Archive for July 30, 2008

Fan Mail Wednesday #8

Here’s an unusual piece of email I received the other day:

Dear Mr. Preller:

My best friend has been reading your Jigsaw Jones series and she loves them. She is 60 years old but she likes to read juvenile mystery stories and she thinks that your JJ series is fantastic. She saw on your website that you are not going to write anymore books in this series and she was so disappointed as she has now read them all. She does not currently have an e-mail system so she asked that I write and thank you for these books and to tell you how much she loves them. She hopes that you will reconsider and write another one or two more in this series.

Thanks for that great email. This is one of those Bad News/Good News things, and I’ve been trying (uncharacteristically) to focus on the positive these days. “The glass is half full — it’s half full, I tell ya!” The truth is, my publisher, Scholastic, is simply not interested in doing any more “Jigsaw Jones” books. A business decision. I love those books, but sales have always been a disappointment to Scholastic. Yet somehow, despite a lack of marketing support, the series succeeded enough to reach more than 30 titles. I’d love to see the first 8 or 12 re-released with new covers — and this time, actually promoted in trade — but I suspect I’m alone in that dream. I believe in my heart that series could have been so much more popular.

That said, some of the best things that are happening for me now are a direct result of my NOT writing Jigsaw Jones. With every crisis comes opportunity, or something like that. So I’ve been writing other things — and mostly with a great new publisher (Feiwel & Friends). I honestly think my best work is just beginning to pour out. And I can’t wait for the release of Along Came Spider, due out any week now.

Thanks for writing, sending those kind words to me. They mean a lot.


Is Google Making Us Stoopid?

I just read a great article in The Atlantic that has stirred up some passionate, thoughtful debate on the internet. The article was written by Nicholas Carr and explores — in very human, accessible terms — “what the internet is doing to our brains.” Or, as one observer put it: This-is-your-brain-on-the-internet.

Here’s the link to the full piece. I strongly recommend you check it out.

A brief taste:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)


Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

In The Sunday New York Times, there was a front-page piece on a similar theme: “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” It’s not that younger people aren’t reading, it’s that they are using the internet so much more, and books far less, to the point where the nature of reading itself has shifted. Some feel that the internet is the enemy of reading — a danger, a threat — while others are more optimistic.

What is lost? What is gained?

I don’t think anyone knows the answers, but something significant has changed. I suppose the publishing business is about to undergo the same kind of huge tidal shift that’s been ongoing in the music business, where all the old models of commerce no longer work, and where new delivery systems seem to alter the very nature of the content itself (and certainly the economics of art, and the survival, gulp, of artists).

Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind these days. Read and enjoy and, yes, comment if you wish.

Lastly, here’s another brief article, this one from Jim Trelease (of The Read-Aloud Handbook fame), who states “the news is far from gloom and doom.” He’s all about turning lemons into lemonade.

Final Comment: Obviously, I LOVE BOOKS. But maybe just as obviously, I LOVE THE INTERNET, TOO. Look at what this blog post accomplishes, and how it functions, how it delivers content in a choose-your-own-path, non-linear way. There are links on top of links, bringing the reader to direct source material, and live reader responses, and other blogs, all with their own myriad links for the reader to explore, in a flash that no book can possibly match. The Information Super Highway, Baby. Beep-beep!

Song of the Week

I’m loving the song “Always a Friend” by the critically-acclaimed, criminally-overlooked songwriter, Alejandro Escovedo. In this clip, he joins Bruce Springsteen onstage — a great gesture by Bruce, bringing Escovedo into the spotlight — and the joy is palpable. “Nobody gets hurt . . . nah, no . . . nobody gets hurt.”

This is a guy I’ve seen in half-empty bars, playing to 35 rapt listeners. It’s cool to see him here on the big stage, playing to 15,000, with the same passion and commitment to the craft.

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Boy Plays Ball

I wasn’t going to blog today, but a friend in the Bay Area — don’t dare call it “Frisco” — sent along a link to an article. She said it reminded her of me. The article was written by Carl Steward and appeared in The Oakland Tribune.

It begins:

THE DEGREE to which a boy can love the game of baseball is incalculable. But in the emotionally searing story of Hudson Davis, we gain some idea. ß The 12-year-old from Lafayette is nearing the completion of a Little League season in which he helped pitch and hit his team to first place and was named to his league’s all-star squad. That would be a distinguished achievement for any youngster.

What’s especially remarkable about Hudson is that he did all that while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for a malignant brain tumor discovered long before his season started. Nothing was going to stop Hudson from playing baseball. His persistence inspired his parents, coaches, friends, teammates and even Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

For Hudson, the motivation was simple. He wanted to play baseball.

“The only time you saw a smile on the kid’s face was when he was on the baseball field,” said Greg Davis, Hudson’s father. “It was the only time he could really escape all the things that were happening to him. He’s been through hell and back with all the stuff he’s been through. But playing baseball definitely helped him get through it.”

To read the full story, click here.

To me, yes, it absolutely resonates in all the essentials with my son’s experience, which helped inspired parts of Six Innings. Baseball took on an out-sized importance in our lives. And while it’s nice that Hudson was able to play well, my Nick was not as fortunate. He struggled. But as I kept reminding myself while Nick played in his weakened state: The victory is in the playing. As parents, we tend to get too caught up in home runs and wins, and sometimes fail to see the importance of simply being on a team, jogging out between the white lines, and for an hour or two endeavoring to lose one’s self in a game. Just being a boy amongst other boys. Win or lose, hit a homer or strike out.

I’ve come to believe that most boys of a certain age (let’s say, oh, 10-14) are overwhelmingly social animals; they desperately want to run with the pack, and that instinct increases exponentially when something occurs to single them out, to make them different in some way. During those times, the isolated child longs to fit in, longs to be-long. And what better way than to wear the same laundry? Put on the same shirt, pants, and hat. The uniform of belonging, dress like everybody else. Then they go out on the grass, play a game, and win or lose together.

I wrote about this same thing — without cancer, and without baseball — in my new book, Along Came Spider (Scholastic, Fall ’08). And in a different way, it pops up again in another book, Bystander (Feiwel & Friends, Fall ’09), which I’m just now revising. One book deals with spectrum disorders, another addresses bullying in a middle school. But they all share that same undercurrent: boys struggling to belong, and the tension they sometimes feel when faced with the need to stand alone as an individual.

Coach Lapinski

Coach Lapinski

Here’s a piece of art by Matthew Cordell from our upcoming picture book, Mighty Casey (March, Feiwel & Friends). It’s a rhyming story inspired by Ernest Thayer’s “Casey At the Bat,” borrowing the classic poem’s rhythm and cadence, but relocated to a pee-wee Little League team that can’t do anything right. Matthew’s comic illustrations make it all work. In my opinion, he’s a huge talent — with a great sensibility — just beginning to tap into his potential. If he were available on the New York Stock Exchange, I’d be all in. Ah, to be young and so full of promise.

I wanted to share this piece because I identify with the somewhat bedraggled Coach Lapinski. I’ve spent much of the past three weeks coaching thirteen boys on an eight-year-old All-Star team. We played nine games in two tournaments; over a stretch of twenty-four days, we practiced or played games on eighteen days. During the open days, it rained . . . or I tried to cut my lawn . . . or tried to reacquaint myself with my enduring wife, Lisa. But still: A great time was had by all. And yes, I’m glad it’s over.

Back to Matthew: He’s got a cool blog — such a friendly tone to it, with openness, wit, and charm. Actually, come to think of it, I’m afraid I have a Man Crush on the guy!

Oh, yeah: I love the sound effects that Matthew drew into the illustration. Tock! Fop! Ting! It reminds me of a childhod favorite from Mad Magazine, the singular Don Martin. His illustrations always had the greatest sounds. Frak! Boimp!

For Mets Fans Only II

There’s a guy on the world wide web who specializes in imitating batting stances of famous and not-so-famous baseball players from every team in the MLB.

Why doesn’t this information surprise you?

Here’s one such clip featuring New York Mets, past and present, as recreated by the one, the only, “Batting Stance Guy.” I’d bet a LOT of boys did this in their youth — I sure did — standing there with a whiffle ball bat in hand, pretending to be Carl Yastrzemski. I also love the friendship that’s evidenced in this video, the two guys off camera who are filming their hilarious buddy, giggling softly at the friend who always finds a way to make them laugh. Good times, good times.

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Getting Crowded, Getting Press

Okay, people, you are all going to have to take a step back — squeeze in, please — we’ve got to make room in the blogosphere for one more author. I know it’s tight, but I’m pretty sure this is the last one. That’s right, Tony Abbott (“Secrets of Droon” series, Kringle, Firegirl, The Postcard), has finally started up his own blog. I look forward to reading it, because Tony is a smart, talented guy who has a world of experience in children’s books. And he’s funny, too. It’ll be nice to hang out with him a little bit, here in the bloggy world.

You can check out Tony’s blog right here.

In other news, my local paper, The Times-Union, did a Sunday feature piece on me after eighteen years under the Cone of Silence. Here’s the link which, fortunately, does not include photographs. I always find this sort of publicity to be embarrassing and awkward — a necessary evil — but I admit that the writer, Mike Lisi, did a nice job and somehow kept me from coming off as a complete idiot. No small thing, that.

Fan Mail Wednesday #7

The Irish have an expression, “Flowers for the living.” Basically: You don’t have to wait for somebody to die before you say something nice about him, or her. It’s nice to be on the receiving end of the sentiment. Here’s a note I received from a reader named Kelly:

Dear Mr. Preller,

I just finished reading Six Innings and wanted to compliment you on a fine book. I am a retired elementary school teacher and children’s librarian, and I try to keep up with the latest juvenile books even though I don’t have much kid-contact any more. Six Innings is a wonderful read for adults, too, with lots of great nostalgia, but what I particularly admired about the book was the restraint shown in presenting the characters. We know a lot about each one through subtle hints and bits of dialogue. You didn’t beat us over the head telling us how each one feels–you just show us through their actions and thoughts. The old writing dictum “Show, don’t tell” was well-used here. I really cared about the characters. I am not a huge baseball fan–(other than following the Rockies to the World Series last year–I live in Colorado.)—but the suspense you brought to the little league game was great. Thanks for a good read.

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Sometimes people will ask me if I like being an author. If it’s a “fun job.” I don’t know about that, exactly. Fun? Hmmm. But when I think of (rare) letters like the above, or complimentary notes I’ve received from parents, or simply a comment from a child telling me I wrote The Best Book in the World! — when I think of the rewards, of how much this job gives back — then it’s easy to say, “Yeah, I do like it. I really do.”

A Day in the Life

I just read about this in Rolling Stone and had to track it down on youtube. For the first time ever, Paul McCartney played the song “A Day in the LIfe” live in concert. It was especially significant because that’s really John’s song, and Paul had to sing John’s part, while Yoko Ono sat beaming in the audience. Just a cool rock-n-roll moment.

Then I remembered something: “A Day in the Life” is the subtitle to my book, Six Innings, and yes, that was a conscious act of appreciation. I’ve often thrown Beatles references in my books: characters who live on Penny Lane or Abbey Road, or the old lady down the block named Mrs. Eleanor Rigby. I once even started a Jigsaw Jones book (#5, The Case of the Stolen Baseball Cards), with these borrowed lines:

I got up. I got out of bed. I dragged a comb across my head.

(Gee, I hope I don’t get sued for that!) I doubt that many readers ever get the references, but I figure there’s some parents out there having a quiet chuckle, like when we watch Bugs Bunny do a Groucho Marx impression.

Anyway, enjoy the video!

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Spider on the Blogs!

A fresh copy of my upcoming book, Along Came Spider (Scholastic, August), arrived in the mail last week. That’s a righteous moment for any author/illustrator: the first book off the presses! And always it’s the same story. Your editor tells you how she could only get one copy, purloined off somebody in marketing, but there’s surely more somewhere in the warehouse, and pretty soon (maybe) they’ll find them.

And nothing happens for a few weeks, while you cling to your sole copy of the book, holding it out to friends for a brief sniff and greedily pulling it back, like Gollum and his precious ring.

On the cyberfront, Spider has gotten a couple of reviews from blogs. So far, so good. I think the reviewers are right in that it’s a simply-written story about complex feelings. I guess it’s noteworthy in the sense that these kinds of stories — basically: friendship under duress — are more commonly written about girls, as if boys suffered none of these emotional/ethical conflicts, as if, in fact, boys had no interior lives at all. (We just like trucks, right? And noises that go BOOM.)

They are also correct in that I didn’t do anything flashy with the writing. It’s funny, I feel like my entire post-college writing career has been a long process of learning how to get out of the way. Or, that is, un-learning much what they taught me in college! I’ve come to increasingly admire restraint, simplicity and austerity, sentences like, oh, “A minute later he was snoring” (Steig, Doctor De Soto). Unadorned, absent of any look-at-how-clever-I-am writing. I suppose I’m sensitive to this aspect of writing because, as a particular brand of male ego, I’m so vulnerable to it. When I’m at my worst, I gild the lily. So I’ve come to perceive that trait as the Enemy Within, the danger I need to purge against: overwriting, AKA, showing off. That’s where revision comes in, pulling the purple prose off the bone, like picking cotton candy off the cardboard cylinder.

Anyway, here’s some links and money quotes from the reviews:

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From Ignacio Guerra at Alan Online:

James Preller delves into the hostile and confusing world of adolescence and illuminates how yearning for acceptance and popularity can sometimes strain a friendship. This exposé on the complicated social dynamics of school is a fascinating joy to read with excellent readability and flow!

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From Nan Hoekstra at Anokaberry:

Preller tells an everyday story with eloquence and empathetic grace. These ordinary (amazing) kids are growing up — daily making their own way, raised by parents, guided by teachers and events. Often in groups, always alone, trying to figure themselves and others out. No under or overstated angst here, the author just tells us about it, and lets the characters speak . . . Thanks James Preller, for (another) outstanding contribution to literature for precious children.

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By the way, I’m amazed by book reviewers. How do they read so much?! You look at Nan’s site, or so many others, and it’s like, “Do they just read all the time? When do they eat?” I am genuinely grateful, and somewhat awed.