A School with an Idea Worth Stealing

I had a happy experience on a recent evening at Ichabod Crane Primary School in Valatie, NY. I was one of two authors invited to an annual event at the school: Young Authors Night. The other invited guest was the brilliant Doreen Rappaport, who writes widely-acclaimed picture-book biographies. I’d met Doreen before and she’s simply the best; her work is second to none. We were asked to come from 4:00 – 6:00 to sign books. That’s it, just sit and sign. However, no payment — but we were assured that the Ichabod Crane community comes out strong for this event. 

Well, they sure did.

When I entered the school, I passed a large room lined with tables. On each table, neatly laid out, were books written by students. Each class, grades K-3, had its own table of handsomely-produced, original books. (This was the “young” authors section of the evening; Doreen and I represented a somewhat older demographic.) Tonight was the night when parents were invited to celebrate their children’s work. The not-so-young guest authors were stationed around the corner in a small library. Out in the hallway, a famed local bookseller, Rondi Brower, had set up an attractive display of our books. Note to potential idea-stealers: Rondi’s role is indispensable here. Partnering with a local bookstore is an essential part of the evening. (Oh, and a portion of the sales go to the school, so it’s a fundraiser, too.)

Inside the library, I was offered a chair, a desk, and a pen. Same deal for Doreen, across the room. Doreen and I chatted a bit, traded war stories, while the librarian, Alanna Moss, gracefully attended to last-minute details. Frequent readers of James Preller Dot Com may recognize “Miss Moss,” for she’s the librarian who hilariously had herself duct-taped to a wall to motivate end-of-year book returns. At almost 4:00, we took our places. “They’ll start coming in soon,” Alanna informed us.

I hope so, I thought.

Oh, and one other key detail: The school has been hosting this event for many years, always on the day of the school budget vote. Smart, right? It helps get parents out of the house, they visit the school, support literacy, vote “yes” for the budget, all before dinner. Genius. And an idea worth stealing!


I signed books nonstop for two hours. Same with Doreen.

No question that a huge part of the night’s success can be attributed to the aforementioned Miss Moss, who did so much advance work prepping the students. She shared our books in the library, building anticipation and excitement for the “big night,” inspiring young readers to come on out and get their books signed by real (and evidently still live) authors.

“Get ’em while we last!”

I have one last image to share. Because the lines are long and the event is so well-organized, students came to my table with their names neatly printed on Post-It notes. This is extremely helpful and efficient, and it also frees us up to discuss topics other than how exactly to spell, say, MacKenzee. I’d take the note, slap it on the table, sign the book, we’d chat a bit — “What are you doing this summer?” “What was your book about?””Any brothers or sisters?” “Have you read Jigsaw Jones before?” the usual light banter — and move on to the next. Toward the end of the night, my desk looked like this:

 

This is just to say: Thank you, good folks at Ichabod Crane Primary School for letting me share a slice of this special night. It was impressive all the way around, particularly the way the families came out for their children — to support literacy, to vote, to have some family fun. A true community of readers. Well done!

Fan Mail Wednesday #273: Avigayil from Inwood!

 

 

You all buckled up? Let’s go. Because Avigayil is learning how to write letters.

I replied . . . 

Dear Avigayil from Inwood!

What an interesting name you have. I’ve received many letters, and signed a lot of books, but you are my first Avigayil. Congratulations.

Am I your first James? Or Jimmy? Or Jimbo?

For someone who is just learning how to write letters, you did an excellent job. Thanks especially for including the stamped, self-addressed envelope. That saved me time and money!

I’m glad you liked The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster and The Case of the Race Against Time. The second title features a bad haircut –- and let me tell you, I’ve had a few. I remember looking in the mirror and feeling sad. Ack! My head!

I wrote a new Jigsaw Jones book last year, titled The Case from Outer Space. I had a great time writing it, and maybe even made myself laugh here and there. I’m working on a new one right now. The title will be, The Case of the Hat Burglar. It centers around the “Lost and Found” at Jigsaw’s school.

Do you have a “Lost & Found” at your school? What do you think would happen if most of the hats were suddenly . . . missing? It’s time for Jigsaw and Mila to solve a new case.

But first, I guess I’ve got to write the book. When I start, I take notes and do a lot of thinking and planning. I don’t actually start writing until several weeks go by. Right now, I’m almost ready to begin. Thanks for your letter, Avigayil. Great job!

Your friend,

James Preller

Climate Change, Alfred Hitchcock, and BETTER OFF UNDEAD

A freaky, zombie-esque storyboard from Hitchcock's "The Birds."

A freaky, zombie-esque storyboard from Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

 

The springboard concept for my novel, Better Off Undead, was that Adrian Lazerus would become a zombie who, post-accident, returns transformed to middle school. The ultimate misfit, outsider. And as far as the rest of the world knew, the only zombie on the planet. (If you want more zombies, you’re going to have to demand a sequel.)

Yes, the zombie, that’s a preposterous idea. And, I thought, an interesting metaphor. So I went with it. Along the way, I asked myself why Adrian had reanimated. What was going on? Looking around, I realized this was a “world gone wrong” story.

An inspiration for this notion surely came from Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “The Birds,” which is a classic “world gone wrong” story. I think in retrospect I’ve long been impressed by the film’s central idea. When the natural world goes out of whack, everything goes off-balance. The center cannot hold. That poem by Yeats, another inspiration.

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It did not require a great imaginative leap. Look around: the world is going wrong in many ways. Climate change is a leading cause of much of it. Droughts and wildfires, extreme weather, superflus, Zika viruses, melting ice caps, and on and on. So I ended up taking a lot of different elements that are in the news today, blowing them up a little bit, and employing those issues as context for Adrian’s story, which is set in the not-so-distant future. Adrian himself is a result of a world gone wrong, but he’s also existing within it. Like the rest of us.

Here’s an excerpt of a recent article by Lauren Weber in The Huffington Post, titled “Mosquito- and Tick-Borne Diseases Have Tripled, But the CDC Won’t Say It’s Climate Change“:

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The number of Americans who have gotten sick from mosquito, tick and flea bites more than tripled between 2004 to 2016, according to new figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also said that local and state public health departments are unequipped to properly combat the surge of disease from insects.

Since 2004, nine new diseases have been introduced in the United States, including the chikungunya and Zika viruses. Diseases already endemic to the country, such as Lyme disease, shot up, contributing to these high case counts. Experts warn Lyme disease diagnosis numbers can be up to 10 times higher than currently reported.

“The numbers are really staggering,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “The increase that we’re seeing over a very short time period is unprecedented.”

I could site dozens of articles that served as seeds for the ideas, {FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400sometimes presented off-handedly, matter-of-factly, in the book. Adrian’s father, for example, is away in Africa working for Corporate, a for-hire soldier fighting in the “Water Wars.” Just read about water security issues if you think that’s far-fetched. Or consider white nose syndrome and the importance of bats. In the novel, Zander and Adrian come across a dead bat while on their way to the local pizza joint. Zander has a keen interest in nature — bees and beekeeping play a pivotal role in this book — so they pause and take note of it. Look at this. A dead bat. White nose syndrome. And they move on.

Here’s an excerpt from a February article in The New Yorker by J.R. Sullivan, “A Fatal Disease Is Ravaging America’s Bats, and Scientists are Struggling to Stop It“:

As of September, 2017, the disease had spread to thirty-one states, some of which have suffered ninety-per-cent declines in their bat populations; the crisis, which began in New York, now extends as far west as Washington. “I think most states would say it’s not a matter of if white nose is going to show up but when,” Kelly Poole, the endangered-species coördinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, told me. The disease disrupts the bats’ hibernation, causing them to wake up in winter, exert energy looking for food, and, in time, starve. It is almost always fatal, leaving caves full of bones in its wake. Scientists have yet to find a cure or treatment. “I get a sense that we may actually be witnessing the extinction of a couple of species, at least regionally,” Gumbert said. “We may not lose a species completely, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we did.”

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In a state such as Iowa, where the economy is based largely on agriculture, white nose is particularly worrisome. According to a study published in 2011 in the journal Science, bats consume enough insects to save U.S. farmers an estimated $22.9 billion a year in pest control and crop damage, a conclusion echoed by a follow-up study in 2015. The findings suggest that a nationwide decline in bats could result in higher food prices, owing to an uptick in pesticide use and a reduction in crop yields. “That cost gets passed down to the consumer, and you start seeing it at the grocery stores,” Piper Roby, Copperhead’s research director, told me. She also noted that increased pesticide use means more harmful chemicals in the ecosystem. “It’s just this cascade effect if you remove a top-down predator, and you start to see the effects of it years later,” she said.

In one key scene, a queen bee speaks an important line. (Yes, it surprised me, too; my first talking bee!) She delivers only three words to Gia: “It all connects.”

And she’s absolutely right, especially when it comes to climate change.

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Courage Keeps Walking

A friend alerted me to a recent post on Twitter from a Texas librarian. I’m not on Twitter yet, but I’ve been seriously considering it for more than a year. Slothlike in my cogitations.

Anyway!

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This comes from a passage from THE COURAGE TEST. Maybe I had forgotten about it. The moment here reminds me of the initial concept behind the book, which I kind of buried during the writing of it. The iceberg theory of writing, I guess, that 90% is under the water. Still important, just unseen from the surface.

Reading from THE COURAGE TEST on a school visit.

Reading from THE COURAGE TEST on a school visit.

My idea was that Will’s journey, which parallels that of Lewis & Clark, gives him experiences — i.e., lessons — that he will carry home, which he can put to use when he encounters the true test of his strength and character.

In this moment, Will learns about the explorers’ courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. They could have given up. Maybe it was almost reasonable to do so. But no. Courage keeps walking.

It’s interesting. We’re in a sometimes-awkward corrective phase in children’s literature. The diversity movement is making important inroads in our schools and libraries and publishing houses. My sense is that this is not really the moment for old white guys like Lewis & Clark. Heads are turned in other directions. And I get that, I do. And yet! Their story is still worth knowing, still an essential, defining aspect of the American experience, for good and for bad, and very much worth examining through a modern, “enlightened” perspective.

Thank you, Karen, for that sweet tweet!

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How to Get Children to Read Books

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