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1. POETRY FRIDAY: “Revolutionary Letter #51” by Diane di Prima

The righteously indignant poet Diane Di Prima. Photo by James Oliver Mitchell.

The righteously indignant poet Diane di Prima. Photo by James Oliver Mitchell.

It’s hard to say why we pluck one book from the shelf, a slim volume surrounded by so many others. In this case, for me, it was a book I hadn’t read in at least 20 years. A book I’d purchased new for $3.50, back in my college days, when that’s how I spent my available book-money: poetry, poetry, poetry. Building a collection.

A year ago, I was moved to post Wendell Berry’s fine poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” Last week my blog blew up because somebody, somewhere, linked to that page on my blog. Berry’s poem expressed something that helps me in troubling times. I go back to it, as a reminder, time and again. And, oh yes, we are in troubling times, with irksome, fearful days ahead.

Cover design by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Cover design by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

During the week of the election, I took Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters off the shelf. Because as much as I needed solace and surcease, I also needed fire and gasoline. I needed the righteous indignation of di Prima’s shambolic, vexed, idealistic voice. While I don’t think of her as a supreme poet, or of this as a perfect poem, her spirit strikes chords in me, resounding and reverberating like a clanged bell. But I’m here today mostly for that good line: “We have the right to make the universe we dream.”

Be keep dreaming, dreamers.

We have that right, and that mission. Be strong.

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2. Today’s Word: Portemanteau

This is a portemanteau:

 

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That is, a large suitcase or trunk that usually opens into two separate parts.

However, the word “mansplaining” is also a portemanteau:

Ironic businessman boss. Business concept professional at work retro style pop art

According the Merriam-Webster, 1: a large suitcase; 2: a word or morpheme whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms. 

Our language has many portemanteaus, including: brunch, dramedy, carjack, Reaganomics, motel, snowmageddon, threepeat, gaydar, Brexit, sharknado, etc.

FUN FACT: “Chortle” is a portemanteau invented by Lewis Carroll, combining “chuckle” and “snort.

Carry on!

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3. 5 QUESTIONS with JESSICA OLIEN, author/illustrator of “THE BLOBFISH BOOK”

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Are we all good? Everybody set for another installment of our weekly “5 Questions” interview series? Because here’s Jessica Olien. Maybe she’ll stop signing books long enough for a friendly chat. Her blobfish book just might surprise you.

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Jessica, hey. There’s a great scene in “The Sunshine Boys,” starring Walter Matthau and George Burns, where Uncle Willy explains that “Words with k in it are funny.” He lists: pickle, chicken, Alka-seltzer. Uncle Willy adds, “’L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Cupcake is funny, tomatoes is not funny, lettuce is not funny, cucumber is funny . . . Cockroach is funny — not if you get ‘em, only if you say ‘em.” The idea is that certain words are inherently funny. Which leads me to Blobfish. How do you not smile when you hear that word?

Indeed. Poor lettuce, what a terrible dinner party guest. Blobfish is most definitely funny, but as with most comedians is also seriously misunderstood!

There’s a deeper layer to your book, slowly revealed, that leads the reader to an unexpected place. First, on the surface, there’s straight-forward science. From what I understand, there’s been significant advances deep ocean research, where we’re now getting glimpses of these incredibly weird fish. My favorite is Vampyroteuthis infernalis (loosely translated as “Vampire Squid from Hell”). It all gets pretty bizarre down in the Hadalpelagic Zone. All of that information in your book is conveyed in a fairly conventional photographic manner. Then we meet your illustrated Blobfish character. Which came first?

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Definitely Blobfish came first. I had this idea kind of whole — an attention-seeking fish looking to recognize himself in the pages of a dry textbook. To get the photos (which are mostly of the deep deep sea) I had to contact different scientists around the world, which was fun but challenging when they were off searching for Japanese Spider Crabs or whatever and couldn’t get back to me for permissions.

What I love about your book -– and there’s so much to love –- is that moment when it pivots about halfway through. We are yucking it up with an interrupting blobfish, thinking we’ve got this book figured out, when we learn, “The blobfish was once voted the world’s ugliest animal.”

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At that moment, you start tugging, ever so gently, on emotions. The book quietly sends signals from the deep about kindness and how we treat each other. Even blobfish have feelings! And words can hurt. I imagine you coming across that factoid and thinking, “Hmmmm.” Is that when you knew you had a book? Because that’s a real thing, isn’t it? We all have folders of half-baked ideas, snippets and notions and unfinished manuscripts, but not many books. Then there’s a moment when, yes, this is a book. Or as my friend Matthew McElligott puts it, “You know you can land the plane.”

Well thank you! I think I actually read that the Blobfish was voted the ugliest animal on BBC or something and that’s where the idea for this book came from. That and a bunch of really weird sketches of Blobfish — you should see one of the early ones, he looks kind of like Danny DeVito.

DeVito should play him in the movie. I can totally see that. He has the range. But continue.

I loved thinking about a lumpy fish with this child-like enthusiasm about his own worth. Blobfish craves validation and belonging and while he looks for it he finds out that some people have not very nice views of him. I think this is a defining moment for many kids too. When they realize people aren’t all on their side. It feels so unfair (it is unfair). Different versions of this happen our entire lives and it is up to the kindness of others and our own ability to recognize and embrace that kindness (as well as to forgive our own flaws) that keeps us going.

I see that you live in Brooklyn, as required by law for children’s authors and illustrators (I think it’s a five-year minimum, then you are free to move to Connecticut). Yet you are a native Midwesterner. Where’s that?

I was born in Michigan and raised in Wisconsin. I never felt like I fit in anywhere. All I wanted to do was explore the world and be a writer, an artist, an actor. Being from the Midwest you are taught to keep your expectations low and your ambition in check. I couldn’t wait to leave. I moved to Chicago to study photography, then dropped out of school and moved to Thailand where I worked as a journalist. I finished my degree remotely while studying Arabic in Egypt.

Right. Given that progression, writing and illustrating a children’s book about a blobfish makes perfect sense. Because: inevitable. Your voice strikes me as something new. How did you arrive at children’s books? It’s like you climbed in a window or something.

It does sometimes feel that way — “This is not my beautiful house.” I always say I didn’t do this until a few years ago, but recently I looked back at some of my sketchbooks that I kept while traveling and mixed in with these serious sketches of urban decay and poverty were these funny cartoon animals and people. I am so glad I didn’t pursue picture books right out of school though. Something about not caring as much what people think when I did start out made it easier to have an authentic voice. Also, I was lucky to have Alessandra Balzer buy my first book (and four after). If she hadn’t taken it I might not even know there was a window for me to climb into.

Thanks for visiting, Jessica. Keep up the great work.

wceggdunlca8rphoz66abhhs4ri12vqgoobrgbrkx2plcphekar3aiznsrpughkiodzcs4glrs3lnnbucm2t9tndb06zszzgaib6wpypvq5idkycbwtzawmsmq7pk-1JESSICA OLIEN is also the author/illustrator of Shark Detective! and Adrift. She has several books in pre-publication, but the one I’m most excited about it titled Right Now (2018). I guess we’ll have to wait for it. Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dum. Jessica keeps a fancy website that you can visit. Google’ll get you there.

 

Coming soon: London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Lizzy Rockwell, Nancy Castaldo, Matthew Phelan, and more. You can look up previous interviews in this series by clicking on the “5 Questions” icon under the “categories” on the right sidebar.

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4. Talking: Writing Process, Roald Dahl, Works In Progress, Lewis & Clark, and the Danger of the “Info Dump.”

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD -- a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD — a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Deborah Kalb runs a cool website where she interviews a staggering number of authors and illustrators . . . and she finally worked her way down to me.

Please check it out by stomping on this link here.

Here’s a quick sample:

Q: You wrote that you were inspired by Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World to focus on a father-son dynamic in The Courage Test. How would you describe the relationship between your character Will and his father?

A: Yes, I came late to the Dahl classic and was struck that here was a loving book about a boy’s relationship with his father — not the kind of thing I’ve seen in many middle-grade children’s books. I found it liberating, as if Dahl had given me a written note of permission.

In The Courage Test, William Meriwether Miller is a 12-year-old with recently divorced parents. His father has moved out and moved on. So there’s tension there, and awkwardness; William feels abandoned, and he also feels love, of course, because it’s natural for us to love our fathers.

I wrote about this at more length, here, back a couple of years ago. In the unlikely event you are really fascinated by my connection to the Dahl book . . .

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5. 5 QUESTIONS with MATTHEW McELLIGOTT, author/illustrator of “MAD SCIENTIST ACADEMY: THE WEATHER DISASTER”

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Here we are, oh sunny day, the latest installment of my “5 Questions” interview series with luminaries of the children’s book world. Here comes my friend, Matt McElligott!

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Matt, I’m looking at the second book in your “Mad Scientist Academy” series, The Weather Disaster. And all I can think is, Boy that looks like a lot of work! Seriously, I’m exhausted. So I’m just going to take a brief nap and, yawn, we’ll pick this up later. Zzzzzzzzzz.

You’re not the first person to tell me my books put them to sleep! 

Okay, I’m up! For readers who might be unfamiliar with this science series, you are essentially taking a nonfiction topic and giving it a fresh, contemporary spin. All told in an appealing format that’s a hybrid between the graphic novel and traditional picture book. As someone who has admired your work for many years, it strikes me that this series –- which is spectacular in every way — represents a culmination for you, a distillation of your many and varied talents. I don’t think you could have done this ten years ago. All of your past work informs this one book: your intellectual curiosity, your love of comic books and old Hollywood movies, your silliness, your experience with book design and storytelling, plus the signature McElligott sense of what kids genuinely like. How did this series begin?

The sentiment is much, much appreciated. And I agree completely -– I don’t think I could have done this ten years ago, and I’m not sure I could even do it now without the tremendous help of my wife Christy. It really is a lot of work. Not only does the story have to be compelling, but it also has to deliver a lot of real science along the way, hopefully while still captivating the reader. Finding that balance has been, by far, the trickiest part of putting these together, but I can honestly say I enjoy every part of it.

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The idea began with a suggestion from my longtime editor, Emily Easton, who felt that there was a real opportunity for a new series that could make science accessible for kids. We spent about a year and a half trying out various ideas and approaches until it finally started to gel. The graphic novel format came from both my love of classic comics and a practical need to fit all the information into thirty-two pages.

There must have been a point, early on, when you thought to yourself, “Uh-oh.” Just that pure terror of, What have I gotten myself into? Can I actually do it?

Boy, you nailed it with that question. The feeling of terror hit me a couple weeks into the first book and has lingered ever since. There are roughly a hundred illustrations in each book, and the thought of how long it will take to draw the next book keeps me up at night. I’ll spend about a year, maybe a little more, researching, plotting, sketching, and illustrating pretty intensely until it’s finished. But the good thing is that I’m not in it alone. I happen to be married to a very talented woman who’s a whiz at both researching and drawing (we met thirty years ago in art school) and we can divide up many of the tasks to keep everything manageable. Three books in, and we’re still married!

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Now correct me if I’m wrong, but your cruel editors don’t allow you to just make up stuff for this book? Is that true? So you’ve actually got to know what you are talking about? What’s the research process like? In this book you thank an actual weatherman, Jason Gough. Otherwise known as a, cough-cough, “stratospheric meteorologist.”

Oh, no. I make most of it up. (That part about how rain forms? That totally came to me in a dream.) Seriously, there’s a ton of research for each book, and meeting real scientists has been one of my favorite parts. For The Weather Disaster I worked with Jason Gough, and for the Dinosaur Disaster I worked with a man named Carl Mehling, a paleontologist who’s in charge of all 32,000 fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. For the upcoming Space Disaster, I worked with the astronomer Bob Berman, who you may know from his work on the radio station WAMC.

All of these scientists were so helpful, patient, and fully willing to engage my strange questions. (“Say, Jason, if you needed to create a tornado from scratch, how would you do it?”) Best of all, they embodied a perfect combination of science and imagination, and I was really lucky to find them. I’ve posted interviews with Carl and Jason on my website, and will be posting more soon.

Matt, you and I are both active with school visits. And I always recommend you to media specialists. The funny thing is, they usually say, “Yeah, he was already here.” At which point I figure out that I’ve been invited because they are working their way down, down, down the list. Not that I mind playing second fiddle –- I’m happy to be in the orchestra! But talk to me a little about your experience in schools. I mean, there you are at home, slaving away on these impossible books. Then you get out of the house! What do you hope to achieve when you visit a school? And also, if you don’t mind me cobbling questions together, what do you think that you get out of your school visits?

Don’t sell yourself short –- you have quite a reputation in the schools! I suspect you’re there because the teachers are actually working their way up the list. (Preller? Why not? Anyone’s got to be better than McElligott.)

I get paid in Ramen Noodles and old Lotto tickets. I think that’s a big part of my appeal.

I love your questions about author visits. The first is pretty straightforward: I hope the kids see that authors are real people, that making books is a thing that real grownups do, and that the writing and illustrating process can be hard, but is totally worth it. (Authors, after all, get to control the world.)

On school visits, Matt always shows readers the joy of . . . the thrill of . . . nevermind!

On school visits, Matt always shows readers the joy of . . . the thrill of . . . nevermind!

As for what I get out of the visits, I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me that. I know I get to share my love of books –- that’s a big part –- and get to meet future authors and illustrators, as well as terrific librarians and teachers. But I also get to represent something bigger than myself, a duty I take very seriously. When a school hosts an author, and when they present the author/illustrator as someone of importance, the school is sending a message about the value of the arts that kids are almost certainly not getting anywhere else. I’m honored to be that representative, if even for just a day.

I like that, we are ambassadors from a distant land. I’ve never been comfortable with the “rock star” aspect of being a visiting author. Sometimes we get put on a pedestal. But when you view it as beyond the self, that we are representing something bigger than “Jimmy” or “Matt,” then it makes more sense.

Ambassadors is such a great word for it. We may be the only authors some of those kids will ever meet. If we’re funny, if we’re engaging, if it shows that we love our jobs, they’ll assume that all authors are that way. Those kids will come away with the idea that reading and making books is something they want to do too.

I recall Tedd Arnold telling me in an interview that he enjoyed checking in with their “squirmy reality.” That phrase always stuck with me. You get to look at those faces, and interact, and reconnect with the fact that, hey, a second grader in October is still really, really young. The visits land us in their world. You know what? It’s like going on a safari! You drive the jeep, Matt. I’ll grab the pith helmets!

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Exactly! It’s field research, and we can learn so much from studying the indigenous population of the elementary school.

You’ve tackled dinosaurs, you’ve wrestled with weather. What’s your next topic?

I can tell you that next up is The Solar System Disaster, out next summer. After that, maybe the ocean? Or maybe the science of belly-button lint. It’s probably between those two.

Well, I think we’ve all learned something today. Every book in this series is a disaster.

In more ways than one!

 

MATT McELLIGOTT keeps a terrific website which you can visit by clicking, madly, here

 

AND IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ PREVIOUS “5 Questions” interviews, thank you — just click on the names below. Coming next week: Jessica Olien and her blobfish! And after that: London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Lizzy Rockwell, Nancy Castaldo, Matthew Phelan, and more (but not necessarily in that order).

* Hudson Talbott

* Hazel Mitchell

* Ann Hood

 

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6. Donald Trump and “The Courage Test”

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I owe a debt of thanks to Donald Trump. His campaign rhetoric helped inspire parts of my new middle-grade novel, The Courage Test (Macmillan).

No book is written in isolation. There is always a personal and historic context, and it’s only natural for outside influences to leak into any manuscript. For this book, Donald Trump — as the emergent Republican frontrunner for the presidency of the United States — became the inescapable buzz and background to my thoughts.

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Back in early 2015, I set out to write the story of William Meriwether Miller, a 12-year-old boy who travels with his father along parts of the Lewis & Clark Trail. They drive, hike, backpack, and paddle through some of the most beautiful parts of America. Along their trip, they experience new places, new people, and (we hope!) gain new insights into themselves and each other.

Young Will’s experience parallels that of the original quest of Lewis & Clark and the “Corps of Discovery,” explorers who sought the Northwest Passage, the hoped-for water passageway from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. The more I learned about that expedition, the more fascinated I became. I’d accidentally hit upon a rich pathway into the American soul. The scope of the book shifted under my feet. The Trail was no longer merely convenient metaphor; it became essential fact, a way into the messy heartland. So the book also became an expression of my awe at the exploration made by Lewis & Clark from 1804-06. Theirs was a military journey into uncharted territory — the old maps employed that great phrase, “Parts Unknown,” to label vast areas — the first epic and fateful push west that came to define the American pioneering impulse, for better and for worse. It was a story of discovery and nation-making, of personal bravery and perseverance, of ignorance and arrogance. Most profoundly, their exploration inevitably precipitated the cruel clash of cultures between the American government and the indigenous people who had lived on that land for centuries.

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And so I set a father and son wandering along that same path to discover parts unknown. They learn something of themselves, but also this: that we are forever remaking our nation in a thousand different ways. How we respect the land, how we treat each other. Each day, we define ourselves anew. The idea of America is not fixed in time. It is a fluid, ever-changing thing.

Lewis & Clark are guiding spirits that haunt Will’s journey. The other specter that haunted my writing journey, if you will, was Donald Trump. I was hearing his words on a daily basis. And it struck me that what he represented seemed to strike against the spirit of this nation’s core. He boasts about building a great wall, he stokes fear and distrust of immigrants, he promises deportations. On the day of his campaign announcement, June 15, 2015, Trump said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

And Trump promised:

“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me —and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

He hasn’t stopped denigrating people since. Just yesterday calling the Somali immigrants of Minnesota a “disaster” for the state. It is one thing to lead a thoughtful discussion about immigration standards and practices; it is something altogether different, and more hateful and fear-mongering, to broadly disparage a culture and a community of immigrants living in our country. It’s also counter-productive.

In The Courage Test, I weave in details throughout the book that echo and mirror the explorers’ original experiences (an incident with a bear, adventures in the rapids, encounters with the Nez Perce tribe, etc). To cite one example: protagonists in both time periods meet up with a vulnerable, pregnant 15-year-old girl. For Lewis & Clark, her name was Sacagawea. She grew up with the Shoshones and was kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe at roughly age ten. A few years later she was sold to a fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, who made her his wife. Sacagawea famously joined Lewis & Clark on their journey to the sea. Correspondingly, in the main narrative, Will and his father meet Maria Rosa, also 15 and pregnant. It is strongly intimated that Maria came into the United States illegally from Mexico, a runaway seeking a new life.

 

Painting by Edgar Samuel Paxson.

Painting by Edgar Samuel Paxson.

 

To me, it became very important how Will and his father responded to this girl. Because it would not only reveal their character, but it would say something about America, at least a vision of America in which I still believe. In that sense the book became in part my response to Donald Trump. A story about morality, and compassion, and the courage to face the coming challenges with open, generous hearts.

—–

THE COURAGE TEST is a 2016 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION.

“Preller traverses both domestic drama and adventure story with equally sure footing, delivering the thrills of a whitewater rafting accident and a mama bear encounter, and shifting effortlessly to the revelation of Mom’s illness and the now urgent rapprochement between Dad and Will. Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here.The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip that does traditional double-duty as plot device and coming-of-age metaphor. Will is initially baffled and furious at being abruptly forced to accompany his divorced father, a history professor, on a long journey retracing much of the trail of Lewis and Clark. The trip soon becomes an adventure, though, because as the wonders of the great outdoors work their old magic on Will’s disposition, his father and a Nez Perce friend (who turns out to be a Brooklyn banker) fill him in on the Corps of Discovery’s encounters with nature and native peoples. Also, along with helping a young runaway find a new home, Will survives a meeting with a bear and a spill into dangerous rapids — tests of courage that will help him weather the bad news that awaits him at home.”—Booklist, Starred Review

“A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama..”School Library Journal.

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7. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #234: Featuring Secret Codes from Vivien!

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First of all, wow, this is letter number 234 that I’ve shared on this blog. I started this feature late in 2008, I think. I don’t put every letter on the blog. These represent only a small sample. Here at James Preller Dot Com, we share only the freshest, the funniest, the best. This one is from Vivien. She qualifies!

 

Dear James Preller,                                                                            
I really like your Jigsaw Jones books.  They are really fun!  I think it is cool how Jigsaw and Mila send secret codes to each other.  Jigsaw is really smart.  I don’t think I would have been able to solve The Mystery of the Perfect Prank.  I would like to ask you some questions.  (I am going to write in a code!)  Why you writing Jigsaw books, did start the Jones?  What your color, is favorite?  Which your are favorite, of books your?  Are going write books, you to more?  Please answer these questions (if you can!) and please write back soon. 
 `
Sincerely, Vivien
 
I replied:
 

Vivien,

Thank you for this lovely note. And may I also say how much I love your name: Vivien. It’s even fun to say. It also reminds me of a favorite word: convivial.
Vivien is convincingly convivial!
 ‘
You are the first person on the planet clever enough to ask me questions in code. I did manage to figure it out. Confession: My first thought was that you were lousy at typing. But then I recognized that you had some kind of alternate word thing going on. I like it! Does it have a name? A Word Skip Code?
 
On to the questions!
 
I began writing these mysteries back in 1997. At the start, I was just messing around with words on paper. I had a character, named Otis, who had an extremely active imagination. He’d pretend to be a space explorer, a mad scientist, and a hard-boiled detective (like in the old movies). An editor at Scholastic, Jean Feiwel, read what I had written and said, “I like the part where he’s a detective. Do you think you could write a mystery?”
 
My favorite color? Well, the older I get, I have to admit — it’s gray.
 
Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE -- coming in the summer of 2017!

Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE — coming in the summer of 2017!

There are different scenes in each Jigsaw Jones book that I enjoy. A line that’s funny, a clue that might be particularly ingenious, or a moment of real heart. And I suppose there’s a few books with which I’ll never feel satisfied. 

I’m super excited about my new Jigsaw Jones book, The Case from Outer Space, which is coming out this summer, published by Macmillan. I hadn’t written one in several years, and I was so happy to re-enter that familiar world. It really might be the best Jigsaw Jones book I’ve ever done — and that’s saying something, because it’s the 41st book overall.
 ‘
Thank you for reading my books, Viv!
 ‘
Oh, by the way, I think I figured out a new code the other day. I made a note and stuck it in a folder. Maybe for the next book. Do you mind if I try it out on you?
 
Wait, before you leave the house — get dressed!
Most animals are fabulous dancers.
At first, the hippo appeared bored and soporific, but then he perked up.
The single best thing anyone can ever do is pour soup in their shoes.
I believe Vivien is actually a frog.
 
Stumped you, didn’t I?
 
Here’s a hint: I think I’ll call it a Third Word Code. And it’s harder to write than it looks! Whew. I’m gonna take a nap!
 
Your pal,
 
James Preller

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8. 5 QUESTIONS with SUSAN HOOD, author of “ADA’S VIOLIN”

 

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Welcome to my interview with author Susan Hood. This is part of an ongoing “5 Questions” series, where the discussion revolves around one specific book. On a weekly basis, we’ll be hearing from Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Lizzy Rockwell, Matthew Phalen London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, and more. That’s a lot of Matthews! This is a gift that I’m giving myself, forcing myself to spend time and thought on some terrific books. Hopefully I’ll learn something along the way. Oh, look. Here comes Susan Hood up my walkway. Not a bad view out my front door, you think?

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Greetings, Susan. Tell us about finding this story. Did you immediately see it as a potential picture book?

Hi, Jimmy. Thanks for having me. I can’t take credit for discovering the Recycled Orchestra. All kudos go to the late great Bob Simon who did a fantastic story about it on 60 Minutes and to my editor Christian Trimmer who saw the segment and the story’s potential for a picture book. I’m so grateful I’m the author who got to write it.

Looking into the story, there was a lot of press about Favio Chávez, the conductor of the orchestra. But for a picture book, I wanted to shift the focus and talk to a kid in the orchestra. That’s how I decided it was Ada’s story I wanted to write.  

This book is such an accomplishment. I’m in awe of what you’ve done. Big respect. I mean, wow, you’ve done it; you made a great, great book. I’m actually standing up and clapping right now, while typing with my toes.

Ha! I always knew you were a man of many talents. (The secret to writing so many books?) But seriously, thank you. As I’ve told you, writing this book was one of the best experiences of my life. I fell in love with these kids and I guess it shows.


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Yes, your affection for this story comes through loud and clear. It’s such a challenge to take a story this big -– with so much depth and detail – and find a way to condense it into a picture book format without losing the heart and soul. What a struggle that must have been. How did you even begin? Sometimes writers will find a sentence, or an image, or even a word that sort of lets them enter the story through a side door. Does that make any sense to you?

I wrote many, many drafts of this book, but the first sentence was always: “Ada Ríos grew up in a town made of trash.” The kid in me knew that that was a killer statement; just imagine growing up in a place where everything in your life — houses, beds, toys, clothing — comes from other people’s trash. And then imagine taking that trash and transforming it into music. Pure magic.

 
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Obviously, for Ada’s Violin, there are real people involved. It’s a true story. So that had to be an added weight, this huge responsibility to do justice to their story. Tell us about your research, and your interactions with Ada in particular.

Yes, I worked hard to get it right. In the beginning, I decided I could tell this story in one of two ways: the easy way and the hard way. The easy way: use the news reports as background, make up a kid, and tell a story “based on a true story.” But why would I make anything up when the true story is so astonishing?

Um, wild guess, but: because it was the easy way?

No, I knew I had to do it the hard way: find an actual kid, do interviews, and tell a true story.

Yeah, I suppose that also works.

The obstacles seemed daunting. I couldn’t afford to go to Paraguay; Cateura has no postal system and little electricity; I don’t speak Spanish and no one in the orchestra speaks English. When I talk to kids about the story, I tell them, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” I hired a translator and asked 60 Minutes if they could put me in touch with Favio Chávez. The producers loved the idea of a picture book and were incredibly generous and supportive.

It turned out that Favio had access to email and Skype so I did several rounds of interviews with him and later Ada online. The tricky part was that they were on tour so much, it might be months between questions and answers. My editor was extremely understanding about extending deadlines.

For picture book authors, we write the words and then we wait, and wait, and wait. Then there’s always that remarkable, heart-in-your-throat moment when the art arrives. Tell us about your reaction to seeing Sally Wern Comport’s work for the first time.

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Jaw on the floor! Sally sent us color sketches and I was stunned at her use of found objects and mixed media that so perfectly mirrored the bits and pieces of landfill, the houses, the recycled instruments. And as hope comes to Cateura, her palette moves from dark shadows to light-infused scenes of gorgeous color, sprinkled with musical notes that take to the sky. I’m still in awe of what she’s accomplished.

I love every blessed inch of this book. But I’m especially moved — transported — by a spread two-thirds of the way through the story. The visual focus is tight on Ada playing her violin. The words are few and absolutely perfect: “With her violin, Ada could close her eyes and imagine a different life. She could soar on the high, bright, bittersweet notes to a place far away. She could be who she was meant to be.” The language is clear and direct, but also there’s the uplift of that poetic phrase -– “the high, bright, bittersweet notes” –- where the sentence soars right along with Ada. And we, as readers, soar with you. That right there is some fine writing, Susan.

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That makes me so happy because that’s my favorite spread in the book, too. The art is simply spectacular. I listened to a lot of violin music as I was writing and it was that word “bittersweet” that rang true, both in the sound of the music and in Ada’s thoughts of leaving Cateura. While her town is undeniably “a noisy, stinking, sweltering slum,” it’s where Ada’s friends and family are, where she’s grown up. It’s the only home she has ever known.

I understand that you worked at “Sesame Street.” I’ve always wondered: Was Oscar really that grouchy? Or was that only when the cameras were rolling?

Funny that I’ve gone from Oscar’s trash can to Ada’s landfill. As Carroll Spinney has said (and I’m paraphrasing) the only thing that kept him sane playing Big Bird was that he got to play Oscar, too. So yes, he was always grouchy…unless he was revelling in trash.

And when Cookie Monster went on the Paleo Diet, that had to cause tensions on the set, yes?

Cookie Monster, during happier times.

Cookie Monster, during happier times.

It was brutal! No cookies, no milk.

An experience like the one you had at Sesame Street must have had a profound impact on your work. What do you think was your single, great takeaway from those years?

You’re right. We still need diverse books, but Sesame Street has been nurturing diversity since 1969. There’s a great big world out there and that’s always informed what I want to write about. Another takeaway for me was the idea of layering. Sesame Street jokes and stories work 100 percent for little kids and yet there’s an extra layer for their parents, which encourages families to watch together. A win-win for everyone. The best picture books give that same 100 percent. And finally, Kermit and friends taught me the exquisite joy of making a little kid laugh.

 

 

SUSAN HOOD is the author of Spike, the Mixed-Up Monster; Rooting for You; Leaps and Bounce; Mission: New Baby, and many others. Her new book, Mr. Fix-It, will soon be published. Susan keeps a tidy blog that’s easy to find.

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9. In Which I Answer the Question: “What Are You Working on now?”

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I recently completed a series of interview questions at Deborah Kalb’s “Book Q&As” blog (not posted yet, or I’d share), and thought I pass along a brief sample. One of the unexpected challenges to writing a book comes after the book is finished — now you’ve got to figure out how to talk about it. How do you explain it? How do you make it sound good in two sentences? How to summarize 42,000 works into pure pith?

Obviously, I’m still trying to figure that out.  Read below and you can flounder along with me!

 

What are you working on now?

I am finishing up the revisions for a middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead, that I began seven years ago. It started as a misfit story, in this case a boy who survives his own death only to be told that, well, he might as well go back to middle school. I figured that “zombie” made him the ultimate outsider. But I didn’t feel satisfied writing just a zombie book, so the work stalled. As time passed, I became increasingly interested in a host of environmental issues, “climate change” in particular, even attending a huge march down in NYC. I kept looking at young people today and felt the caretakers of the planet had failed them. At the same time, I didn’t believe that many of today’s young people had fully grasped the severity of the situation. The book (Macmillan, 2017) casts a wide net, sprawls and morphs into a mystery/thriller hybrid, and touches upon bees, bats, droughts, wildfires, makeover shows, corporate greed, consumerism, politics, bullying, and, yes, zombies. If there’s a theme, it’s this: Everything connects. It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever written. I’m glad that I can still surprise myself — and consider it a good sign.

Here’s some more images from the spectacular “People’s Climate March” in NYC referenced above, attended by more than 400,000 citizens of the globe.

I traveled down alone -- but not alone -- by bus. So this is me on that great day, seeking attention to a cause that matters. In many ways, this march affected and inspired the book I wrote.

I traveled down alone — but not alone — from Delmar, NY, by bus. So this photo is me, taken by a stranger on that great day, seeking attention for a cause that matters. In many ways, this march affected and inspired the book I wrote.

People's Climate March, 092114Some of hundreds of thousands take part in the People's Climate March through Midtown, New Yorkscreenshot-2014-09-10-131902_550x322climate-march-9_3000019b10_medium140921_climate_change_rally_nyc_ice_cream_earth_msm_605_60520140921-dsc_0050imagesA protester carries a sign during the "People's Climate March" in the Manhattan borough of New Yorkslide_389314_4706504_freeslide_370038_4261286_free140921_pol_peoplesclimate_11-jpg-crop-original-originalimagemarch-for-climate-changeimrspeoples-march-newam-crew-537x366

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10. A Writer’s Dilemma: The Challenge w/ Cell Phones

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Let’s start by looking at this clip below. The illustrated video, created by Steve Cutts for Moby’s new song, “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” is dark and disturbing. You can even watch it with the sound off, since my interest is almost entirely with the story told by the visuals.

 

 

Wow, right? A bleak look at cell phone addiction. Or maybe it’s just a slightly exaggerated look at our world?

Contemporary cell phone culture presents unique challenges to any children’s book writer. Not the phones themselves, of course, but the way in which so much of contemporary teen life is spent on those phones. A quick Google search reveals reports that claim young adults will take more than 25,000 selfies during their lifetimes. More than 93 million selfies are taken each day; and so on and so on. You get the picture.

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In that regard, cell phones must be considered central to any telling of realistic fiction. It’s where so much of their lives are played out. But, confession: that’s not the version of life I’m personally interested in exploring. Maybe this reveals me for what I am — an old guy who grew up in a time before cell phones and personal computers. Their world is not my world. Maybe it’s beyond me. And yet I’m typing this on a laptop with an Apple phone at my side.

None of this was an issue for Mark Twain or Zora Neale Hurston.

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How do writers of children’s literature deal with phones? How do we tell contemporary stories? One way, of course, would be to embrace the phone fully. Make it a central character — that’s where the drama plays out, so dive right in. That’s a legitimate approach, but feels gimmicky. I also suspect that technique would quickly become dated.
In my books, I’ve dealt with phones in a number of ways.
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Here are a few:

* I recently wrote a new Jigsaw Jones, The Case from Outer Space. The characters are in second grade, so cell phones are not an issue. Nice!

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* In my “Scary Tales” series, phones present a different sort of challenge. The phone makes the world less scary. I don’t want a kid who is trapped in a cave to be able to pick up her phone and call 911. And the inverse is especially true — any sense of isolation, of disconnectedness, raises their discomfort. In I Scream, You Scream, the phones are confiscated before a thrill ride (no photos). Other times, the Wi-Fi is mysteriously down (Good Night, Zombie). I’m often trying to get the phone out of the way.

img_1992* In The Fall, a book that deals, in part, with teenage cyber-bullying, there’s no way to pretend that phones don’t exist. My characters send and receive texts, and “cell life” is inherent in the story. Interestingly, while the phones enhance our ability to connect electronically, they can also limit our real-time connections. Here’s a moment in the story when Sam recounts his second meeting with Morgan. They are both walking their dogs off-leash behind the middle school. They talk a little bit, thanks to the dogs. And then, this:

I stared at my phone, scrolled.

Morgan pulled her cell out of a coat pocket.

We stood there in awkward proximity, alone on a field, playing games with our phones. Silence drifted over us like clouds.

I pocked the cell.

“Bye,” I said.

I don’t remember if she answered me, but Morgan called to Max, “See ya, boy!”

* For The Courage Test, a father and son go on a long camping trip together. It would have been perfectly valid for them to lose a signal at different points in the story (and they do). But I still had the problem — if you can call it that — of a kid with his phone. Rather than ignore it completely, I wrote a scene where they are driving along in Montana. William is playing a game on his phone, not, to his father’s mind, fully appreciative of the landscape. They argue about the phone. The argument escalates.

He holds out his hand, gesturing for the phone.

Now, this next part is funny.

Hilarious, almost.

And it’s also incredibly, fabulously stupid, because I can be such an idiot sometimes. My father has pushed me into a corner. We are in the middle of nowhere. Wi-Fi is spotty at best. Back home, at Puckett Field, there’s an All-Star practice tonight — a practice that I’m missing, for a team I can’t play on, because my ex-dad wants to haul me across the universe. 

My right index finger pressed the button on the armrest. The window slides noiselessly down and I immediately feel it, the wind and whoosh of summer heat.

I turn and can’t resist, so with a flick of my wrist I pitch my phone out the window. 

Problem solved.

* In Before You Go, possibly my only true YA, Jude has a phone and uses it. But at the same time, I mostly write around it — to a point that might present a picture that’s somewhat untrue to life as it is currently lived. Again, it’s hard to move a story along if people are constantly staring at Youtube videos and Snapchat. Or maybe you can? But yuck.

* Picture books, where characters can be talking pigs or pogo-sticking hyenas, offer another way for a writer to sidestep phone culture. Just create an alternative world and write for very young children. Though lately I’ve seen a few picture books where kids are dealing with parents who won’t stop looking at their phones.

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* Write Historical Fiction. Set stories in a time before cell phones. The same is true for dystopian novels and science fiction. “Electricity’s out, folks, you’re going to have to talk among yourselves!” Maybe that’s why we see so much of it these days?

I share these musings not because I have the answers, but because I think it’s an issue which confronts contemporary writers. Phones are awfully tedious, and people staring at phones — while super realistic: just look around! — is even worse.

What do you think? Can you think of books that dealt with phones in an innovative or effective way? In our efforts to be realistic, do we need to incorporate more phone-drama in our books? Thoughts?

The idea of writing that Civil War story never looked so good.

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11. You Are So Welcome!

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Yesterday I cleaned out one of the bags I use for school visits. It’s surprising what I find in there. Old electric bills, paper scraps with hastily jotted-down ideas, Donald Trump’s taxes, lint-covered cookies (still delicious!), plus random notes and drawings that are handed to me by students mid-flight. As I rush down the hall seeking a bathroom, usually. The shy kid — with a friend, for bravery! — comes up and silently hands a paper to me. I am grateful, I am thankful, but I gotta go, so I stuff it into the bag, shake hands, and hurry to the next thing.

Thank you, sorry, gotta go.

Here’s one I wanted to share, because it’s all any of us ever really want. To feel noticed. To feel appreciated, recognized for our worth and our work. I am fortunate to enjoy a career where I am given notes like this one. Everyone should have that experience.

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12. FIVE QUESTIONS with HAZEL MITCHELL, author/illustrator of “TOBY”

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Welcome to the second installment of my “5 Questions” series. On a weekly or bi-weekly or completely random basis, I will interview an author or illustrator and focus on a specific book. In the coming weeks, we’ll spend time with Matthew Cordell, Jessica Olien, Matthew McElligott, Lizzy Rockwell and more. Why? I like these people and I love their books. Sue me. Today we get to hang out with Hazel Mitchell, who is as glorious as a glass of champagne at a good wedding. Drink deeply, my friends . . .

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JP: Greetings, Hazel. Thanks for stopping by my swanky blog. I hope you don’t find the vibe too intimidating. I put up the tapestry just for you. The lava lamps have been here for a while. Because nothing says “classy” quite like a lava lamp. Sit anywhere you like, but the milk crates are most comfortable.

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Hazel: Thanks, JP. This is certainly an eclectic place you’ve got here. Wow, is that a glitter ball? Next you will be wearing a white suit. Excuse me while I remove this stuffed meerkat from the milk crate . . . 

1c971b5bc7c4a067d09cad45ee38361cCareful with that meerkat, it’s expensive. Hey, do I detect an accent? Wait, let me guess! You are from . . . Kentucky?

No getting anything past you! Kentucky, Yorkshire, England. OK, just Yorkshire, England. I’m a late pilgrim.

We recently sat side-by-side at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival, where I got the chance to read your wonderful new picture book, Toby, and eavesdrop on your lively interactions with young readers. At times, alarmingly, you spoke in the voice of a hand puppet. So let me see if I’ve got this straight: Toby is a real dog, but not a true story, exactly? How does that work?

toby-realistic-sketchesYes, we did sit next to each other and it was a lot of fun to see you in action! I didn’t know you were eavesdropping, I’d have dropped in some of those Shakespearean ‘asides’ just for you. And I must watch that hand puppet voice, I even do it without the hand puppet . . .

OK, to the question: Yes, Toby is a real dog. I rescued him from a puppy mill situation back in 2013. He was so endearing and his journey from frozen dog to bossy boots captured my heart. I began drawing him, because that’s what illustrators do, and before I knew it I was weaving a story round him. But I didn’t want to feature myself as the owner in Toby’s story, that was kind of boring and I figured Toby needed a younger owner, one who children could relate to. So I gave Toby a boy who adopts him and a Dad who is struggling with moving house, looking after his son AND now a new dog. The fictionalized setting gave me lots of ideas and emotions to play with, but the stuff Toby gets up to in the book is taken from things he did in real life.

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I can see it’s a work that comes from your heart. And by “see” I mean: I could feel it. A heartwarming story for young children living in a cynical age. The book is beautifully designed. I especially admire the pacing of it, the way you vary the number and size of the many illustrations. Please tell me a little about that decision-making process.

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Thank you. I love that you say ‘feel.’ I wanted this book to be about emotions and feelings and bring the reader into the internal dialogue of the boy and dog’s fears and frustrations. Just small things you know, but life is full of small things that make up the big things. And again, thank you for your kind words on the design, working with Candlewick, my editor (Liz Bicknell) and art director (Ann Stott), was a joy. We did a lot of drafts at rough sketch stage and as the layout of the book evolved a lot of graphic novel style panels crept in and then the wide double-spreads to open out the story. I like how it flows. The choice of colors really adds to the story I think, moody blues and beiges that reflect the emotions and then brighter colours when things are going well. The boy and dog are connected by the colour red –- Toby’s collar and the boy’s sneakers. 

Oh, thank you, Hazel, for sharing those behind-the-scenes details. I appreciate seeing the black-and-white sketches, too. I think even when readers don’t consciously notice those subtle details, they still manage to seep into our unconsciousness. It’s fascinating how much thought goes into the work that most readers probably don’t think they see.

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I like that your book doesn’t gloss over the challenges of owning a dog. It’s not always cuddles and sunshine. Why did you feel it was important to include the downside of dog ownership?

Because that is the reality of life and children are very capable of dealing with realities and working through problems. Sometimes it’s adults who want everything to be cuddles and sunshine, and try to save youngsters from the real world. Well we can’t do that, because it comes at us fast. I never get tired of seeing or hearing about a child responding to a book and saying, “Yeah, that happened to me,” or “I know that feeling.” It’s like you’ve been given a gift. 

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I see that you live in Maine. You must get this question a lot, but why isn’t Toby a moose? Do you see many moose up there? Can we please just talk about moose for a little while? And what goes on in Maine? Do you eat lobster all the time? While reading Stephen King? Or do I have some misconceptions? How did you end up there?

Toby channels his inner moose at times, which is scary in a poodle. There aren’t so many moose around our way, but drive a little North and there is moose-a-plenty (that could be a good name for a snack?). 

Sounds delicious.

I once drove home from a school visit in the FAR NORTH at twilight (that was my first mistake), it was misty and I was driving down a road where I swear there was a moose every 5 yards. I drove 30 miles at 5 MPH. I got home after six months. These moose were SO darn big and SO close to the car I could literally see up their nostrils. Man, moose need help with superfluous hair.

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Wow, you really did see up their nostrils. You are scaring me a little bit, Hazel. Eyes on the road. Speaking of scary . . .

Stephen King lives in the next town over, but you know, he’s a recluse. I eat lobster with lobster on top. Delish. When I moved to the US of A from over the pond I landed in the South. Then moved to Maine. I like the cold much better! (And the lobster).

Do you have ideas for any more Toby stories? I think readers will want more.

I do have more ideas about stories for Toby. But we will have to wait and see. Readers! Write to my publisher! 

I’m so glad you visited, Hazel. It’s nice spending time with you. I hope Toby enjoys a long and mischievous life in children’s books.

It’s been fun. Best five questions anyone asked me all morning. Thanks for having me drop by … oops … there goes a lava lamp!

Six bucks down the drain. We’re done here.

 

imanismooncvr_300-819x1024In addition to Toby, Hazel Mitchell has illustrated several books for children including Imani’s Moon, One Word Pearl, Animally and Where Do Fairies Go When It Snows? Originally from England, where she attended art college and served in the Royal Navy, she now lives in Maine with her poodles Toby and Lucy and a cat called Sleep. You may learn more about Hazel at www.hazelmitchell.com

TOBY Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts

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13. BOY: A Poem

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A couple of boys I know.

A couple of boys I know.

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Funny, I just discovered this poem in an old file. Never printed a copy, never thought about it again, though I can faintly recall writing it a few years back. I don’t write many poems anymore, though I used to write them often. My first love as a writer, in fact, and certainly a good education for any aspiring wordsmith. As Donald Trump says, “Even bad poems can teach us bigly.” In this case, I surely figured, not good enough, and rolled on. Like usual. I’m not sure I’m even okay with the idea of attaching the word “poem” to this rambling meditation-slash-manifesto. But today, before I think better of it, I’m going to take this forgotten thing down off the shelf and place it before you. Kick it, pull it apart, ignore it, whatever. Because what are blogs for? My poem, “Boy.” 

 

BOY, by James Preller

 

I am a boy.

I can pee standing up.

Some days my dad knows

exactly how I feel.

Other days, it’s my mom

who understands.

I am more than farts and fire trucks.

Though I won’t deny — 

farts are funny

and fire trucks are cool,

especially if they let you

scamper up,

wear the hat,

and blast the horn.

I am more than

rocks and spitballs,

dirt and hammers –

though I am that, too.

I am boy

and I am friend,

tustled head

and wicked grin.

I am sweetness,

I am love,

I am trees in the wind,

kites crossing a pale blue sky

like the billowing sails

of pirate ships at sea.

I am pieces of bright glass

found by the curb,

jagged things,

bee stings and

dead birds and fascinating bugs,

cars and dinosaurs

and trampolines.

I love secret places to hide

and spy

and see unseen, invisible

to every eye.

I am boy,

so much more

than cupcakes

and rainbows, farts

and firetrucks,

but I’m those things, too.

I am laughter and I am love.

I am boy.

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My cousin Billy and yours truly, 1968.

My cousin Billy and yours truly, 1968.

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14. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #233: In Which an 8th Grader Offers Some Writing Advice, i.e., “I don’t want to be rude or anything . . .”

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Meet Rebecca. She’s everything I love about middle schoolers — the intellectual curiosity, the spirit, that sense of becoming — and more:
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​Good afternoon Mr. Preller,
Hi. I don’t necessarily know about you and your books much; I wouldn’t really call myself a dedicated reader to you in particular because, to be 9780312547967perfectly honest with you, I picked up ‘Bystander’ a few days ago and am just now getting into it. So far, it is a really good book that I believe is addressing a great topic. Your books, like it explains on your blog, is written for grade schoolers to middle schoolers. I am currently in 8th grade [ed note: school and town deleted] in Missouri. I’m well aware that this may so far seem that I’m trying to get you to come to my school or something or other, but I’m really not. I just wanted to say, I love how you are writing these books for children of all ages with such serious topics. It’s really great that a man like you is spreading the word through a book that is going around so quickly to such a widespread audience. Blah, blah, blah, I know you must get this a lot.
 
Me, being an aspiring author, I just wanted to give more of what I might think have/will impact the book or future books you write. I understand you are an actual author who I am currently emailing my 8th grade opinions to, and I know that you probably may never read this, but it doesn’t hurt to try. If you’re planning on writing any more books, which I hope you are, you could put more in the first person. I, personally, think ‘Bystander’ would be better as a first person novel. With the whole bullying topic of the book, you would get more out of Eric, the main character, as if the book were in his perspective. Don’t get me wrong I’m not dishing the book, but showing grade schoolers that there’s more than just the third person writing they have always been seeing could increase their tastes in reading and help them develop a future of late nights finishing lovely books, like yours.
 
I’m well aware that you can’t change a book that you’ve written already, but maybe for the future?
 
Keep on Rocking,
Rebecca 
 
P.S. I am so super sorry about how this may seem. I don’t want to be rude or anything; that is not the purpose of this email. You are a great author and I wish to become someone like you in my future. Don’t ever change without your own permission. Thanks.
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I wrote back:
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Rebecca,
 
Thanks for this most awesome of emails. Believe me, I don’t get emails like yours all that often. You’re an original. And by the way, I’ve actually never — weirdly — been to Missouri. So I’m open to an invitation.
 
THE FALL explores similar themes as BYSTANDER, but shifts to a first-person POV. Readers might enjoy comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of those choices in perspective.

THE FALL explores similar themes as BYSTANDER, but shifts to a first-person POV. Readers might enjoy comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of those choices in perspective.

You strike an almost apologetic tone at the end, so let me start there: Don’t be silly! Express away! As a reader, your opinion is always valid. And as an aspiring writer, you bring a writer’s perspective to that opinion. In this case, you could be right — and you certainly aren’t wrong. The question of first person compared to third person comes up for every book. There are strengths and limitations to each approach. I’ve written books from both perspectives, though I don’t think I often analyze it too deeply. It’s more of a feeling, I guess. Some books seem right from the first-person perspective — you hear it coming from a very specific voice — and you want that character front and center all the way through. In other books, well, not so much. For some books, I’ve even tried it both ways in early drafts, exploring the differences. There are certain freedoms in a third-person narrative that are not available in the first person. And also, I’ll confess, I come across so many YA novels that are written in the first person that I get very, very tired of it. The writing in a first-person book, depending upon that character, tends to be looser, more informal, the way people really talk. As an extension, that perspective limits the syntax available to language that character would believably use. With first person, there are places you can’t go.

 
For Bystander, though I wrote it in third person, I decided to hug very close to Eric’s point of view (a limited omnipresence, if you will); I didn’t go for a full omniscient POV, bouncing around inside a variety of skulls. On the other hand, I recently had an idea for a book that would be told from multiple perspectives. A lot of characters at the same event. So to me, the way we decide to tell the story is a revelation of the story itself. At the same time, you could tell that story from third- or first-person perspectives. Decisions, decisions. 
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Illustration from SWAMP MONSTER by Iacopo Bruno.

Illustration from SWAMP MONSTER by Iacopo Bruno.

In a scary story I recently wrote for younger readers, I needed the third person to pull it off. I wanted to write about my human characters, but later I wanted to go deep into the swamp and reveal more of the swamp monster. Part of the suspense in the story is that, for a time, only the reader realizes there’s a monster in the woods. To the three children in the book, well, they are just walking deeper into the woods. They don’t know what they are getting into — but the reader does. You see the difference there?

 
I didn’t write a sequel to Bystander, but I did write a companion book that explores many of the same themes and ideas, titled The Fall. It is written in the first person, with the concept being that it is entirely told from the perspective of a boy writing in his journal. Booklist reviewed it, “A rare glimpse into the mind of a bully . . . . Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.
 
Keep reading like a writer.  Books are truly the best education for anyone who wishes to write. Read widely, read deeply, read often. And yes, thank you for reading my book.
 
James Preller
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And so Rebecca replied:
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Mr. Preller,
 
Hi again! I honestly did not expect you to reply so quickly, let alone at all. And I would love to thank you for answering my question, even reading this email is an extraordinary honour. I love the way you worded this to explain why you decided to write your book this way, I mean, you are a well known author.
 
A quick plug for my new book, THE COURAGE TEST. It's a literary road trip along the Lewis & Clark Trail and, yes, there's a bear, both metaphoric and literal.

A quick plug for my new book, THE COURAGE TEST. It’s a literary road trip along the Lewis & Clark Trail and, yes, there’s a bear, both metaphoric and literal.

Third person is an art which some people can’t wrap their stories around correctly to get such personality from the characters without blatantly spelling it out. You have that talent. Sticking close to Eric’s point of view, like you do, provides the third person flare while contributing glimpses of first person to the story. I am only human though and, personally, think, still, that first person may have been a better choice, but, as you said, there are reasons why you decided this for your story. It was a calling of sorts. For example, if you were to use a first person POV for this book (or any piece of writing really) you would have less ‘tag’ lines, as I call them, to describe who was talking. Especially the main character. Having less use of words ties you down as writer and limits, as you said, how you can write your story.

 
As for your other book, ‘ The Fall’, I would love to get my hands on it. The way you handle this topic is absolutely phenomenal.  You wrote ‘Bystander’ so well that I will surely enjoy reading way more of your delightful books. Thank you, once again, sir and I’ll have to work on that invitation.
 
Yours Truly,
Rebecca
 
(By the way: I could not believe it in class today when I powered up my laptop, accessed gmail, and saw your name pop up. I freaked out in class, turning into a mad woman, full of hysteria, tears rolling down my cheeks. I was so gosh darn excited to read whatever it was you took the time to write. You are truly inspirational!)
 

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15. FIVE QUESTIONS with HUDSON TALBOTT, author/illustrator of “FROM WOLF TO WOOF”

 

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I’m kicking off a new, recurring series of posts where I interview one author or illustrator, limiting our conversation to 5 questions, with a focus on a specific book. I’ve got a terrific list of talent planned for upcoming visits — they just don’t know it yet.

Today we get to hang out with Hudson Talbott. And come back next week for a visit with Hazel Mitchell and her dog Toby.

 

Hudson (left) and I got to catch up at the Warwick Children's Book Festival.

Hudson (left) and I got to catch up at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival.

 

JP: Hudson, I love your new picture book, FROM WOLF TO WOOF: THE STORY OF DOGS. You manage to deliver a lot of information within the context of “story.”

Hudson: Thanks, James. I love research and the process of absorbing as much as I can and then distilling it down to its essence. I come from Kentucky. We’re known for distilling.

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And God bless Kentucky for that! But let the record show: I haven’t asked a question yet. I feel like one of the poor fisherman bargaining with a magic fish. I still have three wishes left –- or in this case, five questions!

I don’t think that was a question either. But thanks for calling me a magic fish.

Now that you mention it, you do look a little green around the gills. Maybe it’s the light in here. Anyway! I remember long ago reading Desmond Morris’ classic book, The Naked Ape, and in it he speculated about the first dogs. How they might have come to be domesticated. Which is a poor term for it, as I type those words. Because we’re talking about these wild animals that, over time, became intensely, passionately interconnected with human beings. The beginning of a long relationship. I’ve always found that a fascinating subject, so I was immediately drawn to your book. How did that story begin for you?

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The love of animals, the love of dogs, the love of history. Not facts-and-dates history, but the how-did-we-get-here? kind of history. So it was bound to happen. You and I have this privileged platform to address and explore things that we think matter, or at least, things we’re curious about. That look in a dog’s eyes of knowing, of asking and loving, of aligning him/herself with us had to come from someplace. Plenty of theories about where and when — I like to think that the two species found each other useful and could see the advantage of throwing their lots in together to survive. Like two kids finding each other in kindergarten and growing up together in a rough neighborhood. At some point we both stepped across that magic threshold of trust and realized that we have each other’s backs.

Well said. Do you self-identify more as a writer or an artist? Does one always come before the other? Responding to a similar question, Bernard Waber, who also wrote and illustrated his books (Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, and many more), replied that “The writer in me tries to please the illustrator.”

I think of myself primarily as a storyteller. Whatever serves the story best is my priority. That said, I am a visually-oriented person so usually if I come up w/ an idea for a book I first look at what points in the story would be good “photo-ops” or actually illustration ops. While I’m doing sketches for the plot points I’m also getting ideas for the text, the plot, the characters, etc. It’s not uncommon that something I’ll stumble onto while writing some text will lead to changing the picture, or even the whole story line. So it goes back and forth a lot between art and text. Art is much more expendable to me because there’s always more where that came from. But when I have to throw out a paragraph that I’m attached to but no longer serves the story — that’s painful! Picture books actually have more in common with making movies than they do with chapter books.

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Yes, especially when we consider the storyboarding tradition. After all, movies are simply “moving pictures.” Back to your book, I have to say there’s just a beautiful moment that comes right in the middle. It floored me, because it was such a deep and yet profoundly simple moment to capture. Just masterful storytelling. Before that moment, I was intellectually engaged. But on that double spread, the book stole my heart. I was all in. We’ve been watching the boy slowly gain the trust of this wild creature. They draw closer and closer. Until one day . . . everything changes. Tell me about the thought process that went into that illustration, that pivotal turning point in the book?

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Wow, I should’ve read ahead to this question because I think I already answered it a couple of questions ago. It makes me happy to know that you really got the book, and felt what you felt from it. I started this book with a whole other concept, even another title: The Wolf Who Cried Boy. But when my editor, the brilliant Nancy Paulsen, saw the sketches I had at the end of the book showing where dogs evolved to, she immediately said, “More of that! More of that!” So it got re-balanced to a shortened fictional story leading to an extended nonfiction portion. But that was good because it gave me a chance to get in a plug for saving the wolves today, as well as my own theory that dogs played a strategic part in the development of civilization (with their help we could stay in one place with domesticated herds rather than having to constantly roam in search of wild herds).

Wow, Nancy Paulsen: legend! I was wondering, Do you have a wolf at home?

I have two cats. One does his best to be a dog for me because he knows that’s what I would have if I didn’t travel so much. I had dogs growing up and usually spend more time with dogs at friends’ houses than I do with the friends.

You’ve been at this business for a while, and I guess that’s part of the reason why I connect with you. We’ve both been around the block a few times. Let’s just confess to the world that we still have our AOL email accounts. Can you point to any primary inspirations in your work? Do you have heroes in the business? And tagging on to that question (I’m cheating here, oh Magic Fish), how do you keep your work fresh?

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Primary inspirations: my apparently insatiable curiosity keeps me alive. It also drives me crazy sometimes but at least it keeps me from being bored. My first book [We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story] was a hit and it would’ve been easy to build a career on it but I wouldn’t have lasted long — I’m too restless, there’s too much other good stuff to fall in love with. A quote from Leonardo da Vinci captures it for me: “For in truth, great love is born from great knowledge of the thing loved.” That’s how I remember it anyway.

Yours in AOL,
Hudson Talbott

 

Hudson Talbott is the author/illustrator of many outstanding children’s books, including River of Dreams, O’Sullivan Stew, United Tweets of America, and more. He lives in upstate New York, not far from the town Hudson, not from from the Hudson River. It’s pretty much Hudson, 24/7, when it comes to Mr. Talbott. For more info, please visit his website.

 

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16. COVER REVEAL — Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space!

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I just opened a package that gave me shivers. Even, yes, a little warm pressure behind the eyes. For the brown padded envelope contained Advance Reader’s Copies of the Jigsaw Jones book, The Case from Outer Space, published by Macmillan. I have a few things to say, but let me start here:

Look at the new cover design, look at the terrific illustration by R.W. Alley, look at . . . Joey and Mila and Jigsaw.

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I wrote the first Jigsaw Jones mystery back in 1997 for Scholastic. To date, there are 40 titles in all, and more than 10 million copies have been sold, mostly through Scholastic Book Clubs. I’ve visited many schools as a guest author, and I’ve met a lot of young readers and teachers who know and enjoy those books. However, there’s really been nothing new for about ten years; Scholastic made a business decision to allow the series to die on the vine, with book after book slowly, painfully going out of print.

I put my heart into those characters. It’s the work for which I’m best recognized. I can’t easily convey how it felt to see those books fade into oblivion. I still receive letters from parents asking where they could get them. The note would explain that it was the first chapter book their a child had read by himself. I’d have to reply, “Try Craig’s List or eBay,” and a small dagger would slice into my soul. It was more than the disappointment of watching 40 books go out of print. It felt like a huge part of my career was being erased. All that work, the time and love, the accomplishment: poof, vaporized.

Oh well, right? That’s the deal. Writers go through this all the time. Publishing is a tough racket. Write something new.

But guess what? Jigsaw refused to go gentle into that good night. The books hung around in classrooms. There’s even a touring musical that still comes around, created by ArtsPower. Thanks to the efforts of three fierce women in publishing — my agent, Rosemary Stimola, along with Liz Szabla and Jean Feiwel at Macmillan — Jigsaw has found a new home, and new life. Jigsaw Jones is back. The immediate plan is to bring out this new title in the summer of 2017 (20 years after the first one), along with four newly updated classroom classics. In 2018, there will be at least four more, and hopefully I’ll get the chance to write another new one. These are books that have not been available in stores for a long, long while.

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Illustration by R. W. Alley, pages 12-13 from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. Available this summer from Macmillan.

Illustration by R. W. Alley, pages 12-13 from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. Available this summer from Macmillan.

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I hope that Jigsaw and his friends are discovered by a next generation of young readers. I hope that maybe a little cheer will go up in various classrooms around the country. But today I won’t worry about that. Today I’ll just hold this beautiful Advance Reader’s Copy in my hands, grateful for everything, and just smile, proudly.

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17. Photographing My Good Side . . . at The Warwick Children’s Book Festival

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Every time I meet a photographer, I give that person a detailed list of very specific instructions. In total, this:

1. Only photograph my good side.

So, of course, all the shots after my visit to the Warwick Children’s Book Festival were of the top of my head:

Signing my new book, THE COURAGE TEST.

Signing my new book, THE COURAGE TEST.

 

Reasons to be grateful: I still have hair, right? In truth, I had an inspiring day at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival this past Saturday, 10/8/16. It was a warm, cozy event in a great town filled with good people. I go every year. It’s a two-year-old tradition. Now we’re family.

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One of the pleasures for an author at Warwick is getting to briefly chat with friends in the business, “companions of the flame” as H.D. wrote. For example: the effervescent Hazel G Mitchell was my neighbor and it was the first time we had any extended time together; I tracked down my pal Hudson Talbott, whom I respect so much. His new book, FROM WOLF TO WOOF! is flawless, intelligent, extraordinary. I got to linger in the parking lot with Eric Velasquez and London Ladd; drink coffee with Paul Acampora and Lizzy Rockwell; wish good health to the great Wendell Minor; marvel at the wit and new-voice-freshness of Jessica Olien’s fabulous Blobfish book; and on and on. It makes a guy want to buy a book, read a book, write a book.
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Plus, best of all, gander this:
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I love the chance to meet readers face to face. I’m always especially charmed to meet the sweet, lovely girls who love scary stories.
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The readers are what make it. For thirty years, I’ve scrambled to keep this career alive. Here’s the payoff:
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 THANK YOU, WORLD!

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18. FREE BOOK CONTEST: Play the “Scary Tales” Matching Game!

Welcome, Fearless Readers! Here we are, nearing the ghostly season when things go bump, and squish, and hooowl in the night.

It’s when I remind educators and young readers about the books in my “Scary Tales” series. Scientists agree: These books will make your life up to 63% better.

No, no one gets murdered in these stories, everybody comes out okay (more or less), but the suspense might kill you. Ah, not to worry. In that unlikely event, I’m sure the kind folks at Macmillan will fork over a full refund. Small solace, but hey, caskets aren’t cheap.

This year the vaunted James Preller Marketing Department has developed a game to play, featuring free books to win.

Yes, free books.

Could anything be better?

I’ll show six illustrations by the great Iacopo Bruno, one from each of the “Scary Tales” titles in random order. Below that, I’ll list the titles. You or (hopefully) your students or children need to match the illustrations with the correct titles. Then send an email to me at Jamespreller@aol.com under the subject heading SCARY TALES. Entries must be received by October 15th. On that date, I will send a signed book to six randomly-selected fearless readers who respond with the correct answers.

Please feel free to share this page with friends and foes and fish and fowl alike.

Illustration A:

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Illustration B:

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Illustration C:

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Illustration D:

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Illustration E:

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Illustration F:

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Now match the illustration to one of these six titles:

1. Home Sweet Horror

2. I Scream, You Scream

3. Good Night, Zombie

4. Nightmareland

5. One-Eyed Doll

6. Swamp Monster

 

THANKS & GOOD LUCK!

 

 

 

 

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19. THE FALL in Paperback Has Landed: To Celebrate, Here’s a Super-Short Excerpt

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As an author, even after all these years, I never quite believe it until I have the actual book in my grubby little hands. Well, the box arrived yesterday and a few books cooperated for this photograph:

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As a reminder, this book may be seen as a companion to, and extension of, the themes first presented in Bystander. If readers enjoyed that book, they could pick up this one next — though, admittedly, it’s a little tougher, a little darker. Or start with The Fall and ignore Bystander altogether. It’s your life!

Before I get to the excerpts, some review quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

Now for the actual four-chapter excerpt, pages 151-158. Yes, each unnumbered chapter is super short:

 

FACE MEETS FIST

 

    In retrospect, I don’t think getting punched in the face was that bad. I kind of liked it. I mean, I’m not recommending it. “Oh, yes, you simply must try the Punch-in-the-Face, it’s divine. Far superior to the Knee-to-the-Groin and half the calories!”

     Fact: Fergus Tick went blam and I went boom. Hitting the ground was worse than the punch -– no disrespect to Fergus, who packs a wallop, but that concrete was hard.

     To my surprise, I did not see stars. Pretty little birdies did not circle my head, chirping tunelessly. None of the typical things I expected after a lifetime’s education watching Loony Tunes cartoons. I got hit, I fell, and my coconut throbbed but didn’t crack. That was it. Fergus’s fist caught me on the right cheek below the eye -– Fergus was a lefty, who knew! Maybe a tougher kid staggers back but keeps standing. Not me. I flopped like a spineless jellyfish.

     One punch and done.

     Message received, loud and clear.

     Surprisingly: Fergus was the one who looked frightened, and so did Athena, who stood watching. My confession in speech class shook them up. I had broken the code of silence. I said out loud what I had done to Morgan Mallen. I spoke the unspeakable. I owned the thing that nobody else wanted. And even though I didn’t point fingers at anyone else, I could see that it scared Athena to the core.

     She didn’t look so pretty from my viewpoint on the ground. She looked like she’d just swallowed a poisoned apple. There was something evil in her soul and she was rotting from the inside out.

     The fallout after Morgan’s suicide had not been a good experience for Athena Luikin. I watched her closely those days and weeks after Morgan’s death. I followed her movements, where she sat, what she did, and I saw that she had become damaged goods. If Morgan was the dead girl, Athena was the one we blamed. At first, Athena put on a brave face, the tough girl who didn’t give a hoot. Over time, cracks appeared. Everyone knew Athena was the one most responsible for harassing Morgan. In a way, she fell victim to her own game. Athena was tagged, too. Her tag read: BULLY. One by one, Athena’s friends faded into the background until she stood virtually alone, if not for the unwavering loyalty of Fergus Tick.

     Rumors went around that Athena was transferring to a private school in another town. “Good,” we said. One morning, a FOR SALE sign appeared on her front lawn. There was talk of a lawsuit, damages and courtrooms. The reign of the Queen was over.

     So there I sat on the ground, head going boom-ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, fuzzzzzz.

  “Get up,” Fergus demanded.

     (So you can punch me again? I don’t think so.)

     “Leave him,” Athena said. “Come let’s go, Fergus.”

     And go they did.

     I waited for my head to clear. It wasn’t so awful, it felt like waking up any school morning, that torturous distance between head-on-the-pillow and feet-on-the-floor.

     I needed a hot shower. Or maybe a long hot bath. Morgan once said, “Baths make everything better.” It was time to find out if she was right.

     Despite all that, deep down, I felt fantastic. Like a million bucks. Terrific, awesome, happy.

     (How weird was that?)

     I wasn’t on the wrong side of life anymore. I was now an enemy of the bad guys -– and it felt great. I tasted something sweet in my mouth, a new flavor, but I couldn’t figure out what it was until I spat.

     Oh, blood.

 

 

I KNOCKED  

 

    I decided to do it. I had to.

     I stood at her front door yesterday.

     I breathed in and out, in and out.

     Steady as a willow in a hurricane.

     And I knocked.

     Bark, BARK, barkbarkBARKbark!

     I’d forgotten about Larry. The lunatic mop.

     I suddenly, fiercely, insanely wished I had a mint. I breathed into my open palm. Yuck, gross. How was my hair? What was I doing here?

     Time passed.

     And the door creaked open.

     The mother was standing there, wheezing slightly, sizing me up. The expression on her face said, What now, dear Lord, what now?

 

 

THINGS I LIKE  

 

     This is a list of random things I like.

     I like baseball games that last extra innings. “Free baseball,” we call it. I like weekends without homework, watching my little sister sleep with her puffy lips and how the saliva dribbles out of the corner of her mouth. I like my bed made with the blankets folded down nice and perfect, just right. I like the cold, numb feeling of a package of frozen peas on my swollen face. I like the last bell of the school day and the sound in the hallways of a hundred lockers slamming joyously shut and the big hum of let’s get outta here, let’s go. I like funny videos with absurd cats (I realize it’s a big joke to some people, but I do). I like memories of old vacations, camping trips and card games and nickel antes. I like the stars in the sky when the night is warm and silent. I like the sound of a swing and a miss on the baseball diamond, the absence of sound followed by a fastball popping into the catcher’s leather glove, the whoosh-and-pop combo. I like that just-beginning feeling when you see a girl and think, wow, that’s all, just WOW, and you know you have to find a way to stand next to that girl somewhere, somehow. I like a brand new box of my favorite cereal, when I know it was bought just for me. I like turning on the radio and a great song comes on that same instant. I like laughter, and promises kept, and friendly waves across open fields. I even like Morgan’s lunatic dog that barkbarkbARKed with the soul of wolf.

     I like being alive, and today I am, right now, saying yes to life. Yes, yes, and yes.

 
WORDS   

 

     Larry pounced on my shoes, barkbarkbARKing!

     “You remember me, don’t you, Larry?” I said.

     “And you are?” the mother asked.

     I didn’t have a good answer. And in fact, I never expected to see the mom. That wasn’t my plan. Yet here she was, a fairly gigantic woman in a huge floral housedress. She might have weighed three hundred pounds. She smelled of butterscotch and a scent that reminded me of Morgan, the faint whisper of booze.

     She eyed me suspiciously, the door only half-open, ready to slam shut.

     (I am Sam, Sam I am.)

     All I had to do was open my mouth. It’s all anybody ever wanted me to do, my parents, Mr. Laneway, Morgan. “Just talk,” they said. “It’s easy. Try it. Say one word. Start with your name . . .”

     Seriously?

     What good would that do? My name is . . .

     Use.

     Less.

     Ness.

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YES, I LOVE TO DO SCHOOL VISITS -- EVEN SCARY MIDDLE SCHOOLS!

YES, I LOVE TO DO SCHOOL VISITS — EVEN SCARY MIDDLE SCHOOLS!

 

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20. Free Teacher’s Guide for THE COURAGE TEST — Only a Click Away!

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The good folks at Macmillan Publishers have created a free, downloadable Teacher’s Guide for The Courage Test (just published today!).

That’s right, sing it with me:

 

“Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday, dear Courage Test!

Happy birthday to you!”

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From the guide:

“This guide is aligned with Common Core Standards for 6th grade but can be applied to grades 4–7. To attain specific Common Core grade level standards for their classrooms and students, teachers are encouraged to adapt the activities listed in this guide to their classes’ needs. You know your kids best!”

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couragetestfrontcvr-199x300Thanks for your interest and support. Teachers and media specialists are so important to the process of bringing books and students together, I really don’t have the words to express my indebtedness. My survival as a writer — this crazy career — depends on you. My hope is that teachers will share this book with students, and use it in your classrooms.

Just CLICK HERE and the Teaching Guide is yours, as easy as that!

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21. Come to the (Fabulous!) Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival: Saturday the 24th!

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As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m pretty thrilled to be invited anywhere. I’ve just reached that point in life where I’m excited to get out of the house. The wife ties a cow bell around my ankle, stuffs a hunk of stale bread in my pocket, and tells me to go have a good time.

And I wander off, blithe as a badger.

(What? Nevermind.)

This Saturday I’ll be grabbing an audiobook and making that drive down 87 to fabled Chappaqua for their annual Children’s Book Festival. It’s a good one, believe you me!

(Did I just type, believe you me? What’s happening to my fingers?)

You can be one of the first people in all the world to purchase an autographed first edition of my book, The Courage Test. It’s been out a week and is already in its second printing. So, you know, it’s kind of a big deal.

(Hey, I wonder if Hillary will stop by? She reads, right? Not like the other one.)

Please be sure to bring your credit card say hello!

 

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22. Grateful for Another Positive Reading of “The Courage Test”

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I’m extremely grateful to Jack Rightmyer for this generous review of my new book, The Courage Test, in a recent edition of the Albany Times Union newspaper.

An author sends a book out into the world. After that, there’s very little control over what happens next. Reviews, awards, invitations to speak at schools. Or sometimes, the cluttered, dusty world simply coughs and shrugs with indifference. Out of print, forgotten. Ultimately, I always hope for readers, it’s really all any author can ask. Articles like this one below do so much to help that hope become realized. 

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Most American authors get around to it eventually, the road novel, where two different characters set out on a journey to discover the country and more importantly to figure out who they are.

“We’re a car culture,” said local young adult and children’s author James Preller. “Americans love to be on the road. It’s awesome. This was my first attempt at writing the quest/journey book, and I loved the structure of it. My two characters were attempting to get to the West Coast. It’s a plot with built-in drama and the myth of the eternal return home.” 

This is Preller’s fourth book for children ages 10 and up. Seven years ago he hit it big with “Bystander,” a book about bullying just when the topic was hitting a fever pitch around the country. Two years ago, he wrote “The Fall” about teenage suicide. His latest book, “The Courage Test” (Feiwel and Friends, 224 pages, $16.99), is a father-and-son journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail from Fort Mandan to the Pacific Ocean.

“I really wanted to write a father/son book,” said Preller, who lives in Delmar and is a parent to three teenagers. “I got the idea after reading Roald Dahl‘s book ‘Danny the Champion of the World.’ I loved the relationship of the father and son in that book, so I created two characters and set them out on the Lewis and Clark Trail.”

The story is told from 15-year-old Will’s point of view. He’s not too happy to stop playing on his summer baseball team to take a cross-country trip with his dad, who has recently left his mom and has a new girlfriend. Will’s dad is a professor and an expert on the legendary explorers Lewis and Clark. He thinks it would be good for his son to do something difficult like hike in the backcountry and go whitewater rafting.

“I want readers to like Will, even if he’s a bit of a jerk at times,” said Preller. “There’s a natural tension between a teenager and a parent, and I want the reader to sense that.”

Will and his dad don’t have much in common. “Will’s dad tends to lecture like he’s standing in front of a class, and he doesn’t care at all about baseball. My dad was like that. I learned my love of baseball and how to play the game from my mom. When my dad would throw a baseball to me, he was awkward and uncoordinated, and I’m sure I looked at him in a strange way. My kids look at me that way today when I sometimes butter my bread.”

Preller did an enormous amount of research on Lewis and Clark before writing the book. “I’d love to say I got in a car and traveled the route I wrote about, but no one was paying for me to take that trip,” said Preller. “What I did was read blogs, look at maps and photos of the Lewis and Clark Trail. There are so many resources on hand today. As I wrote the book, I felt like I was on the trip, and as a writer, I was able to use my imagination.”

Some of the plot takes place while the characters are whitewater rafting, and there is even an encounter with a bear. “I’ve gone rafting. I’ve seen bears. I’ve been to Montana, so I’ve experienced the essential feelings of what these characters were going through,” said Preller.

What readers begin to discover as they read this book is that Will’s father is bringing his son on this difficult trip to toughen him up for some hard times ahead. “Will’s dad is a bit of a geek, and he really does believe his son will be a stronger person by following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. That might be a bit idealistic,” said Preller, “but the essential experience is spending time alone with his son where they can face this hardship together.”

In researching this book Preller read numerous books about the Lewis and Clark adventure. “At first I thought they were only a metaphor for the plot of my book, but the more I read about them the more I was impressed about these explorers. They were amazing and flawed individuals, and I decided to include a lot of information about them throughout the book.”

He was impressed with how detailed their daily journals were as they explored the unknown territory of the West. “Lewis could hike 20 or 30 miles a day then journal and draw incredible pictures of the plants and animals he had encountered. He read the stars to figure out where they were on a map. There were many locations where they could have turned back, but they kept going right through dangerous Indian territory and up and down the Rocky Mountains.”

Preller has had a successful career as a writer for over 20 years. His Jigsaw Jones series for beginning readers has sold millions of copies, and new editions will soon be available. He has also recently completed a series of Scary Tales that are always popular around Halloween.

“One of the great joys of writing for young people is the opportunity to visit schools throughout the country and meet your readers,” said Preller. “I tell my young readers to write from your heart. Write something that means a lot to you, and read every day.”

 

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A NOTE OF CLARIFICATION: My children are Nick (23), Gavin (17), and Maggie (15). In addition to picture books and series titles for younger readers, these are my other middle-grade titles: Along Came Spider, Six Innings, Bystander, Justin Fisher Declares War, Before You Go (YA), and The Fall (now in paperback).

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23. Comment on When Keith Sings: The Ultimate Keith Richards/Rolling Stones Mix by jimmy

Thanks for the tip and (gentle) correction.

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24. Comment on James Preller Interviews . . . the Bloggers Behind “Literate Lives.” by Wow, Read This Spectacular Review for THE COURAGE TEST! | James Preller's Blog

[…] And then there’s good old Karen Terlecky. I first “met” Karen when she wrote a beautiful, perceptive, generous review for my book, Along Came Spider. I’ve been stalking Karen ever since. No, I don’t drive past her house at night; I just randomly click on her lovely Literate Lives blog, co-written with Bill Prosser (also a friend). Even fuller disclosure: click here and be amazed. […]

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25. School Library Connection Recommends “The Courage Test”

The Lemhi Pass, ID, no easy walk in the park.

The Lemhi Pass, ID, no easy walk in the park.

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I am grateful to share another positive review for The Courage Test, this one from the School Library Connection, a link which my glamorous editor Liz kindly passed along yesterday. The review will be featured in their print magazine supplement, as well as on the reVIEWS+ site.

The money quote:

“This book will find many fans.” — School Library Connection.

Let’s hope!

Review excerpts are limited to 50 words or less. Let’s see what I can pull without cheating too much  . . .

“Many readers will identify with Will, who is forced to go on a road trip with his noncustodial dad, even though he really has other things that he would rather be doing. To make the trip worse, his Lewis and Clark obsessed history professor father has planned to follow most of Lewis and Clark’s route all the way across the country. The Corps of Discovery almost becomes another character in this coming-of-age story . . . . Recommended.”School Library Connection.

NOTE: Father and son pick up the L & C Trail at Fort Mandan, ND, and travel west to Seaside, OR. Along the way they meet strangers, paddle a canoe, ride in whitewater rapids, camp, hike the Lolo Trail, encounter bears (metaphoric & literal), and more.

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