Fan Mail Wednesday #232: Bears In Backyards

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I received this note from Ethan, who likes my style. But before I get to that, I should note that 98% of my fan mail comes during the school year, and many arrive with the aroma of “assignment.” That’s not a bad thing, mind you, just reality. In today’s case, this is a letter I received in late July, along with a stamped and self-addressed envelope (love that!). I can’t help but sense a  parent’s helping hand making this all possible.

“Would you like to write to the author?”

I don’t know where I’m going with that observation. Except to say that behind every enthusiastic reader, there’s usually a loving adult helping to cultivate & nurture that experience. Thank you for that, and for this:

 

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I replied:

 

Dear Ethan,

Thank you for your letter. I am pleased to learn that you like my style. Yes, style points!

You know, it seems like every Spring there’s an incident in Upstate, New York (where we both live), when a bear wanders out of the woods and into a town, or near stores, or into someone’s backyard. It’s a worrying thing, because bears are big, strong,  wild animals. Often, animal control has to get involved for everyone’s safety. I read articles like this in the newspaper every year.

I wondered why this happens, so I found an animal expert. He told me that bears are “territorial,” they like to have their own area –- a territory is like the property of your house –- and that sometimes a big male bear will make a smaller male go find his own territory. They don’t like to share. So the young male goes looking for somewhere to live, and sometimes he gets confused, make a few wrong turns, and ends up at Crossgates Shopping Mall. Yikes! What’s a bear doing at Banana Republic? The poor bear is lost. Bears don’t want to hurt people –- bears are usually shy; they don’t look for trouble -– but bears can be dangerous. It’s a sad and scary situation for everybody.

Writers often start with “what if?” questions. And that’s how I began The Case of the Bear Scare. I’m so glad you read it. Thank you.

This is a rough sketch for an illustration in my upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE, illustrated by my pal R.W. Alley. The character depicted here is Joey Pignattano on a stake-out.

This is a rough sketch for an illustration in my upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE, illustrated by my pal R.W. Alley. The character depicted here is Joey Pignattano on a stake-out.

I just finished a new Jigsaw Jones book titled The Case from Outer Space. It will be out in the summer of 2017 and it’s pretty funny. I hope you check it out. My newest book is called The Courage Test (grades 4-7) and comes out in September. And guess what? There’s a mama bear in it, and a boy hiking in the woods of Idaho . . .

Stay cool and have a great summer!

Your friend,

James Preller

Booklist Gives Starred Review to THE COURAGE TEST!

 

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I am thrilled to share the terrific news that the good folks at Booklist, particularly long-time reviewer John Peters, just gave The Courage Test a killer review — and a great big star. Note: I will backtrack to provide a link as soon as one becomes available. In the meantime, you’re just going to have to trust me. I am not making this up.

A great review is a fine thing, of course. But outside of what it means to me as an author (validation! affirmation!), or for my book (massive sales! yachts! librarians! ice cream sundaes!), it’s simply an impressive writing feat, a true literary skill. In limited space, Peters concisely, cogently manages to articulate so much of the book’s content. No easy task. A tip of the hat to Mister Peters. I’m really glad you liked the book.

 

 THE COURAGE TEST 

Author: James Preller 

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 224
Price (Hardcover): $16.99
Publication Date: September 2016 
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250093912

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. Will is initially baffled and furious at being abruptly forced to accompany his divorced father, a history professor, on a long journey retracing much of the trail of Lewis and Clark. The trip soon becomes an adventure, though, because as the wonders of the great outdoors work their old magic on Will’s disposition, his father and a Nez Perce friend (who turns out to be a Brooklyn banker) fill him in on the Corps of Discovery’s encounters with nature and native peoples. 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. Despite the many plot threads, the story never seems overstuffed or weighed down by agendas. Leading a cast of appealing characters Will and his father are both vulnerable sorts who share a damaged, uneasy bond that firms up with realistic slowness and occasional backsliding. Additionally, not only does the author slip cogent historical facts and insights into his simply told narrative without disturbing its flow, he offers more detail, plus sources of information, in an afterword. 

— John Peters

 

First Official Review of THE COURAGE TEST, from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

Things just got real.

The first review is in for The Courage Test, and the word is good.

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Money quote:

“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. — Elizabeth Bush, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

You can click here to read the review in its entirety.

A photo from a few years back, rafting the rapids on the Hudson River, guided by my dauntless nephew, Dan Rice. In that boat, that's Lisa's with mouth agape, and I'm in the back right. Also in the boat, my three kids: Nick (behind Lisa), Gavin (front), and Maggie, smiling. Good times.

A photo from a few years back, rafting the rapids on the Hudson River, guided by my dauntless nephew & river guide, Dan Rice. In the boat, that’s Lisa with mouth agape, and I’m in the back right. Also in the boat, my three kids: Nick (behind Lisa), Gavin (front), and Maggie, smiling. Good times.

Thank you, Elizabeth Bush, whoever you are!

In other news, The Courage Test was recently named as a Junior Library Guild Selection. I consider that a high honor, and very good tidings. Bystander was my last book to each that acclaim.

Ask for The Courage Test in your local independent book store. Publishing date: September 13, 2016.

Write Your Elsewhere

On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: "As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end." In my book THE COURAGE TEST, I needed my characters to travel through that same place.

On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: “As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end.” In my book THE COURAGE TEST, I needed my characters to travel through that same place.

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Write your elsewhere.

That’s a great phrase, isn’t it? I wish I could take credit for it, but it was written by Colum McCann, one of the great writers of our time. I love his work.

McCann issued that phrase in a brief blog post titled “Don’t Write What You Know,”  words that had me nodding my head in emphatic agreement. It felt like a post that I could have written, though not nearly as well, for I’ve shared those same thoughts. The way I’ve often put it in the past was: Write what you don’t know. That is, the inverse of the time-tested trope: Write what you know (which is also good advice — sometimes!).

Here’s McCann:

Don’t write about what you know, write towards what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Adventure in the elsewhere. This opens up the world. Go to another place. Investigate what lies beyond your curtains, beyond the wall, beyond the street corner, beyond your town, beyond your country even. A young writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t even know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is there to be created. In the process of creating it we find out how varied and complex we are. The world is so much more than one story. Don’t sit around thinking about yourself. That’s boring. Don’t be boring, please please please don’t be boring! In the end your navel contains only lint. The only true way to expand your world is to think about others. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. But once you go there you can be changed. The cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their limited nostalgia. Leave them be. Step into an otherness instead. Believe that your story is bigger than yourself. In the end we only write what we know, but if we write towards what we don’t know we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet aware of. Rage on. Write your elsewhere.

As writers, people who are basically just wanderers with words in white space, it’s important not to be limited in our imaginings. Sure, it’s fine to tell young writers, “Hey, you’ve been to Cape Cod? You can write about that!” or, say, “You play soccer? Great, center a story around a soccer game!” But it’s not necessary that we end there, limited to only the things we’ve experienced. To write only what we know. For what is writing, if not some bold new experience? Or some new exciting way of knowing?

Step into an otherness instead. 

Believe that your story is bigger than yourself.

CourageTestFrontCvrIn my upcoming middle-grade book, The Courage Test (September, 2016), a father and son travel from Minneapolis, MN, to Seaside, OR, linking their trip to the trail originally followed by the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. However, I had a problem. I hadn’t been to most of those places, and I didn’t have the time or the budget to engage in that kind of direct research. Fortunately in today’s world there are incredible resources available to the (resourceful!) writer.

You don’t have to write what you know, as long as you make the effort to find out. To learn. To explore. To discover.

McCann again:

Adventure in your elsewhere.

A young writer is an explorer.

To site one example from my book, I knew that I wanted to get my characters on the water. Because, of course, that’s predominantly how Lewis & Clark traveled, and, hey, water. Ever since reading Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Homer’s “Odyssey,” I’ve been wise to the metaphoric possibilities of water: the passage of time, the collective unconscious, our watery beginnings in amniotic fluid, and so on. Water in literature is always a good thing. So after poking around in books and websites, looking at photos and blogs, I decided they would travel on the Missouri River from Fort Benton to Judith’s Landing, backtracking east with the current.

To that end, I ordered a Boaters’ Guide to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The 64-page booklet was perfect for my intentions, rich in detail, and covered the exact passage that my fictional characters would travel. I imagined, appropriately, that they would possess a copy of their own. The booklet came with great maps and information about landmarks and hikes — places where my characters would walk, visit, see, and feel.

Young Will and Ollie made this hike in my book.

Young Will and Ollie made this hike in my book.

 

From The Courage Test, 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.

I want to tell my father about the bald eagle Ollie and I saw. And the pronghorn. And about the hard, dangerous hike to the top of the Hole in the Wall trail. How it looked so tiny from the river, but was twice my size when we finally got up to it after some dicey scrambling. How Ollie had pointed out ponderosa pines and cottonwoods. Instead, I ate and yawned and climbed into my sleeping bag. Dog tired. My heart confused.

This is the spot where Ollie, Will, and his father camped.

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That’s one message I sometimes share with young writers when I visit schools. A faint echo of McCann. Write what you know, surely. But don’t feel constrained by that. Break those chains. Travel that blank white space, pen in hand. Dare to write what you don’t know.

A young writer is an explorer.

Go, seek, find out.

And by all means, yes, bring back news of your adventures.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #231: These Kids Can’t Spell, But They Sure Can Communicate

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Just wanted to share four terrific thank-you notes that I received after a school visit. I find that select teachers do that immediately after an author visit: they go back to the room, talk about what happened, and everybody writes. Sounds perfect to me. The debriefing is a valuable part of any new experience. What just happened? What did we learn? What did we like?

I love the artwork and the invented spellings. However, these comments do tend to make my visits sound something less than deeply pedagogical. All I can say, in my defense, is that it’s funny what makes an impression. Despite all my “valuable content,” most young readers respond best to the small details that make an author seem like an actual human being. And, of course, we remember the things that make us laugh.

"I liked the part when you said the diaper on the monkeys. It was funny."

“I liked the part when you said the diaper on the monkeys. It was funny.”

Comment: Um, does this need explanation? As in: Why is a visiting author talking about monkey diapers with our students? I guess you had to be there. But in this case, I gave an example of how a writer works. I needed to write a scene in a pet store, so I took my writer’s journal and visited a pet store. I looked around. I took notes. I found a cage of monkeys that were all wearing diapers. So I put it in the book, Jigsaw Jones: The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster. The word diaper always gets an easy laugh.

"I liked the pat when you said drive me bananas. I liked every part."

“I liked the pat when you said drive me bananas. I liked every part.”

Comment: Those bananas look suspiciously like giant pieces of macaroni to me. But how about that last line? So sweet. “Evre part.”

"I liked when you said that our grandma was wearing a dead animal on your grandma."

“I liked when you said that our grandma was wearing a dead animal on your grandma.”

Comment: Well, Dean, that wasn’t exactly what I said. But, yes, it’s true. My grandmother wore a mink stole fur wrap. It both fascinated and terrified me.

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Comment: The artwork in this one, by Lauren, is just insanely amazing. And again, yes,  this is true: early in talks, I sometimes joke to the little ones that if they call out and raise their hands while I’m trying to talk, that it will drive me bananas and I might jump out the window. Together we agree that wouldn’t be a great way to conclude an author visit — with a trip to the hospital. I ask to save their questions for the end. And then they ask me probing questions like, “I have a dog named Daisy, too.”

SNEAK PREVIEW: Three Rough Sketches from the Upcoming Jigsaw Jones Book!

The book centers around a note found in a book at a Little Free Library.  I love those libraries -- they are sprinkled all over my town -- and I'm glad to spotlight the idea in my book.

The book centers around a note found in a book at a Little Free Library. I love those libraries — they are sprinkled all over my town — and I’m glad to spotlight the idea in my book.

 

Fans of Jigsaw Jones know that it has been some time since there’s been a new book in the series. Even worse, the old books have been slowly going out of print. All of that is changing in a big way, come the summer of 2017. Four previous titles will be re-released by Macmillan, plus a new book — the 41st overall! — will be published. (Click here to read a short sample from that manuscript.)

The process has been a pure pleasure for me. I loved revisiting those characters and the classic “Jigsaw Jones” brand of humor and mystery. Writing this story, The Case from Outer Space, was a rare joy. And I hope that pleasure comes through in the story itself. It’s a happy book, intended to make readers smile.

Last week the book’s gifted illustrator, R.W. Alley, sent along 27 rough-sketch illustrations that will eventually appear in the book’s interior pages in refined form. I’ve received permission from my fabulous editor, Liz Szabla, to share with you a few of those rough, unfinished sketches. I think R.W. has done a masterful job, capturing the humor and essence of these characters. I’m feeling grateful all around — and excited, too. Jigsaw Jones is back on the case!

Jigsaw's brother Billy, reading on the couch, tells Jigsaw to answer the door. The door opens and the case begins.

Jigsaw’s brother Billy, reading on the couch, tells Jigsaw to answer the door. The door opens and the case begins.

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Joey eats, Jigsaw listens, and Danika explains the mysterious clue.

Joey eats, Jigsaw listens, and Danika explains the mysterious clue.

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Author Event, Today, June 11th, 3:00 @ Barnes & Noble, Colonie Center

COME SEE US!

Local Author Roundup Flyer

Barnes & Noble, 131 Colonie Center, Suite 355, Albany, NY 12205 – (518)-438-1728

Joseph Bruchac – Saratoga Springs, NY: Joseph Bruchac is an Abenaki writer and traditional storyteller. Author of over 130 books, his experiences include running a college program in a maximum security prison and teaching in West Africa.

Code Talker: Throughout World War II Navajo code talkers sent messages in an unbreakable code that used their native language. This is the tale of Ned Begay, a sixteen-year-old code talker. His grueling journey is eye-opening and inspiring.

Nancy Castaldo – NY: Nancy Castaldo is the author of several nonfiction books for curious kids, the Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society. See more at www.nancycastaldo.com.

The Story of Seeds: Something as small as a seed can have a worldwide impact. Castaldo chronicles where our food comes from, and more importantly, where it is going as she digs deeper into the importance of seeds in our world.

Eric Devine – Waterford, NY: Eric Devine’s Young Adult fiction has been listed by YALSA, Booklist, and the Junior Library Guild. He is also a veteran high school English teacher.
More at: ericdevine.org, facebook.com/ericdevineauthor, or Twitter: @eric_devine

Press Play: When Greg captures footage of brutal and bloody hazing by his town’s championship- winning lacrosse team, he knows he has evidence that could damage as much as it could save. Is revealing the truth worth the cost?

Laura Diamond – Albany, NY: Laura is a board certified psychiatrist and author of young adult fantasy, dystopian, & contemporary novels. When she’s not writing, she’s working at the hospital and catering to her feline furbaby overlords.

The Zodiac Collector: For Anne, the Renaissance Faire means another ruined birthday for her and her twin sister, Mary. This year, she conjures up a spell that will make their birthday party a whirlwind event. Little do they know that it’s a literal request.

James Preller – Delmar, NY: James Preller is an award-winning author. He has published a wide- variety of books for all ages, from picture books to young adult, including the popular “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series and BYSTANDER.

The Fall: In this heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship and bullying, told through journal entries, Sam explores and ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death. “With its timely, important message . . . Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” — Kirkus.

 

 

Three Rapscallions All In a Row

Avast, me hearties! This photo below was sent to me in anticipation of a school visit. These rascals must have been inspired by A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade and/or the sequel, A Pirate’s Guide to Recess.

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The image below is by illustrator Greg Ruth, who is amazing, from A Pirate’s Guide to Recess.

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Looky Here: The Japanese Cover to SCARY TALES: GOOD NIGHT, ZOMBIE

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A writer’s life: One day you get a jpeg in an email for the Japanese version of your book, Good Night, Zombie, from the “Scary Tales” series.

You didn’t know anything about it. Not a clue.

And you just think, wow, that’s so cool. But my name should be bigger.

Is my name even on this thing?

For reference, here’s the English-market version, featuring art by Iacopo Bruno. A different approach, for sure.

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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #230: On School Uniforms & Other Items

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Hey, look here, a bunch of letters from Alabama! Let me reach my hand into the big barrel and pull out a sample.

It’s from Patrick:

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I replied (because I usually do!):

 

Dear Patrick,

Thank you for your letter. Writing can be lonely work. For example, right this minute I am alone in a room in an empty house, plucking away at the computer keyboard. Just me, by my lonesome, trying to write.

Letters like yours make me smile, and make me feel connected to my readers. I write a book . . . and somebody out there . . . a boy named Patrick . . . reads it. The job wouldn’t be nearly as fun without you. So, again, truly and sincerely: thank you.

I suppose, yes, that Jigsaw is a little like me. We are both the youngest in large families (I am the youngest of seven), and we share the same sense of humor. I was never a detective, however; though I did love to spy on my brothers and sisters. I was sneaky.

You are lucky about the uniforms. I wore a uniform in Catholic school when I was a kid. Purple polka-dotted pants, striped shirt, red suspenders and a big yellow bow tie.

No, just kidding. Green pants, white shirt, green tie. Day after day, week after week, year after year. Sigh.

I just wrote a new “Jigsaw Jones” titled The Case from Outer Space. It will be out in the Spring of 2017. I hope you check it out –- there’s some really funny parts. And since you mentioned ghosts, you might enjoy my “Scary Tales” books. They aren’t hard to read, but they will make your heart go thump, thump, thump.

Stay cool and have a great summer!

That's me, top row, fifth from the left. Big class, huh?

That’s me, top row, fifth from the left. Big class, huh?

Your friend,

James Preller