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1. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #215: Advice to a Young Writer & the Idea of “Downshifting”

I’m posting this one for two reasons. First, Megan’s sweet reply, so simple and direct, surprised and moved me. That last sentence. And secondly, because I am frequently asked for “advice” and often fail to give a satisfactory answer. In this case, I don’t fail quite so miserably as usual and it included a notion that applies to a great many young writers I’ve encountered over the years — the idea of downshifting. I don’t have time for many exchanges like this, but I do what I can.
This begins, atypically, with my response. Megan, I’d guess, is 13 or 14, and she genuinely inspires to be a writer. This wasn’t a question of a student dutifully asking a question that her teacher would approve of. No, Megan wanted to send me her book and I was like, “Oh, please, don’t do that. Send me an excerpt.”
This is my reply, which she waited for patiently.
Greetings. I’m very impressed with your story, and I’m grateful for your persistence & patience.
I am wrestling with a deadline of my own, have a pile of unanswered letters, etc., so I hope you’ll understand that this will be brief, of necessity.
In general, I’m not a great advice-giver when it comes to writing. I’m not full of tips, largely because I’m still trying to figure it out for myself. The standard pieces of advice are still the best: Read widely, read often, & read with a writer’s eye; and write. You’ve got to write. Have a place where you can write, a crummy journal, anything. And try to write everyday. Don’t let all your best work be text messages.
The other thing that I really believe in is that you should trust your enthusiasms. If you are excited about a topic, an idea, a writer, a series of books, an activity — then pursue it. Don’t worry so much if it will be practical or publishable or realistic. Just try to find those things that get your heart racing. That make you happy. And trust that good things will come out of it.
As for your story, you are filled with many interesting characters and ideas. When I read, I know there is a lively mind at work here. An interesting mind. That’s very good to see. So many good, descriptive details. At the same time, your work reflects an inexperienced writer. That makes sense, because it’s true. You are young and inexperienced and you have not yet honed your writing muscles.
The one idea I want to convey to you is “downshifting.” Slowing down. You have enough ideas in here for a 500-page story, so all of it feels rushed, like you are in a hurry to get to the next thing, then the next, then the next. You need to slow down, add a beat, let each scene, each moment, have it’s own moment (if you will).
I loved the initial sense of the magical in the air that begins the story. The girl in the woods. (I didn’t like that she was trudging, especially after I learned that she was sent to give an urgent message; to me, that’s not a trudging errand, that’s running, exhaustion, resting, eating, running, and so on). It’s lungs burning, muscles aching. Then as readers, we are caught up in that feeling. There’s a deadline, a rush, and something important is at stake. We are eager to know why.
The visit with Corporal Hillson’s needs to slow down. Take your time. I didn’t understand why Hillson was telling Vivian all this. Why did he trust her? What was she doing there? I didn’t completely get it. His news is “extremely secret,” yet he blabs it to her. Why? You need to set this up better.
Next, almost as suddenly, she is in a cavern. That’s cool. The two girls. Again, slow down. Stay in the moment more, linger over the details, set the scene.
Good work, Megan. You have talent and, as I said before, a lively, inventive mind. You probably have more story here than you are fully capable of writing at this point in your life. Keep at it. Focus on individual scenes. Word by word, sentence by sentence. And also, write poems, write short stories, and keep writing.
You are already much more accomplished than I was at your age.
Good luck,
James Preller
Megan replied:
Dear Mr. Preller,
Thank you for your support. You have no idea how much this means to me. I will edit my story so that I do that. Thank you for your time. I would give anything to write like you. 

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2. I Took the “Page 69 Test” for THE FALL


I was recently invited to take the “Page 69 Test” for my new novel, The Fall. Since I rarely get invited out, I put on my best slacks & my cleanest dirty shirt, and decided to give it a shot. The idea is simple. You turn to page 69 of your book and discuss how it is (or isn’t!) representative of the rest of the book. I was also asked if it would encourage a reader to keep reading. One would hope so.

Here’s the link to the site, which is part of the “Campaign for the American Reader” initiative, where you can find many other examples from a wide range of authors.

And here’s what I wrote:

12000905_679002038902805_5407176596026301396_oThe conceit for The Fall is that a boy, Sam, is writing in his journal. He’s reflecting upon the events of the past year, piecing together the narrative entry by entry, writing about events which led to the tragic death of his secret friend, Morgan. I write “secret” because that’s one of the book’s themes, one of identity, and of owning one’s own actions. The things we did and didn’t do. The footprint we make in the snow.

My editor at Macmillan, Liz Szabla, made the decision not to have the book over-designed; to my pleasure, the book is straight-forward. We didn’t jump through hoops to make it look like someone’s faux-journal. There is on some pages a fair amount of white space, and that’s the case in this instance.

On page 69, Sam basically fails to write. The page is nearly blank. He does write, “I need … I need … I need … something.” There’s a bit more, but that’s essentially it for page 69: It conveys, I hope, Sam’s struggle and failure to write. The idea is that he’s promised himself to try to write in that journal each day, focusing on Morgan, for at least fifteen minutes. Some days are better than others, and on this day nothing comes easily for Sam. This page, this emotion, directly follows upon the events and feelings of the previous pages, so my intention is for the reader to “get” why Sam can’t write that day. Will the reader be curious enough to keep reading? I sure hope so. Part of the book’s appeal is in the format, it’s loose and easy, and it zips along at a swift pace. Some pages include poems and snippets; others offer more traditional, expository narratives. He tells the story in a variety of ways. There’s no reason to stop reading. The craft is in the slow accumulation of detail, the sedimentary layering of thoughts and feelings, as readers slowly learn more about Sam’s role in Morgan’s life and death. The things he did and didn’t do. His footprint in the snow.


For more reviews and information about The Fall, you can stomp on this link with both feet while shouting loudly, “Cowabunga!”


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3. Ideas In the Shower: Brian Eno, Don Music, and the Creative Process


(RE-POST: This piece was originally posted on June 7, 2011.)

I’ve admitted it more than once: I know my work is going well when I have ideas in the shower. That is, those times when I’m thinking that I’m not thinking.

By the way, whenever I think about the creative process, and the difficulty of forcing ideas, I think of this classic Sesame Street sketch featuring Don Music: “I’ll never get it, never, argh!

I’m posting today to direct your attention to this piece from the fascinating 99% blog by Scott McDowell, “Developing Your Creative Practice: Tips from Brian Eno.”

It does not hurt that I have been a big Eno fan since the 70’s.

Read the opening quote from McDowell’s piece and you’ll see why it grabbed my attention . . .

Current neuroscience research confirms what creatives intuitively know about being innovative: that it usually happens in the shower. After focusing intently on a project or problem, the brain needs to fully disengage and relax in order for a “Eureka!” moment to arise. It’s often the mundane activities like taking a shower, driving, or taking a walk that lure great ideas to the surface. Composer Steve Reich, for instance, would ride the subway around New York when he was stuck.

Comments Eno:

The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times. It’s the equivalent of the dream time, in your daily life, times when things get sorted out and reshuffled. If you’re constantly awake work-wise you don’t allow that to happen. One of the reasons I have to take distinct breaks when I work is to allow the momentum of a particular direction to run down, so that another one can establish itself.

The 99% piece references a July, 2008 article that I recall reading in The New Yorker, written by Jonah Lehrer, in which he investigates the nature of ideas, “The Eureeka Hunt.” Lehrer brought joy to procrastinators everywhere when he opined:

The relaxation phase is crucial. That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers. … One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight.

Always an intellectual with a lively mind, Brian Eno, along with Peter Schmidt, developed a deck of cards in the 1970’s called Oblique Strategies, a series of prompts intended to help push people through periods of creative block. Now the Strategies are available for FREE on your iPhone or iTouch — just click here.

To close, here’s a cool fan video of Eno’s beautiful “By This River,” taken from the disk, Before and After Science. The album, by the way, has very distinct sides to it — something that’s lost in today’s CD era. For Side 1, Eno delivers traditional pop structures. But Side 2 plays like a series of dream songs, lullabies, hinting at the ambient sounds he’ll explore more fully on later disks.

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4. This Saturday, Come Say Hello at the Fabulous Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival



It will be a veritable cornucopia of . . .

a sumptuous who’s who of . . .

a delicious medley of . . .

Oh, just come. Bring the kids. And please, above all, bring the credit card! This is Chappaqua, after all.

This is a beautiful community event, one of the great ones in all the land, jam- packed with incredible (kind, generous, talented, bookish) people.

It’s a righteous scene, I’m telling ya!

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5. Whirlwind Trip to Long Island & Warwick, NY — with Photos!


I figured I’d share some snaps from my recent trip down to my old stomping grounds on Long Island.

On Wednesday night I drove to New London, CT, to take the ferry to Greenport, Long Island. That’s where my dear old mom lives, so I crashed at her place for two nights. Mom is 89 years old and, these days at least, a very happy Mets fan . . .


On Thursday, I drove out to the Sequoya Middle School in Holtsville where I was invited by Jennifer Schroeder and Sandy Bucher. Like all the best days in my life, it started with lunch! I ate with students from the Summer Reading Club.

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What a great way to start the day. With pizza . . . and a great group of young, intelligent, enthusiastic readers.


I didn’t just eat and chat. I also signed books, gratefully.


This is Sandy and Jennifer, who made the day the possible.

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These three won prizes in a raffle, though I felt like the real winner all day long.

On the way to the assembly with an audience of 260 students, one girl asked me in a soft voice if I’d seen the poster. “Yes, it’s fantastic,” I said. And after a pause, I wondered, “Did you make it?”

She sure had. Of course, I demanded her name and a photo. Angela looks proud, doesn’t she? So much talent and a great smile, too. How is that fair?


Later I drove home and watched the Mets with my mom. It’s how we roll.

On Friday, I visited Bellport where I presented to a large group of librarians from Suffolk County. There were about 100 in the room, my guess, and I think it went well. Librarians are my kind of people, so hopefully it was relaxed and enjoyable for all concerned. My fingers are crossed in the hope it will lead to more school visits in the area. Thank you, Gail Barraco for the invitation!

Next I took a ferry . . .

IMG_1042 (1)

. . . and drove to a hotel near Warwick, NY. The next morning, Saturday, I signed books at the fabulous Warwick Children’s Book Festival, thanks to Lisa Laico, Christina Ryan-Linder, and Judy Peterson. The amount of work that goes into these things — the months of planning, the degree of detail — is mind-boggling. What a great gift to the community.

As an author, I am always grateful for a chance to meet other “real, live” authors. Every time I meet someone new . . .

I loved meeting Rita Williams-Garcia. She was so warm and friendly, we got along instantly.

I loved meeting Rita Williams-Garcia. She was so warm and friendly, we got along instantly.


. . . and I also get the chance to catch up with established friends.

I've become a real fanboy when it comes to Wendell and Florence Minor. All they do is quietly make high-quality books, year after year. I have huge respect for their work and for way they conduct themselves: wise, kind, grateful, modest, and so talented!

I’ve become a real fanboy when it comes to Wendell and Florence Minor. All they do is quietly make high-quality books, year after year. I have huge respect for their work and for way they conduct themselves: wise, kind, grateful, modest, and so talented!


After that, it was time to head home. My real job, the essential job, is for me to sit alone in a quiet room. That’s where I’m at now, trying to figure out the next book. But it’s trips like this that energize and inspire me to keep at it, even during the difficult times. Many thanks to one and all!


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6. “A Deserving Porcupine.”


Yesterday I reread Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon.

It was published 60 years ago, btw, in two-color.

Weird format, too.

And, of course, it’s perfect.

But what I keep thinking about these past 24 hours is that throwaway phrase, “a deserving porcupine.”

Do you recall it? Possibly not.

Harold thinks about a picnic, and pies, and being Harold, he goes a little overboard.

He hated to see so much delicious pie go to waste.”

Here’s what kills me:

So Harold left a very hungry moose and a deserving porcupine to finish it up.”



That phrase: a deserving porcupine.

How did Crockett Johnson even think of that? Out of all the available adjectives for a porcupine, he deemed this particular one “deserving.”

What did it do to deserve such treatment? I guess we’ll never know, but it feels to me like there’s a story there, somewhere off the page. The deserving porcupine appears on only one page of the book, then off Harold goes, in search of a hill to climb . . .

I should add this postscript:

TheFallIt’s pub day for my new book, The Fall

I really think everybody should buy it. That would be awesome. Thanks!

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7. Princeton Book Festival, September 19th!




The lineup of authors and illustrators will make your head spin. Seriously, if you like children’s books at all — or if you just enjoy creativity & the arts in general — this is such a good scene smack in the heart of downtown Princeton. Check it out. And if you, please say hello.

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8. Great News from a Young Writer I First Met Three Years Ago


Three years ago I wrote a post titled, “I May Have Just Met the Best 6th-Grade Poet in America.

Her name was Erin, and she was in 6th grade, and I was lucky enough to meet her during a school visit outside of Chicago. You can read an excerpt from that post below, or click on the link. Anyway, since that time we’ve kept in touch. Mostly Erin letting me know what she’s doing, and me saying clever things like, “Wow!” Or, “You’re awesome!” And always always always, “Keep writing!”

This weekend I received a box in the mail . . .


And inside there was a self-published book by Erin Rosenfeld . . .


And a very kind note . . .



Let’s be clear: I did almost nothing. I read some pages, made a few incoherent comments. When it comes to the work, Erin did all of it. My role was to try to be encouraging across a few scattered emails. I wish I was one of those wise people who knew how to help writers take that next step, but I’m not very good when it comes to advice. Maybe it’s because I don’t really believe much can be done for someone else. The best work a writer can do is to write. That’s the classroom. That’s the job. It’s a solitary business.

I recognized Erin’s talent when she handed me one of her poems three years ago. But talent only gets you so far in this world. Obviously, Erin knows that. She gets her butt in the chair.

You can purchase Erin’s book, Half of Me, by clicking here. (Ha, ha, I already have my own signed copy in green ink!)

In the book, Erin gives a new twist to the classic theme of switched identities. Grace and Mia are identical twin sisters, and total opposites. But for one fateful day they make the switch . . . and things go horribly, tragically wrong. One twin dies. The other lives. In the days and weeks that follow, both sisters are forced to endure the consequences of their decisions: one on earth, and one torn between life and death.

Erin wrote Half of Me in alternating voices, employing two distinct writing styles. Mia tells her half of the story in prose, while Grace’s chapters are in spare, elegant verse.


Erin Rosenfeld, congratulations! I’m so proud of you!


I have a new book, too!



In education today, where the pendulum has swung far to the right with a misguided, misbegotten emphasis on testing and precise measurements, where the arts have been slashed and all but discarded, it’s important to remember what it can mean to invite an author into our schools — or a musician, or painter, or dancer, or even (heaven forfend) a mime! I am grateful every time I am given the opportunity to visit a school. To speak, and maybe be heard. Every time I try, in my small way, to make a difference. Thanks, Erin, for helping me believe that it’s still possible.


Originally Posted in October, 2012:

When I speak at schools, a teacher will often come up to ask if I wouldn’t mind wearing some kind of amplifier/microphone thingy around my neck for a student who is hearing impaired.

And of course I don’t mind. I put it on and forget about it. Easy.

Styles vary, but it usually looks something like this.

After a presentation last Friday at Northbrook Junior High, about 25 miles north of Chicago, a small female student approached to ask for the return of the assistive listening device that hung around my neck. She had a nice smile, a sweet presence, and I liked her immediately. We chatted for a short while. I asked how she managed when people didn’t wear the device, and about lip reading, and getting by. I told her that I suffered from hearing problems myself, a surgery with a specialist in Ohio and a second one planned. I understood, on a personal level, how terribly isolating hearing loss can be.

We said goodbye. As she left, I commented to a nearby teacher about how much I liked that girl. “She’s probably a writer,” I added. You can often tell. She was thoughtful and attentive, a watcher, an observer. In my experience, those are the types who make writers. The quiet ones. And there’s that other thing about writers: it’s something you sense in people, the way they absorb their surroundings. You can tell there’s something going on between the ears.

It’s rarely the way they talk, but more the quality of their listening.

“Yes, she’s a very good writer,” the teacher informed me.

A few minutes later, my friend, Erin, was back. She handed me a poem. A small group of teachers and I were about to have lunch in another room. But I read the poem while Erin stood by, watching. And finally, when I reached the end, I told her that it was incredible, that I was moved by it, that I admired and envied her talent. “You are such a great writer,” I told her, and I meant it. Erin smiled, a terrific smile, and told me that I could keep the poem. And I did, but not until I got her autograph. In green ink, no less.

Erin RosenfeldThe writer.

I don’t know. I do a lot of school visits, a lot of blabbering about me, me, me. But it’s always these small moments that make it worthwhile, that make me feel like there’s value in it. When out of the blue a connection is made, and I meet somebody like Erin, and maybe in some small way she’ll remember this moment, for I know I’ll remember her . . . 

<< snip >>

Click here if you wish to read Erin’s poem and the rest of my original post.

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9. Coming In Two Weeks . . .

My son, Gavin (16), taught himself Photoshop a couple of summers ago. He’s enterprising that way. I asked him to put something together for me, in preparation for a few book festivals that are coming up.

Thanks, Gavin. I think it looks great. Nice to see all those kind words in one place.

The Fall Ad

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10. Read This Terrific Letter to Teachers from a District Superintendent in NY.




I’m sharing this letter that’s been going around the interwebs today. I wish for all teachers that they can experience this level of support.

Have a great school year!

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




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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12. Best Last Lines of Books, Revisited


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.


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:


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:


“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:


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



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.


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



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.


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!


Scan 1

Scan 2



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.”


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


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).


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!


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




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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17. 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.


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.



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


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



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:

Scan 2

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:


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!


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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21. Photos from My Last Visit of the School Year


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.


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.)


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


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:

51kBF5AsbfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_         15797693

7f9606c64d69fa641bbfb1e220a2721e        6faa4de923eb9a722682cedf110b7b5a        2874077       018720 6502258611c1303ca57071612896b0a5        cover15


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.


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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
JP: How big are these sketches?
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.
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?
CS: Well, here’s a few more rough sketches:
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.
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?
JP: My characters never sweat; they perspire. This is literature, after all.
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.
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.
CS: The pitcher looks a little disjointed to me. And is that an oven mitt on his left hand? 
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.

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.


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.



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



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?!?).”



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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24. School Library Journal Reviews THE FALL!


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

The money quote:


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


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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