Fan Mail Wednesday #287: Writing Advice from Turkey

Here’s one all the way from Turkey . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,
I am a 5th grade student in Turkey and I read “The Case of the Best Pet Ever” as my project homework. I think that your book was very entertaining for kids like me who like mystery books. Jigsaw and Mila worked hard to find evidences and questioned suspects to solve the mystery of the stolen prize. I liked the book because it has a surprise ending, I wasn’t expecting Rags to win the medal. Jigsaw thought that Rags was a hopeless and useless dog but when Rags found the prize Jigsaw understood that everyone has their own talents. Rags may not be a very talented dog to win a pet competition but he is talented in finding treasures. I also liked the friendship and teamwork between Mila and Jigsaw. There were a lot of nice sayings like “Try to be the person your dog thinks you are.” My favorite simile was “I was as frustrated as a dentist in a candy store”. If I were you I would write more about the things they do to solve the mystery to keep the curiosity level higher. I will definitely read more of your books and thank you for your time.
Best Regards,
Derin ______
I replied . . .
Dear Derin,
You wrote an excellent letter, filled with good observations and sharp understanding. Thanks for that. 
It’s funny, I get a fair amount of letters from Turkey. My guess is that there’s one teacher there — somewhere! — who has a bin of my books. I’m grateful to that mysterious superfan.

Featuring illustrations throughout by R.W. Alley!

I always have bittersweet feelings about this particular book. I’ve written many, as you know; the newest title, The Case of the Hat Burglar (Macmillan, August 2019) will be the 42nd in the series. So, yeah, that’s crazy. Some books are more successful than others. Or in kinder terms, each has different strengths and weaknesses. Some are funnier; some have sturdier mysteries, better detective work; some have more heart, emotion; and so on.

This particular title came at a time when my oldest son, Nicholas (now 25), had been diagnosed with cancer. Just a little boy, dangerously sick. It was a hard time for our family. I did my best to work through those times, but on Best Pet Ever I had some help from a co-writer. I did my best, I’m responsible for every word, but I might have been floating in outer space when it was all happening. Anyway, today Nick is healthy and strong and living in the Big Apple, i.e., New York City. 
Thanks for your letter. I do hear your advice about the detective work. I’ll keep trying!
All good things,
James Preller

T-Shirt on a School Visit

Somewhere in Vermont last week, I came across a young student wearing this t-shirt and took a photo.

There’s a lot of great shirts out there.

And now I’m home for a stretch, because all we really care about in April is testing, testing, testing. 

As positive and energizing as a school visit can be, I sometimes come away from those visits with a tinge of sadness. The job of teacher has changed. So much stress over things that, to me, don’t matter very much. That’s a textbook definition of anxiety, btw, to be responsible for something over which you have little control. Those scores.

One thing is painfully clear: teachers generally don’t know books as much as they used to. The climate has shifted. Burdened by responsibilities, so many teachers don’t seem to be readers anymore. It’s not in their purview, and it’s not expected of them anymore. Maybe it’s me. But in many conversations I’ve had that perception confirmed by school librarians, teachers, other authors. Books just aren’t seen as central to the job anymore. I’m not seeing that old enthusiasm or that joy.

It’s April now, the cruelest month. Sharpen those pencils, kids, fill those answer bubbles . . . 

As Long As You’re Learning, You’re Not Failing

Fan Mail Wednesday #286: Inspired by “The Twilight Zone”


This one comes from Seattle, via a terrific tutor who went the extra yard for her student . . .

Dear Mr. Preller, 
My tutor and I were reading your book, Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream and we loved it a lot.  We reached the end of the book and you left it on a cliffhanger.  We thought that it would be awesome if you could make a sequel to this book. I would love it if we could know what happens to Sam and Andy and Mr. Overstreet. 
I love this kind of story telling. I love scary books and after reading this book you’re my go to author for scary books.   
Are you going to make a new book for Sam and Andy?  
I think your work is great.  If you could make a new book it would definitely be a book I would tell my friends about.
I think you are a genius.
P.S.  I am using my tutor’s email to write to you.  


I replied . . .
Thank you so much for this outrageously kind letter. Genius? I’m afraid not! But I’m very glad you found my “Scary Tales” series — there are 6 books in all — maybe more to come someday. We can only hope.
Don’t you love Iacopo Bruno’s illustrations? I sure do. 
Have you ever heard of Fan Fiction? It’s where readers respond to books . . . by writing. Each new writer takes on those same characters to explore new adventures, new situations. By all means, feel free to write a scene or an entire story based on what you think could happen in a sequel. And if you do write something, send it my way!
For this series of books, I was very much inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” show. Each episode was different — new characters, new situations, and often different genres — but each one provided a unique twist. Viewers always got that “Twilight Zone” experience. I’ve tried to achieve that format and feeling in these six books. These days, I’m super excited that Jordan Peele is bringing back a new Twilight Zone for your generation. 
My new scary story is actually realistic fiction. A wilderness survival story titled Blood Mountain. A brother and a sister lost in the mountains. It comes out in October and I’m so proud of it. 
Please thank your most excellent tutor for sharing my books with you. 
My very best,
James Preller

That’s So Dumb: Tales from the School Bureaucracy

Here’s a true story that’s hard to believe. Unless, of course, you work in a bureaucracy. I gather that teachers could tell this kind of story all day long (and I’m all ears, folks!). The crazy, confounding things that happen at school because of goofy rules and red tape. 

Here’s one I can share. I’m in a library in Tennessee, a visiting author setting up for a morning presentation. The students are due to arrive any minute. I look at the wall to check the time. “Um? What’s up with the clocks?”

The librarian explains the situation with a mixture of bemusement and resigned frustration. The work order came in over the summer to install the new clock. However, the work order made no mention of removing the old clock. So the technicians drilled new holes in the walls, rewired things, and put in the new clock. At some point, some figure in the building asked, “What about the old clock?” The men (I assume, from how the story was told to me) examined the work orders — every word, period, and comma —  and concluded, “Sorry, there’s no mention of removing anything. That will require a separate work order.”

End of story.

I stood there, blinking. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” the librarian told me. “It’s going to be another year before they come back and remove all the old clocks.”

“Wait. You mean it’s not just . . . ?”

“Yes, there are two clocks in every single room in the elementary school.” 

I studied the clocks once more. “Do we know which one’s right?”