Archive for June 30, 2008

William Steig: An Appreciation

“The fact that kids like a book is not proof of its merit. They also like all kinds of dreck confections with names like yo-yos, and animation full of senseless violence. Every kid is a potential genius but also a potential yuckapuck.” — William Steig.

I love William Steig’s books, his picture books (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Amazing Bone, Doctor De Soto) as well as his longer works, such as Abel’s Island and Dominic.

Amazingly, Steig published his first children’s book at the vintage age of sixty. I often think that’s what helped make his voice unique, singular. Like many people who reach that state of grace — I’m thinking of any number of old grandpas on the front porch, talking about how the world really works — Steig didn’t seem to care what anybody thought. He was free from all those concerns. Sure of himself, Steig worked to please himself, confident in the knowledge that by doing so, he would almost certainly please others. Or not — whatever!

I admire, too, his faith in his own imagination, his aspirations to make true, lasting Art. Yet he was never pretentious about the writing process. Said Steig, “I just ramble around and discover for myself what will happen next.” He also said: “I can’t truly say that I am ever inspired to write a book. It’s the last thing in the world I think of until I have to do it. And then I count on my imagination to make things happen.”

His artwork serves the text, and often sublimely, perhaps never moreso than in The Amazing Bone, which seems like it sprang from the palette of a French Impressionist. I’m staring at a two-page spread that depicts the book’s porcine heroine, Pearl, as she serenely settles amidst the wild flowers of a forest. She breathes in her surroundings, at one with nature.

Wrote Steig:

Later she sat on the ground in the forest between school and home, and spring was so bright and beautiful, the warm air touched her so tenderly, she could almost feel herself changing into a flower. Her light dress felt like petals.

“I love everything,” she heard herself say.

Despite the artwork, it was Steig’s singular use of language that separated him from the pack. He refused to pander to the perceived interests of young readers; instead, he lifted readers up, selecting the right word even if it wasn’t the easiest word, trusting in his readers’ intuitive intelligence. Children encounter rich, vivid language in his books, words like cantankerous and recumbent. As J.K. Rowling proved in the Harry Potter books, the grandiosity of the language did not turn readers away, but rather heightened the mystery and atmospherics of the telling. Steig’s books serve as an eloquent rebuttal to today’s misguided tendency of “dumbing down” children’s literature.

There’s also sensitivity in his stories, poignancy, a profound sense of wonder. The way Sylvester’s parents, heartbroken and unyielding, never stop searching for their lost child, never surrender hope. Or when Pearl in The Amazing Bone finds herself in the clutches of a cruel fox:

“Be brave,” the bone whispered. Pearl could only tremble.

Steig was a true believer in the immediacy of the creative impulse. He said, “It’s only when you’re consciously aware of what you’re doing in a book that you’re in trouble.” He followed, that is, his own muse. There is nothing cynical about his work, nothing deliberate. I believe he never once tried to figure out the market, never wrote simply to sell, never chased the latest trend, but instead followed his heart. It is why his books are timeless and enduring.

In Dominic, a dog sets out to see more of the world. Soon he must choose between two paths: a road with “no surprise, nothing to discover or wonder at,” or another road that promises to lead him to “where things will happen that you never could have guessed at — marvelous, unbelievable things.”

Like the book’s creator, Dominic chose the second path. Every reader who has opened one of William Steig’s books knows that feeling. For he invites us along on that same journey of surprise and adventure. And away we go, willingly, happily, in the hands of a master.

POSTSCRIPT: A librarian friend — okay, my ex-wife, Maria, who remains my friend — just sent me a cool link. There was a recent celebration of William Steig’s art at The Jewish Museum. To get more info, and to hear Meryl Streep read Spinky Sulks, just follow the link. This presentation of his work from The New Yorker is also awesomely cool.

For Mets Fans Only

As my friend, the super-talented, ultra-cool illustrator Matthew Cordell says, a youtube clip is always an easy blog post. (I think it was Matthew who said it, or maybe Winston Churchill?)

I don’t know, I just find this song pretty funny. It’s about Mets pitcher John Maine — as played by a guy who calls himself, “Kuff and the Buttheads.” Enjoy, or not! Warning: You’ll never get those two minutes and forty-two seconds back.

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A Child With Cancer

I think when you’ve had a child with cancer, as I have, certain things always make you cry. Forever after, you are prone to bouts of blubbering. Memories, little acts that touched you, stick into your heart and remain stuck there, like a forgetful accupuncturist’s needle. Time passes and something unbidden triggers a memory; the needle vibrates again, the heart goes atwitter, and the eyes well up. It’s just one of those life events that, if you think about it at all, well, it’s good to have Kleenex around. Though I prefer the back of my sleeve.

My oldest son, Nick, relapsed with leukemia in 4th grade, after having already gone through it, ages two to four. All totaled up, he’s gone through five years of chemotherapy. Imagine that. I scarcely can, and our family lived through it. Nick’s good friend since 1st grade was (and still is) a boy named Sam. I watched in awe and admiration as Nick and Sam’s friendship weathered this illness. Though Nick was bald and weary, and not a whole lot of fun to be around, their friendship endured. Even more, it thrived. I was privileged to witness the goodness in Sam, his fundamental kindness, the way he treated his sick friend, my son. I won’t describe the specifics, because already I feel as if I’m a trespasser, like I’m on someone else’s property. It’s theirs, not mine. But what I saw, I will say, was genuine love. The friendship, the loyalty, the steadfastness of two boys. And it went both ways; they both gave, and they both received.

More than anything, that experience fueled the core of Six Innings, gave the book it’s heart. It’s what inspired me when I wrote those fictional scenes between two made-up characters, Sam Reiser and Mike Tyree.

It’s a book about a Little League baseball game and, I hope, not just that. The game is the structure that allowed me to enter the lives of some of these boys that I’ve seen, and known, and imagined. I’ve changed all the details — Nick is Sam and Sam is Mike; the form of cancer is different; the characters are more “inspired by” rather than “based upon” — but the core experience remains. Friendship under duress. At the same time, I think you can still read it as a baseball book, with hits and heroics, fears and failures. It’s one specific and yet metaphorical place where real boys live, out on the diamond, on green fields, under clear skies, the purity and relative peace of boys at play, that big yellow sun shining down.

Nick completed 9th grade yesterday. Good grades, too. This morning he announced that he did twenty-five pull-ups. “Good,” I say. “Keep it up, Nick. Keep it up.”

First Review: Along Came Spider!

The process of getting a hardcover book published takes time. There’s the idea, the talking about the idea, the research and rough notes, the first draft, the endless revision, the rejected covers, the final cover (see top of main page), the galleys, the proofreading, the advance copies for reviewers, the binding, the waiting. So much time passes, and distance stretches, that you begin to wonder if it will ever actually become a Real Book.

That’s how it’s been for Along Came Spider, published by Scholastic and edited by the redoubtable Shannon Penney, due in stores this August. But today I got a jolt when a friend tipped me off to a review at a blog called Literate Lives. Outside of a few close friends and a couple of local classrooms, this is the first response from The Outside World I’ve gotten to the book. Making it, officially, real. It wasn’t all a dream. (See review, below legendary, goofy clip from Dallas, Season Nine — speaking of dreams — for my older readers, who remember these things.)

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The review so accurately describes the book, I’ll copy it here in full:

I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendhsips and themselves, so it was a delightful surprise to find and read an advance review copy of a book that deals with boys trying to find where they belong in Along Came Spider, by James Preller (due out September 2008).

James Preller is probably most known for his Jigsaw Jones mystery series, but this book is much more character driven than the series.

This book has two main characters: Spider Stevens, a “typical” 5th grade boy, and Trey Cooper, Spider’s neighbor and childhood friend. The story takes place during the boys’ 5th grade year in Mrs. Wine’s classroom. Trey appears to be mildly autistic, though that is not explicitly stated in the text. Instead, there is the scene where Trey realizes his pencils are not as sharp as he’d like them to be: “… if Trey boke a penil tip, or noticed that his supply of perfectly pointed pencils was running low, Trey had to respond – immediately, ASAP, pronto.” And then when his teacher gets mad at him, he doesn’t understand why, and tries to get her to smile by quoting statements off Mrs. Wine’s Creating Smiles poster — only none of the phrases he chooses are appropriate to the situation. Trey seems to have difficulty with social cues. Then, there is the scene where he gets in trouble at recess, and has to stand at the wall. For him, that is a relief from the hectic and loud playground. So, he stands facing the brick wall, contemplating each individual brick.

Up until fifth grade, none of Trey’s behaviors or comments have bothered Spider; if anything, he has appreciated the wonderful brain Trey has and the way he can be so focused on a topic for a long period of time. They have been great friends. They play together at home, they walk to school together, they even do projects together. But in fifth grade, other kids start to pay attention to Spider, and he has an opportunity to be part of the “cool” boy group. But it will most likely mean Spider will have to leave Trey behind to be part of this other group.

The rest of the story deals with their separation as friends, and how they both grow a little as individuals. James Preller has also included a character that should make the 100 Cool Teachers in Children’s Literature started by A Year of Reading. Her name is Ms. Lobel, the school librarian in the boys’ school. She is one amazing lady!!!!!!!!! Her perceptiveness and kindness truly know no bounds, and her ability to see things the way Trey does is amazing!

The story concludes in a very satisfying, realistic way, but that’s all I’m giving away because this is a book you need to read. I think that all adults in education, as well as students, need to read this book because it gives a thoughtful, insightful look into the minds of children like Trey. We all encounter them at sometime in our careers, and I hope, like the amazing Ms. Lobel, we can start to look at the “Treys” in our lives differently, instead of just looking at them as being different. There is a huge distinction in that mindset!

Thanks to James Preller for such a wonderful, thought-provoking story!

Fan Mail Wednesday #5

After taking a week off from the grueling schedule of Fan Mail Wednesday, it’s time to get back in the saddle and ride. So let’s turn that big wheel round and round — please imagine a giant hamster wheel in my office, filled with a tumble of letters, as I turn a huge crank — and see what we’ve got.

Vivian from Baltimore, Maryland, writes:

I have read your book, Jigsaw Jones #18: The Case of the Bear Scare. I liked that book. It was a very interesting book. I want to know how you knew so much about bears. Do you think a black bear could come to my backyard?

Thanks for that letter, Vivian. I got the idea for that book when I read in my local newspaper about a bear that had wandered into a suburban neighborhood. Like many writers, I began to ask myself “What if?” questions. (That’s a good tip for any writer, by the way. Ask “What if?” questions — the answers just might become your next story!)

Then the fun part began. For that book I not only researched Australian slang (kids are called “ankle-biters”), but I also had to learn about bears. I started by locating a bear expert named Lou Berchielli, a black bear specialist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. We spoke on the phone and he patiently answered many questions. For example, he told me that bears love bird seed and compost heaps. Because bears are territorial, young males are often kicked out of an area by a larger male and forced to find their own territory. This usually happens in the Spring. Lou told me that bears are also great swimmers, which I didn’t realize. While looking for a new home, these young bears will sometimes get confused, make a wrong turn or two, and end up in the parking lot of a suburban strip mall. It happens all over the country every Spring. I also learned about scat, or bear poop, which is about as fun as research gets. I knew it was the type of info that would appeal to Jigsaw.

To answer your last question, I don’t know if there are many bears in the Baltimore area. It seems like you are more likely to be visited by Edgar Allan Poe’s ghost. I visited Poe’s gravesite when I was last in Baltimore, many moons ago. If there was ever an author who might rise from the grave to take a murky midnight stroll, it would be old Edgar. Hmmm . . . I wonder . . . WHAT IF that really happened? Why would his ghost be haunting the streets? Could the ghost be looking for something, or someone? What if . . . ?


Nice Review

Just passing along a nice review for Six Innings that I found on the web today at a cool site dedicated to children’s books. With nice comments like this, I’m worried that my head might explode.

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My reaction after finishing this short novel for pre-teen and teens, especially who are really into the finer points of baseball playing and the spirit of the game was a tremendous respect for the author. James Preller poured much of his passion for the game into a finely crafted story set in just ONE little league game: 6 innings, character sketches of 12 players of one visiting team, and the framing, soul-searching story of the 13-year-old severely ill ex-ballplayer-turned-announcer…

I am not particularly into baseball: enjoy watching the game once in a while, of course, but do not personally collect memorabilia or statistics as a life-long hobby. This book makes me want to know and learn more about the game, its history and all the psychological aspects of the players and the plays; it also makes me believe that there is a reason for someone, young or old, to be completely lost in the world of sports and get much of their life’s wisdom out of these games.

Preller also has quite a way with words and turn of phrases:

p. 15: “Aaron Foley, short and stocky with a squashed-in face that reminded Sam of an English bulldog, did more than toss his cookies. No Aaron projected his vomit across the room, spewing his insides as if fired from a cannon, a thunderous blast of wet barf splattering onto the tile floor.” p. 16… That’s how Sam and Mike began their friendship, sealed with a simple exchange, a look across a silent (but foul-smelling) distance.

p. 18: (About the five tools of baseball: speed, glove, arm, power, and the ability to hit for average.) Branden Reid, however, posesses a sixth tool, amnesia, the art of forgetting. Baseball is, after all, a game of failure. The only thing that a player can influence is the next play, the next at bat.

p. 22 (this describes the game, but somehow fittingly describes the book as well): “The slow rhythm of the game, a game of accumulation, of patterns, gathering itself toward the finish…” AND what a finish this book has! I felt like I witnessed a historic game after reading the last page of the book (and it isn’t even about the game or the innings or the winners and the losers.)

p. 63: “There’s a squarish, two-story bulding — an overachieving shed, really”

p. 46: On the field, baseball is a game of isolation, nine singular outposts of shared solitude… You are a “team” immediately before and after each play. (This does get repeated on page 132.)

p. 106: Tragedy, the stuff of comedy.

There are a few specific references that will definitely date the book — which is too bad: p. 40: the boys talking about Jessica Simpson and someone listening to the lyrics to a Jay-Z tune.

What’s On My iPod?

I’ve been a huge music fan all my life. As the youngest of seven children, born in 1961, I grew up with an amazing record collection right in my living room, combining the tastes of four older brothers and two older sisters. I still listen to music all the time. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been obsessed with Bob Dylan over the past couple of years. My oldest brother, Neal, was a big fan; I always liked and respected Dylan; but now I am fascinated, reading book after book, listening to the songs over and over again.

Go figure.

In April of 2007, I finally went fully digital with my work computer/iPod setup. The weird thing about an iPod is it keeps track of your listening history. I have precisely 26,198 songs on my iTunes library and I know for a fact that I listened to “Tell Me Why” by Neil Young exactly ten times over the past year, but somehow I’ve heard “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones only once.

Here’s a list of the Top 20 Most Played Songs on the iPod. Not my favorites, not the coolest list I could ever come up with, just what I listened to the most these past fourteen months:

1. Positively 4th Street/Bob Dyan. The greatest kiss-off song ever written, supposedly in response to being jeered at Newport after he went electric. His goodbye to the folk community. “You got a lotta nerve/To say you are my friend . . .

2. Romulus/Sufjan Stevens.

3. Little Martha/The Allman Brothers Band

4. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues/Bob Dylan. If you haven’t heard Nina Simone’s version of this, well, what have you been doing?

5. Lion’s Mane/Iron & Wine. Love this guy, very quiet, almost gothic singer/songwriter.

6. You Still Believe in Me/M. Ward. A pretty, quiet guitar song.

7. For No One/Rickie Lee Jones. Great Beatles cover.

8. Subterranean Homesick Blues/Bob Dylan. I shared a bedroom wall with my oldest brother, Neal, each on opposite sides. This song bled through that wall, night after night, when I was what? five, six, seven years old? I guess it made an impression. Neal passed away in 1993 and my family has felt off-balance ever since, a ship listing to one side. I still can’t listen to Dylan or the Stones or the Talking Heads without thinking of Neal — and that’s a good thing.

9. She Belongs to Me/Bob Dylan

10. Workingman’s Blues/Bob Dylan

11. Tell Me That It Isn’t True/Bob Dylan. His voice kills me on this track, off the “Nashville Skyline” disc.

12. Well-Tempered Clavier/M. Ward

13. King of Carrot Flowers Part 1/Neutral Milk Hotel

14. Changing of the Guards/Patti Smith. A cool cover of a Dylan tune; she nails it.

15. Film/The Bad Plus. A hipster jazz trio covers an electronica song by the Aphex Twin — and it is sublime.

16. To Be Alone with You/Bob Dylan

17. Girls in Their Summer Clothes/Bruce Springsteen. I love that this track doesn’t sound like standard Bruce; I like to see him stretch to learn new tricks.

18. I Lost the Tooth I Lost/Justin Roberts. Along with Ralph’s World and Dan Zanes, Justin Roberts is among my favorite children’s musicians. My Maggie loves this song.

19. Jackson Square/Mason Jennings

20. True Love Travels on a Gravel Road/Nick Lowe

Good Company

A while back I heard from a librarian named Nan Hoekstra, who liked my book, Six Innings. She told me about her blog, anokaberry, where she writes about her favorite children’s books. I recently found the time to check it out, and I liked it so much I added the link to my Mighty Blogroll (see sidebar).

Earlier this month, Nan ran a “Short List” of contenders for the 2009 Anokaberry Award — her own version of the Newberry — and I was shocked and thrilled to see my book in such great company. I’ve pasted the list here to: 1) Share it with you, since it’s a handy reference for great new books; and 2) To show off!

Check it out (personally, I’m excited about that biography about Harper Lee, who wrote one of my favorite books ever, To Kill a Mockingbird):

Beanball by Gene Fehler
Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Chicken Foot Farm by Anne Estevis
Cicada Summer by Andrea Beaty
Comeback Season by Jennifer E. Smith
Deep Down Popular by Phoebe Stone
The Dragon’s Child by Laurence Yep
Facttracker by Jason Carter Eaton
Ghost Letters by Stephen Alter
Go Big or Go Home by Will Hobbs
Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O’Connor
Grow by Juanita Havill
Honeybee: Poems and Short Prose by Naomi Shibab Nye
I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields
Jeremy Cabbage and the Living Museum of Human Oddballs and Quadruped Delights
by David Elliott
Kaline Klattermaster’s Tree House by Haven Kimmel
Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park
Lulu Atlantis and the Quest for True Blue Love by Patricia Martin
Magic Half by Annie Barrows
Mr. Karp’s Last Glass
by Cary Fagan
Penderwick’s on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
Porcupine by Meg Tilly
The Red-Headed Princess: A Novel by Ann Rinaldi
Rex Zero, King of Nothing by Tim Wynne-Jones
Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial by Jen Bryant
Seer of Shadows by Avi
Six Innings by James Preller
Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor
When the Sergeant Came Marching Home by Don Lemna
Where the Steps Where by Andrea Cheng
The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

Fan Mail Wednesday #4

Yes, folks, it’s Fan Mail Wednesday again. Can’t you feel the excitement? Let’s rumble through the big hopper and see what we’ve got . .

Dear Mr Preller:

My name is Curt. My sister Miranda & I would like to know if you will ever make any Jigsaw Jones TV shows? We are both 9 years old, and we really like to read your books. I read them every night, and now my sister does too.

My mom says I never liked to read books, until I tried one of yours. Now I’m hooked!

If you get a chance, we would love to hear from you.


Curt & Miranda

Hi, Curt and Miranda, thanks for your note. I’m glad to hear that my books helped turn you onto reading — that’s like my greatest wish come true. (Actually, my greatest wish was to pitch for the New York Mets, but I guess you can’t have everything.)

As the author of the “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series, I’m in control of the words, the stories. The television business is out of my hands. But I’ve heard many readers comment that Jigsaw should be on television. And I totally agree! Wouldn’t that be cool? Question: should it be cartoon or with real actors? If anybody in television wanted to do it, I’d say four brief words: “Show! Me! The! Money!”

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Be well, and have a great summer!


Books for Boys

A few weeks ago I heard from an old friend — the indefatigable Leanna Landsmann, a woman I had worked with about twenty years ago on an educational project focused on “students at risk.” Leanna is now writing a column that is syndicated by United Features called, “A+ ADVICE: The Inside Scoop on School.” Each column responds to questions sent in by parents. Leanna asked for my thoughts to this question:

My fourth-grade son, Javin, must read five books for the school’s summer reading challenge. The problem is he hates reading. His teacher suggested “graphic novels.” I discovered that they are really comics, those things my teacher took away when I was a kid! He is starting to read them, but they really aren’t “books.” Will these help or hurt him?

Lately there’s a movement afoot about boys reading — or, I should say, the problem of boys not reading. Sometimes I get lumped into that equation, partly, I gather, because I’m an ex-boy myself. (That’s the full extent of my expertise, I assure you.) So I gave Leanna a long, rambling reply — in brief: let Javin read whatever he wants, so long as he is reading! — and, about three weeks later, the column appeared (to read it in full, just click here).

To brag about Leanna for minute: She was previously editor and publisher of Instructor magazine, and president of TIME For Kids. She was inducted into the EdPress Hall of Fame, educational publishing’s highest honor. I mean to say: She totally rocks and it’s amazing she even talks to me.

At age 27, I was a promotion manager at Scholastic and we hired Leanna for a large, important project. It was ridiculous, because I was sort of “in charge” of this great editor, even though I was dumb as a stump compared to her. Leanna kindly played along, did a great job and, on the side, taught me how to do mine. We’ve been friends ever since . . . cheering from the sidelines . . . even if we do let ten years slip by without a hello.