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.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

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!