Fan Mail Wednesday #306: A Reader “OBSESSED”

There’s something about readers who enjoy scary stories. They bring a unique level of enthusiasm — of passion — to their reading. They don’t just like a book, they almost seem to take up residence, they dwell inside it. While I’ve written many types of books over the years, across various genre, there’s nothing that works better in front of a large audience than reading a carefully-selected passage (not too scary!) from one of my “Scary Tales” books. 

Which is to say, here’s a card from Gracyn in Texas . . . 

I replied . . .

Dear Gracyn,

Thank you so much for your wonderful card. My wife had saved it but mistakenly tossed the envelope. So, yeah, I had to do the deep dive into the garbage bin to retrieve your return address.

(Old coffee grounds are gross, btw.)

Texas, hey. I’ve been fortunate to visit your state several times for book conventions, author visits, and even to play in a men’s baseball tournament. Always a good time.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from “I Scream, You Scream!” AKA, “Dr. Z’s Adventure Park.”

You aren’t too shabby a writer, yourself. “I could not stop telling my friends all about it in grave detail.” Wow, that’s a great choice of words. It’s an ordinary sentence until the end there, when you added in grave detail. Perfect! Keep that up and I’ll be reading your books someday.

Be sure to thank your teacher for having my book in your classroom library. I appreciate that. There are six “Scary Tales” books in the series. I find that everything I write helps me become a better writer. My most recent novel, Blood Mountain, is a realistic story about two siblings who are lost in the wilderness. It’s a scary, suspenseful, survival thriller. The lessons I learned writing “Scary Tales” helped me write that book. In this case, the frightening things were “real” compared to the ghosts and zombies and swamp monsters in the series. But the writing is very similar. Still building suspense, setting up situations, trying to make the reader lean in.

And if a girl named Gracyn can become OBSESSED, well, that’s the best I can possibly hope for.

Thanks for that.

Um, and now . . . I better go wash my hands.

My best,

 

James Preller

 


P.S. This is the cover of Blood Mountain. Because one good book leads to another!

 

 

A Conversation with Liza Donnelly, Children’s Author/Illustrator and “New Yorker” Cartoonist

“People respond to my positive approach

and I love that.

People want hope, as do I.

It’s just as easy to be optimistic

as it is to be pessimistic.

It is a choice.”

— Liza Donnelly

 

Liza Donnelly and I go back more than 30 years, except she never actually knew it. As a copywriter and book club editor for Scholastic in the late 80s and early 90s, I loved Liza’s imaginative dinosaur books. I also followed her cartoons in The New Yorker. In fact, there’s a long line of acclaimed New Yorker cartoonists who went on the publish in children’s books (most notably, William Steig). Recently, Liza popped up again on Facebook, and I was thrilled to see her new work. Early during the pandemic, I grabbed this image by Liza and used it for my Facebook Cover art: 

 

Beautiful, right? I figured it was time to invite her over to my swank offices her at James Preller Dot Com. After a hasty cleaning — Where did all this old cheese come from? —  I opened the windows, lit some incense, and eagerly awaited Liza’s arrival. Here’s she is now . . .

 

 

Greetings, Liza. Is everything okay? You look a little drawn. Oh, wait, wrong image!

 

 

 

When I was a junior copywriter at Scholastic (working for a cool $11,500 a year), I wrote various book club kits: SeeSaw, Firefly, and Carnival. I especially liked your book, Dinosaur Day, which was the first in the series of seven books.

That’s great to know. That’s what I got paid in my first job at the American Museum of Natural History, probably around the same time! I enjoyed doing those books for Scholastic and was ready to have the Dinosaur series go forever…but alas it didn’t. The books now live on the internet however, and are e-books for kids. Thanks, Dinosaur Day was a favorite for me, too. I wanted it to be wordless but we ended up with minimal words.


I still remember, without having seen that book in decades, how the boy’s imaginal life connected to the objects in his room. I loved –- and still very much love –- that idea. The interior and exterior coming together, celebrating the imaginary journey.

That’s a great observation and I like how you put it, celebrating the imaginary journey. I wanted to show that the little boy was obsessed with Dinosaurs!

I knew you were a New Yorker cartoonist. So many of them got into children’s books, most notably William Steig, James Stevenson, others.

Yes! I was heavily influenced by Steig’s use of color in his books. I loved reading them to my daughters. My favorite was Brave Irene. Also Stevenson was great, a much different feel to his books. I was lucky to meet both men before years ago.

Stevenson seems a little forgotten these days. He was hugely popular on the book clubs, with favorites such as The Great Big Especially Beautiful Easter Egg (that kid running around with a mustache!) and What’s Under My Bed?  He also illustrated a number of Jack Prelutsky’s bestselling poetry collections (The New Kid on the Block, Something BIG Has Been Here, etc). It’s a wonderful honor for you to be a part of that tradition. When I found you on Facebook, I was immediately taken by your current work. The images you are putting out each day. Obviously, we’ve been living in uncharted times.

So true. I have found doing a cartoon a day and broadcasting it on Instagram as I draw (and talk about it) has been a wonderful way to connect with people. Also it helps me be connected with what is going on in the world because I do it every day in a rather public way.

On a personal level, I tend to go dark at times, which I attribute to my Irish background. I hold grudges and distrust the wealthy and I believe it’s a good idea to get rip-roaring drunk twice a year. Yet you seem intent on putting forward positive messages with your work.

That’s so funny you say that because I am also of Irish heritage, you undoubtedly noticed. I think the Irish may distrust the wealthy for sure and hold grudges (never heard that), and that they/we can go dark. I go dark all the time. But we also tend to be poetic and with the dark you have to notice the light. People respond to my positive approach and I love that. People want hope, as do I. It’s just as easy to be optimistic as it is to be pessimistic, it is a choice. That doesn’t mean I don’t notice how horrible things are in the world, I do.

I remember talking to my good friend, illustrator Jennifer Sattler, after Donald Trump was elected. We were like, How do we live in this new world? And she said that she heard someone’s podcast, she never could recall the source, where the speaker said, “Do what you’ve always done, but with new purpose.” That made a lot of sense to me.

That’s wonderful. I felt that way after 9/11. I was so distraught by the event that I was about to change careers and give up cartooning. Then I drew a cartoon about it and it was bought and run by The New Yorker (“Daddy, can I stop being worried now?) and I felt back on track. I decided to spend more time drawing about global politics than ever before. With Trump, it was not easy to figure out how to approach him because I don’t particularly enjoy ridiculing people.

 

 

In the meantime, you are still making books. What’s your most recent?

My most recent book was Women On Men, a collection of my cartoons and writing about women making fun (lovingly) of men. I also did two kids books for Holiday House in recent years. Interestingly, after I stopped with Scholastic in the 1990’s, I tried to sell these two ideas for books, and no one would buy them. I showed them to Holiday House after they sat in my drawer for ten years…and they bought both!

 

 

 

I am currently working on a new edition of my history of the women cartoonists of The New Yorker. It’s to be called Very Funny Ladies, due out this fall.




Thank you so much for your time, Liza. It’s really nice to connect with you after admiring your work for all these years. I very much appreciate what you are putting out into the world right now. How can people find you?

Thanks so much for reaching out! And for your kind words. I feel lucky to be able to do what I love, which is draw and connect with people. Folks can find me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook: @lizadonnelly.  Watch me draw every weekday at 5pm ET on Instagram and a new startup called HappsTV every day at 6pm ET: happy.tv/@liza . My website is lizadonnelly.com. A lot of my political cartoons and writing is found on Medium: lizadonnelly.medium.com And some writing and cartoons on The New Yorker website.

 


James Preller — um, that’s me, and so awkward in the 3rd person — is the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, ages 6-8. C
oming this Spring, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!

 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #304 and #305: Two Letters from Alaska

 

Here’s two for the price of none! The third book in my “Big Idea Gang” series, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin, seems to be getting some positive attention. Perhaps the environmental, activist message strikes a chord. Here two students in Anchorage wrote to me about it, so I thought I’d do a combo post here.

Here’s Hailey . . .

 

I replied:

 

Dear Hailey,

Thank you for reading my book, Bee the Change, from my “The Big Idea Gang” series.

You noticed an interesting detail in that story – how Kym, in that situation, was brave; but Lizzy, who was usually bolder and more confident, felt nervous.

It kind of flipped, right?

I think life is like that. No one can be great at everything. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. There are people who are nervous around big dogs, while other people just want to give ‘em a big hug. For the purpose of this story, it gave Kym an opportunity to shine (after Lizzy was mostly the “star” of the first book, Worst Mascot Ever).

Writing these books (there are three so far), I wanted to show how when we are faced with big problems, that it is often best to think small and make a difference in your community. There used to be a popular expression: “Think globally, act locally.” We can all become overwhelmed by the Big Problems in the world –- asking ourselves, “What difference can I possibly make?”

Hopefully in these stories I help shine a light on the small but important ways that children like you can help make the world a better, kinder, safer place in your own communities. You are our best hope for the future.

My favorite character in Bee the Change was absolutely Otis Smick. He makes me smile, and I love the way Stephen Gilpin, the illustrator, drew him.

Thanks for your sweet letter,

James Preller

And here’s Mia . . . 

I replied: 

Dear Mia,

I wonder if you go to the same school as Hailey? I’d bet a dollar that you do. Anchorage, Alaska. Wow. I’ve never been there, but it sure sounds like an adventurous place to live.

Are bears just like always eating people?

“Where’s Penelope?”

“Oh, she got eaten by bear.”

“Darn, I hate when that happens!”

 

Okay, probably not. But still, the Alaskan wilderness strikes me as vast and formidable and a little bit scary. What a cool place to live.

Anyway, thanks for reading Bee the Change. As you might have guessed, I am very interested in our natural environment –- I love the great outdoors, hiking and camping and exploring — and our connection to all the living creatures that share this planet with us. To quote the poet Gary Snyder: “We must try to live without causing unnecessary harm, not just to fellow humans but to all beings.”

Recently I’ve read fascinating nonfiction books about beavers, and coyotes, and buffalo. It’s just something I enjoy and care about. Some time ago I read about “colony collapse disorder” and became worried about honeybees. Later, when doing research for a different book (Better Off Undead), I met a middle school science teacher who kept a hive box in the school garden! My visit with her was similar to when Kym and Lizzy visited Ozzie’s farm. Like Ozzie, Ms. Ford enjoyed sitting quietly in a chair, a book on her lap, and watching the bees come and go. That’s where most ideas come from for me –- from real life, the things I see, the people I meet, and, yes, the books I read.

I am excited to learn that you and your friends are involved in a cleanup project. That’s so awesome. You are making a difference in our world! Imagine if everyone did just a little bit? What a difference we could make!

My best,

James Preller

 

ALSO IN THE SERIES . . .

       

Echo in the Snow

Took this snap on a morning walk, Monday the 4th, after a couple of inches of snow. Photo is a detail with a silvertone filter edited on, via iPhone. Nothing fancy. I just like the way my dog (lower right) disappears into the scene.

 

A Conversation with Deb Pilutti, Author/Illustrator of “OLD ROCK (is not boring)”

 

I fell in love with a new picture book this year, Old Rock (is not boring). It was created by an author and illustrator, Deb Pilutti, who I didn’t know much about. So as a curious admirer, I invited Deb over for a chat. And lo, here she comes now . . .

 

 

Welcome, Deb. Normally I’d offer a guest a big comfy bean bag chair, but in preparation for your visit I’ve had a glacial erratic, originally deposited in the Adirondacks, hauled into the spacious offices of James Preller Dot Com. So, yeah, have a seat on the rock.

 

For the record: This glacial erratic can be found in Scotland, it is not the rock Deb Pilutti is currently sitting on for this interview in the spacious offices of James Preller Dot Com. It’s just an example. Carry on!

 

Thank you. And I’m glad you mentioned glacial erratic! It’s a term I became acquainted with while writing Old Rock.

Yes, erratics resonate with me. There’s even a chapter titled “Erratics” in my novel, Blood Mountain. It serves as a metaphor, in that scene, for being left behind. Anyway, I understand that your book began with a doodle?

Yes — I drew a picture of a rock with a face on it in my sketchbook and kept coming back to it. I wondered if I could write a story about the character, and then I quickly thought, Well, that would be a boring story. Rocks just sit there! And that became the concept. Old Rock’s friends think life as a rock must be very boring.

 

 

On a secondary note, I often walk in the woods around Michigan with my husband and dog. Sometimes, we come upon a giant boulder, with no other rocks or boulders around, and I wonder how it got there. Short answer: glaciers.

Is that a normal working method for you? I’m always curious about writer-illustrators. How does that internal tug of war between artist and writer work? Bernard Waber once told that he thought the writer in him tried to please the illustrator. Who’s in charge inside your head?

 

 

Good question, I’m never sure who’s in charge. I work both ways, either by starting with an idea, or from a sketch or doodle. Whatever takes hold, really, because it has to be something that is going to be engaging and keep my interest for 32 pages and more than a year’s worth of work.

There’s so much mystique attached to that eureka moment: getting an idea. Oooooh, magical. But the important thing is to roll up your sleeves and work that idea. In your case, a rock as a character seemed appealing and original. But hardly a book.

True. And that’s what initially steered me away from the idea. But then I started asking questions and doing research. The more I learned about rocks and how they were formed and then thought about the history of the earth and what a rock might have witnessed during that time (EVERYTHING), the more the story developed.

 

 

Most young people, and many adults, have an uncertain grasp of historical time. Ten years ago seems like ancient history. That’s one thing I love about Old Rock. It subtly brings the reader into geologic time . . . earth time . . . rock time.

It is hard to get a handle on thinking about such an enormous span of time, but many people are familiar with the dinosaur periods or the fact that glaciers once covered much of the earth. It’s amazing to imagine that the rock that I’m sitting on now might have been a resting spot for a T. rex!

 

You thank two people, Larry Lemke and Lacey Knowles, for sharing their knowledge of the natural world. At what point did you bring experts into the process?

Larry Lemke is a geologist, and Lacey Knowles is an evolutionary biologist, and fortunately for me, they are also my neighbors. While it is a story about a talking rock, I wanted everything that occurs in the story to be plausible. I talked with Larry early in the process, when I was deciding what type of rock to use. Originally, I had Old Rock starting as a blob or lava, but quickly decided that a volcanic rock wouldn’t be right. I decided on a metamorphic rock, like Gneiss, so that Old Rock could develop underground and eventually be unearthed during a volcanic explosion. I knew that rocks don’t erupt out of volcanic vent the way lava does, but Larry let me know that it
was possible that a rock could be blasted, along with part of the volcano, during a pyroclastic explosion. Lacey studies insects, so I asked her about beetles and also the type of plants that might be around during the Jurassic and Cretacious periods. She also works at the University of Michigan Natural History Museum, which was a good place for research. Once I had a final version, I showed it to both again.

I get the impression that being in nature is important to you.

It is. When I was young, my family camped. It was an economical way for a family of 7 to travel, but it was also fun and a great way to see the country. I continued camping and hiking with my own children. Michigan is a wonderful place to get out and enjoy nature.

Where did you grow up, Deb? What was your childhood like? 

I grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, a midwestern college town. My father was a high school English teacher and writer and my mother was an art teacher, but stayed home after she had children. My brothers and sisters and I did plenty of art projects at home with her. I had a lot of free time and liked to read and draw and play outside, but I also watched a copious amount of t.v. I credit Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Chuck Jones and Jay Ward as my first teachers in design, storytelling and animation.

And then, one day, you decided to become a hot-shot children’s book author?

Hahahahaha . . . oh sorry, is that a question?

I can’t tell anymore. 

It was a meandering route. I spent most of my adult professional life as a graphic designer. I got to work on some really fun projects, like being on a team that designed the environmental graphics for Cartoon Village, a Warner Brothers Theme Park that featured . . . Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and company. One of the amazing things about that assignment was that there was a whole backstory for the area and rides. It became my job to immerse myself in the world of the characters and design graphics for them. And I KNEW these characters. I understood their stories. I had basically trained my whole life for it. The better I understood their stories, the better the design. The same is true in making children’s books.

I like that. You weren’t mindlessly blobbing around in front of the television as a kid, you were studying for a career! 

It took me a while to figure out that making books was what I wanted to do. When I did, I spent time learning about the business, like how to make a book dummy, how to submit. Admittedly, it took longer than I anticipated.

Well, it was worth the wait, because you are making terrific books. What’s next? Do you have a new book coming out?

Ten Steps to Flying Like a Superhero came out in November from Macmillan/Holt. It’s a companion to Ten Rules to Being a Superhero. Lava Boy tries to teach his superhero action figure how to fly. It doesn’t always go as planned. It was fun to revisit the characters and develop a couple of new ones. I’m not gonna lie, it has been really difficult for me to create over the last year. I’ve got a few ideas for new projects and I’ve been feeling more optimistic lately.

I have faith that those ideas will come. Oh, hey, almost forgot. You have a border collie! Our rescue dog, Echo, is part border collie, part anybody’s guess, probably Pit. So smart and energetic. We got lucky.

 

Here’s JP’s dog, Echo, taken in December while out snowshoeing (the author, not the dog).

 

Aren’t dogs the best? Our last dog was a quirky border collie named Wilson. Right now we have a quirky Australian Shepard named Tater. She’s an energetic rescue dog and needs a LOT of walks. I can’t imagine going through a pandemic without her.

Deb’s dog, Tater.

 

Thanks for coming over, Deb! It was great to meet one of the new stars in the children’s book galaxy. Keep it up!

Thanks for the hospitality, it was a pleasure!

 

Deb Pilutti keeps up a snazzy website. Also, you can learn more about her by using this amazing resource I just learned about called Google. How did we ever survive before?

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me, James Preller, I’m the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent picture book, illustrated by the Mary GrandPre, is titled All Welcome Here. And coming this Spring, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!