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1. Quick Comic for Teachers: Math Problems, Charles Schulz

This one has been flying around the internet for years, but it always makes me laugh.

Maybe it will have the same satisfying effect on you.

It’s interesting, I think, that Sally uses the word “hell” here. In the context of Peanuts, it’s almost shocking. And therefore more powerful. And, I think, a little funnier.

Thank you, as always, Charles Schulz.

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2. Proud of This: And Then There Were 5

The first book come out in July 2013, and #5 comes out October, 2014, and the manuscript for #6 has been written, edited, revised – now it’s up to Feiwel & Friends to turn my rough pages into a real book.

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I’m proud of this accomplishment. Proud of the quality of these books. Six stories, each unique, with new (diverse) characters and varied settings. Each one designed to get kids turning the pages, reading books, heart beat faster, and enjoying the experience.

As an author, I’ve had to learn to control the things I can, and to accept the process. So much is out of my hands. Will these books find an audience? Will they get past the gatekeepers? Will readers love them? I can only hope . . . while I move on to write the next story that moves me.

Thank you for giving this series a chance. And thanks, too, to everyone at Macmillan for helping to make these books possible. I’ve been fortunate.

Oh, yeah: Great books for Halloween, or any time of year!

 

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3. One Novel with a Perfect Ending

UnknownI finally got around to reading Sherman Alexie’s bestseller, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. There’s just times in your life when you’ve got to rectify old wrongs, and this was one of them. I had to read that book.

I’d heard that it was a great book from many sources, including some trusted friends. (A curious phrase, by the way, “trusted friends.” As opposed to all those other friends we have, with crappy taste, the friends we can’t possibly trust.)

So I took Alexie’s book out of the library and read it. Now I am a member of the club and say without hesitation: Stop wasting your life and read it already! Today I’m not looking to review a book that’s already been reviewed hundreds of times. My focus is on the book’s final two paragraphs. To me, those six sentences felt exactly right, forming a poignant, understated conclusion.

I don’t think that reproducing it here involves any spoilers, or anything that could diminish your enjoyment of the book, so here goes:

Rowdy and I played one-on-one for hours. We played until dark. We played until the streetlights lit up the court. We played until the bats swooped down at our heads. We played until the moon was huge and golden and perfect in the dark sky.

We didn’t keep score.

I love the repetition of “we played,” repeated four times, the rhythmic, accumulative power of that device, the simplicity of the word choice, the interplay between light and dark, and that great, four-word conclusion. We didn’t keep score. Perfection.

Back four years ago, I wrote a decent post titled “Best Last Lines from Books,” and I think you might enjoy it. So click away, folks. It’s absolutely free.

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4. Cartoon for Teachers: My Dog Ate My Homework (or maybe not)

Hey, teachers, librarians, educators, and so on . . . you might enjoy this.

Carry on and have a great school year. You do such an important job, play such a vital role in the life and development of our children. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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5. This Is Remarkably Accurate to My Writing Process

Thanks to Algonquin Books . . . and cartoonist Tom Gauld, who nails it.

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6. This Is Tania, Featured in the next Scary Tales book, ONE-EYED DOLL

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Quick excerpt from ONE-EYED DOLL (October, 2014), art by Iacopo Bruno:

     “Do you like it?”

     Tiana was pleased. She stood in her pretty new dress. A real smile on her face. Another glimpse of what she used to be like.

     “I asked Mama to make it for me,” she said.    

     Malik dug his hands into his pockets. His eyes moved from his sister to the doll in her arms. Their dresses were now identical. Blue-and-white checkered. Both girl and doll wore a red ribbon in their hair.

     “What’s wrong with your eye?” he asked. “It’s half closed.”

     Tiana shrugged. “Mama says it might be pink eye. Or maybe I got a spider bite. Now I look like Selena. Don’t you think?”

     She smiled a Mona Lisa smile.

     “I guess you do. How about you leave that doll at home for once?” Malik suggested. “Come outside with me. We could shoot baskets. Play horse. Or we could pack a picnic, go fishing by the river. What do you think, Selena? I mean, Tiana!”

     Malik caught the error immediately. It was a simple mistake, calling his sister by the doll’s name. But it haunted him just the same.

     “Selena doesn’t like those things,” Tiana replied. “She says they’re dumb.”

     Malik’s mood darkened. “Suit yourself.” He wheeled and made for the front door. “I’ve got something to do, Tee. I’ll be back in one hour. Okay? One hour. You and that doll can sit around all you want. Just don’t leave the house, you hear? Daddy’s home. If you need something, just wake him. But if I was you, I’d wait unless it’s a real emergency.”

     Tiana didn’t answer.

     She was already gone.

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7. Incoming: Revisions!

I got a big package in the mail yesterday . . .

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This bit, four real books, finally published, represents a final payoff. It’s done, it exists. There’s also something a little, I don’t know, deflating about it. An ending. Now it will go out into the world, probably to be largely ignored. That might sound a touch maudlin, or even self-pitying, and I’m sorry about that. But that’s the business these days. So many books don’t make it, even the good ones. It can be disheartening. And, yes, scary.

Hey, check out my new shirt . . .

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Cool, right? I love it.

And lastly, most exciting of all, came the editorial revisions for my upcoming book, THE FALL, a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I try to enter the process of revisions with an open mind and an open heart. I trust my editor, Liz Szabla, and endeavor to deeply consider all of her comments, thoughts, suggestions. This is a new opportunity for me to try to make this book better than ever. That involves, sometimes, letting go of old ideas, favorite sentences. It means stepping back — to truly re/vise, to see again — and, well, take another whack at it.

In a moment, the sound you’ll hear will be that of a writer rolling up his sleeves.

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8. Gone Camping: Smiles All Around!

Actually, we’ve just returned from our annual weekend camping trip to Forked Lake Campgrounds. There’s something so comforting and yet revelatory about tradition. You go back, do the same thing every year, more or less with the same people, but each time feels unique. Familiar, yet changed in small ways. A big part of that is our children, growing up before our eyes. The kid you used to watch like a hawk is now out on the kayak, muscles rippling.

This year school year our oldest will be a senior in Geneseo. He missed the trip, already gone. The middle child, Gavin, enters 10th grade; he’ll begin the year on the JV Volleyball team — a new sport for him. Our youngest, Maggie, just 13, enters 8th grade.

They are growing up.

Here’s a fun snap taken in Long Lake, outside of Hoss’s legendary (Triple-S’s!) store. That’s Gavin in the Cape Cod sweatshirt; Maggie, standing beside him, apple in hand; I’m up above in gray (shirt and hair), fondling the bear; and Lisa, my wife, is on the other side in the light-blue tee and vest. Those other folks? No idea how they got in there.

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9. Fan Mail Wednesday #187: A Lovely, Lively One from Ashley in MA

postalletter-150x150 I don’t share every letter, as there can be some repetition. But I quite enjoyed this one from Ashley, who, like me, is also a writer. Scan 2 I replied:

Dear Ashley,

It is so nice to hear from a fellow writer – even if, well, you are not exactly a “fellow” at all. I don’t think the “fellow” part is important anyway. But I dither. 

I mean to say:

Thank you for your detailed and wildly entertaining letter. I’m grateful that you enjoyed my book, BYSTANDER, and that you took the time to write to me. I realize from the heading that it was your “Summer Reading Letter,” but you obviously didn’t mail it in, so to speak. It felt genuine to me. And, yes, it was mailed.

(Sorry, weird mood.)

You sound a little like my daughter, Maggie, who is entering 8th grade. She plays soccer and basketball and, like you, is a 100% effort type of person. You can’t go wrong when you give your best. I love that about her. She is also sunny and optimistic, like you, whereas I can get a little gloomy at times, often thinking that it’s about to rain.

I’m glad, too, that you realize the importance of teachers. They come in all sizes and shapes, it’s true, and some are great while others are barely bearable, but when we can make a real connection with one, the entire world can open up in a new way. It’s amazing, really. As an adult, I find that I am more and more grateful to those people from long ago, those teachers and mentors, who gave me so much of themselves. They impacted me, they make a difference. Such a powerful gift – and a great, honorable profession.

9780312547967Of course, I guess there is a message to BYSTANDER, though I sort of hate to see it reduced to that. It’s a story, and I hope for readers to become involved in the characters, to step into their shoes, and see the dynamic from different angles. I want the reader to reach his or her own conclusions. 

Since you asked, many readers have asked if I was planning on a sequel. Short answer: no. Longer answer: I just wrote one! Sort of. Not really. It’s a new book coming out in the Fall of 2015, called THE FALL. In it I take on some of the same themes, but go to a darker place. I’m very excited about it. 

As for your questions, I guess that Mary, to me, is the key character to the story. Yes, she’s a minor character, but with a small and pivotal role. I think she is the book’s most courageous character.

Thanks again for that awesome letter, Ashley. I really like your spirit. 

Btw, you might also like my book, BEFORE YOU GO.

My best . . .

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10. A Short Excerpt & Artwork from THE ONE-EYED DOLL — Coming In Time for Halloween

Here’s a brief excerpt from THE ONE-EYED DOLL (Scary Tales #5, October). Artwork by Iacopo Bruno, of course.

Do you think she’s trouble?

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     Malik grabbed the axe and felt it’s heft in his hands. “Better step back,” he warned. He raised the axe high and let it fall.

     THWACK, SMASH!

     The box was well built, but no match for a sharp axe. Bits of wood splintered loose and one corner of the box split open.

     The cat, Midnight, rubbed against Malik’s legs. It hissed and spat at the box, back raised in an arch.

     “Shhh, Midnight,” Malik hushed. He smoothed the cat’s raised fur. “What’s gotten into you?”

     Soda Pop stepped forward. “What’s inside it?”

     “Hold on a minute,” Malik hushed. “Gimmie that hammer, Tee.”

     Working carefully, Malik pried apart the box.

     “Is that all there is?” Soda Pop asked. “A crummy old doll?”

     And in truth, that’s all there was. Just an ordinary doll –- and not a very nice one, either. The doll had curly black hair with a red ribbon in it, a dirty blue-and-white checked dress, and one of its eyes was missing entirely. The doll’s painted face was badly cracked and worn.

     “I don’t get it.” Soda Pop scratched his head, befuddled.

     Malik pushed the doll aside. He searched through the scraps of wood. “There was nothing else in it,” he said, disappointment in his voice.

     Tiana picked up the doll and pressed it close to her chest. “I love it,” she said. “I love it lots.”

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11. Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom

I am proud of my friend, Lewis Buzbee, who has written this much-acclaimed book — and it just came out this week. He is a great writer and friend and I can’t wait to read this new one. A book for anyone who has gone to school, or cares about education.

A classic back-to-school book.

 

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“Buzbee’s affectionate account [is] a subtle, sharply etched critique of contemporary public education. . . . Deeply affectionate toward teachers, harshly critical of budget cuts, the book offers an eloquent, important reminder (which in a perfect world would inform policy) about the nature of school.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A bracing rejoinder to the didactic, data-driven books from policy gurus and social scientists. . . . From the layout of schools to the distinction between ‘middle school’ and ‘junior high school,’ Buzbee spreads engaging prose across the pages, providing both a reminiscence of better days and a considered examination of the assumptions we all make about what does—and does not—constitute a quality education. . . . A welcome book on the importance of education for all.”—Kirkus Book Vault Reviews

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12. A Comic by Mark Tatulli, for Book Lovers

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13. Fan Mail Wednesday #186: In Which I Do a Reader’s Homework Assignment on “BYSTANDER”

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Here we go, folks, Fan Mail Wednesday. This one came via the interwebs!

 

9780312547967I am going to be a 7th grader this September. Over this summer, I decided to read Bystander. I have couple of questions.

1. How does Eric’s personality change throughout the story?

2. How would you describe Eric Hayes using metaphor?

It would be helpful if you could reply as soon as possible.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Rika

 

I replied:

 

Wait a minute, this sounds like homework! I hate homework! Or you trying to trick me into doing your homework?

Okay, I’ll play.

To me, Eric’s personality doesn’t make a radical change over the course of the story. I think his awareness changes, his understanding grows, as he observes more things. Remember, he’s new to the school; he has no past with any of those characters. That’s how I think of him in this story, he’s a witness, an observer, almost in a role that’s similar to that of a detective working a mystery. We generally don’t ask how Sam Spade changed in a story, or Philip Marlowe (classic detectives of American Literature, btw). Instead, Eric’s perception deepens, he learns, he grows. For “change,” I’d look to Mary, since I think she’s the real key to the story, even though she is a so-called minor character.

Describe Eric Hayes using metaphor? He’s a camera. Click. A video recorder. A secret listening device. He’s one of those cameras hidden behind the mirror at all the ATM machines. He sees, he records, he absorbs. He is also, as I wrote earlier, “like” a detective.

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tifAs you might know, I wrote the “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series. 40 books in all. And I’ve actually thought quite a bit about detectives, read a lot of mysteries, and studied up on the genre some. The key to a detective — in the great tradition of the detective novel through the years — is that he (or she!) is the moral compass of the story. The person with a deep sense of justice. The person who sorts out right and wrong in a world gone bad. The reliable narrator. The great detective is the through-line in the story, the voice you can trust in a world of lies and corruption.

Does that help?

Now go out and have a terrific summer!

And hey, Rika — you are welcome!

JP

 

 

 

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14. Fan Mail Wednesday #185: Abigail from Casselberry Drew This!

 

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This terrific drawing was included at the bottom of a letter that arrived with a whole batch of similar letters, all sent by a caring teacher from Casselberry, Florida.

I finally grabbed a few spare minutes to sign their book plates, write a genuine response, and pop it back into the mail (in the fabulous SASE that was included).

There were a lot of drawings in the package, and for some reason I loved Abigail’s best of all. Maybe because it was sort of small and tidy. Who can explain it? The heart loves what it loves.

As always, I know how lucky I am. And I feel grateful. Thanks, Abigail. Thanks, Ms. Wilson!

 

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15. Thanks, SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL, for the kind review!

nightmareland_cvr_lorezI was glad to hear from my editor at Macmillan, who passed along a quick review blurb of Scary Tales: Nightmareland from School Library Journal.

I was concerned that because this is part of a series, only the first book would get any kind of critical attention. You know, read one, read them all. Each story is different and independent. New setting, new characters, new twists and turns. So I am very grateful to the editors at School Library Journal for taking another look at the series. Thanks, folks.

Did you read that Jack Black is playing R.L. Stine — the real guy — in the upcoming “Goosebumps” movie? That’s just too fabulous for words. Last year in Austin I got to hang out with Bob Stine in his hotel room. We hung out on the deck, shooting the breeze, then headed over the to Texas Cemetery for a late-night reading in the dark, surrounded by tombstones. It was a pretty perfect night for me, a memory to keep, and I’m glad to see R.L. Stine mentioned in this review, which is from the August edition of SLJ.

 

 

PRELLER, James. Nightmareland. illus. by Iacopo Bruno. 112p. (Scary Tales). Feiwel & Friends. 2014. Tr $5.99. ISBN 9781250018939.
Gr 3-6–The latest spine tingler in Preller’s spooky chapter book series is sure to inspire a few chills. In this tale, a boy receives a new video game called Nightmareland. It warns users to “Enter at Your Own Risk,” a challenge that Aaron likes. He soons finds himself entangled in a world that seems like so much more than a mere game. Some genuinely creepy moments make this ideal for readers who can’t get enough “Goosebumps” and Alvin Schwarz tales.

 

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16. Fan Mail Wednesday #184: Highlights & Thank You’s & Student Art

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Often after a school visit I’ll receive a large package of thank you letters. Usually I’ll respond with one “thank you for the thank you letters” letter, but not always. Especially this time of year, or when I get overwhelmed with work and letters, time slips away and schools closes.

I realize how lucky I am, how fortunate, and I hope that readers understand how much I appreciate all of this great stuff that comes my way. Feeling blessed.

Anyway, I wanted to share a few highlights from a wonderful package sent from Minisink Valley by Mr. Freeman’s spectacular class. At the risk of sounding my own horn, here’s the (classy, handwritten) note from Trinke O’Connor that I found on top of the pile:

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This one from Sierra really caught my eye . . .

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Here, take a closer look at that joyous self portrait . . .

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She’s a writer, just like me. And while I realize that she was drawing a pair of glasses, they made her look like a superhero. And in case you missed this detail, Sierra had a suggestion . . .

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I loved this one from Kelsi for the energetic artwork . . . Jigsaw Jones and Mila Yeh!

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And I have to say, this simple mistake by a very kind lad named Kevin made me smile . . .

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“You are my biggest fan.”

Yes I am, Kevin. Yes, I am!

Here’s one from Skylar, who appears to be hooked on my “Scary Tales” books . . .

 

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And another “Scary Tales” fan in Elizabeth . . .

 

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Here’s a sweet illustration from Alyse, who likes Jigsaw Jones and Scary Tales. Note the smart thing she did, copying the style of the “Scary Tales” covers by drawing in black-and-white and then adding just a splash of color. Smart and perceptive, Alyse! To answer your question, yes, I just finished writing Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster! Guess what? It’s in a swamp! And there’s a monster!

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Check out this killer, blown-up detail of the one-eyed doll . . .

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I don’t think it’s practical for me to share every letter — and I do feel badly by highlighting only a few — but the internet only has so much space. I’ll wrap this up with a cool illustration from Holden . . .

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17. Fan Mail Wednesday #183: Tough to Tackle

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How does a letter get selected for the blog? No idea! It’s pretty random, but it never hurts your chances when you include original artwork. I love that stuff. Here’s a letter from Ethan in Michigan, including an Ethan original . . .



Fan Mail June 14

 

 

I replied:

Dear Ethan:

Thank you for your terrific letter.

I’m so glad that you liked Jigsaw Jones #16: The Case of the Sneaker Sneak. That first chapter, with the football scene, grew directly out of my own childhood memories from Wantagh, my home town on Long Island.

We used to play tackle football all the time. A bunch of neighborhood boys would head over to Beech Street School on our bicycles and play for hours. The hardest boy to tackle was a slightly older, tougher kid named Michael Leninger. I remember him clearly –- and I remember the pride I felt when I took him down all by myself. It was painful, but worth it. I gave those feelings to Jigsaw, more or less, when he tried to tackle Bigs Maloney.

For my blog readers, here’s how the book opens:

Scan 6Eddie Becker grabbed my football jersey. “Okay, Jigsaw. This is it. Tie score,” he urged. “If they score a touchdown now, we lose the game. You know what’s coming, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” I grimaced. “Bigs Maloney, right up the middle.”

Joey Pignattano squeezed his eyes shut. Joey didn’t want any part of tackling Big Maloney. I didn’t blame him. We’d been trying to bring down Bigs all afternoon. It was like trying to tackle a refrigerator. 

Thanks, too, for noticing the opening to Jigsaw Jones #4: The Case of the Spooky Sleepover. That was the first time I ever wrote about Ralphie Jordan. He was “a world-champion smiler. Nobody had a bigger smile or used it more often. Only today, Ralphie wasn’t smiling.”

Have a happy, fun-filled, book-filled summer. And thanks for the awesome artwork! 

My best,

James Preller

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18. Final Cover Art: “ONE-EYED DOLL”

Be afraid, be very afraid . . .

Coming in October, in time for those traditional All Hallows Eve stocking stuffers!

 

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19. This Makes Me a Gnome, I Think

I’m trying to say that, quite unexpectedly, I made a brief sidebar appearance in this month’s Better Homes & Gardens magazine. Thank you, Elizabeth Lombardo, whoever you are!

What, you don’t believe me?

Look, proof!

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20. Fan Mail Wednesday #181: “I Hate Reading”

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Here’s a snippet of a much longer letter from Anabel in NY:

Fan Mail 181

I replied:

 

Dear Anabel:

I’m sorry to see that your long, lovely letter was postmarked March 12th. Since it was sent directly to my publisher, I can only surmise that it languished there for many weeks before finally reaching my home in upstate, NY.

So, please forgive the delay.

You do remember writing to me, don’t you?

It’s so interesting to learn that you “love writing” but “hate reading.” Usually the two things go hand in glove. I wonder if you’ve been reading the wrong books? In any event, I’m glad that you enjoyed Bystander. Books have given me so much pleasure in my life, I’d hate to think you’d miss out on the fun.

Don’t give up on books!!!

9780312547967To answer your questions: I have three children, now ages 21, 14, and 13. When I wrote Bystander, about 5 years ago, I guess I was beginning to project my own youngest two children in that middle grade environment. In conversations with my editor, Liz Szabla, we often got around to the topic of bullying and what we felt were unsatisfactory, unrealistic attitudes about it. Together we felt that it would be a good topic for me, because I’m sort of an anti-Disney type writer. It’s not all cupcakes, rainbows, home runs and unicorns with me.

I set the book on Long Island because I grew up there. It was a familiar environment and, for some reason, I placed this particular book there. At the same time, I’m currently writing one of my SCARY TALES books and it’s set in a swamp in southeast Texas –- and I’ve never spent a minute in that area. I had to learn and research as I wrote, which can also be fun.

I was never bullied in my life, nor was I a bully. I was a bystander, like so many of us, and that’s partly why I wrote the book from that perspective.

My best,

James Preller

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21. SCARY TALES #4: “Nightmareland” — Now Available Where Fine Books Are Sold!

Happy to remind you that this book was published on Tuesday and is now available. This is a story that came directly from suggestions from students on class visits — a basic idea I heard over and over again. Welcome to Nightmareland. Where you’ll meet Aaron, Addy, and Freddy the pizza guy.

 

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I published my first book almost 30 years ago, in 1986. By now, most of them have gone out of print. That’s the way it goes, I guess. Especially with my old publisher, Scholastic, where they recently let every book I’ve done with them go out of print, including beloved titles that sold more than a million copies each, such as WAKE ME IN SPRING, HICCUPS FOR ELEPHANT, and the entire “Jigsaw Jones” series.

Just, poof, gone.

(Note: You can still find the books, for now, but it’s not easy.)

So much for immortality. It’s a tough business, not for the meek or, I’ve learned, the idealistic. It’s hard not to feel discouraged by it all, as I do.

But you keep writing, because that’s all you know, and you keep trying to do the best work possible. Let that be the best revenge. And you hope that maybe it adds up to something the end.

Fortunately, my books with Macmillan are almost all still available (except for Mighty Casey, which never sold).

In addition, I have regained the rights to many of those out-of-print titles, including the entire 40-book Jigsaw Jones series, so I’m holding out the faint hope that another publisher might wish to revive ‘em. I would love to write a new Jigsaw Jones book someday.

Though there are days when I feel like guy . . .

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22. Fan Mail Wednesday #182: A Jigsaw Jones Fan from Canada

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A tough time of year for fan mail, since I’m trying to respond before the school year ends. Oh well, I can only do my best. Here’s one that came from Canada — and included original art.

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Fan 182

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fan 182 letter

 

I replied:

Dear Shane:

Thank you for your kind letter. I’m glad that you enjoyed the first book in the “Jigsaw Jones” series. I wrote 40 of them. (Crazy, I know.) But don’t worry, you don’t have to read them in order. Or any of them, for that matter.

When I searched "marshmallow monster" on my computer, I found this. Yipes! It has nothing to do with my book. I don't think I'll ever eat a marshmallow again.

When I searched “marshmallow monster” on my computer, I found this. Yipes! It has nothing to do with my book. I don’t think I’ll ever eat a marshmallow again.

The books are getting hard to find these days –- they like to hide in dark places, like hamsters -– but it sounds to me like your teacher has several in your classroom. Be sure to thank her for me.

Also, libraries are great places, don’t you think? I recommend that you go to the library often this summer. All those beautiful books and fabulous air conditioning!

I love that you included an illustration with your letter. What a nice bonus!

Have a terrific, fun-filled, book-filled summer.

My best,

James Preller

 

P.S. If you like scary stories, you might want to check out my “Scary Tales” series. There are four books out so far. You might want to wait a year or two, it depends on how you feel about spooky things. Maybe you should only read them during the day?

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23. Writing Process, from “Notes” to Final, plus a Brief Excerpt from NIGHTMARELAND

images-2I didn’t want to get an iPhone, but now I’m fighting an addiction. One feature that I use, in the absence of pen and paper, is the “Notes” function. Perhaps because of the inherent limitations of typing into a phone, any notes I input tend to be condensed, telegraphic, coded, and therefore borderline poetic. At least, sharing some of the qualities of poetry.

In the example below, I was thinking of a scene I had to write in Scary Tales #4: Nightmareland and I came up with a plot idea: He would write a message in the snow.

nightmareland_cvr_lorezMore background: The main character, Aaron, is trapped inside a video game. He is outside in the snow, hunted by a pack of wolves. It is very cold, a very dangerous situation. At the same time, his sister has just discovered his frozen body on the living room couch. She turns to the television screen and lo, there he is, inside the game.

Here are the exact notes I wrote to myself, followed by the scene I actually got around to writing and publishing.

 

< notes >

Moon falling into snow

Branches stars hands curled

Tight the cold air solid

In his chest winter

Pressing into his skull

Clouds form

From his mouth

He thought of Carrie

His sister his only

Hope

But how but how

And he knew

To reach her

He wrote in the snow

I’ve always liked that technique in poetry, by the way, the line rolling over into the next one, for example: “Branches stars hands curled/Tight . . .” Or, say, “His sister his only/Hope.”

I don’t think I was consciously “writing” at that point. Closer to scribbling. There were images, concepts I needed to get down so that later on I could recall them, write them out properly. So in that sense, the outline, if you will, was really just a bunch of trigger words. Seeds. Starting points. It was sort of interesting, though, how upon re-discovering these notes today I couldn’t help but appreciate the poetry in them, those jotted words clumsily & hastily thumbed.

Here’s how it went in the book, where really the only idea that survived in this section — outside of some of the mood I needed to capture, “moon falling into snow,” — was that he would write a message in the snow, drag his boot through it, to reach that someone who (he somehow sensed) was watching on the television set.

The rest is all iceberg theory. That 90% of what we write remains unseen, hidden beneath the surface.

Got it?

From pp. 43-44, “Nightmareland”:

Aaron inspected the torch. It was burning down, dropping gray ash. The flame wouldn’t last much longer. The wolves were patient. They sat on their haunches, biding time. The biggest wolf — the black one with the scar — lay down in the snow. The others in the pack followed suit.

The wolves were willing to wait for their next meal. 

Aaron was surrounded on all sides. Behind him loomed the great, iron fence.

He was trapped.

The flame began to sputter, like a candle in the wind.

Again he felt it, a presence.

Someone was watching him. He felt like a character in a movie. And he sensed something else: Whoever was watching Aaron, he or she was rooting for him.

He was not alone after all.

It gave him an idea. Acting quickly, Aaron dragged a heel across the snow. Up, across, down. Up, across, across, across . . . 

Scan

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24. Thank You, Arizona Library Association!

Good News! I received an email Kerrlita Westrick and Shirley Berow, co-chairs of the Grand Canyon Reader Award, organized by the Arizona Library Association. Instead of telling you about it, you can read the important bits for yourself:

Dear Mr. Preller,

It is out pleasure to inform you that your book, Justin Fisher Declares War, has been nominated for the Intermediate Book category of the 2015 Grand Canyon Reader Award! Congratulations!

The Grand Canyon Reader Award is a children’s choice award with approximately 45,000 Arizona students voting each year. Your book, along with nine other tiles, will be read by teachers, librarians, and students all over Arizona and voted upon by April 1, 2015.

Well, that felt good.

Justin FisherAs a writer, all I’ve ever wanted was to be read and, hopefully, acclaimed to some extent. Approved of. Valued. Appreciated. I dream of at least some fraction of the reading public to say, in essence, “Hey, you did good.”

Making it on these state lists is so important to keep a book in circulation. So, absolutely, a heartfelt thanks from me. Much appreciated. When I look at the other titles on the list, well, it’s just crazy. Not expecting to win, that’s for sure.

Though it’s been well-reviewed, and sometimes even praised, Justin Fisher has been pretty much ignored by the purchasing public (not to mention my own publisher). A paperback edition has never been made available in stores.

Justin Fisher was conceived as part of a series of school-based stories, including Along Came Spider, which was honored by the NYPL back in 2008. Both books share characters and the same setting, Spiro Agnew Elementary.

UnknownHere’s a nice review of Justin from a 5th-grade teacher, Franki Sibberson, who called it “One of my go-to funny books for boys.”

From the first  moment I saw these covers, I thought: “Uh-oh.” I expressed my worries to my editor, that they didn’t at all convey that the stories were school based, but was told that the decision had already been made. End of discussion. Oh well. Everybody does their best, I guess.

To help the humor come out, I had really, really wanted the books to be illustrated, ala “Wimpy Kid,” but that was not in the cards. But most wonderfully, a group of students from Pennsylvania sent me their own illustrations a couple of years back. I love student artwork. Here’s some highlights:

justin-1

justin-1a

justin-5

Now I can only hope for an invitation to visit school in Arizona.

February is wide open! Brrrrr.

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25. Stephen King, Scary Stories, and Me

This comic made me laugh and shake my head in recognition.

10458779_10152192009588379_8576360101683250533_n

To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that I belong in the same sentence as Stephen King, the master, but I can identify with the perils of writing “scary” stories.

In my experience, it’s not the kids fleeing the room. I know for a fact that, generally speaking, there’s a huge readership out there for scary tales. I’ve stood before too many groups of excited students, from California to Michigan, Texas to New Jersey, Virginia to Connecticut (just this year) to have any doubts about the appeal of those stories. The big obstacle is the gatekeepers, the teachers and parents, people worried about what a scary story might do to a young reader — or, even worse, the worry about the potential backlash, the complaining parent. That’s the worst form of censorship in today’s world, I think, how the fear of parents complaint prevents some books from entering classrooms.

In the meantime, today I finished writing the first draft of Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster. It was fun for me to invent new characters — twin brothers and a lively neighbor, Rosalee Serena Ruiz — and set that story near a polluted swamp somewhere in East Texas. New stuff for me, new challenges. I can’t wait to see what the illustrator, Iacopo Bruno, does with this one.

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