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1. 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).

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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

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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.

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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.

SWAMP-MONSTER_Interiors_06

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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2. 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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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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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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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.

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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?

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7. 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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8. 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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9. 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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10. 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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11. 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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12. 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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13. 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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14. 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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15. 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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16. 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:

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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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17. 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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18. 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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19. 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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20. 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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21. 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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22. 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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23. 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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24. 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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25. 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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