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1. 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:

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

 

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

Here’s the letter:

Scan 1

Scan 3

I replied:

Dear Chih-Hsuan:

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

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

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

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

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

Your secret message: FUN BOOK!

Thanks for that.

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

Illustration by John Speirs.

Illustration by John Speirs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My best,

JP

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3. Letter from a Former Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside it read:

Mullen 2

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mullen 3

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

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

Scan

 

I replied:

Dear Kaiya:

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

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

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

Anyway, please please please forgive me!

Your friend,

JP

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

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

Amityville_house

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

It gave us a destination, at least.

From the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, BOYS & GHOULS!

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6. How to Tip the Chambermaid

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

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

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

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

2698349-1“You do?”

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

Nice, right?

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

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

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

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

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7. Writer’s Workshop Photos

 

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: I originally posted this three years ago.

——-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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9. Fan Mail Wednesday #185: Abigail from Casselberry Drew This!

 

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This terrific drawing was included at the bottom of a letter that arrived with a whole batch of similar letters, all sent by a caring teacher from Casselberry, Florida.

I finally grabbed a few spare minutes to sign their book plates, write a genuine response, and pop it back into the mail (in the fabulous SASE that was included).

There were a lot of drawings in the package, and for some reason I loved Abigail’s best of all. Maybe because it was sort of small and tidy. Who can explain it? The heart loves what it loves.

As always, I know how lucky I am. And I feel grateful. Thanks, Abigail. Thanks, Ms. Wilson!

 

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10. A Short Excerpt & Artwork from THE ONE-EYED DOLL — Coming In Time for Halloween

Here’s a brief excerpt from THE ONE-EYED DOLL (Scary Tales #5, October). Artwork by Iacopo Bruno, of course.

Do you think she’s trouble?

DOLL_Interiors_04

     Malik grabbed the axe and felt it’s heft in his hands. “Better step back,” he warned. He raised the axe high and let it fall.

     THWACK, SMASH!

     The box was well built, but no match for a sharp axe. Bits of wood splintered loose and one corner of the box split open.

     The cat, Midnight, rubbed against Malik’s legs. It hissed and spat at the box, back raised in an arch.

     “Shhh, Midnight,” Malik hushed. He smoothed the cat’s raised fur. “What’s gotten into you?”

     Soda Pop stepped forward. “What’s inside it?”

     “Hold on a minute,” Malik hushed. “Gimmie that hammer, Tee.”

     Working carefully, Malik pried apart the box.

     “Is that all there is?” Soda Pop asked. “A crummy old doll?”

     And in truth, that’s all there was. Just an ordinary doll –- and not a very nice one, either. The doll had curly black hair with a red ribbon in it, a dirty blue-and-white checked dress, and one of its eyes was missing entirely. The doll’s painted face was badly cracked and worn.

     “I don’t get it.” Soda Pop scratched his head, befuddled.

     Malik pushed the doll aside. He searched through the scraps of wood. “There was nothing else in it,” he said, disappointment in his voice.

     Tiana picked up the doll and pressed it close to her chest. “I love it,” she said. “I love it lots.”

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11. Fan Mail Wednesday #187: A Lovely, Lively One from Ashley in MA

postalletter-150x150 I don’t share every letter, as there can be some repetition. But I quite enjoyed this one from Ashley, who, like me, is also a writer. Scan 2 I replied:

Dear Ashley,

It is so nice to hear from a fellow writer – even if, well, you are not exactly a “fellow” at all. I don’t think the “fellow” part is important anyway. But I dither. 

I mean to say:

Thank you for your detailed and wildly entertaining letter. I’m grateful that you enjoyed my book, BYSTANDER, and that you took the time to write to me. I realize from the heading that it was your “Summer Reading Letter,” but you obviously didn’t mail it in, so to speak. It felt genuine to me. And, yes, it was mailed.

(Sorry, weird mood.)

You sound a little like my daughter, Maggie, who is entering 8th grade. She plays soccer and basketball and, like you, is a 100% effort type of person. You can’t go wrong when you give your best. I love that about her. She is also sunny and optimistic, like you, whereas I can get a little gloomy at times, often thinking that it’s about to rain.

I’m glad, too, that you realize the importance of teachers. They come in all sizes and shapes, it’s true, and some are great while others are barely bearable, but when we can make a real connection with one, the entire world can open up in a new way. It’s amazing, really. As an adult, I find that I am more and more grateful to those people from long ago, those teachers and mentors, who gave me so much of themselves. They impacted me, they make a difference. Such a powerful gift – and a great, honorable profession.

9780312547967Of course, I guess there is a message to BYSTANDER, though I sort of hate to see it reduced to that. It’s a story, and I hope for readers to become involved in the characters, to step into their shoes, and see the dynamic from different angles. I want the reader to reach his or her own conclusions. 

Since you asked, many readers have asked if I was planning on a sequel. Short answer: no. Longer answer: I just wrote one! Sort of. Not really. It’s a new book coming out in the Fall of 2015, called THE FALL. In it I take on some of the same themes, but go to a darker place. I’m very excited about it. 

As for your questions, I guess that Mary, to me, is the key character to the story. Yes, she’s a minor character, but with a small and pivotal role. I think she is the book’s most courageous character.

Thanks again for that awesome letter, Ashley. I really like your spirit. 

Btw, you might also like my book, BEFORE YOU GO.

My best . . .

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12. Incoming: Revisions!

I got a big package in the mail yesterday . . .

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This bit, four real books, finally published, represents a final payoff. It’s done, it exists. There’s also something a little, I don’t know, deflating about it. An ending. Now it will go out into the world, probably to be largely ignored. That might sound a touch maudlin, or even self-pitying, and I’m sorry about that. But that’s the business these days. So many books don’t make it, even the good ones. It can be disheartening. And, yes, scary.

Hey, check out my new shirt . . .

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Cool, right? I love it.

And lastly, most exciting of all, came the editorial revisions for my upcoming book, THE FALL, a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I try to enter the process of revisions with an open mind and an open heart. I trust my editor, Liz Szabla, and endeavor to deeply consider all of her comments, thoughts, suggestions. This is a new opportunity for me to try to make this book better than ever. That involves, sometimes, letting go of old ideas, favorite sentences. It means stepping back — to truly re/vise, to see again — and, well, take another whack at it.

In a moment, the sound you’ll hear will be that of a writer rolling up his sleeves.

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13. This Is Tania, Featured in the next Scary Tales book, ONE-EYED DOLL

DOLL_Interiors_07

Quick excerpt from ONE-EYED DOLL (October, 2014), art by Iacopo Bruno:

     “Do you like it?”

     Tiana was pleased. She stood in her pretty new dress. A real smile on her face. Another glimpse of what she used to be like.

     “I asked Mama to make it for me,” she said.    

     Malik dug his hands into his pockets. His eyes moved from his sister to the doll in her arms. Their dresses were now identical. Blue-and-white checkered. Both girl and doll wore a red ribbon in their hair.

     “What’s wrong with your eye?” he asked. “It’s half closed.”

     Tiana shrugged. “Mama says it might be pink eye. Or maybe I got a spider bite. Now I look like Selena. Don’t you think?”

     She smiled a Mona Lisa smile.

     “I guess you do. How about you leave that doll at home for once?” Malik suggested. “Come outside with me. We could shoot baskets. Play horse. Or we could pack a picnic, go fishing by the river. What do you think, Selena? I mean, Tiana!”

     Malik caught the error immediately. It was a simple mistake, calling his sister by the doll’s name. But it haunted him just the same.

     “Selena doesn’t like those things,” Tiana replied. “She says they’re dumb.”

     Malik’s mood darkened. “Suit yourself.” He wheeled and made for the front door. “I’ve got something to do, Tee. I’ll be back in one hour. Okay? One hour. You and that doll can sit around all you want. Just don’t leave the house, you hear? Daddy’s home. If you need something, just wake him. But if I was you, I’d wait unless it’s a real emergency.”

     Tiana didn’t answer.

     She was already gone.

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14. Cartoon for Teachers: My Dog Ate My Homework (or maybe not)

Hey, teachers, librarians, educators, and so on . . . you might enjoy this.

Carry on and have a great school year. You do such an important job, play such a vital role in the life and development of our children. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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15. Proud of This: And Then There Were 5

The first book come out in July 2013, and #5 comes out October, 2014, and the manuscript for #6 has been written, edited, revised – now it’s up to Feiwel & Friends to turn my rough pages into a real book.

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I’m proud of this accomplishment. Proud of the quality of these books. Six stories, each unique, with new (diverse) characters and varied settings. Each one designed to get kids turning the pages, reading books, heart beat faster, and enjoying the experience.

As an author, I’ve had to learn to control the things I can, and to accept the process. So much is out of my hands. Will these books find an audience? Will they get past the gatekeepers? Will readers love them? I can only hope . . . while I move on to write the next story that moves me.

Thank you for giving this series a chance. And thanks, too, to everyone at Macmillan for helping to make these books possible. I’ve been fortunate.

Oh, yeah: Great books for Halloween, or any time of year!

 

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16. Ahoy, Lubbers, It’s “Speak Like a Pirate Day!” Today’s Word Is HORNSWAGGLE, Featuring Art By Greg Ruth

“Young children who love pirates—
and parents who might relish reading aloud
with swashbuckling gusto—
are going to find “A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade”
just their cup of grog.” 
— The Wall Street Journal.

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Today’s phrase: “Sink me!”

An expression of surprise.

Today’s word: “Hornswaggle.”

To cheat.

Put ‘em together: “Sink me! I’ve been hornswaggled by scallywags!

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Below you’ll find various images from two books that I cooked up with the brilliant artist (and occasional “bilge rat”) Greg Ruth – A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade and A Pirate’s Guide to Recess. Now double quick, set your goggles here for some review snippets about the First Grade title . . . plus Greg’s great work.

9780312369286“Told entirely in pirate lingo, this story follows a boy and his entourage of ethereal salty dogs through the first day of school. ‘Me great scurvy dog slurped me kisser when I was tryin’ t’ get me winks!’ The protagonist’s fruitful imagination turns ordinary routine into a high-seas adventure complete with a small, skirted buccaneer walking the plank during recess. In the end, where does X mark the spot? Treasure abounds in the library, with the chance to experience the adventure of the written word. The illustrations have a vintage feel, complete with boisterous grog-drinking, scabbard-waving, and bubble-pipe-smoking pirates. The combination of the muted tones of the pirates with the bold colors of the real world adds to the visual appeal . . . it can serve as a tremendous read-aloud, especially on Talk Like a Pirate Day.”—School Library Journal, Starred Review.

“Preller’s buoyant pirate-inflected storytelling and Ruth’s illustrations, which have a decidedly vintage flair, form an exuberant tribute to imagination and a spirit of adventure.”Publishers Weekly, Starred Review.

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“Pirate-addled readers will dance a jig; press-ganged kids will be happy for the glossary. Good fun, me hearties.” — Kirkus Reviews.

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“Young would-be buccaneers facing their own first-day jitters will enjoy this droll title, which ends with a cheer for libraries. A great choice for sharing on September 19, International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” – Booklist.

Arrrrr!

COVER!!

 

 

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17. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #188: My Sly Tribute to Raymond Chandler & John Reynolds Gardiner’s “Stone Fox”

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Check it — a letter from Marcus!

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I sent Marcus a note that included my lousy, lefty autograph and this reply:

Marcus!

Thanks for your letter. I’m so glad that you like my series, and The Great Sled Race in particular. It’s one of my favorites, too.

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imagesOne of the things I try to do in each book I write, mostly just for myself, is to make a reference to a real book. It’s just a my way of connecting Jigsaw’s made-up world with the everyday world that you, the reader, live in. In this one, I decided that Ms. Gleason’s class would be reading Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner, which is a book that I greatly admire. She even introduces the idea of The Five “W” Questions essential to reading and writing: who, what, where, when, why. As Jigsaw realizes: “Reading was like detective work. Figure out the W questions . . . and you’ll catch the crook.”

jigsaw-sled-race-1By way of tribute, I lifted and transformed the setup of this story from Raymond Chandler’s great adult book, Farewell, My Lovely. The character of second-grader Bigs Maloney is partly inspired by a hulking ex-con named Moose Malloy. Remember that author’s name, Raymond Chandler, and you can catch up with his books in another 10 years or so.

Take care, be well, and keep reading books — any books at all!

James Preller

NOTE: Readers can click here to learn more background info about Jigsaw Jones #8: The Case of the Great Sled Race. I always hoped that a creative teacher might read Sled Race alongside Gardiner’s great book. They really do go together well.

 

 

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18. Fan Mail Wednesday #189: Flowers from Canada!

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Here at James Preller Dot Com, we’ve never felt constrained by outmoded, tedious concepts such as, ahem, days of the week. Oh brother, please. It’s always Fan Mail Wednesday in our generous hearts!

Here’s a really kind note sent from Prince Edward Island in Canada, a land where even the bacon is Canadian!

Dear Mr. James Preller,

I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for the creation of your young adult novel Bystander.  Not only do I appreciate the sensitivity and humanity displayed within the text, but you also manage to infuse humorr.  It might make you smile to know that my grade seven students honestly plead with me to share another chapter during our read aloud time.

9780312547967I was a bit apprehensive at first as I read about Eric’s life back in Ohio prior to the separation of his parents. I was nervous that students would become emotional charged or upset as Eric spoke of how is family had “fractured.” I was worried that this would trigger a sense of loss or sadness as this is such a common experience for many young people.  If anything, students connected to his disappointment and confusion during a tumultuous time.  I was pleasantly surprised to witness how students empathized with Eric and Rudy. We spoke about empathy and how we all handle stress and grief in different ways.

In closing, I just wish to say thank you once again.  You can never know how far your words may travel, but may you celebrate the fact that they have touched the hearts of students in my grade seven English class. Thank you for your time and if you ever find the time to reply, I know that my students would be positively thrilled.

Sincerely,

Stacy, Prince Edward Island, Canada

I replied:

Stacy,

My goodness, wow. The Irish have an expression, “Flowers for the living.” That you don’t have to wait for someone to die before saying something nice to him, or about him.

I really appreciate receiving that good news. It was an exceptionally kind note of you to write. (Though I’m not entirely sure those two previous sentences were shining examples of “good” English, but, hey, let’s keep things loose for now.)

photo-19Yesterday I handed in the 2nd and final revision of my next hardcover (July, 2015), titled THE FALL. It’s not a sequel to BYSTANDER, and it might be one step tougher, but it does address many of the same ideas and themes as that previous book. After some group bullying behavior, there’s a tragic result. The story is told entirely from the point of view of one of the boys who engaged in those misguided acts of cruelty. Now he has to own it, what he did & didn’t do.

My best, and again, thank you!

JP

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

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

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

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

 

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

Wow: Quentin Blake.

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

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

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

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

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

You heard that, right?

And wonderful it was.

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

And it all happens on page 7.

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

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

Everybody’s making millions!

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

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

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

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

Kids today, they sure do love the meta.

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

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

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

Just kidding, folks. You can relax.

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

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

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

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I replied:

Hi, Vaughn,

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

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

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

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

All I can say is: Yuck!

Some things, Vaughn, are hard to unsee.

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

My best,

JP

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it kind?

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


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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorez     nightmareland_cvr_lorez     9781250018915_p0_v1_s260x420     iscreamyouscream_cvr_highrez-198x300

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

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

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

 

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I replied:

Dear Shreya,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Stay away, gawk, stay away!

     The farther the boys traveled, the darker it got.

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

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

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

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

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

     “Guess you’re right,” Lance agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

     “Maybe we should head back,” Lance suggested.

Anyway, Shreya. Hopefully that sounds intriguing to you. 

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

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

JP

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25. Thanks, SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL, for the kind review!

nightmareland_cvr_lorezI was glad to hear from my editor at Macmillan, who passed along a quick review blurb of Scary Tales: Nightmareland from School Library Journal.

I was concerned that because this is part of a series, only the first book would get any kind of critical attention. You know, read one, read them all. Each story is different and independent. New setting, new characters, new twists and turns. So I am very grateful to the editors at School Library Journal for taking another look at the series. Thanks, folks.

Did you read that Jack Black is playing R.L. Stine — the real guy — in the upcoming “Goosebumps” movie? That’s just too fabulous for words. Last year in Austin I got to hang out with Bob Stine in his hotel room. We hung out on the deck, shooting the breeze, then headed over the to Texas Cemetery for a late-night reading in the dark, surrounded by tombstones. It was a pretty perfect night for me, a memory to keep, and I’m glad to see R.L. Stine mentioned in this review, which is from the August edition of SLJ.

 

 

PRELLER, James. Nightmareland. illus. by Iacopo Bruno. 112p. (Scary Tales). Feiwel & Friends. 2014. Tr $5.99. ISBN 9781250018939.
Gr 3-6–The latest spine tingler in Preller’s spooky chapter book series is sure to inspire a few chills. In this tale, a boy receives a new video game called Nightmareland. It warns users to “Enter at Your Own Risk,” a challenge that Aaron likes. He soons finds himself entangled in a world that seems like so much more than a mere game. Some genuinely creepy moments make this ideal for readers who can’t get enough “Goosebumps” and Alvin Schwarz tales.

 

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