorable cats, Jasper and Twinklepop. Their YA debut, BIANCA TORRE IS AFRAID OF EVERYTHING, was an Indies Introduce title and critically acclaimed comedic murder mystery. Their MG debut, THE OTHERWOODS, is a spooky portal fantasy that received two starred reviews and was an Indie Next pick. When not writing queer, creepy, and fun fiction for kids and teens, they can be found training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reading manga and webcomics, and actively avoiding real life scary situations.

Releasing on September 12th, The Otherwoods will have you cowering and cackling as you follow River’s reluctant hero’s journey, perfect for fans of Doll Bones, Ghost Squad, and Too Bright to See.

I’ve always liked the idea of adventure. The feeling of being something more, someone that mattered, a real hero type. As I would escape between the pages of the books I’ve read, a part of me was waiting to find out that I was actually a demigod, or had some kind of superpower, or would somehow develop the ability to at least communicate with my cats to tell them how much I loved them and also maybe not to aim for clothes and carpeting specifically whenever they vomit. I mean, everyone loves the main character. Protagonists had it made, right?

In theory. But then in practice… I wasn’t cut out for that kind of lifestyle. How could I go out on an adventure? What if my glasses broke? Could I really function without WiFi? What if my IBS flared up and I got a tummyache? A backpack simply cannot fit that many wet wipes! Even if faced with a terrifying situation in the comfort of my own home, I’m pretty sure I’d simply die.

Heroes were a different breed. Certainly not anything like me.

Except, in some cases, they were. The heroes that really didn’t intend to be heroes, that wanted no business being a Chosen One or a Final Girl or anything that required them to laugh in the face of danger (because, let’s be real, they were more the type to cry or perhaps pee their pants in the face of danger). These were the heroes that didn’t feel like far away, larger than life, characters to me. They made sense. (Which is why, along with my five-foot-nothing height and love of food, if I were a mythical creature, I’d definitely be a hobbit).

That became my inspiration for The Otherwoods. It all started with a kid who had a terrifying bug monster under their bed and wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. Who didn’t naturally think to battle or befriend the monster, but rather, to squeeze their eyes shut, pull up the covers, and pretend that meant they were some kind of safe. I wanted to write about a kid who actively avoided adventure and scary situations, at least, until they didn’t have much of a choice. I wanted to write about a kid who didn’t believe they could be a hero because they saw what heroes did and they wanted none of that, thanks.

Even more so, because they were queer. They were nonbinary and because of that, people didn’t want to believe in them. In the same way that people didn’t want to believe in the monsters and the spirits that they saw. I wanted to write about the feelings of not believing in yourself because so many others tell you that you are wrong and you shouldn’t. Because those are feelings that I’ve struggled with, that I still struggle with.

And, more than anything else, I wanted to write a story that told you to believe in yourself. That shows that the little flicker inside of you, the one that anxiety and imposter syndrome and fear try to suppress, was actually right all along. That you are yourself, that you are magic, that you are a hero.

Because being afraid, being anxious, being unsure – those things don’t mean you can’t be a hero, like I used to believe. They just mean you’ll be a smart one. A cautious one. A careful one. But a hero nonetheless.

Through River’s journey into The Otherwoods, I wanted to show how you don’t have to completely change yourself in order to be a protagonist. Some of us are never going to be without fear, without self-doubt, without anxiety. And that’s okay. We don’t need to lose our reluctance to be a hero, we just need to keep pushing in spite of it. To not give up. It’s not a book about overcoming your fears and doubts in the sense of no longer having them. It’s a book about realizing that those fears and doubts can be part of your strength. That despite them, and even with them, you can survive the monsters in your life.

Whether that be a six-foot-tall bug monster with massive pincers, blade-like arms, and flammable ooze…or a person who doesn’t believe in you. Who holds hatred for the very things about you that make you beautiful, that make you magic.

I think those are the scariest monsters of all.

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To me, that’s the beauty of the reluctant hero. They are afraid. They mess up. Maybe sometimes they run away or freeze up or close their eyes. They don’t always know what to do and they definitely don’t always want to do it.

But at the end of the day, they survive. They keep going.

Life is scary. Especially for nonbinary and trans kids right now. There is a lot to be afraid of, to be angry about, to cry and scream and punch a pillow over. There are things that you won’t want to face and things you shouldn’t have to face and monsters that give terrifying bug creatures a bad name because of how actually horrible they are. It is fully understandable to be afraid and have doubts and sometimes just want to give up and cuddle up with your cat and play Pokémon instead. What’s important is not to put ourselves down for having these feelings, but to realize they are a part of us, and to keep going.

To survive.

Whether it be The Otherwoods or the school year or a really bad day, you are a hero, no matter how reluctant you are.

And we’ll make it through.

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