Off-Campus Profiles, Features

Through Monsters and Magic, Dionne’s New Children’s Book Series Teaches Interpersonal Skills

Erin Dionne grew up jumping from book to book and hoping that, one day, she would author stories of her own. 

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I was seven and discovered that books were written by people, not machines,” Dionne said. 

Throughout her career as a children’s book author, Dionne, BC ’97, has published seven middle-grade novels, two picture books, and an essay collection on writing. And on August 1, she released the first two books of her new chapter book series, Shiver-by-the-Sea. 

Dionne majored in English and communications at Boston College. During her time as an undergraduate student, Dionne said she secured magazine and publishing internships in Boston while continuing to write her own stories.

“I feel like being in Boston and being at BC gave me a path,” Dionne said. 

Dionne took a class at BC called Heroes and Heroism, where she analyzed children’s books. Through her work in this class, Dionne realized she wanted to write for children, she said. 

“It was at 8:30 in the morning my senior year—a ridiculous hour—but I still went,” Dionne said. “And that class sort of reminded me how much I loved reading as a kid and the books that I read as a kid, and it started me thinking, like, could I do that?” 

Once she graduated from BC, Dionne went to Emerson College to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing. In graduate school, she took a class on writing for children—a class she said helped her career fall into place. From then on, she knew for certain that she wanted to be a children’s book author. 

It took Dionne 10 years after graduating from BC to sign with her agent and sell her first book, she said. In the decade it took for her to become a published author, she said she never stopped writing. 

“In that 10 years, I wrote two novels, I went to grad school, [and] I worked in the publishing industry,” Dionne said. “It seems on average to take about that long once you start getting really serious about your craft.” 

Dionne began writing Shiver-by-the-Sea, her most recent series of books, during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was originally working on a longer novel, she said, but had trouble focusing because of its length. 

“During the pandemic, I was working on a novel, and I realized I couldn’t work on it anymore—it was just too hard to focus,” Dionne said. “And I was sort of going through some other ideas and projects and thought, ‘Oh, that Shiver-by-the-Sea … maybe I could play with that.’” 

Shiver-by-the-Sea is an illustrated chapter book series for readers ages 7 to 9. The story follows the life of Bella Gossi, a kid who is moving back to Shiver-by-the-Sea, Mass. with her mom after her parents get divorced. Bella’s mom runs the local movie theater, and Bella soon realizes that Shiver-by-the-Sea is a town full of magic and monsters, Dionne said. 

“In the first book, [Bella] actually helps a vampire who has been lost and secretly living in her mom’s movie theater,” Dionne said. “And then, the second book is about a puppy that Bella fosters that changes at night.” 

Each book in the Shiver-by-the-Sea series is based on a classic monster movie, Dionne said. The first book references Dracula, the second references The Werewolf, and the third book, which Dionne recently finished writing, draws inspiration from Creature from the Black Lagoon

“Rather than making monsters up, I thought, ‘Oh, the mom opens a movie theater—this would be a good way to sort of bring in these 1950s classic movies,’” Dionne said. 

Alison Weiss, Dionne’s acquisitions editor for Shiver-by-the-Sea, said that one of her favorite parts of the series is the way Dionne integrates the monsters into the narrative. 

“One of the things that I think makes [Shiver-by-the-Sea] work so well is that it takes elements that are familiar to us—we all know movie monsters—and puts them in a context that feels very of this moment,” Weiss said. 

The relationship between Bella and the monsters in Shiver-by-the-Sea also teaches young readers how to interact with people who are different from them, Weiss said. 

“The monsters can kind of be a metaphor for people who are different than you who are coming into your community,” Weiss said. “How you approach that with kindness and understanding rather than ‘Oh, they’re different. They’re scary.’”

According to Dionne, the monsters in Shiver-by-the-Sea are a vessel through which she teaches her young readers social-emotional and community-building skills. 

“In the first book, Bella is getting used to a new town and a new place, and she finds this kid who happens to be a vampire who is lost, and it really makes her think about what home is and what community is,” Dionne said. 

The second book in the series exemplifies how social-emotional learning is incorporated into every story line, Dionne said. When Bella fosters a puppy that becomes bigger and scarier at night, everyone tries to get it to behave. Eventually, Bella learns she needs to work with the puppy and stop trying to get it to change.

“Bella kind of recognizes, ‘We just have to figure out a way to work with it for what it is,’” Dionne said. “It’s also about giving a good apology because the puppy causes a lot of damage, and Bella’s responsible for it because she’s watching it.” 

Weiss said that one of Dionne’s strengths is the way she seamlessly integrates social-emotional learning into her storylines. 

“I think it’s a really smart way to start exploring those concepts with young readers in a way that we’re not slamming them over the head with lessons,” Weiss said. 

Shiver-by-the-Sea is different from everything else Dionne has written because it is her first time incorporating elements of magic, she said. Dionne said she loves reading horror novels but she had only ever written realistic fiction novels until Shiver-by-the-Sea. 

“The scary stuff and the magic stuff was different for me,” Dionne said. “They’re kind of sweet and funny, they’re not super scary, but we do have those little elements that give kids a little bit of a thrill.” 

Nancy Werlin, Dionne’s friend and a fellow author, writes with Dionne every weekend. Throughout their years working together, Werlin said she has seen Dionne grow as she has continued writing many different types of books. 

“Erin writes all sorts of different things—everything from picture books all the way up to novels,” Werlin said. “That is amazing to me, and it gives me a little more courage, I would say.” 

Though the Shiver-by-the-Sea series is a different genre from Dionne’s previous novels, Dionne said her sense of humor remains consistent in everything she writes. 

“The humor kind of translates,” Dionne said. “I definitely have stuff that’s funny, and that’s sort of my trademark, I guess.” 

Werlin added that Dionne’s sense of humor is a defining characteristic of her writing. 

“She has the ability to write in kind of a delightful way with very inventive plots that makes reading her work a pleasure,” Werlin said. 

In the future, Dionne wants to continue writing for kids and hopes to publish more books in the Shiver-by-the-Sea series. Dionne said she loves the process of writing children’s books but also looks forward to the day each book is published, so she can witness the enthusiasm kids display while diving into her stories. 

“Kids get so excited, they get really invested in the characters and maybe they want to know more, or they have certain opinions about what this character did,” Dionne said. “And I love that—I love that once I’m done with the book, it has this whole other life away from me, and I just love hearing how people connect with the story.”

September 24, 2023