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1. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #228: One Letter’s Circuitous Path

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I haven’t been sharing too many letters lately — sometimes there’s a samey-ness to them, I suppose — and I almost didn’t share this one. It felt a little self-serving. But, hey, this is my blog! That’s what we do here! It’s all about the glorification of me, me, me!
 
Over the years, I’ve received fan mail from familiar sources. I begin to recognize the names, the places. Here’s such a letter, but its arrival took an unusual path. I’ll begin below with my response, and follow that with Ms. Betances’ wonderful reply to me. It seems we actually go waaaaay back. You’ll get the drift. By the way, thank you Matt Ball — old neighbor, old friend — who went the extra yard to see to it that I received a wayward package. Matt is a teacher, so it’s no surprise that he went above and beyond to help a fellow teacher and her students.
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I wrote:
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Dear Ms. Betances,
It is something of a miracle that your wonderful package, filled with great stories, actually reached me. Long ago, I lived at 38 East Bayberry Road, in Glenmont. Your letter was addressed to 32 East Bayberry. However, I now live at 12 Brookside Drive, Delmar, NY 12054. Been here for more than a decade.
 
Somehow an ex-neighbor came into possession of the package and drove it over to my house. Lucky me, lucky you. 
Art by Briana -- a good writer who found exactly the right word -- from "The Case of the Missing Rubik's Cube."

Art by Briana — a good writer who found exactly the right word — from “The Case of the Missing Rubik’s Cube.”

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So please make note of my current address. 
That said, hi, it’s nice to hear from you again. I appreciate your kind words about Jigsaw Jones and Scary Tales. I actually just wrote a new Jigsaw Jones book — THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE — and it will be out in Spring of 2017. I’m so excited about it, since those books have been out of print for several years now. They’ve moved from Scholastic to Macmillan, and for the beginning the plan is to re-release 8 old titles and sprinkle in something new. 
I’m very impressed with the stories you sent. So first a shout out to Irene and Shirley, Rida, Briana, Ileyana, Taya, and Michelle. Great work, writers! (And that’s a wonderful collection of names, by the way.)
 
I loved how each story was unique. The illustrations were especially terrific, though I apologize in advance that I couldn’t represent every artist in this blog post. Don’t you guys love mysteries? There’s something to that genre that hooks a reader from the beginning. And in each case, there’s a happy — and often surprising, sometimes even funny — ending.
Art by Irene and Shirley, from "The Case of the Missing Cockatoo.

Art by Irene and Shirley, from “The Case of the Missing Cockatoo.”

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Each story offered new pleasures. Michelle’s story about the missing eyeglasses could have been taken from my own life. I am forever looking for my glasses, and sometimes find them on top of my own head! I was relieved when Sally found the missing chapter book, that would have made me crazy. I loved the last sentence in Irene and Shirley’s story, “We are here to help, always here!” Plus it was cool to learn a little bit about cockatoos. Rida’s story was creepy and suspenseful — two of my favorite things. I especially loved the big illustration on the back. Briana’s story was lively and entertaining; it’s always good to ask Mom, she usually knows. Lastly, I’m pleased that Ileyana’s hands will never be cold again — though perhaps that’s a bit optimistic. Never is a long, loooooong time. 
Art by Michelle from "The Case of the Missing Eyeglasses.

Art by Michelle from “The Case of the Missing Eyeglasses.”

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Keep up the great work. I’m always glad to read a good mystery. The day I opened your package, I got to read six!
My best,
JP
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Here is the fabulous reply I received:
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Dear Mr. Preller,

OH MY GOD! Yes this was a miracle. You are not going to believe this but every year my new students read the letters you’ve  sent to my former classes. We have a pile of them. It so happened that the kids who were writing the letter took the address from the letter written in 2001. That was 15 years ago. Of course I trusted them and didn’t verify to make sure they chose the correct one. LOL.
Thanks, Tink!

Thanks, Tink!

It must have been Tinker Bell, our class fairy, who put the package back on the right path. The kids would have been disappointed if they didn’t get a reply from you. You are truly an amazing, unique and genuine individual. I have been teaching for 32 years and have never met an author who actually takes the time to really care about his fans. Thank from the bottom of my heart. My students love the mystery genre because  they really enjoy reading your books. Every student who has been in my class still thinks you are the coolest and best writer ever. Congratulations in being such a fascinating author. My last year class was speechless when they saw that you wrote a blog about their mystery. This year class loved the fact that you made a connection to their stories to your own personal life. I shared your letter with my principal and the staff and they were like WOW! WOW! that was incredible. The teachers as well as the students enjoyed your letter.

I know that you are a very busy author but yet you always take the time to comment on their mysteries.
 
Thank you,
Your biggest fan
Anita Betances
TMK Leaders (The Magical Kids)
 

 

Art by Rida, who is fabulous, from "The Case of the Haunted Doll." (Yeah, I got a little scared.)

Art by Rida, who is fabulous, from “The Case of the Haunted Doll.” (Yeah, I got a little scared.)

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2. NEW Jigsaw Jones Book: Inside Info & Sample Chapter!

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I am very excited about the revival of my “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series, thanks to my friends at Macmillan. I owe a particular debt to three people: my agent, Rosemary Stimola, and two fierce women in publishing, Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla. Not only are they resurrecting some long out-of-print titles, but they’ve asked me to write a new book. Which a just did, The Case from Outer Space. Writing it was daunting at first — it had been some years since I’d entered Jigsaw’s world — but very quickly it felt like home again. It was a happy book for me to write, and I hope that comes through in the story. I like to imagine people reading it with a smile.

Right now my publisher, along with artist R.W. Alley, are exploring new cover designs for the series re-launch. My job, at this point, is to sit back and hope for the best. Fingers, toes, everything’s crossed! It’s not as hard as it sounds. I’m confident that the fate of my favorite detective is in good hands. Which is such a relief. Probably the most painful part of my publishing life has been to watch that beloved series, with more then ten million books in homes and classrooms, slowly die on the vine due to neglect. Nobody could buy them anymore. Well, that’s going to change, and I feel nothing but grateful.

One other small detail that pleases me about the new book is that I used a “Little Free Library” as a central device in the mystery. I love Little Free Libraries — we have several in our sunny burb — and I’ll glad to give the idea a moment in the spotlight. Readers may enjoy this terrific piece about the libraries by Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan, originally posted over at The Nerdy Book Club.

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In the meantime, here’s a sample from the upcoming book, due in the Spring of 2017, along with four more titles. Jigsaw is back!

Sample chapter from The Case from Outer Space.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

One Small Problem

 

I poured three glasses of grape juice.

“Got any snacks?” Joey asked. “Cookies? Chips? Corn dogs? Crackers?”

“Corn dogs?” I repeated. “Seriously?”

“Oh, they are delicious,” Joey said. “I ate six yesterday. Or was that last week? I forget.”

Danika shook her head and giggled. Joey always made her laugh.

I set out a bowl of chips.

Joey pounced like a football player on a fumble. He was a skinny guy. But he ate like a rhinoceros.

“So what’s up?” I asked.

“We found a note,” Danika began.

“Aliens are coming,” Joey interrupted. He chomped on a fistful of potato chips.

I waited for Joey to stop chewing. It took a while. Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dum. I finally asked, “What do you mean, aliens?”

“Aliens, Jigsaw!” he exclaimed. “Little green men from Mars –- from the stars –- from outer space!”

I looked at Danika. She shrugged, palms up. “Maybe,” she said. “You never know.”

I took a long swig of grape juice. “You mentioned a note,” I said to Danika.

She sat tall, eyes wide. “It’s very mysterious, Jigsaw. That’s why we came to you.”

“Narffle-snarffle,” Joey mumbled, his mouth still full of chips.

I leaned back in my chair. I shoved my hands into my pockets. They were empty. Business had been slow. I was a detective without a case. “Let me make a phone call,” I said.

I never work alone. My partner’s name is Mila Yeh. We split the money down the middle, 50-50. Mila has long black hair. She’s crazy about books. And she’s my best friend on the planet. Together, we make a good team.

I asked Mila to meet us in my tree house. She said she’d be over in five minutes.

It took her three and a half.

Mila lived next door. And she was as quick as a rabbit.

As usual, Mila was singing. I knew the tune, but the words were different:

 

    “Twinkle, twinkle, little mystery!

     How I wonder what you are?

     Could you really be up there?

     Do Martians wear . . . underwear?”

 

“You’re funny,” Danika said. She sent a warm smile in Mila’s direction.

“That last line needs work,” Mila replied. She sang again, “Do Martians wear . . . underwear?” Satisfied, Mila sat down, criss-cross applesauce. We gathered in a snug circle. There was no choice. My tree house wasn’t exactly a palace. I am not complaining. But I don’t go up there on windy days. Mila’s eyes were active and alert. They moved from Joey to Danika, before settling on me. “Aliens, huh?” Mila asked.

“From outer space,” Joey said.

“Uh-huh,” Mila replied. If she thought Joey was crazy, Mila was too nice to say it out loud.

I took out my detective notebook. I opened to a clean page. With a blue pen, I wrote:

 

THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE

CLIENTS: Joey and Danika

CLUES:

 

I left that part blank. I didn’t have any clues. I wasn’t even sure I had a case. But it was better than nothing.

“Maybe we could start from the beginning,” Mila suggested.

“Hold on.” I slid forward an empty coin jar. “We get a dollar a day.”

Joey and Danika exchanged glances. “We have one teensy-weensy problem,” Danika said.

Uh-oh.

“No money,” Joey confessed.

“We’re flat broke,” Danika said.

“That’s the worst kind of broke,” I sighed.

Here's an illustration Jigsaw, Geetha, and Mila, taken from THE CASE OF THE PERFECT PRANK, illustrated by Jamie Smith. The art for OUTER SPACE hasn't been completed.

Here’s an illustration Jigsaw, Geetha, and Mila, taken from THE CASE OF THE PERFECT PRANK, illustrated by Jamie Smith. The art for OUTER SPACE hasn’t been completed.

“Maybe we could trade?” Joey offered. He reached into his back pocket. His hand came out holding a hunk of smelly orange glop. “I’ve got some cheese!”

Mila leaned away. “You keep random cheese in your back pocket?”

“My front pockets were full,” Joey explained.

I was afraid to ask. We were all afraid. No one wanted to know what was in Joey’s front pockets. A frog? A hard-boiled egg? Last week’s bologna sandwich? Anything was possible.

There was still the problem of payment. I did not liking working for free. It was bad for business. But I needed a mystery the way a fish needs to swim . . . the way a bird needs to fly . . . the way a three-toed South American tree sloth needs to hang upside down.

“Okay,” I decided. “We’ll look into it. No promises.”

“Thanks, Jigsaw,” Danika said.

“You can still have my cheese,” Joey said. He held out the orange glop as if it were pirate’s treasure.

Mila coughed. “That’s nice of you, Joey. Just hold on to it for now. For safe keeping.” She turned to Danika. “Let’s see that note.”

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3. Heh-heh

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4. 10 Things I Love (March 31st Edition)

 

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Blogs are dead, everybody knows it, the tweet spread the news long ago. Nobody reads blogs anymore. These days it’s all Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and short, short, short.

I get it, I do. We’re all feeling the time squeeze.

But because I’m childishly oppositional, I refuse to give up my blog. And I’m keeping my 8-Tracks, too. I started this blog back in 2008, so we’ve become attached. I like to have readers, but I’m not sure I really need them. It wouldn’t stop me from writing. There’s something about the open-ended blog format that offers room to spread out and say things, however long it takes. Whether anyone listens or not.

My pal, illustrator Matthew Cordell, used to blog with enthusiasm. One of his recurring features was his monthly-ish “Top Ten” lists, where Matt randomly listed some of his recent enthusiasms. It could be a song, a book, a movie, or a type of eraser (Matt was weird about erasers). It was always fun to read.

So I’m stealing it.

Here are ten things I’ve recently loved:

 

THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM

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I visited Cleveland with my son, Gavin, to check out Case Western Reserve University. The following day, we headed over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was spectacular in every way. (Except for: The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Really?) I’m a huge music fan, so it was perfect for me. I found the museum strangely moving in parts, my heart touched. I could see that rock music was big enough, and diverse enough, to offer a home to people from every walk of life.

CARRY ME HOME by Diane McWhorter

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Amazing, fascinating, and at times brutal Pulitzer Prize-winning book that’s stayed with me long after the last page. It provides a dense, detailed account of the civil rights struggle centered in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King, the Klu Klux Klan, Fred Shuttlesworth, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Kennedy, Bull Conner, and more. One of those books that helps you understand America.

FAN MAIL . . . WITH ILLUSTRATIONS!

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I’ve been ridiculously fortunate in my career, in that I’ve received a lot of fan mail across the past twenty years. But I have to admit, I especially like it when those letters include a drawing. There’s just something about children’s artwork that slays me, every time. This drawing is by Rida in Brooklyn.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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This book has been on my list almost since the day it came out — the buzz was instantaneous, and huge — but on a tip from a friend, I waited for the audiobook to become available through my library. Here, Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a powerful reading. It’s poignant to listen to an author reading his own words, particularly since this book is essentially a letter to his son.

“WINTER RABBIT,” a poem by Madeleine Comora

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We’re not here to bash Jack Prelutsky. Because, after all, Jack Prelutsky is hilarious. But, but, but. There are times when I worry that too many people think children’s poetry begins and ends with Mr. Prelutsky. That a poem for kids always has to be bouncy and fast and slight and funny, i.e., Prelutsky-ish. Well, here’s a poem I came across while reading Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems, unerringly edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. I admire the heartfelt, beautiful sorrow of Comora’s poem. “I thought of his last night alone/huddled in a wire home./I did not cry. I held him close,/smoothed his fur blown by the wind./For a winter’s moment, I stayed with him.” The illustration is  by Wolf Erlbruch. Click on the poem if your eyes, like mine, need larger type.

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

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I’m so grateful that I live near a cool, little movie theater that makes room for small foreign films such as this, a mind-blowing look at life on the Amazon, spectacularly filmed in black-and-white. Click here for more details.

THE AMERICANS

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My wife Lisa and I don’t watch hours of TV together, but we do like to have a show we can share. We’ve been a loss for a few months, but recently discovered season one of “The Americans” on Amazon Prime. We’re hooked.

DAVID BROMBERG: “SAMMY’S SONG”

We have tickets to see Bromberg this coming weekend. He’s an old favorite of mine, first saw him in 1980 on Long Island. I’ve just rediscovered “Sammy’s Song,” which I haven’t heard in decades. What a chilling coming-of-age story, brilliantly performed. Oh, about that harmonica part? That’s Dave’s pal, Bob Dylan, with an uncredited guest turn.

JIGSAW JONES

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I just finished writing my first Jigsaw Jones book after a long time away. For many years, Scholastic had allowed the series to die on the vine, with book after book slowly going out of print. It’s been a crushing thing for me to stand by helplessly and watch. But with the help of my agent, I got back the rights, and now Macmillan has plans to relaunch the series. I am thrilled. There are more than 10 million copies of those books out there in world, and it seems like every second-grade classroom in America has a ragged copy or three. Writing the new book, The Case from Outer Space, was such a pleasure. It felt like being home again.

THE DAY THE ARCS ARRIVE

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For an author, it’s a special day, always, always. That book you’ve been toiling over for months, years, finally arrives in book form. Uncorrected, unfinished, but for the first time you can hold it in your hands — a book! — and think, “I did that!” Note: Arc = Advanced Reader’s Copy. The Courage Test, a middle grade novel, will be out for real in September.

BONUS SELECTION . . .

THE BARKLEY MARATHONS

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I love documentaries of almost any nature, but I can’t recommend this one highly enough. A pure joy, with twinkling mischievous wit and surprising heart, too. If you like running at all — or not! — see this movie. About the toughest, wildest, and weirdest race in the world. Catch it on Netflix Instant!

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5. “Teaching Is Believing” — My Short Essay over at THE NERDY BOOK CLUB

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I’m a big fan of Donalyn Miller.

Do you know her? As classroom teacher, Donalyn made a splash with her book, The Book Whisperer. I met Donalyn during a trip to a reading conference in Dublin, Ohio, where I had the opportunity to hear her present to a large audience.

If you are an educator, you should read this book.

If you are an educator, you should read this book.

Long story short: Donalyn has made a deep impact bringing books and young readers together, and she does it without ego or self-aggrandising motive. There’s nothing phony about Donalyn. She’s simply a positive force in the world of children’s reading. A tsunami of inspiration. My kind of people.

Several years back she started The Nerdy Book Club with, I believe, Colby Sharp. It’s an active, inspirational resource/blog for teachers and librarians who care about children’s literature. I recommend it. Over the past couple of years, Donalyn has allowed me to contribute a few essays to it, and I’m always grateful to reach that specific audience, and participate in that grand conversation.

I’m quite happy with my recent essay and I invite you please check it out (link below). The idea came as the result of a few things going on in my life, particularly the end of my coaching career. I reflected on what I had learned from those experiences with young people, and I connected those lessons to what I believe about teaching and writing. But don’t go by me. Judge for yourself.

Here’s the opening:

I’m at loose ends.

For the first time in 16 years, I find myself not coaching a baseball team. During those seasons, I’ve coached a men’s hardball team, and all three of my children at various stages of Little League, including All-Stars and competitive Travel teams.

Now it’s over.

All I’m left with are memories, some friendships, and my accumulated wisdom, which can be reduced to a single, short sentence. So I’m passing this along to the readers of the Nerdy Book Club because I think it connects to teaching. And writing. And maybe to everything else under the sun.

When I started coaching, my head was exploding with knowledge. I knew all this great stuff! Boy, was I eager to share it. I had an almost mystical awareness of the game: tips and strategies, insights and helpful hints. Baseball-wise, I knew about the hip turn and burying the shoulder, how to straddle the bag and slap down a tag. The proper way to run the bases, turn a double play, and line up a relay throw. As coach, I simply had to pour this information into my players –- empty vessels all –- and watch them thrive.

But something happened across the years. I found myself talking less and less about how to play. Fewer tips, less advice. It seemed like I mostly confused them. The learning was in the doing.

I became convinced that the most important thing I could do was believe.

< snip >

Please click here to read the whole enchilada.

But before you go, here’s a nice quote from Donalyn that I figured I’d share.

Truth!

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6. A Few Snaps from School Visits: A Typical Day on an Elementary School Visit

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There’s nothing particularly outstanding here, but I thought I’d throw up a few snaps from recent school visits and walk you through a typical arrangement.

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Yes, that’s truly “a good sign” for any author visit. It is welcoming and shows that the school has invested time and thought into the visit. I’ve said it a thousand times: Authors don’t do school visits, schools do author visits.

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I visit elementary schools and middle schools. Next week, for example,I’ll even be speaking to 380 students in one packed auditorium, grades 7-12. When I visit traditional K-5 elementary schools, I try to arrange to meet with K-only groups for shorter, more intimate visits. Then I’ll see groups of grades 1-2, grades 3-4, and grade 5 only. My material and message seems to fall in line with those groupings.

 

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When I see grades 5-only, it allows me to include in my presentation a bit about Bystander and bully-themed issues. It’s a little older, more mature, a little deeper.

 

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For K-only, I’ve learned that it’s best to sit in a chair, speak softly and gently. I tell kids how the bear in Wake Me In Spring reminds me of my father, snoring in his big, comfortable chair.

 

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Reading from the first chapter of Bystander. I’ve pretty much got that thing memorized.

 

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This is a grades 3-4 group, where they are extremely enthusiastic about “Scary Tales.” We talk a lot about the creative process here, building a story. The photo on the screen is of a swamp. I’m talking about the setting of one of my stories, one of the basic building blocks of any story: where, who, what; setting, character, plot. For grades 1-2, I tend to center it around Jigsaw Jones and writing from real life.

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7. This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever: Giant Dog Photos!

 

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There’s something fetching about a giant dog, isn’t there?

Many of us still remember Clifford the Big Red Dog, and the wonder of that so-simple idea: a really, really big dog.

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Well, this guy has the same issues.

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Except his dog is a goldendoodle, like ours here at Chez Preller, the lovely Daisy. They are, I think, a goofy but lovable breed. And so fun to look at.

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It is possible, however, that the photographer here, Christopher Cline, is just having a blast with Photoshop. I’m saying: This might not be a real dog! Don’t believe everything you see on the internet, folks. But in this case, well, wouldn’t it be awesome? In 1817, the poet Samuel Coleridge first wrote about the “willing suspension of disbelief,” and I think that’s where I’m going to live for a while longer. Marveling at this amazing dog. Believing. I think Norman Bridwell would approve. To read more about Chris and his photos, click here.

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8. Jigsaw Jones Inspires Real Detective Agency: Inwood Kids Seek Mystery!

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tif“The kids said they learned everything they know from reading mystery and detective books, like the “Jigsaw Jones” series and Nancy Drew novels.”

 

A friend alerted me to a charming article by Carolina Pichardo about two kids, a brother and sister, who were inspired by my Jigsaw Jones books to create their own business.

That takes courage in today’s economic climate, particularly in NY State, which has not always been supportive of small businesses.

But nonetheless! I am very impressed by Jack and Phoebe of the “Gore & Gore Detective Agency” in Inwood, NY.

Here’s a link to the full article, click here. Or read below the slightly terrifying photo. I sure hope that plastic gun isn’t loaded.

 Jack and Phoebe Gore said no case is too small for their new detective agency in Inwood. 

 

Siblings Jack Gore, 10, and Phoebe Gore, 7, founders of the Gore & Gore Detective Agency, already have three solved cases under their belt. They’re organized, quick and know what it takes to build a solid reputation solving mysteries.

With only a few weeks in business — and using nothing more than a whiteboard, notepad, handmade fliers and a customized badge their grandfather, a retired lieutenant of the NYPD, gave them — the brother-and-sister duo have helped their neighbors find everything from a lost dog tag to an earring to a wad of cash.

The red-headed pair have only one demand from their would-be clients: “We don’t want them to waste our time,” Jack said. “We tell them, ‘no dishonesty.’ “

For Inwood resident Lisa Rainwater, a call from the pint-sized gumshoes came as a surprise, since she didn’t realize she had misplaced her dog Willoby’s name tag.

“They told me they had found a dog tag in Isham [Park],” Rainwater said, “and I looked at Willoby and sure enough, it was missing.”

It was their first case, Jack said, but it was nonetheless solved rather quickly. The kids came across the tag while walking in Inwood Hill Park, called the number listed on it and arranged to meet with Rainwater, Jack explained.

Rainwater said that when she met the kids near the entrance to the park, Phoebe handed her the dog tag while Jack handed her a flier for their agency.

“They were very professional,” she said.

Although the kids charge $6 per case, Rainwater said they didn’t ask for money that day, since it was a case the Gore & Gore Detective Agency picked up itself.

“They said, ‘This is our service to you,’” she said with a laugh. “It was the highlight of my day — if not my week or year.”

The kids’ mother, Tara Kapoor, said she enjoys seeing the passion they put into solving cases. The “training” comes in handy and keeps them alert as to what’s going on around them.

“They’re pretty in tune,” she said.

Kapoor said her kids’ keen sense of observation helped them solve their favorite case — when they found $820 in cash tucked inside an envelope on the ground in the lobby of their apartment building.

The pair put up flier announcing they’d found the money and asking its owner to come forward.

“We asked them to tell us the exact amount, what it was in [and] where they were walking,” Jack said.

The real owner — a nanny who worked in their apartment building — called immediately and they were able to return the cash.

“It was her weekly pay,” Kapoor said. “She was so grateful.”

The kids said they learned everything they know from reading mystery and detective books, like the “Jigsaw Jones” series and Nancy Drew novels.

Jack added that he also gets inspiration from watching “intense” episodes of “Law & Order.”

“I can tell if someone is telling a lie by watching their eyes,” he said.

Phoebe added she has learned how to dust for fingerprints using simple tools like powder and a brush.

Their mother loves how the work keeps the kids entertained and involved in their community.

“It’s good, old-fashioned fun,” she said. “They’re involved with each other, and it teaches them independence.”

The Gores, however, said they realize some good cases will be hard to come by.

“Not too many people are going to call two kids for cases,” Jack said. “They’re mostly going to call the cops.”

“But we’re hoping to get calls for missing dogs or something,” Phoebe added.

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9. 13 Questions & Answers: On Childhood Memories, Writing Advice, Favorite Fictional Worlds, and More

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One thing about being a published author is that every blue moon your publisher asks you to do things. For example, I was just called on to answer a series of questions which will be published in the back matter of the paperback edition of The Fall (coming in October, 2016).

This is not usually my favorite thing to do. I enjoy talking about the work, the writing, but I’m not a fan of questions that focus on personality. At the Albany Teen Con this past year, the day’s events got kicked off with questions from the audience addressed to the panel of authors. Almost every question focused on personality. What’s your favorite food, etc. I realized that readers like to know this stuff, and that I have to get over it (to the degree I’m able).

So here you go, Dear Nation of Readers, a sampling of some of the Q & A which will appear in paperback later this year. The complete version is simply more than any single blog reader should be required to endure.

 

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

pen-and-notebookAs a young kid, ages 8-10, I used to invent these elaborate dice games that revolved around baseball. Roll a seven, the batter strikes out; roll a three, he hits a double. I filled entire notebooks with the box scores of these imaginary games. Looking back across the decades I realize that: 1) Dice games? OMG, I’m getting old; and 2) I was experiencing, and passionately seeking out, the core experience of being a writer. I was alone with an empty notebook and a pen in my hand. Later in life, those fictional baseball statistics became words and stories. The clear dream of desiring to become a writer happened in college.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?

There are so many and they come in such a disordered jumble, like the splatters of an action painting by Jackson Pollack. I have snippets and impressions. Overall, the feeling is of being small in a crowded household. Being safe, being loved, being entertained. One story: I shared a room with two older brothers, John and Al, when I was quite young. John had an electric guitar and at night, he would turn off the lights and scare me with it. He’d hit a low note, make creepy noises in a deep voice, and I would hide in the darkness under the bed –- shivering with fear and loving it.

What were your hobbies as a kid? What are your hobbies now?

Do kids have hobbies? It seems like the wrong word for it. I’m sure I was pretty sports obsessed; I was active and athletic. Music has always been a presence in my life. The accumulated family record collection was pretty incredible, and for some reason I really connected to those records at a young age. The thing I wish for every young reader is to have passions, interests, things that get your blood pumping. In general, for me, that’s usually connected to the arts in some way. Books, movies, music, paintings, etc. But I have to admit, thinking about my teenage years, we spent a lot of time hanging out. Getting together with a few friends and doing a lot of nothing much. When I look at the lives of my own children, that’s a part that seems missing in today’s world. There’s just not enough free time. I loved hanging out! Is that a hobby?

What book is on your nightstand now?

James Marshall's fabulous characters, Martha and George.

James Marshall’s fabulous characters, Martha and George.

I mostly read adult books. I just finished with Norwegian Wood by Haruk Murakami, who is a beautiful writer; the book before that was Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner. Now I’m reading a nonfiction book about the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, Carry Me Home, by Diane McWhorter. On the children’s front, I just reread every “George & Martha” book by James Marshall. They are hilarious and perfect.

What sparked your imagination for The Fall?

After I wrote Bystander, I received many requests for a sequel. And I always thought, well, no. I felt satisfied with that book, finished with those characters. But I realized that I was still interested in the subject matter, the social dynamics of young people at that age. I began to feel a degree of sympathy for the so-called bully. I wanted to try to write something from the bully’s point of view, perhaps to show a fuller picture than I was seeing in other books and articles. When I read in the newspaper about a girl who had killed herself because of being “terrorized on social media,” I set down the newspaper and immediately started writing in my notebook. It was that direct. I knew I wanted to tell the story of a boy who wrote some terrible things on her social media page. I kept wondering, “Can we be defined by the worst thing we do?”

What challenges do you face in the writing process, and how do you overcome them?

I’ve published more than eighty books in my life. The gift that comes with that is an awareness that sooner or later, eventually, I do get around to putting words on the page. In the words of a writer friend, “I know I can land the plane.” Even so, part of my “process” is that I go through unproductive periods. I’m lazy, unfocused, distracted, a mess. A period of self-loathing eventually sets in. It happens every year, these creative lulls, and every time I grow to hate myself for it. And yet, every time, I fight my way out of it. I recently learned something from cooking (and I hate to cook). It’s the idea of marinating. The chicken tastes so much more flavorful after we marinate it for a period of time. Now I see those quiet, supposedly “unproductive” times as perfectly necessary and valid; it makes for a better, richer book at the end. Even when it looks like I’m not productive, hey, check it out: I’m marinating!

If you could live in any fictional world, what would it be?

CourageTestFrontCvrI’m not really a “fictional world” kind of guy. The real world is quite enough for me. I am curious about the past, however, so if I could have a magical tardis like Doctor Who, and travel from place to place, and time to time, that would be great. The thing is, I believe that books do that for us. Books are the tardis, the magic portal into other worlds. I just finished a manuscript titled The Courage Test, and in order to write it I had to read in depth about the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. What an amazing time, when America was new and wide-open and little known. When I want a fictional world, I read a book.

 

Who is your favorite fictional character?

I don’t make lists of favorites. First place, second place, third place, and so on. I’m just not built that way. Instead, they all sort of co-exist swimmingly in the gumbo of my mind. I love Gandolph and Hermione, Wilbur and Atticus Finch, the character in Hemingway’s Old Man in the Sea (did we ever learn his name?), that fabulous fat-bellied father in Hop on Pop. As a writer, I really enjoy slipping into the fictional world of Jigsaw Jones. He’s always a good time.

I do love writing about these two characters, entering their world.

I do love writing about these two characters, entering their world.

 

What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?

Jane Yolen talks about “BIC.” Butt in chair! If you want to write, you have to sit down and do it. Talking about it won’t get the work done. Also, from other sources, write from the heart. And . . . the day you send out a book submission, start a new one. The worst thing you can do is sit around and wait for someone else’s approval. Be true to yourself, that’s another one. Trust that good work will find its way into the world. And lastly, you don’t have to write your book in order! You can bounce around. Write the scene that feels most urgent at that moment. You can always go back and fill in the empty spaces at

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

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

a later time. Every book is different, and requires different things from me as a writer. For The Fall, that was a book I very much wrote out of sequence. I think this was because of the journal format. By the end, I had a lot of separate piece I had to weave together, like sewing a patchwork quilt. The challenge was that Sam’s mind -– like any mind -– would bounce freely from the present to the past and back again in an instant. One minute he’s remembering something that happened a year ago, then he’s back in the present moment looking at the rain outside the window. Writing a book that offered up that time-traveling experience was a real challenge, since I didn’t want to confuse the reader in the process. Um, er, what was the question?

 

What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were younger?

I don’t know, I think life has to teach you through experiences as you go along. I’m not convinced that anyone can tell us the secrets, you know? We have to stumble along and fall and learn and grow. When I look at my own children, I wish for them to be open to new people, new experiences. Not be too judgmental. To greet the world with open arms and an open mind. But I can also see that part of growing up, developing into your own unique self, is to look at aspects of the world and think: “Not me, not me, not me.” In a sense, we need those walls to build a sense of our own home place. So do I have any advice? Be kind, be kind, be kind.

What do you want readers to remember about your books?

Every book is different, so is every reader. Simply to be remembered at all is the goal. To have somehow made a lasting impression, whatever it might be, is a huge accomplishment for any writer. I hope that my books are open enough –- porous, in a way -– that each reader is free to respond in his or her own way. It’s not a case of, “Here, this is the message.” It’s more like, let’s take this trip down the path. Keep your eyes and ears open, keep your heart open. The thoughts you have along the way are entirely your own.

If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?

Flawless grammar. Yes, I’d be the dullest superhero in the world (not the most dullest).

What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?

chicken_lgI can juggle a chainsaw, a bowling pin, and a live chicken. Also, I didn’t know that I’d be a writer at an early age. I wasn’t even much of a reader. It came later. In my teens, as I said early, my main focus was on hanging out. I’m pretty good at it, by the way. So that’s what I’d say to you, Dear Reader: Hey, you never know!

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10. SCARY STUFF: Highlights from My Interview at the “Awake At Midnight” Blog

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I want to direct readers to a recent interview I did over at the Awake at Midnight blog. My gracious interlocutor, Sean, was well prepared, asked great questions, and best of all, genuinely respects and values the craft of scary stories. Honestly, it was one of the better blog interviews I’ve ever done — so thank you, Sean. Great work.

Please start clicking wildly right here to get the whole kaboodle in full glory. In the meantime, here’s a few random sample selections, just because.

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Talking about a favorite scary book from childhood:

“At a young age, I endlessly pored over those illustrations. They were frightening and fascinating. I can close my eyes and still picture them. That’s the thing I’ve learned about scary. It jars you. It upsets you. It disturbs your universe. And for that reason, it sticks to you.”

 

From SWAMP MONSTER.

From Scary Tales: SWAMP MONSTER.

On how to judge if a story is too scary?

“For starters, I decided that children today are quite sophisticated. They’ve all watched Harry Potter. If they picked up a book by their own choosing that’s called “Scary Tales,” the worst reaction would be for them to shrug and say, “That wasn’t scary.” They are seeking a certain quickening of the senses, the heart beating faster. You don’t go on a roller coaster and hope it travels at cautious speeds. For readers at this level, which I’ve seen range from grades 2 all the way up to reluctant readers in grades 6, I decided that no character would get killed. In the end, everyone comes out okay. I would deliver the reader back to a safe world. As for your other question, how do I know? Well, I don’t. I can’t know. But I’ve learned that the best children’s writers have a natural sense of their audience, a way to tap into the age group that is completely outside any sort of calculated analysis. I think we see that in everyday conversations between adults and children. Some folks can make that connection, others simply can’t.”

On how to convey shivers without getting too intense for young readers:

“I always think of Alfred Hitchcock, that close-up of the footsteps slowly climbing the stairs, step by step. I decided that the best sentence for my purposes was: The doorknob slowly, slowly turned. It’s all about tension, the twisting knot in the stomach, anticipation and suspense -– rather than the bloody payoff and cathartic release.”

Scary Tales: ONE-EYED DOLL, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.

Scary Tales: ONE-EYED DOLL, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.

On why scary stories are important:

“Many brilliant scholars and artists have spoken eloquently about the value of a good, safe scare: The experience of it, and the experience of moving beyond it. Whew, you know? I survived. I have decided that some of us actively seek the bone-rattling thrill of having our universe disturbed. A feeling of “up-set-ment.” As a parent watching the development of my children, I’ve come to believe that growth follows a simple, reliable pattern. There’s a period of disequilibrium, followed by equilibrium, in an endless pattern, like a set of stairs going up, up, up. You can’t grow without some sort of “dis-ease.” A new school, a new job, a new friend. You grapple with the changes and adjust. A lot of people want to be scared; they like it. There’s value in having our universe disturbed.”

 

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales: NIGHTMARELAND.

Again, I’m not looking to steal content from Awake at Midnight, just hoping to wet your whistle (and whet your appetite). See what I did there with my fancy grammatical flourishes, wet and whet used correctly? There’s lots more over at Sean’s place.

Thanks for stopping by.

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11. Kurt Vonnegut, via Circe Berman in BLUEBEARD, on a Writer’s Happiest Moment

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I read Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut a while back, somehow it had eluded me until then, underlining passages and adding stars and all sorts of enthusiastic marginalia. Today I keep coming back to one particular passage, which I’ll share below. I don’t think you need much setup, so now this:

She asked me what had been the most pleasing thing about my professional life when I was a full-time painter — having my first one-man show, getting a lot of money for a picture, the comradeship with fellow painters, being praised by a critic, or what?

“We used to talk a lot about that in the old days,” I said. “There was general agreement that if we were put into individual capsules with our art materials, and fired out into different parts of outer space, we would still have everything we loved about painting, which was the opportunity to lay on paint.”

I asked her in turn what the high point was for writers — getting great reviews, or a terrific advance, or selling a book to the movies, or seeing somebody reading your book, or what?

She said that she, too, could find happiness in a capsule in outer space, provided that she had a finished, proofread manuscript by her in there, along with somebody from her publishing house.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“The orgastic moment for me is when I hand a manuscript to my publisher and say, ‘Here! I’m all through with it. I never want to see it again,'” she said.

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Vonnegut

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12. Excerpt from New Short Story Collection for YA Readers, I SEE REALITY

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About 18 months ago I was invited to contribute a short story to an “edgy” YA compilation, tentatively titled I See Reality. It would ultimately include twelve short stories by a range of writers. I was interested, but did not exactly have one waiting in my file cabinet. So I said, “Give me a few days and let’s see if anything bubbles to the surface.” After some thought, I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I knew the format in which I wanted to it.

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” that had always captivated me. I admired its fragmentary nature, the way the text moves from perspective to perspective to create an almost cubist mosaic. Of course my story, “The Mistake,” did not come close to achieving anything of the sort. But that was the starting point, the push. I decided to play around with that idea. The final story included twenty-two brief sections.

What I wanted to say, what I was moved to address: I wanted to write a story that touched upon teenage pregnancy and the important role that Planned Parenthood plays in the lives of so many young women and men. We live in a challenging time when women’s reproductive rights are under almost daily attack. When the very existence of Planned Parenthood is under political and violent assault. This is a health organization that supplies people — often young women from low income groups — with birth control, pap smears, and cancer screening. According to The New England Journal of Medicine: “The contraception services that Planned Parenthood delivers may be the single greatest effort to prevent the unwanted pregnancies that result in abortions.”

Most importantly for this story, Planned Parenthood provides abortions as part of its array of services, a procedure that is legal in the United States of America. Abortion has long been debated, discussed, argued, and decided in the Supreme Court. As divisive as it may be, abortion has been declared a legal right in this country. And it touches young lives in profound ways.

Anyway, yes, I know that I risk offending people. Maybe I should just shut up. But when my thoughts bend this way, when I start to worry what people might think, I remind myself of this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I stand with Planned Parenthood.

Here’s the first two brief sections from my story, plus another quick scene, followed by review quotes about the entire collection from the major journals:

 

THE MISTAKE

 

By James Preller

 

 

1

 

     “What do you think we should we do?” Angela asked.

     “I don’t know.” Malcolm shook his head. “What do you want?”

     It was, he thought, the right thing to ask. A reasonable question. Her choice. Besides, the truth was, he didn’t want to say it out loud.

     So he said the thing he said.

     “What do I want?” Angela said, as if shocked, as if hearing the ridiculous words for the first time. She stared at her skinny, dark-haired boyfriend and spat out words like lightning bolts, like thunder. “What’s that got to do with anything, Mal? What I want? How can you even ask me that?”

     “I’m sorry,” he said.

     “I’m sorry, too,” she replied stiffly, but Angela’s “sorry” seemed different than his. Malcolm was sorry for the mistake they made. Their carelessness. And in all honesty, his “sorry” in this conversation was also a strategy to silence her, a word that acted like a spigot to turn off the anger. Angela’s “sorry” encompassed the whole wide world that now rested on her slender shoulders. Malcolm understood that she was sorry for all of it, all the world’s weary sorrows, and most especially for the baby that was growing inside her belly.

 

2

 

     Angela on her cell, punching keys, scrolling, reading, clicking furiously.

     At Planned Parenthood, there was a number she could text. She sent a question. Then another. And another.

     She was trying to be brave.

     Trying so hard.

     It wasn’t working out so well.

 

 <<snip>>

14

 

     “Angela?” A nurse appeared holding a clipboard, looking expectantly into the waiting room.

     Angela rose too quickly, as if yanked by a puppeteer’s string.

     The nurse offered a tight smile, a nod, gestured with a hand. This way.     

     Her balance regained, Angela stepped forward. As an afterthought, she gave a quick, quizzical look back at Malcolm.

     “Love you,” the words stumbled from his throat. But if she heard, Angela didn’t show it. She was on her own now. And so she walked through the door, down the hallway, and into another room. Simple as that.

     Malcolm sat and stared at the empty space where, only moments before, his Angela had been.

———

 

Contributing authors include Jay Clark , Kristin Clark , Heather Demetrios , Stephen Emond , Patrick Flores-Scott , Faith Hicks , Trisha Leaver , Kekla Magoon , Marcella Pixley , James Preller , Jason Schmidt , and Jordan Sonnenblick .

 


Review by Booklist Review

“The hottest trend in YA literature is the renaissance of realistic fiction. Here, as further evidence, is a collection of 12 stories rooted in realism. Well, one of the stories, Stephen Emond’s illustrated tale The Night of the Living Creeper is narrated by a cat, but, otherwise, here are some examples: Jason Schmidt’s visceral story of a school shooting; Kekla Magoon’s tale of a mixed-race girl trying to find a place she belongs; Marcella Pixley’s operatic entry of a mother’s mental illness; and Patrick Flores-Scott’s haunting take on a brother’s life-changing sacrifice. Happily, not all of the stories portray reality as grim. Some, like Kristin Elizabeth Clark’s gay-themed coming-out story, Jordan Sonnenblick’s older-but-wiser romance, and Faith Erin Hicks’ graphic-novel offering about gay teens, are refreshingly lighthearted and sweet spirited. Many of the authors in this fine collection are emerging talents and their stories are, for the most part, successful. One of their characters laments how some don’t want to know about what goes on in the real world. This collection shows them.”


Review by School Library Journal Review

“Gr 10 Up-Tackling feelings-from grief to joy, from sorrow to hope, and from loss to love-this short story collection portrays real emotions of teenagers in real-life situations. Included in this volume are the conversation a girl has with herself while preparing to break up with an emotionally manipulative boyfriend, the story of a survivor of a high school shooting, an illustrated vignette told from the perspective of a family’s cat about a creeper at a Halloween party, and a short work in comic book format about the surprising secret of a high school’s golden couple. . . . With authors as diverse as Heather Demetrios, Trisha Leaver, Kekla Magoon, and Jordan Sonnenblick, this collection unflinchingly addresses subjects such as sexuality, abortion, addiction, school shootings, and abuse. VERDICT From beginning to end, this is a compelling work that looks at the reality teens are faced with today.”

——

My thanks to editors Grace Kendall and Joy Peskin of Farrar Straus Giroux/Macmillan for inviting me to take part in this refreshing collection of stories. My editor at Feiwel & Friends, Liz Szabla, helped make the connection possible.

12728003My two books that might have the most appeal to YA readers would be Before You Go and The Fall.

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13. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #227: The New Technology Embedded in this Letter Just Made My Head Explode!

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This letter from Madison in Chicago was particularly amazing because it included a video message:

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Fortunately my wife, Lisa, was home to help me with it. She downloaded a “QR Reader” app on her phone, we scanned the blobby thing, typed in the password, and instantly a video of Madison appeared on the phone. There she was, reading from my book! Incredible.

Here’s the letter in full, with my reply below:

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My answer:

Dear Madison,

Wow, that was so cool. I’ve received many letters before, but yours was the first to include a QR Code. Is that what you call it? Amazing and wonderful to see you in that video. You read very well, and I liked where you were standing with those funky planks in the background, giving your video an artistic touch. Bravo! I appreciate all the work you put into it, and my guess is that your teacher — this “Schiller” person, male or female I couldn’t tell — helped a great deal in bringing this new technology into the standard “letter to the author” format. Very cool.

61ZJfCfXgSL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Thanks for reading four out of the six books in my “Scary Tales” series. Good point about Malick in One-Eyed Doll. He really did show a tremendous amount of courage. I liked that aspect of the story, that he was an older brother who looked out for his younger sister, Tiana.

You asked about six billion questions, so let me get those:

* Correction: I’m now 55 years old. Rats.

* Correction #2: Thank you, but I do look at least several days older than 30. Weeks even. Months, years. Let’s put it this way: If someone thinks I’m 53, I smile, say thank you, and explain that I’ve been eating right and exercising.

* I have given up my dream of playing for the New York Mets. They don’t need me. But just this morning I signed up with a men’s hardball baseball team. I managed a team for years, then gave it up when I decided to coach my son’s All-Star and Travel teams. He just turned 16 and doesn’t need me in the dugout anymore, so now it’s my turn. I guess the lesson there is that if you enjoy something, keep doing it . . . even if it’s not for the New York Mets.

CourageTestFrontCvr* New books? Yes, for sure, that’s my job. I have a new book coming out this October that also touches on the theme of courage. It’s called The Courage Test. It’s about a father who takes his son on an unexpected trip — the entire time, the boy, Will, wonders what’s really going on — and they travel from Fort Mandan in North Dakota west along the Lewis and Clark Trail. So there’s a lot of history built into the story, about the Corps of Discovery, the native people they encountered, Sacagawea, York, and more. They meet new people along the way and have various camping and whitewater adventures. And they do encounter a bear, both literally and metaphorically. I hope you read it! I am also writing a new Jigsaw Jones book. 

* I’ve won some awards over the years, nothing too spectacular, usually by making state lists and whatnot. Books that have won something include: Along Came Spider, Wake Me In Spring, Six Innings, and Bystander

* I can write a Jigsaw Jones book, or a Scary Tales, in two months. Longer books for older readers tend to take more time. Six months, nine months, even years. 

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales #5: ONE-EYED DOLL.

Illustration by the great Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales #5: ONE-EYED DOLL.

* My brothers are named Neal, Bill, Al, and John. My sisters are Barbara and Jean. Sadly, I have lost two brothers, Neal and John. Both are gone but not forgotten. My children are Nicholas, Gavin, and Maggie. The boys don’t like scary stories or movies, but Maggie is more like you. She loves to feel a sense of suspense, fear, and anticipation where her heart is racing, going boom, boom, boom. I think I wrote that series for readers like my Maggie.

* Cats are Midnight and Frozone. Our dog is Daisy.

Thank you for your fabulous letter. You really knocked it out of the park.

James Preller

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

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Here’s a kind note from an aspiring writer.

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

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

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

I replied:

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

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

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

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I received this note from a mother the other day:

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

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

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

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

There are, of course, copious tears.

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

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

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

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

I didn’t make a big show of it.

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

Who does that?

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

Wait, where was I?

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

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And this:

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

Carry on, writers!

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

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

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

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Just answered a big batch of letters about Bystander.

I replied:

Dear _______:

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

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

Proof: The letters on my office floor.

Proof: The letters on my office floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My best,

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

 

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

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

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

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AGV: Why, it is swanky!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do you have a favorite line?

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

 

“Boo!” cried George.

“Have mercy!” screamed Martha.

 

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

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

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

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

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

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

Back to your question.

Wait, there was actually a question?  

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such as?

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

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

I nearly fainted from the first sentence here.

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

Can you name a few of your favorites?

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

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Deborah Underwood’s Cat is a brilliant new character.

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

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

I have four books coming out.

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

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

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

Aww!

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

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

Do you first clear the topic with an editor?

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

And for your fiction titles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how I feel about exercise.

Me too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cannot sell a dog book. It kills me.

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

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

So how did you get into children’s books?

It’s a sad story. You’ve been warned.

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

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

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

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

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

Which book is that?

Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship.

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, since you asked:

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

 

The real Edith Houghton.

The real Edith Houghton.

 

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

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

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

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

So what’s for dinner?

Get out! 

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

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

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Look here, it’s a letter from Sander!

Scan

I replied:

Dear Sander,

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

Any ideas?

I’ll wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My best to you, and happy holidays!

James Preller 

 

 

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

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

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I replied at length:

Dear Ms. Becker & Students,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My current mantra.

My current mantra.

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

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

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

James Preller

 

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

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

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

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

Because . . .

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

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

 

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

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Happy holidays, one and all!

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22. Cover Reveal: Paperback Version of THE FALL

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So this is how it works for me, folks.

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

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

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

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

Mostly I try to stay grateful, and usually succeed.

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

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

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TheFall-1

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

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

Okay, got that? Cool.

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

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Here’s how I replied:

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Dear ______________,

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

Here goes nothing, in no particular order:

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

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

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

Wayne’s-World

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

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

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

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

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

Surely the world can use more of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace out!

James Preller

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

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

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

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Keynote:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Chapter 1

 

OFF THE MAP

  

“We were now

about to penetrate

a country at least two thousand miles

in width, on which

the foot of civilized man

had never trodden.”

Meriwether Lewis.

 

 

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

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

     “I know,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     I walk away like I don’t hear.

     “Will?”

     I raise my hand in goodbye without looking back.

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

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

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

     “Oh, okay, sure,” he says.

     He stands there, not knowing what to do.

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

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

     She’s gone.

 

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

     A question with no true answer.

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

     It is awkward all around.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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I replied:

Dear Kieran,

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

As for your questions:

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

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

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

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

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

My best,

JP

 

Letter #223 comes from Spokane, WA . . .

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I replied:

Dear Dakota,

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

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

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

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

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

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

You never know!

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

JP

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