I’ve been visiting schools lately as a guest author, speaking to grades K-8, traveling from Buffalo to Binghamton, Rochester to Wallkill, and places in between. Here’s a variety of images from those visits. Maybe this composite will offer an inkling of the “school visit” experience. I especially appreciate the posters and student artwork that’s created in anticipation of “the big day.” Feeling honored, grateful, and a little fried. (And, yes, still full from my first taste of “breakfast pizza” — it’s a Buffalo thing.) Thank you all for making these visits possible. I know that someday the phone won’t ring, there will be no invitations, no email queries. For now, during these good times, I feel privileged to be welcomed into so many schools, and to see those young faces, and to try to make each place I visit just a little bit better than it was the day before.
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.
I 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?!?).”
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!
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!
Here’s one from the Sunshine State!
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.
Dear Mr. Preller,
It must have been Tinker Bell, our class fairy, who put the package back on the right path. The kids would have been disappointed if they didn’t get a reply from you. You are truly an amazing, unique and genuine individual. I have been teaching for 32 years and have never met an author who actually takes the time to really care about his fans. Thank from the bottom of my heart. My students love the mystery genre because they really enjoy reading your books. Every student who has been in my class still thinks you are the coolest and best writer ever. Congratulations in being such a fascinating author. My last year class was speechless when they saw that you wrote a blog about their mystery. This year class loved the fact that you made a connection to their stories to your own personal life. I shared your letter with my principal and the staff and they were like WOW! WOW! that was incredible. The teachers as well as the students enjoyed your letter.
I am very excited about the revival of my “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series, thanks to my friends at Macmillan. I owe a particular debt to three people: my agent, Rosemary Stimola, and two fierce women in publishing, Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla. Not only are they resurrecting some long out-of-print titles, but they’ve asked me to write a new book. Which I just did, The Case from Outer Space. A daunting task at first — it had been some years since I’d entered Jigsaw’s world — but very quickly it felt like home again. It was a happy book for me to write, and I hope that comes through in the story.
Right now my publisher, along with artist R.W. Alley, are exploring new cover designs for the series re-launch. My job, at this point, is to sit back and hope for the best. Fingers, toes, everything’s crossed! It’s not as hard as it sounds. I’m confident that the fate of my favorite detective is in good hands. Which is such a relief. Probably the most painful part of my publishing life has been to watch that series, with almost eleven million books in homes and classrooms, slowly die on the vine due to neglect. Nobody could buy them anymore outside of Craig’s List. Well, that’s going to change, and I feel nothing but grateful.
One other small detail that pleases me about the new book is that I used a “Little Free Library” as a central device in the mystery. I love Little Free Libraries — we have several in our sunny burb — and I’ll glad to give the idea a moment in the spotlight. Readers may enjoy this terrific piece about the libraries by Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan, originally posted over at The Nerdy Book Club.
In the meantime, here’s a sample from the upcoming book, due in the Spring of 2017, along with four more titles. Jigsaw is back!
Sample chapter from The Case from Outer Space.
One Small Problem
I poured three glasses of grape juice.
“Got any snacks?” Joey asked. “Cookies? Chips? Corn dogs? Crackers?”
“Corn dogs?” I repeated. “Seriously?”
“Oh, they are delicious,” Joey said. “I ate six yesterday. Or was that last week? I forget.”
Danika shook her head and giggled. Joey always made her laugh.
I set out a bowl of chips.
Joey pounced like a football player on a fumble. He was a skinny guy. But he ate like a rhinoceros.
“So what’s up?” I asked.
“We found a note,” Danika began.
“Aliens are coming,” Joey interrupted. He chomped on a fistful of potato chips.
I waited for Joey to stop chewing. It took a while. Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dum. I finally asked, “What do you mean, aliens?”
“Aliens, Jigsaw!” he exclaimed. “Little green men from Mars –- from the stars –- from outer space!”
I looked at Danika. She shrugged, palms up. “Maybe,” she said. “You never know.”
I took a long swig of grape juice. “You mentioned a note,” I said to Danika.
She sat tall, eyes wide. “It’s very mysterious, Jigsaw. That’s why we came to you.”
“Narffle-snarffle,” Joey mumbled, his mouth still full of chips.
I leaned back in my chair. I shoved my hands into my pockets. They were empty. Business had been slow. I was a detective without a case. “Let me make a phone call,” I said.
I never work alone. My partner’s name is Mila Yeh. We split the money down the middle, 50-50. Mila has long black hair. She’s crazy about books. And she’s my best friend on the planet. Together, we make a good team.
I asked Mila to meet us in my tree house. She said she’d be over in five minutes.
It took her three and a half.
Mila lived next door. And she was as quick as a rabbit.
As usual, Mila was singing. I knew the tune, but the words were different:
“Twinkle, twinkle, little mystery!
How I wonder what you are?
Could you really be up there?
Do Martians wear . . . underwear?”
“You’re funny,” Danika said. She sent a warm smile in Mila’s direction.
“That last line needs work,” Mila replied. She sang again, “Do Martians wear . . . underwear?” Satisfied, Mila sat down, criss-cross applesauce. We gathered in a snug circle. There was no choice. My tree house wasn’t exactly a palace. I am not complaining. But I don’t go up there on windy days. Mila’s eyes were active and alert. They moved from Joey to Danika, before settling on me. “Aliens, huh?” Mila asked.
“From outer space,” Joey said.
“Uh-huh,” Mila replied. If she thought Joey was crazy, Mila was too nice to say it out loud.
I took out my detective notebook. I opened to a clean page. With a blue pen, I wrote:
THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE
CLIENTS: Joey and Danika
I left that part blank. I didn’t have any clues. I wasn’t even sure I had a case. But it was better than nothing.
“Maybe we could start from the beginning,” Mila suggested.
“Hold on.” I slid forward an empty coin jar. “We get a dollar a day.”
Joey and Danika exchanged glances. “We have one teensy-weensy problem,” Danika said.
“No money,” Joey confessed.
“We’re flat broke,” Danika said.
“That’s the worst kind of broke,” I sighed.
“Maybe we could trade?” Joey offered. He reached into his back pocket. His hand came out holding a hunk of smelly orange glop. “I’ve got some cheese!”
Mila leaned away. “You keep random cheese in your back pocket?”
“My front pockets were full,” Joey explained.
I was afraid to ask. We were all afraid. No one wanted to know what was in Joey’s front pockets. A frog? A hard-boiled egg? Last week’s bologna sandwich? Anything was possible.
There was still the problem of payment. I did not liking working for free. It was bad for business. But I needed a mystery the way a fish needs to swim . . . the way a bird needs to fly . . . the way a three-toed South American tree sloth needs to hang upside down.
“Okay,” I decided. “We’ll look into it. No promises.”
“Thanks, Jigsaw,” Danika said.
“You can still have my cheese,” Joey said. He held out the orange glop as if it were pirate’s treasure.
Mila coughed. “That’s nice of you, Joey. Just hold on to it for now. For safe keeping.” She turned to Danika. “Let’s see that note.”
Blogs are dead, everybody knows it, the tweet spread the news long ago. Nobody reads blogs anymore. These days it’s all Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and short, short, short.
I get it, I do. We’re all feeling the time squeeze.
But because I’m childishly oppositional, I refuse to give up my blog. And I’m keeping my 8-Tracks, too. I started this blog back in 2008, so we’ve become attached. I like to have readers, but I’m not sure I really need them. It wouldn’t stop me from writing. There’s something about the open-ended blog format that offers room to spread out and say things, however long it takes. Whether anyone listens or not.
My pal, illustrator Matthew Cordell, used to blog with enthusiasm. One of his recurring features was his monthly-ish “Top Ten” lists, where Matt randomly listed some of his recent enthusiasms. It could be a song, a book, a movie, or a type of eraser (Matt was weird about erasers). It was always fun to read.
So I’m stealing it.
Here are ten things I’ve recently loved:
THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM
I visited Cleveland with my son, Gavin, to check out Case Western Reserve University. The following day, we headed over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was spectacular in every way. (Except for: The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Really?) I’m a huge music fan, so it was perfect for me. I found the museum strangely moving in parts, my heart touched. I could see that rock music was big enough, and diverse enough, to offer a home to people from every walk of life.
CARRY ME HOME by Diane McWhorter
Amazing, fascinating, and at times brutal Pulitzer Prize-winning book that’s stayed with me long after the last page. It provides a dense, detailed account of the civil rights struggle centered in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King, the Klu Klux Klan, Fred Shuttlesworth, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Kennedy, Bull Conner, and more. One of those books that helps you understand America.
FAN MAIL . . . WITH ILLUSTRATIONS!
I’ve been ridiculously fortunate in my career, in that I’ve received a lot of fan mail across the past twenty years. But I have to admit, I especially like it when those letters include a drawing. There’s just something about children’s artwork that slays me, every time. This drawing is by Rida in Brooklyn.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This book has been on my list almost since the day it came out — the buzz was instantaneous, and huge — but on a tip from a friend, I waited for the audiobook to become available through my library. Here, Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a powerful reading. It’s poignant to listen to an author reading his own words, particularly since this book is essentially a letter to his son.
“WINTER RABBIT,” a poem by Madeleine Comora
We’re not here to bash Jack Prelutsky. Because, after all, Jack Prelutsky is hilarious. But, but, but. There are times when I worry that too many people think children’s poetry begins and ends with Mr. Prelutsky. That a poem for kids always has to be bouncy and fast and slight and funny, i.e., Prelutsky-ish. Well, here’s a poem I came across while reading Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems, unerringly edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. I admire the heartfelt, beautiful sorrow of Comora’s poem. “I thought of his last night alone/huddled in a wire home./I did not cry. I held him close,/smoothed his fur blown by the wind./For a winter’s moment, I stayed with him.” The illustration is by Wolf Erlbruch. Click on the poem if your eyes, like mine, need larger type.
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT
I’m so grateful that I live near a cool, little movie theater that makes room for small foreign films such as this, a mind-blowing look at life on the Amazon, spectacularly filmed in black-and-white. Click here for more details.
My wife Lisa and I don’t watch hours of TV together, but we do like to have a show we can share. We’ve been a loss for a few months, but recently discovered season one of “The Americans” on Amazon Prime. We’re hooked.
DAVID BROMBERG: “SAMMY’S SONG”
We have tickets to see Bromberg this coming weekend. He’s an old favorite of mine, first saw him in 1980 on Long Island. I’ve just rediscovered “Sammy’s Song,” which I haven’t heard in decades. What a chilling coming-of-age story, brilliantly performed. Oh, about that harmonica part? That’s Dave’s pal, Bob Dylan, with an uncredited guest turn.
I just finished writing my first Jigsaw Jones book after a long time away. For many years, Scholastic had allowed the series to die on the vine, with book after book slowly going out of print. It’s been a crushing thing for me to stand by helplessly and watch. But with the help of my agent, I got back the rights, and now Macmillan has plans to relaunch the series. I am thrilled. There are more than 10 million copies of those books out there in world, and it seems like every second-grade classroom in America has a ragged copy or three. Writing the new book, The Case from Outer Space, was such a pleasure. It felt like being home again.
THE DAY THE ARCS ARRIVE
For an author, it’s a special day, always, always. That book you’ve been toiling over for months, years, finally arrives in book form. Uncorrected, unfinished, but for the first time you can hold it in your hands — a book! — and think, “I did that!” Note: Arc = Advanced Reader’s Copy. The Courage Test, a middle grade novel, will be out for real in September.
BONUS SELECTION . . .
THE BARKLEY MARATHONS
I love documentaries of almost any nature, but I can’t recommend this one highly enough. A pure joy, with twinkling mischievous wit and surprising heart, too. If you like running at all — or not! — see this movie. About the toughest, wildest, and weirdest race in the world. Catch it on Netflix Instant!
I’m a big fan of Donalyn Miller.
Do you know her? As a classroom teacher, Donalyn made a splash with her book, The Book Whisperer. I met Donalyn during a trip to a reading conference in Dublin, Ohio, where I had the opportunity to hear her present to a large audience. She was impressive and her message was inspiring.
Long story short: Donalyn has made a deep impact bringing books and young readers together, and she does it without ego or self-aggrandising motives. There’s nothing phony about Donalyn. She’s simply a positive force in the world of children’s reading. My kind of people.
Several years back she started The Nerdy Book Club with, I believe, Colby Sharp. It’s an active, inspirational resource/blog for teachers and librarians who care about children’s literature. I recommend it. Over the past couple of years, Donalyn has allowed me to contribute a few essays, and I’m always grateful to reach that specific audience, and to participate in that grand conversation.
I’m happy with my recent essay and I invite you please check it out (link below). The idea came as the result of a few things going on in my life, particularly the end of my baseball coaching experiences. I reflected on what I had learned from those times coaching young people, and I connected those lessons to teaching and writing. But don’t go by me. Judge for yourself.
Here’s the opening:
I’m at loose ends.
For the first time in 16 years, I find myself not coaching a baseball team. During those seasons, I’ve coached a men’s hardball team, and all three of my children at various stages of Little League, including All-Stars and competitive Travel teams.
Now it’s over.
All I’m left with are memories, some friendships, and my accumulated wisdom, which can be reduced to a single, short sentence. So I’m passing this along to the readers of the Nerdy Book Club because I think it connects to teaching. And writing. And maybe to everything else under the sun.
When I started coaching, my head was exploding with knowledge. I knew all this great stuff! Boy, was I eager to share it. I had an almost mystical awareness of the game: tips and strategies, insights and helpful hints. Baseball-wise, I knew about the hip turn and burying the shoulder, how to straddle the bag and slap down a tag. The proper way to run the bases, turn a double play, and line up a relay throw. As coach, I simply had to pour this information into my players –- empty vessels all –- and watch them thrive.
But something happened across the years. I found myself talking less and less about how to play. Fewer tips, less advice. It seemed like I mostly confused them. The learning was in the doing.
I became convinced that the most important thing I could do was believe.
< snip >
Please click here to read the whole enchilada.
But before you go, here’s a nice quote from Donalyn that I figured I’d share.