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?
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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:
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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:
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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

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”

 

Prescient Maurice: Down In the Dumps

Witness this illustration from Maurice Sendak’s 1993 book, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. Yes, that’s Trump Tower in the background.

He knew.

 

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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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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