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1. Our Dog, Daisy, Photobombs Maggie’s “Upward Dog”: Hilarity Follows

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Backstory: Maggie is entering 9th grade. A talented athlete, she’s encountered more than her fair share of physical setbacks. Three ACL surgeries over the past two years. These are devastating injuries with long and uncertain recovery periods. But the thing about Maggie is she’s unstoppable. Best spirit ever. Unable to play basketball or soccer, she’s recently gotten into yoga and crew. Yesterday a friend took some snaps while Maggie was demonstrating a few positions in the backyard. Our dog, Daisy, got involved. Namaste!

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2. Best Last Lines of Books, Revisited

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48328I recently read a masterpiece by Richard Yates titled Revolutionary Road. You may have read it, or seen the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

The entire book left me in awe, frankly. But why I’m posting today is the ending was just so perfect. A man is sitting in his chair while his wife prattles on and on, perhaps representing the banalities and sometimes-pettiness of suburban life, the smallness of minds. She goes on uninterrupted for almost two full pages. Then he comes the final paragraph:

But from there on Howard Givings heard only a welcome, thunderous sea of silence. He had turned off his hearing aid.

Wow. The end.

A thunderous sea of silence.

And by best last line I should say, best ending for that specific book. For Revolutionary Road, the man turning off his hearing aid was just right. Shutting out the noise.

Anyway, that ending reminded me of all old post I had written maybe four or five years ago. Since I think it still has entertainment value, here you go . . .

——

Stylist magazine has put together a list of The Best 100 Closing Lines from Books. Here’s a few of my favorites . . .

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Animal Farm, George Orwell

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Steig Larsson

“She opened the door wide and let him into her life again.”

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

“It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx

“There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

“A last note from your narrator. I am haunted by humans.”

The Beach, Alex Garland

“I’m fine. I have bad dreams but I never saw Mister Duck again. I play video games. I smoke a little dope. I got my thousand-yard stare. I carry a lot of scars. I like the way that sounds. I carry a lot of scars.”

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

“The old man was dreaming about the lions.”

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

“I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.”

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

“Are there any questions?”

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

“I ran with the wind blowing in my face, and a smile as wide as the valley of Panjsher on my lips. I ran.”

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

“She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

“I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

The Outcast, Sadie Jones

“He didn’t think about it, he went straight to a seat facing forwards, so that he could see where he was going.”

Before I Die, Jenny Downham

“Light falls through the window, falls onto me, into me. Moments. All gathering towards this one.”

They also compiled a list of 100 Best Opening Lines from Books.

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As an author, I guess it’s something to think about. It’s even more important with picture books. As James Marshall once told me in an interview, “The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles at the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it.”

Perhaps my best closing line comes from Hiccups for Elephant:

“Ah-choo!”

From A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, as “Red” enters the library:

“I passed the mess and crossed the halls. Until thar she blew — me treasure!”

From longer works, I especially like the closing lines from Along Came Spider:

“Without looking back, Trey nodded, yes, tomorrow, then stepped inside, yes, and was gone.”

Here’s the closing lines from Bystander:

“All the while quietly hoping — in that place of the heart where words sputter and dissolve, where secret dreams are born and scarcely admitted — to score winning baskets for the home team. To take it to the hole and go up strong. Fearless, triumphant. The crowd on their feet. His father in the stands, cheering.”

Recently a reviewer wrote that the last line of The Fall brought tears to her eyes, that it wasn’t until the final moment that she fully realized the book had touched her in that way.

I don’t think it was the brilliance of the last line, but more the culmination of feeling. Here it is anyway:

TheFall

“I guess I will remember everything. Your friend, Sam Proctor.”

And while I’m updating this section with recent titles, I also like the last lines of Before You Go, if you don’t mind me saying so:

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“He didn’t know what would happen with Becka. Maybe that’s why he needed to be alone on the beach, to watch the sunrise, to be okay with himself, despite everything. Sometimes life seemed impossibly hard, full of car wrecks and souls that shined like stars in yellow dresses. So much heartbreak and undertow. Jude bent down, picked up a smooth white stone, measured its heft in his hand. And he reached back and cast that rock as far as he could.

Just to see the splash.”

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3. Fan Mail Wednesday #214: Another Happy Contest Winner!

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This letter came from a super mom who entered a contest for a free book giveaway. She accompanied it with a nice letter so I figured I’d share our exchange.

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Hello! I’d like to enter the contest for book#6 for my son Aidan! He’s been waiting so long for this book to be published! Your Scary Tales series are his very favorite books to read, he happened to find them at the library and devoured them all immediately. I’ve tried to find similar books for him,  since he’s usually not very enthused about nightly reading time,  but so far nothing had come close to grabbing his attention as your books. He would be so excited to win your signed, newest book! But either way he’s going to read it,  and love it I’m sure! Thanks for entertaining so many children, I hope you never stop!
Sincerely,
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April
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I replied:
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Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES #6: SWAMP MONSTER.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES #6: SWAMP MONSTER.

Thanks so much for your kind letter. As a parent, I know how it feels when I see my children connect with a series or an author. My daughter, Maggie, has never been a huge reader — and yes, that’s been frustrating for me as you might imagine. But now, suddenly, she’s reading anything by Jodi Picoult. It’s not my taste, but you won’t hear me complaining. I think one of the tricky parts about being a parent, or even a teacher, is to honor every reader’s individual taste. No judgment, just support. Because we have to trust in the process, we trust that one good book leads to another. Which is in no way to imply that my “Scary Tales” are not good books — I actually think they are! — just that maybe I’ve grown a bit sensitive about the horror genre in general. Now I know what Stephen King has been complaining about all these years. “Scary” doesn’t get a lot of respect, and many people think they know what it is without even reading the books.

Anyway, I digress. I’ve signed the book for Aidan and stuffed it into an envelope. I hope to get to the post office tomorrow.

My best to you and your family,

James Preller

 

 

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4. Fan Mail Wednesday #213: A Long, Thoughtful Letter from a Reader in the Republic of Korea

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It’s summer and I’ve put the blog into idle. Just puttering along, blowing white smoke, probably burning oil. Been neglecting everybody’s favorite feature, “Fan Mail Wednesday.” But I had to share this one from Dain, who wrote from Incheon in the Republic of Korea.

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Dain followed up with an email, worried if his letter had arrived. It did, and I’m sending my reply via snail mail next chance I can get to the post office. I would have done it sooner, except that it requires that I get out of my pajamas. In the meantime, here’s the electronic version.

First comes Dain, who writes with neat, precise handwriting, then my reply. That’s how it works here at James Preller Dot Com!

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Scan 1

Scan 2

 

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I replied:

 

Dear Dain,

Thank you for a spectacular letter. I would give my right arm to have neat handwriting like yours. (You should know, of course, that I’m a lefty; I’m not that crazy.)

I appreciate your thoughtful reading of Bystander. I respected your admission: “I was a bully, a victim, and also a bystander.” I think that’s true for many of us, at least in brief flashes of our lives. I can certainly identify with the role of each character in the story. We are all flawed in some respects.

To answer your questions:

When it comes to Griffin’s punishment, I saw this as a closed system between the young people, so there wasn’t ever going to be a “punishment” from an authority figure. It is a story without justice. To me, that’s true to life. It doesn’t often come wrapped neatly in a bow.

By making Griffin’s father a violent person, I wanted to highlight the vicious cycle of violence. That while we must all be responsible for our own actions, research shows that there is a connection between the “target” and “bully.” Often when someone is a victim of violence in his or her life, that same person will turn around and bully someone else. At first, that infortmation didn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t a victim be the last person to bully someone else? But thinking deeper, I thought: Of course, they are powerless in one area of life. And what are they going to do with all that hurt and anger? It has to spill out somewhere. So it began to make more sense. In the book, it is not an accident that on the day after Griffin is given a black eye by his father, he acts angry and cruel toward David. “Let’s play pretzel.”

Thinking about this topic, and researching it, I quickly realized that I could write a hundred different stories that approached bullying in different ways. No single story can provide a complete picture. For this one, my focus went to the bystander, the witness, because I think that best represents the majority of us -– and that’s where the ultimate power is, and therefore the hope for positive change.

Martin Luther King’s great quote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

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You might be interested to know that my new book, The Fall, coming out in September, approaches many of these same issues from the perspective of a boy who gets involved in cyber bullying with tragic results. The thing is, he’s a good kid who makes some bad choices. For me, as I wrote I discovered that the story was leading me to the importance of this character “owning” his actions, and ultimately to the essence of forgiveness. So, yes, I was nodding in agreement when you wrote in your letter about the importance of repentance.

Listen, Dain, thanks for patiently waiting several weeks for your reply. I very much enjoyed your letter -– all the way from Korea! -– and I wish you all the best.

Your friend,

A very impressed . . .

James Preller

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5. “Xpresso Reads” Offers a Great Review of THE FALL

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I was recently directed to a very impressive blog named Xpresso Reads, and happily discovered a positive review by Amy of my upcoming book, The Fall (September).

TheFall

The money quote:

“I didn’t realize the emotional impact this book had on me until the very last sentence when it brought tears to my eyes. This was a heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship, bullying, and the aftermath of all of it.”

I encourage you to click madly right here to grok the review in fullness.

Thanks, Amy!

XpressoReadsNewHeaderJenni12

Footnote: In the comments section, I came across a number of readers who mentioned the plethora of books these days about suicide and bullying. I felt compelled to add my thoughts to that discussion, and I might as well share them here.

So, um, here goes:

Hi, Amy. Thank you for the thoughtful review of my book, THE FALL. Just a little background here. When I wrote BYSTANDER in 2009, it was the right book at the right time — just before the issue blew up on the national media and the politicians got involved. Funding in schools, educators forced to address the issue, etc. To my surprise, I had stumbled upon an “it” topic.

In my visits to schools around the country, I was often asked about a sequel. I had no plans for one, not wired that way. But a few things started to happen in my mind. One, I saw the vilification of “the bully” and it didn’t easily jive with my perceptions. In most cases, I don’t actually believe in “the bully” per say; I understand “bullying” as a verb, a behavior, rather than as a label to stick on young person. So I began to think that if I ever approached the topic again, that’s where I wanted to go — from the perspective of a so-called bully. I wanted to write about it with sympathy and compassion, rather than finger-pointing and easy admonition. At the same time, I read some heartbreaking news reports about suicides, children who had been abused on social media, and so on. That’s how I came to write this book.

It is uncomfortable for me to feel like this book is part of a tidal wave of books on the topic. That’s never been how I’ve operated my career. My hope is that the first-person journal format brings something fresh and vital to the conversation.

Again, thank you for reading the book.

My best,

James Preller

While you’re here, some other recent review quotes about The Fall:

 “Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).” — Booklist.

“Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse.” — School Library Journal.

“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” (Fiction. 10-16) — Kirkus.

 

 

 

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6. Win a Free, Signed Copy of My New Book: SWAMP MONSTER

 

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So this box came in the mail containing the “author copies” of the 6th book in my “Scary Tales” series: Swamp Monster.

I’m very pleased with the story, the art, the whole she-bang.

By way of expressing my thanks, I thought I’d give away FIVE FREE, SIGNED COPIES to the first five people who raise their hand.

All you’ve got to do is shoot me an email at Jamespreller@aol.com. Type “SCARY TALES” into the subject heading. Please remember to include your mailing address. If you’d like me to personalize the inscription, don’t forget to include the name. I’m not a mind reader, you know.

Thanks for stopping by. I really do appreciate your interest and support. Hope you’re all having a nice summer!

 

 

 

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7. Outpost Centerfield: Reading & Writing About Baseball

Willie Mays, "the catch," from the 1954 World Series. Arguably the greatest play in the history of center field.

Willie Mays, “the catch,” from the 1954 World Series. Arguably the greatest play in the history of center field.

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I was recently reading a book by Philip Roth and came across a similarity to something I had written back in 2008. His words struck me as eerily familiar.

The relevant section in my book, Six Innings, focuses on center fielder Scooter Wells. For this book, my original idea came from watching an elaborate tracking shot by film director John Sayles. I actually forget which movie, and I may have all the details wrong, but the essence stands: I admired how the camera followed a character into a crowded room, came across a new face and then trailed after that new person until someone else came into view, and the camera again swiveled and changed direction to follow that character. I wondered if I could try a similar device by using a ball in a Little League game. Tell the story of each character as they naturally step into the game’s flow. If you catch the ball, it’s time for your story, and so on.

Anyway, in this moment, we’re out in center field with Scooter. An opposing slugger, Nick Clemente, has just struck a ball far and high. The pitcher, Dylan, immediately figures it’s gone . . .

2874077Out in center field, Scooter Wells knows better. He instantly realizes that the ball is going to stay within the yard. Most important, Scooter figures he’s got a chance to catch it. Somehow he does all that figuring — the mathematics of it, the cool calculus of force and trajectory, distance and wind patterns — by pure instinct. It’s a gift; he knows how to read a ball coming off a bat. To Scooter, center field is like a fire tower in the high peaks of the Adirondacks, an all-seeing observation post, the ideal vantage point to watch as the game unfolds.

< snip >

Now the ill-treated ball, so rudely bashed, travels in a soaring arc toward the right-center field gap. Scooter Wells, part physicist, part Labrador retriever, bolts toward the fence. “It’s mine! It’s mine!” he pointlessly yells, for the ball can be no one else’s. At full gallop, Scooter’s hat flies off his head. He extends his arm and snares Clemente’s bomb in the webbing of his glove.

Inning over.

0

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An aside: I don’t think anybody ever noticed it, but that passage includes a small tribute to the great Willie Mays. The “Say Hey Kid” had a signature habit of losing his hat, or his helmet if he happened to be tearing around the basepaths, whenever he took off on a mad sprint. At least that’s the way I remember it.

Here’s the section from Roth’s book, Portnoy’s Complaint, that caused me to to reread what I had written. For the record, I never read Portnoy until this past week, so I don’t see how I could have borrowed those images even subconsciously:

220px-Portnoy_s_ComplaintDo you know baseball at all? Because center field is like some observation post, a kind of control tower, where you are able to see everything and everyone, to understand what’s happening the instant it happens, not only by the sound of the struck bat, but by the spark of movement that goes through the infielders in the first second that the ball comes flying at them; and once it gets beyond them, “It’s mine,” you call, “it’s mine,” and then after it you go. For in center field, if you can get to it, it is yours.

 

As a baseball-loving southpaw from Long Island, I never played second base, shortstop, third base, or catcher. Those positions were and still remain strictly in the domain of right-handed ballplayers. So I pitched a lot, played first base, and eventually moved out to the hinter lands, center field, a position — and vantage point — I instantly loved.

What a great view to enjoy the game.

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8. Good News: Another Terrific Review for THE FALL (Booklist, July Issue)

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I’m happy about this positive review for The Fall in the July issue of Booklist.

Thank you, Teri Lesesne!

Money quote:

“Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).”

I’ll take it!

Here’s the whole shebang:

The Fall. Preller, James (Author)

Sep 2015. 256 p. Feiwel and Friends, hardcover, $16.99. (9780312643010).

9780312643010Sam Proctor is just an ordinary guy, neither an athlete nor a scholar. He goes with the flow, which is why he was part of the gang who piled on a girl named Morgan. A few comments on her home page, some name calling—it was harmless, right? But the taunts and posts grew uglier until Morgan stepped off the town’s water tower and killed herself. Sam now wonders about his culpability. At first, he rationalizes: he wasn’t the worst of the bullies, and it’s not like he pushed her off the edge. In short, episodic chapters, Preller provides readers with a rare glimpse into the mind of a bully (though Sam would never admit he is one). The pace is fast, yet the story unfolds slowly, one piece at a time. Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007). — Teri Lesesne

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9. BYSTANDER Selected for Kindle Monthly Deal Promotion This July — Only $2.99 (Cheap)!

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9780312547967Good news for fans of BYSTANDER, or for those potential readers who have only, say,  three bucks worth of curiosity about the book. Now’s your chance! The Kindle version of my novel has been selected by Amazon for its monthly special promotion. And no, I don’t know exactly what that means either, because I’m a book-book kind of person. Old face, old school, that’s me. I suppose you can upload the book to your gadget-thingy-whatchamacallit real cheap.

That’s a good thing, right?

Wait a minute, what’s eight percent of $2.99?

Oh well.

Thanks for stopping by, and don’t forget to support your local, independent, brick-and-mortar bookstores. Our communities need ‘em, our world needs ‘em.

Here’s some old, dusty reviews for the discriminating reader . . .

“Preller has perfectly nailed the middle school milieu, and his characters are well developed with authentic voices. The novel has a parablelike quality, steeped in a moral lesson, yet not ploddingly didactic. The action moves quickly, keeping readers engaged. The ending is realistic: there’s no strong resolution, no punishment or forgiveness. Focusing on the large majority of young people who stand by mutely and therefore complicitly, this must-read book is a great discussion starter that pairs well with a Holocaust unit.” —School Library Journal, Starred Review

“Bullying is a topic that never lacks for interest, and here Preller concentrates on the kids who try to ignore or accommodate a bully to keep themselves safe. For Eric to do the right thing is neither easy nor what he first wants to do, and the way he finds support among his classmates is shown in logical and believable small steps. Eminently discussable as a middle-school read-aloud, [with] appeal across gender lines.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Preller displays a keen awareness of the complicated and often-conflicting instincts to fit in, find friends, and do the right thing. Although there are no pat answers, the message (that a bystander is hardly better than an instigator) is clear, and Preller’s well-shaped characters, strong writing, and realistic treatment of middle-school life deliver it cleanly.”—Booklist

“Plenty of kids will see themselves in these pages, making for painful, if important, reading.”—Publishers Weekly

“An easy pick for middle school classroom and school libraries, this book is a worthy addition to collections focused on bullying and larger public libraries, especially those with an active younger teen population.”—VOYA

 

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10. School Library Journal Reviews THE FALL!

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School Library Journal reviewed The Fall in their July issue and it’s a good one.

The money quote:

“Expertly!”

9780312643010-2No, wait.

Um . . . I did like that word though.

There was a complete sentence:

“Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse.”

There were other kind sentences, too. So, oh, why not. Here’s the whole dang thing below.

Thank you for the thoughtful review, Kimberly Ventrella, whoever you are!

I really hope this book finds an audience. Fingers crossed.

 

PRELLER, James. The Fall. 208p. ebook available. Feiwel & Friends. Sept. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780312643010.

Gr 6-9–A compelling look at the aftermath of bullying, from the bully’s perspective. Sam Proctor thought it was funny the first time he posted a hateful comment on Morgan Mallen’s social media page. It was just a game, after all, and superpopular Athena Luiken said it was his turn to play. Even after Sam befriends Morgan and starts hanging with her outside of school, he continues to post anonymous trash on her page. When Morgan jumps off of a water tower and kills herself, Sam is forced to confront his actions and wonder if a bully can every truly be forgiven. Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse. Readers will relate to the teen, who’s less a bully than an average guy who gives in to peer pressure and inaction. This fast-paced story will spark discussion on cyberbullying, depression, and how to deal with tragic events. However, the ending introduces an element of magical realism that dampens the impact of an otherwise persuasive realistic tale. VERDICT While the conclusion falls short of the strong setup, this book stands alongside other well-crafted titles on bullying, such as Dori Hillestad Butler’s The Truth About Truman School (Albert Whitman, 2008) and Preller’s Bystander (Feiwel & Friends, 2009).–Kimberly Ventrella, Southwest Oklahoma City Library

 

 

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11. The Hilarious Way One School Librarian Achieved 100% Book Returns (Almost)

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Her name is Alanna Almstead. She’s a librarian at Ichabod Crane in Valatie, NY. And at the end of each school year, Alanna faces the same vexing problem: Unreturned library books.

Because kids tend to forget. And some others, let’s hope, just fall in love with that book and can’t stand the thought of letting it go.

Alanna realized that the problem might be solved if she could only provide the proper motivation. Some sort of incentive. A carrot, so to speak.

But what could it be?

Here, I’ll let my friend Alanna explain it in her own words:


“The idea actually came about last June as my amazing aide, Lori, and I were discussing the shameful number of missing books at the end of the year. Always eager to see me make a fool of myself, I think the words “duct tape” first came out of her mouth.

Fast forward to May of this year. There I sat rambling at the end of a particularly fun library class about how important it was to return their books (we also give funny trophies to the five classes that return all of their books the fastest) when I suddenly blurted out that if the whole school brings their books back I would get taped to the wall. Yikes! Once that sort of thing gets said there is no taking it back, but no worries… It will never happen, I thought to myself.

11403263_10203095973960421_4328485250474245790_nI approached my principal, Suzanne Guntlow, after the fact. Suzanne is a wonderful supporter of the library and gave me her blessing, just in case the kids came through.

And come through they did! Although we fell short of the goal of all books returned school wide I am very happy with the results. In the end we had only 12 books still checked out in a building serving over 560 students. When the last third grader brought her book back I knew that I would have to make good on my promise.

And so, on the eve of the last day of school, I found myself making the rounds to several local stores to buy armfuls of duct tape. Variety seemed important, for some reason. When you’re nearly 6 feet tall and are faced with getting stuck to a wall you want the tape to work (and look pretty, of course!).

All of the third grade classes gathered on the last day of school to witness their reward for being so responsible. Afterwards I did hear a few students saying that it was the “best way to end the year.” (What does that say about what they really think of me, I wonder?!?).”

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Final comment: I think it’s pretty obvious what they think of you, Alanna. Those kids think their school librarian is a hoot. Great job, great spirit. And a huge hat tip to that incredible aide, Lori, for hatching the idea. Note: Yes, there’s actually a brief video of the moment when they removed the foot stool from beneath Alanna’s feet and — what joy, what laughter — she stuck!

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12. An Interview with Chris Sheban: Illustrating Book Covers, from Rough Sketch to Final

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Chris Sheban is an enormously talented illustrator who has very possibly done the covers to some of the books that you know and love — all without notoriety or fanfare. You probably didn’t realize it was him, if you even thought about it at all.

Here’s just a few you might recognize:

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I was very happy when my editor, Liz Szabla, told me that Chris would be doing the cover of my 2008 book, Six Innings. I was eager to see it, and nervous, too, since I couldn’t imagine what he and art director Rich Deas might come up with.

I waited and hoped until one day a jpeg of the cover art arrived in my email.

I was relieved, ecstatic, verklempt. Or go ahead, Dear Nation of Six Readers, insert your own baseball metaphor here. It was a home run. A stand-up triple. A squeeze play, um . . . oh, whatever. I loved it. That luminous blue-green.

Sad to say, I failed to thank Chris. Because I had never met the guy, and we had no interaction whatsoever, and I was raised by wolves. We were only connected by this one book, still clinging to semi-obscurity, and that was it. I should have reached out to Chris, sent a card or box of HoHos, but I didn’t.

for preller interviewRecently Chris appeared on Facebook, sharing a trove of rough sketches in addition to samples of light-infused finishes. I don’t know how Chris achieves it, but his work glows. He was also, I realized, a process guy. Organized too; he saves everything. I wrote to Chris and said, more or less, you may not know me, but I want to thank you for that terrific cover.

Actually — I just looked it up — and I wrote exactly this: “I’ve always been grateful to you for that beautiful cover of Six Innings; it only make sense that we don’t know each other on FB too.”

Chris wrote back and said something I didn’t expect. He said that he loved the story and loved working on it.

I was like, “You actually read it?”

Because up to that point, I didn’t realize that illustrators could read. Kidding! (A little.) But I honestly didn’t expect that he read the whole entire stinkin’ book. When I commented on that, Chris explained, “Absolutely read it. Yes, and read the others, too. Trying to get a feel for the story. Never easy to make one image sum up a whole book.”

So that’s when we got the idea to take this conversation to another level, complete with sketches and rough drafts.

Here you go, sit back and relax . . .

CHRIS SHEBAN: So after reading the manuscript, the first rough thoughts look something like this.

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JAMES PRELLER: I like that, “rough thoughts,” not “rough sketches.” Would it be accurate to say that you see them more as ideas than as drawings?
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CS:  Absolutely. At this “thumbnail” stage, I’m more concerned with the idea. What will make the most impactful cover. Composition is important. Should I focus on the pitcher, the batter, how big should I make him, etc. I’m not thinking about color yet. That comes later. You usually don’t know where the title type will go, but you want to consider that as well. Looking at some of these sketches, I’m not sure I was following my own advice. The pitcher in this sketch at the bottom right looks a bit more like a sasquatch than a human. I’ll worry about that later.
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JP: Sasquatch would have made a great closer. Or designated hitter (he can mash, but he can’t field.) Anyway, yes, this is like a writer’s sloppy copy. You don’t want to get bogged down with confining notions of quality.
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CS: I work by attrition…if I just do 112 sketches, one is bound to be decent, no?
JP: That’s exactly how I write haikus. I start with 112 syllables and whittle down from there. While the ultimate goal might be finding “the right word,” when I start out I’m pretty much looking for “any word.” And by “any” I mean: ANY. Just trying to defeat that blank, white page.
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CS: When I was working on the cover art for Because of Winn-Dixie, I inadvertently left a great big hole in the middle of the art. The girl and dog were down below, with the mobile homes above. And in the center? Not much. There’s no hard and fast rules about title placement, but generally it’s towards the top or bottom. Generally. You don’t want to draw the eye dead center, where there’s nothing going on but dirt. But I did. The solution? Put the title there!
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JP: How big are these sketches?
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CS: Each thumbnail is roughly an inch and a half to two inches. Easier to see the whole picture quickly. I sketch on tracing paper.
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JP: Tracing paper! I have such happy memories of tracing paper. My father had his own insurance business and I used to go to his office on rare weekends — he had a new-fangled “electric” typewriter and boxes of tracing paper. I drew and drew and drew, usually copying from the Sunday comics. What else have you got, Chris?
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CS: Well, here’s a few more rough sketches:
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JP: Too cool. As you delve deeper, you seem to be zeroing in on the drama between pitcher and batter, as opposed to other sketches that are more pulled back. A tighter focus.
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CS: Yes, maybe a little more. Sometimes pulling in close can add a bit of drama. I’m not sure why I had the kid sweating in that one sketch. Was there sweating in your story?
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JP: My characters never sweat; they perspire. This is literature, after all.
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CS: I’m sorry. The sweat may have been a reaction to how I was feeling at the time, worrying about making a half-decent cover. Yes, now I remember. That was me.
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JP: Wow, look at this sketch. It has a sculptural quality, as if baseball had been around in the 1500s and Michaelangelo was, say, a season-ticket holder at the Colosseum, chasing foul balls, shoeing away cats.
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CS: The pitcher looks a little disjointed to me. And is that an oven mitt on his left hand? 
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JP: Why yes, I believe that is an oven mitt. Obviously this was before the game had evolved, back when players such as Ty Cobb and Three-Finger Brown wore oven mitts. Ho-ho, I digress, a little levity there folks, free of charge. I love this glimpse into your process, Chris. Any number of these would have made terrific covers.
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CS: After a little back and forth with the art director, a direction is chosen, then I’ll work up a rough color comp which I’ll use as reference for the finished piece.

JP: How much back, and how much forth, exactly? There must be times when you think, “ACK, they picked the wrong one!”-

CS: That’s the danger of sending too many sketches. Inevitably, most will be mediocre, some awful, but maybe there’s one or two that are decent. You hope they go for the best one. If they pick an awful one, you have no one to blame but yourself, because you did it in the first place. Sometimes I’m an idiot.

JP: Actually, once upon a time I packaged books for Scholastic. My art director and I had to go through the “approval by committee” process many times. It’s a lovely experience if you enjoy water torture. There’s a skill in the choices you present, as well as the ones you hold back. Sometimes you try to direct the response; other times, you honestly don’t know.

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CS: I tend to fall into the latter category, the “I honestly don’t know if it’s a good cover idea, or just plain bad” category. Sometimes having that second (art director) or third (editor) pair of eyes and opinions really helps if you feel like you don’t have a clue. When sending multiple sketch ideas, I gently suggest which one or two I feel are the best . . . then they pick a different one.

 

JP: At this point, you turn to color.

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CS: These rough color sketches are just pencil sketches that I photocopy to a larger size, then paint with watercolor and some pastel.

JP: Isn’t that cheating?
CS: Yes, probably so. It would really be cheating if I photocopied the sketch up to size, painted on it, and sent it in as finished art. Actually, that’s something I’m hoping to pull off some day. Cut out all the in-between steps and finicky final art stuff that you worry and fuss over for too long, and end up with a lifeless piece of art.
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JP: Well, that’s the constant danger, isn’t it? The over-worked, over-wrought piece of art, like a late-period Steely Dan album. When it gets too polished, you might lose the raw vitality. Refine it to death.
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CS: Haha. Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder. It’s frightening and depressing to think that with age comes your artistic “Muzak” years. I’m currently working on using the actual rough sketch, with all its grainy, searching lines, as an underdrawing. By working over the top of that, you can keep some of the looseness of the line work showing through. I do this while listening to early Steely Dan.
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JP: I’ve seen that strategy before, though my mind is drawing a blank on good examples. It sort of honors the layers of process while also, as you say, keeping the looseness. It’s not something you typically see in cover illustration. In musical terms, it’s the punk aesthetic, where they felt that something powerful had been lost during the refinements of the genre. Down with Pink Floyd! Up with the Sex Pistols! And yes, let’s value the mistakes! It’s that core belief in raw energy at the expense of, cough-cough, revision and improvement. The trick is finding that elusive balance.
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CS: I doubt the author ever gets to see the sketch ideas. This is awkward . . . maybe there’s one here that you like better than what we ended up with. Sorry.
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JP: No, no, I love the cover you ultimately came up with — except, of course, my name should have been bigger (but I always say that). Every time I look at that book, I feel grateful to you. Seriously. Also, I respect and understand the process. I’m the boss of the words, not the cover. There comes a point where the author needs to get out of the way in order to allow the visual artists to do their work without interference. Not me chiming in with, oh, “I imagined him with freckles!” or whatever other suffocating, literal-minded idea I might have.
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CS:  Anyway, from this point the final drawing/painting is done on watercolor paper. The graininess happens with the addition of Prismacolor pencils on the rough surface of the paper.
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JP: You know, when people describe Disney World as a “magical” place, I always groan inside and think, How about commercial? Or, I don’t know, admirable in its efficiency? But when I look at your work — and the journey it takes to reach the final cover — it really does feel like something almost magical has occurred. Not awesome, in the cliched, verbal tic sense of the word, but awe-some. Or awe-full, full of awe. Thanks for sharing this with me and my Nation of Six Readers. We’re like the Iroquois that way, btw (but not at all). I’d love to talk more about your books another time, where you live, your picture books, your favorite music, hobbies, whatever. Just basically get to know you better. Can you come back soon?
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CS: I would love to. However, after I read what we’ve discussed, it may send me into a mild depression. I may be reluctant to expose my pedestrian nature again.
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JP: I hear you, Chris. All of my favorite artists and writers are filled with self-doubt. Can there by any other way? Otherwise you are dealing with raging egotists, and I hate those people. I like your modesty and self-effacement. But know this: Your talent shines forth in everything you create. I admire and respect your work.
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CS: As George Gobel famously told Johnny Carson, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” Thanks for inviting me. I really enjoyed it (I think).
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13. Photos from My Last Visit of the School Year

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This one cracks me up and sort of terrifies me at the same time. (Somehow, I realize now, that sentence summarizes the middle school experience for every educator and parent I’ve ever met.) I have an 8th-grade daughter of my own, so I’m not completely unaware of the “selfie face” that’s been perfected in middle schools across the land. After my presentation, these excited girls asked if we could take a selfie together. But as the camera pointed in our direction, I suddenly felt quite extraneous, even wondering aloud if they actually needed me in the picture. I sort of faded into the background, standing awkwardly, while they communicated directly with the camera.

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Two of my friends at Algonquin Middle School, Rebecca and Colleen. This school is a fabulous place where they really do treat authors like rock stars. I demanded only blue M & M’s, and by golly I got them! I demanded ironed carpets, a staircase assistant, and two vases of white roses and by golly I got them, too. All of the staff wore the shirts that day. (Seriously, I’m not actually into the “rock star” analogy — I certainly don’t feel like one, and I don’t wish to be treated like Mariah Carey — but it is nice to be respected and appreciated, because by transference the school-wide statement is that they value & respect books and reading. I’m just a temporary stand-in for those higher ideals.)

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It’s a relief when the hands go up after I ask if there are any questions, comments, or complaints. The screen shot behind me is probably the least graphic one I use, which is an example of marginalia. I tell young people, “I read with a pen in my hand. Always have. I circle, underline, make stars, write in the margins. For me, reading and writing are physically connected. And, naturally, books are where I steal most of my best original ideas.”

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14. Fan Mail Wednesday #212: “The good part about your books . . .”

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Hey hey, here’s one postmarked “Seattle WA,” one of the best places that I haven’t been to yet.

There’s a great sentence in this letter, a unique insight that I’ve never heard expressed exactly this way before. I wonder if you’ll find it.

Keala wrote:

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I replied:

Dear Keala,

What a nice name! My name, of course, is James. Or Jim. Or Jimmy. Or, hey, we’re friends — you can even call me Jimbo.

Just don’t call me “Worm,” like my brothers used to do. I wasn’t too crazy about that nickname. I mean, seriously. Worm. Do I look like a worm to you?

Don’t answer that!

Maybe we should stick with “Mr. Preller.”

Cover by the great illustrator, R.W. Alley. I'm so grateful for his terrific contributions to the series.

Cover by the great illustrator, R.W. Alley. I’m so grateful for his terrific contributions to the series.

Thanks for reading my books. I have great fondness for The Case of the Buried Treasure. Even the opening sentence tickles my fancy:

“It all started when the little round thing-a-ma-whoosie fell off the whatsit on Big Maloney’s chair.”

Ah, the discovery of the secret message and the start of Jigsaw’s most complicated mystery. I’m so glad you liked it.

There’s an idea in that book — that the treasure can be found under the “Big Y” — that I borrowed from one of my favorite movies from childhood. It was called “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” At that time, back in 1963, they used the word “mad” to mean “crazy.” They still do today, I guess, just not as often. In that movie, which is super funny (and crazy!), the treasure is hidden under the “Big W.”

Here’s a shot from the movie to help you understand:

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I was especially happy to read that you felt you could understand the mystery. Do you know what that tells me? Keala must be a smart cookie! Because I tried to make that mystery really tricky. It’s not easy. But somehow you followed along and figured it out. Must be all those books you’ve read.

Better be careful or you are going to grow a big brain.

A huge, gigantic brain!

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And you’ll need to buy all new hats.

Thanks for your letter, Keala. Have the best summer ever — why not? And keep reading books, any books at all, even mine.

Your friend,

James Preller

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15. Kirkus Reviews on THE FALL: “A timely, important message.”

 

My mom loved it. Do you really need the opinion of professional journals?

My mom loved it. Do you really need the opinion of professional journals?

Okay, here we go, time to strap in. The professional journals are starting to weigh in on The Fall (September, Macmillan). Kirkus has a reputation for bringing the snark, so it’s always good to get out unflayed, skin intact. In fact, I’ve found that they’ve been fair to me and I am grateful for the critical attention.

Thank you, Kirkus, whoever you are!

Actually — the truth — I’m never happy unless I get a star. I want to write great books. I want people to think they are great books. And I mean, by “people,” folks other than my beautiful, 89-year-old mother.

That’s the aspiration anyway.

For the full review, click insanely right here, right now.

Money quote:

“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.”

 

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16. Fan Mail Wednesday #211: Twenty Questions, More or Less

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There’s something undeniably direct about first graders. This girl liked my book and everything . . . she just would have changed a few things. Like, you know, the plot. And maybe some characters. I also like how Gracie worked so hard to fit everything on one page.

 

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I replied:

Dear Gracie,

Thank you for your lovely letter.

Do you know what? I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today. That’s right, my nose mashed into the wall. Grumble, grumble, grumble. For some reason, I was mad at the world this morning. 

The alarm clock was too loud, my cereal was too soggy, my dog threw up on my shoes, and it was raining out. Grrrr.

Then I read your letter . . . and a big smile crossed my face. I thought to myself, “Wow, I am a lucky guy.”

So thank you, Gracie. Your letter turned my day around and my frown upside down. You asked a lot of questions and I’ll try to answer them. Okay, whew, here we go . . .

799861When I wrote The Case of the Secret Valentine, I wanted to keep the readers guessing. I figured that everybody, including Jigsaw, would assume that the note was sent by a girl. In the mystery-writing business, that’s called a “gender assumption.” I got everybody thinking in the wrong direction. I wanted readers to be surprised when they discovered the true identity of the sneaky letter writer.

It could also be because I am not as clever as you. I love your idea of a girl detective who wants to team up with Jigsaw. That would certainly  make Mila jealous. Maybe that’s a story you could write this summer?

I have three children and three pets: Nick (22), Gavin (16), Maggie (14), Daisy (dog), Midnight (cat) and Frozone (another cat). Frozone was named after the character in the movie “The Incredibles,” a movie that we all love in this house. If you haven’t seen it, well, trust me, it’s incredible.

I began to write books when I was your age. I started by drawing pictures. Then with the help of my older brothers and sisters, I added a few words. I stapled the pages together to make books, put a price on the cover, and sold them to my friends and neighbors on the block. I made a lot of books when I was a little kid. I guess you could say that I never stopped.

About Theodore: Well, I wanted Jigsaw to have a name that he didn’t really like — so Theodore popped into my coconut. Boing! If I was named Theodore, I think I’d want to be called Ted or Teddy or “Hey You” — anything other than THEODORE!

Thanks for writing to me, Gracie. You really made my day. Enjoy your summer. May it be filled with books!

Your friend,

James Preller

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17. “THE FALL” Kept This Poor Reviewer Awake at Night

 

I am grateful to Guys Lit Wire for reading and reviewing my upcoming novel, The Fall (September, grades 5-9).

 

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The truth is, grateful doesn’t express it. There are so many books out there, all any of us (writer types) hopes for is a fair reading. It means to much to be picked up and read. To be noticed. For our book to be brought out into the light and to be discussed fairly, thoughtfully, critically.

For the book to not noiselessly disappear, never having reached its intended audience.

I mean to sincerely say: thank you. These advance reviews make a difference.

For the full review, click here.

For the money quote, read below:

“It was 2:55 am as I finally gave up on the notion of sleep.  Having started reading THE FALL by James Preller earlier in the day, I knew sleep would not come until I had finished Sam’s story.  Now, having turned the last page, it still haunts me and will for quite some time.”

Readers may wish to note that while The Fall is not technically a sequel to Bystander, it serves as a strong companion book. Also, it’s been noted elsewhere that The Fall should appeal to readers who enjoyed Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

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18. Fan Mail Wednesday #210: Sometimes Even Moms Write Letters

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When I was in college, back in ’81 or so, an English professor drove me and a couple of other aspiring poets to Hudson Falls, NY, where we got to visit with the poet William Bronk. It was an experience I’ll always remember. We sat in his living room and talked about poetry!

Well, life happens and tables turn. I was recently up in Hudson Falls as a visiting author, speaking at the primary school and later doing a family event that evening.

On the heels of that visit, I received an envelope that included two letters and several snapshots. Check it out:

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I replied:

Dear Heidi, Ben, and Greta:

I remember you! I forget exactly what led to it, but I was speaking to the gathered group at the evening event and a hand shot up. It was Greta’s and she confessed, a little slyly, “My mother once swallowed a fly!”

So it’s a pleasure to hear from you all again.

Heidi, thank you so much for taking the time and care to write that long letter. It’s always nice to hear from parents, and a true gift to get the sense that maybe, in some small way, I made a difference.

Big Ben, dude, great letter. Thanks for reading my books. And thanks, too, to your teacher for having them in a book bin in your classroom. My Jigsaw Jones books are getting hard to find these days, so I really appreciate the teachers who have kept them alive and current in classrooms.  

I’m very glad to hear that you and your friends are writing stories of your own. (I personally don’t believe that alien farts could cause volcanic eruptions, but I’ve been wrong before!)

Have a great summer, and keep those ideas flowing!

My best, your friend,

James Preller

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19. All Over the World: Selected Titles in Arabic, Indonesian, German, Korean, Greek, Spanish and More

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For someone who has such difficulties with the English language, it’s something of a shock for me to realize how many of my books have been translated into different languages.

Yesterday I got two new ones in the mail: Jigsaw Jones in Arabic and Scary Tales in Indonesian. I always discover these translations in a haphazard way. They just come in the mail or, in many instances, never come at all. I gather that the Arabic translations of Jigsaw have existed for years. Who knew? Not me. They keep us writers in the dark; like mushrooms, we prefer damp, dank places.

Today I warmed up the trusty, rusty scanner to share a random few translations with you. I have others in French, Italian, Portuguese, and more, but nevermind that. Look here . . .

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Arabic versions of The Case of the Race Against Time and The Case of the Golden Key.

Arabic versions of The Case of the Race Against Time and The Case of the Golden Key.

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Here’s a sample page . . .

Cool, right? Here's Geetha, the class artist, showing Mila and Jigsaw an artist's rendering of the suspect.

Cool, right? Here’s Geetha, the class artist, showing Mila and Jigsaw an artist’s rendering of the suspect. Illustration by Jamie Smith.

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In German, Jigsaw Jones was entirely re-illustrated and translated into “Puzzle Paul.”

Jigsaw Jones -- I mean, Puzzle Paul --searches for a valuable coin in the German translation of The Case of the Christmas Snowman.

Jigsaw Jones — I mean, Puzzle Paul –searches for a valuable coin in the German translation of The Case of the Christmas Snowman.

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Here’s the back cover of one of my Scary Tales titles, newly translated into Indonesian.

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They love baseball in Korea too:

Six Innings, the Korean translation.

Six Innings, the Korean translation.

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Let’s see, how about an interior from the Spanish translation of Hiccups for Elephant?

Poor Mouse was trying to sleep. Illustration by Hans Wilhelm.

Poor Mouse was trying to sleep. Illustration by Hans Wilhelm.

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I’ll stop here with this one, a favorite, the Greek translation of Bystander. Isn’t it amazing? Aren’t I lucky? Doesn’t it just blow your mind to think about it, writing books that are read all over the world?

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20. Stories Can Conquer Fear

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“Stories can conquer fear, you know.

They can make the heart bigger.”

— Ben Okri, Nigerian poet and novelist

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21. That Time I Was Asked to Give Advice to Aspiring Writers About “Rejection”

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I recently received a note from a friend. She wrote: “The topic of our local authors’ & illustrators’ meeting is ‘rejection.’ Would you mind sharing an anecdote about either a rejection or an acceptance that I can share with our group? Hearing about these from you will mean a great deal to our members.” 

A few days later I banged out the response below.

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I wish I had something remotely wise to offer you on this topic, some helpful insight that would give you the strength and wisdom to move forward in the face of a cruel, indifferent world.

I assume you already know all the stories. The books that were rejected 37 times only to become classics of children’s literature. The writers who wall-papered their offices with rejection slips. The realities of the business, how sometimes books are rejected simply because they don’t fit into a publisher’s overall plan — not the fault of the writer or even of the book itself.

And also, as I’m sure you know, there are things to be learned from rejection. For a long time early in my career, I hoped for “quality rejections.” Often a good rejection — anything beyond a standard form letter — can become the beginning of a relationship between writer and editor. And I guess it’s also true for standard rejections too. Proof of your hard work, your determination, your persistence. You are a writer sending out manuscripts and receiving replies from publishing companies. That places you inside the process, whether you are happy with the result or not.

Hey, folks, while we’re at it: Let’s hear it for persistence!

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I am saying to you: Rejection is awful. It’s heartbreaking. I first published in 1986, almost 30 years ago, and I still experience professional rejection in many different ways. Just a scroll through my daily feed on Facebook and I’m ready to start drinking. The awards I didn’t win, the amazing books I didn’t write, the terrific ideas I never had, the wonderful schools I’m not asked to visit, the ALA this and the mid-winter that and on and on and on. The world, it seems, is always telling us that we aren’t good enough. I’ve wanted to give up many times, just wave the white flag: I surrender.

That’s when you have to get back to basics. Get back to story. Back to the core of creativity. Read some books. Fill your heart, your mind. Sit back, close your eyes, rest, and imagine.

And write.

Something new, something better.

The world of publishing — of “being” an author — is filled with distractions. The business of it, the tweets and status updates, the self-promotion and networking. Most of it is utter bs. Because none of it is about writing, making things, being a true artist.

You have to keep returning to the purity of words, the insistence of language, the value of story. You have to be a writer. And if you are, if that thing is alive inside you, no amount of outside rejection can ever put out that flame.

Burn brightly, keep creating. And if in the end you never get published, if the world does not fall at your feet, so be it. That’s life. You will have done real work, you will have done your best. I truly believe there’s value in it, personal growth, something. Just to participate in the creative process, to be alive in it, to enter the dance.

It just may feed your soul.

So it’s not really about the world accepting or rejecting you. All of that is beyond your control. It’s about you . . . accepting the world, holding it your heart, and putting forth your best words, thoughts, and feelings onto the page. That, to me, is a triumph.

Congratulations. Now, keep going, and good luck.

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mood-writing

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22. This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever: Brush the Cat’s Teeth!

 

Thank you, interwebs! And hat tip to my pal, the brilliant Jen Sattler, who tirelessly hunts this stuff down to bring it to the attention-deficit masses.

As it happens, tooth-brushing has figured large in my ouvre.

There’s this, from Wake Me In Spring:

Illustration by Jeffrey Scherer.

Illustration by Jeffrey Scherer.

 

And this, from A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade:

Illustration by Greg Ruth.

Illustration by Greg Ruth.

 

Yikes, I feel a trilogy coming on.

So, yes, obviously, I have some dental issues. Carry on!

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23. Setting, Character, Plot: A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse into SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER

 

Once in a while I try to provide content on this blog that has some, cough-cough, insight into my writing process. So I thought I’d gather up some images and talk about the making of my upcoming book in the “Scary Tales” series, Swamp Monster (Macmillan, July 7, 2015).

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Curiously, any description of “how” a book is written is as much “story” as the book itself. And by that I mean, of dubious veracity. Who can accurately recount where ideas come from? And in what order? Like writing the book itself, any description of origins mostly feels like I’m making it up as I go along.

But anyway!

Swamp Monster is the 6th book in the series. Each story is different, a new setting with new characters, yet each one promises a “Scary Tales” experience. What attracted me to this over-arching structure, inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” TV series, was the width of possibility. The stories could be quite different, not at all narrow or typical. After writing a few that were quite conceptual — I Scream, You Scream and Nightmareland, in particular — I settled on simpler, more traditional thrills in the most recent stories: The One-Eyed Doll and Swamp Monster.

That is, I began by thinking about the scary thing.

Somehow the idea of a Swamp Monster appealed to me. In no small part because of the setting. A swamp! As I was largely unfamiliar with swamp life in particular, I had to do some research. I read about the fauna and flora of typical swamps, and soon settled in my mind that this story could take place somewhere in Southeast Texas. I found and saved random images that fed my imagination, such as these:

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Okay, so that felt pretty creepy to me. To up the ick factor, and to help explain the mutant monster, I opted for the toxic swamp gambit. The book begins:

The Dirge Chemical Plant had been dumping toxic sludge into the swamp for the past twenty-five years.

A few paragraphs down:

DRIP, DROP, SLURK. It leaked into the streams and waterways, into ponds and lakes. Poison soaked into the ground.

What about the creatures of that environment? The fish and birds and snakes and gators? The animals that drank the water daily? That swam amidst the burbling toxins? Well, most died off. But some adapted. Mutated. Learned how to feed off the toxic waste. Those creatures grew stronger, bigger, tougher.

More dangerous, too.

The pollution was the worst out on the Dead River, which ebbed into Dismal Swamp like a last, dying gasp. Hardly anybody lived out there. Nobody important. Some poor folks, mostly. And that’s where our story begins — with two boys, Lance and Chance LaRue. On this day, they were knee-deep in the foul, nasty water, swiping at mosquitoes, searching for frogs.

That was their first mistake.

Before the plot kicks into full gear, I introduce readers to the twins. Describe them and swiftly set them on the path to danger.

Character meets Setting:

The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches — no jelly to be found at home — the boys felt strong and adventurous. They went deeper into the woods than usual. The trees thickened around them, with names like black willow and water hickory. Long limbs hung low. Spanish moss dangled from the branches like exotic drapes. Snakes slithered. Water rats lay still and watched though small, red eyes. Once in a while, a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.

STAY AWAY, GAWK, STAY AWAY!

My original idea was basic. I was particularly intent for this story to create a strong plot-line running through the book. A direct plot like an engine on a track, no meanderings. So the boys find an egg and bring it home. Plot begins in earnest.  I soon realized that the egg would not be enough. Sure, it would hatch and Lance and Chance would discover that they were soon proud parents of a little monster.

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But where was the horror in that?

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watchful in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.

That night, the boys are awakened to sound of tap-tap-tapping on the egg. The watch in awe as the creature hatches.

“That ain’t no turtle,” Chance said.

“Nope,” Lance agreed. “Look at those claws, those teeth. I’ve never seen nothing like it before. What do you think it is, Chance?”

“I sure don’t know,” the oldest boy replied. “But I’ll tell you what. I don’t ever want to meet the chicken that laid that egg.”

At that moment, the newborn raised itself to full height, about six inches. With an angry hiss, the creature opened its mouth wide like a boa. A blood-red neck frill rattled open. SPLAT, SPLATTER! The creature spat black gobs of goo against the side of the pail.

“Whoa, it’s a monster,” Lance whispered in a soft, appreciative voice. “Our very own swamp monster.”

And with those words, the two boys stared at each other . . . and high-fived.

At this point, I introduce a new character to thicken the broth, and we meet the spectacular Rosalee Serena Ruiz.

If someone had to discover their secret, Rosalee was the best person for it. She could spit farther, burp louder, run faster, and snap thick branches across her knee. Rosalee was a girl all right, but the boys didn’t mind. In fact, they barely noticed.

I had decided by this point, actually before this point, that my little monster was not enough. Cool, but not quite terrifying.

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I needed something more. An angry mother. So Rosalee prods the boys back into the deep swamp — she wants an egg of her own — and that’s how the mother catches their scent. She hides in the water.

To my surprise, I wrote scenes from her perspective.

With a subtle movement, she glides through the black water like a hawk riding the currents of the wind.

A thought troubled her mind.

Others were out there . . . Others had come to her home, her alone-place. she had sensed them, smelled them.

So she hid, as she always did.

She moved in the safe dark, the cool dark, and she grieved again for the egg that was gone. The child she never knew. That was her loss. And then, slowly, painfully — like a cloud that gathers itself in the story sky — a new question formed in her skull.

Was the egg stolen?

Had it been taken . . . by the Others?

Those faces in the woods?

She had glimpsed them.

Their ugly, round eyes.

Their skin like smooth stones.

Little monsters.

New feelings began to stir inside the heart of the swamp creature.

Feelings of anger, of rage and revenge.

Her eyes opened, yellow in the black water.

Squilch, squilch, squilch.

Under cover of darkness, she follows them home.

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An image came to me. The monster, wet and awkward on land, arriving at the LaRue’s house on the edge of Dismal Swamp.

Of the door opening, of her entering.

“Upstairs, quick!” Chance ordered. He grabbed the knife off the table.

The boys bounded up the stairs in threes. By the time they reached the landing — BOOM! CRUNCH! — the front door flew open, knocked off its hinges.

The swamp monster stepped into the house.

I can’t give away any more story here. You’ll have to read the book to find out the rest.

Illustrations by Iacopo Bruno, taken from the book SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER, due in stores on July 7th.

 

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24. Fan Mail Wednesday #209: “I HATED reading (until now).”

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Dear James,

HI! I’m Sara M. I’m a fifth grader in KY. I’ve recently taken a liking to your books, (meaning I read three of them all in one day this weekend.

Long story short, I HATED reading (until now.)

We just had our school, Barnes & Noble, book fair. I was looking around for some scary stories (because that’s my favorite genre.) I stumbled upon your first book. I read the first 3 pages and I was hooked. BLOODY MARY    BLOODY MARY    BLOODY MARY.  I bought it. I took it home that night and read it. I LOVED IT SO MUCH! So, I immediately got hooked on your Scary Tales series.

I then became obsessed with finding the other books in your series. On Saturday, my dad took me to the library. We found three of your books. The next day at school I started reading them. I read all three of them in one day.I want to encourage you to write a thousand more books ;)

Please write back if you get the chance. Also, if you write back, please list all of the Scary Tales books you have OUT right now and one that you are currently in THE MAKING of.

Looking on library pages to find more of your books,

your #1 fan,

Sara

I replied:

Dear Sara,

Thank you. That’s just about the most wonderful letter a writer can possibly receive. I’m so glad that you found books to love. Goodness knows there are so many great ones out there, it was just a matter of finding the right match. I hope you don’t think it was me, James Preller, because it’s not. I’m just a guy. The powerful thing is reading itself, and books, and worlds opening up before your eyes — that awesome feeling you get when you make that connection.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER.

I’m proud of you for sticking with it. Also — and this is important, Sara, so listen up — I hope that you are grateful to your father who took time on a busy Saturday to bring you to the library for more books. Not everybody has a parent who would do that, so consider yourself lucky. I guess he wants to see as a reader, too. (Your local librarian did a nice job too, since not everybody is hip to my relatively new “Scary Tales” series.)

There are currently five “Scary Tales” books in print, and a sixth one coming out in early July: Home Sweet Horror; I Scream, You Scream; Good Night, Zombie; Nightmareland, One-Eyed Doll; and Swamp Monster.

I published my first book in 1986, and have written a wide assortment of books since. With this series, I tried to write the most exciting, OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezthrilling, suspenseful, unputdownable stories that I possibly could. Fast paced, easy to read, filled with twists and turns and incredible illustrations (by the great Iacopo Bruno).

Thanks for your sweet letter. I love your enthusiasm. Keep it up this summer. Just remember that one good book leads to another, and another, and another. Talk to your librarian. I’m sure that he or she will have  recommendations for you in the scary book department. In the meantime, if you want to check out other books of mine, you might like Bystander or, coming this September, The Fall. I have my fingers crossed on that last one; very excited about it!

My best,

James Preller

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25. School Visit: Messages on the Wall

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When I visit schools — which is often, and always gratefully — if time allows we’ll arrange for me to enjoy lunch with an intimate group of students. It’s always relaxed and informal, just talking, hanging out together, trading desserts. In some groups the conversation turns to literary concerns, but more often we just sort of chat, talk about ourselves, and try to crack each other up. I like it because, finally, it’s not strictly about me, me, me. My power point, my dumb books. These visits become more about them, and the truth is that I’m probably more comfortable that way. I’m surely more entertained.

Anyway, there was a white board in the room earlier in the week. Toward the end, as the principal was trying to pry the students away, a few of them wandered over to the board to write brief messages. I snapped a photo of these two, just to share with you, My Mighty Nation of Readers!

Sweet, huh?

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Sophie, you are welcome, the pleasure was all mine.

And Elizabeth, I’m not offended at all. There’s so many great books out there, I’m just glad you picked one of mine.

 

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