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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: James Preller, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. 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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2. 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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. School Visits: Thank You, Virginia!

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“It was such a great day for us

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

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

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

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

Here’s the note:

Jimmy,

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

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

Thanks again,

Chris

And now, the article:

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Preller_article,_page_2_001

 

 

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

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

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

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

And in no particular order.

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

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

Chapter Eight begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And he died,” I said.

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

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

They talk some more:

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

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

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

He sniffed hard and smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

Then he shut the door.

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

———–

NOTE: I originally posted this in 2009.

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9. Finally, Writing Advice I Can Get Behind!

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

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

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

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

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I replied:

Dear Kate,

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

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

Just wanted to make that clear: STILL ACCEPTING GIFTS!

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Okay, back to business:

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

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

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

My best,

James Preller

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

 

 

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11. Discovering Chris Raschka’s brilliant picture book, THE COSMO-BIOGRAPHY OF SUN RA

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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Sun Ra always said that he came from Saturn.

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

And yet.

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

Let’s say he did come from Saturn.

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

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And so the story goes.

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

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

Your brilliant book.

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

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

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

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12. 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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13. 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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14. 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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15. “UNBROKEN”: Worst Movie Trailer Ever . . . Or World’s Greatest Two-Minute Film?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLASH FORWARD: Back to the plane crash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TYPE ON SCREEN: “THIS CHRISTMAS.”

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

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

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

TYPE ON SCREEN: “NEVER GIVE IN.”

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

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

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

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

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

TYPE ON SCREEN: “UNBROKEN”

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

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

TYPE ON SCREEN: COMING SOON.

FINAL CREDITS, the end.

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

John Berryman.

Poet John Berryman, who died without knowing.

 

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

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I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you can’t

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you can’t you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write

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

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

Ah, the writing life.

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you like it.

 

When Death Comes

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

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

when death comes 
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Mary Oliver

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

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

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17. Fan Mail Wednesday #198: Jessica from Istanbul

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

How could that be so?

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

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Here, meet Jessica . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,

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

Jessica

 

I replied:

Dear Jessica,

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

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

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

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

 

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18. Who Needs a Librarian Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article continued:

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

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

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

WHO

NEEDS

A LIBRARIAN

ANYWAY?

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

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

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

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20. My New Poster, My New Book

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

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

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

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

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

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21. Fathers, Sons, and Baseball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Too much?

Think I went overboard with it?

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

Scan 1

I replied:

Dear Seth,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, what?

My best,

James Preller

 

 

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

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

Drawing by Ethan.

Drawing by Ethan.

 

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

Now here’s a letter from Wisconsin:

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I replied:

Dear Kallen, 

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

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

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

A great writer? Did you really say that?

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

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

Your friend,

James Preller

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

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

Hello, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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