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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: James Preller, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 119
1. Discovering Chris Raschka’s brilliant picture book, THE COSMO-BIOGRAPHY OF SUN RA

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I was wandering around my local library, picking my way through the biographies in the children’s section, when I came upon a surprising picture book about the great jazz musician, Sun Ra.

You could have knocked me down with a feather. I love Sun Ra, but I never expected to find a picture book about him.

Though Sun Ra’s music has a small but loyal following, he’s always been on the fringe. A little “out there,” so to speak. Not of the mainstream. In fact, Sun Ra himself contended that he was not from this planet. He claimed that he was from Saturn.

Clearly, this was a work of love for Chris Raschka.

Here’s the book trailer — check it out — and I’ll continue below.

 

 

One nice thing about Chris Raschka is that he’s already won two Caldecott Medals. And the terrific thing is that after you win awards like the Caldecott Medal — the highest award for illustration in children’s literature — then people kind of let you do what you want.

So the smart people at Caldlewick Press didn’t tell Chris Raschka that doing a picture book about Sun Ra was crazy. They didn’t say that 99.8% of picture book readers had never even heard of Sun Ra. And that the parents probably hadn’t either. No, they said, “Great, let’s do it.”

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The artwork is vibrant, colorful, free, spontaneous, wildly alive. In other words, it magnifiently matches its subject matter.

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But the truly brilliant stroke to this biography comes in the first few sentences, as follows:

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Sun Ra always said that he came from Saturn.

Now, you know and I know that this is silly. No one comes from Saturn.

And yet.

If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much.

Let’s say he did come from Saturn.

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Well, on My 22, 1914, Sun Ra landed on Earth.

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And so the story goes.

I love a book when it clearly comes from a personal space, not from a cold, SunRa71calculated look at the marketplace. Raschka created the book that was in his heart; I know this is true without ever having met the man. It is a celebration of the true artist, brave enough to go his own way. Two men, in fact, Sun Ra and Chris Raschka, who followed the beat of a different drummer. Because that’s what real artists do. They create the work and let the rest of us sort it our for ourselves.

I’m here to say, thank you, Chris Raschka, for this incredible gift.

Your brilliant book.

Here’s a quote from Chris Raschka taken from an interview with Smithsonian magazine:

“I wanted to write about Sun Ra because he steps outside the boundaries of traditional jazz more than anyone. I was aware of him in high school because he was so far out there, even rock ‘n’ roll teens like myself knew about him. When his selection of singles came out I was even more struck by the breadth of his interest in all kinds of music. It was my experience with Sun Ra’s own openness to things that made me more open to him. Openness is something any teacher strives to instill in his or her students. I think all of my jazz books about the four musicians I’ve written about so far, are about people that most ten year olds have never heard of. My hope is to let kids hear these names early, so that when they are teens or adults the door is already just a little bit open.”

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I’ll close with a clip from Sun Ra himself, created during his time here on Earth. Open your ears, your heart, your spirit.

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2. Fan Mail Wednesday #203: In Which Kate Is Late . . . for My Birthday!

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Here comes Fan Mail Wednesday and a letter from Kate, who was late for a very important date.

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I replied:

Dear Kate,

Thank you for your kind and very well-written letter.

Before we get into the meat of your missive, let me assure you that it is never too late to wish me a happy birthday. Or, for that matter, to send an expensive birthday present. In fact, here at jamespreller.com, it is our policy to accept birthday presents up to 120 days after the deadline. If you go beyond that date, not to fear, your gift will be considered a pre-birthday gift in advance of the real one.

Just wanted to make that clear: STILL ACCEPTING GIFTS!

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Okay, back to business:

It’s hard to understand the motivations behind bullying. In general, I view people as basically “good,” and that most school-age bullying is a result of poor choices made for a variety of reasons: insecurity, anger, a desire for popularity, whatever. I don’t like to label anyone as a “bully.” Bullying is a verb, a behavior; not a noun, or a person. I have a gut reaction against labeling in general, putting complex people into little boxes. We play many roles in our daily lives: teammate, daughter, friend, students, baby-sitter, etc. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” For that reason, I don’t like to say that anyone is just a bully, because they are so much more than that, usually simultaneously.

One of the things I discovered in my research was counter-intuitive (which means, btw, “the opposite of what we might expect”). I learned that people who are bullied will often turn around to bully someone else. At first, I thought that was strange. Wouldn’t they know how it felt? Wouldn’t they be the last ones to inflict that same harm on someone else? But it turns out that the “target-bully” is fairly common dynamic. You are bullied here, so over there you turn around and bully someone else. In one area, you don’t have control over the situation — a horrible, helpless feeling — but in the next, you do gain that upper hand. Also, what does anyone do with all that anger and resentment bottled up inside? Where does it go? So the target returns home and picks on the kid down the street. Or the boy who has a rough time at home goes into school and turns the tables on someone else. Life is so complicated, we simply don’t know what others are going through. That’s why I’m reluctant to judge.

I’m glad you seem to have “gotten” the ending. I didn’t attempt to answer every question. The story is a slice of life, a moment in time. What happens next? That’s up to you to think about and debate, if you wish.

My best,

James Preller

10991132_10205999019274119_6618454603022716888_nP.S. It’s really, really cold outside. I just came back from walking my dog — and I was wearing snow shoes!

 

 

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3. Galleys: And an Excerpt from THE FALL (Summer, 2015)

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The package arrives in a big, padded yellow envelope. That manuscript I handed in more than a year ago? Well, it’s not a book yet — but it’s getting there. These are the galleys to THE FALL (Macmillan, 2015), representing my first opportunity to see the interior book design and typeface. And, yes, yet another round of proofreading, second-guessing, and fine-tuning (none of which will be reflected in the Advanced Reader’s Copies that will be made available for review).

The book is told in the first-person, ostensibly from the journal of a male student. He has made some mistakes along the way. His journal is comprised of short entries, a couple of pages in length. There’s a few poems, snippets mostly, alongside more extended narrative passages. Page by page, his story unfolds. Sam has promised himself that he’d write in this journal every day for a minimum of 15 minutes. Some days, the words come freely. Other times, he struggles and sputters as he tries to process things still unsaid & unresolved.

I like the way this book looks, feels; it’s open, clean, easy to read. Should be able to reveal the cover soon. It’s still in the “tweaking” stage.

Here’s two samples from the interiors (pp. 55-56, and p. 94):

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Scan 3

Scan 2

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4. School Visits: Thank You, Virginia!

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“It was such a great day for us

that I wish he could go to every single middle school!”

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I received a kind note in the mail yesterday regarding a few school visits I made to Virginia back in October. It included the article below, where my new shirt (that I’m still not sure about) figured prominently.

Of course, I’ve done many school visits over the past 20 years. By the end of most visits, I feel like I’ve become friends with that librarian or PTA organizer — and later, of course, there’s rarely any more contact. Gone but not forgotten. The librarian who sent this note, Chris, made such a huge effort to make this trip happen for me, and for the students in her school. She simply would not be denied. I owe her so much. In the headline I wrote “Thank you, Virginia!” But what I really mean is: Thank you, Chris!

School visits are an important part of my career. They help pay the bills, most certainly. They also get me out into the world, where I meet teachers and students and, hopefully, help make a small difference in every school I visit. It’s an honor and I don’t take the privilege lightly.

Here’s the note:

Jimmy,

Here is the article about your visit to Poquoson Middle School.  It was published in the VAASL Voice, our state librarians’ magazine, and was distributed to about 1300 librarians across the state.

Your author visit has been a real highlight of our school year!

Thanks again,

Chris

And now, the article:

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5. One of My Favorite Moments in the “Jigsaw Jones” Series . . . A Small Tribute to My Late Brother

Illustration by Jamie Smith from Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter. This is one of my favorite illustrations from the entire series for reasons explained below. Jamie gave me the original artwork -- for free, here, take it -- and now I hang it on my office wall, and it always makes me think of my brother. Every day.

Illustration by Jamie Smith from Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter. This is one of my favorite illustrations from the entire series for reasons explained below. Jamie gave me the original artwork — for free, here, take it — and now I hang it on my office wall, and it always makes me think of my brother. Every day.

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In what I hope will be a recurring feature on an irregular schedule, I thought I’d try to convey some of the background to each of my Jigsaw Jones titles.

And in no particular order.

The Case of the Ghostwriter has a lot of cool little things in it that most readers might miss.

I dedicated this book to Frank Hodge, a near-celebrity local bookseller on Lark Street in Albany, who is known and beloved by many area teachers and librarians. He’s one of Albany’s living treasures. When I moved to the area from Brooklyn, in 1990, Frank’s store, Hodge-Podge Books, was right around the corner. Of course, I stopped in and we became friends. I actually put Frank in this story: a guy named Frank owns a store called Hedgehog Books. I even included his cat, Crisis. Jigsaw and Mila visit Frank’s store in the hopes of tracking down a mysterious author.

Chapter Eight begins:

Hedgehog Books was a cozy little store. Our parents had been taking Mila and me since we were little. My mom said that Frank’s favorite thing was to bring books and kids together.

In the story, there’s a series of popular books — The Creep Show series — loosely modeled on R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps.” Mila has been eating them up, reading titles such as Green Wet Slime and Teenage Zombie from Mars. The author’s name on the cover, a pen name, is R.V. King. (Ho-ho.) There’s a rumor that he’s coming to visit room 201 for the “Author’s Tea.” Who can the Mystery Author be? I bet you can guess.

For me, the part I’m proudest of in this book is Chapter Seven, “My Middle Name,” a tribute to my oldest brother, Neal, who passed away in 1993, a few months after my first son, Nicholas, was born.

Ms. Gleason has the students reading family stories in class, Abuela by Arthur Dorros and The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Pollaco. The students, including Jigsaw and Mila, are asked to write their own family stories.

To research his family stories, Jigsaw interrupts his parents while they are playing chess. “Now’s not a good time,” his father replies. “I’m trying to destroy your dear mother.” (I always liked that line.)

At bed that night, Jigsaw and his father have a heart to heart. Mr. Jones tells Jigsaw about his middle name, Andrew, who was Jigsaw’s uncle. Now this part is totally true, because my son’s middle name is Neal, after his uncle.

“And he died,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Andrew died.” I heard the air leave my father’s lips. The sound of a deep sigh.

I put my head on his shoulder. “Why did you name me after him?”

They talk some more:

That’s when I noticed it. The water in his eyes. A single tear, then another, slid down his cheek. My father was crying. I’d never seen him cry before. It made me nervous.

“Don’t be sad, Dad.” I hugged him with both arms, tight.

He wiped the tears away with the back of his sleeve.

He sniffed hard and smiled.

“I’m not sad, Jigsaw,” he said. “It’s just that I remember little things that happened. Little things Andrew said or did. And I’ll always miss him.”

“Can you tell me?” I asked. “About the little things?”

My father checked his watch. “Not tonight, son. It’s late already. But I will tomorrow, promise.”

“Good night, Dad,” I said. “I’m sorry you’re sad.”

“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “That’s life, I guess. Sometimes we lose the good ones. Good night, Theodore Andrew Jones. Sleep tight.”

Then he shut the door.

I’d never attempt to read that chapter aloud to a group. I can never read it  without remembering, without crying. I guess in that scene, I’m Jigsaw’s dad — and my son, Nicholas Neal Preller, stands in for Jigsaw, trying to learn about an uncle, my brother, whom he never had the chance to meet.

———–

NOTE: I originally posted this in 2009.

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6. Finally, Writing Advice I Can Get Behind!

I get asked for writing advice from time to time. And every once in a great while I try to tackle it sincerely — here, and here, and here, and here, for a quartet of random samples. If you are really interested in my collected blather on the topic, just use the nifty “SEARCH” function to this blog and type in “writing advice” or “writing tips” or “aardvarks in bathing suits” and swim through the murky wisdom. Under “CATEGORIES” in the right sidebar there’s one titled “the writing process” which loosely gathers that kind of material too.

But for today, we’ll let this suffice. Carry on!

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7. Fan Mail Wednesday #198: Jessica from Istanbul

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There’s something deeply satisfying, and sort of crazy, about sitting down on a cold day in my basement office and clicking on an email from a young reader in Istanbul, Turkey.

How could that be so?

The answer is easy, and it’s not at all about me. Somehow we got swept along in this great river of books that connect us all. The power of books to touch our lives — to make us feel — and to cause vast distances & differences to disappear. It’s beautiful when you think about it.

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Here, meet Jessica . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,

My name is Jessica. I go to ______ School in Istanbul, Turkey. I am a 5th grade student. I am so excited to send you this mail. I read your book Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Christmas Snowman. I had so much fun when I was reading. I like the book because it 6430030was an exciting book and it was so nice. Of course it has morals, too. I liked the story because it was so mysterious and you don’t know what will going to be next. Whether they are going to find the coin or not, and if they can’t find the coin what will Lucy go and say to her dad. That’s why it was so mysterious. I liked that. I looked into the internet for your other books as well and I think I am going to order your other books. When I read the last part of the book I was really surprised because I was really thinking that the coin was in the snowman, but it came out that Mr. Copabianco found it inside the trash, when he swept the floors. I was so surprised. When I heard that we were going to read this book, I hesitated because I didn’t hear your books, but when I read the book I loved it. That’s why I searched for your books. I am thinking that I will read your books. The idea in your book was amazing, I loved it. I had a big experience from your book, that’s why I thank you so much. 

Jessica

 

I replied:

Dear Jessica,

Please accept my apology for being a tad slow in replying to your lovely note.
 
I have excuses!
 
Do you want to hear them?
 
Probably not. But the truth is that I’m on deadline. I’m desperately trying to finish a middle grade book that I started years ago. (Yes, years.) It’s titled: DEAD, BUT CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC. Usually when I write, the work is awfully slow in the beginning. I struggle and bang my head against the wall. It’s a sad time. But at the end, when it all comes together, the story is all I can think about. I wake up with ideas, I have ideas in the shower and when I’m walking the dog. During those times, I try to push away the distractions and put all my focus on writing the book.
 
Anyway, sorry. I didn’t mean to call you a “distraction” but, well. You kind of are, though a happy sort of distraction for sure.
A favorite moment from the series, when Jigsaw goes toe-to-toe with Bigs Maloney. Illustration drawn by R.W. Alley.

A favorite moment from the series, when Jigsaw goes toe-to-toe with Bigs Maloney. Illustration drawn by R.W. Alley.

 
Istanbul, Turkey! Wow, that’s such a different world than mine, I can barely imagine it. I live in upstate New York. It’s cold out today, freezing actually, and the skies are slate-gray. Tomorrow I’m going to a party to celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends. Good times!
 
Thanks for reading my “Jigsaw Jones” series. I love those books and really enjoyed writing them. I recently wrote a series called “Scary Tales” that you might also enjoy. The stories are not that hard to read, a notch tougher than Jigsaw, but I should warn you: they can be a little bit frightening at times. No one gets hurt and every story has a safe conclusion, but if you don’t like being scared, I’d stay away! It’s for readers who like that kind of creepy feeling.
 
Thanks for your note, Jessica.
 
And thanks, also, to your teacher for sharing my books with students like you. I’m honored, truly, and grateful, too.
 
My best,
 
James Preller
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Give me the right word, and I will move the world." -- Joseph Conrad.

“Give me the right word, and I will move the world.” — Joseph Conrad.

 

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8. Who Needs a Librarian Anyway?

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NOTE: I wrote this post in January, 2009, six years ago, and it troubles me to realize that everything I cautioned about is now more dire than ever. We are failing our school libraries — undervaluing our librarians — and failing our children. Over the past six years, things have only gotten worse. It is certainly true in my town of Delmar, NY, where full-time, elementary school librarians are a thing of the (not-too-distant) past. It’s a shame, a pennywise educational policy that undermines the core mission of our schools. In other words: Idiocy!

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My local community is in a minor state of upset over a recent School Board decision to NOT replace a retiring elementary school librarian, who stepped down on January 30, 2009.

On a personal note, the retiring librarian in question, Nancy Smith, was the first school librarian in my community to reach out to me as an author. She was always supportive and enthusiastic. But not just to me. Nancy was (and still is) beloved by many students at Elsmere Elementary in Delmar, New York. Her daily presence has been a huge asset to that school, and she’s enriched the lives of countless students.

But times are hard. And budget cuts are necessary. So with Nancy’s impending retirement, the Board quietly decided that Elsmere could do without an everyday librarian. Instead, a revolving door of visiting librarians — or media specialists, if you prefer — from district schools have been told to fill in the gaps as best they can.

This issue goes beyond my little patch of earth here in Delmar, New York. It touches the core of the kinds of budgetary decisions that are going to be made in schools across the country. Many difficult cuts are ahead for all of us, with communities forced to make painful decisions. All of us will be asked to make sacrifices. Every school is going to wonder: Who needs a librarian anyway?

In dealing with this issue, Nancy helped steer a group of parents to a valuable resource: The AASL Crisis Toolkit. I recommend that you give it a look-see. It begins:

If you are looking at the AASL Crisis Toolkit, chances are your program is danger of being reduced or eliminated. This kit is designed to assist you as you build meaningful and effective support for saving your program. That means educating and rallying stakeholders to speak out on behalf of school libraries.

If cuts are not imminent, visit AASL’s School Library Program Health and Wellness page for prevention strategies. The ideal time to start advocacy efforts is before there is a crisis.

The kit is remarkably comprehensive, and includes topics such as “Crisis Planning,” “Crafting Messages,” “Getting People Involved,” “Research,” “Advocacy,” and more. There are also handy links to studies that have found correlations between library programs, media specialists, and test results.

In any event, none of this is easy, and none of it is clear. Except that this is only the tip of the iceberg. In an article by Jarrett Carroll, published in the January 28, 2009 issue of The Spotlight (our small, local paper), titled “Elsmere Won’t Hire Librarian,” there are many salient quotes (sorry, I can’t provide a link at this time):

A group of residents protested a move by the school district to not replace the elementary school librarian when the current one has retired — a move that district officials said is necessary as the school tries to rein in spending in the face of state aid cuts.

Commented Superintendent Michael Tebbano, in language that is going to become all too familiar:

“This is going to be a big crisis we’re trying to manage, and it’s going to get worse. Realistically, the $30,000 or so we save will not solve the fiscal crisis, but I do have a fiduciary responsibility to the district.”

The article continued:

Board of Education President James Lytle called the current economic crisis “the real deal,” and echoed Tebbano’s sentiments on the situation.

“I hope the parents and children of Elsmere give this a fair chance,” he said of the librarian situation. “I’m afraid, like what Mike said, this could be the first taste of what’s to come.”

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Buckle in, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Attend meetings, get informed. And if you believe in the value of school librarians, get prepared to answer the question: Who needs a librarian anyway? Answer it with facts. Answer it with passion. And most of all, get organized, and answer it with a chorus of voices. Tough times ahead.

WHO

NEEDS

A LIBRARIAN

ANYWAY?

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9. This Week’s Best Thing Ever: What Happens When Boys Are Asked to Slap a Girl

Filed under: “So Good I Had to Share.”

I cry easily, it’s a running joke in my house, I’ve got faulty eye ducts. Or something. This video did that for me. It’s all there, just watch it, trust me on this.

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10. My New Poster, My New Book

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I purchased this poster online the other day from the Syracuse Cultural Workers website. I found them by tracking down the poster, as I’d seen the image before. SCW is a “Publisher of Peace and Justice Products” since 1982.

What can I say? The poster spoke to me. Now I’m waiting for it to arrive in the mail, and wishing that I could afford to frame it properly. (Oh discretionary funds, where have you gone?)

But: Isn’t it beautiful? I really do believe the world needs changing.

As a writer, I’ve taken that big leap with the book I’m currently finishing up (DEAD, BUT CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC, Macmillan, 2016), allowing political thought to enter the story. The real world, pressing in around us. I feel badly about the world these young people have inherited. Their work is cut out for them.

At the same time, I’m excited to feel my voice rise up in my throat, to hear it enter the discussion — maybe touch a few hearts and minds, a chance to say something meaningful about the real world.

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11. Fathers, Sons, and Baseball

I originally posted this back on July 10, 2008 — before I knew how to insert photos.

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Fathers and sons and baseball. You can almost hear the violins, the sap rising from the roots. It’s a tired cliche, of course, but that doesn’t render the dynamic meaningless.

My father, ten years before I came along, with Neal or Billy.

My father wasn’t a sports guy; I can’t remember him ever turning on the television to watch a game of any sort. Hey, I can’t remember having catch with him. But I had four older brothers, and my baseball-loving mom, and a dozen kids on the block for that. Dad was Old School. I think of him as more CEO/CFO in Charge of Household as opposed to today’s helicopter-style parent, forever hovering, eager to bond and share and become best buddies. That wasn’t my father’s way.

So, basically, I played Little League and my father did other things. And I want to make this clear: It was perfectly okay. But one year, when I was ten years old and playing for the Cardinals — astonishingly vivid memories of those games — somehow my father got roped in as a coach. He didn’t know a blessed thing about baseball. Didn’t care to know. The manager, hard-nosed Larry Bassett, taught my father how to keep the scorebook and I’m fairly certain that was the full extent of his usefulness.

I found it embarrassing. Not horribly so, but it felt odd to see my father on the ballfield, clueless and unathletic. What did the other boys think? It was 1971 and my dad was painfully uncool. I loved baseball deeply, passionately. In that sense, we lived on separate planets. Of course now, years later, I see it from a different perspective. And it boils down to this: He was there. As a parent, isn’t that 98% of the job? Just showing up, day after day. Being there. My father is gone now, died almost two years ago, fell on the front lawn and never got back up. Maybe that makes you (me) appreciate those times, those presences, all the more. For he will never “be there” again.

He never read Six Innings, either. If he did, I would have told my father that I loosely modeled a character after him, Mr. Lionni, Alex’s dad, right down to the thick-framed glasses and questionable attire, the black socks, brown loafers and shorts. There’s a scene when Mr. Lionni takes his baseball-loving son, Alex, for extra batting practice. That scene sprang directly from my childhood; I remember the one and only time my father pitched batting practice to me — awkwardly, poorly, like he was hurling foreign objects. But I was struggling with the bat, the same as Alex in my book, and that man, the father, tried to help the best he could.

In Six Innings, it’s a minor scene (pp. 56-58), just a little backstory about one of the boys on the team. But for me, it resonates across the years, like an echo across a vast canyon. My dad and baseball. Our moments together on the diamond, a burnished memory, glowing like hot coals almost forty years hence. He was there. I didn’t appreciate it then, though I certainly recognized the uniqueness of the event; I was just a boy. But that’s what writing gives us, the opportunity to revisit, revalue, remember in the root meaning of the word — to re-member, to make whole again, to bring those disparate things together. Me and Dad and baseball.

Postscript: Oh, yeah, about the name Lionni. That’s another tribute to a great children’s book author by the name of Leo. Someday I should put together a full roster. I see James Marshall manning the Hot Corner, nimble and loose; Maurice Sendak on the hill, strong-armed and determined; maybe sure-handed Bernard Waber over at second base . . .

Addendum II: Today is 1/16/2015, and I came across this post while hunting for other prey. It’s been a week consumed with writing — I’m trying to finish a book today that I started four years ago — and I’ve neglected the blog. Not that anybody cares. Anyway, here’s something. Also: a curiosity. My father was named Alan J. Preller, and grew up on Long Island. The new GM of the San Diego Padres, A.J. Preller, also grew up on Long Island. It’s not a common name. I’ve talked it over with my brother, Al, and we’ve decided he’s probably a second-cousin or something, connected to my late Grandfather, Fred Preller, 22-year assemblyman from Queens, NY. Ah, baseball.

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12. Fan Mail Wednesday #200 (Seth from Irving Pertzsch Elementary — Who? — in Wisconsin)

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Are you ready? Because here we go . . . the 200th letter to young readers I’ve shared here on James Preller Dot Com Incorporated & Associates!

Hold on a second. That seems to deserve some kind of elaborate, expensive celebration.

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Too much?

Think I went overboard with it?

Moving right along, a 3rd-grader with burning inquisitiveness writes:

Scan 1

I replied:

Dear Seth,

Okay, you asked a lot of questions, let’s see if I’ve got any answers.

I’ll look under the couch cushions first, there’s usually something under there. Hmmmm: a half-eaten Pop Tart (delicious), 37 cents, and my car keys! But no answers. 

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezI’ve written so many books that I’ve lost count. More than 80. I don’t have a single favorite, but I really enjoy the books in my SCARY TALES series, since they are recent and were so much fun to write. A little creepy, so maybe not for everybody, but I love them.

Ideas come from being alive in the world, open and receptive to the things around me. I often look back on my life, and my family, and find ideas that way.

You know what, let me turn that around a little. I don’t look for “ideas” so much as I look for “feelings.” I can’t write very well unless I feel something: I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m excited, scared, proud, etc. Those things that make me feel –- that touch my heart -– are often the best source of ideas.

Pets? Two black cats, one dog, two teenagers. 

Wait, what?

My best,

James Preller

 

 

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13. Fan Mail Wednesday #201 — Plus a Bonus Drawing!

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Before I answer Kallen’s letter, I wanted to share a cool drawing that was sent to me by a boy named Ethan, who lives in Ontario, Canada. Ethan is a fan my “Scary Tales” series, and I believe this is his version of Bloody Mary from the book, HOME SWEET HORROR.

Drawing by Ethan.

Drawing by Ethan.

 

Isn’t that great. I love the body; very creepy somehow.

Now here’s a letter from Wisconsin:

Scan 8

I replied:

Dear Kallen, 

Thank you so much for your super kind letter. I realize that it took you a lot of time and effort to write to me, and I want you to know that I appreciate it.

I’ve been busy working on new books –- I just finished one that took me nearly four years! — but I am happy to take a few minutes out of my (freezing!) Sunday to respond to your request.

Please find my lousy signature below. I say “lousy” because I have terrible handwriting; I blame it on the fact that I’m a lefty.

A great writer? Did you really say that?

I go back to your letter, reread it, then reread it again. Yes, Kallen really said it: “You are a great writer.”

I think I’ll just float around on white, fluffy clouds for the rest of the day!

Your friend,

James Preller

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14. Fan Mail Wednesday #202: More Questions About the Ending of “Bystander”

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This one comes via a terrific teacher I met on a school visit . . .

Hello, 

I am sitting with a student right now who just told me that “Bystander” is the first book that he has ever enjoyed reading. He finished it up and asked for another book by “that author.” Just wanted to give you the positive feedback! 
Also, my students are wondering:
1) Is “Bystander” is based on a true story. 
2) Did you consider writing a different ending? 
Cheers,
Rachel 
I replied:
Rachel,
Sorry it took me a while to get back to you — and I’m even more sorry that I seem to begin every missive these days with an apology. 
 
Questions:
 
1) No, not a true story, but always elements of truth — and my real life — seem to seep into every story I write. The characters are completely made up, and for me that’s always where the heart of the story beats. Character, character, character.
 
97803125479672) Yes, I did conceive of a different ending. To backtrack, I fully understand that the ending in the book — the one I picked — is anti-climactic. It also offends our human sense of fairness; in books & movies & in real life, we tend to prefer for the bad guy to learn his lesson or, even better, to get taken down by some form of justice. Eaten by a dragon, preferably. That kind of ending is (almost) always the most satisfying. It’s a time when, in movie theaters, we stand up and cheer. A story is, of course, artifice. A construct, a false thing conceived in pursuit of “truth,” if you will. But in this case, I really strived to stay true to life as I knew it, thus: the ending of the book. I rejected the phony ending, even when I knew that many readers might prefer it.
 
That said, sure, I played around with a different idea. The seeds of it are still in the book. Griffin has been stealing from parked cars; the police strongly suspect him; and Eric has discussed this — in the vaguest of terms — with a police officer. The ending I conjured was for Eric to somehow be involved in setting up Griffin’s fall. That Griffin gets caught by the cops and justice is served. Everybody stand up and cheer!
 
As you know, I did not write that ending. Though, again, the seeds are there. I ultimately rejected Eric’s role in that kind of setup, but the story does suggest that Griffin is clearly on the wrong path. Trouble waits ahead unless Griffin turns things around. There’s also the possibility that I still have a degree of sympathy for Griffin, despite everything. I just didn’t have the heart to see him walk off in handcuffs.
 
Thanks for your positive feedback.
 
JP

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15. Fan Mail Wednesday #194: Writing Advice

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

Scan 4

 

I replied:

Tyler,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My best,

JP

 

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

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

Hello, Mr. Preller,

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

The Freddy Krueger Girl,

Ashley

I replied,

Ashley! 

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

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17. Everything Was Swell Until the 6th Inning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

JohnGallardo1

 

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

“Hey Scroobius Pip, You saved a life.

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

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

 

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

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

Adam:Fan Mail

I replied:

Adam, dude.

Or should I call you Shirley?

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

That’s Mr. Preller to you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text copyright, © 2004 by James Preller.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your friend,

“Ms” James Preller

 

 

 

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21. I Am Becoming This Guy . . .

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

I loved my stick.

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

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

Carry on!

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

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

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

I got the job writing the SeeSaw Book Club.

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

“Call them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“On the phone?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Um, me?”

“Yes, you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so easy after all.

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

 

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23. Fan Mail Wednesday #197: Emily, Age 11, Writes an Alternative Ending to BYSTANDER

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I get a lot of great letters from readers, but this one is particularly awesome because it’s from a future author . . . who maybe already writes better than me. Rats!

 

Hello Mr. Preller,

9780312547967My name is Emily _____, age 11, and I wish to be an author someday. I read your story Bystander and loved it!  Although I didn’t like how the story ended between Eric and Griffin. I was expecting some sort of face off between them but it never happened. So, I wrote my own ending to the story. I go to school in Portland. I handed in the story into my teacher for her advice and she made a note that said (and i quote):

Emily,

There are so many great qualities in this story — wow!

  • really suspenseful and exciting
  • great phrasing description
  • believable plot

You should send this to author to read — really he will appreciate it i’m sure.

Anyway, so i decided to send it to you! here it is:

How Bystander should have ended…

It was November. A couple months have passed since Griffin and Eric interacted with one another. Griffin and his new crew ruled the halls of the school. Eric wished that if he imagined it enough Griffin would leave, but when you enter reality, it’s not something you can expect to happen.

Day by day, the boys exchange dirty looks with one another… until Eric decided to tell the  “Griffin crew,” who was boss.

“Ok, Griffin, I am going to tell you this, and I’m only going to say this once…” Eric said grabbing Griffin by the shirt.

“We need to settle this like men,” Eric spoke with rage.

“On the basketball court. If I win, you stop bullying people forever. But if you win, then I leave the school…forever.”

Griffin almost laughed.

“Really? And who would be on your team?” Griffin snickered. Eric’s face turned pale as sleet.

“I can find a team,” Eric trembled as he spoke.  A crowd of people came fast, swarming like bees. Everyone was there. Then Eric heard a voice he hadn’t heard in a while.

“I’ll be on his team!” shouted a voice. Everyone looked back to see David Hallenback standing, head held high.

“Ha-ha. Are you kidding?! Hallenback you can’t even do a push up!” Griffin teased. Eric knew he couldn’t be a bystander again.

“I’ve seen him do a pushup!” Eric lied. David’s cheeks got less red as if Eric’s words soaked up all the embarrassment.

“Well you can only have two people on your team… who would join?”

Then Griffin heard a voice that he recognized call out:

“I will,” It was Cody. Who knew someone so annoying could be so kind?

“Uhh, dude! You’re in my crew!” Griffin called out.

“I ditched you remember?” Cody said. He walked over to Eric and high fived him. It was then three on Griffin’s team and three on Eric’s team. Griffin was with, a new kid named Caiden, and tomboy named Piper. Eric was with David and Cody.

“I’m going to win this thing,” Griffin said.

“I beg to differ,” Eric smirked.

—–

It was the day of the game and everyone was there. Eric’s team started with the ball. By the time it was almost over, Eric was losing, 39 to 40. There was 8 seconds on the clock. Griffin’s team had the ball.

1280px-Basketball_through_hoopThen the horn blew. Griffin was heading towards the basket when Hallenback made a quick steal from Griffin and was heading towards the basket. 3 seconds, 2 seconds… then you could hear the most amazing sound in the world, the swoosh of the ball going into the net. Eric won. It was like Eric could walk on air.

“HALLENBACK, HALLENBACK, HALLENBACK!” everyone chanted. Griffin’s anger was boiling up more than dry ice in hot water. Let’s just say, sometime’s a fairytale can turn into reality.

Thank you for your time.

farewell,

Emily

My reply:

Dear Emily,

Thank you for sharing your alternative ending to Bystander. I’m really impressed. I feel like a stranger handed me a gift out of the blue. “For me? Thank you.”

You are such a good writer. Great action and suspense. It’s smart how your brought basketball back into the story, a tale of justice settled on the “court.” Best of all, I think, was your convincing use of dialogue. To me, believable dialogue is the key to writing compelling, fast-paced stories with lively characters. 

When I first started writing, I often got stuck writing long passages filled with interior thinking. Nobody every moved! You know what I mean? Those times when we’re trapped inside a character’s head. So he thinks and thinks and thinks, and shares with the reader lots of interior thoughts. But on the page, that can get boring very quickly. Nothing happens. It took me years to learn a lesson that you already instinctively know: get characters talking to each other, create conflict . . . and get out of the way! I guess it’s obvious, really. Good writing does both, it goes inside and outside. It’s important to get inside a character’s head, at least once in a while, but in terms of showing action — that is: showing, not telling — we need to give readers a clear picture of “the outside.” You do that masterfully.

The ending of Bystander has generated more comments than any other aspect of the book. When I wrote that final scene, I realized that it might not be satisfying in the conventional sense, especially to a reader with a sense of fairness. In stories and movies, we like to see the bad day get it in the end. But my ending was anti-climactic; I did not opt for the big dramatic finish (which you accomplished so well). I went the other direction. For me, I wrote the ending that I thought was most true to the world as I understood it, even if, well, it was not a storybook conclusion. But I hear you, Emily, and you are not wrong to feel the way you do. I just wanted you to know why I wrote the ending the way I did. I followed my own idea of true.

Thank you so much for your work. And thanks, too, for your fabulous teacher who suggested that you share it with me. I’m grateful to your both. Great job all around.

I’m sorry that it took me a couple of weeks to get back to you. I could sense your eagerness for a reply, but I’ve been deep into the final stages of a book — deadlines are tough, you know — and it’s been hard for me to address my growing (virtual) pile of letters. Plus, my mother-in-law has been visiting. And, well, maybe someday you’ll understand the difficulty of that particular distraction.

By the way, I have a companion book to Bystander coming out at the end of the summer, titled The Fall (Macmillan, 2015). It’s an entirely different story, all new characters, but in it I explore some of the same themes and issues found in Bystander. It’s probably a little bit darker, a little tougher. I’m really proud of it. As a writer, you probably how that feels.

I wish you a happy holiday, however you might celebrate this wintery season. As the band Devo said, “Merry Something To You!”

James Preller

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24. “UNBROKEN”: Worst Movie Trailer Ever . . . Or World’s Greatest Two-Minute Film?

I have not read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Despite various conversations and recommendations, almost the entire sum of what I know about the movie comes from the following 2:40 trailer. Now I consider myself an expert. Because the trailer appears to tell me everything, and explains everything, to the point where I’m not sure I need to see the two-hour film anymore. Which is a bummer, because I was looking forward to it. This is a common enough complaint, by the way: trailers that tell far too much. The idea is to get me, the potential consumer, interested in seeing the movie — to entice a purchase — not to summarize the whole thing. This trailer strikes me as particularly egregious. Let’s take a look:

0:07: Our hero is in the air force during WW II, flying over the ocean, which he observes is very large. “Lotta ocean,” he says. He’s not a pilot and he’s not a gunner. He’s a . . . something else.

0:20: After a tense and dramatic aerial dogfight, in which our hero acts bravely — “Inbound! Three o’clock!” — the plane is shot down and crashes into the aforementioned large ocean. All these shots look exciting and well-filmed.

0:32: Brief pause. The story REWINDS and we hear our hero reflect upon his childhood, specifically the positive influence of his older brother. Nonetheless, our hero gets into fights and various sorts of mischief and draws the attention of local law enforcement. He’s on the road to nowhere. The kindly older brother solemnly advises our hero, “If you keep going the way you are going, you’ll end up in the street.”

0:35: Cut to our hero in a track meet, where he overcomes bullies (who cheat!) to come from behind to win a race. The brother’s sage advice plays over the footage: “You train, you fight harder than those other guys, and you win.”

0:43: We see him racing what “might be the fastest final lap in Olympic history”; his family is at home, listening to the race over the radio, ecstatic and proud, because this is also a movie about family values.

0:46: VOICE-OVER MESSAGE: “If you take it, you can make it.”

0:48:  Type on screen informs me that this is based on an “extraordinary” true story.

FLASH FORWARD: Back to the plane crash.

1:00: Awesomely cool underwater sequence of plane crash (somebody learned from “Cast Away” starring Tom Hanks). Our hero once again demonstrates bravery and determination.

1:05: Three soldiers on a life raft. It does not look good. There’s at least one shark in the water. The weather absolutely sucks and they eventually get philosophical about life. One suggests out loud that they are going to die. Our hero is like, nuh-huh, “We’re not dying.” He does not accept defeat.

1:13: Our hero, despite horrific experiences clinging to life on the (large) ocean, still keeps a good sense of humor. “I have some good news, and some bad news.”

1:20: They are taken prisoners of war as “enemies of Japan.” Just the worst luck ever. Our hero is beaten and tortured.  There is a sweet-faced guard who is particularly cruel to our hero. There might be a love-hate element here, just the way he focuses on our hero, but it’s hard to tell in only a few seconds.

unbroken-movie-image-3-600x257

1:32: Whoa, holy crap. He takes a terrific blow to the face right there — singled out because he is an Olympic athlete, and presumably an embodiment of all that is noble about American toughness and spirit. Our hero, we know by now, is not going to stay down.

1:50: After a series of increasingly grim shots of POW camp — with emotional music swelling in the background — our hero says out loud: “If I can take it, I can make it.” Ah-ha, that must be the theme of the movie! A great spirit surviving against all odds. I think I’ve got it. Plus, um, all the family love that makes it possible.

1:58: An insanely long line of prisoners awaits their turn to punch our hero in the face, as he urges them to punch him, presumably out of some sort of self-sacrificing nobility: “Come on, come on!” This, again, seems exceptionally brutal and painful to watch.

TYPE ON SCREEN: “THIS CHRISTMAS.”

2:00: Oh, great. Torture for Christmas! Let’s bring the kids, honey.

2:04: Wait, what? Does Minnie Driver play his mother? No, I don’t think so, but it looked like her for a second. Too bad, I like Minnie Driver. Carry on!

2:07: We finally learn our hero’s name, Louie, and that he loves his parents. A lot. Assorted shots of his family back home, feeling his absence. Oh look, there might even be a romantic interest in this movie, he’s just smooched somebody.

TYPE ON SCREEN: “NEVER GIVE IN.”

unbroken-movie-poster-2-378x6002:15: Okay, got it. He does not give up, and neither should we.

2:20: Cruel guard has Louie hold a huge piece of lumber that looks like a beam, clearly an allusion to the crucifixion of Christ. The guard says, “If he drops it, shot him.”

2:25: Another montage of shots of Louie’s  life, demonstrations of his strength, love, and character. At this point, we’re all 100% positive that he won’t drop it. Not going to happen. Music gets louder now, a chorus kicks in, the other prisoners root for our hero, whose strength and determination clearly inspires them.

2:32: More shots of triumph and familial love. Amazingly, he presses the huge piece of lumber over his head with arms fully extended. Rocky Balboa!

2:37: Final shot is of light bursting through the clouds, which can be viewed as either religious or secular, depending.

TYPE ON SCREEN: “UNBROKEN”

MORE TYPE ON SCREEN: “ALL MY LIFE I HAD ALWAYS FINISHED THE RACE.” — LOUIS ZAMPERINI

Quibble: This quote seems fairly pedestrian for a big final quote. It’s not very poetic, profound, or memorable. But maybe it’s there because Louie was really just a simple kind of guy with basic American values. Not a poet, but everyman.

TYPE ON SCREEN: COMING SOON.

FINAL CREDITS, the end.

Too bad, I barely finished chewing one Milk Dud. Louis Zamperini seems like an amazing, resilient  person who lived an extraordinary life. Wow. I’m so glad I saw that trailer!

 

 

 

 

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25. “You Can’t You Can Never Be Sure” & Other Thoughts This Morning

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I’ve been reading more poetry lately, like returning to an old friend, and this morning want to share two things.

John Berryman.

Poet John Berryman, who died without knowing.

 

First, from this morning, rereading a poem by W.S. Merwin titled “Berryman.” I’ll give you the last seven lines, you can look up the rest:

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I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you can’t

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you can’t you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write

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As for me, I hear those words and accept them in my heart as true. Self-doubt seems central to the experience, though it’s nearly impossible to write without wild spasms of self-confidence. It’s why some writers drink, I’m sure, to trick yourself into feeling that way.

You die without knowing, that line, transcends the subject of writing. We can’t ever be sure, but we persist, and we can at times, in fact, think so. We may say, quietly, in bed to our loved one, “I think it’s a good book.” And we might even believe it. But in the next moment, in the silence between our last word and her reply, we can also know that our life has a been a delusion, a failure, and that none of it amounts to much of anything at all, when we had hoped for so much more.

Ah, the writing life.

300px-ErasedfromexistanceI’ve had so many books go out of print over the past two years. Just a staggering number, more than 40 books . . . going, going, gone. It’s the business I’m in, there are all sorts of rational reasons, excuses, palliatives I can apply. But still, it cuts deep. It just does. It feels like that photograph in the movie “Back to the Future.” Marty keeps looking at it, panicked, watching the images slowly disappear.

Maybe that’s what alzheimer’s feels like during brief snatches of clarity. You are helplessly aware that it’s all slipping away, and you can’t even be sure that any of it was real.

If you have to be sure don’t write, Berryman tells us, through Merwin. Such is life. You can’t you can never be sure. What can you do? You write some more, and hopefully it will be good.

Two nights ago I stood up at the head of the table — we were hosting friends and family on Christmas Eve, just a lovely evening — and I said a few words in preamble to a poem I wanted to share, Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes.”

Which is funny, right? The title got a chuckle. Typical Jimmy, to go dark at a time like this. But the truth about darkness is that it gives us an appreciation of light. Poems purportedly “about” death are really about life. At least, that’s certainly the case here. “I want to say all my life/I was a bride married to amazement.”

I hope you like it.

 

When Death Comes

When death comes 
like the hungry bear in autumn; 
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; 
when death comes 
like the measle-pox

when death comes 
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: 
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything 
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, 
and I look upon time as no more than an idea, 
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common 
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, 
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something 
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life 
I was a bride married to amazement. 
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder 
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, 
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

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Mary Oliver: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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