COVER REVEAL: “Better Off Undead”

After becoming undead, 

Adrian Lazarus 

has to survive middle school.

 

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ADRIAN LAZARUS has met with a curious fate. He’s returned from the dead (after a bad bike accident, no helmet), yet not a lot has changed. He still has to attend middle school. Adrian has always been something of an misfit. But it’s not just being a zombie that makes Adrian feel like an outcast. He notices the world has changed, too: bees are vanishing, forest fires are burning, seas are rising, super-flus are spreading. Even so, the holographic advertisements in the night sky assure people that all is well. But Adrian and his friends –- a beekeeping boy, a mysterious new girl who just might see into the future, and Talal, a seventh-grade sleuth –- aren’t convinced. When they discover a birdlike drone has been spying on Adrian, the clues lead to two shadowy corporate billionaires. What could they possibly want with Adrian?

 

PUB DETAILS: Macmillan, August, 2017, Ages 10-up.

Cover illustration by Andrew Arnold.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #241: From Zeynep in Istanbul, Turkey!

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This email traveled a long way . . .

 

Dear James Preller ;

Hello my name is Zeynep. I am writing you from Istanbul – Turkey. This year I am a 5th grader in Hisar Schools and my teacher gave us one of your books to read for a project and I just finished reading your book.

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First of all,I read “The Case Of The Bicycle Bandit”. When I started reading the book it made me excited immediately because the book starts with dialogue which makes it easy to read. Two pages after I understood what the story will be about. I like that there isn’t so much description in the book however It sometimes makes us hard to understand the characters. For Example, I don’t know so much about Jigsaw, is he a nice boy or naughty boy? How is his relationship with his mother and father? Or where do they live? I looked for these questions answers but I couldn’t find them anywhere.

I always liked this moment in the book when Mila consoles a distraught Ralphie. He looks around and the outside world reflects his inner emotions: "His eyes followed a bird circling in the sky. It circled once, twice, three times. Then it flew off. Leaving behind an empty sky."

JP COMMENT: I always liked this moment in the book when Mila consoles a distraught Ralphie. He looks around and the outside world reflects his inner emotions: “His eyes followed a bird circling in the sky. It circled once, twice, three times. Then it flew off. Leaving behind an empty sky.” Lovely illustration by Jamie Smith. Just right.

Finally I have to say that when I read that it was Ralph’s brother who stole the bicycle I was surprised! I couldn’t believe it. I think you did a great job by writing this mystery book because I couldn’t guess and solve the puzzle myself while I was reading.

I hope that you can continue your series in a successful and fun way.

Thank you,

Zeynep

I replied:

Zeynep, 

Greetings from Delmar, New York!

It’s exciting for me to hear from you, all the way from Istanbul. I’ve never been there. And despite books and movies, I still find it difficult to imagine your world. I wish you could have sent me a picture of your school or family or something/anything.

Or your cat! How do you say “meow” in Turkish?

It’s amazing that a book can bring us together like this. I’ve been lucky enough to have some of my books translated into other languages — Spanish, German, Korean, Japanese, Greek, Arabic, Indonesian, and more — but it always leaves me in awe.

Could there really be a young man in Turkey turning the pages of a book I wrote in 2001?

I guess so!

Thank you, friend.

Books are small objects that we read alone, usually in silence, often away from others. But they are also connectors, portals, ways of bringing people together. A shared experience. Pretty cool when you think about. We go off by ourselves to connect with other people, across time and space.

I was inspired by my own childhood for the “Bicycle Bandit.” I’m the youngest of seven children, with four big brothers who were 7-12 years older than me. I watched them as if they were creatures from another world. Neal, Bill, John, and Al. Well, behind our house we had a shed that was packed with battered old bicycles in all sorts of disrepair. Missing tires, rusty chains, torn seats, twisted fenders. They’d love to patch the bicycles together from broken parts and pieces. That’s where I got the idea from Ralphie’s bike, “Old Rusty.”

This is my family, minus Maggie, who is the prettiest of all. Gavin, Lisa, JP, and Nick. These are not our normal clothes. We are headed to a wedding.

This is my family, minus Maggie, who is in the all-time “Top 5” Best Looking Prellers. From left: Gavin, Lisa, JP, and Nick. These are not our normal clothes. We are headed to a wedding. And we’re going to dance. Badly.

 

This is Maggie.

This is Maggie.

I am married and we have three children. Our oldest, Nick, lives in nearly Albany in an apartment with two friends. He’s 23 years old. My other two kids, Gavin (17) and Maggie (16) live with us. Tonight Gavin has to work as a busboy in a nearby restaurant. Maggie is at crew practice; she is an athlete who rows on the Hudson River. Very strong! My wife is still at work. I think I might order a pizza pie tonight. But I’ll have to bundle up. Last I looked, it was 19 degrees fahrenheit outside. Brrrr.

Sound good to you?

Thanks again for your note. I tried to give you a little better sense of my world. Feel free to write back if you wish.

My best,

James Preller

POSTSCRIPT: I am thrilled to report that this book, long out of print, will be re-released this summer by Macmillan, along with these other Jigsaw Jones titles: The Case of the Smelly Sneaker, The Case of the Mummy Mystery, The Case of the Glow-in-the-Dark Ghost, and the brand new title, The Case from Outer Space.

Celebrate National Poetry Month (April) with a FREE POSTER

Teachers, librarians, book store owners! Follow this link for a FREE POSTER created by artist Maira Kalman — who happens to be great! — commissioned by the Academy of American Poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.

The organization distributes more than 100,000 free posters to schools, libraries, and bookstores from sea to shining sea. Just click on the link to fill out the easy form while supplies last.

Support poetry, share your love for the written word, and beautify your wall. Sorry I could make that image bigger, but it’s the best I could find.

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Additional information the Academy of American Poets:

National Poetry Month is the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of readers, students, K-12 teachers, librarians, booksellers, literary events curators, publishers, bloggers, and, of course, poets marking poetry’s important place in our culture and our lives. 

While we celebrate poets and poetry year-round, the Academy of American Poets was inspired by the successful celebrations of Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March), and founded National Poetry Month in April 1996 with an aim to:

 

5 QUESTIONS with JEFF MACK, author/illustrator of “Look!”

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Jeff Mack, nicest guy in the room! Thanks for stopping by. I’m so glad you’re here to discuss Look!, a picture book that uses only two words, “look” and “out.” Before we begin though, I have three words for you: “Wipe your feet.” Sorry, new carpeting. 

Oops. Sorry about the mess, Jimmy. That rug really tied the room together.

Nothing says classy quite like orange shag carpeting. I just did up my van with the remnants.

Nice.

As a writer — as a professional counter of words — I’m envious. I keep having this image of you dressed in a red satin robe, sitting down at an old-fashioned typewriter, cracking your knuckles, and typing with one finger the word “Look.” At which point you sit back, hand on your chin, and muse thoughtfully. Your manuscript is half done. Is that about right?

Yes, that’s right.

For Look!, try to take us back to the beginning. How did this book start for you?

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In 2006, I sketched out a story about a fruit-juggling bear who accidentally scares a bunch of cub scouts. Believe it or not, that turned into a sweet bedtime book called Hush Little Polar Bear. No fruit-juggling. No cub scouts.

Years later, I was cleaning my studio, and I found my original sketches of the fruit-juggler. A new idea popped into my head: what if the bear juggles books instead?

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That was in 2013. Who Wants A Hug? was about to be published, and it also has a bear in it. I wanted the books to stand apart, so I made the book-juggler a gorilla. And now he only juggles on one page.

In the end, pretty much everything changed from my original idea. You wouldn’t even recognize it. Now that I think about it, I should probably write a book about a fruit-juggling bear.

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Frank O’Hara has a great poem about that same dynamic, titled “Why I Am Not a Painter.” Readers should click that link to check it out.

Sorry, I digress . . .

Jeff, I think you create the deceptively simple picture book about as well as anyone working in children’s books today. The challenge, I suppose, is creating an age-appropriate story that isn’t simple at all –- that’s distilled to its essence — that has depth. Or at least humor. Is that something that comes naturally to you? Because for many of us, it’s why writing picture books is so hair-pullingly impossible. There’s so little room for error.

Certain parts of the process might come naturally. I always start out by scribbling a series of stick figures. That feels pretty natural. I don’t think deeply or critically while I’m scribbling. I just go with my gut and see what comes out.

It starts to feel exciting if I notice a deeper meaning taking shape. Then I’ll play around with the words, making sure they add something interesting to the mix. I don’t want them to just repeat what you already see in the pictures.

After that, there’s a long, difficult process of editing and revising. This is the hair-pulling, hand-wringing, axe-murdering part of writing. I’ll sketch parts of the book over and over again until the sequence feels exactly right to me. I might do a thousand sketches for a 32-page book. Remember Jack Nicholson in The Shining? I can relate.

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The most poignant illustration in the book, for me, comes midway through the book after the boy kicks the gorilla out of the room. The palette darkens. And he sits close to the television, lured by its glow. That spread is horribly sad, or sadly horrible, in a book that is ultimately filled with light and good cheer.

Tell us about that one picture.

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In a different story, maybe this picture would look comforting. It’s dark. It’s quiet. Maybe he’s binging on The Good Wife or something.

But, no. Not here. The boy just kicked the gorilla out of the room. He rejected a friend. So his solitude seems kind of pathetic.

This is what I love about telling stories with pictures. I can guide readers how to feel about a certain image by putting certain others before it. If I get the sequence right, I barely need words.

Studies, sketches.

Studies, sketches.

 

There’s also deciding what to get rid of. Sometimes I have to cut a favorite image or sequence because it distracts from the focus of the book. That can be heart-wrenching too. I have to keep an open mind. There’s always a ton of stuff left behind on the “cutting room floor.”

I’ve been dabbling as a writing coach with high school students on their college essays. I’ve had that conversation several times already, the idea that during revision we sometimes have to “kill our darlings” — deleting those passages we’ve come to love that, alas, don’t serve the greater cause. Cut, slice, destroy. It’s a painful process.

It’s why I start with stick figures.

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You enrich this story with a subtle, understated device. From a design perspective, it’s a book inside a book. Or at least, you drew inspiration and texture from the visuals of a battered, old library book. Why did it make sense for this story?

A couple of years ago, I made a book called The Things I Can Do. I just used random stuff from around the house: construction paper, bandaids, bubble gum, a piece of wood, ketchup. It was fun. It was messy. It looks like a four-year-old made it. Every page came out differently depending on what I used that day.

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When it was time to make LOOK!, I started doing the same thing. Except complete chaos didn’t really suit this story. Sure, it has some intense parts, but it also has plenty of calm moments. I needed a style that would give me a range of moods to work with. Since the main character is a gorilla who learns how to read and share books with a boy, I limited my collage materials to a variety of book covers and torn pages. That way, I was able to make a dynamic book where all of the visual elements connect directly to the plot.

You really work the whole page, Jeff. Nothing is accidental or tossed off. There’s great care, for example, even in the typeface.

Oh right, the typeface. I don’t use “he said” or “she said” in LOOK!. Instead, I attribute the characters’ voices by making typefaces that tell us something about their personalities. When the gorilla speaks, it looks like a little kid scribbled in the book with a crayon. When the boy speaks, it looks like an adult carefully pasted in letters from magazines.

I put a lot of care into choosing and arranging each element. But chance also played a huge part in the process.

After I collected the books and pages that I wanted to use as backgrounds, I matched them up with the characters one by one. I did this randomly, without any planning.

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If the images didn’t merge in an interesting or convincing way, I moved on to the next combo. When the images did work together, it was often because of some surprising good luck, like the way a tear in the page intersected with a crashing object, the way random pencil scribbles added manic energy to a scene, or the way a border around a character suggested a pause in the action.

A big challenge when I’m working on these little details is finding the right balance. I want readers to notice them, but they have to stay subtle. Otherwise, they could distract from the plot.

At the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, you and I had the opportunity to talk a little bit about the importance of endings. When it comes to a picture book, you absolutely must nail the ending –- or else it’s not a successful book. I once interviewed James Marshall and he was adamant about that. He said, “A fizzled ending is a fizzled book.” Do you struggle with endings?

I think every part of the book has to be successful. It might be easier to hide a flaw somewhere in the middle. But it’s pretty much impossible to ignore a flawed ending. It’s like getting a zit on your nose instead of someplace else.

But nailing the ending means something different for each book.

For instance, some books call for a loud, obvious punchline at the end. I’m thinking about that book with Grover, The Monster at the End of this Book, where all of his troubles build up to a surprise twist on the last page.

Others work better when the ending slowly creeps up on you and then makes you think. You can see it coming, but when it does, you can’t believe it’s over. The Giving Tree is like that. And some, like Goodnight Moon, have endings that just drift beautifully away.

I wrote a few endings for LOOK! before I finally decided on the one that’s in the book. An earlier draft ended with the word “out” written above a smashed tv in a garbage can. It was a strong point, but it wasn’t the one I really wanted to make.

 

 

Rejected ending.

Rejected ending.

On the surface, LOOK! is about a battle of books vs. tv. But on a deeper, more important level, it’s about paying attention to each other and not tuning out the world around us. Throughout the story, the boy and the gorilla struggle to connect. I wanted to see them finally get there. So I ditched the garbage can and showed them falling asleep together. That felt like the most satisfying moment to end with because it directly and completely solved their problem. At least until the sequel.

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You seem to have a natural sense of young readers, what makes them laugh, and generally how they interact with a book. It’s a cliché to say that you tap into your own “inner child.” But I wonder, Can you think of any other explanation?

Honestly, I just write about the stuff I like. I have been writing and illustrating stories ever since I was a little kid. My activities haven’t changed. I’m still in touch with my childhood feelings and interests, except now I’m motivated by adult feelings and interests.

Look at it this way: in the early 1980’s I watched a lot of sci-fi on tv, especially drwhoDoctor Who. As a ten-year-old, I loved the monsters because they were scary and cool. Now that I’m a forty-four, what I love about those old monsters is how cheap they look. I love that a slimy monster arm is really just bubble-wrap with green spray-paint on it. It fills me with happiness. It’s the same feeling of happiness I felt when I was ten, but now I feel it for a different, more complicated reason.

Having that feeling helps me remember what I enjoyed as a kid. And those memories inform all of my books whether they are 32-page picture books like LOOK! or 250-page chapter books like Clueless McGee.

The best books seem to work on both levels, for children and adults.

Yes, I think so. That was my goal for Clueless McGee. On one level, it’s about a bumbling fifth-grade private eye who repeatedly ignores facts because they challenge his false beliefs. It’s full of meaning and real-life human problems. At the same time, the stories are also absurd and slapstick. Hopefully jokes about inflatable pants and cosmic boogers lead kids into deeper levels of understanding. It’s like a candy coating that gets them to eat the healthy apple inside.

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One of my goals in life is to make books that readers form strong relationships with. At the same time, they have to come from a place of deep, genuine, personal interest.

I just feel lucky that enough readers enjoy my books to keep me busy doing something I care so much about.

Thanks for the deep thoughts, Jeff. Now let’s go for a ride in my van, I just got a full tank of gasoline.

 

whowantsahugJEFF MACK keeps a clean, well-lighted blog and travels the world — it’s true, the actual world — visiting schools. Jeff not only writes picture books for very young readers, but also the longer “Clueless McGee” chapter books. Be sure to check them out.

 

The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll insanely down. Coming soon: London Ladd, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, and more.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #240: Here’s Hannah (Sorry, No Bananas)

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I got a little absurd with my reply to this one. Poor Hannah.

Hey, it happens!

At least I’m not a robot spitting out form letters.

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I took two silly pills and replied:

Dear Hannah,

I am going to try my best not to call you “Hannah Banana.” You’ve probably heard that a lot from other people, and I guess you might be sick of it by now.

bananaYou know, the whole “Hannah Banana” thing.

It rhymes. Fine, okay, but people need to get over it. At a certain point, a serious person –- such as yourself – can’t go around being called “Hannah Banana.”

So I’m saying to you, I respect that. I will not call you “Hannah Banana.” Or hardly ever.

You asked six questions:

1) I had a dream that I wanted to write books. I felt I had something inside of me that had to get out: ink spilled on white paper.

2) I started thinking about a character, a boy, with a huge imagination. In one scene, he pretended to be a detective. The rest is history. 41 books in all!

3) No, I’ve never been to Madison. But I’d love to someday.

Here's an illustration by R.W. Alley from the upcoming book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. The mystery revolves around a note found tucked into a book at a "Little Free Library." I know: genius!

Here’s an illustration by R.W. Alley from the upcoming book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. The mystery revolves around a note found tucked into a book at a “Little Free Library.” I know: genius!

 

4) I don’t have a favorite book, but I find that I’m usually most excited about my newest book. In this case: The Courage Test (grades 4-7). I have a new Jigsaw Jones coming out, The Case from Outer Space, and I love how it turned it. Very funny. Look for it this summer.

5) I have a dog, Daisy, she’s a golden doodle; and two cats, Midnight and Frozone. They are both black. One is fat, the other not so much.

6) I loved college. The freedom! The books! The fun!

Thanks for your letter, Hannah Banana! Oops!