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1. Best Last Lines of Books, Revisited

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48328I recently read a masterpiece by Richard Yates titled Revolutionary Road. You may have read it, or seen the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

The entire book left me in awe, frankly. But why I’m posting today is the ending was just so perfect. A man is sitting in his chair while his wife prattles on and on, perhaps representing the banalities and sometimes-pettiness of suburban life, the smallness of minds. She goes on uninterrupted for almost two full pages. Then he comes the final paragraph:

But from there on Howard Givings heard only a welcome, thunderous sea of silence. He had turned off his hearing aid.

Wow. The end.

A thunderous sea of silence.

And by best last line I should say, best ending for that specific book. For Revolutionary Road, the man turning off his hearing aid was just right. Shutting out the noise.

Anyway, that ending reminded me of all old post I had written maybe four or five years ago. Since I think it still has entertainment value, here you go . . .

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Stylist magazine has put together a list of The Best 100 Closing Lines from Books. Here’s a few of my favorites . . .

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Animal Farm, George Orwell

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Steig Larsson

“She opened the door wide and let him into her life again.”

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

“It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx

“There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

“A last note from your narrator. I am haunted by humans.”

The Beach, Alex Garland

“I’m fine. I have bad dreams but I never saw Mister Duck again. I play video games. I smoke a little dope. I got my thousand-yard stare. I carry a lot of scars. I like the way that sounds. I carry a lot of scars.”

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

“The old man was dreaming about the lions.”

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

“I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.”

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

“Are there any questions?”

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

“I ran with the wind blowing in my face, and a smile as wide as the valley of Panjsher on my lips. I ran.”

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

“She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

“I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

The Outcast, Sadie Jones

“He didn’t think about it, he went straight to a seat facing forwards, so that he could see where he was going.”

Before I Die, Jenny Downham

“Light falls through the window, falls onto me, into me. Moments. All gathering towards this one.”

They also compiled a list of 100 Best Opening Lines from Books.

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As an author, I guess it’s something to think about. It’s even more important with picture books. As James Marshall once told me in an interview, “The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles at the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it.”

Perhaps my best closing line comes from Hiccups for Elephant:

“Ah-choo!”

From A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, as “Red” enters the library:

“I passed the mess and crossed the halls. Until thar she blew — me treasure!”

From longer works, I especially like the closing lines from Along Came Spider:

“Without looking back, Trey nodded, yes, tomorrow, then stepped inside, yes, and was gone.”

Here’s the closing lines from Bystander:

“All the while quietly hoping — in that place of the heart where words sputter and dissolve, where secret dreams are born and scarcely admitted — to score winning baskets for the home team. To take it to the hole and go up strong. Fearless, triumphant. The crowd on their feet. His father in the stands, cheering.”

Recently a reviewer wrote that the last line of The Fall brought tears to her eyes, that it wasn’t until the final moment that she fully realized the book had touched her in that way.

I don’t think it was the brilliance of the last line, but more the culmination of feeling. Here it is anyway:

TheFall

“I guess I will remember everything. Your friend, Sam Proctor.”

And while I’m updating this section with recent titles, I also like the last lines of Before You Go, if you don’t mind me saying so:

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“He didn’t know what would happen with Becka. Maybe that’s why he needed to be alone on the beach, to watch the sunrise, to be okay with himself, despite everything. Sometimes life seemed impossibly hard, full of car wrecks and souls that shined like stars in yellow dresses. So much heartbreak and undertow. Jude bent down, picked up a smooth white stone, measured its heft in his hand. And he reached back and cast that rock as far as he could.

Just to see the splash.”

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2. Fan Mail Wednesday #214: Another Happy Contest Winner!

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This letter came from a super mom who entered a contest for a free book giveaway. She accompanied it with a nice letter so I figured I’d share our exchange.

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Hello! I’d like to enter the contest for book#6 for my son Aidan! He’s been waiting so long for this book to be published! Your Scary Tales series are his very favorite books to read, he happened to find them at the library and devoured them all immediately. I’ve tried to find similar books for him,  since he’s usually not very enthused about nightly reading time,  but so far nothing had come close to grabbing his attention as your books. He would be so excited to win your signed, newest book! But either way he’s going to read it,  and love it I’m sure! Thanks for entertaining so many children, I hope you never stop!
Sincerely,
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April
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I replied:
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Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES #6: SWAMP MONSTER.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES #6: SWAMP MONSTER.

Thanks so much for your kind letter. As a parent, I know how it feels when I see my children connect with a series or an author. My daughter, Maggie, has never been a huge reader — and yes, that’s been frustrating for me as you might imagine. But now, suddenly, she’s reading anything by Jodi Picoult. It’s not my taste, but you won’t hear me complaining. I think one of the tricky parts about being a parent, or even a teacher, is to honor every reader’s individual taste. No judgment, just support. Because we have to trust in the process, we trust that one good book leads to another. Which is in no way to imply that my “Scary Tales” are not good books — I actually think they are! — just that maybe I’ve grown a bit sensitive about the horror genre in general. Now I know what Stephen King has been complaining about all these years. “Scary” doesn’t get a lot of respect, and many people think they know what it is without even reading the books.

Anyway, I digress. I’ve signed the book for Aidan and stuffed it into an envelope. I hope to get to the post office tomorrow.

My best to you and your family,

James Preller

 

 

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3. School Library Journal Reviews THE FALL!

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School Library Journal reviewed The Fall in their July issue and it’s a good one.

The money quote:

“Expertly!”

9780312643010-2No, wait.

Um . . . I did like that word though.

There was a complete sentence:

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

There were other kind sentences, too. So, oh, why not. Here’s the whole dang thing below.

Thank you for the thoughtful review, Kimberly Ventrella, whoever you are!

I really hope this book finds an audience. Fingers crossed.

 

PRELLER, James. The Fall. 208p. ebook available. Feiwel & Friends. Sept. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780312643010.

Gr 6-9–A compelling look at the aftermath of bullying, from the bully’s perspective. Sam Proctor thought it was funny the first time he posted a hateful comment on Morgan Mallen’s social media page. It was just a game, after all, and superpopular Athena Luiken said it was his turn to play. Even after Sam befriends Morgan and starts hanging with her outside of school, he continues to post anonymous trash on her page. When Morgan jumps off of a water tower and kills herself, Sam is forced to confront his actions and wonder if a bully can every truly be forgiven. Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse. Readers will relate to the teen, who’s less a bully than an average guy who gives in to peer pressure and inaction. This fast-paced story will spark discussion on cyberbullying, depression, and how to deal with tragic events. However, the ending introduces an element of magical realism that dampens the impact of an otherwise persuasive realistic tale. VERDICT While the conclusion falls short of the strong setup, this book stands alongside other well-crafted titles on bullying, such as Dori Hillestad Butler’s The Truth About Truman School (Albert Whitman, 2008) and Preller’s Bystander (Feiwel & Friends, 2009).–Kimberly Ventrella, Southwest Oklahoma City Library

 

 

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4. BYSTANDER Selected for Kindle Monthly Deal Promotion This July — Only $2.99 (Cheap)!

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9780312547967Good news for fans of BYSTANDER, or for those potential readers who have only, say,  three bucks worth of curiosity about the book. Now’s your chance! The Kindle version of my novel has been selected by Amazon for its monthly special promotion. And no, I don’t know exactly what that means either, because I’m a book-book kind of person. Old face, old school, that’s me. I suppose you can upload the book to your gadget-thingy-whatchamacallit real cheap.

That’s a good thing, right?

Wait a minute, what’s eight percent of $2.99?

Oh well.

Thanks for stopping by, and don’t forget to support your local, independent, brick-and-mortar bookstores. Our communities need ‘em, our world needs ‘em.

Here’s some old, dusty reviews for the discriminating reader . . .

“Preller has perfectly nailed the middle school milieu, and his characters are well developed with authentic voices. The novel has a parablelike quality, steeped in a moral lesson, yet not ploddingly didactic. The action moves quickly, keeping readers engaged. The ending is realistic: there’s no strong resolution, no punishment or forgiveness. Focusing on the large majority of young people who stand by mutely and therefore complicitly, this must-read book is a great discussion starter that pairs well with a Holocaust unit.” —School Library Journal, Starred Review

“Bullying is a topic that never lacks for interest, and here Preller concentrates on the kids who try to ignore or accommodate a bully to keep themselves safe. For Eric to do the right thing is neither easy nor what he first wants to do, and the way he finds support among his classmates is shown in logical and believable small steps. Eminently discussable as a middle-school read-aloud, [with] appeal across gender lines.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Preller displays a keen awareness of the complicated and often-conflicting instincts to fit in, find friends, and do the right thing. Although there are no pat answers, the message (that a bystander is hardly better than an instigator) is clear, and Preller’s well-shaped characters, strong writing, and realistic treatment of middle-school life deliver it cleanly.”—Booklist

“Plenty of kids will see themselves in these pages, making for painful, if important, reading.”—Publishers Weekly

“An easy pick for middle school classroom and school libraries, this book is a worthy addition to collections focused on bullying and larger public libraries, especially those with an active younger teen population.”—VOYA

 

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5. Outpost Centerfield: Reading & Writing About Baseball

Willie Mays, "the catch," from the 1954 World Series. Arguably the greatest play in the history of center field.

Willie Mays, “the catch,” from the 1954 World Series. Arguably the greatest play in the history of center field.

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I was recently reading a book by Philip Roth and came across a similarity to something I had written back in 2008. His words struck me as eerily familiar.

The relevant section in my book, Six Innings, focuses on center fielder Scooter Wells. For this book, my original idea came from watching an elaborate tracking shot by film director John Sayles. I actually forget which movie, and I may have all the details wrong, but the essence stands: I admired how the camera followed a character into a crowded room, came across a new face and then trailed after that new person until someone else came into view, and the camera again swiveled and changed direction to follow that character. I wondered if I could try a similar device by using a ball in a Little League game. Tell the story of each character as they naturally step into the game’s flow. If you catch the ball, it’s time for your story, and so on.

Anyway, in this moment, we’re out in center field with Scooter. An opposing slugger, Nick Clemente, has just struck a ball far and high. The pitcher, Dylan, immediately figures it’s gone . . .

2874077Out in center field, Scooter Wells knows better. He instantly realizes that the ball is going to stay within the yard. Most important, Scooter figures he’s got a chance to catch it. Somehow he does all that figuring — the mathematics of it, the cool calculus of force and trajectory, distance and wind patterns — by pure instinct. It’s a gift; he knows how to read a ball coming off a bat. To Scooter, center field is like a fire tower in the high peaks of the Adirondacks, an all-seeing observation post, the ideal vantage point to watch as the game unfolds.

< snip >

Now the ill-treated ball, so rudely bashed, travels in a soaring arc toward the right-center field gap. Scooter Wells, part physicist, part Labrador retriever, bolts toward the fence. “It’s mine! It’s mine!” he pointlessly yells, for the ball can be no one else’s. At full gallop, Scooter’s hat flies off his head. He extends his arm and snares Clemente’s bomb in the webbing of his glove.

Inning over.

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An aside: I don’t think anybody ever noticed it, but that passage includes a small tribute to the great Willie Mays. The “Say Hey Kid” had a signature habit of losing his hat, or his helmet if he happened to be tearing around the basepaths, whenever he took off on a mad sprint. At least that’s the way I remember it.

Here’s the section from Roth’s book, Portnoy’s Complaint, that caused me to to reread what I had written. For the record, I never read Portnoy until this past week, so I don’t see how I could have borrowed those images even subconsciously:

220px-Portnoy_s_ComplaintDo you know baseball at all? Because center field is like some observation post, a kind of control tower, where you are able to see everything and everyone, to understand what’s happening the instant it happens, not only by the sound of the struck bat, but by the spark of movement that goes through the infielders in the first second that the ball comes flying at them; and once it gets beyond them, “It’s mine,” you call, “it’s mine,” and then after it you go. For in center field, if you can get to it, it is yours.

 

As a baseball-loving southpaw from Long Island, I never played second base, shortstop, third base, or catcher. Those positions were and still remain strictly in the domain of right-handed ballplayers. So I pitched a lot, played first base, and eventually moved out to the hinter lands, center field, a position — and vantage point — I instantly loved.

What a great view to enjoy the game.

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6. Win a Free, Signed Copy of My New Book: SWAMP MONSTER

 

IMG_0729

 

So this box came in the mail containing the “author copies” of the 6th book in my “Scary Tales” series: Swamp Monster.

I’m very pleased with the story, the art, the whole she-bang.

By way of expressing my thanks, I thought I’d give away FIVE FREE, SIGNED COPIES to the first five people who raise their hand.

All you’ve got to do is shoot me an email at Jamespreller@aol.com. Type “SCARY TALES” into the subject heading. Please remember to include your mailing address. If you’d like me to personalize the inscription, don’t forget to include the name. I’m not a mind reader, you know.

Thanks for stopping by. I really do appreciate your interest and support. Hope you’re all having a nice summer!

 

 

 

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7. The Best Part of Being an Author

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I am doing this primarily for myself, just for the satisfaction of seeing all 6 book covers in one place. More in the future? That’s not up to me. Swamp Monster comes out in June, I’m pretty sure. Just saw the interior art today for the first time. Love it! Students ask me about the best part of being an author, an impossible question, but I think the answer speaks to the sense of accomplishment that comes with any creative act.

You step back and say, “Wow, I did that!” It’s the best feeling.

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homesweethorror_cvr_highrez  iscreamyouscream_cvr_highrez-198x300  9781250018915_p0_v1_s260x420   nightmareland_cvr_lorez  OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorez SWAMP_MONSTER_Esec02_ES_lores

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8. All Over the World: Selected Titles in Arabic, Indonesian, German, Korean, Greek, Spanish and More

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For someone who has such difficulties with the English language, it’s something of a shock for me to realize how many of my books have been translated into different languages.

Yesterday I got two new ones in the mail: Jigsaw Jones in Arabic and Scary Tales in Indonesian. I always discover these translations in a haphazard way. They just come in the mail or, in many instances, never come at all. I gather that the Arabic translations of Jigsaw have existed for years. Who knew? Not me. They keep us writers in the dark; like mushrooms, we prefer damp, dank places.

Today I warmed up the trusty, rusty scanner to share a random few translations with you. I have others in French, Italian, Portuguese, and more, but nevermind that. Look here . . .

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Arabic versions of The Case of the Race Against Time and The Case of the Golden Key.

Arabic versions of The Case of the Race Against Time and The Case of the Golden Key.

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Here’s a sample page . . .

Cool, right? Here's Geetha, the class artist, showing Mila and Jigsaw an artist's rendering of the suspect.

Cool, right? Here’s Geetha, the class artist, showing Mila and Jigsaw an artist’s rendering of the suspect. Illustration by Jamie Smith.

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In German, Jigsaw Jones was entirely re-illustrated and translated into “Puzzle Paul.”

Jigsaw Jones -- I mean, Puzzle Paul --searches for a valuable coin in the German translation of The Case of the Christmas Snowman.

Jigsaw Jones — I mean, Puzzle Paul –searches for a valuable coin in the German translation of The Case of the Christmas Snowman.

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Here’s the back cover of one of my Scary Tales titles, newly translated into Indonesian.

Scan 1

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They love baseball in Korea too:

Six Innings, the Korean translation.

Six Innings, the Korean translation.

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Let’s see, how about an interior from the Spanish translation of Hiccups for Elephant?

Poor Mouse was trying to sleep. Illustration by Hans Wilhelm.

Poor Mouse was trying to sleep. Illustration by Hans Wilhelm.

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I’ll stop here with this one, a favorite, the Greek translation of Bystander. Isn’t it amazing? Aren’t I lucky? Doesn’t it just blow your mind to think about it, writing books that are read all over the world?

Scan 6

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9. That Time I Was Asked to Give Advice to Aspiring Writers About “Rejection”

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I recently received a note from a friend. She wrote: “The topic of our local authors’ & illustrators’ meeting is ‘rejection.’ Would you mind sharing an anecdote about either a rejection or an acceptance that I can share with our group? Hearing about these from you will mean a great deal to our members.” 

A few days later I banged out the response below.

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images-2

I wish I had something remotely wise to offer you on this topic, some helpful insight that would give you the strength and wisdom to move forward in the face of a cruel, indifferent world.

I assume you already know all the stories. The books that were rejected 37 times only to become classics of children’s literature. The writers who wall-papered their offices with rejection slips. The realities of the business, how sometimes books are rejected simply because they don’t fit into a publisher’s overall plan — not the fault of the writer or even of the book itself.

And also, as I’m sure you know, there are things to be learned from rejection. For a long time early in my career, I hoped for “quality rejections.” Often a good rejection — anything beyond a standard form letter — can become the beginning of a relationship between writer and editor. And I guess it’s also true for standard rejections too. Proof of your hard work, your determination, your persistence. You are a writer sending out manuscripts and receiving replies from publishing companies. That places you inside the process, whether you are happy with the result or not.

Hey, folks, while we’re at it: Let’s hear it for persistence!

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persistence-1

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I am saying to you: Rejection is awful. It’s heartbreaking. I first published in 1986, almost 30 years ago, and I still experience professional rejection in many different ways. Just a scroll through my daily feed on Facebook and I’m ready to start drinking. The awards I didn’t win, the amazing books I didn’t write, the terrific ideas I never had, the wonderful schools I’m not asked to visit, the ALA this and the mid-winter that and on and on and on. The world, it seems, is always telling us that we aren’t good enough. I’ve wanted to give up many times, just wave the white flag: I surrender.

That’s when you have to get back to basics. Get back to story. Back to the core of creativity. Read some books. Fill your heart, your mind. Sit back, close your eyes, rest, and imagine.

And write.

Something new, something better.

The world of publishing — of “being” an author — is filled with distractions. The business of it, the tweets and status updates, the self-promotion and networking. Most of it is utter bs. Because none of it is about writing, making things, being a true artist.

You have to keep returning to the purity of words, the insistence of language, the value of story. You have to be a writer. And if you are, if that thing is alive inside you, no amount of outside rejection can ever put out that flame.

Burn brightly, keep creating. And if in the end you never get published, if the world does not fall at your feet, so be it. That’s life. You will have done real work, you will have done your best. I truly believe there’s value in it, personal growth, something. Just to participate in the creative process, to be alive in it, to enter the dance.

It just may feed your soul.

So it’s not really about the world accepting or rejecting you. All of that is beyond your control. It’s about you . . . accepting the world, holding it your heart, and putting forth your best words, thoughts, and feelings onto the page. That, to me, is a triumph.

Congratulations. Now, keep going, and good luck.

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mood-writing

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10. Setting, Character, Plot: A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse into SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER

 

Once in a while I try to provide content on this blog that has some, cough-cough, insight into my writing process. So I thought I’d gather up some images and talk about the making of my upcoming book in the “Scary Tales” series, Swamp Monster (Macmillan, July 7, 2015).

SWAMP_MONSTER_Esec02_ES_lores

Curiously, any description of “how” a book is written is as much “story” as the book itself. And by that I mean, of dubious veracity. Who can accurately recount where ideas come from? And in what order? Like writing the book itself, any description of origins mostly feels like I’m making it up as I go along.

But anyway!

Swamp Monster is the 6th book in the series. Each story is different, a new setting with new characters, yet each one promises a “Scary Tales” experience. What attracted me to this over-arching structure, inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” TV series, was the width of possibility. The stories could be quite different, not at all narrow or typical. After writing a few that were quite conceptual — I Scream, You Scream and Nightmareland, in particular — I settled on simpler, more traditional thrills in the most recent stories: The One-Eyed Doll and Swamp Monster.

That is, I began by thinking about the scary thing.

Somehow the idea of a Swamp Monster appealed to me. In no small part because of the setting. A swamp! As I was largely unfamiliar with swamp life in particular, I had to do some research. I read about the fauna and flora of typical swamps, and soon settled in my mind that this story could take place somewhere in Southeast Texas. I found and saved random images that fed my imagination, such as these:

lrg_bald_cypress_swampSpanish Moss

nile-crocodile-shutterstock_150730592-617x416669933

mangrove-roots-4rootsofswampthingg

 

Okay, so that felt pretty creepy to me. To up the ick factor, and to help explain the mutant monster, I opted for the toxic swamp gambit. The book begins:

The Dirge Chemical Plant had been dumping toxic sludge into the swamp for the past twenty-five years.

A few paragraphs down:

DRIP, DROP, SLURK. It leaked into the streams and waterways, into ponds and lakes. Poison soaked into the ground.

What about the creatures of that environment? The fish and birds and snakes and gators? The animals that drank the water daily? That swam amidst the burbling toxins? Well, most died off. But some adapted. Mutated. Learned how to feed off the toxic waste. Those creatures grew stronger, bigger, tougher.

More dangerous, too.

The pollution was the worst out on the Dead River, which ebbed into Dismal Swamp like a last, dying gasp. Hardly anybody lived out there. Nobody important. Some poor folks, mostly. And that’s where our story begins — with two boys, Lance and Chance LaRue. On this day, they were knee-deep in the foul, nasty water, swiping at mosquitoes, searching for frogs.

That was their first mistake.

Before the plot kicks into full gear, I introduce readers to the twins. Describe them and swiftly set them on the path to danger.

Character meets Setting:

The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches — no jelly to be found at home — 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 though small, red eyes. Once in a while, a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.

STAY AWAY, GAWK, STAY AWAY!

My original idea was basic. I was particularly intent for this story to create a strong plot-line running through the book. A direct plot like an engine on a track, no meanderings. So the boys find an egg and bring it home. Plot begins in earnest.  I soon realized that the egg would not be enough. Sure, it would hatch and Lance and Chance would discover that they were soon proud parents of a little monster.

SWAMP-MONSTER_Interiors_03

But where was the horror in that?

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watchful in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.

That night, the boys are awakened to sound of tap-tap-tapping on the egg. The watch in awe as the creature hatches.

“That ain’t no turtle,” Chance said.

“Nope,” Lance agreed. “Look at those claws, those teeth. I’ve never seen nothing like it before. What do you think it is, Chance?”

“I sure don’t know,” the oldest boy replied. “But I’ll tell you what. I don’t ever want to meet the chicken that laid that egg.”

At that moment, the newborn raised itself to full height, about six inches. With an angry hiss, the creature opened its mouth wide like a boa. A blood-red neck frill rattled open. SPLAT, SPLATTER! The creature spat black gobs of goo against the side of the pail.

“Whoa, it’s a monster,” Lance whispered in a soft, appreciative voice. “Our very own swamp monster.”

And with those words, the two boys stared at each other . . . and high-fived.

At this point, I introduce a new character to thicken the broth, and we meet the spectacular Rosalee Serena Ruiz.

If someone had to discover their secret, Rosalee was the best person for it. She could spit farther, burp louder, run faster, and snap thick branches across her knee. Rosalee was a girl all right, but the boys didn’t mind. In fact, they barely noticed.

I had decided by this point, actually before this point, that my little monster was not enough. Cool, but not quite terrifying.

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I needed something more. An angry mother. So Rosalee prods the boys back into the deep swamp — she wants an egg of her own — and that’s how the mother catches their scent. She hides in the water.

To my surprise, I wrote scenes from her perspective.

With a subtle movement, she glides through the black water like a hawk riding the currents of the wind.

A thought troubled her mind.

Others were out there . . . Others had come to her home, her alone-place. she had sensed them, smelled them.

So she hid, as she always did.

She moved in the safe dark, the cool dark, and she grieved again for the egg that was gone. The child she never knew. That was her loss. And then, slowly, painfully — like a cloud that gathers itself in the story sky — a new question formed in her skull.

Was the egg stolen?

Had it been taken . . . by the Others?

Those faces in the woods?

She had glimpsed them.

Their ugly, round eyes.

Their skin like smooth stones.

Little monsters.

New feelings began to stir inside the heart of the swamp creature.

Feelings of anger, of rage and revenge.

Her eyes opened, yellow in the black water.

Squilch, squilch, squilch.

Under cover of darkness, she follows them home.

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An image came to me. The monster, wet and awkward on land, arriving at the LaRue’s house on the edge of Dismal Swamp.

Of the door opening, of her entering.

“Upstairs, quick!” Chance ordered. He grabbed the knife off the table.

The boys bounded up the stairs in threes. By the time they reached the landing — BOOM! CRUNCH! — the front door flew open, knocked off its hinges.

The swamp monster stepped into the house.

I can’t give away any more story here. You’ll have to read the book to find out the rest.

Illustrations by Iacopo Bruno, taken from the book SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER, due in stores on July 7th.

 

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11. Fan Mail Wednesday #209: “I HATED reading (until now).”

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Dear James,

HI! I’m Sara M. I’m a fifth grader in KY. I’ve recently taken a liking to your books, (meaning I read three of them all in one day this weekend.

Long story short, I HATED reading (until now.)

We just had our school, Barnes & Noble, book fair. I was looking around for some scary stories (because that’s my favorite genre.) I stumbled upon your first book. I read the first 3 pages and I was hooked. BLOODY MARY    BLOODY MARY    BLOODY MARY.  I bought it. I took it home that night and read it. I LOVED IT SO MUCH! So, I immediately got hooked on your Scary Tales series.

I then became obsessed with finding the other books in your series. On Saturday, my dad took me to the library. We found three of your books. The next day at school I started reading them. I read all three of them in one day.I want to encourage you to write a thousand more books ;)

Please write back if you get the chance. Also, if you write back, please list all of the Scary Tales books you have OUT right now and one that you are currently in THE MAKING of.

Looking on library pages to find more of your books,

your #1 fan,

Sara

I replied:

Dear Sara,

Thank you. That’s just about the most wonderful letter a writer can possibly receive. I’m so glad that you found books to love. Goodness knows there are so many great ones out there, it was just a matter of finding the right match. I hope you don’t think it was me, James Preller, because it’s not. I’m just a guy. The powerful thing is reading itself, and books, and worlds opening up before your eyes — that awesome feeling you get when you make that connection.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER.

I’m proud of you for sticking with it. Also — and this is important, Sara, so listen up — I hope that you are grateful to your father who took time on a busy Saturday to bring you to the library for more books. Not everybody has a parent who would do that, so consider yourself lucky. I guess he wants to see as a reader, too. (Your local librarian did a nice job too, since not everybody is hip to my relatively new “Scary Tales” series.)

There are currently five “Scary Tales” books in print, and a sixth one coming out in early July: Home Sweet Horror; I Scream, You Scream; Good Night, Zombie; Nightmareland, One-Eyed Doll; and Swamp Monster.

I published my first book in 1986, and have written a wide assortment of books since. With this series, I tried to write the most exciting, OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezthrilling, suspenseful, unputdownable stories that I possibly could. Fast paced, easy to read, filled with twists and turns and incredible illustrations (by the great Iacopo Bruno).

Thanks for your sweet letter. I love your enthusiasm. Keep it up this summer. Just remember that one good book leads to another, and another, and another. Talk to your librarian. I’m sure that he or she will have  recommendations for you in the scary book department. In the meantime, if you want to check out other books of mine, you might like Bystander or, coming this September, The Fall. I have my fingers crossed on that last one; very excited about it!

My best,

James Preller

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12. Fan Mail Wednesday #211: Twenty Questions, More or Less

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There’s something undeniably direct about first graders. This girl liked my book and everything . . . she just would have changed a few things. Like, you know, the plot. And maybe some characters. I also like how Gracie worked so hard to fit everything on one page.

 

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I replied:

Dear Gracie,

Thank you for your lovely letter.

Do you know what? I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today. That’s right, my nose mashed into the wall. Grumble, grumble, grumble. For some reason, I was mad at the world this morning. 

The alarm clock was too loud, my cereal was too soggy, my dog threw up on my shoes, and it was raining out. Grrrr.

Then I read your letter . . . and a big smile crossed my face. I thought to myself, “Wow, I am a lucky guy.”

So thank you, Gracie. Your letter turned my day around and my frown upside down. You asked a lot of questions and I’ll try to answer them. Okay, whew, here we go . . .

799861When I wrote The Case of the Secret Valentine, I wanted to keep the readers guessing. I figured that everybody, including Jigsaw, would assume that the note was sent by a girl. In the mystery-writing business, that’s called a “gender assumption.” I got everybody thinking in the wrong direction. I wanted readers to be surprised when they discovered the true identity of the sneaky letter writer.

It could also be because I am not as clever as you. I love your idea of a girl detective who wants to team up with Jigsaw. That would certainly  make Mila jealous. Maybe that’s a story you could write this summer?

I have three children and three pets: Nick (22), Gavin (16), Maggie (14), Daisy (dog), Midnight (cat) and Frozone (another cat). Frozone was named after the character in the movie “The Incredibles,” a movie that we all love in this house. If you haven’t seen it, well, trust me, it’s incredible.

I began to write books when I was your age. I started by drawing pictures. Then with the help of my older brothers and sisters, I added a few words. I stapled the pages together to make books, put a price on the cover, and sold them to my friends and neighbors on the block. I made a lot of books when I was a little kid. I guess you could say that I never stopped.

About Theodore: Well, I wanted Jigsaw to have a name that he didn’t really like — so Theodore popped into my coconut. Boing! If I was named Theodore, I think I’d want to be called Ted or Teddy or “Hey You” — anything other than THEODORE!

Thanks for writing to me, Gracie. You really made my day. Enjoy your summer. May it be filled with books!

Your friend,

James Preller

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13. Kirkus Reviews on THE FALL: “A timely, important message.”

 

My mom loved it. Do you really need the opinion of professional journals?

My mom loved it. Do you really need the opinion of professional journals?

Okay, here we go, time to strap in. The professional journals are starting to weigh in on The Fall (September, Macmillan). Kirkus has a reputation for bringing the snark, so it’s always good to get out unflayed, skin intact. In fact, I’ve found that they’ve been fair to me and I am grateful for the critical attention.

Thank you, Kirkus, whoever you are!

Actually — the truth — I’m never happy unless I get a star. I want to write great books. I want people to think they are great books. And I mean, by “people,” folks other than my beautiful, 89-year-old mother.

That’s the aspiration anyway.

For the full review, click insanely right here, right now.

Money quote:

“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.”

 

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14. Fan Mail Wednesday #212: “The good part about your books . . .”

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Hey hey, here’s one postmarked “Seattle WA,” one of the best places that I haven’t been to yet.

There’s a great sentence in this letter, a unique insight that I’ve never heard expressed exactly this way before. I wonder if you’ll find it.

Keala wrote:

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I replied:

Dear Keala,

What a nice name! My name, of course, is James. Or Jim. Or Jimmy. Or, hey, we’re friends — you can even call me Jimbo.

Just don’t call me “Worm,” like my brothers used to do. I wasn’t too crazy about that nickname. I mean, seriously. Worm. Do I look like a worm to you?

Don’t answer that!

Maybe we should stick with “Mr. Preller.”

Cover by the great illustrator, R.W. Alley. I'm so grateful for his terrific contributions to the series.

Cover by the great illustrator, R.W. Alley. I’m so grateful for his terrific contributions to the series.

Thanks for reading my books. I have great fondness for The Case of the Buried Treasure. Even the opening sentence tickles my fancy:

“It all started when the little round thing-a-ma-whoosie fell off the whatsit on Big Maloney’s chair.”

Ah, the discovery of the secret message and the start of Jigsaw’s most complicated mystery. I’m so glad you liked it.

There’s an idea in that book — that the treasure can be found under the “Big Y” — that I borrowed from one of my favorite movies from childhood. It was called “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” At that time, back in 1963, they used the word “mad” to mean “crazy.” They still do today, I guess, just not as often. In that movie, which is super funny (and crazy!), the treasure is hidden under the “Big W.”

Here’s a shot from the movie to help you understand:

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I was especially happy to read that you felt you could understand the mystery. Do you know what that tells me? Keala must be a smart cookie! Because I tried to make that mystery really tricky. It’s not easy. But somehow you followed along and figured it out. Must be all those books you’ve read.

Better be careful or you are going to grow a big brain.

A huge, gigantic brain!

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And you’ll need to buy all new hats.

Thanks for your letter, Keala. Have the best summer ever — why not? And keep reading books, any books at all, even mine.

Your friend,

James Preller

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15. Open Letter to AJ Preller, GM of the San Diego Padres

 

The name AJ Preller been in the news quite a bit lately, ever since he was named General Manager of the San Diego Padres. I’ve gotten a kick out of that, since AJ Preller was also my father’s name. Doing a bit of research, I learned that both of our families lived in Long Island. I thought about and decided, why not? So I sent him this letter:

 

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Dear AJ Preller,

I’m writing because I think we may have a connection. Don’t worry, I’m not seeking anything (I’m a diehard Mets fan). We both love baseball and we might be related.

Fred W. Preller

Fred W. Preller

My family, like yours, came from Long Island. My father’s name was Alan Jay Preller. His father was Fred W. Preller, from Queens Village, NY, where he was a NY State Assemblyman for 22 years. He briefly ascended to Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. I think if there’s a gossamer-thread connection between us, it might be there, since it’s my understanding that Fred was part of a large family. In later life, Grandpa had a summer place in Smithtown, Long Island. I don’t know; I’m not a student of family ancestry. The first time I saw a color television was in Grandpa’s Queens Village home. He was watching the Yankees and the grass was sooo green.

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Through his political work, Grandpa even had a baseball field named after him –- Preller Fields (later named the “Padavan-Preller Complex” sometime after Grandpa passed away) -– which is on Hillside Avenue in Jamaica, NY. Photo, above.

paperback-cover-six-innings-203x300Anyway, I’m a children’s book author and my deep love for the game led me to write this book, SIX INNINGS, an ALA Notable, which I now send along to you.

As you know, Preller is not a common name here in the United States – though it pops up in Argentina and South Africa, curiously. I always get a kick out of reading my father’s name -– your name -– in the sports pages. AJ Preller! My long-lost cuz!

Carry on and good luck with your Padres. I think you’ve done a great job so far, similar to what Omar Minaya accomplished in his first year with the Mets, seeking to make a moribund franchise newly relevant.

Good luck, my best, and play ball!

James Preller

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16. Cover Reveal (Not Final): THE FALL by James Preller

 

 

 

 

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This is the image that will appear on the Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) that goes out for review. In the words of my long-suffering editor, “It’s the most up to date. Not final, but fine to use now for your school visits.”

It’s a process, and I don’t steer the ship. In the simplest terms possible, I think that the author is responsible for the inside of the book, but that the cover is in the domain of the publisher. I have input, but mine is only one of many voices. They have a lot more experience at this sort of thing.

9780312547967So: trust, hope, collaboration, respect.

The book is for middle school readers. It falls somewhere in that Grades 5-9 category, probably best for 6-8. A good companion book for readers who enjoyed Bystander.

In an interview with Kirkus, I said this about the book to the charming Julie Danielson:

I have an ambitious hardcover coming out next year, titled The Fall (Macmillan, August 2015), in which I return to some of the themes first explored in Bystander. We’ve seen “the bully” become this vilified subcreature, and in most cases I don’t think that’s fair or accurate. Bullying is a verb, a behavior, not a label we can stick on people to define them—especially when we are talking about children. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”The book is told in a journal format from the perspective of a boy who has participated in bullying—with tragic results—and now he’s got to own it. A good kid, I think, who failed to be his best self. To my surprise, the book ended up as almost a meditation on forgiveness, that most difficult of things. The opening sentence reads:

“Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have sent a message to her social media page that read, ‘Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway! (I’m just saying: It could have been me.)”

I was guided throughout my writing by a powerful quote from the great lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

 

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17. Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster

Sharing the cover to Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster.

There’s some confusion about exactly when this book will see the light of day, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a really fun story. The best “scary tales” yet.

There’s a swamp, some toxic sludge, and an egg.

Twin brothers, Lance and Chance. And their friend, Rosalee Serena Ruiz.

Oh, and one more thing: a very, very annoyed mama.

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18. Fan Mail Wednesday #205: The Girl Who Named Her Cat After Toilet Paper

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I have been away on school visits, so it’s time to catch up on actual work — you know, writing stuff! — and responding to mail from readers, some of which I feature here on my good old, trusty old blog-o-rama.

This one is from a girl who named her cat after toilet paper. (I think.)

So I’m a-gonna proceed with caution:

 

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I replied:

Dear Catherine,

Thanks for your letter. I often wonder about cats. I wonder, specifically, at what number does a person cross from being a “cat lover” to becoming “a little teensy bit crazy.”

For example:

  • 1 cat: “Oh, that’s nice.”
  • 2 cats: “Great, they can keep each other company.”
  • 3 cats: “I guess you really love cats!”
  • 4 cats: “Four? That’s a lot of cats!”
  • 5 cats: [I am starting to worry at this point.]
  • 6 cats: [Yikes.]
  • 19 cats: [Time to alert the authorities.]

Anyway, I see that you’ve named your cats Lily, Jack, and Charmin.

Wait, Charmin?

Like the “ultra soft” toilet tissue?

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Okaaaaaay.

While I joke about cats, what I’ve found is that people who have a lot of cats tend to be extremely compassionate people, true animal-lovers. They can’t bear the thought of a single creature being without a home or, worse, sent to the shelter. I can’t knock them for having kind hearts. At the same time, you don’t necessarily want to be known in your neighborhood as “the nutty cat lady down the block.”

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I’m happy you liked The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur. I like it, too! This one features Danika Starling and her fabulous magic show. In this book, number 17 in the series, I tried something different. There’s actually two mysteries in one book. I’ve never been sure if it was completely successful — I usually stick to one per story — so I’m glad to hear that it worked for you.

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezI would love to write more Jigsaw Jones books, but I haven’t been able to find a publisher who wants one. After all, I wrote 40; maybe that’s enough. Lately I’ve been writing a new series called “Scary Tales.” You might like them. They are not very hard to read, but they are on the creepy side. I’m sorry to inform you, however, that nobody gets murdered in my stories. Everybody is safe in the end. But hopefully you’ll experience a few thrills and chills along the way. The most recent book in the series is titled Scary Tales #5: One-Eyed Doll. Every book is different and you don’t have to read them in order (or at all!). Check ‘em out . . . if you dare!

About your questions: I’ve met many authors over the years. We are all different, coming from different parts of the world, with different backgrounds and beliefs. But we are the same in one way: we are all readers. I think that’s how I became an author — I loved books so much, I just wanted to have a part of the action. I enjoy many different genres and don’t really have a favorite. I like fiction, biography, mystery, horror, science fiction, etc. As a writer, I want to try them all!

My best,

James Preller

 

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19. Fan Mail Wednesday #206: Going Back to Kally

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Kally is the wind in my sails today:

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I replied:

Dear Kally,

You had me “incredible.”

Thank you for that gushing letter. I don’t know that I quite deserve that kind of praise but, hey, I’ll take it.

You know, I love my job. I’m grateful and appreciative of the opportunities I’ve been given by my publishers over the years. I get to write books. Me, of all people. I hope I never take the privilege (and responsibility) for granted.

At the same time, it can be a tough business. Many people mistakenly believe that authors are wealthy, but that’s generally not the case. Paying the bills comes with a lot of stress for me, even after all these years; nobody gets into this line of work for the money. That’s why a letter like yours can mean so much to an author. Like wind in my sails. So seriously, sincerely, authentically: thank you.

President Nixon's dog, Checkers, was truly buried across from my high school in Wantagh, Long Island, New York, Earth. We were awfully proud.

President Nixon’s dog, Checkers, was truly buried across from my high school in Wantagh, Long Island, New York, Earth. We were awfully proud.

David is one of the most complex characters in the book. His desire to belong, to be accepted as part of Griffin’s circle – a world into which he does not rightly fit – really creates conflicts for him. I think that was the deep background behind the cemetery scene. Also, research shows that people who are bullied often turn around to bully someone else: the vicious circle, where helplessness and anger and humiliation seek some sort of outlet, somewhere/anywhere.

To my mind, those factors informed that scene. Yes, Eric didn’t deserve it. But life is full of many injustices, both small and large. Sometimes as readers, the scenes we don’t “like,” or that disturb us in some way, are the ones that leave the biggest impression on our minds.

My best,

James Preller

P.S. Funny thing about your name. I recently rediscovered this old Hip-Hop song and it’s been in rotation around my house for weeks. So, in your honor, Mr. LL Cool J . . .

 

 

 

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20. Fan Mail Wednesday #207: “Thank you for reading this, if you do.”

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Donovan, an 8th-grader, writes of Bystander:

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I replied:

Dear Donovan,

Thanks for your thoughtful, perceptive reading of the book. It’s all any writer can ever hope for: an insightful reader.

While many have asked me about a sequel, no one has ever suggested a prequel. So congratulations on your original mind. I blogged about the origins of Eric’s father a while back, so I’m including that link here; you might find it interesting.

In life, we have an inner default setting that returns to “fairness.” We want things to work out. It’s why the idea of karma is popular with so many people. And I recognize that this book doesn’t satisfy that longing. The world remains unsettled and off-balance. Griffin doesn’t seem to learn anything. For a variety of reasons, he remains on the wrong path. Such is life!

9780312547967I am not a Disney-type writer, where everything works out beautifully in the end, wrapped in golden paper, tied with a bow. It wasn’t in me to write a book where Griffin learns valuable lessons and at the end everybody is friends. Sure, sometimes that happens. But sometimes, and quite often, it doesn’t. We all encounter various Griffins in our lives. I think, at best, we learn how to minimize their impact; we avoid them, protect ourselves and others. We don’t give them power over us. That was part of David’s mistake. His well-intentioned but ill-advised yearning for acceptance gave Griffin too much power.

Likewise, I agree, it would have been nice if David accepted Eric and Mary’s offer of friendship. They tried. But at that moment, David wasn’t ready. I have theories on why that is, but I’ll let you puzzle that out for yourself. I think there’s still hope for David, but perhaps he’ll be best-served if he finds a new friend who was not involved in this episode of his life. Who knows? Not me!

While I did not write a sequel to Bystander, I just wrote a book that returns to many of the themes and ideas of that book from a completely different perspective. It’s called The Fall and comes out late this summer, or early September. It’s written in the first-person, all told from the journal of one boy who was directly involved in bullying with tragic results. I think you’d like it, and I think you’d like him – even though he makes some awful mistakes.

My best,

James Preller

P.S. Of course I read your letter, I was glad to get it!

 

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21. NEWSFLASH: Notoriously Tough Book Critic Praises THE FALL!

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NEWS ITEM: The notoriously cantankerous critic, 89-year-old Ann Preller, recently declared that THE FALL (September, 2015) was James Preller’s “best book yet.” She went on to say that she feels sure it will be a national bestseller, and that the author looks nice in that green sweater, but should really call more often.

 

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22. Fan Mail Wednesday #208: “Hmmm, Must Be From a Giant!”

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This one arrived in a rather thick envelope, since the letter inside it had to be folded several times in order to fit. Just look at the size of it:

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I replied:

 

Dear Mrs. Fairchild and Mrs. Hatton’s Fabulous First Graders,

I have received many letters from readers who claimed to have been my biggest fans. But yours was definitely the BIGGEST LETTER I ever received.

I fact, you had me scared. I thought that it might have been from a GIANT. Who else could have written a letter that large?

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum!

You really don’t have to beg me to write more books. I think that I’ll always be writing – even when I’m an old, old man without any teeth! Of course, by then I’ll probably write books about how much I miss eating apples. You know, sitting in my rocking chair, eating Jell-O, remembering how nice it was to have my own teeth.

I am trying to write new stories for readers your age. But I have a rule: Never talk about a book until it is finished. I don’t want to jinx anything. When you get a little older -– and braver -– you can try some of my “Scary Tales” books.

In the meantime, thank you for that super-sized letter. I loved it! Keep reading books, any books at all, even mine.

My best, 

James Preller

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23. Thoughts on Books: Please Disturb

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“The writer whose words are going to be read by children 

has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact

that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough 

than many people realize, and they have an openness

and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts

which many adults have lost.”

– Madeleine L’Engle

 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of disturbing readers.

Shaking them up.

In fact, I believe that many readers, consciously or unconsciously, crave the experience.

When I think about personal growth — perhaps in viewing my own three children — I imagine that it can be characterized by periods of equilibrium, followed by passages of disequilibrium, followed (hopefully) by a new, higher level of equilibrium.

Comfort, discomfort, growth.

 

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I came to understand some of this through my experience writing my first “horror” series, Scary Tales, for young readers. I placed horror in quotes because, well, it’s not that scary; nobody gets hurt, everything turns out okay in the end. Every time. But, sure, there are some clammy palpitations along the way.

I often visit schools and the response to “scary” in grades 3-5, particularly, is wildly enthusiastic. Kids love this creepy stuff with its twisting plots, and they have long before I ever entered the scene. But I’ve also learned that there is a lot of fear out there — from adults. The redoubtable gatekeepers. A question I’ll hear at Book Festivals: “Will this book give my child nightmares?”

Of course, I don’t know the answer to that. How should I respond?

SWAMP_MONSTER_Esec02_ES_loresOkay, I’m a parent. I get it, mostly. We don’t want our kids to wake up screaming, scared out of their minds. And to that end, we don’t want to irresponsibly expose them to content that might be developmentally inappropriate. Well, a caveat there: Most people have no problem, bizarrely, with “inappropriate” content if it’s on TV or a movie. Even something as cherished as the Harry Potter books and movies — where characters are murdered, and the stories get continually darker as agents of pure evil plot death and destruction. Everybody is fine with that! But a story about a kid trapped in a cave with bats? Or unfriendly snowmen guarding a castle? Or a swamp monster?

Those things might prove . . . upsetting.

And here’s the thing: Maybe we like scary stories exactly because of that disturbance. On some deep level, maybe even unconsciously, we want to be disturbed. Because we know that it is necessary to our growth.

What does the reader learn, after losing her balance, when she discovers, Whew, I’m actually okay. I survived this.

Might there be value in that discovery?

I recently got a letter from an 8th-grade reader who was disturbed by a scene in my middle-grade novel, Bystander, where a boy, Eric, gets beaten up. It upset his sense of fairness. In the letter-writer’s mind, “Eric was being very friendly,” and he “didn’t deserve to get beat up.”

The scene bothered this reader. It shook him up a little. A part of him preferred that it didn’t exist at all.

And I think, well, good. It was supposed to do that. It was designed to make you feel something. These are the troubling scenes we remember our entire lives.

Speaking of scary, how about the Teletubbies in black and white?

Speaking of scary, how about the Teletubbies in black and white?

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Now I’m not talking about pure shock, artlessly rendered. The head lopped off and bouncing, boing-boing-boing, down the carpeted staircase. Though, I guess, that might have value too. I’m talking about the fiendish clown in Stephen King’s It. Or the heartbreaking moment of when Travis is forced to shoot his rabid dog in Old Yeller. The moments that give us dis-ease.

I think that’s one of the things that good books can do for us. They disturb our tranquility a little bit. Which is also why, an aside, this entire notion of eliminating “trigger books” in the college curriculum is so misguided. The notion is that some people might be upset if they encounter certain kinds of things, or triggers, in assigned books: a mother with cancer, a rape, social prejudice, world hunger, whatever their personal trigger might be. Some believe that students should be warned about these triggers, in the hope of avoiding them.

We wouldn’t want anyone to be upset.

And I think: Good luck with that.

And also: Isn’t that kind of the point?

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno, from Scary Tales: One-eyed Doll.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno, from Scary Tales: One-eyed Doll.

When I’m not writing Scary Tales, which is most of the time, I tend to write realistic fiction. My books have included childhood cancer, fistfights, bullying, suicide, lost pets, and car accidents. Scary stuff, life.

A book, of course, is a safe way for a child or adult to address different fears. A book can be mastered. A book can be closed. It can, simply, not be read at all. Or put aside to be read another day when the reader feels prepared. And then, on that day, guess what? The reader miraculously survives. Calm is restored.

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“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.”

– Neil Gaiman

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24. Talking with Cynthia DeFelice: About Writing, Inspiration, the Common Core, Boys, Guns, Books and More

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I have long followed and respected the work of author Cynthia DeFelice, who over the past 25 years has put together an expansive and impressive body of work. No bells, no whistles, no fancy pyrotechnics. Just one well-crafted book after another. There’s not an ounce of phony in Cynthia; she’s the genuine article, the real magilla. Last November, I was pleased to run into Cynthia at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. Pressed for time, we chatted easily about this and that, then parted ways. But I wanted more. Thus, this conversation . . . I’m sure you’ll like Cynthia almost as much as her dog does.

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Greetings, Cynthia. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this conversation. I feel like we have so much to talk about. We first met sometime in the early 90s, back when Frank Hodge, a bookseller in Albany, was putting on his elaborate, gushing children’s book conferences.

UnknownIt’s nice to be in touch with you again. I’ll always remember those conferences​ with Frank Hodge.  He made me feel validated as a fledgling writer.  He left me a voice mail telling me how much he loved the book Weasel.  I played it over and over and over!   In 1992, the Hodge-Podge Society gave the first ever Hodge-Podge Award to Weasel.  It meant the world to me.  Those were great times for authors, teachers, kids, and for literature.

Frank forced me to read your book — and I loved it. So I’ll always be grateful to Frank for that; it’s important to have those people in your world, the sharers, the ones who press books into your hands and say, “You must read this!”

Well, good for Frank! He is definitely one of those people you’re talking about. His enthusiasm is infectious.

We’ve seen many changes over the past 25 years. For example, a year or two ago I  participated in a New York State reading conference in Albany for educators. The building was abuzz with programs about “Common Core” strategies & applications & assessments & implementation techniques and ZZZZZzzzzz. (Sorry, dozed off for a minute!) Anyway, educators were under tremendous pressure to roll this thing out — even when many sensed disaster. Meanwhile, almost out of habit, organizers invited authors to attend, but they placed us in a darkened corridor in the back. Not next to the Dumpster, but close. At one point I was with Susan Beth Pfeffer, who writes these incredible books, and nobody was paying attention to her. This great writer was sitting there virtually ignored.

9780374400200To your point about finding fabulous authors being ignored at conferences, I hear you. It can be a very humbling experience. I find that teachers aren’t nearly as knowledgeable about books and authors as they were 10-25 years ago, and not as interested. They aren’t encouraged in that direction, and they don’t feel they have the time for what is considered to be non-essential to the goal of making sure their kids pass the tests. Thankfully, there are exceptions! You and I both still hear from kids and teachers for whom books are vital, important, and exhilarating.

But, yes, I agree with you completely that literature is being shoved to the side. Teachers tell me they have to sneak in reading aloud when no one is watching or listening.

When I was invited to speak at a dinner, along with Adam Gidwitz and the great Joe Bruchac, I felt compelled to put in a good word for  . . . story. You know, remind everybody that books matter. In today’s misguided rush for “informational units of text,” I worry that test-driven education is pushing literature to the side. The powers that be can’t easily measure the value of a book — it’s impossible to reduce to bubble tests — so their solution is to ignore fiction completely. Sorry for the rant, but I’m so frustrated with the direction of education today.

Well, it’s hard not to rant. It’s disconcerting to think how we’ve swung so far from those heady days of “Whole Language” to today’s “Common Core” curriculum — about as far apart as two approaches can be. I think the best approach lies somewhere in the vast middle ground between the two, and teachers need to be trusted to use methods as varied as the kids they work with every day.

On a recent school visit in Connecticut, I met a second-year librarian — excuse me, media specialist — who was instructed by her supervisor to never read aloud to the students. It wasn’t perceived as a worthwhile use of her time.

Well, that is sad and just plain ridiculous. I was a school librarian for 8 ½ years. I felt the most important part of my job was reading aloud to kids

I didn’t realize you were a librarian. 
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9780374398996Yes, I began as a school librarian. But, really, my life as a writer began when I was a child listening to my mother read aloud.  And every crazy job I had before I became a librarian (and there were a lot) helped to form and inform me as a writer.  This is true of us all.  I had an actual epiphany one day while I was a librarian. I looked up from a book I was reading aloud and saw the faces of a class of kids who were riveted to every word… I saw their wide eyes, their mouths hanging open, their bodies taut and poised with anticipation – I was seeing full body participation in the story that was unfolding.  I thought: I want to be the person who makes kids look and feel like THAT.
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And that’s exactly who you became. Which is incredible. This can be a tough and discouraging business; I truly hope you realize how much you’ve accomplished.

Thanks, and back at you on that. I think we have to constantly remind ourselves that what we do is important. I think we’ve all had the experience of being scorned because we write for children. The common perception is that we write about fuzzy bunnies who learn to share and to be happy with who they are.

I loved your recent blog post about the importance of books that disturb us. I’m still amazed when I hear from a teacher or parent –- and occasionally even a young reader –- saying they didn’t like a book or a scene from a book because of something upsetting that happened in it. Conflict is the essence of fiction! No conflict, no story (or, worse, a boring, useless one). I love my characters, and I hate to make them go through some of the experiences they have, but it’s got to be done! Did I want Stewpot to die in Nowhere to Call Home? Did I want Weasel to have cut out Ezra’s tongue and killed his wife and unborn baby? Did I want Erik to have to give up the dog Quill at the end of Wild Life? These things hurt, and yet we see our characters emerge from the dark forests we give them to walk through, coming out stronger and wiser. We all need to hear about such experiences, over and over again, in order to have hope in the face of our own trials.

I admire all aspects of your writing, but in particular your sense of pace; your stories click along briskly. They don’t feel rushed, there’s real depth, but there’s always a strong forward push to the narrative. How important is that to you?

I love beautiful writing, I love imagery and metaphor, and evocative language. But all that must be in service to story, or I am impatient with it.  I don’t like show-offy writing.

The ego getting in the way.

Yes. Even the best writers need an editor to keep that ego in check! I seek clarity — what good is writing that obscures and obfuscates? The purpose is to communicate, to say what you mean. That goes for all kinds of writing, not just writing for kids. Kids want to get to the point. So do I.

Can you name any books or authors that were important to your development as a writer? Or is that an impossible question to answer?

 Impossible. Because there are too many, and if I made a list I would inevitably leave out a person or book I adore. Safer to say that every book I’ve read -– the good, the bad, and the ugly –- all are in there somewhere, having an effect on my own writing.

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You are what you eat. Also, your love of nature — the great outdoors! — infuses everything you write.

Nature and the great outdoors, yes.  My love of these things will always be a big part of my writing.  I find that after a lifetime of experience and reading and exploring, I know a lot about the natural world, and it’s fun to include that knowledge in my writing. Sometimes I worry that kids are being cut off from the real world.  But I do know lots of kids who love animals and trees and flowers and bugs, love to hunt and fish, to mess around in ponds and streams, build forts,  paddle canoes, collect fossils — you name it. They give me hope for the future.
Where do you live?

On and sometimes in (during the floods of 1972 and 1993) Seneca Lake in beautiful upstate New York.

Is that where you’re from?

Nope. I grew up in the suburbs of northeast Philly. I came up here to go to college and never left.
Your books often feature boy characters. Why do you think that’s so?
9780374324278You’re right: more than half of my main characters are boys.  I’m not sure why.  And I don’t know why I feel so perfectly comfortable writing in the voice of a 10-11-12 year old boy.  Maybe because my brothers and I were close and we did a lot together?  Maybe because my husband still has a lot of boyish enthusiasm?  At any rate, I am crazy about pre-adolescent boys, their goofiness and earnestness and heedlessness.  My new book (coming out in May) is called Fort.  It features two boys, Wyatt and Augie (age 11) who build a fort together during summer vacation.  I had so much fun writing it.  (I have to admit, I love when I crack myself up, and these guys just make me laugh.)
While writing, are you conscious about the gender gap in reading? This truism that “boys don’t read.”

I am. Sometimes I am purposely writing for that reluctant reader, who is so often a boy. I love nothing so much as hearing that one of my books was THE ONE that turned a kid around, that made him a reader.

I just read Signal, so that book is on my mind today. I had to smile  when Owen gets into the woods and his phone doesn’t work. No wi-fi. It’s funny to me because in my “Scary Tales” series I always have to do the same thing. If we want to instill an element of danger, there has to be a sense of isolation that doesn’t seem possible in today’s hyper-connected world. “What? Zombie hordes coming over the rise? I’ll call Mom to pick us up in her SUV!” So we always need to get the  parents out of the way and somehow disable the wi-fi. You didn’t have that problem back when you wrote Weasel.

9780312617769Thanks for reading Signal.  And, yeah, it’s really annoying that in order to be plausible in this day and age, you have to have a reason why your character isn’t on the phone with Mommy every time something goes wrong.  (Another good reason to write historical fiction!)  In Fort, Augie lives with his grandmother and doesn’t have money for a cell phone, and Wyatt’s with his father for the summer. His parents are divorced, and (unlike Mom) Dad doesn’t believe in kids being constantly connected to an electronic nanny.  So — halleluiah!  Wyatt and Augie are free to do all the fun, dumb, and glorious things they feel like doing!
My friends and I built a fort in the woods when we were in high school. Good times, great memories, just hanging out unfettered and free. I included a fort in my book, Along Came Spider. For Trey and Spider, the book’s main characters, the fort represented a refuge. It was also a haven for their friendship away from the social pressures and cliques of school. A place in nature where they could be themselves. So, yes, I love that you wrote a book titled Fort. I’ll add it to my list! (You are becoming an expensive friend.)
Well, now that I’ve discovered your books, I can say the same. Money well spent, I’d say.
Where did the idea for Signal originate?
The inspiration for Signal came one morning as I was running on a trail through the woods with Josie, my dog at the time.  She proudly brought me a white napkin with red stuff smeared on it.  I thought, Whoa, is that blood?  No, whew. Ketchup.  But what if it had been blood?  And what if a kid was running with his dog and she brought him pieces of cloth with blood stains?  Eww.  That would be creepy!  And scary, and exciting, and mysterious — and I started writing Signal.

You’ve always been extremely well-reviewed. Readers love your books.  And yet in this day of series and website-supported titles, where everything seems to be high-concept, it feels like the stand-alone middle grade novel is an endangered species.

I have been lucky with reviews.  But, sadly, I think traditional review sources are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as blogs and websites and personal media platforms take over. That’s not good news for me because I am simply not interested in self-promotion.  Can’t do it.  Don’t want to do it.  I just want to write the best books I can and let them speak for themselves.  I know it’s old-school, but there it is.  You said that a stand-alone middle grade novel is becoming an endangered species amid all the series and “high concept” books out there, and I think you’re right.  But when that stand-alone book somehow finds its niche audience, when kids and teachers somehow discover it and embrace it as theirs . . . , well, it’s a beautiful damn thing, and it’s enough to keep me writing, for now.

For now?!

Well, my husband is 9 years older than I am and recently retired, and there are a lot of things we still need to do!

Like what?

We have a farm property we are improving by digging a pond, and by planting trees and foliage to benefit wildlife. We stocked it with fish, and enjoy watching it attract turtles, frogs, toads, dragonflies, birds and animals of all sorts. So we like to spend a lot of time there, camping out. We love to travel, and are headed next on a self-driving tour of Iceland. We also have four terrific grandchildren we like to spend time with. I could go on and on with the bucket list…

By the way, I agree about the blogs. I think we are seeing a lot more opinion — more reaction — but less deep critical thought. It’s fine and useful for a neighbor to tell you they hated or loved a movie, but it’s not the same as a professional film critic providing an informed, and hopefully insightful, critique. Yet somehow today it’s all conflated. 

Well, there is a similar phenomenon with self-published books. I’m not a total snob about it, and there are plenty of good books that didn’t go through the process of being accepted by and edited by a professional at an established publishing house. But I’ll repeat that everyone needs an editor. And I’m often amazed at the brazenness of people spouting off in various social media platforms, often without being fully grounded in the subject they are pontificating about. But, hey, maybe I’m just getting to be an old fart.

Yeah, I don’t Tweet either. We’re being left in the dust! My observation is that the “kidlitosphere” is comprised 90% of women. Of course, many of those bloggers are passionate, smart, generous women who genuinely want to see boys reading. But I always think of a favorite line written by one of my heroes, Charlotte Zolotow, where a boy imagines his father telling his mother, “You never were a boy. You don’t know.”

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I don’t think it’s an ideal thing that the blogging world — which has become such an important source of information about books — is overwhelmingly female. Of course, the situation is not at all their fault. 

That’s why it’s so great that there are writers out there like you, Bruce Coville, Tedd Arnold, Jon Scieska, Neil Gaiman, Jack Gantos –- who not only write books boys like, but are out there in schools demonstrating that REAL MEN read and write! I don’t know what we can do about the gender gap other than to be aware of it and to write the best books we can, books that both boys and girls will devour.

Tell me about Wild Life. Once again, you are mining the world of adventure — a boy, a dog, and a gun.

I never got as much mail from kids, teachers, grandparents and other caregivers as I did after that book came out. In our hyper-politically correct world, GUNS = EVIL. You can’t talk about them in school. So where does that leave a kid who spends his or her weekend hunting, who studies nature in order to be part of it, who hunts respectfully, with care, who is enmeshed in family history and tradition, who through hunting feels part of the full complexity of life?

8901928I had to keep silencing the censors in my head telling me I couldn’t put a gun in an 11 year old kid’s hands, unless it was a matter of survival in a book set back in “the olden days.”

I was amazed and immensely gratified to learn that a lot of kids found themselves and their interests represented in Erik’s story. I didn’t write it with an agenda in mind. I simply wrote it based on the experiences I’ve had when my husband and I take our bird dog on her yearly Dream Vacation to North Dakota to hunt pheasants.

Ha! I love that your dog has a Dream Vacation.

I get so much joy from watching her do what she was born and bred to do. I cherish our days out on those wide open prairies, and have learned to see the subtle and varied beauty of the landscape. I was just hoping to write a rip-roaring good story that incorporated all that wonderful stuff. Our hunting experiences have nothing whatsoever to do with “gun violence” of the sort you hear about on TV. It’s been interesting to hear from kids who really get that.

Yeah, I enjoy meeting those kids, often out in the western end of New York State. One of my readers from the North Country sent me this photo. Isn’t she great?

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Oh, man, I love that! We can’t forget those kids are out there.

What’s next, Cynthia? Any new books on the horizon?

Possibly, just possibly, a sequel to Fort. But that’s all I will say, even if you use enhanced interrogation techniques.

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Huge-rubber-duck-13--196-pWe do not waterboard here at Jamespreller dot com, and I resent the implication! Those are merely bath toys that happen to be . . . nevermind!

According to the rules of the interwebs, I see that we’ve gone way beyond the approved length of standard posts. Likely there’s no one left reading. It’s just us. So I’ll end here with a big thank you, Cynthia, for putting up with me. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I hope I’ll see you again in Rochester at the 19th Annual Children’s Book Festival

Yes!  I look forward to seeing you there.  It’s an incredible event, and gets bigger and better every year.

 

 

 

 

 

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25. On Writing: “Are You Jigsaw Jones?”

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I love this illustration by Jamie Smith from one of the Jigsaw Jones books. I mean, the glove looks like it might have been drawn by an Englishman, which it was, but the spirit is right. I am very grateful that Jamie illustrated so many books in the series; he was, I think, exactly right.

And, yes, I’m glad to see my love of baseball creep into another book.

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On school visits, readers often as if I am a particular character.

Am I Eric in Bystander? Jude in Before You Go? Am I the great detective Jigsaw Jones? Or the mouse in Wake Me In Spring?

(Okay, no one has ever asked that last question. And the answer is: no, I am not the mouse in Wake Me In Spring! Yes, we both have beady little eyes and whiskers, but beyond that the similarities are purely accidental.)

Back to the Jigsaw question. No, I’m not Jigsaw Jones. It’s rare for any character to fully stand in for the author. But, of course, there are elements of my life and personality — most definitely exhibited in Jigsaw’s sense of humor — in that character. And there are trappings of my childhood in his world.

Like me, Jigsaw is the youngest in the family. Like me at that age, Jigsaw’s grandmother lives with him. And like me, the boy loves baseball.

It was easier to write that way, more natural; I intimately knew those feelings.

But as I’ve grown as a writer, especially from my early days in college, I’ve learned how to distance myself from my characters. The writing, in my case, has become less autobiographical and more fully its own creation. The characters seem to stand and move around on their own two feet, acting according to their own (fictional) inner compasses. I don’t ask what I would do; I ask what they might do. At the same time, parts of my life, my world, leak into everything. How can it be any other way?

Art by Jeffrey Scherer.

Art by Jeffrey Scherer.

Anyway, I didn’t expect to write this muddled post today. I mostly wanted to share my excitement about the coming baseball season. I am coaching again this year, a really nice group of 15-year-old boys. We’ll play a travel season and enter some tournaments. My 10th-grade son, Gavin, will be playing JV baseball. It’s an impressive accomplishment; not so easy to make those teams in our town. And last but not least, my heart is filled with hope about my beloved New York Mets.

Dare I say it? I think they might actually be good this year.

I often sign copies of Six Innings the same way. “Dream big, and swing for the fences!”

Is there any other way to play?

 

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