Research and Exploration

Once upon a time, I might have believed that research was a matter of dusty old books and card catalogs. But the world has changed and I’ve learned that research is an exploration — and truly one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a writer. 

When I wrote The Courage Test, the expedition of Lewis & Clark became a parallel storyline that ran alongside the main adventures in that book. And somewhere along the line it dawned on me that writing itself is an act of discovery, a seeking and an exploration. So in my own way, in my quiet room, I identified with the intrepid explorers who ventured into “parts unknown” to bring back news from beyond. That’s what writers do. Or what we try to do. 

Below is a photo sent by a beekeeping friend. It’s a scrap of research, a hint about the book I just finished writing, the 3rd in a new series. It launches in January, 2019. I’m not quite ready to talk about it just yet, but, again: I have three books written and finished and ready to go.

More details another day.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the journey.

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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #272: Meet Isaiah

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I recently spent a week in Hudson, Ohio. I don’t like to brag, but there it is — what a great community, and so many good places to eat. One night I did a signing at a bookstore, The Learned Owl, right there on North Main Street. That’s when I first met Isaiah, a boy who seemed particularly excited to meet a “real, live” author.

Two days later I spoke at Isaiah’s school. When my presentation was over, the students heading out, Isaiah came up and handed me this letter. I don’t think I can adequately describe the look in his eyes, other than to say he seemed to think he was in the presence of someone special. Or maybe that’s transference, because that’s exactly how I felt about him. 

I hope you can read Isaiah’s faint writing, because it’s an especially kind letter, and because he thanks me for being amazing. Hey, it’s about time somebody noticed!

 

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I replied . . .

Dear Isaiah,

First of all, did you see how I spelled your name? Not bad, right?

I remember when you came into the store to have your book signed. We talked for a while. Then I distinctly remember seeing you again, two or three days later, after I spoke at your school.

You had written a letter and you delivered it personally. Although we didn’t get a photograph –- I kind of wish we did that –- I can easily recall your face.

Thank you so much for that letter. I’m grateful you took the time to say those very kind words. You know, Isaiah, it’s not about me, James Preller. What I am most happy about is that you feel inspired to read, excited about books, any books, and that hopefully you’ll continue down that (amazing) road for the rest of your life. Who knows, maybe soon you’ll be writing your stories –- the ones only you can tell –- about your family, your experiences, your thoughts and feelings.

Thanks for being so nice to me. An author is lucky to meet a reader like you.

Keep reading, keep being . . . Isaiah!

Yes, your new friend,

James Preller

NOTE ABOUT THIS PHOTO: I sent my reply to Isaiah to his (wonderful) librarian, since I didn't have another way of reaching him. I didn't expect to see his reaction documented -- I never see that moment -- and it's awfully nice to see his happy grin. He's holding an old NY Mets baseball card, since I often include them in my responses. It's just a thing I do.

NOTE ABOUT THIS PHOTO: I sent my reply to Isaiah’s (terrific) librarian, since I didn’t have another way of reaching him. I didn’t expect to see his reaction documented — I never see that moment — and it’s awfully nice to see his happy grin. He’s holding an old NY Mets baseball card, since I often include one in my responses. It’s just a thing I do. Propaganda!

 

 

An Author Confesses About School Visits

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I was sent this photo after a series of elementary school visits in Hudson, Ohio. The boy’s name is Alex, we had the chance to chat, and I guess he came away inspired to write his own stories. His mother took the shot and passed it along to his teacher, who in turn shared it with me. I post it here with their permission.

The visit was particularly successful because these schools did everything right. I’ve said it a thousand times: “Authors don’t do school visits; schools do author visits.” 

They shared my books with their students. They built up excitement and a sense of anticipation. They thought in advance about questions the students might ask. They created artwork. And they read, enthusiastically. Clearly, the feeling in that school was: “We’re having an author visit! Isn’t this exciting!”

Parents got involved. Volunteers put in hours of work. Teachers carved out time from their challenging schedules. By the time I showed up, all the important work had already been done. I was just the icing on the cake. A real, live author.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve felt a gradual change in myself. School visits can be hard on an author. It’s not easy work. We leave our cushy routine, our home, our family, our kitchen full of snacks. We walk into schools we’ve never seen before and perform, calling upon an entirely different set of skills than we normally employ in our working lives. We’re good at being alone in empty rooms. So we get invited to talk to a sprawled group of 120 second-graders in a crowded cafetorium. Exhausting!

But like all good things in life, the more you put into something, the more you get out of it. Now that I’ve been visiting schools for more than 20 years, I can honestly say that I love these visits more than ever. I get it now; I’m all in.

I’m grateful to be invited, happy to interact with these young people, to talk about reading and writing — to answer questions — to listen — and to share with them my love of books. Because I believe in books, I believe that reading matters. I’m fortunate to have an opportunity to make a difference. 

Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll even inspire a few students along the way. Light a fire. Change a mind. It’s an incredible honor and — yes — it comes with great responsibilities and rewards.

Those kids, those faces. 

Our future.

I’ll confess: I’m cynical by nature. I tend to cringe when a rock star tells an audience that he/she “loves” them. “I love you, Houston!” I mean, come on, can you love 15,000 strangers? I’ve never quite believed it. But today, I’m not so sure.

I ask myself, “Do I love these kids?

And it kind of surprises me to sit here and conclude, “Yes, yes, I think I do.” 

I love what these school visits are all about, particularly the best ones. The visits when a school puts in the time and effort to make the day impactful, meaningful. You see it as the students walk into the room, the way they furtively wave to me in the hallway. I love their youth, their curiosity, their openness and sense of becoming.

It’s not about me. My books are fine, sure, but there are so many other amazing books out there. I’m just trying to open a door. Create some excitement. Share a positive message about literacy. The joy of books, and the value of self-expression. Of having something inside you that has to come out. Your own, unique fingerprint. It’s just an incredible feeling to be a part of that conversation.

To connect with these young people, and maybe, just maybe, to help them see that possibility within themselves. 

To dip their finger in ink. To make a mark.

So if you’ve ever invited me to visit your school, I’m here to say thank you.

Thank you very much.

 

Come to the Hudson Children’s Book Festival: May 5th!

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I’ve learned that every book festival has its own personality, its own vibe and sense of mission. There’s no value in making comparisons. I’ve grown to love many of them. But, yes, Hudson holds a special place in my heart. This year will be its 10th annual, and the list of authors and illustrators is truly spectacular. As always, I’m grateful to be invited, to play a small part of this Truly Good Thing. 

It’s about bringing books and young people together. 

So if you know a young person, this will be the place to be. Plus . . . so many cool places to eat in Hudson. 

Come! And please say hello! I’d be honored to sign a book for you. I’ll be there with the new Jigsaw Jones and The Courage Test and “Scary Tales” and my newest, Better Off Undead

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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #271: Lilly’s Fabulous Letter

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Do yourself a favor. Take a moment to read one of my favorite letters, just exceptionally sweet & kind. 

You know, it’s not about me. It’s about Lilly, and kids like her. There are so many of them out there. Pure and good and excited about books, open and bursting with light.

It could be any author or illustrator who walks into a school. Who gets that opportunity to stand before these children, talk about reading and writing and our silly pets. On this day, it happened to be me, and I reached a receptive reader named Lilly.

Again: How lucky am I? 

 

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I replied: 

Dear Lilly,

I enjoyed my visit to your school, and was especially glad to receive a wonderful batch of letters from your class, taught by Ms. B.

I read each and every letter. But I have to confess that yours, in particular, stirred my heart. You were so kind, said such nice things, that I wanted to take a minute to thank you.

Writing is a quiet life. At this very moment, I am alone in silent room of my house, pecking away at a computer keyboard. Sometimes I will speak the words out loud so I may hear them, to know they are okay. My cats don’t talk much. I play music, daydream, try to write. It can be lonely at times. I sometimes fill with self-doubt. 

Even when I finish books and send them out into the world, I never really know what happens to them. That’s why school visits are nice; I get to meet kids like you. And sometimes, on very good days, some of those readers write letters. And that’s when I know I’ve made a new friend.

Please say hello to Cally, your bird -– and, of course, your terrific fish. 

Happy to be your new friend,

James Preller