The Depiction of Police in My Books: A Reflection

I realized the other day that police officers played supporting roles in my two most recent middle-grade novels. In Blood Mountain, Makayla is a Ranger with the Division of Forest Protection, a young Black woman, Brooklyn raised; she is fierce and compassionate and awesome in every way, and she searches tirelessly for the two lost hikers in the story (I wanted that idea in this book, that if you’re lost in the wilderness, we won’t stop looking for you). In Upstander (Coming in Spring, 2021), Officer Goldsworthy, a Black man, returns from Bystander and again plays a small but crucial role. He’s a local cop with two bad knees working at the middle school. A strong but quiet presence in the lives of those students. There’s a beautiful scene, a conversation between him and Mary, the book’s main protagonist. I love what he tells her, his compassion for her brother’s struggles with addiction. Anyway, no agenda, it just happened: two cops, both decent and kind and capable, doing good work. That’s what I put out into the world in those books.
Below, “Chapter 13 [Mayakla]” from Blood Mountain. The chapters in this book are very short, and this one is no exception. It’s our initial introduction to this character. By the way, it’s a truism in children’s literature that young people don’t want to read about adult characters. Yet I’ve resisted that idea, while recognizing the problems (and cliches) when adults enter these stories and fix problems. So while I maintain that it is important and acceptable to include complete, fully-formed adult characters in these books, it’s important that the young characters have agency and ownership of their actions. I’m just saying that some folks might not think you can get away with a chapter, however short, that strictly about an adult. But I give readers more credit than that. 
13
[Makayla]
Makayla Devaroix awakens in the dark of her modest cabin to the sound of the alarm. Rise and blur. But first, coffee. A strong pot. Her mind is cobwebs. Even the sun doesn’t want to get up. Makayla is twenty-seven years old, with smooth brown skin and wavy black hair. Her brows are thick and striking above gray eyes. Fit and strong, she moves with an athlete’s economy and grace. She cleans the filter, pours the water, spoons the coffee grounds without thought; she could do this in her sleep and practically does. She sits on a low stool by the coffee machine, watching as it fills. She lives alone, does not own a television. The laptop is enough for podcasts, Spotify, and the occasional romantic comedy.
Yesterday had been a long, hard day, and today looked like it would be worse. She had gotten the call sometime around 2:00 A.M. from dispatch: a kayaker had gone missing out by a string of ponds off Paradise Lake. Makayla double-checked the map. It would take an hour in her patrol vehicle just to get close. She’d meet up with another ranger at the pull-off. They’d split up and begin a basic type 1 search. There were tributaries to cover, plus the kayaker might have carried his boat, or portaged, a short distance between navigable waters. The kayaker had been alone, an experienced backpacker, but had failed to return home as expected. Probably it was nothing. Or maybe he ran into real trouble out there. No matter what, it could take a full day to find the answer. 
If the body was discovered at the bottom of the lake, which is a thing that sometimes happens to bodies out here in parkland, it would require state police scuba divers and more gear and a whole lot more coffee to close this sad chapter. Makayla never got used to the sight of hauling a body out of the water, the skin gone gray, the eyes and lips eaten away by fish. With staff cuts and slashed budgets, Makayla spends most of her week chasing emergencies: lost hikers, injured adventurers, drowned teenagers, and wildfires. It’s simple math. The park is getting more crowded than ever before, particularly in the popular parts, with fewer rangers to cover the more remote territory. More and more people come in, knowing less and less. Impossible to do the job right. She’d seen flip-flops on mountaintops, hikers shivering from frostbite wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, clueless as to how to read a simple compass. Dumb as a box of nails. Most egregious to Makayla, they failed to respect the mountains. She finished her cup with a long gulp, poured the remainder of the pot into a travel mug, laced up her boots, and headed out.
This was her dream job. The city girl who majors in environmental science and forestry in college — discovers she loves it, needs it — and decides to become a ranger. Still true, though harder, and lonelier, than she ever imagined. 

 

Book Page Features ALL WELCOME HERE Among Four Picture Books That Capture the Excitement & Trepidation of the First Day of School

 

 

Book Page is an independent self-proclaimed “discovery tool” for readers, highlighting the best new books across all genres, featuring only books that are “highly recommended.”

So it was a proud moment — in a discouraging year — to see my new picture book, All Welcome Here, featured among three other titles for “books that capture the excitement, trepidation and curiosity of the first day of school.”

Linda M. Castellitto wrote the piece, and said this of All Welcome Here

With spot-on snippets of poetry and illustrations steeped in primary colors, All Welcome Here captures the swirling, frenetic energy of the first day of school. Author James Preller’s linked haiku lead readers through the maze of an exciting, chaotic and often humorous new adventure. A diverse group of children clamors for fresh school supplies (“All the bright new things / Smell like sunrise, like glitter”) and the release of recess (“Can we? Is it true? / Yes, recess. Run, RUN!”). They also consider the scariness of stepping onto a giant yellow school bus for the first time (“It’s dark and noisy / and what if they aren’t nice?”). The effect is sometimes impressionistic and always empathetic. 

Fans of illustrator Mary GrandPré, Caldecott Honoree for The Noisy Paintbox, will be pleased to see her work here. Her collages and paintings, which make clever use of color and pattern, capture both the big splash of a water fountain prank and the engrossed calm of bookworms enjoying library time. Preller dedicates the book to “public school teachers everywhere” and GrandPré to “all young artists,” fitting tributes to those who inspired this spirited whirlwind of first-day jitters and delight.


Linda included three other titles in her roundup: Pearl Goes to Preschool by my pal Julie Fortenberry (Yeah, Julie!); Our Favorite Day of the Year by A.E. Ali, illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell; and Danbi Leads the School Parade by debut author-illustrator Anna Kim.
Congratulations, my fellow travelers, and welcome to the club, Anna! I look forward to checking out your books.

 

Sisters Love Their Big Brothers: Where Ideas Come From

Authors who visit schools get asked it a lot: 

Where do ideas come from

We get asked it so often, in fact, that most of us come up with pat little answers, neat and tidy, that allow us to move on to another question. Any other question, please. 

It’s not that we’re jerks.

The problem with the question is that, well, yeah, there are a lot of problems. To truly answer would take all day and would likely entail far more excruciating detail than any listener would care to endure. You’d lose everybody in the room. When I think of young readers and delve into what they really want to know when they ask that question, I conclude in a few different ways: 1) They don’t super care, it’s just an easy question to ask; 2) They somehow believe there’s one magical idea — a eureka moment! — rather than a slow accumulation of thoughts, impressions, insights, moments; or 3) The inquirers suspect that maybe there’s a secret they don’t know about: they look at their own lives, they look at the amazing books they love, and they just don’t see how one thing could possibly add up to the other. How does the fabric of my ordinary life become something quite as marvelous as a published book? And if that’s the puzzle, I’m not sure I can conjure a decent answer.

Where do ideas come from, anyway

Well, I’m currently proofreading the “first pass” of the typeset version of my next book, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, titled Upstander. To be clear, I’m looking at the words as they will appear in the final, printed book. It’s pretty much my last, best chance to make corrections and changes that won’t represent a giant hassle or extra expense to the publisher. In other words, if I change “swigged” to “gulped” nobody will get mad at me. 

So I’m reading the book again. Very carefully. It is about Mary, a middle school girl who played a small but crucial role in Bystander. Everyone has a story and I kept wondering about Mary’s. So I made something up. Her older brother suffers from a substance use problem. It’s about the challenges Mary faces in her crumbling home and at school with her friends and fellow students (the beginning of her friendship with Griffin, what really went on with bullying Chantel, and of course Eric, etc). But where’d that core idea come from? For starters, there’s the opioid crisis that’s been going on all around us, destroying lives and ruining families, sometimes devastating entire communities. For the moment, we’ve been preoccupied with more immediate horrors, but that doesn’t mean other problems have gone away. Ideas are all around us, as my pat answer goes. Not only that, but I think I have something to contribute to this particular conversation. The thing that every writer needs, something to say.

But I also have a specific experience in mind. I am driving my teenage daughter and two of her female friends somewhere. I listen to them talk (for some reason, they aren’t glued to their phones in this memory; lo, there’s an actual conversation!). It turns out that each of these three young woman, all fierce athletes, have something in common. They each have an older brother close in age. And without realizing it, they take turns swapping stories about these brothers — how one is on the spectrum, how another plays guitar and sings, how another is just super fun and a great friend. They laugh about the stupid things these brothers do. During that drive, one simple observation beamed into my skull: These girls absolutely and profoundly loved their older brothers. 

They looked up to them, too — with admiration, affection, pride, even a kind of awe. Maybe that’s youth, maybe that’s just the way some girls are, maybe life will get in the way over time. No matter. Because at that moment, I came away with something certain in my heart. Brothers are important and beloved.

Years passed. In a completely unrelated manner, I began to think about, for the first time, writing a sequel to Bystander, a notion I’d rejected for almost a decade. Suddenly, the time felt right. The idea was there.

I’d focus on Mary and her brother.

At least a shard of it can be traced back to that day in the car, zipping along, listening to three girls chatter about how freaking much they loved their brothers. Then I added some elements that would make that love more difficult, more painful, almost impossible.

So that’s where that idea came from. You don’t always have to travel to exotic places to find ’em.

 

 

NOTE: I have recently very much enjoyed doing book-specific Zoom visits with a Q & A format. Could be Jigsaw Jones, All Welcome Here, Blood Mountain, The Courage Test, Scary Tales, The Fall, Bystander, whatever feels right for your classroom. Contact me at jamespreller@aol.com and we can discuss it.

 

PW Features ALL WELCOME HERE In Its Back-to-School Roundup

Well, gee, readers: Has there ever been a better time to come out with a back-to-school book?

Well, yeah, yeah, there has been a better time. Pretty much all other times would have been better.

Oh well!

Anyway, an aside: I thought this was funny in a funny-very-not-funny way.

 

The image was posted by a blogger, Christine Stevens, who teaches theater in a middle school. Click here for the full post that accompanies it. Or just stay for the headline: “Note from the Principal: This Fall Your Classroom Will be Equipped with a Lion.”

Ha, ha, oh crap.

The Lion is a Metaphor, Folks!

Good luck, my friends, and please take every precaution to keep yourself and your students safe. I’m worried about you.

Moving on to the real reason I invited you here . . . 

BACK TO SCHOOL BOOKS

That’s right! Regardless of how schools open, or not; regardless of how we teach and learn, online or in person; there are time-honored themes that feel especially appropriate for any school year — and, yes, maybe even especially for 2020.

Emma Kantor, writing for Publishers Weekly, put together a list of titles that she felt were particularly right for this time of year. I was happy to see All Welcome Here at the top of the (alphabetical) list:

While it remains uncertain if schools across the country will reopen for students this fall, we’ve gathered a selection of noteworthy books to get young readers back in the spirit of learning and connecting with teachers and classmates—in-person or at a distance.

Picture Books

All Welcome Here

James Preller, illus. by Mary GrandPré. Feiwel and Friends, June 16 $18.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-250-15588-7. Ages 4–7.

The creator of the Jigsaw Jones series switches creative tacks with this sequence of haiku that propels classmates through a busy opening day of school, highlighting their activities, personalities, and emotions. Caldecott Honoree GrandPré captures the day’s shifting moods in pictures of absorbed, interacting kids of various skin tones and abilities.

Here’s the full link, just stomp on it. Emma includes many books that look pretty great from where I’m sitting. Check ’em out.

Thank you very much, Emma, both Mary and I appreciate the support!

 

 

 

Joanna Cole (1944-2020), Remembered: How the Magic School Bus Got Started

I was sorry to read that Joanna Cole has passed away at age 75. I have memories of her, met her a number of times over the years. Always a gracious, friendly, kind person. To me, at least!

Joanna was what I think of as a children’s book person. The genuine article. She worked for years, wrote many books, before “getting lucky” and hitting it out of the park with Bruce Degen and the Magic School Bus series.

I interviewed Joanna for The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators, published back in 2001. My intro paragraph:

What’s Joanna Cole interested in? Well, just about everything! And when Joanna Cole is interested in something, she usually writes a book about it. She’s written about fleas, cockroaches, dinosaurs, chicks, fish, saber-toothed tigers, frogs, horses, snakes, cars, puppies, insects, and (whew!) babies.

THE BACKSTORY TO THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS

Fresh out of college (and after a year of waitering at Beefsteak Charlie’s), I got a job as a junior copywriter at Scholastic for $11,500. I stayed on there in the second-half of the 1980s — the money was so good! — then moved upstate, and continued in various freelance capacities for years after that. There was a time when those folks at Scholastic were my publishing family. My very best pal from those days was an editor, Craig Walker, working under the direction of Jean Feiwel. Craig was hilarious and brilliant and we ate lunch together several times a week for many years. We loved eating chicken and rice at the deli next door. Delicious, inexpensive, and a little seedy, we way we liked it. Ah, those were happy times. Anyway, it was Craig, assisted by Phoebe Yeh, who came up with the idea for the Magic School Bus series.

The standard science books for children at the time were usually dull, dry affairs. Just deadly. Straightforward facts accompanied by black-and-white photographs. Craig had the idea of trying something bold and new, bringing humor and full-color, cartoon-styled art into the science curriculum. The first writer he called with Joanna Cole.

At the time, Joanna was respected for her well-researched nonfiction books. She was smart and accurate. In 1984, she had published a well-reviewed book, How You Were Born. But what really caught Craig’s attention was that Joanna had another side to her work; she also wrote silly, funny, playful books for young readers. Most notably, she created the “Clown-Arounds” (a precursor to Dav Pilkey’s “Dumb Bunnies” and in the same vein as James Marshall’s “The Stupids”). And that was the genius of Craig’s idea: he brought together the two sides of Joanna Cole into one book series. The science and the silly. It was as if Joanna had a split personality and Craig helped make her whole again.

As a fun fact, Bruce Degen was not the first illustrator that Craig called with the series offer. No, he phoned Marc Brown first. But at the time, Marc was busy with the Arthur books and felt he couldn’t sign up for another project. So Craig, a fan of Jamberry and the Commander Toad books, flipped through his Rolodex and found Bruce’s number. That call worked out pretty well for all concerned, including Marc Brown.

What I remember and most respect about Joanna is that she was simply an old-school children’s book writer. Making books, and more books, and more books. Plying the craft, fighting to earn a decent living. All for the love of children’s literature.

Then, yeah, one day she got a phone call from Craig.

A treasured snap of Craig and I from 1986, the year the Magic School Bus was first published.

A lucky break? Sure was! But Joanna got that call because of all the work she had accomplished before that point. She had earned her good fortune by very quietly putting in years and years of hard work. The foundation was already built. When opportunity came knocking, she had all the skills to take a loose idea and turn it into a groundbreaking series.