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1. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #226: Word from an Aspiring Author

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Here’s a kind note from an aspiring writer.

Hi! My name is ___ and I am a fifth grader from Sacandaga Elementary school. I was sick when you came and I was so sad. I love to write and your books inspire me! I am reading Justin Fisher Declares War and it makes me randomly laugh! I love having your signature in it! I wish I could have met you! I write to get my mind off things. I am going to start a book called Fake inspired by Bystander! Please get back to me, wish I could have seen you!

Confession I never liked the cover to this one, was hoping for something much more funny and school based, but I do like the tag line: "Fifth grade is no joke."

Confession: I never liked the cover to this one, was hoping for something funny and school-based, but I do like the tagline: “Fifth grade is no joke.” Too bad you can’t see it. Grumble, grumble.

I replied:

 ____, what a bummer! I’m sorry you were sick, I could have used a friendly face in that rough crowd. Just kidding. Everyone at Sacandaga was great — in fact, I loved it so much, I even learned how to spell Sacandaga. When in doubt, type an “a.”

I wrote Justin Fisher immediately after Bystander, which was fairly serious, so I felt like writing something that was humorous and light-hearted. I’m glad you enjoyed both of them, my yin and yang. 
Please give me your address and I’ll try to get something in the mail to you one of these days. But be patient, I’ll be traveling soon. 
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I’m always glad to hear from a fellow writer. And for the record, Fake is a great title.
 -
JP

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2. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #225: Kentucky Student Pretends to Be . . . Me!

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I received this note from a mother the other day:

My son, Joey, completed his reading project that I mentioned in an earlier CourageTestFrontCvre-mail.  He had to read three books from one author, provide summaries to the class, create a poster, and be the author for a class presentation.  This is a picture of him after the big event.  He read Bystander, The Fall
and Before you Go.  His classmates were very interested in the subject material.  They asked many questions after the presentation.

In any case, thought you might like to see the picture.  We were going to put facial hair on but the teacher did not allow make up.

Joey is looking forward to your new book, The Courage Test.

I keep imagining this dear, kind mother sitting at the kitchen table shaking her head, “Why, Joey? Why?”

There are, of course, copious tears.

There’s even a Youtube video of Joey, as James Preller, giving a brief presentation. It was a strange sensation for me, as if staring into a mirror and seeing a much improved version of my actual self. I liked that Joey wore the Mets hat, and it’s fairly remarkable that he came up with an Oneonta sweatshirt. It is too bad about the rule against facial hair. That would have nailed it.

Thank you, Joey. I’m grateful and a little shocked that you would pick me out of all the possibilities. Though I suppose I was a better choice for you than, say, Beverly Cleary. I just don’t see you in those glasses.

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3. Two Quick Cartoons on “The Writing Life.”

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I recently came across these two comics and they made me, well, not LOL, but I believe that I chuckled inwardly, silently. My funny bone was tickled.

I didn’t make a big show of it.

Remember back in the early days of the interwebs when people used to type ROTFLMHO (or other body parts)? That drove me insane, because I would immediately envision it. A person actually rolling on the floor — the dirty floor! — rolling! — and laughing like a lunatic. Hahahahahaha. And rolling.

Who does that?

Yet I’d read it multiple times a day. Fortunately, those dark days of the interwebs are gone.

Wait, where was I?

Oh, yes, this, taken directly from my life:

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And this:

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Thank you, Peanuts, and thank you, Simpsons. Charles and Matt, two masters.

Carry on, writers!

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4. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #224: Still No Snow, Etc.

As we learned from Susan on Seinfeld, licking envelopes is a dangerous business.

As we learned from Susan on Seinfeld, licking envelopes is a dangerous business.

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Just answered a big batch of letters about Bystander.

I replied:

Dear _______:

Here I am, another Saturday. I’m reading reports of snow all over the Northeast, and outside my window: nothing. Not a flake. It’s almost a bummer. Almost.

I’ve got a big pile of 25 letters from Elma, NY, including one from you. This feels a little like déjà vu. It is impossible for me to respond to each letter individually. It would also be dreadfully boring, since many contain similar questions. You all read BYSTANDER. So I’m sending out this single letter, one size fits all!

Proof: The letters on my office floor.

Proof: The letters on my office floor.

BTW: I can’t stand licking all these envelopes. Gross. I feel like I might die, like George’s fiancé on “Seinfeld.”

Anyway: Juliana wondered why Griffin would ditch his old crew. My intention was to show the reverse, that his friends had grown tired of Griffin’s petty cruelties; it wasn’t cool anymore. Research shows that bullying peaks in middle school, and quiets down after that. Partly I think that’s because people wise up. After the conformity of middle school, everyone trying to fit in, dressing alike, a lot of people realize that it’s okay to be themselves. Anyway, that was my thinking about Griffin moving on to new friends. He was forced to, since many of his old friends had drifted away. Remember, Griffin is not without charm. He’s smart, clever, good-looking, charismatic. Attracting new friends isn’t the hard part. The real trick is in keeping them.

Valerie asked about the inspiration for different characters. Most of them were composites -– that is, bits and pieces from real people, things I read, etc. Real people were the starting points for David, and Griffin’s father, as well as Eric’s father, who is based lightly on my brother John, who also suffered from schizophrenia.

Jessica asked for a signature, but was kind enough to add: “If not, that’s totally O.K.” Loved that!

Many asked about a sequel. THE FALL is not exactly that, it’s more of a companion book, but it should appeal to readers who enjoyed BYSTANDER. I hope! My next book coming out is called THE COURAGE TEST (October), about a father and son who travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail. I’m very excited about it. There’s a brief excerpt on my blog.

The new paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

The new paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

Braden complimented me with an astute observation. He liked that I “did not rush to get the story over with.” Yes, Braden, thanks for noticing. It took me years to learn that skill, a common mistake in young writers. I try to recall the idea of “downshifting,” slowing down, allowing the moment to exist in full. A lot of writers just want to type “THE END.” And I get that, I do. My editor helps me, too; she’ll say, “Pause a beat. Slow down.”

Jenna says: “School ends in June so please write back if you can!” Yes, booyah, I just nailed another deadline!

Mikayla was interested in my family. I’m the youngest of seven children. I have a lot of information at my blog, jamespreller.com. Check it out 

Jacob’s favorite part of the book was when Eric got beat up. Guess what? It was my favorite part to write! I’d never done that before in a book. I also set that scene at a real place by my old high school in Wantagh, NY. Yes, President Nixon’s dog, Checkers, really was buried by my school.

Lily, that last scene is Eric’s wish, his heart’s desire, the reunion with his father that he longed for. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t.

Ethan, no worries, I wasn’t bullied in school. Classic bystander type. But I remember everything.

Alessandro, I would love to travel more, after I get my kids through college. So many places to see, other countries, but also love to see more of America. I really want to go on a river trip by the White Cliffs in Montana. (I recently got obsessed with Lewis & Clark.)

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail, a road trip that offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail, a road trip that offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.

Aubrey writes: “My favorite character would have to be Mary because she basically changes throughout the whole book.” Yes, yes, yes! Mary may be a minor character, but she is critical and possibly the book’s true hero. She’s key, for exactly the reason you stated. Brilliant, Aubrey!

For those of you I haven’t mentioned: Riley, Ryan, Lauren, Melanie, Ada, Owen, Daniele, Brandon, Mary, Ethan, Cal, Maggie (my biggest fan), Maddy, Anna, and Liam. Sorry, just ran out of time! Thank you, one and all. Teachers, too!

My best,

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5. AUTHOR TO AUTHOR: A Conversation with Audrey Glassman Vernick

 

I’m not exactly sure when Audrey Glassman Vernick became a blip on my radar, but suddenly she was blipping everywhere. I felt like one of those guys in the mission control tower, trying to determine if this green blip was a “friendly” or an incoming missile. Ultimately, I decided that Audrey was a rising star.

I had the chance to meet Audrey personally, as opposed to through her books, at the 2015 Princeton Children’s Book Festival (thank you, Alison Santos!). We were at a backyard gathering, tired and happy after a long day. I bravely introduced myself, and we enjoyed a brief, easy conversation. I liked her immediately.

Anyway, I invited Audrey over to my swanky blog for today’s conversation. Here she comes now . . .

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AGV: Why, it is swanky!

JP: I know, thanks. It’s the Picasso poster, isn’t it? I saved it from college. 

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But that’s the definition of class. It’s not just a hand or flowers. It’s both! And thanks for having me.

Glad to have you. About a month ago I read a bunch of your books. I was especially taken by Edgar’s Second Word, illustrated by Priscilla Burris. I even wrote to tell you how much I loved it, calling it “a small masterpiece.” Do you remember your reply?

I hope my first response was thank you. And I suspect my quick follow up was that you were one of approximately six people who read that book.

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Yes, you were gracious. But you also mentioned that I was one of the few people to have actually read it. Which just goes to show that this is a crazy business. Your book has so much heart. It’s expertly constructed, like a well-built cabinet. We learn Edgar’s first word, “NO!” early on, so there’s a built-in tension: What will his second word be? That curiosity keeps us turning the pages. I was worried that the second word might be a letdown, but you totally delivered.

Thank you! Tension (and the building up thereof) is my very least developed writer skill, so extra thank you!

I interviewed James Marshall back in the early 90s, and he maintained that a strong ending for a book was essential. I’ll always remember what he told me: “The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles at the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it.” Wise words, and again, I think you nailed it with Edgar’s Second Word.

Let’s stop right here so I can faint. James Marshall!

I know, I was bragging to impress you. He’s one of my children’s book heroes. I can vividly remember our conversation. Heck, I can remember picking up the phone. James was friendly, funny, genuine, completely unpretentious.

George and Martha are the two main loves of my life. They are quoted with solemnity in the Vernick home.

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Do you have a favorite line?

A truth about me (which does not go over well with kids at school visits): I am unable to pick a favorite anything except sports team (Yankees). Unable. So I could write some great lines here but then, minutes later, I’d erase and replace. (It is not easy being me.) Also, you sort of have to be looking at George and Martha along with reading their words to get the full picture. All that said, an oft-repeated line that comes to mind (you won’t even believe how lame this is) is:

 

“Boo!” cried George.

“Have mercy!” screamed Martha.

 

Nice, subtle. His humor is always natural, never seems forced. You never get the feeling that Marshall is trying too hard. 

The blog I had and still kind of have was in large part an homage to those two, about literary friendships.

Oh, nice idea. There’s Frog and Toad, of course. Do you know the book Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes? It’s pretty perfect.

I do not. But I shall seek it out. Pronto!

I blogged an appreciation of it a while back. Let me see, it’s around here somewhere. Here you go, click on the link

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

Back to your question.

Wait, there was actually a question?  

The ending! You asked about the ending! It was the first, and only, thing I knew about the book when I started writing it. I received an email from a college friend whose young not-book-loving son (Edgar!) sat through his mother’s read-aloud of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and, at the end, said, “Again.” I shared that with my wise agent, Erin Murphy, who said, “Well obviously you’re going to use that in a book, right?”

Right.

I don’t know if this happens to you, but when a book fails to sell, fails to reach an audience, I tend to slowly, inexorably begin to think of it as a failed book. And by extension, I begin to see myself as a failed writer. Intellectually, I know that’s wrong, but that’s my reality. So that’s why I’m dwelling on Edgar a little bit here. I want to be sure that you know it’s a great blipping book!

That’s a very George-to-Martha thing to say (maybe not the blipping part). Thank you! I have my dysfunctions when it comes to this publishing business. I suffer some jealousies. I focus on benchmarks I have not achieved. But I am pleased to say that in this one particular case, I still really love this book. Priscilla Burris’ illustrations are unspeakably sweet and perfect.

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Yes, she did a terrific job. The right tone. 

And the people who read it respond so well to it. It just didn’t find its people. That happens. It wasn’t the first time it happened to me. A nice side note is that it was named a highly commended title by the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Outstanding Writing in a Picture Book.

First Grade Dropout, illustrated by my pal Matthew Cordell, turns on a lovely mistake. A boy absent-mindedly calls his teacher, “Mommy.” Where did that idea come from?

Some years I take part in Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), in which you try to come up with a picture book idea each day of the month. One day I wrote “kid calls teacher mommy,” something I know happens in my sister’s second-grade classroom with some frequency. (I’ve since learned it happens in nearly every classroom.)

Yes, it rings true. That’s probably why it’s funny.

FirstGradeDropoutIt sat on that list for years because it wasn’t a story yet, just an incident. One day I decided to give it a try. In my experience, you sometimes have to start writing a picture book to find the story. And that voice just came out. It happened again a few months ago, when I was looking for a follow-up to that book. I brainstormed ideas with my editor, but while we had fun and shared lots of embarrassing elementary-school memories, we didn’t hit upon anything usable for a book. Once I started writing, though, I found the idea for Second Grade Holdout, which is coming out next year (because Matt is F-A-S-T as well as fantastic).

I am crazy about Matt. I once slept in his guest room. He even drove me to the airport. Strangely, Matt insisted on dropping me off sixteen hours early, which was confusing.

You are wise to be crazy about Matt. He’s kind and funny and so talented. Immensely likable.

Well, let’s not get carried away, Audrey. He’s okay. But I’ll be hog-tied if I let Cordell hijack this interview! So, yes, you discovered the idea for Holdout . . . through the act of writing. Jane Yolen’s famous “butt in chair” advice. How do you actually get work done, Audrey? Do you have a time clock where you punch in each morning? Or do you wait for inspiration?

Somewhere in the middle. I am not disciplined. With picture books, I write when inspiration strikes, but with novels I need to force myself to sit and write. And I have to come up with sad little bargains to keep myself in the chair, writing.

Such as?

I’m only allowed to sit in the comfy chair with the heated blanket when I’m working on a novel. And once I’m there, it’s still a whole bargaining thing. If you finish the chapter, you can shower. Or eat breakfast. Or walk the dog.

Oh, that poor dog. Getting back to James Marshall, you share a great trait with him. You’re funny. And even better, you are able to write funny, which is a distinct and rare talent. There’s never enough of that in children’s books. Children’s publishing went through a biblio-theraputic period where every picture book had to be about something important. Laughter lagged behind.

I nearly fainted from the first sentence here.

And I agree that there’s never enough funny. But there are so many more now than there used to be. The books that were considered funny when I was a kid and, for the most part, when my kids were little, were more amusing than genuinely funny. Lots of modern picture books are flat-out hilarious. It’s a really fun time to be writing them.

Can you name a few of your favorites?

See previous explanation of ever-changing favorites. That said, I believe the Pigeon books kind of burst the door open to a new kind of funny. Bob Shea’s books often crack me up and I have serious title-envy about his Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. Like debilitating jealousy.

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Deborah Underwood’s Cat is a brilliant new character.

I really liked Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce and Julia Sarcone-Roach’s The Bear Ate Your Sandwich.

Good to know. I understand that 2016 is going to be a big year for you.

I have four books coming out.

Wow. Girl is on fire. You realize I kind of hate you now? A little.

I can both understand and accept that and will just quickly add that it’s possible I have four books coming out in six months -— the pub date for the last release of the year has not been set.

Shoot me now. I mean: I’m sooooo happy for you!!!!!

Aww!

I’m curious, how do you do it? I find that writing picture books can be so difficult. I’ve been seriously trying for the past year and everything comes out half-baked, half-finished, half-awful. There are times it feels like throwing darts in a darkened room. It’s so easy to go down the wrong path. I wonder if you can talk about your process a little bit. Do you begin with a character?

I write both fiction and nonfiction picture books, and for the nonfiction ones, I look for a subject, get obsessed, research and write.

Do you first clear the topic with an editor?

I float it more than clear it. Or maybe those are the same. I am not writing with a contract, to be clear.

And for your fiction titles?

Just about every one has been different. Sometimes, the title comes first and leads the way to the story. Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums was the first of those for me. Once a whole first page came to me, unbidden:

“Zander was a monster. This wasn’t strange as his father was a monster. His mother too. Oddly, his sister was a fairy. And his dog was a skunk.”

That last sentence just killed me. (And then, as with many lines I love, I had to fight to keep it.) That’s from Unlike Other Monsters, coming out in June.

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And his dog was a skunk. That’s a funny line. Comedy gold! Sometimes with the right sentence, even just a few words, or the right rhythm, a door seems to open. You can suddenly find your way in.

I don’t think any of my picture books has started with a character, which I didn’t realize until you asked. With novels, it’s always character. But it’s usually title/concept or incident that gets me started with picture books.

Getting back to what you said about going down the wrong path -— to me, that’s what is so great about picture books! If you do it in a picture book, you erase the last 100 words and go back to the fork. With a novel, hacking out 50 pages feels like pulling out a minor organ.

I maybe once cried when cutting 10,000 words from my book, Six Innings.

The first novel I wrote, Water Balloon, I wrote these extra 50 pages before the story really got going. I so wanted credit for those pages.

Even so, picture books have to be “just so.” You know? I feel like there’s more forgiveness in a longer work. More room to wander. With a picture book, basically 30 pages, there’s not a lot of space to get lost. That’s why I’ve concentrated on longer works, because I felt it gave me more control over my (and the book’s) fate. 

I adore picture books. I love writing them. I love the very fact of them. I enjoy every step of picture book writing and revising. But getting a first draft of a novel done -— the avoidance I have to fight is embarrassing. I’m in that place now. At least ninety percent through a novel I’ve been working on for years. I am looking forward to being done but not to what I have to do to be done.

That’s how I feel about exercise.

Me too.

I could be wrong here, but it seems there are not many folks that are exclusively writers who have built a reputation in picture books. There’s Tony Johnston, Eve Bunting, Ruth Krauss, Mem Fox, Charlotte Zolotow. It’s not a long list. Mac Barnett, of course, is doing great work now. Though it was only last week when I first realized that he wrote Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. I had previously thought of it strictly as a Jon Klassen title.

Well, crap. I guess I knew that but I never knew it in words. Thanks.

You’re welcome! I like that you’re a big baseball fan. Where’d that come from?

When kids ask this at school visits I always give the super-articulate answer that goes something like, “It’s hard to say why you like what you like. For example, I love pizza. Why? Because it tastes good.” Note to self: Work on that response.

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I was on a panel recently with a bunch of seasoned writers –- Todd Strasser, David Levithan, others –- and they all had such great, pithy answers to audience questions. I was like, “Damn, I have to raise my game.” The whole staring and stammering thing won’t cut it.

I don’t think anyone will ever say that about me. You know what impressed me about that Vernick? Pithy answers.

Pithy can feel too slick on some folks. I like your stammering authenticity.

My love of baseball -— sunny days (I will always take a day game over a night game); the fact that it’s a sport without a clock, with a lot of time for a mind to wander, to wonder, to draw connections; and it’s a sport with an immensely rich history (albeit one with very few women in it).

I associate baseball with my mom, who is still a huge fan at age 89. She taught me how to throw, how to catch. So there’s a lot of transference there: by loving baseball, I’m expressing love for my mother. Also, I loved playing, and still do. Now that I’m finished coaching (had a 15u travel team last season), I’ll probably return to a Senior Men’s Hardball team next spring. Read that as: Old guys clutching their hamstrings. We’re all still boys at heart. Did you ever get to play?

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First I have to say I just love that, your connection to your mom there. Organized sports for girls didn’t exist when I was younger. I played softball at camp and was sometimes good. In my neighborhood, it was mostly punchball in the street. A neighborhood of girls. Seriously, I think there was only one boy and we were terrified of him because he once threw a firecracker at my sister.

He was probably terrified, too. Don’t we all throw firecrackers when we’re afraid? I know you are a Jersey Girl, and a mother, but outside of that, I don’t know much about your background.

Okay, first of all, no. I grew up in New York City -— in Queens. I’ve lived in NJ 19 years. Wow. That’s a long time. But I definitely do not identify as Jersey Girl. Strike that from the record!

Done. Both my parents were from Queens, so I like this better, anyway.

I live near the ocean. When I lived on eastern Long Island —- my home before this one, and Boston before that -— my house was a block from the Long Island Sound. I hope to always live near a big body of water. My present and future dogs probably hope so too.

Have you written a dog-and-ocean book yet?

I cannot sell a dog book. It kills me.

I hear hedgehogs are trending. Or was that five years ago? It’s hard to keep up.

I wrote literary short fiction for adults before writing for kids. It’s a very good way to learn to accept rejection.

So how did you get into children’s books?

It’s a sad story. You’ve been warned.

When I was in my early twenties, my mother was taking a children’s writing class at the New School in NYC and she sent the first novel she wrote to one publisher (Dutton) and it was accepted. She died two months later, a pedestrian on the sidewalk, hit by a car around the block from my childhood home.

200px-Morning-glory-C6295bMy family was reeling for years. And in that time, we had to work with my mother’s very patient editor. My mother hadn’t even received her editorial letter at the time of her death, so all the revision fell to us. As you might imagine, we didn’t want to change a single one of her words. So that was my first step, as the literary executor of her estate. (The book, The Morning Glory War, was published in 1990 and received a really nice review in the Sunday Times.)

Wow. You must have taken a deep breath before typing that out. Like, “Okay, here goes, you asked.” I know that feeling, Audrey, since my oldest is a two-time cancer survivor. I’ve lost two brothers. These are not happy stories to tell at parties. Oftentimes, it’s easier not to get into it. And you’re right, it is sad, but it’s also an incredible story.

Yeah, as I wrote that out, I could see clearly that my family led me here.

Years later, I fell in love with the art of an outsider artist named Tim Brown, showed his art to one of my sisters, and she said that it belonged in a children’s book. Together, we wrote that book.

Which book is that?

Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship.

Hey, um, Audrey, this is nice and everything but . . . are you going to leave? I mean, ever? Or am I supposed to feed you now? I guess I have a pull-out couch . . .

Yeah, maybe tomorrow I’ll start pulling my stuff together. I could walk your dog. Do you have a dog?

Daisy. And two cats. And three kids. And four . . . well, it all stops at four. I don’t have four of anything.

I’m sure you have four readers of your blog!

Oh, dozens more. Dozens! We’re basically talking to ourselves here. It’s like the Cone of Silence in “Get Smart.” But before you go, is there anything you can share about your upcoming books? 

Okay, since you asked:

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton, illustrated by Steven Salerno, nonfiction about a Philadelphia girl playing professional baseball from age 10.

 

The real Edith Houghton.

The real Edith Houghton.

 

I Won A What?, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, about a boy who hopes to win a goldfish and ends up with something a wee bit bigger. And better.

Unlike Other Monsters, illustrated by Colin Jack, with the opening page mentioned above. And a novel, Two Naomis, written with my dear friend Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich.

Nuncio-Spread

How did you co-author a book? It’s seems difficult, fraught with peril. How did you handle it?

I have co-authored four books. Two Naomis was the first novel. We each wrote from the point of view of our own Naomi. So my chapters were the even-numbered ones — individual writing of separate chapters. When I co-wrote picture books, first with my sister and most recently with Liz Garton Scanlon, we just back-and-forthed a lot. Both experiences were really freeing and so much easier than doing it alone.

So what’s for dinner?

Get out! 

But before you go, by way of thank you, please accept this set of steak knives as a parting gift. I wish you all the luck in the world, Audrey. Keep up the great work.

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6. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #’s 222 & 223: Two for the Price of Nothing!

postalletter-150x150

 

Okay, let’s roll. This one is from Kieran in Jersey, and in the interest of time I’ll only show an excerpt:

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Scan

I replied:

Dear Kieran,

Thanks for your letter. Like you, I prefer The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar over The Case of the Groaning Ghost. There are 40 Jigsaw Jones books. I wanted them all to be brilliant and funny and entertaining, but of course no one can hit home runs every time they get up to the plate. Like the great slugger Ted Williams said, “I just try to put a good swing on the ball.”

As for your questions:

Jigsaw Jones has been out of print for a few years, but he's making a big comeback in 2017. I'm so happy about this.

Jigsaw Jones has been out of print for a few years, but he’s making a big comeback in 2017. I’m so happy about this.

1) Yes, I am currently writing my first Jigsaw Jones story in seven years. I don’t have a title yet, still fooling around with it. I believe we are hoping that it will come out in 2017.

2) I have gone skiing in some of the same places as you. These days, I prefer cross-country. No lines, no crowds! I’ve never gone snowboarding because I’m pretty sure I’d die.

3) Sorry, I don’t have any photos to send out. That’s just not something that fits my personality. Just the thought of a stack of glossy photos on my desk kind of grosses me out. I think I’m happier in the shadows. You’ll find the autograph below.

My best,

JP

 

Letter #223 comes from Spokane, WA . . .

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I replied:

Dear Dakota,

Hey, thank for that most excellent, typed letter. As you might know, I also write books for younger readers, and it’s refreshing to receive a letter that isn’t stained with grape jelly.

Thanks for reading Bystander and Six Innings. If you aren’t completely sick of me, you might also like The Fall, which explores some of the same themes as Bystander, but from the perspective of the so-called “bully.” It’s written in a first-person journal format, which makes it relatively quick and easy to read.

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail. And, yes, the cover doesn't lie: There's a bear.

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail. And, yes, the cover doesn’t lie: There’s a bear.

Yes, I love baseball. I guess you are a Mariners fan? I grew up a Mets fan, watching the games with my mother, and let me tell you, we’ve endured some rough seasons. But things are looking up these days. Got to love those big arms. My dream was to be a pitcher, but no fastball. Didn’t have the arm. Stupid DNA.

Good luck with ball this season. From the evidence of your letter, you are well on your way to becoming a very accomplished writer. I hope you keep it up. Sometimes our talents surprise us, in that they don’t always come from the expected places. You might dream of becoming a great ballplayer, like I did, only to discover that you have an innate talent for architecture, or medicine, or writing.

You never know!

BTW, nice signature. It will come in handy when you’re famous. 

JP

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7. THE COURAGE TEST, Coming in October: Cover Reveal, Excerpt, Keynote

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A father-and-son journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.

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Keynote:

Will has no choice, His father drags him along on a wilderness adventure in the footsteps of legendary explorers Lewis and Clark — whether he likes it or not. All the while, Will senses that something about this trip isn’t quite right.

Along the journey, Will meets fascinating strangers and experiences new thrills, including mountain cliffs, whitewater rapids, and a heart-hammering bear encounter.

It is a journey into the soul of America’s past, and the meaning of family in the expansive present. In the end, Will must face his own, life-altering test of courage.

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Here’s a brief excerpt from the first couple of pages from THE COURAGE TEST (Macmillan, October, 2016). The spectacular cover was illustrated by Andrew Kolb. I hope you like it.

 

     My name is William Meriwether Miller. I was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. It was my dad’s idea. So I guess this trip was inevitable, like homework and awkward school dances. He’s dragging me down the old trail.

     It’s the last thing in the world I want to do.

 

Chapter 1

 

OFF THE MAP

  

“We were now

about to penetrate

a country at least two thousand miles

in width, on which

the foot of civilized man

had never trodden.”

Meriwether Lewis.

 

 

     My mother pushes me out the door and I don’t know why.

     “I don’t want to go,” I tell her.

     “I know,” she says.

     “But why now?” I ask again. “All-Stars starts this week. I don’t want to miss it.”

     “We’ve been over this,” she says.

     She might as well say what every parent resorts to when they run out of good answers: Because I said so. There’s no explanation, no more discussion. It’s time for me to go.

     I feel ridiculously, stupidly, helplessly annoyed and there’s nothing I can do about it. I see in that instant my mother is getting old. Stray gray hairs, wrinkles around the down-turned corners of her mouth. She looks tired and thin, sick of arguing with me. I carry a fully loaded, metal-frame backpack on my shoulders, and a smaller gym bag in my right hand — stuff for the long drive, all my technology’s in there. I don’t want to go, but I can’t stand here forever. So come on, Mom, let’s do this.

     “You’ll have fun,” she says. “It’s good for you and your father to spend time together.”

     I give her nothing. Not a nod. I’m not even listening. I turn my back to her.    

     “Bye,” she says, and adds, “I love you, Will.”

     I walk away like I don’t hear.

     “Will?”

     I raise my hand in goodbye without looking back.

     My father waits in the car. He steps out as I approach. I nod to him, hey. None of this is my idea. I have no say, no choice. I refuse to be happy about it. I’m not going to make this easy.

     “Here, um, let me help you with that,” he reaches to take my backpack.

     “No, I got it,” I say, leaning away.

     “Oh, okay, sure,” he says.

     He stands there, not knowing what to do.

     “Are you going to pop the trunk?” I ask. Because: obviously.

     Flustered, my father moves to the driver’s side door. He fumbles in the front pocket of his water-resistant khakis, drops the keys on the road, stoops to the ground. I glance sideways, slyly, to check how this is playing from the front window. But my mother is no longer watching.

     She’s gone.

 

——

  

     “Ready?” my father asks. His body is half-turned in inquiry, one hand on the steering wheel, the right gripping the ignition key.

     A question with no true answer.

     I don’t have a choice. So, sure, Dad, I shrug, I’m ready. But the truth is I’m not. He knows it, too, yet asks anyway. And away we roll.

     It is awkward all around.

     This is the man who moved out of the old house fifteen months ago. He started a shiny new life, soon featuring a new girlfriend, while my mother and I got stuck rebuilding the old one.

     As the car slides forward, I spy my friend, Yoenis, on the sidewalk. Tall and dark and slender, he juggles a soccer ball on his foot, tap-tap, tap and pop, and he snatches the ball between his hands. A bright smile sunbeams across his face. He’s a guy who can do anything he wants. Yoenis glimpses me through the car window and his smile drops. He waggles a finger skyward. His head shakes. I don’t know what it means. Is he pointing to the sun, the sky? Is he gesturing to God above? Or is he just saying, no, don’t go, you’ll miss everything.

     I wonder if he knows something I don’t know?

 

 

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8. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #221: Free for Everyone to Ignore!

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Readers should know that I don’t post every answer I give to fan mail. That would get incredibly boring, believe me. But when the letters are funny, or somehow fresh, or if I think my reply might be of interest to a wider readership, I share it here. This way, everyone gets a chance to ignore it.

Okay, got that? Cool.

This was a daunting collection of letters — all including individual SASEs, meaning that I had to lick 20 envelopes, yuck — but I did my best to offer a good reply, while keeping the process under two hours.

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Here’s how I replied:

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Dear ______________,

Today I was incredibly grateful to read through 20 letters from Mr. Frommann’s class, including one from you. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to respond to each letter individually. Since there was degree of overlap, it’s my hope that a single letter will suffice. (Hey, I’m doing my best, folks!)

Here goes nothing, in no particular order:

Evan wrote: “Your book is by far the most down to Earth book I have read in a long time.” Thanks. I tried to make BYSTANDER as realistic as possible.

9780312547967Many of you asked about a sequel, but Isabella framed it most charmingly: “With many questions to be answered, might I suggest writing a sequel?” Ha! Yes, you may suggest it, Isabella. At this point, I have no plans for a sequel, nor do I think that a novel should –- even if it could, and it can’t! –- answer every single question. I like that “fan fiction” has become popular, where readers respond to books . . . by writing. Maybe that’s the best way to find out more about these characters. Make something up. (It worked for me!)

Brittany made me happy: “You are an amazing writer with amazing details. It made me feel as if I was in the book too. You are a fantastic writer!” Well, you know the way to a writer’s heart. Thank you. Others said equally kind things. I can only say thanks. A writer is nothing without readers like you. Like Wayne and Garth say, “I am not worthy!!!”

Wayne’s-World

Madison: “It’s okay if you don’t reply, although I would like it if you did.” Fair enough!

Many of you asked about David’s family. I imagine that you discussed it in class. To me, that’s when the book I wrote years ago truly comes alive. When readers think about it, feel it, complain, debate, etc. There are no right answers. As a reader –- and I read all the time, always, every day –- I often think a book is best when I have to look away, lost in thought. That is, when it makes me stop reading . . . and start thinking. Does that ever happen to you?

Anyway, “G” had a theory on David and I want to share it. But first, I laughed when he wrote that the ending was “kind of bad.” Oh well! Later in the letter, he wondered about David’s parents: “Well, I have a theory. He doesn’t tell his parents because he thinks Griffin would be mad and not want to be ‘friends’ and in Chapter 13, ‘Pretzel,’ Hallenback says nothing to the monitor.”

Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! I did a great deal of research on the topic of bullying, and one thing that frequently came up was that many targets go to great lengths to hide the fact they were being bullied. We can all speculate on the different reasons why that might be.

Avery and several others asked if I’ve been bullied as a kid, and the answer is no. I’ve been a witness, a bystander. And yes, I guess I wrote the book to “raise awareness,” in Charlotte’s phrase. Stories have a unique power to help us feel things, to step into someone else’s shoes, and through stories we build empathy and compassion.

Surely the world can use more of that.

Lucas complimented me on the “great visualization” in the book, and that pleased me, since that’s something every good writer tries to accomplish. I want to reader to “see” what’s happening, as if watching a film in the back of his or her skull.

The upcoming paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

The upcoming paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

Guys, gals, Mr. Frommann, I’ve got to go! I’ve got three kids upstairs who are hungry. And I’ve got a new book to write. Oh, wait, about the sequel. I should say that after writing BYSTANDER, I remained interested in the perspective of the so-called bully. That’s why I wrote THE FALL, which I see as a companion to BYSTANDER. Along the lines of, “If you liked BYSTANDER, you might also like . . .”

So if you are looking for something else by me, check it out. It’s in hardcover new, paperback in September. And I’m really proud of it. My book SIX INNINGS is also good for 6th graders who like baseball. It even won an ALA Notable!

Thanks for your letters. I’m sorry if I didn’t mention you by name in this missive. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy your letter. Just ran out of time!

Peace out!

James Preller

P.S. I’m bummed about David Bowie today. I have 104 of his songs on my iPod, so I think I’m just going to roll through them all today.

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9. Cover Reveal: Paperback Version of THE FALL

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So this is how it works for me, folks.

Nobody says anything, and I don’t ask, and then one day my editor sends along a file and says, “What do you think?”

At the same time, it is understood that it doesn’t really matter what I think. This has already been through the in-house approval process. And I’m not J.K. Rowling. The last thing I want is to be known as “that pain in the neck” writer. (I’ve tried it and don’t recommend it.)

I mean, the folks at Macmillan would prefer for me to like the new cover, but they clearly don’t want me to get in the way. Oh well. When it works, it’s wonderful. When it doesn’t, it’s frustrating. I’ve had covers that I hated (Scholastic’s paperback version of Along Came Spider, for example).

My conclusion, in a nutshell, is this: The inside of the book is mine. But the publisher has the cover. They want to sell it just as badly as I do. This is their business, their expertise, their investment. The making and selling of books is a collaborative process. Sometimes you just have to step out of the way to let people do their jobs.

Mostly I try to stay grateful, and usually succeed.

Anyway, I’m very happy with this cover, thrilled that it’s coming out in paperback, and actually prefer it over the hardcover. As a matter of policy, I always mention that my name should be bigger. Everybody acts like that’s a big joke!

The paperback will be out in September, 2016, one month before my new hardcover, THE COURAGE TEST. I’ll tell you about that one another day.

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TheFall-1

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10. Cookies, Carols, Movies, Santa, Jigsaw Jones, and Holiday Greetings

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Well, we’re getting to that time of year again, when I accept the challenge and attempt to prove that man can live by cookies alone.

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Also, for our family, there’s Christmas and all the good that comes with it. Yes, the songs, the songs, the songs. I’ve long collected “cool yule” tracks and dutifully compile new playlists every holiday season. This year’s favorite, among so many strong contenders, is Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family.”

Of course, I love the movies, too. Elf, the Grinch, Charlie Brown, A Christmas Story (my favorite), Rudolph, and Die Hard.

Because . . .

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Even so, a writer still has to make a living. And believe me, I’m still typing!

51poJdDWQNL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery, I gave Jigsaw the toughest case of his career — Sally Ann Simms wants proof that there’s a Santa Claus. And I gave myself a tough assignment, too. I attempted to write a truly heartfelt, entertaining Christmas story with soul, soul, soul. It’s out of print now, like all books Jigsaw, and honestly I’m not sure anyone noticed at the time, but I still like book a lot. It captures a fleeting something of holiday spirit. Who knows? Maybe it’ll come around again.

 

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Here’s a quick moment that still makes me smile, ten years later:

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Scan 1

 

 

Happy holidays, one and all!

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11. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #220: “If You Don’t Like It, Write Better”

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While — sure! of course! — I always enjoy receiving a big, old, 8 1/2″ x 11″ envelope filled with student letters, I admit to mixed feelings. Yes, I’m grateful and honored. Yet I can’t help but recognize that this was the product of an assignment. Some letters can seem rote, and I get it. However, I recently received a particularly wonderful batch, 23 letters in all, filled with insights & curiosity & ridiculously kind words. Here’s the teacher’s cover letter and my response to the class . . .

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Scan 4

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I replied at length:

Dear Ms. Becker & Students,

Thank you for that impressive package of letters. I’ve received similar packages before, but yours was particularly outstanding for the overall quality of the letters. They struck me as authentic, rather than, say, written by a bored kid going through the motions.

And, hey, if you were a bored kid going through the motions, good job, you sure fooled me!

I’m sorry to say that I simply don’t have the time to respond to your letters in the manner that you deserve. I apologize for my one-size-fits-all reply.

Several of you asked about a sequel, and I didn’t plan on one while writing the book. I was satisfied with the ending, leaving the future for these characters up to the reader. People ask what happens to them –- and that’s a nice compliment to give a writer – but the honest answer is that I don’t know. Or more to the point, I never got around to making up those stories. Books have to end somewhere, or else I’d be writing about Mary’s grandchildren.

Even so, I remained interested in the perspective of the so-called bully. That’s why I wrote THE FALL, which I see as a companion to BYSTANDER. Along the lines of, “If you liked BYSTANDER, you might also like . . .”

The%20Fall%20Ad

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Jessica asked if anyone helped me with the story: Yes, my editor, Liz Szabla, was particularly important with this book. Mostly her help was in the form of conversations. We talked about the ideas, our own experiences, things we’ve seen and felt. She didn’t really inject herself into the writing of the book -– she left that up to me – but she was a great sounding board. In life, it’s essential to have that person who says to you, “I believe in you. Go for it.” For this book, for me, that person was Liz.

Philip asked if I have “a secondary job in case book writing fall through.” That kind of made me laugh, while giving me a minor heart attack. Do you know something I don’t know? Philip even included a bonus scene, where I could glimpse a future adventure for Eric. I liked it; nice work. BTW, Philip, to answer your question: No, I don’t. And some days it scares me silly. No kidding.

Some asked about Eric’s father and how he might figure in the book’s ending, or, I should say, an alternative ending for the book. If you go to my blog and search, “My Brother John . . . in BYSTANDER,” you’ll get the background story about Eric’s father. It’s not a tale with a happy ending, I’m sorry to say.

Many of you said really, really kind things to me. I want you to know that I appreciate your kindness. In particular, Alyssa, thank you! Paige and Grace and Katelyn and Toby, you guys, too. The truth is, this can be a hard business sometimes. It’s not easy to make a living. It’s not easy to be rejected, or suffer poor sales, or watch a good book go out of print. I am often filled with doubts and uncertainties. There are times, especially recently, when I feel like a failure. Lately I’ve been thinking of myself as “moderately talented.” Nothing great, you know? Oh well. But this is what I do, what I love, and I have to keep working at it. I have a Post-It note on my computer that reads: “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, WRITE BETTER.” That’s what I’m trying to do.

My current mantra.

My current mantra.

I just wrote a book about a father and a son traveling along the Lewis & Clark trail. It’s a genre-bending blend of nonfiction and fiction, a story of family, a wilderness adventure –- whitewater rapids, an encounter with a bear –- and, I hope, a quest for the real America. The book, titled THE COURAGE TEST, should be out in 2016. After that, I wrote a pretty wild story that’s set in the not-to-distant future. And, yes, there are zombies in it –- but it’s not their fault! I’m also trying to write haikus, making a small study of them, because I’ve got the seed of an idea. They are not as easy as they look!

The next idea is always the flame that burns the brightest, that keeps creative people moving forward -– making paintings, performing in plays, practicing the guitar, telling stories. We all have to find the thing that makes us happy. And if you are lucky enough to find it, then hold on tight.

Thank you –- each one of you – but I’ve got to get to work! I’m sorry again for not writing to you individually. Thanks for understanding.

James Preller

 

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12. Fan Mail Wednesday #219: Childhood Toys & the Next Book

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Look here, it’s a letter from Sander!

Scan

I replied:

Dear Sander,

Thanks so much for your letter. Thanks, also, for including a Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope, otherwise known as a SASE. Since you are a detective, I wonder if you can figure out why they call it a “SASE”?

Any ideas?

I’ll wait.

Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dee.

Anyway, I am glad to hear from a detective. I’m always looking for new ideas. Have you solved many mysteries?

Growing up, I was the youngest of seven children. Check it out:

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Here's the seven Preller children in 1966. I'm the short one in the middle, surrounded by GIANTS!

Here’s the seven Preller children in 1966. I’m the short one in the middle, surrounded by GIANTS!

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While I was not a detective like you, I was a spy. I fondly remember a particular toy I had — it was a periscope that extended way out — which allowed me to peer around corners to spy on my family. I loved sneaking around in my socks (better for silent creeping). It was like being invisible! But before you try it yourself, let me warn you: It’s dangerous work. Don’t get caught.

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Hey, Sander: I gave a version of my childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. He uses it to solve a mystery in THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT. Cool, right?

I even gave a version of my childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. He uses it to solve a mystery in THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT. Cool, right?

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I like your wish. No one has ever expressed that to me before. You must be an original thinker. That means you think of things that nobody else in the world has ever thought. Amazing. I’m very impressed. You have a good mind. It must be all that reading!

I have not written a Jigsaw Jones book in the past six years. However, I have happy news. I am writing a new one right now! I mean, I’ll be writing it after I finish writing to you. I wish I could tell you more about the story, but to be honest, it’s still a mystery to me. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. The book won’t be out until the year 2017. I expect you’ll be shaving by then.

Good luck with your detective work. Life is a mystery — we sure do need more good detectives around to help us figure it out.

My best to you, and happy holidays!

James Preller 

 

 

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13. “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

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I’m sharing this poem because it came to me at a time when I really needed it. Maybe you feel the same way. Have a great weekend.

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14. Remembering Vera Williams: Artist, Activist, Inspiration


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Vera Williams passed away at age 88 on October 16, 2015. I wanted to make note of it beyond a quick comment on Facebook, but her death came at an inconvenient time for me — though, I’m sure, it wasn’t the best timing for Vera, either. I can type that glib phrase because I’m confident that she would have agreed, and laughed out loud. Vera laughed a lot.

We never met in person, though of course I read and admired many of her books, most particularly “More, More, More,” Said the Baby, which I adore. It’s one of those rare things, a nearly perfect book about something as simple and profound as love. I had the pleasure of interviewing Vera over the phone, back in 1990. We chatted for an hour or so. She was lovely and warm and generous and completely genuine, just as anyone who had encountered her books would imagine.

21Williams-Obit1-SUB-blog427She was also, I learned, deeply political. No one had to scold Vera Williams about the importance of diversity or any such thing. Her politics were personal, and she recognized that the personal — as well as the creative — was always political. We are talking about values, really. The things that are important. Vera actively cared about the world and the children who inhabited it. She marched, she protested, she stood up for things. It’s on every page in every single book. For me, as someone who often looks around at this world in heartache and dismay, and who also writes for children, I find myself increasingly searching for appropriate ways to express those values in my own life and work. Vera, I think, helped show the way. You just go ahead and do it, as natural as breathing, come what may.

She will be missed.

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Below, here’s my two-page write-up as it was published in my book, the clumsily titled, The Big Book of Picture-book Authors & Illustrators. Like so many of my books, it’s long out of print, but I often spy it in tattered condition on school bookshelves during visits. I’ve been lucky enough to interview folks like Tedd Arnold, Molly Bang, Aliki Brandenberg, Norman Bridwell, Ashley Bryan, Eve Bunting, Barbara Cooney, Donald Crews, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, James Marshall, Barbara Park, Jerry Pinkney, Patricia Polacco, Faith Ringgold, Lane Smith, Peter Spier, Bernard Waber, Charlotte Zolotow, and many, many more. It’s sad to think how many of them are gone. Vera Williams was one of the best.

I will remember her with fondness and respect, forever grateful for the books she left behind.

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Vera 1

Vera 2

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15. Fan Mail Wednesday #218: Sharing This Ridiculously Beautiful Letter from Calloway in Illinois.

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I’ve neglected the blog of late, but to quote Vito Corleone, “I don’t apologize, that’s my life!”
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“I refuse to be a fool dancing on a string!”
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Just kidding about that. I am sorry. And I do apologize, Dear Reader. I’m horrible, frankly. The letters have been piling up, but I’ve been hunkering down with a deadline. And yes, that’s right, I nailed it! Thank you, thank you very much.
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This letter came with a fabulous note from Calloway’s mother, who seems lovely and kind. She asked for my address, and I’ll give that to everyone here, even you crazy stalkers: James Preller, 12 Brookside Drive, Delmar, NY 12054.
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Now, here’ s Calloway, unedited, from Illinois:
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“Hi mr james preller. I love jigsaw Jones books. I read them all the time. Would you send me more? I drew a pictue of the ones i already have. I need the rest. I am a brownie girl scout. Did you know that i have diabetees to? i was born with it when iwas 2 years old. IT Meansxmy pancreeas doentst work. And then my brother stabbed me with a pencil last week and my mom got mad at us and made us collect food for hungry people and give away our halloeeen candy. and my mom got cancer this year snd she lets me use her new pink blankets and pillows. They are so fun to lay on. And i love the movie annie. But jigsaw Jones are my favorite books.. my teacher mrs. Garretson told me to read them. And my brother plays baseball and my dad teaches gym! He makes us do push ups and sit ups when we are bad. And i am in love with ______, a 5th grade boy. But you cant tell anyone that.
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Ok. So send me my books. Hope you have a happy day!!! Lalalalala. Oh and i was elvis Presley for Halloween. He is my favorite.
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Ok bye, love Calloway”
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I replied:
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Dear Calloway,
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My goodness, your letter just made my heart explode a little bit. Now it’s all over the floor and in my hair and yuck, gross. You have such an exciting life! I’m so sorry about the pencil stabbing, but it sounds like your good mother handled it “astutely,” which means, in this case, with wisdom and grace.
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No offense to your father, who I am sure is a great guy, but the thought of a tough gym teacher as a dad would have terrified me as a kid. “What, ten thousand more push-ups? YIKES!”
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Don’t worry about your crush. Your secret is safe with me. (See how I removed his name?)
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I am not always able to send books in the mail to every fabulous kid who writes to me. It would get expensive. But in your case — the most fabulous kid of 2015 — well, keep checking your mailbox.
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True story about cancer: My oldest son, Nick, is a two-time cancer survivor. He got sick when he was 2 years old, then again when he was 10. Hard times. But you know what? He’s 22 now and perfectly, wonderfully, terrifically healthy! I wrote about it, in a sly way, in the book SIX INNINGS, which your brother and father might like. Anyway, Mom, I’ll keep you in my thoughts.
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My best to your whole big beautiful family!
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James Preller
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P.S. Is there any chance you could send me a photo of you dressed up as Elvis Presley? Somehow my life feels incomplete without it.
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P.P.S. Tell Mrs. Garretson that I love her (but don’t tell my wife)!
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P.P.P.S. Lalalalala!
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16. Book Signing at the OPEN DOOR Bookstore in Schenectady, Saturday @ 1:00, November 21!

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The flyer below gives you the facts.

Now for the honesty: Bookstore signings, for me, tend to be sad, dispiriting affairs. For the most part, nobody comes. I know I’m not the only author to experience this particular form of awfulness. Sitting there at the table, waiting, expectations low. I understand completely. Your lives are busy, the world has changed, it’s always at a bad time on the wrong day — and the fact is I’m just not that big of a deal (except for in my own mind, where I’m amazing!!!!).

Once in awhile, mostly as an act of good will & optimism — along with the gratefulness that comes with simply being invited — I say yes. And occasionally a scattered few do show up. A shy, young reader awkwardly arrives. We talk for a while. I sign a book, we take a photo, shake hands. And there for a few moments we achieve one good, pure thing in this shattered world of ours; it feels worthwhile, the coming together of a writer and a reader. True fact: I love to meet young readers. Book lovers. It gives me hope, makes me happy. Maybe it makes a small difference to somebody. At the very worst, I get to sit in a bookstore for an hour and a half. There are worse places to be.

See you there?

About these two books: THE FALL can be seen as a companion to BYSTANDER, deals with the fallout from cyberbullying, and is best suited for grades 6-up. SWAMP MONSTER is the 6th book in the “Scary Tales” Series, grades 2-5, and it’s simply a fast-paced, easy-to-read entertainment that even a reluctant reader can enjoy.

 

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17. Shuffling Off To . . . Rochester?

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I’m headed out on Thursday, the long drive to the Buffalo area for a school visit in Newfane, NY — way out there! — then over to Rochester for the fabulous, 19th Annual, Rochester Children’s Book Festival! Come on by if you can swing it.

I love this one. We get to stay over in a not-very-fancy hotel and hang out in Applebees next door, gabbing and giggling with a merry gang of children’s authors and illustrators. It really is a profound and rare pleasure, given the solitary nature of our profession, to share stories and build friendships. What am I saying? It’s fun. It feels like a community. They understand.

During these past two months in particular, I’ve been head down, shoulders to the wheel, trying to finish a book before Thanksgiving. It’s been a great challenge — I’m so excited to talk about this next book, and will soon — but for now I’m working, working, working my way through it. Can’t jinx things by talking about them; no, no, the art is in the doing.

One small hint: It’s a journey, and (I think) an innovative blend of fact and fiction. It’s a father and a son story that takes place, more or less, along the Lewis & Clark Trail. With adventures and surprises and specials guests. But my lips are sealed. Not another word until I address an email to my editor and hit “send.”

 

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18. My New York Mets Hat

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As a diehard New York Mets fan, I’d first like to say this . . .

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Also: I sometimes wear baseball caps. Not always, but it happens.

I might throw it on because I haven’t washed my hair in a few days. Okay, in six days. Or because I’m a Mets fan, expressing my allegiance to the team.

But this week, I’m wearing my cap as a signal. I am saying to the world: “Be gentle with me. I’m fragile right now.”

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My author photo for the book SIX INNINGS. I still own the same cap. Admittedly, both the cap and my face have experienced a little wear and tear over the years.

My author photo for the book SIX INNINGS. I still own the same cap. Admittedly, both the cap and my face have experienced a little wear and tear over the years, but we’re still hanging out together.

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19. Quick Cartoon for Math Teachers (and Dog Lovers, Sure, You Too)

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Cartoon by Mark Parisi.

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20. ‘Tis the Season . . . for Scary Stories

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Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from ONE-EYED DOLL.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from ONE-EYED DOLL.

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Just a friendly public service reminder, folks. It’s that time of year, and I’ve written some “Scary Tales” for readers ages 7-up. As I tell kids, apologetically, nobody gets murdered in these stories. There’s no gore, no maimed body parts. Just old-fashioned suspense and the boom, boom, boom of the heart as the doorknob slowly, slowly turns.

From SWAMP MONSTER.

From SWAMP MONSTER.

NIGHTMARELAND.

NIGHTMARELAND.

ONE-EYED DOLL.

ONE-EYED DOLL.

GOOD NIGHT, ZOMBIE.

GOOD NIGHT, ZOMBIE.

 

Collect ‘em all, read ‘em all.

61jAVm+Fg0L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_     51XqCcFjPAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_     61H4ONFM9wL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_     51mlHMN-snL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_     61ZJfCfXgSL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_     61ytjNMBIZL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

 

 

SWAMP-MONSTER_Interiors_11

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21. NOW AVAILABLE: Free Teacher’s Guide to THE FALL and BYSTANDER, Using Common Core Standards

I suppose this is a good thing. Right? Any teacher seeking ancillary materials for either Bystander or The Fall, can now download a free PDF file by clicking here.

I get asked about this by teachers from time to time, so I’m happy to pass along the info. Do with it what you will. Or as my Dad might say, “Have at it, folks!”

I’m grateful to the folks at Macmillan for making this Guide available.

 

FOR USE WITH COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS!

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22. Great Article: “Horrors! This Child Is Reading Horror!”

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Thanks to Google Alerts, I found this terrific & timely article by Paula Willey in The Baltimore Sun. Willey does a great job here, writing calming and directly about the value of “scary books” for (some) young readers.

My lovely daughter, Maggie, some years back. To our surprise, she loves horror. Loves it!

My lovely daughter, Maggie, some years back. To our surprise, Maggie loves horror. Loves it!

Personally, I got into scary books late in life, after many school visits where I met young readers who loved that shivery, edge-of-the-seat feeling. This is not just a Halloween thing, btw. An affection for horror goes year round. After raising two boys who never cared for horror — and openly said so, I should add — my sweet Maggie came along and she loves those creepy, crawly feelings. Go figure.

Another reason why I wrote “Scary Tales” in the way that it’s written — short, fast-paced, easy-to-read, series format — was because of all the reluctant readers I’ve met over the years. I’ve had them in my own kitchen, munching Doritos, blithely telling me how they don’t like books. So I challenged myself to write stories that attempted to be so entertaining & enjoyable that even these boys would read to the last page (they are, alas, almost invariably boys). I wanted them to experience that proud, “I just finished a whole book” feeling. And to then realize, “Hey, I kind of liked it. I’ll try another.”

In the old days of publishing, we’d call books in this category “Hi-Lo.” High-interest, low-reading level. My estimation is that “Scary Tales” is written somewhere on the 3rd-grade level, but with stories that appeal all the way up to 6th grade. The look is cool and edgy, so there’s no stigma to reading “baby” books.

Here’s a snip from the article. Thank you for the kind mention, Paula Willey!

ONE-EYED DOLL.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from  SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL.

Picture, if you will, a smiling, well-adjusted child. She’s tucked into a corner of the couch, reading happily, quiet but for the occasional giggle. Is that an “American Girl” book she’s reading? A silly fractured fairy tale? On the cover, you spy a slime-drenched, bloody snake; the title is spelled out in dripping, neon-bright letters: “The Zombie Chasers: World Zombination!”

Horrors! This child is reading horror!

Many grownups are a little uncomfortable when a kid exhibits a taste for stories of terror and mayhem. They worry that their children will become desensitized to violence or will have nightmares. Some just want their kids reading “better” books. There’s a perception that scary books like the “Goosebumps” series by R. L. Stine are of low literary quality and have no value.

It’s true that “Goosebumps” books, along with series like James Preller’s “Scary Tales,” “Spooksville” by Christopher Pike and P. J. Night’s “Creepover,” are short, formulaic, and written at a fairly low reading level. However, librarians know that these books sometimes play a crucial role in inviting children into reading, or helping a reader bridge the gap between books he is beginning to find “babyish” and longer books with more complexity.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Many people who grew up to be very accomplished readers — and writers — claim to have read nothing but “Goosebumps” for years when they were kids.

In addition, children are very aware of their ability to handle scary stuff. When I help a child pick out a book, I’ll often ask, “How do you do with scary books?” Of all the questions that I ask during the book selection process, this is the one they answer most forthrightly: “No scary books!” or “I can handle medium-scary.” And then there’s the little angel who proclaims, “The scarier the better!”

 

For the full article, click here.

Paula Willey is a librarian at the Parkville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. She writes about children’s and teen literature for various national publications and online at unadulterated.us. 

 

 

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23. QUICK EXCERPT: Two Pages from “THE FALL”

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Purportedly a photo of the last Great Auk, on the Icelandic island of Eldey. It was strangled on July 3, 1844, because it's what we do.

Purportedly a photo of the last Great Auk, on the Icelandic island of Eldey. It was strangled on July 3, 1844, because it’s what we do.

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My newest book, The Fall, consists of many brief sections, often just a page or two in length.

I never know which sections to read aloud on school visits, or to share here. Nothing feels exactly emblematic, since it’s all about the cumulation of detail, images, perceptions, facts.

This part was inspired by Elizabeth Kolbert’s brilliant book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. I’ve been telling everyone to read it since the book came out, and I’m glad to see that it recently won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

In my imagination, I thought that maybe a science teacher had read the book and passed along the story of the auks to my book’s narrator. To get that teacher’s name, I thought of my pal, Lisa Dolan, who has dedicated her career to pressing good books into the hands of young readers.

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Scan 3

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24. Teachers: Passing Along This Conversation Starter About Bullying

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25. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY 216 & 217: Happy News About Jigsaw Jones!

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It’s a combo platter today, a rock block, a twofer — two fan letters in the same blog post!

Can’t be done, you say?

Impossible, you scoff?

Just watch me now.

In letter #216, Aiden wrote:

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hmI love your jigsaw Jones book’s. Because I love detectives and I like codes, like the twist code, the missing voul code and the space code, and theirs much more. Anyways my name is Aiden I am 9 years old. It would be really cool if you made another jigsaw Jones book except Mila sends a letter to jigsaw Jones, but she didn’t write her name. So jigsaw and mila try to find out WHO wrote the letter. But they find out that mila is it!! That would be cool.
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I replied:
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Aiden,
What is a terrific idea! Can I steal it? I mean, er, “borrow” it? 
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The good news is that soon I’ll be writing a new Jigsaw Jones title. First one in a long time. Not sure about the mystery yet — all these stories begin after I figure out the crime at the core — but maybe I can incorporate your idea into the book.
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Let me think about it.
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Thanks for writing & for sharing your brilliant idea!
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James Preller
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In letter #217, I received this note from Andrea in Canada:
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Hello Mr. Preller,
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My son LOVES your series Jigsaw Jones Mysteries.  He is 10 yrs old and has a learning disability as well as ADHD.  He is an amazing boy and when he finds a book he likes he will read and read, it’s the only thing that keeps him calm. :)
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I am having a hard time finding your books.  We accidentally came across the box set 1-8 at a used book store about a year ago, he wants to continue to read them but he HAS to read them in order.  The library doesn’t have all your books.
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I have no problem paying for the books but I am wondering if you can help me out in any way.  Shipping to Canada can be very expensive, I have found your books but with shipping and handling it will cost an arm and leg to buy.  I am angry at myself, a box set became available through the Scholastic Program and I forgot to order it.  I missed the deadline.  My son cried for the rest of the day.  
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If there is anything you can do to help I would greatly appreciate it.
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I replied:
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Dear Andrea,
You are a good Mom, that’s for sure.
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I wish I had better news for you. But the series has been slowly dying on the vine for years, Scholastic allowing it to go out of print. I’ve recently retained the rights and it looks like I have interest from another publisher — fingers crossed! — so Jigsaw will be revived in some form or other. I’ll actually be writing a new one soon.
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UnknownFor your immediate needs, I think you should look at Craig’s List and eBay. Those books pop up all the time. You can contact Scholastic at a toll-free number, 1-800-724-6527. If you are persistent, you’ll find a helpful person who might go the extra yard for you.
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Good luck!
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If you give me your address, and the name of your son, I’ll be happy to send him a signed copy of #9, just because. 
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It’s my pleasure, 
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James Preller

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