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1. On the Passing of Norman Bridwell, Creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog

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I was hired by Scholastic as a junior copywriter back in 1985 for the princely sum of $11,500. To get the initial interview, I mailed in my near-empty resume and a writing sample, which addressed the hot topic of the day, Bernie Goetz, New York’s “subway shooter.”

After the first set of interviews with Willie Ross and Carol Skolnick, I was given a bunch of children’s books and asked to write about them in two voices. First, for young children, and secondly, for teachers. Writing about Curious George to students, I wrote something like, “Yikes! That silly monkey is in trouble again!” For teachers, the idea was to take a different tone, such as, “In this classic tale, award-winning author H.A. Rey conveys the hilarious antics of Curious George, one of the most enduring and beloved characters in all of children’s literature.”

I got the job writing the SeeSaw Book Club.

One of the first assignments I was asked to perform was to write a brief promotional brochure on three authors: Ann McGovern, Johanna Hurwitz, and Norman Bridwell. I was given their phone numbers, told to call them, set up an interview.

“Call them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“On the phone?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Um, me?”

“Yes, you.”

I stared at that phone for a few minutes, mustered up my courage, and pushed the numbers.

That’s the first time I spoke with Norman Bridwell. He was then, as he would forever remain, a humble, soft-spoken, generous man. The first Clifford book, published in 1963, came out in two-color, in an inexpensive, horizontal format. It looked cheap, because it was. But in the early 80s somebody at Scholastic had the bright idea of repackaging those books in a mass market, 8″ x 8″ format — and in virbrant full color. The books took off and the Big Red Dog became one of the great success stories in children’s literature. In fact, one can accurately imagine the Scholastic corporation as a great sled with Clifford the Big Red Dog hauling it through the snow. That benign character helped propel a company to greatness.

Through it all, Norman remained the same kind, gentle man. No one ever spoke badly of him. No one, not ever.

He was always courteous, generous, kind. Even grateful, I think. Norman always seemed to consider himself lucky. And the truth is, he was fortunate. I don’t think anyone makes it really big in this business without a little luck shining down on you. Norman understood that.

NETFLIX, INC. SCHOLASTIC INC. CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG

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He deserved his success, for he had created something pure and genuine that touched hearts, and through it all he remained faithful to the essential core of what those books were all about. The love between a child and her dog, with a bunch of jokes and gags thrown in to get you to that final hug.

One other quick story about Clifford. It was sometime later, let’s call it the early 1990s, and I was in Ed Monagle’s office, chatting away. At that time, I’d moved upstate, gone freelance, and was trying to survive as a writer. (True story: I’m still trying to survive as a writer.) Ed was a terrific guy, but also a numbers guy. A financial analyst, chief bean counter at Scholastic. Ed cared about the books, and believed in the central mission of the company, but he was also impressed by profit-and-loss statements. He admired Clifford’s sales numbers, and respected the size of Norman’s royalty checks.

So on this day, Ed gave me some friendly advice. He said, “Jimmy, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to invent a character that everyone loves. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. Do you have any idea how many of those books we sell? You could do that!” he continued. “I mean, think about Clifford. He’s a dog. He’s big. He’s red. How hard could it be?!

That’s the thing with magic, I guess. It never looks difficult.

Ed was right, of course, the idea was laughably simple. He was also completely wrong. Clifford the Big Red Dog was an exceptional idea, marvelous in its simplicity, executed to perfection.

Not so easy after all.

Norman Bridwell passed away this week. And I’m here to say, very quietly, that he was a really good guy. I’m sorry to see him go.

 

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2. I Am Becoming This Guy . . .

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Ha, well, that’s a little bit of me, I guess. I’m 53 and I did, in fact, grow up in a different world, one that would be increasingly unrecognizable to young people today.

I loved my stick.

And sometimes when I look at my own kids, half-watching TV as they half-scan their cell phones, fully nowhere, I wonder about what might have been lost.

I spent last week observing in four different second-grade classrooms (I want to write about that another time, when I have time), talking to teachers, or I should say, listening to teachers, and they do generally have concerns about this age of technology and what it might mean for listening and conversational skills. But whenever I get on this topic, it’s hard not to feel like that cliche, “back in my day . . .”

Carry on!

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3. Fan Mail Wednesday #196: In Which Adam Calls Me “Ms. Preller” & Other Indignities

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Here we go, folks: “Fan Mail Wednesday!” This letter that begins with an outrageous salutation — and then things get real.

Adam:Fan Mail

I replied:

Adam, dude.

Or should I call you Shirley?

What do you mean addressing this to “Dear Ms. Preller”?

That’s Mr. Preller to you!

M-I-S-T-E-R.

Ha-ha. I thought that was a funny mistake in your letter. At least, I hope it was a mistake. I don’t have anything against girls — I like girls, I do! — it’s just that, well, I’m a boy. Or an ex-boy. Now I’m an old geezer with gray whiskers growing out of his chinny-chin-chin. But in my head, I’m eight years old.

I loved the first line of your letter. “I am going to ask you some stuff.” You got right to the point. No messing around with chit-chat.

Mila Yeh, Jigsaw Jones, and Ralph Jordan talk on the bus. Illustration by Jamie Smith.

Mila Yeh, Jigsaw Jones, and Ralph Jordan talk on the bus. Illustration by Jamie Smith.

I actually did enjoy writing this book, thanks for asking. It was a fun mystery, because it combined “slightly spooky” with “very silly.”  As for when it was written, all you have to do is look at THE PAGE THAT NO ONE ON THE PLANET EVER READS.

Which page is that? It’s called the copyright page. In this case, it’s directly opposite the “Contents” page. It has the author’s dedication, followed by a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo in tiny type, including the book’s ISBN. Below that, you’ll find this:

Text copyright, © 2004 by James Preller.

There it is, the answer to your question. I wrote that book ten years ago. Time flies!

Here our detectives solve the mystery -- it was good old Mr. Copabianco, the school janitor, all along.

Here our detectives solve the mystery — it was good old Mr. Copabianco, the school janitor, all along. He’s into the arts.

The tree house office is actually in Jigsaw’s backyard. In the summer, he works out there, because he loves it. He must like the nebulous heights. In the winter, he moves his office into the basement, next to the washing machine. Mila is Jigsaw’s partner. I think of her as the brains of the operation, while Jigsaw is the one with the unstoppable spirit. He never gives up. Together, they make a great team.

Oh yes, I’m glad you mentioned the illustrations in this book. They were done by a terrific guy who lives in England named Jamie Smith. We’ve never met, but we have exchanged a few emails over the years. I love his work — and I even have a few of his original pieces hanging in my office, nicely framed.

Take care. I hope you don’t mind a little good-natured kidding!

Your friend,

“Ms” James Preller

 

 

 

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4. “Library” — An Animated Poem by Scroobius Pip

 

What is a Scroobius Pip? Well, from what I can gather, Scroobius is no relation to any of the “pips” that — or who? — hung out with Gladys Knight. Born David Meads, Scroobius is a poet and hip hop recording artist out of England. Essex, specifically. A word guy. According to The Independent: “Mellifluous magician, street scribe, punk-poet with pop sensibilities, Pip conjures truly modern verse of genuine incision.”

Looks like a lot of fun to hang out with, too.

JohnGallardo1

 

For what it’s worth, I dug around the interwebs and unearthed this comment to Mr. Pip from a fan. Too cool:

“Hey Scroobius Pip, You saved a life.

I just wanted to let you know that one of the main reasons i am alive and am able to type this is because of you. After being on the verge of suicide multiple times in the past, i stumbled upon your song “Magicians Assistant”. Your words filled my mind and distorted my view on my situation.

I will keep this short, but you changed the way i thought, and in turn snapped me the hell out of my mindset. It was a long journey, but recently i can look in the mirror and say im happy with my life. I just wanted you to know that, and i thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

 

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5. PREACHING TO THE CHOIR ABOUT SCHOOL LIBRARIANS: So We Can All Sing Together, One Voice, Loud & Strong

 

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

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I’m primarily writing to pass on a link about school libraries. Maybe the article states the obvious. Essential stuff we already know, or certainly sense.  I realize that I’m preaching to the choir here. But what I’ve come to believe in life, and politics, is that it’s important to preach to the choir. That’s how we can all open the hymnal to the same page, how we all sing out together, loud and clear. Not a bunch of scattered voices, but a powerful choir.

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Here’s the link to a terrific article by Carol Heinsdorf and Debra Kachel, “School Libraries Are Essential to Learning,” along with a copy of the first few paragraphs. Their immediate focus is on Philadelphia public schools, but this represents a national trend:

In 1991, there were 176 certified librarians in Philadelphia public schools. This year there are 11 and only five are known to be actually doing what they were trained to do. Five librarians for the nation’s eighth-largest school district.

Leaving Philadelphia’s public school libraries without professional staffing is a grave mistake. It will have consequences for the students for the rest of their lives. Study after study shows a clear link between school libraries staffed by certified librarians and student achievement.

In 2012, research showed that students who had school library programs and certified librarians were more likely to have advanced reading and writing scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. And they were less likely to have “below basic” scores.

The same study found that school library programs have their greatest impact on students who are economically disadvantaged, black, Hispanic, or have disabilities. African American students in schools with certified librarians are twice as likely to earn advanced writing scores as those in schools without librarians.

A Mansfield University paper that looked at studies done in 23 states verified that schools with a trained librarian – someone who teaches students and works with teachers to develop information and research skills – have a consistent positive effect on student achievement regardless of demographic and economic differences among students.

In my professional life, I’ve been fortunate to walk into hundred of schools around the country as a guest author.  Increasingly, I see libraries that are understaffed, and I meet librarians who are tasked to provide full-time services on part-time pay (and hours). On many days, these librarians are simply not in the building. In many schools, the library is increasingly marginalized and treated as non-essential — though, of course, no one on a school board ever admits to that out loud. “We may have cut the job in half,” they will tell anyone who’ll listen, “but it will not effect our children.”

Sorry, folks, but I’m calling bull***t.

This trend is true even in my own supposedly “quality” Bethlehem school district, in a relatively affluent suburb of Albany, NY. Former full-time librarians are now commuting between schools, splitting time and services. It’s a huge problem in New York, since the contract does not mandate a full-time librarian position (as opposed to, say, a P.E. instructor). A library should be the heartbeat of an elementary school. And in great schools, it clearly
serves that central, essential function. The librarian, or Media Specialist (if you prefer),
interacts with every child, in every grade, often across six years of learning. Consider that for a moment, the broad impact of that one person. A librarian works with and supports 640classroom teachers. And in response to this reality, the political leaders in our educational system can only think to fire those people, or force them to split schools, while they increasingly focus on standardized tests, purchasing more technology, saving pennies and wasting dollars.

It’s so maddening, and so wrong-minded, I could scream. And that’s why we preach to the choir. Because maybe if we all scream together, somebody will hear our cry.

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6. Everything Was Swell Until the 6th Inning

I came across a photo today and figured I’d tell you about it. Blog fodder, you know.

This is me five years ago, after throwing batting practice on a hot night:

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It was the eve of the championship game for the 10-year-old All-Stars. Bethlehem vs. Colonie. I remember it clearly. My son, Gavin, got the nod as starting pitcher that day (I was coach, not manager, and did not make that decision), mostly by virtue of his being rested and available. He wasn’t our best arm, but on that day he was cool and in control. Gavin hit his pitch count limit after five innings and we had to pull him. Our team was ahead against a very resilient group from Colonie, leading 8-5. Time to go to the bullpen. At that moment, everything that could have possibly gone wrong, went wrong. Three outs from an elusive championship, those poor boys got smoked. It still makes me shake my head in grim wonder. We ended up losing by 10 runs, after one of the most brutal innings I’ve ever witnessed. I’ll never forget that game. I wanted to win, and I genuinely wanted for those boys to experience that championship feeling. Alas, and oh well.

It often amazes me how these games can linger in memory. When I wrote Six Innings, back in 2008, I was struck by how clearly I remembered Little League games that I had played back in the early 70s when I was 9-10-11 years old. It gave me the conviction to write the book in the first place. The games meant something to these kids. That I can vividly recall individual plays across 40 years is a testament to that fact. I can still see that ball rolling through Don Cognato’s spindly legs.

This is a place in life where these boys live. Where a lot of life’s momentous events are played out. It’s a cliche to say that a player leaves his heart out on the field, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I know I left my heart on a lot of ballfields across the years, and I wasn’t the only one.

There’s a moment in Six Innings when I try to capture that feeling. Well, not a moment, exactly; I try to achieve it throughout the entire book. But there’s one particular moment when I suppose I try to elevate the language a bit, try to lift off above the turf. The staccato rhythms give way to longer, more poetic sentences. It happens after a thrilling play at the plate in the top of the 5th:

In that instant, everything freezes, a DVD on pause, then explodes into action. Both teams, the fans, the coaches — shouting, cheering, hooting, protesting — every emotion galvanized at once, a kinetic charge of energy rising up through the five layers of the earth’s atmosphere, their cries and dreams climbing from troposphere to exosphere, soaring into the velvet void of deepest space. A roar that happens on Little League fields every day, in every town, city, state, and country all over the world, from Logansport to Osaka, San Cristobal to Little Rock. The sound the game makes when it is played passionately, with young hearts.

Hey, how’s this for cool? The cover of the Korean translation (uh, it’s the one on the left):

korean-six-innings-207x300          paperback-cover-six-innings-203x300

 

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7. Fan Mail Wednesday #195: Ashley Wants Scary Books for Older Readers

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Here’s an email that resulted from a recent presentation I gave to grades 6-8 while down in Virginia:

Hello, Mr. Preller,

I go to Norfolk Collegiate and you visited my school just a few weeks ago. I never got to really ask you any questions, but yet I gave you book ideas. I’m the Freddy Krueger Girl and the Bloody Mary Girl, remember? I just wanted to ask you if you ever plan to write higher level Scary Tales Books. I remember you telling me about them and I wish you wrote some for beginning high school level or a bit higher since I’m in middle school, I still have a high reading level which narrows my selections from any interesting books like yours. Also I can’t wait for your Bystander sequel to come out and i’m looking forward to any new books in the works.

The Freddy Krueger Girl,

Ashley

I replied,

Ashley! 

Thanks for your note. I very much enjoyed my brief visit to Norfolk Collegiate. That was grades 6-8, I believe.  Of course I remember you.  How many “Freddy Krueger Girls” do you think I meet? 
 
scooby_doo_1_110562I think writing a scary story for older readers would be great fun. In my current series, as you know, I try to be responsible to younger readers. I want to scare them, but I am not looking to traumatize anybody. I’m not seeking to drive 9-year-old readers into the sanitarium, locked up in a rubber room. So I mostly focus on entertainment, building suspense — the knot that twists and twists. I make sure that each story is safely resolved, and nobody gets hurt. At the same time, it’s not Scooby Doo — where the ghost is usually just a portly janitor dressed in a sheet — but it’s not truly horrifying, either. I try to straddle that middle zone of scary . . . but not too scary.
 
I sometimes joke on visits with elementary school students, “I’m sorry, but no one gets murdered in these stories. And I’m sad to inform you that there are no gory scenes with blood gushing out all over the place.”
They politely try to hide their disappointment.
 
All of which makes me think that it would be liberating to write a story for older readers like you where there were no rules. Where I could say, “Well, in fact, teenagers get murdered and there’s blood all over the place! It’s delightfully gory!”
 
Wouldn’t that be swell?
 
Thanks for your letter.
 
JP
 
P.S. Thanks for your interest in the quasi-companion book to Bystander, titled The Fall. It’s due out in August, 2015 — I think! As I said before, it’s not truly a sequel, but it does address many of the same themes from a different, slightly darker perspective. 

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8. Fan Mail Wednesday #194: Writing Advice

postalletter-150x150

Here’s a letter that did not have to travel very far. However, it’s a little tough to read, but I’m sharing it anyway. So there:

Scan 4

 

I replied:

Tyler,

Wow, thanks for the letter and thanks, too, for reading so many of my books. You inspire me to write more. Here are three titles that are coming out in the near and distant future: Scary Tales: Swamp Monster (Spring, 2015), The Fall (Fall, 2015), and Dead, But Cautiously Optimistic (Spring, 2016). 

paperback-cover-six-innings-203x300I hope that by now you’ve been able to track down a copy of Bystander. Usually I describe that book as best for grades 5-up, but I’d never stand in the way of a motivated reader. I have a deep affection for Six Innings, and I’m proud that it was named an ALA Notable Book. I poured a lifetime of baseball obsession into that single book, while also writing about my own son’s struggle with a serious illness. 

I have to confess that I always feel a shiver of uneasiness when asked about writing advice. I know many authors who give it confidently and freely. In my case, despite all these books, I still feel like I’m someone who should be taking advice rather than giving it. 

But, okay, fair enough: I must know something. Right? So read, read often and read widely. Read for pleasure, yes, but also read like a writer. By that I mean, pay attention to what’s happening on the page. Be aware that there’s a real person, an author, behind those scenes on the page, making choices with every word, every sentence. If you are excited, or scared, and laughing out loud — if you feel anything at all while you read — go back and try to figure out what the writer did to cause you to feel that way. We learn best by reading other writers. 

Also, of course, you’ve got to write. And by that I mean, write anything at all — notes, poems, song lyrics, snippets of dialogue, true stories, anything at all. Purchasing your own blank journal. I love those ordinary composition notebooks you can find at CVS. It’s so important to have a place you can go with your thoughts. Remember that it’s impossible to write without deep thought. Writing is an act of concentration and focus. You’ll need to give yourself the greatest gift of all: time to think. Space to feel. It requires that you turn off the television, shut down the computer, put away the phone and games. Hey, I love all that stuff, but in order to write, you must go inside your own skull for entertainment.

At your age, I think it’s best to concentrate on short pieces. Little stories. Scenes. It’s very common for young writers to imagine a great, long, complicated story that would require a 100,00 words to tell properly. Problem is, 99% of the time those ambitious stories are never completed.

tools-belts-xxcge4-296x300I believe there’s value in finished work, and sometimes that’s a matter of adjusting your goals. Imagine that you were beginning to learn carpentry. You’d need to familiarize yourself with the tools of the trade. A hammer, some nails, a screwdriver, scraps of wood, a monkey wrench, etc. You’d begin, I’d hope, by attempting to build something relatively simple: a birdhouse, perhaps. You wouldn’t attempt a structure that was, say, a 2,000 square-foot log cabin for a family of five. Same thing with writing. Explore the tools. Play around with them. Write a scene with a heavy use of dialogue. Put together characters on a park bench, get them talking about something, anyway. 

Also: slow down. That’s one I have to keep learning in my own writing, over and over again. Don’t be in a hurry to get to the next scene, and the next, and the next. Instead, take your time with the scene you are writing. Go deeper, think harder. Find the details that are worth sharing. Decelerate. 

Anyway, Tyler. Do you see what I mean? It’s so hard for me to say anything that’s truly helpful. I wish I could give you the magic key, but I can’t. In the end, writing is all about you and the blank page. No one can really help all that much. I wish you the best of luck in your writing life. If somebody like me can do it, I’m sure that you can, too.

My best,

JP

 

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9. Fan Mail Wednesday #193: Stinky Science & Secret Codes

 

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Today’s letter comes from the International School in Palo Alto, CA, and it’s written by Chih-Hsuan. But that’s not the best part. The best part is that it includes a brand new code — and I cracked it!

Here’s the letter:

Scan 1

Scan 3

I replied:

Dear Chih-Hsuan:

It’s always amazing to receive fan mail. When you think of the world today, how many people on the planet receive actual letters? What’s more, you wrote to me about a book that I wrote 15 years ago. That’s before you were born!

I’m glad that I’m still alive to read it.

And I mean, I’m very glad. The old ticker is still working!

I love your code, which is a variation of the List Code that Mila created in the book. At first it looks like a shopping list: 4 peanuts, 3 lobsters, 26 tomatos, etc.

The number, of course, is the key which directs me, the reader, to the proper letter. 3 lobsters means: “b.” What stumped me, briefly, was 26 tomatos. Hmmm? The letter “z”? Then I separated the number into its parts, a “2” and a “6.” Oooooooh. Double ooooooh!

Your secret message: FUN BOOK!

Thanks for that.

I should also thank you for getting me to pull that book off the shelf. I was actually charmed by the first page — a good beginning, I thought, in which I introduce a new character:

Illustration by John Speirs.

Illustration by John Speirs.

The pink bows didn’t fool me. I ignored the matching lace socks and the little red plastic pocketbook. I knew that Sally-Ann Simms was one tough cookie.

So what if she was only four and a half years old.

Sally-Ann stood in my backyard, hands on her hips. She shouted up to my tree house, “Jigsaw Jones! You up there?”

I was up there — and I told her so. “Take the ladder,” I called down. “The elevator’s broken.”

It’s a relief for me to read something I wrote long ago to discover that I still like it. Not bad, I think. And “not bad” is “pretty good.”

You asked why Joey didn’t simply throw his egg sandwich away in the trash. Good question. I think he felt bad about wasting food, so he wanted to get rid of the sandwich without anyone noticing. Of course, as a storyteller, I needed Joey to hide it in the volcano to help keep my plot moving forward. I have to confess that the smell of hard-boiled eggs makes me flee the room. It’s just one of those odors that I can’t tolerate. Yuck. Super yuck. 

Thanks for writing to me, Chih-Hsuan. And thank you, also, to the good folks at Scholastic for still sending along those letters, long after the book’s been published.

My best,

JP

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10. Sign in a School Hallway

This photo was snapped by my friend, author Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, on a recent school visit.

Stephanie is a great talent and an even better person. As S. A. Bodeen, she’s written The Compound, The Raft, and several other “The” titles. These days the book-loving world is buzzed about her new adventure series, Shipwreck Island.

But enough about Stephanie. Today I want you feast your eyes on this lovely sign in a school somewhere. I know that many schools post signs like this, messages of intent, statements of mission, but this one in particular gets all the notes exactly right.

I like it.

 

 

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11. Letter from a Former Teacher

It’s something I don’t do enough: say thank you, say I remember you. But recently I recalled a former teacher, Mr. Mullen, whom I studied under for two art classes at the College of Oneonta. I was an English major, but the approach I took at the time was to take as many classes as possible, with an emphasis on the best teachers regardless of discipline. That’s how I found Mr. Mullen, who taught a variety of art survey and appreciation courses in addition to studio art classes for practicing artists.

Original digital drawing by James Mullen -- and the cover of the card he sent to me.

Original digital drawing by James Mullen — and the cover of the card he sent to me.

I really liked and admired this man. I’d see him around campus and he always had time for me. I’d stop by his office to talk. I can still remember the thrill I felt when he suggested we go for a cup of coffee, as if we were equals. At the time I’d been writing sporadically for the school newspaper — freelance style, where the editor basically printed whatever I gave him, without deadlines — and Mr. Mullen was always interested and thoughtful in his comments. He liked my righteous indignation, I guess. We talked about stuff. And, obviously, clearly, he cared about me. I’m still grateful for that.

I located Mr. Mullen a few years back. He’s retired now, living in Endwell, NY, of all places. We joked about that, how I supposed he had picked the perfect town for his retirement years. Let’s hope so, right? Anyway, I hadn’t written to him in a while until recently when, out of the blue, I popped a book in an envelope and included a brief note. I’m sure I told him how well I remember his kindess, and what a great teacher he was, and, well, thank you, again.

Still a practicing artist who favors working in the miniature, Mr. Mullen replied with a card of his own, a paean of sorts to Wegman’s, and to friendship.

Inside it read:

Mullen 2

 

I think that card tells you something about Jim Mullen and the graceful, dignified way he walks through life. He is a good man and, therefore, a treasure.

I don’t often do the right thing. Or at least, not often enough. But I’m trying, in my old age, to do a little bit better in terms of kindness and generosity. And what I keep learning, over and over, is that every time I give, I invariably receive more in return.

I wrote an old teacher a letter. A note of thanks. And I’m here today to suggest to you that maybe you should consider trying it yourself, if you haven’t already. Send that note. Say thank you, say I remember. I promise that you’ll be glad you did.

In his response to me, Mr. Mullen recalled a book I had sent him a few years back, a Young Adult novel titled BEFORE YOU GO. I hesitated about including a section of his handwritten response here in blogland, but in the end I think there’s value in sharing it, if only to underscore that it meant something to him.

Teachers’ hearts are made glad to be remembered. And now I have a new goal in life: to have a cup of rotisserie chicken noodle soup in Wegman’s with good, old Mr. Mullen. Wouldn’t that be something?

 

Mullen 3

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12. Fan Mail Wednesday #192: Kaiya from Illinois Begs a Little Bit (and I Like It)

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We’re going to do this on Wednesday today, just to keep readers guessing. This letter involves a little bit of groveling . . .

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I replied:

Dear Kaiya:

How did you know I like it when readers beg? It makes me feel fabulous and powerful, like a king sitting on a throne. Please, please, please beg some more.

Ho-ho, I kid. Thanks for your letter. I’m glad you liked the first book in my “Scary Tales” series, and it was awfully nice of you to say so. I liked your bonus picture too. Good artist!

homesweethorror_cvr_highrezThe way this series works is that each book is completely different. New characters, new setting. I’ve written six so far (five are currently available). I’m sorry to say that I don’t have plans to revisit the characters in Home Sweet Horror. My wish is for Mr. Finn, Liam, Kelly (and their dog, Doolin!) to find a new home close to where they used to live in Hopeville. That said, perhaps you’d like to write something about their further adventures. Maybe Bloody Mary finds a way to tag along?

Anyway, please please please forgive me!

Your friend,

JP

P.S. I got the dog’s name from my old dog, Doolin, who passed away years ago. Doolin, named after a wicked cool town in Ireland, was the best dog I ever had (sorry, Daisy).

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13. What the Hey?! Some Guy Named “James Preller” Is Featured in an Interview at Kirkus — and It’s Pretty Good!

Tomorrow is Halloween, and author James Preller wants to scare your children—the safe, exhilarating type of scare, that is, which comes from a well-constructed set of spooky stories just for the younger set. He’s been doing this not just on Halloween but all during the year with Scary Tales, his chapter book series of ghost stories, launched last year and illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.Chilling and thrilling and very often spine-tingling, the series offers up serious page-turners for students who enjoy reading frightening tales while on the edge of their seats. It’s a far cry from Preller’s Jigsaw Jones series of chapter books, which debuted in 1998, the beloved fictional detective stories for children that are still circulating in libraries. The latest and fifth book in the Scary Tales series, The One-Eyed Doll, was just released. It brings readers hidden treasures, deserted houses, and a creepy one-eyed doll, who moves and tells stories. Needless to say, it’s a good fit for Halloween—or, really, any time of year.Next year, Preller will also see the release of a middle-grade novel, one that follows 2009’s Bystander, which the Kirkusreview called “eminently discussable as a middle-school read-aloud.” The Fall, as you’ll read below, addresses bullying, but not for the sake of jumping on the bullying bandwagon. That’s to say that as soon as many schools kicked off anti-bullying crusades in recent years, we suddenly saw a flock of books about bullying in the realm of children’s literature. But Preller isn’t one for the “bully” label.Let’s find out why.
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The Scary Tales series started in 2013, yes? How much fun has it been to scare the pants off of readers?
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OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezWriting “scary” has been liberating. A blast. In the past, I’ve mostly written realistic fiction. But for these stories I’ve tapped into a different sort of imagination, what I think of as the unpossible. The trick is that once you accept that one impossible element—a zombie or a ghost in the mirror—then the story plays out in a straightforward manner.All storytelling has its backbone in realistic fiction.
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So many kids, even at a surprisingly young age, are eager to read scary stories. I tried to fill that gap. “Scary” thrills them. It makes their hearts beat faster. Yet I say to students, “I’m sorry, but nobody gets murdered in these books. There are no heads chopped off. No gore.” To me, the great sentence is: The door knob slowly, slowly turned. That delicious moment of anticipation, of danger climbing the stairs. I’ve tried to provide those chills, while still resolving each book in a safe way.
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You do a lot of school visits, as I understand it. What do you see the very best teachers and librarians doing (best practices, if you will) that really get children fired up about reading? 
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In its essence, teaching is enthusiasm transferred. The best educators seem to do that naturally—the excitement, the love of discovery. It leaks into everything they do. I think it’s about a teacher’s prevailing attitude, more than any specific activity.
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Speaking of school visits, I assume you still visit schools to discuss Bystander, especially given the subject matter. How have middle-schoolers responded to that book in school visits? 
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DOLL_Interiors_07The response to Bystander has been incredible—and humbling. Many middle schools have used it as their “One School, One Book” community reads, which is such an honor.I attempted to write a lively, unsentimental, informed, fast-paced story. I hope that I’ve given readers something to think about, while leaving them to draw their own conclusions. I didn’t write a pamphlet, 10 steps to bully-proof your school. Robert McKee, in his book Story, says that stories are “equipment for living.” I believe in the power of literature to help us experience empathy.
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What’s next for you? Am I right that there’s a new Scary Tales coming out in 2015, as well as a new novel? Working on anything else you’re allowed to discuss now? 
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I have an ambitious hardcover coming out next year, titled The Fall (Macmillan, Fall 2015), in which I return to some of the themes first explored in Bystander. We’ve seen “the bully” become this vilified subcreature, and in most cases I don’t think that’s fair or accurate. Bullying is a verb, a behavior, not a label we can stick on people to define them—especially when we are talking about children. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”The book is told in a journal format from the perspective of a boy who has participated in bullying—with tragic results—and now he’s got to own it. A good kid, I think, who failed to be his best self. To my surprise, the book ended up as almost a meditation on forgiveness, that most difficult of things. The opening sentence reads:

“Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have sent a message to her social media page that read, ‘Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway! (I’m just saying: It could have been me.)”

I was guided throughout my writing by a powerful quote from the great lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

THE ONE-EYED DOLL. Copyright © 2014 by James Preller. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Iacopo Bruno and used by permission of the publisher, Feiwel & Friends, New York. 

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.

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14. The Amityville Horror House in “Before You Go”

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In my © 2012 Young Adult novel, Before You Go, a car full of boys drives off to Amityville to view the famous “Amityville Horror” house. It’s a minor scene, just something for my characters to do while driving around. Not coincidentally, it was a trip that my friends and I made several times when I was a teenager. Always dull and uneventful. I guess it was an aimless, Long Island-type of thing to do.

It gave us a destination, at least.

From the book:

When they reached their haunted destination at 112 Ocean Avenue in the town of Amityville, Lee killed the lights and coasted curbside. The boys stared out the windows at the old, silent house. It was three stories high with seven windows facing the street, a few tall trees and a low, neatly manicured hedge set off a few feet from the front of the house. At a casual glance, it looked about as scary as a cucumber sandwich.

byg-202x300They had all been there before, even though the drive to Amityville was more than half an hour. Thee was something magnetic about the place. The house was famous for its ghostly legends, and the second-rate Hollywood movie that was based on all the weird stuff that happened after the DeFeo murders back in 1974, scaring the living daylights out of the next family that moved in until, one night, they fled the house and never returned. No one would ever know what really happened.

Lee turned around in his seat to once again retell the tale, his voice hushed and mysterious, drawing out the words to build suspense. “So after the murders, the Lutz family moved in,” Lee began.

The boys had all heard it before, about as often as Green Eggs and Ham, but no one tried to Lee up. After all, it was his car and they were a long way from home. 

“I guess they got a bargain price,” Jude opined.

“Yeah, but after they moved in, all this sick stuff started happening,” Lee said. “Like, swarms of flies were everywhere, even in the winter. The father of the family used to wake up in a cold sweat every night at three fifteen — the exact same time of the murders. Green slime oozed from the walls. And one night they saw a demon’s face in the flames of the fireplace.”

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, BOYS & GHOULS!

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15. How to Tip the Chambermaid

Over the past five years, I’ve traveled a lot to visit schools in far-flung places: Oklahoma, California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts, etc. Mostly I stay in the NY/NJ area. But regardless, the basic fact remains: I’m not at home. I’m often alone, away from my family, unwrapping a plastic cup from inside a plastic wrapper. Sigh.

51LvdCXV+dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One of life’s little puzzles is how to properly tip the chambermaid. For the longest time, I was never quite sure. So I faked it, without much rhyme or reason. Last year I met author Kate Klise in a hotel in Rye, NY. We share the same tour administrator, the awesome Kerri Kunkel McPhail, who organizes and coordinates our school visits in the greater Westchester area and beyond. It’s a rare treat to meet real, live authors, especially since we spend most of our working lives alone, tapping out words on a keyboard. I quickly learned Kate is a hugely talented author, dedicated and wise to the ways of the world, and a kind person, too. I liked her a lot.

Sitting in the lobby, we hit upon the topic of hotel living. I must have said something about tipping the chambermaid, because Kate gave me a suggestion that I’ve used in every hotel stay since.

I leave $5 each morning. In the past, I’d often waited for the end of my stay, but I realized that it might cause an unfair distribution. A different hotel maid might be working that day. Better to leave a smaller amount daily. Five seems like the right number to me, though I didn’t arrive at that figure scientifically. Here’s where Kate told me her approach. She said, “I always leave a little thank you note.”

2698349-1“You do?”

“Yes. It’s such a tough job — think about it. I feel like the least I can do is just write a short note of appreciation.”

Nice, right?

It immediately made sense to me. After all, that’s all anybody ever wants in this life. Some basic recognition, a note of appreciation. The tip is one thing, certainly, but taking one minute for a quick note brings it to a higher level.

Now every morning in a hotel before I’m rushing out for a day’s work, I quickly grab a piece of paper, write “THANK YOU!” or some variation, and leave a tip.

And every time, I feel good about leaving behind a little extra kindness.

And last week, for the first time, I got a response . . . with three exclamation marks.

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16. Writer’s Workshop Photos

 

Here’s a sweet shot from a writer’s workshop I conducted during a school visit last week in Virginia.

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After my prefatory remarks, in which I endeavor to focus & rally the troops, there’s always that uncertain moment when I say, “Okay, now it’s your turn.” They pause for a second, stare at the blank page, and plunge ahead. I am always, always amazed when they actually begin to write — and by what they have to say. It really is a revelation, every time.

I realize that it’s difficult for schools to schedule these kinds of workshops, since they can’t possibly give equal time to every student, I do think this kind of activity can make a meaningful impact on the life of a young writer. And, yes, it’s fun to watch them roll up their sleeves and get cracking. While I always say that sharing is optional — I hold to the writer’s right to keep the work to herself — my experience is that many kids are eager to share their work.

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17. Photo: Reading “The Little Engine That Could”

I found this photo tucked away in a file with a large group of promotional shots that were never used. Not sure what we were thinking here.

Of course, yes, The Little Engine That Could is that rarest of things: a perfect book. I should know, I read it to my kids more than a hundred times, I’m sure.

I just knew he’d make it over that mountain.

Watty Piper, forever!

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18. REPOST: A Hallowed Tradition . . . Falls Into the Gutter

UPDATE: I originally posted this three years ago.

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I’ve previously documented our Halloween scarecrow tradition. It’s something we enjoy, keeping it alive for at least 60 years now.

Well, this year, I don’t know what to say . . .

Here’s the view from the other side (and yes, he’s doughy) . . .

And now the backside again, the view from the street . . .

It’s either the most awesome Preller scarecrow ever, or a serious lapse in taste.

As for the old days, here’s a snap from 1953. My father built these every year . . .

This is about 20 years later, from the 70′s. It’s amazing, but most of our family photos are cropped this way. It’s hard to imagine why, or what was so difficult about keeping everybody in the frame, but there it is . . .

This is a more recent example, 35 years after that, from my own front yard, thanks to a little (and I mean, a very little) help from my kids . . .

Last year we experimented with the pillowcase head and gratuitous gore . . .

But this year, 2011, I’m afraid we’ve finally cracked. Wait, wrong word. Butt . . . you know what I mean. I guess you could say it’s a living tradition, we’re not slaves to the old ways of doing things. Or maybe, in my mother’s old expression, “We’re all going to hell in a hand basket!”

HEY, I JUST REALIZED . . . THIS IS MY 700th POST!

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19. Reading as a Kid: A Nod to Kurt Vonnegut in NIGHTMARELAND

 

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“A purpose of human life,

no matter who is controlling it,

is to love whoever is around to be loved.” 

― Kurt VonnegutThe Sirens of Titan

 

It’s something I started doing in the Jigsaw Jones series, so it’s nearly a 20-year-old tradition. I make small references to real books in my fictional novels. There’s no great reason for it, and as far as I know, nobody cares one way or the other. It’s just something I do to please myself. A tip of the hat.

In Scary Tales #4: Nightmareland, I throw in a reference to an old favorite, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. It happens in the first chapter. A boy, Aaron, is about to make an ill-fated purchase at a video game store.

And here we go, from page 6:

nightmareland_cvr_lorezA black-haired girl with dark eye makeup sat at the counter. She hunched forward with her feet tucked under her chair, reading from an old paperback called The Sirens of Titan.

“Is this game any good?” Aaron asked. “I never heard of it.”

The girl wore clunky bracelets and silver rings on most of her fingers. She glanced at Aaron and shrugged. “Sorry, I just work here. Those games are all the same to me.”

And that’s it. Aaron buys the video game and our plot soon thickens.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I have no childhood memory of my parents reading to me. And I mean, ever reading to me. It must have happened, surely, but just as surely, it could not have been too often. Or I’d remember.

I was the youngest of seven, my father worked a lot, all those mouths to feed, and I don’t think it was something we did. I’m not complaining. Things were different in those days, and seven kids is a handful. I got the book bug — at least those first bites that ultimately led to the more serious infection (or should I say, affliction) — simply by growing up surrounded by readers. My brothers read, my sisters read, particularly Jean, the 6th oldest and closest in age to me; Jean always, always had a book. I think of her reading Tom Robbins and Richard Brautigan, though of course she read everything, and voraciously.

illustratedmanNaturally I became accustomed to the idea that reading was a source of pleasure. It was my destiny; someday I’d get a crack at those same books. My brother Billy, whom I worshipped at that time, favored science fiction. He read the “Dune” series, and Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man and, of course, Vonnegut. I think all my brothers read Vonnegut in the 70′s.

Strangely, I never got around to Sirens until I was in college, taking a class in American Literature while I was attending school in — wait for it — Nottingham, England. Because that made no sense at all! I even wrote a paper about it. I doubt the paper was any good. If you are going to spend time abroad, the last thing you want to do is waste it by studying. There was too much to learn, too many people to meet, too much wild fun to pursue.

But I did read Sirens while I was in England. And today I’m glad to tell you that I gave that book a nod in Nightmareland.

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20. Reading “Danny the Champion of the World”: And Wonderful It Was

I guess it’s true of most readers. We have these embarrassing gaps in our reading lives, all those books we didn’t get to, the awful holes we hope to one day fill. It’s an impossible task, a job (and a joy) that can never be completed.

To that end, I’m currently reading Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.

I haven’t finished it yet, and I’m disinclined to offer up a review. But I wanted to share a few thoughts, beginning with this incredible illustration by Quentin Blake.

 

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I keep returning to that page, staring at that picture. Just a few simple lines that capture such depth of feeling. There it all is, being a kid, looking up at a parent with love and wonder while snuggled up warm in bed. Two dots for eyes — two dots! — and yet they seem to express the essence of that relationship. The father registers only as a looming presence without detail, like a great tree in a forest. He is, simply, there. A force of nature and comfort. It’s amazing, I’m stunned by it, in awe of it. So that sums up an important part of today’s blog.

Wow: Quentin Blake.

Then there’s the storytelling of Mr. Dahl, which is a gift I’ll never have. The man tells stories. Whoppers. But here, today, I want to focus on Dahl’s writing style. I admire the clarity and directness. I’m also charmed by the Englishness — the strangeness to my American ears, the weird things they happily eat, the peculiar names of things — where every detail seems just a little other-worldly, even in a fairly straight-ahead, naturalistic novel such as this one. This is the distance of time and place. A different world, yet still familiar.

Here’s the paragraph that went before the illustration above. I keep reading it over and over again. Now I get to type it, feeling like a weekend musician at home with a guitar banging out a Beatles tune, channeling that great artistic beauty through my fingertips (I love typing out great passages from books):

I really loved living in that gypsy caravan. I loved it especially in the evenings when I was tucked up in my bunk and my father was telling stories. The kerosene lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove, and wonderful it was to be lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room. Most wonderful of all was the feeling that when I went to sleep, my father would still be there, very close to me, sitting in his chair by the fire, or lying in the bunk above my own.

That paragraph, to me, is absolutely perfect. The writing is direct, specific, concrete (not abstract), interesting (lumps of wood) and for the most part, quite plain. I really loved living in that gypsy caravan. Few would claim that as an example of great writing — except for the obvious fact that, wow, that’s great writing. The absence of flash. An arrow doing its swift work, slicing to the next sentence.

danncover3The only tricky moment in this paragraph, where the language uplifts and surprises us, giving the reader temporary pause, occurs in that more elaborate third sentence, which was perfectly set-up by the direct predicate-verb structure of the previous two sentences. I really loved, and, I loved. Which leads to this: The kerosene lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove, and wonderful it was to by lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room.

You heard that, right?

And wonderful it was.

Again, all I’ve got is wow. There’s so much there, the essence of being loved, of feeling secure, of being a child safe from harm, snug and warm. Can writing really do that? It feels like a small miracle. Is this why I love books?

And it all happens on page 7.

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21. Brilliant: B.J. Novak Reads “The Book With No Pictures”

In this bunny eat bunny world, we’ve seen celebrity authors come and go. Mostly come, in droves, especially after Harry Potter put a spotlight on the profit potential of the children’s book biz. Ca-ching.

Everybody’s making millions!

For many of us non-celebrity authors and illustrators, dressed in our dreary clothes, clutching our cold coffee cups, it’s hard not to be a little, urm, disgusted at times. The crappy book by the “star” that gets a ridiculous amount of undeserved attention.

IMG_0369But that’s life, so we deal with it, and try to keep our petty thoughts to ourselves.

However, I hasten to add: not all celebrity books suck. Jamie Lee Curtis wrote some good ones, as I recall. Fred Gwynne — Herman Munster! — made a sincere  effort to create singular children’s books. By that I mean, my sense is that they actually worked on the books, actually respected the idea of a children’s book, and got into it for the “right reasons,” however we might differ in defining what those reasons are. It wasn’t just a way to cash in on something.

Anyway, this fresh, new effort by B.J. Novak is brilliant. Yes, absolutely, he came up with a clever idea. A great idea. But then he pulled it off over the course of an entire book. That’s not at all easy. And it’s beautifully published, too. Great job, all around.

Kids today, they sure do love the meta.

Enjoy this book with no pictures, folks. Go ahead, stomp on that link, surrender to the video. It makes me wish that I had a room full of kids to read this one too.

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22. Fan Mail Wednesday #190: A Future Detective Named Vaughn Just Wants to Know

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Here we go, Fan Mail Wednesday! But first, let’s shake it out with a little zumba . . .

Just kidding, folks. You can relax.

James-Preller-cropped1Also, please note: This is the 1,001st post since I started this blog in May, 2008, back when I had dreams of RULING THE INTERNET. That’s an average of something like eight gazillion posts a year, and it’s pretty exhausting. I’ve slowed down the pace over the past few years, no longer  worrying much about this blog, or about getting “hits” or anything like that, but lately I’ve decided to step up my efforts. So don’t be surprised if the next time you stop by there’s some new throw pillows and curtains. You might even smell some incense and potpourri.

And if I haven’t said it lately, thank you, sincerely, for stopping by. The internet is deep and vast; it’s really something that you’ve managed to find yourself here, reading this. I’m grateful for that.

Here’s a note from my new main man of all men, Vaughn:

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I replied:

Hi, Vaughn,

Thanks a lot for reading my book, and thanks a really lot for writing to tell me about it.

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tifYou hope that Hermie doesn’t get eaten by a snake? Imagine how Hermie feels!

Do I like detectives? Oh, yeah, for sure. I love trying to figure out mysteries, looking for clues, solving secret codes, and encountering new characters. But one of the things that I grew to love about this series was the friendship, and the loyalty, between Jigsaw and Mila. They always look out for each other.

As a young boy, maybe even around your age, I used to spy on my brothers and sisters (I’m the youngest of seven). I’d hide in weird places, sneak around corners, crawl silently up darkened stairways. I used to own a “spy scope,” which was a long, expandable telescope that could be used to see around corners. Man, I loved that toy. Once I even watched in horror as my big brother, Billy, and his girlfriend, the beautiful & sweet-smelling Janice Snellbaker, kissed! They didn’t know I was there.

All I can say is: Yuck!

Some things, Vaughn, are hard to unsee.

I hope you keep reading books, any books at all, even mine. Good luck with your detective work. Remember this: Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.

My best,

JP

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23. Poster In the School Lobby . . . and a Quick Memory of Craig Walker

Here’s a quick snap of a poster in the lobby of our local middle school:

 

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Since the time I wrote Bystander, I’ve been invited into many middle schools. Often the funds for my visits have come out of a school’s “anti-bullying” budget, or some similar cookie jar. After a series of sensational tragedies involving bullied children became public, various government agencies got involved. Legislation was passed, and many schools attempted to address the core issues.

They felt compelled to . . . do something. Or in the most cynical reading possible, administrators at least recognized the need to protect themselves from lawsuits.

Witness the flowering of hundreds of bully-prevention programs throughout the land.

On the whole, not perfect, but usually sincere: a good thing, I think.

I’ve seen that the more progressive schools have gradually moved on from that narrow (and sometimes too negative) focus to address the larger issues covered under the umbrella of “Character.” I’m glad about that.

Best of all, I am seeing a greater emphasis on kindness.

Wedding, Walker 2My old pal, Craig Walker, used to joke that everything you ever wanted to know about love was on the Supremes “Greatest Hits” LP. And by that he meant, there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new that anybody can possibly say on the topic. There will be no new revelations forthcoming. We’ve heard it all already, and so often that it comes out like a tired cliche. No, you can’t hurry love. And you do keep me hanging on.

220px-Supremes_Greatest_HitsWhen it comes to the bad behavior associated with bullying, we can ask those involved, “How would you like it?” “How would it make you feel?” And maybe we can say something about doing unto others. Or being kind. Or a dozen other fairly obvious things that remind us how to be a good (read: caring, compassionate, thoughtful) person in this world. We can also tell them, in clear language supported by real consequences, that bullying is unacceptable.

I do believe that it’s part of every school’s mission to reinforce these messages, every day, in a thousand small ways. I’m glad that sign is in our lobby. It’s a minor thing, sure, easy to dismiss or ignore, but it’s still a signal amidst the noise. A lighthouse visible from the stormy sea.

All and all, not a terrible question to ask ourselves before we act, speak, or post:

Is it kind?

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24. Give Your Student Writers the Freedom to Embrace Their Inner Zombies


1621704_667566729951571_1638043617_nNote
: A variation of this essay first appeared a while ago over at the fabulous Nerdy Book Club, founded by Donalyn “The Book Whisperer” Donalyn, Colby Sharp, and possibly some other folks. It’s not entirely clear to me. Nonetheless! You can follow all their nerdy, book-loving, classroom-centered hijinks on Facebook, Twitter, and various other places. 

 

 

These days, young people are crazy about zombies. That’s just a plain fact. Not every kid, of course, but a lot of them.

And I’m here to say: Use that as an advantage in your classroom. Seize the day zombie! Particularly when it comes to student writing. Some girls wants to team up to write a story about a zombie apocalypse? Here’s a pen and paper. Go for it, ladies.

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Many students, as young as third grade and on up into high school, are watching THE WALKING DEAD. The secret that quite of few of them don’t realize is that the television show is not about zombies at all. It’s about people surviving zombies. The zombies themselves are boring, without personality, almost irrelevant. They could be switched out for deadly fog, or World War II, a forest fire, or a tsunami. The zombies are simply a device to propel a character-driven story forward. It’s the ticking bomb that drives plot forward and gives each moment heightening meaning.

That’s my essential point here. The action -– the story – is almost entirely about character.

zombie-3-comingWhat we need to recognize is that, counter-intuitively, the zombie plot device perfectly lends itself to purely character-driven story. It could even be argued that it’s about family, blended, modern, or traditional.

With, okay, some (really) gross parts thrown in. Warning: Some characters in this story may be eaten. Ha! And why not, if that’s what it takes? If a little bit of the old blood and guts is the hook you need to lure in those writers, embrace it.

You can’t write a good zombie story without creating an assortment of interesting characters. Then you place those diverse characters in danger, you bring them into conflict with each other, you get them screaming, and talking, and caring about each other.

As, okay, they are chased by a bunch of zombies.

There’s no drama unless the writer makes us care about his or her characters. Your student writers will be challenged to make those characters come alive, be vivid and real. We have to care that they live or, perhaps, really kind of hope they get eaten alive in the most hideous way possible by a crazed zombie mob.

Don’t be turned off by that. Remember, it’s really all about character development, turn your focus to that. Dear teacher, I am saying this: embrace your inner zombie –- and turn those students loose.

What they will be writing will be no different than your typical Jane Austin novel. Except for, you know, all those bloody entrails.

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There are currently five books available in my “Scary Tales” series.

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorez     nightmareland_cvr_lorez     9781250018915_p0_v1_s260x420     iscreamyouscream_cvr_highrez-198x300

homesweethorror_cvr_highrez

 

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25. Fan Mail Wednesday #191: Scary Stuff & A Sneak Preview

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Hey now, it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, because “Fan Mail Wednesday” is a state of mind.

Here’s one from a student who attends one of my favorite local schools. Meet Shreya!

 

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I replied:

Dear Shreya,

Wow, thank you for your kind letter, I really appreciate it.

I’m thrilled that you are enjoying the books in my “Scary Tales” series. When I started writing them, that was my number one goal. I said to myself, “I really hope Shreya likes these. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezBut what’s up with you not reading The One-Eyed Doll? They don’t have a copy in your library? Or does it sound too creepy for you? What are you waiting for? I write these books exactly, precisely, specifically for YOU, Dearest Reader, the least you could do is read ‘em. 

The 6th book in the series will be coming out sometime in the Spring, I think, it involves a swamp and a monster and I have cleverly titled it: “Swamp Monster.” I’m kind of amazing that way.

DOLL_Interiors_07Of course, by the end, we’re not really sure exactly who the real monster is, are we? The book was especially fun to write, because it features a set of twins from Texas, Lance and Chance, and a fearless girl named Rosalee Ruiz. Right now, the manuscript is with the illustrator, Iacopo Bruno, and he’s working on it. I can’t wait to see what he does with the swampy environment, the Spanish moss dangling from trees like exotic drapes. Creepy! Also, of course, I’m eager to see how he’ll draw the swamp monster.

As an added bonus, here’s a “never-seen-before-by-human-eyes” sample from the unpublished book:

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

     Stay away, gawk, stay away!

     The farther the boys traveled, the darker it got.

     Lance stopped, slapped a mosquito on the back of his neck. The bug exploded, leaving behind a splash of blood. “I don’t know, Chance,” he said doubtfully. “Getting dark, getting late.”

     Chance chewed on a small stick. He spat out a piece of bark. “Let’s keep on going.” And off he went, leading the way, content that Lance would follow.

     After another while, Chance paused and stooped low, bringing his eyes close to the ground. He pointed to a track in the mud. “What you think, Lance?”

     “Too big for a gator,” Lance said. He turned to gaze into the dark, snake-infested water as if staring into a cloudy crystal ball. “But I’d say it’s gator-ish.”

     “Real big though,” Chance noted. “Heavy, too. You can tell ‘cause the print sank way down.”

     “Guess you’re right,” Lance agreed.

     “Here’s another,” Chance said, moving two steps to his right. “Three clawed toes, webbed feet. Weird.”

     “Never seen the like of it before,” Lance said. “Looks like it was moving fast, judging by the length of the stride –-“

     “—- and headed right there,” Chance said, pointing to the swamp, “—- into the water.”

     “You reckon those tracks were made by Bigfoot?” Lance asked.

     Chance grinned at his brother. They both laughed until the swamp swallowed up the sound. They stood together in the echo of that lonely silence.

     “Maybe we should head back,” Lance suggested.

Anyway, Shreya. Hopefully that sounds intriguing to you. 

I believe I’ve visited your school, Lynnwood, a couple of times over the past 10 years or so. Everybody is always super nice. You’re lucky; it’s a great & happy place.

My best, and thanks again. Below, please find the free autograph that you requested. Cheers!

JP

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