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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: James Preller, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #236: Jigsaw Jones, Long Island, Getting Ideas, My Favorite Color, and More

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Let’s do this people!

Good afternoon,
 –
I am a 4th grade teacher in Ludlow, Massachusetts.  My students have been selecting books to complete projects on and share them with their 51o-ewktyll-_sy344_bo1204203200_peers.  Today, 2 students shared your books, The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster and The Case of the Great Sled Race.  As the students were sharing facts about you, we all learned that you are from Wantagh!  Guess what?  I am from Wantagh as well!  What a coincidence!  Did you attend Wantagh High School?  My parents still live there and I go back to visit quite often.  My class would love to hear from you!  They would like to know the following about you:
 
* How old were you when you started writing books?
* How did you get interested in writing?
* How do you get the ideas for your books?
* What is the title of your favorite book that you’ve written?  Why?
* What was your favorite childhood book and author?  Why?
* Do you have a favorite sport?  Hopefully you are a New York sports fan!
* What is your favorite color?
 –
We would love to have you visit our school!  If you are ever in Western Mass. please contact me!  Happy Thanksgiving!  We’re looking forward to hearing from you!
Elysa B, WHS class of ’91
 
I replied:
 –

Elysa,

Thanks for your note, and thanks for reading my books in your classroom.

Yes, Wantagh, that’s my old stomping grounds. I did go to Wantagh High School, class of ’79. My parents moved away when I was in college — don’t worry, they told me where they moved! — so I lost my reason for visiting “home.” One of my first jobs was working at Jones Beach, a job I later gave to a character in a YA book, Before You Go. In the book Bystander, I blended the towns Bellmore and Freeport to create “Bellport,” where the book takes place. Sadly, I later learned that there really is a town called Bellport on Long Island. That was mistake I regret, though I think very few people actually noticed or cared.
The alma mater, a little before even my time.

The alma mater, a little before my time.

 
Anyway, questions:
 –
1) I wrote, illustrated, and sold books to my neighbors at an early age. In second grade, I teamed up with a friend, William Morris, and we wrote a play together, which we performed for our classroom. It involved bank robbers, as I recall. I published my first “real” book when I was 25 years old, in 1986.
 –

2) I often say that all writers are readers, and that’s true. But even though I am a social creature, comfortable with people, I’ve always needed time alone. That seems significant to me today, because you can’t create anything unless you unplug and spend time alone with your thoughts. For whatever reason, I’ve always carved that out in my life. And during those alone times, I’d often find a pen and a blank page.

3) Ideas are never a problem. They are everywhere. It’s just a matter of opening your eyes and ears. I also read a lot and try to learn something every day. The world is an endlessly amazing place. There are many difficulties when it comes to writing, hard times indeed, but ideas are not one of them.

Cover art from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE (August, 2017, Macmillan).

Cover art from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE (August, 2017, Macmillan).

4) I’m usually most excited by my newest work. I’m very happy with the book that just came out, The Courage Test (grades 4-7). In addition, there’s a new Jigsaw Jones title coming out this summer, The Case from Outer Space (Macmillan) and I’m over the moon about it. I love those characters, and I’m proud of the kindness & gentle humor of those stories. 
 –
5) As a kid, I loved a book called Splish, Splash, Splush — about three ducklings who couldn’t swim. I also remember looking at the pictures in a big, fat collection of stories: there were evil genies, a cyclops, men with swords and other fierce creatures. I couldn’t read, but I’d look at those illustrations for hours. Maybe it led, in some subtle way, to my “Scary Tales” stories (just right for 4th grade).
 –
6) I am a big baseball fan, love the game with all my heart. My team is the New York Mets. In 3rd grade, I actually attended the 1969 World Series. I remember it vividly.
 –
7) Favorite color? The older I get, I find that I’m partial to . . . gray. Go figure.
 –
Going gray. Not old. Dignified! Right?

Going gray. Not old. Dignified! Right?

– 
My best, 
 –
James Preller

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2. 5 QUESTIONS with MATTHEW CORDELL, author/illustrator of “WISH”

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Today we hang out with Matthew Cordell, one of my favorite people in children’s books. Usually Matt and I can laugh it up with the best of them, just a couple of regular guys talking about our favorite books and rock bands, but today we got serious. In this edition of “5 Questions,” Matthew opened up his heart, and it got real.

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You know I love this book, Matt. I read it again last night, over my 15-year-old daughter’s shoulder. I do that to Maggie, stick picture books under her nose. Anyway, at the end she turned to me and said, “I really like it.” And then, “Oh, you’re crying.”

And I was. This book gets me every time.

Oh, I really appreciate that, Jimmy, and thanks for sharing with Maggie! It’s interesting to hear from folks who let me know that Wish made them cry . . . I never imagined myself being an author of a book that would have that kind of an effect on a reader. I mean . . . when I was writing it and later illustrating it, I would occasionally tear up over the very personal nature of the thing. And I thought maybe it would have a similar impact on folks who would read it. That they would read Wish and see their own story or stories in it. So when I hear from folks who say it has struck an emotional chord, it’s just really, really rewarding.  

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It’s one of the counter-intuitive things about art: the deeply personal sometimes becomes the most universal. Yours is a book about, in part, a miscarriage. An extremely common occurrence –- sources estimate that up to 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage –- yet it’s a deeply private experience that isn’t widely discussed. We grieve in silence, and very few people are even aware of our loss. Tell me about the beginnings of this story. Did you draw a picture? Write a few words? Were you even thinking book?

You’re very right. Life after miscarriage is a very dark, very alienating place to be. On our road to parenthood, Julie and I found ourselves in this place more times than we ever would have expected. It never occurred to me at all that anything related to that experience would ever be made into a book, certainly not by me. But I had just put my book hello! hello! into the world, which had a family-oriented focus to it. So I found myself searching for the next story I wanted to tell. For another big moment as a parent. And I realized that one of my biggest moments of being a parent was the journey and struggle of trying to become one.

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I don’t know if you remember, but the one time I visited your home, you showed me an early manuscript. We obviously knew it would be a challenging topic, one that might be hard to make appealing for children, yet I strongly felt that this was an important book for you to create.

That was a terrific visit! After years of knowing each other online and having collaborated together, we finally met face to face. I wish we lived closer to each other so we could do more of that.

You and Julie drove me to Wisconsin to eat brats. It had to happen.

I do remember sharing the book with you and talking about it at length. I was grateful to have your input. When I was ultimately ready to show it to my editor, Kevin Lewis at Disney-Hyperion, thankfully he took to it right away. Kevin knew this story well, from someone close to him that had been down this road in some way. It affected him personally. And as he showed it around at Disney-Hyperion, more and more folks came forward with similar reactions.

Let’s discuss the editing process for this book. I recall that your early draft was more direct about the loss suffered. Sadder, perhaps. Now looking at the published work, it seems that aspect has softened.

When I first thought of making this book, it was to tell the story of how our daughter (and our son too) came to be. It was a kind of love letter to my wife and baby. A book I could read to this little one someday and say, “Look how much it took to bring you into the world. Look how much we wanted you, and how much we went through, and how incredible all of this is. How incredible YOU are. And how tremendously grateful we are to have you here.” A large part of this story was the waiting.

Tom Petty got it right, didn’t he? The waiting is the hardest part. Because of all those hardships — the obstacles, the disappointments — that come with the waiting. After a while, you wonder if the bus is ever going to come.

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Yes, the insufferable waiting for years for a successful pregnancy. Not knowing if it would ever happen. Seeing other people all around us get pregnant with little or no trouble. Wondering why that wasn’t happening for us. Wondering if something was wrong. And in that time, we did suffer some losses. Needless to say, that was a huge part of the story for me. Overcoming loss and starting over, it was all so terribly devastating and challenging to Julie and to me.

I’m just so glad that you can share that with the world. That’s the thing, Matt. You put it out there. Exposed, raw, real. And in the process, you turned it into something beautiful.

Initially, I felt like I really needed that tough part of the story to be in the book, to make it as honest as possible. I never used the words “death” or was too specific when I’d written it. But the art I’d proposed was very bleak and dark. Near absolute darkness, really. I remember I had a full spread of blackness surrounding a small spot illustration of the huddled together couple. An overwhelming darkness is how life felt after a miscarriage. When I showed it to my editor, he had some reservations, understandably.

The heartbreaking art that Matt had to make, but that didn't make it into the final book.

The heartbreaking art that Matt had to make, but that didn’t make it into the final book.

Such a powerful piece of art, Matt. I am moved by that spread. But in the final analysis, I think you and Kevin Lewis were wise to keep it out of the book. It was too strong. You didn’t want heartbreak to become the message.

Much of the book was about hope. It was about the heartbreak too, for sure, but I never intended the scales to tip more toward the darker side of the story. But it was feeling quite dark at that stage in the editing process. The waiting and not knowing was the all-encompassing struggle that this story tells. To add a death in there would be a significant — possibly overwhelming — moment for the book. In general, death in a picture book is never going to be easy, considering the age of many of its readers. But in Wish, we agreed, bringing in this moment of loss would be a stopping point for the story. After considering it, we let the sadness in the book become more ambiguous in the final manuscript and art. 

I think it succeeds beautifully. Were the characters always elephants? Why did that feel right?

wish_study_elephantsYes, the characters were always going to be elephants. I knew I wanted them to be animals and not people, so it would open it up to all different ethnicities. I wanted people of all races and walks of life to see themselves in these characters. A picture book with human characters can be more limiting in that respect. And very early on, I can’t remember the exact moment — I knew they should be elephants. Elephants are strong and smart and stoic. And they make lasting memories with the ones they love. I saw a nature program once about these two circus elephants that had become super close to each other, emotionally speaking. Sadly, they were eventually split up and moved to different circuses at different locations in the world. Many years later these two elephants were reunited at an elephant sanctuary. The caretakers weren’t sure they would remember each other. Or worse, they worried they might be defensive or aggressive toward each other. So they reintroduced them tentatively with fencing between the two. Even after years and years of separation, they instantly remembered each other and nearly broke down the bars to get to each other and be together again. That kind of emotion and devotion and breaks-your-heart beauty . . . I really wanted that for Wish.

You know, Matt, I see that you are enjoying great success of late, all of it deserved, and none of it surprising. But of all your books, this is the one that makes me the most proud of you. It sprang directly from the heart, as natural as a flower, and it shows on every page, in every illustration.

Well, thanks, Jimmy. That is really kind of you and you’ve played a big part of any success I may have stumbled onto. You’ve been a great friend and ally and I’ve loved being witness to your many great successes and accomplishments too, over these however many years I’ve been making books in this little world ours.

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I don’t think I’ve been a big part of your success, Matt, but I have been a big fan. So: okay, um, gee. I guess we’re supposed to hug it out now, my brother. Please give my best to your family, always.

 

457060MATTHEW CORDELL envisions Wish as part of a trilogy. Dream comes out in Spring, 2017, followed by Hope at a later date. He has made a great many books, and friends, along the way. I’m glad to among the latter, though I’d be tickled to be the former. His hilarious wife, Julie Halpern, was a school librarian and is now an accomplished author in her own right. She’s also a terrific mother.

 

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Coming next week, Matt Phelan (Snow White) Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: Jeff Newman, Bruce Coville, London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

 

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3. Six Critical Life Messages That Every Child Should Hear, by Barbara Coloroso

“You’re listened to, you’re cared for, and you’re very important to me — children need to hear that in lots of different ways every day.” Barbara Coloroso.

 

NOTE: I originally posted this about five years ago. Felt it was time to bring it back again. Carry on!

 

In previous blog entries, I praised this book by Barbara Coloroso . . .

. . . a title that has informed, enlightened, and guided my own work as a writer, coach, and father.

She’s awesome, that’s all there is to it.

I came across this short video this morning. In less than 90 seconds, Barbara delivers a message that every teacher and parent needs to hear and remember — so that the children in our world hear those same things from us.

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4. 5 QUESTIONS with AARON BECKER, creator of “JOURNEY”

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Greetings, Aaron. Let’s talk about your book, Journey. You do a masterful job in that opening spread, making full use of the copyright page, establishing the core elements of the story to come. Journey begins with a bored girl on her front stoop. Inside her home, through a cutaway device, we see her father looking at the computer, her mother talking on the phone, her sister staring at an electronic device. The world is dull and monochromatic –- except for one red scooter and, off to the side, almost unnoticed, a boy with a purple piece of chalk. Is that how this story started for you? As a reaction against our hyper-involvement with technology?

Yes, to the extent that much of my childhood was spent hoping my Dad would get off the home computer. I never saw the computer as an answer to life’s biggest questions; to me it was clear that there was more value in my imaginary play than anything I could gain on a machine’s screen.

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Next comes what I consider the essential illustration to the story. And my favorite. The girl is alone in her room: bored, bored, bored. I love that critical moment, because I’m a huge believer in the positive value of boredom. Most people have an aversion to empty space –- on the radio, silence is called “dead air.” Thanks to technological progress, we can now pick up a phone and scroll through Instagram at the first momentary lull. Crisis averted. Many of us seem to have lost our ability to work our way through (and beyond) that boredom.

This is the crux of it. It’s interesting too, because during the lead up to the election, I depended a lot on the internet as a source of comfort to ease my concerns for the outcome that I feared. I was aware of this, and even went so far as to go on a writing retreat away from the news cycle the week before the vote. Now that we’re on the other side, I can see so clearly that these tools were a false comfort to begin with. It’s been much easier for me to stay off social media and news websites this past week, and not just because I don’t want to see evidence that we have a new President. It’s more that I realize there’s no use in building one’s sense of reality on something that is so removed from our actual physical existence on Earth. In a sense, I felt betrayed by technology once again. It’s a lesson I hope to remember.

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I’m sorry, what, were you talking? I was just checking my . . . [puts away phone]. It occurs to me that if you gave your central character an iPhone, she would have never gone on that journey. You would have lost an entire trilogy.

I do think there’s a loss. When I was a kid, I watched way too much junky TV after school (which, I would like to add was brought on by actual policy from Reagan’s FCC that allowed toy makers to create half hour commercials as entertainment for children) and I often think this hampered my brain’s ability to function as an adult. But I’m also not entirely convinced that we were that much better off before. People have a lot more access to different types of storytelling (and stories) than they ever have. It’s a busy landscape to navigate and I’d like to think that the children out there today that can manage the overload will come out with some pretty amazing stories to tell. That said, I’m not sure I could survive it. When my friends were all moving onto advanced gaming consoles, Pac Man was about all I could handle. One joystick and no buttons.

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I think when people are bored, they ultimately have two choices: 1) Stay bored (and become boring themselves), or 2) Get creative, do stuff, make things happen. Quick story: I witnessed this dynamic when we took our kids on vacations in the Adirondacks. We often rented a cabin on a lake with no Wi-Fi, no TV, no town, no stores. For the first half hour, every year, they were lost. What now? Then, you know, they got busy. They built forts, went fishing, swam out to the peer, played cards, explored the grounds, looked for frogs, read, drew. All thanks to that wonderful boredom!

I was bored for most of my childhood. School was excruciatingly boring. At home, my family was of the serious academic variety and I was the only one interested in play. So I had to figure it out on my own. I didn’t need the Adirondacks; it was like that for me 24/7. I was industrious. I used the Styrofoam from my Dad’s computer boxes to build stuff. And in 5th grade, I moved down into the basement to decorate my own universe. I should also add that three of my close friends from elementary school in Baltimore, who suffered the same boredom as I did on all fronts, have gone on to distinguished careers as writers including a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a New York Times staff writer, and a children’s book author. Go Baltimore City Public Schools!

Stuck in a room, another famous children's book character had to imagine his escape from boredom. Illustration by Maurice Sendak from WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE -- but everybody knows that.

Stuck in a room, another famous children’s book character had to imagine his escape from boredom. Illustration by Maurice Sendak from WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE — but everybody knows that.

In the girl’s bedroom, you scatter little clues about her character. The air balloon hanging from her ceiling, the drawings of the pyramids, the map of the world on her wall –- and even, very small, a plane flying outside her window. That’s important to you, isn’t it? The sense that we’re living in a great big world.

I think I’ve always been looking for a way out, and so to that end the world offered possibilities. It’s not that my home life was terrible. I just wasn’t getting what I needed so I looked beyond it for an answer. I’d imagine most of us can relate to that!

Obviously, your book owes a debt to Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. The device, the crayon, is the same, but the execution could not be more different. Also, the basic plot is timeless: using the imagination as escape, as a way to explore new worlds. Were those books important to you as a child?

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Actually, I was never a big fan of that book! I think the drawings bugged me somehow. But I do remember that when I finished Journey someone mentioned the similarity and so I looked at it as an adult. I was amazed at the similarities in the story! I probably would never have made Journey if I was aware that there was something so similar already out there!

Yes, I hear that. I was talking about this issue with Jessica Olien recently. There’s a freedom in not-knowing. I mean, I’m aware of authors who avidly read Publishers Weekly and stay up-to-the-moment about what’s being published. But I’m the opposite, because my tendency is the same as yours: “Oh, rats, it’s already been done.” Creatively, I feel better off not knowing too much. A little bit goes a long way. I’m not a librarian or a publisher; I’m a maker. Our work has different requirements.

I’m a big fan of picture books and illustration in general, so I’ll often go to stores that do a nice job of curating their shelves (like the one at the Eric Carle Museum here in Amherst) and pick out a few books to take home that I like. But I’ve never been interested in following trends or trying to interpret the market of what sells or is popular with critics. I feel like I have this chance with the books I make to create something akin to actual fine art, in that I feel like I’m making something entirely fueled by my own curiosity and interests. The minute I start to create books that I think will sell well is the minute I might as well go back to working as a hired gun for advertising or film. 

Amen, brother! During her journey, our female protagonist experiences great beauty in the natural world. But there are also dark forces at work. The soldiers and guards who seek to capture and control. Are you saying, in effect, that there are forces that conspire against our imagination?

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I’ve always thought that the emperor and his soldiers are interested in capturing the purple bird because it represents something they can’t understand or access. They’re aware that the bird has some sort of magical quality to it and it frightens them. But the girl just wants to set it free. She doesn’t hesitate. The emperor represents that force inside of us that might more against that spontaneity of creation. Self-doubt, jealousy, envy, fear. We all have it.

We hate what we do not understand. Except for your art! I have no idea how you do it, Aaron, but I love your work. What materials do you use to create these illustrations? Smoke and mirrors and what else? Forgive me, I’m no Julie Danielson; I’m a little lost when it comes to talking about artwork.

Pencil sketch, opening spread.

Pencil sketch, opening spread.

I start with pencils until the story is working. Then I build some 3D models in the computer to aid in the perspective of the architecture; these models get printed lightly out onto paper and I do another, more detailed pencil drawing for each spread. Then I scan that pencil in the computer so that I can print it out very lightly onto watercolor paper as the basis for my ink drawing. From there, it’s just like a traditional water color painting. Journey took me about a year and a half to produce. It’s laborious but it’s the only way I know!

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This is a wordless book, and your very first. Congratulations on such a jaw-dropping accomplishment, for it is a debut book that announced the arrival of an exciting new voice. I enjoyed thinking about your story long after I first encountered it in the wild. Did it have words in early iterations? The wordlessness seems to open up the potentialities of story in ways that wouldn’t be possible if it included text.

Thanks. I do feel like I made the book I wanted to make and the success that has followed has been just one giant blessing. I didn’t plan on it being wordless. But my when I fished my first draft, which was literally a series of small thumbnail sketches on one big sheet of paper, I realized that adding words would only be redundant. The story was already there.

 

There are currently three books in Aaron Becker’s “Journey” Trilogy: Journey, Quest, and Return. If readers are feeling ignore or bored, you can find Aaron’s website by searching high and low on the interwebs. It might inspire your imagination.

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” INTERVIEW SERIES: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. I almost called it “Author to Author” but I didn’t want to push myself to the front of it, though that is part of what makes these interviews unique. We’re in the same leaky boat.

Coming next week, my great pal Matthew Cordell (Wish) You can hit the “SUBSCRIBE” icon and, hopefully, it will work. Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Matthew Phelan, Bruce Coville, Jeff Mack, Jeff Newman, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Ann Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

 

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5. PHOTO ALBUM: 18 Real Places Featured in “THE COURAGE TEST”

I enjoyed compiling these images, which mirror the journey taken by the characters in The Courage Test. The only caveat I’ll add is that scrolling through the photos and reading the captions might give readers a false idea of the story. Though my focus here is on literal place, the book is not a travelogue. There’s a plot and everything. Really!

 

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Bismarck, North Dakota, page 20: “Are they fast at Denny’s? Good question. Yes, they are fast. You say your order out loud, and literally before you reach the end of the sentence there it is, steaming hot on the table in front of you. How is that possible? No one knows.”

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Page 30: At the Fort Mandan Gift Shop, Will buys a postcard and scribbles, “The soldiers on the expedition built a fort here, but it’s long gone. So the tourist board built an exact replica. Whatever! The tour guide told us it got as cold as 45 degrees below zero that winter. Brrrrr, chilly. The soldiers almost ran out of food, but fortunately the people of the Mandan tribe were super friendly. They had corn to spare! Otherwise those guys might have starved. We’d all be like, Lewis and Clark? Nope, never heard of ’em. Ha!”

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Floating east on the Missouri River in the White Cliffs region. Page 48: “I am glad to be on the river, pulling a paddle through the water.”

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Pages 50: “And then he lurches forward, his long, jerky strides eating up the trail in that falling-forward way of his, until we come to a plaque titled DECISION POINT.”

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Page 57: “I glimpse my first sight of strange rock formations. These are called the Breaks, rocks that have been folded, faulted, uplifted, and left here, like old, dead soldiers from another, long-ago war. White sandstone cliffs begin to rise higher and higher on both sides. It feels like we’re traveling through a great stone maze built by ancient gods.”

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Page 85: “That night, we camp where the Corps of Discovery camped more than two hundred years ago. Meriwether Lewis and his men. Under the same starry skies, staring into the same fire, beside the same chalky cliffs.”

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Page 91, Fort Benton: “As a treat, he decides to spring for the swanky Grand Union Hotel in the heart of downtown. It’s a beautiful old brick building near the river. I am grateful to have a television and a big, soft bed with sheets and pillows. A working toilet isn’t half bad, either.”

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Park in Fort Benton, near Grand Union Hotel. Page 96, Will writes another postcard: “This is a statue of Shep, an important dog in the town of Fort Benton. They say that Shep hung out at the train station every day for five years waiting for his master to return. Unfortunately, his master was dead, but Shep made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Worst of all, Shep died when he got hit by a train. True fact! Old, weird America.”

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Dillon, Montana. Page 112: “I can see my father watching me through the Dairy Queen window. His expression is curious, alert. He’s seated across from Maria Rosa, who is biting into an enormous burger.”

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Lemhi Pass area, page 123: “My father says, ‘Lewis stood somewhere close to this spot. He looked at those mountains — remember, no white American had actually seen the Rockies up close before — and he knew without a doubt that unless they had horses to help carry their load, they’d all die, wandering in that maze of bare rock and stone. To make matters worse, he’s trying to find a tribe, the Shoshones, who prefer to stay hidden.”

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Page 125: “We return to the car and roll down a semi-terrifying, one-lane road — narrow and steep, with wicked, sharp turns — and we find an old campsite off Agency Creek Road.”

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The Lolo Trail in the Bitterroot Mountains, page 134: “The next few days should be tough. This will be my first time doing true backcountry hiking. There are no stores, no cozy hotels. We are carrying everything on our backs — food, sleeping bag, tent, clothes, and, oh yes, bear spray.”

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Page 150: “A bear cub is the worst possible thing anyone can find on a remote mountain trail. There’s movement in the thicket up ahead. Something big coming through, branches snapping under the weight. A black nose pokes through. Followed by the massive head and shoulders of the wildest, most dangerous beast I’ve ever seen.”

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Page 158, Idaho, Highway 12: “My father puts on the blinker when we come to a big red sign that reads, THREE RIVERS MOTEL: COCKTAILS, WI-FI, POOL.” [Note: I took a little creative license here.]

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Page 179: “The first hour is probably the most exciting sixty minutes I’ve had in my entire life. And then with a lurch the boat suddenly tips down, and there’s a bounce and a jostle, and Dan cries out, ‘Big bump! Lean in!’ Before I can react, I’m popped backward into the air like a rag doll.”

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Page 184: “Seaside is a beach town, with a long boardwalk, high buildings off the shore, and a stunning sand beach.”

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Page 187-188: “At the instant my first step reaches the water, I feel a bolt of ice-cold surge up my body. But I’m moving too fast; there’s no turning back now. And then I’m laughing — we’re both howling and screaming and yelping in shock and surprise — splashing and shivering.”

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Page 203: “Time passes. Autumn comes and goes, now winter lingers. We don’t mess around when it comes to winter here in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

The Courage Test is a 2016 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION.

“A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama..”School Library Journal.

couragetestfrontcvr-199x300“Preller traverses both domestic drama and adventure story with equally sure footing, delivering the thrills of a whitewater rafting accident and a mama bear encounter, and shifting effortlessly to the revelation of Mom’s illness and the now urgent rapprochement between Dad and Will. Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here.The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip that does traditional double-duty as plot device and coming-of-age metaphor. . . . Also, along with helping a young runaway find a new home, Will survives a meeting with a bear and a spill into dangerous rapids — tests of courage that will help him weather the bad news that awaits him at home.”—Booklist, Starred Review

 

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6. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #235: “Smell Me!”

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Okay, this is a first. A fan letter in odorama!

“Smell me!”

And I did.

Yum, black crayon.

Thank you, Finn.

Maybe next time you’ll include a pair of old socks.

 

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7. Free Teacher’s Guide for THE COURAGE TEST — Only a Click Away!

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The good folks at Macmillan Publishers have created a free, downloadable Teacher’s Guide for The Courage Test (just published today!).

That’s right, sing it with me:

 

“Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday, dear Courage Test!

Happy birthday to you!”

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From the guide:

“This guide is aligned with Common Core Standards for 6th grade but can be applied to grades 4–7. To attain specific Common Core grade level standards for their classrooms and students, teachers are encouraged to adapt the activities listed in this guide to their classes’ needs. You know your kids best!”

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couragetestfrontcvr-199x300Thanks for your interest and support. Teachers and media specialists are so important to the process of bringing books and students together, I really don’t have the words to express my indebtedness. My survival as a writer — this crazy career — depends on you. My hope is that teachers will share this book with students, and use it in your classrooms.

Just CLICK HERE and the Teaching Guide is yours, as easy as that!

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8. Come to the (Fabulous!) Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival: Saturday the 24th!

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As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m pretty thrilled to be invited anywhere. I’ve just reached that point in life where I’m excited to get out of the house. The wife ties a cow bell around my ankle, stuffs a hunk of stale bread in my pocket, and tells me to go have a good time.

And I wander off, blithe as a badger.

(What? Nevermind.)

This Saturday I’ll be grabbing an audiobook and making that drive down 87 to fabled Chappaqua for their annual Children’s Book Festival. It’s a good one, believe you me!

(Did I just type, believe you me? What’s happening to my fingers?)

You can be one of the first people in all the world to purchase an autographed first edition of my book, The Courage Test. It’s been out a week and is already in its second printing. So, you know, it’s kind of a big deal.

(Hey, I wonder if Hillary will stop by? She reads, right? Not like the other one.)

Please be sure to bring your credit card say hello!

 

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9. Not recommended: THE COURAGE TEST by James Preller

People have been asking me about James Preller's The Courage Test. I got a copy of it, and it was in line for a "Debbie--have you seen" post. On September 20, 2016, a conversation on Facebook prompted me to move it up in the line.  

Here's the synopsis:

Will has no choice. His father drags him along on a wilderness adventure in the footsteps of legendary explorers Lewis and Clark--whether he likes it or not. All the while, Will senses that something about this trip isn't quite right. 
Along the journey, Will meets fascinating strangers and experiences new thrills, including mountain cliffs, whitewater rapids, and a heart-hammering bear encounter.
It is a journey into the soul of America's past, and the meaning of family in the future. In the end, Will must face his own, life-changing test of courage.
A father-and-son journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail--from Fort Mandan to the shining sea--offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.
Will's dad, Bruce, is a history professor. He's into Lewis and Clark so much, that he named his son William Meriwether Miller (William for William Clark, and Meriwether for Meriwether Lewis). 

Bruce's reverence for the expedition is evident as I read The Courage Test. As they travel, Bruce tells Will about the expedition, how Lewis and Clark were seeing a "new world" (p. 22) and "things that had never before been seen by white men" (p. 27). He gives Will a copy of O'Dell and Hall's Thunder Rolling in the Mountains to read. If it is anything like what I read in Island of the Blue Dolphins, it is a poor choice if Bruce's intent is for Will to learn about the Nez Perce people. 

Time and again as I read The Courage Test, I thought "oh come on..." But, there it is. In some places, Will says or thinks something that puts a bit of a check on his dad's reverence, but for the most part, he's in awe, too, and uses the same kind of words his dad uses. Scattered throughout, for example, are pages from a journal Will uses. In the first one, "My Summer Assignment" he writes that (p. 17):
When Thomas Jefferson was president, a lot of North America was unexplored. No white American had ever seen huge parts of it.
I grew tired of all that pretty quickly. I stuck with it, though, right to the end, to Preller's notes in the final pages. There, Preller wrote (p. 209):
I owe the greatest debt to Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose, The Journals of Lewis Clark edited by Bernard DeVoto, Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition by Alvin M. Josephy Jr., Lewis and Clark Among the Indians by James P. Ronda, and Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail by Julie Fanselow.
Of that list, the one edited by Alvin Josephy, Jr. stands out. The first Native writer in Josephy's book is Vine Deloria, Jr. Deloria's work is of fundamental importance to Native peoples, and to Native studies. Have you read, for example, his Custer Died For Your Sins? The first sentence in his chapter, “Frenchmen, Bears, and Sandbars” is this (p. 5):
Exaggeration of the importance of the expedition of Lewis and Clark is a typical American response to mythology.
If Preller read Deloria carefully, how is it that he has such celebratory language all through The Courage Test? And, there's this, on page 6-7 (bold is mine) in Deloria's chapter:
We have traditionally been taught to believe that the Lewis and Clark expedition was the first penetration of white men into the western lands. This belief is totally unfounded. The location of the Mandan villages, scattered from the present North Dakota-South Dakota line along the Missouri River to some distance above present-day Bismarck, were already common knowledge. French and British traders had already established a thriving commerce with these villages and the sedentary Indians were accustomed to dealing with foreigners.
Did Preller choose to ignore that? Or... did Will (writing in his journal) think that the French and British didn't count as "White Americans"? It just doesn't seem to me that Preller actually brought any of the writings in Josephy's book to bear on what he wrote in The Courage Test. Listing Josephy's book, then, feels... not right. 

Jumping back into the story of Bruce and Will on their journey, we meet a guy with broad shoulders, high cheekbones, tanned/rugged/deeply lined skin, black hair in two long thick braids, wearing a beaded necklace. Of course, he's Native. His name is Ollie. He's Bruce's friend, from grad school. Ollie is Nez Perce. When he tells Will about his ancestors, I think it would work better if he used "us" words rather than "them" words:
"My people, the Nez Perce, crossed this river not far from here in 1877. They hoped the Crow would join them in their fight against the U.S. Army, but the Crow turned their backs."
I'm not keen on his characterization of the Nez Perce being like deer grazing on the grass, while the white people were like the grizzly. It has a doomed quality to it that--while plausible--doesn't work for me. Later when Bruce and Ollie share a drink of whiskey, they tell Will that soldiers got flogged for getting drunk. Bruce goes on, saying (p. 69):
Remember, Will, this was a military operation. They were headed into hostile territory.
Bruce says that, with his Nez Perce friend, sitting right there, beside him. Don't his words, then, seem.... odd? Let me frame it this way, for clarity. Let's say I'm camping on my homelands. One of my dear friends and her kid are there, too. We're sharing a drink and talking about colonization. That dear friend would not say to her kid "Remember, ___, this was a military operation. They were headed into hostile territory." She might do it out of the blue in a cafe in a city somewhere, but if we were having a drink around a campfire ON MY HOMELAND and talking about something like the Lewis and Clark expedition... that friend wouldn't do that! And if she did, I'd say something. So---why didn't Ollie say something?! 

And then later, Will watches Ollie fix his hair (p. 74):
He fusses with his front forelock, stylishly sweeping it up and to the back.
"Going for a different look today?" I joked.
Ollie frowns. "It is the style of my people. Goes back generations. Don't you like it?"
"I definitely do," I say.
You know what "style" he's trying to do? Do a search on Chief Joseph, and you'll see. Now it is plausible that a Nez Perce man who is an investment banker in Brooklyn might go home and do his hair that way, but I'm kind of doubtful. (Also, though "forelock" is also used to refer to hair people have, it comes across more strongly for me as specific to horses, so that is a bit odd, too. Not that he's equating Ollie with animals, but that it is just an unusual word.)

I said above that I stuck with this book. That hair style part was tough. So is the part where Ollie tells Will that the bear he thinks he saw the night before was not a real bear (Will didn't see any tracks)... it was probably a spirit animal. They, Ollie tells Will, occur when someone is on a vision quest. It comes, he says, to "bestow the animal's power" and is a "great gift" that he must accept (p. 81). Later in the story, Will has an encounter with a bear. He froze, unable to do what he planned to do if he came across a bear (he's prepped for it), and thinks he's a failure. So.... I guess the power of the "spirit animal" didn't work... in that moment. Will's major task in this book is to be ready for dealing with his mother's cancer. Maybe that's what he'll need the power of that "spirit animal" for, but, really. This is all a mess. So is how the dreamcatcher is shown, later. So is the "illegal" they meet and help out. 

I've got more notes, but I think what I've shared here is enough. Published in 2016 by Feiwel and Friends--an imprint of MacMillan--I do not recommend James Preller's The Courage Test. 






0 Comments on Not recommended: THE COURAGE TEST by James Preller as of 9/22/2016 2:24:00 PM
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10. School Library Connection Recommends “The Courage Test”

The Lemhi Pass, ID, no easy walk in the park.

The Lemhi Pass, ID, no easy walk in the park.

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I am grateful to share another positive review for The Courage Test, this one from the School Library Connection, a link which my glamorous editor Liz kindly passed along yesterday. The review will be featured in their print magazine supplement, as well as on the reVIEWS+ site.

The money quote:

“This book will find many fans.” — School Library Connection.

Let’s hope!

Review excerpts are limited to 50 words or less. Let’s see what I can pull without cheating too much  . . .

“Many readers will identify with Will, who is forced to go on a road trip with his noncustodial dad, even though he really has other things that he would rather be doing. To make the trip worse, his Lewis and Clark obsessed history professor father has planned to follow most of Lewis and Clark’s route all the way across the country. The Corps of Discovery almost becomes another character in this coming-of-age story . . . . Recommended.”School Library Connection.

NOTE: Father and son pick up the L & C Trail at Fort Mandan, ND, and travel west to Seaside, OR. Along the way they meet strangers, paddle a canoe, ride in whitewater rapids, camp, hike the Lolo Trail, encounter bears (metaphoric & literal), and more.

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11. COVER REVEAL — Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space!

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I just opened a package that gave me shivers. Even, yes, a little warm pressure behind the eyes. For the brown padded envelope contained Advance Reader’s Copies of the Jigsaw Jones book, The Case from Outer Space, published by Macmillan. I have a few things to say, but let me start here:

Look at the new cover design, look at the terrific illustration by R.W. Alley, look at . . . Joey and Mila and Jigsaw.

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I wrote the first Jigsaw Jones mystery back in 1997 for Scholastic. To date, there are 40 titles in all, and more than 10 million copies have been sold, mostly through Scholastic Book Clubs. I’ve visited many schools as a guest author, and I’ve met a lot of young readers and teachers who know and enjoy those books. However, there’s really been nothing new for about ten years; Scholastic made a business decision to allow the series to die on the vine, with book after book slowly, painfully going out of print.

I put my heart into those characters. It’s the work for which I’m best recognized. I can’t easily convey how it felt to see those books fade into oblivion. I still receive letters from parents asking where they could get them. The note would explain that it was the first chapter book their a child had read by himself. I’d have to reply, “Try Craig’s List or eBay,” and a small dagger would slice into my soul. It was more than the disappointment of watching 40 books go out of print. It felt like a huge part of my career was being erased. All that work, the time and love, the accomplishment: poof, vaporized.

Oh well, right? That’s the deal. Writers go through this all the time. Publishing is a tough racket. Write something new.

But guess what? Jigsaw refused to go gentle into that good night. The books hung around in classrooms. There’s even a touring musical that still comes around, created by ArtsPower. Thanks to the efforts of three fierce women in publishing — my agent, Rosemary Stimola, along with Liz Szabla and Jean Feiwel at Macmillan — Jigsaw has found a new home, and new life. Jigsaw Jones is back. The immediate plan is to bring out this new title in the summer of 2017 (20 years after the first one), along with four newly updated classroom classics. In 2018, there will be at least four more, and hopefully I’ll get the chance to write another new one. These are books that have not been available in stores for a long, long while.

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Illustration by R. W. Alley, pages 12-13 from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. Available this summer from Macmillan.

Illustration by R. W. Alley, pages 12-13 from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. Available this summer from Macmillan.

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I hope that Jigsaw and his friends are discovered by a next generation of young readers. I hope that maybe a little cheer will go up in various classrooms around the country. But today I won’t worry about that. Today I’ll just hold this beautiful Advance Reader’s Copy in my hands, grateful for everything, and just smile, proudly.

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12. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #234: Featuring Secret Codes from Vivien!

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First of all, wow, this is letter number 234 that I’ve shared on this blog. I started this feature late in 2008, I think. I don’t put every letter on the blog. These represent only a small sample. Here at James Preller Dot Com, we share only the freshest, the funniest, the best. This one is from Vivien. She qualifies!

 

Dear James Preller,                                                                            
I really like your Jigsaw Jones books.  They are really fun!  I think it is cool how Jigsaw and Mila send secret codes to each other.  Jigsaw is really smart.  I don’t think I would have been able to solve The Mystery of the Perfect Prank.  I would like to ask you some questions.  (I am going to write in a code!)  Why you writing Jigsaw books, did start the Jones?  What your color, is favorite?  Which your are favorite, of books your?  Are going write books, you to more?  Please answer these questions (if you can!) and please write back soon. 
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Sincerely, Vivien
 
I replied:
 

Vivien,

Thank you for this lovely note. And may I also say how much I love your name: Vivien. It’s even fun to say. It also reminds me of a favorite word: convivial.
Vivien is convincingly convivial!
 ‘
You are the first person on the planet clever enough to ask me questions in code. I did manage to figure it out. Confession: My first thought was that you were lousy at typing. But then I recognized that you had some kind of alternate word thing going on. I like it! Does it have a name? A Word Skip Code?
 
On to the questions!
 
I began writing these mysteries back in 1997. At the start, I was just messing around with words on paper. I had a character, named Otis, who had an extremely active imagination. He’d pretend to be a space explorer, a mad scientist, and a hard-boiled detective (like in the old movies). An editor at Scholastic, Jean Feiwel, read what I had written and said, “I like the part where he’s a detective. Do you think you could write a mystery?”
 
My favorite color? Well, the older I get, I have to admit — it’s gray.
 
Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE -- coming in the summer of 2017!

Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE — coming in the summer of 2017!

There are different scenes in each Jigsaw Jones book that I enjoy. A line that’s funny, a clue that might be particularly ingenious, or a moment of real heart. And I suppose there’s a few books with which I’ll never feel satisfied. 

I’m super excited about my new Jigsaw Jones book, The Case from Outer Space, which is coming out this summer, published by Macmillan. I hadn’t written one in several years, and I was so happy to re-enter that familiar world. It really might be the best Jigsaw Jones book I’ve ever done — and that’s saying something, because it’s the 41st book overall.
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Thank you for reading my books, Viv!
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Oh, by the way, I think I figured out a new code the other day. I made a note and stuck it in a folder. Maybe for the next book. Do you mind if I try it out on you?
 
Wait, before you leave the house — get dressed!
Most animals are fabulous dancers.
At first, the hippo appeared bored and soporific, but then he perked up.
The single best thing anyone can ever do is pour soup in their shoes.
I believe Vivien is actually a frog.
 
Stumped you, didn’t I?
 
Here’s a hint: I think I’ll call it a Third Word Code. And it’s harder to write than it looks! Whew. I’m gonna take a nap!
 
Your pal,
 
James Preller

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13. 5 QUESTIONS with MATTHEW McELLIGOTT, author/illustrator of “MAD SCIENTIST ACADEMY: THE WEATHER DISASTER”

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Here we are, oh sunny day, the latest installment of my “5 Questions” interview series with luminaries of the children’s book world. Here comes my friend, Matt McElligott!

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Matt, I’m looking at the second book in your “Mad Scientist Academy” series, The Weather Disaster. And all I can think is, Boy that looks like a lot of work! Seriously, I’m exhausted. So I’m just going to take a brief nap and, yawn, we’ll pick this up later. Zzzzzzzzzz.

You’re not the first person to tell me my books put them to sleep! 

Okay, I’m up! For readers who might be unfamiliar with this science series, you are essentially taking a nonfiction topic and giving it a fresh, contemporary spin. All told in an appealing format that’s a hybrid between the graphic novel and traditional picture book. As someone who has admired your work for many years, it strikes me that this series –- which is spectacular in every way — represents a culmination for you, a distillation of your many and varied talents. I don’t think you could have done this ten years ago. All of your past work informs this one book: your intellectual curiosity, your love of comic books and old Hollywood movies, your silliness, your experience with book design and storytelling, plus the signature McElligott sense of what kids genuinely like. How did this series begin?

The sentiment is much, much appreciated. And I agree completely -– I don’t think I could have done this ten years ago, and I’m not sure I could even do it now without the tremendous help of my wife Christy. It really is a lot of work. Not only does the story have to be compelling, but it also has to deliver a lot of real science along the way, hopefully while still captivating the reader. Finding that balance has been, by far, the trickiest part of putting these together, but I can honestly say I enjoy every part of it.

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The idea began with a suggestion from my longtime editor, Emily Easton, who felt that there was a real opportunity for a new series that could make science accessible for kids. We spent about a year and a half trying out various ideas and approaches until it finally started to gel. The graphic novel format came from both my love of classic comics and a practical need to fit all the information into thirty-two pages.

There must have been a point, early on, when you thought to yourself, “Uh-oh.” Just that pure terror of, What have I gotten myself into? Can I actually do it?

Boy, you nailed it with that question. The feeling of terror hit me a couple weeks into the first book and has lingered ever since. There are roughly a hundred illustrations in each book, and the thought of how long it will take to draw the next book keeps me up at night. I’ll spend about a year, maybe a little more, researching, plotting, sketching, and illustrating pretty intensely until it’s finished. But the good thing is that I’m not in it alone. I happen to be married to a very talented woman who’s a whiz at both researching and drawing (we met thirty years ago in art school) and we can divide up many of the tasks to keep everything manageable. Three books in, and we’re still married!

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Now correct me if I’m wrong, but your cruel editors don’t allow you to just make up stuff for this book? Is that true? So you’ve actually got to know what you are talking about? What’s the research process like? In this book you thank an actual weatherman, Jason Gough. Otherwise known as a, cough-cough, “stratospheric meteorologist.”

Oh, no. I make most of it up. (That part about how rain forms? That totally came to me in a dream.) Seriously, there’s a ton of research for each book, and meeting real scientists has been one of my favorite parts. For The Weather Disaster I worked with Jason Gough, and for the Dinosaur Disaster I worked with a man named Carl Mehling, a paleontologist who’s in charge of all 32,000 fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. For the upcoming Space Disaster, I worked with the astronomer Bob Berman, who you may know from his work on the radio station WAMC.

All of these scientists were so helpful, patient, and fully willing to engage my strange questions. (“Say, Jason, if you needed to create a tornado from scratch, how would you do it?”) Best of all, they embodied a perfect combination of science and imagination, and I was really lucky to find them. I’ve posted interviews with Carl and Jason on my website, and will be posting more soon.

Matt, you and I are both active with school visits. And I always recommend you to media specialists. The funny thing is, they usually say, “Yeah, he was already here.” At which point I figure out that I’ve been invited because they are working their way down, down, down the list. Not that I mind playing second fiddle –- I’m happy to be in the orchestra! But talk to me a little about your experience in schools. I mean, there you are at home, slaving away on these impossible books. Then you get out of the house! What do you hope to achieve when you visit a school? And also, if you don’t mind me cobbling questions together, what do you think that you get out of your school visits?

Don’t sell yourself short –- you have quite a reputation in the schools! I suspect you’re there because the teachers are actually working their way up the list. (Preller? Why not? Anyone’s got to be better than McElligott.)

I get paid in Ramen Noodles and old Lotto tickets. I think that’s a big part of my appeal.

I love your questions about author visits. The first is pretty straightforward: I hope the kids see that authors are real people, that making books is a thing that real grownups do, and that the writing and illustrating process can be hard, but is totally worth it. (Authors, after all, get to control the world.)

On school visits, Matt always shows readers the joy of . . . the thrill of . . . nevermind!

On school visits, Matt always shows readers the joy of . . . the thrill of . . . nevermind!

As for what I get out of the visits, I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me that. I know I get to share my love of books –- that’s a big part –- and get to meet future authors and illustrators, as well as terrific librarians and teachers. But I also get to represent something bigger than myself, a duty I take very seriously. When a school hosts an author, and when they present the author/illustrator as someone of importance, the school is sending a message about the value of the arts that kids are almost certainly not getting anywhere else. I’m honored to be that representative, if even for just a day.

I like that, we are ambassadors from a distant land. I’ve never been comfortable with the “rock star” aspect of being a visiting author. Sometimes we get put on a pedestal. But when you view it as beyond the self, that we are representing something bigger than “Jimmy” or “Matt,” then it makes more sense.

Ambassadors is such a great word for it. We may be the only authors some of those kids will ever meet. If we’re funny, if we’re engaging, if it shows that we love our jobs, they’ll assume that all authors are that way. Those kids will come away with the idea that reading and making books is something they want to do too.

I recall Tedd Arnold telling me in an interview that he enjoyed checking in with their “squirmy reality.” That phrase always stuck with me. You get to look at those faces, and interact, and reconnect with the fact that, hey, a second grader in October is still really, really young. The visits land us in their world. You know what? It’s like going on a safari! You drive the jeep, Matt. I’ll grab the pith helmets!

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Exactly! It’s field research, and we can learn so much from studying the indigenous population of the elementary school.

You’ve tackled dinosaurs, you’ve wrestled with weather. What’s your next topic?

I can tell you that next up is The Solar System Disaster, out next summer. After that, maybe the ocean? Or maybe the science of belly-button lint. It’s probably between those two.

Well, I think we’ve all learned something today. Every book in this series is a disaster.

In more ways than one!

 

MATT McELLIGOTT keeps a terrific website which you can visit by clicking, madly, here

 

AND IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ PREVIOUS “5 Questions” interviews, thank you — just click on the names below. Coming next week: Jessica Olien and her blobfish! And after that: London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Lizzy Rockwell, Nancy Castaldo, Matthew Phelan, and more (but not necessarily in that order).

* Hudson Talbott

* Hazel Mitchell

* Ann Hood

 

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14. Talking: Writing Process, Roald Dahl, Works In Progress, Lewis & Clark, and the Danger of the “Info Dump.”

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD -- a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD — a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Deborah Kalb runs a cool website where she interviews a staggering number of authors and illustrators . . . and she finally worked her way down to me.

Please check it out by stomping on this link here.

Here’s a quick sample:

Q: You wrote that you were inspired by Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World to focus on a father-son dynamic in The Courage Test. How would you describe the relationship between your character Will and his father?

A: Yes, I came late to the Dahl classic and was struck that here was a loving book about a boy’s relationship with his father — not the kind of thing I’ve seen in many middle-grade children’s books. I found it liberating, as if Dahl had given me a written note of permission.

In The Courage Test, William Meriwether Miller is a 12-year-old with recently divorced parents. His father has moved out and moved on. So there’s tension there, and awkwardness; William feels abandoned, and he also feels love, of course, because it’s natural for us to love our fathers.

I wrote about this at more length, here, back a couple of years ago. In the unlikely event you are really fascinated by my connection to the Dahl book . . .

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15. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #229: About Those Crazy Names

 

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Here’s one from the Sunshine State!

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Dear Mr. Preller,
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My name is Nicolas.  I am 8 years old and I am in 3rd grade at ____  Elementary School in Miramar, FL.  I am writing to tell you that I really liked The Case of The Sneaker Sneak.  This is the third Jigsaw Jones book I have read because I really like Jigsaw Jones.
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51Xxdj8lrdL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_Jigsaw is a lot like me.  He and I both like mysteries.  We like to solve puzzles.  I also like that Jigsaw plays sports.  I play sports too.  I play soccer, although I like to watch football like Jigsaw plays with his friends in the book. My family likes to watch and play football on Thanksgiving every year just like they do in the book.  I could really picture myself playing with those kids.  I think it is great how Mila and Jigsaw are always able to find clues to solve mysteries and help others.

One question I have for you is where do you come up with all the unique names of the characters in the book?  Do you know people named Solofsky, Pignattano, or Copabianco?  Do you have friends with nicknames like Bigs or Stringbean?

I really enjoy the Jigsaw Jones books and can’t wait to read the next one in my collection.

Sincerely,

Nicolas

I replied:

Dear Nicholas,

Thanks for your terrific letter. I am so glad that you are enjoying the series. I just wrote a new one, The Case from Outer Space, and it will be out in the Spring of 2017 — less than a year away! (You can click here to read a sample chapter. Or not! It’s a free world here at Jamespreller.com.)
 
I’ve never really thought about it before, but I guess you are right. I do put some unique names in the books. Joey Pignattano came directly from my love of the NY Mets. When I was your age, the Mets won a World Series in 1969, and one of their coaches was named Joe Pignatano. I changed his name slightly by adding an extra “t,” and that was that. Copabianco came from a girl I knew in college. It was just one of those long Italian names that musically rolls off the tongue. I did not know anyone named “Bigs” or “Stringbean,” but I did have a friend that we called “Wingnut” because of his large ears. 
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The books in the Jigsaw Jones series have been a little hard to find lately, because they are in the process of moving from one publisher (Scholastic) to another (Macmillan). Hopefully there will be more available next Spring, with all new covers. Look for them where fine books are sold.
 
Keep reading, Nicholas, and I’ll keep writing! And if you ever feel up to it, you might enjoy checking out my “Scary Tales” series. They are not much harder to read than Jigsaw, but you do have to be the sort of kid who likes creepy, suspenseful stories. 
 
My best,
 
James Preller
P.S. For a lot more background on The Case of the Sneaker Sneak, click here — you won’t regret it!

 

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16. A Face for Radio!

From a recent school visit. I've been all over recently, Wallkill, Rochester, Binghamton, and tomorrow . . . Buffalo! Eleven schools and one book festival in 18 days.

From a recent school visit. I’ve been all over recently, Wallkill, Rochester, Binghamton, and tomorrow . . . Buffalo! Eleven schools and one book festival in 18 days.

 

If you’ve never heard me on the radio, boy have I got a link for you. Listen to me, along with Mark Teague and Jennifer Clark, as we discuss the Hudson Children’s Book Festival on WAMC with Joe Donahue.

Jump on the link here and amaze your ears to the dulcet sounds of . . . nevermind!

 

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17. RE-POST: The Hilarious Way One School Librarian Received 100% Book Returns (Almost)

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NOTE: I am reposting this because it’s that time of year for school librarians. Enjoy! 

Her name is Alanna Almstead. She’s a librarian at Ichabod Crane in Valatie, NY. And at the end of each school year, Alanna faces the same vexing problem: Unreturned library books.

Because kids tend to forget. And some others, let’s hope, just fall in love with that book and can’t stand the thought of letting it go.

Alanna realized that the problem might be solved if she could only provide the proper motivation. Some sort of incentive. A carrot, so to speak.

But what could it be?

Here, I’ll let my friend Alanna explain it in her own words:


“The idea actually came about last June as my amazing aide, Lori, and I were discussing the shameful number of missing books at the end of the year. Always eager to see me make a fool of myself, I think the words “duct tape” first came out of her mouth.

Fast forward to May of this year. There I sat rambling at the end of a particularly fun library class about how important it was to return their books (we also give funny trophies to the five classes that return all of their books the fastest) when I suddenly blurted out that if the whole school brings their books back I would get taped to the wall. Yikes! Once that sort of thing gets said there is no taking it back, but no worries… It will never happen, I thought to myself.

11403263_10203095973960421_4328485250474245790_nI approached my principal, Suzanne Guntlow, after the fact. Suzanne is a wonderful supporter of the library and gave me her blessing, just in case the kids came through.

And come through they did! Although we fell short of the goal of all books returned school wide I am very happy with the results. In the end we had only 12 books still checked out in a building serving over 560 students. When the last third grader brought her book back I knew that I would have to make good on my promise.

And so, on the eve of the last day of school, I found myself making the rounds to several local stores to buy armfuls of duct tape. Variety seemed important, for some reason. When you’re nearly 6 feet tall and are faced with getting stuck to a wall you want the tape to work (and look pretty, of course!).

All of the third grade classes gathered on the last day of school to witness their reward for being so responsible. Afterwards I did hear a few students saying that it was the “best way to end the year.” (What does that say about what they really think of me, I wonder?!?).”

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Final comment: I think it’s pretty obvious what they think of you, Alanna. Those kids think their school librarian is a hoot. Great job, great spirit. And a huge hat tip to that incredible aide, Lori, for hatching the idea. Note: Yes, there’s actually a brief video of the moment when they removed the foot stool from beneath Alanna’s feet and — what joy, what laughter — she stuck!

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18. Three Rapscallions All In a Row

Avast, me hearties! This photo below was sent to me in anticipation of a school visit. These rascals must have been inspired by A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade and/or the sequel, A Pirate’s Guide to Recess.

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The image below is by illustrator Greg Ruth, who is amazing, from A Pirate’s Guide to Recess.

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19. Booklist Gives Starred Review to THE COURAGE TEST!

 

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I am thrilled to share the terrific news that the good folks at Booklist, particularly long-time reviewer John Peters, just gave The Courage Test a killer review — and a great big star. Note: I will backtrack to provide a link as soon as one becomes available. In the meantime, you’re just going to have to trust me. I am not making this up.

A great review is a fine thing, of course. But outside of what it means to me as an author (validation! affirmation!), or for my book (massive sales! yachts! librarians! ice cream sundaes!), it’s simply an impressive writing feat, a true literary skill. In limited space, Peters concisely, cogently manages to articulate so much of the book’s content. No easy task. A tip of the hat to Mister Peters. I’m really glad you liked the book.

 

 THE COURAGE TEST 

Author: James Preller 

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 224
Price (Hardcover): $16.99
Publication Date: September 2016 
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250093912
Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip that does traditional double-duty as plot device and coming-of-age metaphor. Will is initially baffled and furious at being abruptly forced to accompany his divorced father, a history professor, on a long journey retracing much of the trail of Lewis and Clark. The trip soon becomes an adventure, though, because as the wonders of the great outdoors work their old magic on Will’s disposition, his father and a Nez Perce friend (who turns out to be a Brooklyn banker) fill him in on the Corps of Discovery’s encounters with nature and native peoples. Also, along with helping a young runaway find a new home, Will survives a meeting with a bear and a spill into dangerous rapids—tests of courage that will help him weather the bad news that awaits him at home. Despite the many plot threads, the story never seems overstuffed or weighed down by agendas. Leading a cast of appealing characters Will and his father are both vulnerable sorts who share a damaged, uneasy bond that firms up with realistic slowness and occasional backsliding. Additionally, not only does the author slip cogent historical facts and insights into his simply told narrative without disturbing its flow, he offers more detail, plus sources of information, in an afterword. 
— John Peters

 

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20. Fan Mail Wednesday #232: Bears In Backyards

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I received this note from Ethan, who likes my style. But before I get to that, I should note that 98% of my fan mail comes during the school year, and many arrive with the aroma of “assignment.” That’s not a bad thing, mind you, just reality. In today’s case, this is a letter I received in late July, along with a stamped and self-addressed envelope (love that!). I can’t help but sense a  parent’s helping hand making this all possible.

“Would you like to write to the author?”

I don’t know where I’m going with that observation. Except to say that behind every enthusiastic reader, there’s usually a loving adult helping to cultivate & nurture that experience. Thank you for that, and for this:

 

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I replied:

 

Dear Ethan,

Thank you for your letter. I am pleased to learn that you like my style. Yes, style points!

You know, it seems like every Spring there’s an incident in Upstate, New York (where we both live), when a bear wanders out of the woods and into a town, or near stores, or into someone’s backyard. It’s a worrying thing, because bears are big, strong,  wild animals. Often, animal control has to get involved for everyone’s safety. I read articles like this in the newspaper every year.

I wondered why this happens, so I found an animal expert. He told me that bears are “territorial,” they like to have their own area –- a territory is like the property of your house –- and that sometimes a big male bear will make a smaller male go find his own territory. They don’t like to share. So the young male goes looking for somewhere to live, and sometimes he gets confused, make a few wrong turns, and ends up at Crossgates Shopping Mall. Yikes! What’s a bear doing at Banana Republic? The poor bear is lost. Bears don’t want to hurt people –- bears are usually shy; they don’t look for trouble -– but bears can be dangerous. It’s a sad and scary situation for everybody.

Writers often start with “what if?” questions. And that’s how I began The Case of the Bear Scare. I’m so glad you read it. Thank you.

This is a rough sketch for an illustration in my upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE, illustrated by my pal R.W. Alley. The character depicted here is Joey Pignattano on a stake-out.

This is a rough sketch for an illustration in my upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE, illustrated by my pal R.W. Alley. The character depicted here is Joey Pignattano on a stake-out.

I just finished a new Jigsaw Jones book titled The Case from Outer Space. It will be out in the summer of 2017 and it’s pretty funny. I hope you check it out. My newest book is called The Courage Test (grades 4-7) and comes out in September. And guess what? There’s a mama bear in it, and a boy hiking in the woods of Idaho . . .

Stay cool and have a great summer!

Your friend,

James Preller

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21. Thinking about Fear, Along with a Very Short Excerpt from “Scary Tales”

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It’s a classic “horror” setup: the kid alone in bed in a dark room. Common to all. We’ve felt it, we remember that zipper of fear along our spines, that feeling of something else — something other — also in our childhood rooms.

Innocence meets experience.

Or was it just the strange pleasure of jarring ourselves to full wakefulness? A feeling we craved because, weirdly, we liked it? We sought it, that roller coaster of the mind. And so we invented it?

Writing the “Scary Tales” series (grades 2-5) I’ve had been able to try my hand at some of those moments, writing comfortably within the tradition, as well as attempt to conjure new chills of my own.

Here’s a paragraph from Swamp Monster, the 6th and last book in the series.

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watching 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.

Be sure to read them all, folks. A strong addition to any classroom library, illustrated by the great Iacopo Bruno.

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22. SLJ Calls THE COURAGE TEST “A Middle Grade Winner!” See Full Review & Minor Correction.

More good news for my upcoming book, now just a month away from hitting the shelves. The Courage Test has already earned a starred review from Booklist and been named a 2016 Junior Library Guild Selection. Below, please find the full review from School Library Journal. While I am grateful for any positive attention, and impressed with the amount of information the reviewer conveys in a difficult, condensed format, I should clarify two points:

1) Will and his father live in Minneapolis and travel in a long, dull drive to Fort Mandan, North Dakota, where they pick up the old Lewis & Clark Trail. From that point on, they loosely follow the trail all the way to Seaside, Oregon.

Sacagawea on the trail with her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pompy.

Sacagawea on the trail with her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pompy.

2) The character of Maria Rosa is 15 and pregnant, not coincidentally in the same condition as that of Sacagawea when the explorers first encountered her in Fort Mandan. Sacagawea grew up with the Shoshones and had been kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe at around age ten. A few years later she was sold to a fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. It is not clear in The Courage Test that Maria is exactly a “runaway,” but it is strongly intimated that she came into the United States illegally from Mexico, seeking a new life. The title of Chapter Three is “An Illegal Girl,” for example.

 

THE COURAGE TEST 

Author: James Preller 

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 224
Price (Hardcover): $16.99
Publication Date: September 2016 
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250093912

 
Gr 4-7–William Meriwether Miller—named after Lewis and Clark—is not happy about embarking on a wilderness adventure with the father who walked out on him and his mother. It’s not what he had in mind for his summer (he’s missing the chance to play on the All-Stars baseball team), but his mother insists. So he and his father, a history professor working on a book about the famous explorers, set off from Minnesota to North Dakota, driving, camping, rafting, and hiking along the Lewis and Clark Trail. As they work together to overcome obstacles and help a pregnant 15-year-old runaway, Will slowly gains a better understanding of his father. When he finally learns the reason behind the trip—his mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is starting treatment—he comes to appreciate his family as they are and not as he wishes they could be. The lively narrative is interspersed with Will’s entries for a school writing assignment, which contain lots of facts about the original journey, as well as postcards to his mother. Despite the emotional heft, there is plenty of action, including white-water rafting and a close encounter with a bear. VERDICT A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama.–Laurie Slagenwhite Walters, Brighton District Library, Brighton, MI <<

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23. DEAR EDUCATORS: Now Seeking School Visits for Fall, Spring 2016

 

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DEAR EDUCATORS,

An important and rewarding aspect of my career in children’s books is when I  get out from behind my desk to visit schools. I very much enjoy meeting teachers and speaking with students, sharing my love of books. It’s also an important source of revenue for me as a writer. In truth, school visits allow me to keep doing what I love — writing books for young readers.

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tifAfter answering a series of individual emails on this topic over the past decade or so, I finally decided to get around to providing a general description of a typical visit. Hopefully it will help to answer questions in advance and give you some idea if I’m the right guy for your school.

I am relaxed and experienced speaking with students at any grade level, though, of course, the content of those talks varies according to age level. I’ve written a range of books that are appropriate for kindergarten up to middle school, and many of them available in paperback at affordable prices.

Typically, I’ll do three 45-50 minutes presentations during a full-day visit. In addition, schools sometimes like to set up lunches with a small group of students, and I’ve always enjoyed that. I am also very happy to sign books. It is understood that the sponsoring organization will handle all book sales.

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For the best results, I’ve found that it makes a huge difference when students are familiar with my work and have thought about questions in advance. Like just about everything else in life, what you get out of it is in direct proportion to the energy that’s put into it. If the school leaders are excited and enthusiastic, that energy transfers to the students –- and we all have a terrific, rewarding experience.

CourageTestFrontCvrI don’t juggle, blow bubbles, or stand on my head. I’m an author talking about what I do for a living, reading a bit, answering questions, all (hopefully) in an authentic and entertaining fashion.

Fees are available upon request. I do try to be flexible to the specific needs of each individual school. For schools that require serious travel, it works best for me if 2-5 days worth of visits can be arranged with different schools in your district. Sponsors should plan on paying for travel expenses, which can be shared with other area schools. I can’t tell you how often I am asked to visit a school in, say, Montana. For one day. And sadly, that just never works; there has to be more of a coherent, cohesive plan to get me from here to you, way out there. That said, I’ve been to SC, FLA, CT, MA, NJ, PA, IL, MI, OH, OK, NY, and more. But my real dream is a week in San Francisco. So come on, folks, let’s make that happen!

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Please Note, A Word About “Scary Tales” Series

61ZJfCfXgSL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_July, 2013, saw the launch of a new series of books for me, called SCARY TALES. I am very proud of these books, and I’m confident the books will reach even reluctant readers. They are best for grades 3-5, but these things are hard to pin down. As a visiting author, I fully recognize and respect that distinction between, say, a parent-purchased book in a store compared to a guest author in a school, where children do not have choice. Therefore, in a grade 2-3 presentation, I will talk about the series in terms of using the imagination, asking “what if?” questions, story-building and characterization. I do not dwell on anything particularly scary. At the same time, I will likely read a carefully-selected passage that gives readers a sense of the, um, literate creepiness of the books. I’m trying to say, I can work with you on this, not looking to scare young readers. I’m looking to inspire and motivate them. October makes for an especially fun time of year to highlight these stories (there are six in the series in all).

Middle Schools, Bystander, Anti-Bullying

The popularity of the book, Bystander, opened up new worlds to me, specifically middle schools. In many schools around the country, Bystander has been widely read and shared, sometimes with an entire grade or school, cover_final_bystander_lo-203x300featured in a “One Book, One School” context. The idea is that it can serve as a positive, educational springboard for conversations and activities about the dynamics of bullying, and the various roles we all play in those situations. But I stress: it’s a story, a work of fiction, and I have been a published writer of children’s books since 1986. (You remember ’86, don’t you?) So while I am thrilled and honored to speak to large and small groups about this book, and the issues within it, I am not an anti-bullying presenter. I don’t offer ten easy steps for bully-proofing your school. I don’t climb on the soapbox. I love to visit middle schools, I am fascinated and inspired by this age group (today, 2012, I share my home with a 6th-grader and an 8th-grader), and I care about this issue very deeply. But I approach it as a writer, if that makes sense.

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NEW BOOKS

The Courage Test comes out in September, for grades 4-7. For more information on that book, a work of fiction which closely connects to the history of the Lewis and Clark Trail, this is a good place to start. 

TheFall-1The Fall, which serves as a strong companion to Bystander, will be available in paperback this September.

If you wish, please feel free to write to me and we can chat about it in more detail.

For more on a James Preller-styled school visit, plus some advice of running a successful author visit, you should click here. Really, that will tell you all you need to know. But if you really dig research, go to the “School Visits” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” and click madly, deeply.

Here’s one particular post you might find instructive.

So, there it is in a clamshell. I look forward to hearing from you!

Thanks!

 

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24. Writing Process: How a Photo on Facebook Influenced JIGSAW JONES: THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE

Illustration by R.W. Alley, from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Illustration by R.W. Alley, from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. That’s Jigsaw with his father and grandmother.

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When writers are fully engaged in their work — not just writing, but actively (or unconsciously) thinking about the writing — it tends to create a state of unique receptivity. Everything we see, hear, read, or smell becomes fodder for the work. A face we see in a coffee shop becomes exactly the face we need for a minor character. Someone’s small gesture — the way a girl crosses her arms and squeezes the skin of her elbows when she’s nervous — soon worms its way into our writing.

We have our antennas up. We’re sticky like flypaper, catching the signals in the atmosphere. I’ve heard it described as a time of being particularly “spongey,” a state where writers are especially absorbent, like quality paper towels. The song in the elevator becomes the key song in the book, and so on. The whole world feeds into the writing in unexpected ways.

I suppose I was in that sticky/spongey condition when I began casting about for ideas for a new Jigsaw Jones book. After a while, I figured out that it would revolve around a note stuck inside a book, found at a Little Free Library (because I love them). Without disclosing too many spoilers, the found note would lead some to believe that aliens were coming from outer space. Spoiler #1: They are not. Coincidentally (or not), Jigsaw and Mila’s teacher, Ms. Gleason, has been talking about the planets in class. Spoiler #2: She was even planning a surprise Skype visit from a real, live astronaut.

I was eight years old on July 20, 1969, sitting before my television watching grainy, black-and-white images of Neal Armstrong walking on the moon. At the same time, “Star Trek” was the most popular show with my older brothers. “Lost In Space” was also on television, feeding that fascination. The idea of space, the final frontier, has always loomed large in my imagination.

Below is a photo of the only twelve people who have ever walked on the moon. This is what the astronauts looked like:

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Notice anything about them? Go ahead, study hard; this might take some time. Hit the buzzer when you are ready.

BUZZZZZZZZ!

Yes, correct, they are all white men! Good work. I don’t recall questioning it at the time. But times do change, and many things do get better, even though it doesn’t always feel that way. Even so, this concept of what an astronaut looks like had been planted deep inside my brain. It just . . . was. Then one day the internet coughed up this image on my Facebook feed:

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Beautiful, perfect. This was just what I needed. One of the tricks with plotting mysteries is to run counter to assumptions, gender or racial or otherwise. The reader leans one way, you go the other. Also, politically and personally, I want to celebrate the diversity in our world. I want to jar readers a little bit, perhaps. Remind them to rethink those assumptions. Or, maybe, help them see themselves reflected from a new distance . . . under a new light . . . maybe even a world away.

From the book:

A gasp filled the room.

We were meeting a real live astronaut.

“Hello, boys and girls!” the astronaut said.

I heard Lucy whisper, “Major Starmann is a woman.”

“And she looks like my mom,” Danika said.

 

Rough sketch from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE (Macmillan, August 2017).

Rough sketch from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE (Macmillan, August 2017).

 

NOTE: One of the primary missions of this blog is to provide readers with a glimpse behind the scenes into the writing process and a writer’s working life. If you go to the Jigsaw Jones page and scroll through, you’ll find links to many other “Stories Behind the Story” posts. This new book will come out in the summer of 2017, along with the repackaging of four more titles that are currently out of print. I’m happy about that.

 

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25. Wow, Read This Spectacular Review for THE COURAGE TEST!

 

In this photo, I'm showing off the fabulous wrap-around cover for THE COURAGE TEST . . . as well as my daughter Maggie's lovely forehead.

The fabulous wrap-around cover for THE COURAGE TEST.

 

Confession: About eight years ago, early in this blog’s existence, I was a much more enthusiastic reader of the children’s blogosphere. Over time, I’ve lost most of that energy; there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. I sense that I should be doing other things (like: writing!). And, well, there’s the other thing: I’m not great at networking. I’ve never been comfortable with the sense of “ulterior motive” that comes with those professional relationships. So while it makes good sense for me to make friends with bloggers and reviewers, it really hasn’t happened too often.

(Read: They hate me!)

And then there’s good old Karen Terlecky. I first “met” Karen when she wrote a beautiful, perceptive, generous review for my book, Along Came Spider. I’ve been stalking Karen ever since. No, I don’t drive past her house at night; I just randomly click on her lovely Literate Lives blog, co-written with Bill Prosser (also a friend). Even fuller disclosure: click here and be amazed.

A few weeks back, after Karen expressed an eagerness to read it, I sent Karen an Advance Reader’s Copy of The Courage Test. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I didn’t hope that she’d review it, but in all honestly my primary reason was that I wanted her to read it. I was proud of my book and I wanted Karen to have a copy. 

For Karen’s full post, you know what to do. Or failing that, simply read below and you’ll get all the juicy bits. Thank you so much, Karen, not only for this, but for the important work you do for teachers, writers, and readers everywhere.

 

The Courage Test by James Preller is a great read that starts with the front cover. I have an ARC, so I’m not sure what the final cover art will look like, but what a great opportunity for a reader to look at the illustrations on the front cover, and begin thinking about what the story might be. So many clues live there – in some ways, it reminds me of the clues on the cover of another favorite, When You Reach Me. It’s a cover you would come back to time and time again as the story unfolds.

I say “the” story, but truly this is a book with multiple story lines contained within the adventure the main character, Will, goes on with his father.

There is the story of Will and his father, somewhat strangers to each other after Will’s dad left him and his mom for a “shiny new life” complete with a new girlfriend. In the story, Will’s dad takes him on a trip to replicate the adventures of Lewis and Clark. Will’s dad is a college professor, a fan of American history, and is trying to write a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Will would rather stay home and play baseball than go on a trip with a dad that he feels is no longer a real part of his life. The main story line follows them and their rocky relationship as they try to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

There is the summer assignment writing Will has – writing about something interesting that happened to him that summer. (To help the reader discern the different story lines, the summer assignment is the part written in italics.) I found myself mesmerized by all the historical detail Will puts into his writing assignment. So many, many facts about Lewis and Clark about which I had no idea! And having those facts written from Will’s perspective was brilliant on James Preller’s part – it makes reading history so interesting, and in some cases, quite surprising. I think student readers would enjoy the perils they faced as much as I did! This would be a perfect read for a student interested in history, adventure, and survival.

There is the relationship between Will and his mom. They became quite a team once Will’s dad left, and now she is practically pushing him out the door to take this summer trip with his dad. Will feels a bit hurt by that, but we learn even more history in the postcards Will continually sends his mom, with great details about places on the Lewis and Clark trail they’ve seen. In addition, we hear the voice of a boy who just wants contact with his mom.

In addition to these story lines, there are additional supporting character story lines that help move the story along:

  • A friend of Will’s dad, Ollie, shows up at one point on the trail, and stays with them awhile.
  • Will and his dad find an “illegal girl” – in fact, that is the name of the chapter where they first encounter her.
I tend gravitate toward reading books where relationships are explored, and that could not be truer with this book than its examination of the relationship between Will and his dad. James Preller had each new situation, each new adventure, each new moment of survival share just a bit more about that relationship. It was like slowly peeling back layers of an onion to get at what’s really inside. I thought it was masterfully done, especially when, by the end of the book, Will and his dad grow to know and understand each other, but everything is still not perfect. That felt incredibly real to me, and I appreciated it as a reader.
 
All these stories, slowly but surely, wrapped themselves around my heart and tugged at my heartstrings. I found myself caring a great deal about Lewis and Clark, Will’s mom, Will’s dad, and most definitely, Will. But, I also have to say, there were some breath-taking, scary moments as well — think bears and white water rafting. I have experiences with both, so I found my heart pounding at these intense moments.
 
Finally, I’m a sucker for a circular story, so I loved that this story began and ended in the same place, with the same words.
 
Be on the lookout for this gem — it is due out next Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. If you’re a teacher, I guarantee there will be readers in your room that will be very thankful you added this book to their reading choices!

 

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