Archive for August 28, 2008

Ten Best Sports Books of the Year

A friend of mine, author Joe Layden, sent along an email last night celebrating the fact that our books were both named by Booklist as “Top 10 Sports Books.” Joe’s amazing book — The Last Great Fight — was named in the Adult category. Six Innings was included in the Youth category.

Senior Editor at Booklist, Keir Graff, opened the article with this comment: “People who aren’t sports fans might assume that sports books aren’t worth their while.”

I guess that is the peril of publishing a hardcover sports book. There are adults who, perhaps for good reasons, won’t take a sports book seriously. But as Jean Feiwel, publisher at Feiwel & Friends, keeps saying, “Sports stories can run deep.” That was our shared goal with Six Innings, both in writing the book and in selling it. This wasn’t yet another color-by-numbers “Lefty at Shortstop” type sports story; it was, hopefully, something deeper. As deep as, um, a real book. Hey, why not? Fortunately for me, I was published by some great people who were committed to this book as literature: Jean, who signed it up (and for the fortuitous story behind that, click away!); Liz Szabla, AKA “The Super Scout,” with her incredible eye for detail, who shaped it; and Rich Deas, art director, who put together the package. It’s a cliche and it sounds trite, but, aw, heck: I could not have done it without them. Not even close.

Here’s the list:

At Gleason’s Gym. By Ted Lewin. Illus. by the author. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $17.95 (9781596432314). Gr. 4–7.

This glorious tribute highlights both the thrilling action of a fight and the deep, intimate history of the Brooklyn gym where “the world works out.”

Hottest Race Cars. By Erin Egan. illus. Enslow, $17.95 (9780766028715). Gr. 4–6.

This title in the Wild Wheels! series showcases the allure that has made racing one of the most popular sports on the planet in an informative and anecdotal fashion, complete with stunning photos of some of the world’s fastest machines.

Jabberwocky. By Lewis Carroll. Illus. by Christopher Myers. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, $15.99 (9781423103721). Gr. 3–5.

Carroll’s classic nonsense poem is brought to life on an urban basketball court, with intensely colored, energetic art in which a lighter-than-air young man challenges the menacing, 20-foot-tall Jabberwock.

Keeping Score. By Linda Sue Park. Clarion, $16 (9780618927999). Gr. 4–7.

Park skillfully melds die-hard fandom with life’s larger struggles in this memorable novel of Maggie, a young Brooklyn Dodgers fan, who knows all too well the familiar mantra “Wait till next year.”

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. By James Sturm. Illus. by Rich Tommaso. Hyperion, $16.99 (9780786839001). Gr. 6–12.

This graphic novel follows a fictional ex–Negro Leaguer, Emmet Wilson, whose brief encounter with Satchel Paige, an iconic force against Jim Crow laws, inspires him as he battles racism in the 1940s South.

Shift. By Jennifer Bradbury. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781416962199). Gr. 7–12.

A cross-country bicycle trek serves as the background of this resonant coming-of-age story of best friends testing the bounds of their friendship and learning how to let go.

Six Innings. By James Preller. Feiwel and Friends, $16.95 (9780312367633). Gr. 5–8.

The strategies and surprises of a championship Little League game form the backbone of this action-packed story marked by well-rounded characterizations, from bench clown to slugger to game announcer.

Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali. By Charles R. Smith. Illus. by Bryan Collier. Candlewick, $19.99 (9780763616922). Gr. 5–8.

Collier’s explosive artwork is coupled with 12 rhyming poems that capture the larger-than-life personality of Muhammad Ali and echo those peculiar, taunting rhymes so powerfully ingrained in our boxing, and cultural, lore.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. By Kadir Nelson. Illus. by the author. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, $18.99 (9780786808328). Gr. 5–8.

Told from an insider’s point of view and featuring unforgettable portraits of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and many more, Nelson’s tribute to the men whose determination and skill paved the way to breaking the color barrier in baseball is a towering achievement.

Young Pelé: Soccer’s First Star. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illus. by James Ransome. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $16.99 (9780375835995). K–Gr. 3.

Just as exciting as the on-the-field exploits of soccer’s greatest star learning to master the game is the story of his poverty-stricken childhood in Brazil.

Spider Review

It’s a quiet time of year, isn’t it? That lull before the shift into Fall and the coming school season. People are on vacation or shopping for school supplies, cleaning out closets, pulling out old sweaters. Nobody seems to be working very hard. And in this desultory space, my new book, Along Came Spider, quietly squeezes onto the shelves. There’s not been much buzz, but, hey, we’ll attribute that to the transitory nature of the season.

Even so, I found a little review by Monica Young in the Winston-Salem Journal, from an article titled, “Reading Out the Sad End of Summer.

Spider Stevens has accepted next-door neighbor Trey Cooper’s eccentricities since they began playing together in preschool. But now that fifth grade is here, Trey’s odd behavior embarrasses Spider, who suggests to Trey that they hang out only at home.

Trey, who seems autistic, although this is never stated in the book, is thrown off-balance at Spider’s suggestion that he make some new friends. However, Trey bravely tries to expand his horizons. This would make a fabulous read-aloud for elementary classrooms. Both Spider’s and Trey’s viewpoints are conveyed well, providing an excellent springboard for discussion on compassion and true friendship.

I’m grateful for the point made in that last sentence, because I do feel this is a “talking book,” one that in the hands of a good teacher could be a source of lively discussion in the classroom.

Song of the Week

A reader, now forever known as The Super Scout, forwarded this clip to me. I love it on so many levels it’s ridiculous. You have to give it a minute for the full effect to register. “Probiotics changed the way I feel now!”

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For the curious, here’s the real lyrics as written by Lennon & McCartney. Cheers!

What would you think if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song
And I’ll try not to sing out of key.

Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends

What do I do when my love is away
(Does it worry you to be alone?)
How do I feel by the end of the day,
(Are you sad because you’re on your own?)

No, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends

Do you need anybody
I need somebody to love
Could it be anybody
I want somebody to love.

Would you believe in a love at first sight
Yes, I’m certain that it happens all the time
What do you see when you turn out the light
I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine,

Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends

Do you need anybody
I just need someone to love
Could it be anybody
I want somebody to love.

Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
With a little help from my friends.

Raymond Chandler: An Appreciation

“The people who really like my books are those who like them in spite of their being mysteries, not because of.” — Raymond Chandler

I first discovered Raymond Chandler’s books during the Reagan administration. I had a great English teacher at college in Oneonta, Pat Meanor, who directed me to Chandler’s writing. In particular, the concreteness, the clear-eyed specificity of it. At the same time, I was an English major in college, studying all the high-flying literary masters. Raymond Chandler, a writer of hard-boiled detective fiction, did not fit into that mold. I was slogging through Joyce’s Ulysses. I was interested in poetry and William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman. Wasn’t Chandler beneath the purview of an aspiring college student, full of hopes and dreams and himself?

But then I read the books. And the selected letters. Two, three, fours time each. When I started writing the Jigsaw Jones series in the late 90’s, Chandler was my inspiration and guiding light. I loved his zip and verve, his attention to detail, the crisp patter, outrageous similes, and, yes, the humor. This guy was funny. He was also, I would contend, one of the great American stylists of the 20th century.

When I own a copy of a book — when it’s not borrowed from the library — I usually read with a pen in my hand. I mark passages, make stars and check marks, underline sentences, jot notes. I love a marked-up book. I think books should be scribbled in, possessed. Today I can pick up anything by Chandler and find great, muscular sentences, surprising observations, unexpected beauty or laugh-out-loud lines. Writing Jigsaw, I’d sometimes intentionally echo moments from Chandler’s books. For example, my Bigs Maloney character stood in for Chandler’s Moose Malloy (Farewell, My Lovely). Chandler described Moose this way: “He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.” Jigsaw, sizing up Bigs Maloney, had a similar observation: “Bigs was the roughest, toughest kid in second grade — but not taller than a grizzly bear and not wider than a soda machine.” That was from Jigsaw Jones #8: The Great Sled Race (out of print, it seems). An aside: Big Maloney was also a variant on Bugs Meany, the neighborhood weasel from Donald Sobel’s “Encyclopedia Brown” books.

To me, that was a tribute, a tip of the hat, and if any reader noticed, I never heard about it.

While Chandler was a master of the one-liner, he could also write some amazing descriptive passages, filled with concrete details (as opposed to purple imagery), yet always reflecting the internal life of the narrator. Here’s two I found, just skimming:

We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.

Here’s how he opens The Big Sleep:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.

There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon Packard convertible. Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs. Beyond them a large greenhouse with a domed roof. Then more trees and beyond everything the solid, uneven, comfortable line of the foothills.

I used that set-up in Jigsaw Jones #19: The Case of the Missing Key, when Jigsaw calls on the richest kid in town. (By the way, it looks like Scholastic let this book go out of print. So sad.) I wrote on page 3:

That was the first time I laid eyes on Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III. He was shorter than me, though he stood as straight as a U.S. Marine. Reginald was dressed in crisp khakis and a sweater vest over a button-down shirt. He wore a tidy bow tie and his slick black hair was held in place by gooey gel. With his right pinky, Reginald pushed a pair of round eyeglasses from the tip of his nose closer to his face.

He eyed me with all the warmth of a sick goldfish. “And you might be . . . ?”

“I might be Jigsaw Jones,” I answered. “At least that’s the name on the card.”

I handed him my business card.

And later, in the same scene, there’s that spirit of Chandler running through my lines:

“I see you’re a wiseguy,” he observed.

“Only when I need to be,” I replied. “Look, Reginald Pinkerton Armitage the Third. You told me on the phone that it was an emergency. I dropped everything, hopped on my bike, and rode all the way out here. Up three big hills, against the wind.” I paused, a little weary. “You got any grape juice?”

“Grape juice?”

“How about just a few grapes?” I suggested. “I’ll stomp on ‘em myself.”

This time, Reginald smiled. A real, honest-to-goodness smile. “All right, then. I’ll instruct Madge to prepare refreshments. You’re funny, Jones. I am beginning to like you.”

“I’m beginning to like myself, too,” I mumbled. “Lead the way, Reginald. I’ll tag along behind.”

Here’s some other random Chandler lines, grabbed as I flip through my worn copy of The Big Sleep. Reading him now, I keep thinking the same thing, The guy was just so entertaining. He couldn’t write plots to save his life, in truth, didn’t really care about them, but what a lively writer. It was never about plot with Chandler. It was always scene, effect, character, moments. That’s how I always thought of Jigsaw, too. I wasn’t writing mysteries, per say, I was writing Entertainments. I wanted the books to be fun. Look out below for more Chandler:

“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.

“I didn’t mean to be.”

Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.


A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.


[Marlowe says]: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”


I sat there and poisoned myself with cigarette smoke and listened to the rain and thought about it.


Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.


“Let’s take a little walk,” I said. “Let’s take a nice little walk.”

We took a little walk.


Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.


Seaward a few gulls wheeled and swooped over something in the surf and far out a white yacht looked as if it was hanging in the sky.


“You can call me Vivian.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Regan.”


“Jesus,” he said and licked his lower lip. His face had turned white as paper when I mentioned Eddie Mars. His mouth drooped open and his cigarette hung to the corner of it by some magic, as if it had grown there. “Aw, you’re kidding me,” he said at last, with the sort of smile an operating room sees.

“All right. I’m kidding you.”


From Farewell, My Lovely:

It was a nice walk if you liked grunting.


She was as cute as a washtub.


I sat down and rolled a cigarette around in my fingers and waited. She either knew something or she didn’t. If she knew anything, she either would tell me or she wouldn’t. It was that simple.


We went on staring at each other. It didn’t get either of us anywhere. We both had done too much of it in our lives to expect miracles.


“That so?” Not a flicker of an eye. Not a movement of a muscle. I might as well have been talking to a turtle.


I pushed the bell. It rang somewhere near by but nothing happened. I rang it again. The same nothing happened.


Then she straightened the bills out on the desk and put one on top of the other and pushed them across. Very slowly, very sadly, as if she was drowning a favorite kitten.


She hesitated and there was something behind her eyes she tried not to have there.

Sorry, I got carried away there with the reading and the typing. Man, now I feel bad. I ripped off Chandler left and right (and I wasn’t alone, though we prefer to call it “influenced by”) when doing the Jigsaw Jones books. I’m still stealing from him, mostly because I think I ingested him, swallowed his books whole. If Chandler wasn’t dead, and I wasn’t broke, I’d send him a royalty check.

Nah, not really.

Note: If you enjoyed the selected quotes above, click here for more. And if you liked this appreciation — the third in a continuing series — just click the links for thoughts on other literary heroes, William Steig and Arnold Lobel.

Fan Mail Wednesday #10

Wow, these Wednesdays sure do creep up on a guy? Here I am, literally minding my own business, when — DANG — up comes another Fan Mail Wednesday banging me upside the head. Whap, whap, whap.

Amazingly, fan mail-wise, I had a few choices this week. But still, nothing much from kids. I guess they are all at camp or something. Anyway, I’m not getting many questions to answer. So I apologize. We’ll just have to slog on in the wilderness until I receive some mail from actual young readers.

That said: Part of my thinking with this blog was to take it one day at a time, and try to reflect the day-to-day life of a “real, live” writer: what feeds it, what flows out, what comes back, what happens. You know, the grim reality of my sad existence on this scorched and bitter Earth. So, here’s an email I just received. It’s a kind note from the most important adult reviewing population out there, that’s right, a letter from the front lines — from an actual classroom teacher!

Dear Mr. James Preller,

Hello. I am a fifth grade teacher in New York City. I just finished reading your book “Along Came Spider.” I really enjoyed the book and am looking forward tousing it for a read aloud in the upcoming school year. I am always on the look out for new and interesting books and yours is both. I greatly appreciate that you went into classrooms and observed. It makes the characters and the setting much more genuine. The fact that the children keep writers notebooks and conference with the teacher makes the experience authentic for the reader and I know that my students will be able to relate. The character of Trey is very well crafted, you definitely researched behavior associated with Aspergers and Autism and it is reflected in the intelligent and observant nature of Trey. I want to compliment you on finding a way to familiarize students with the behaviors without making it something completely strange and odd. It is important that the developing generation be as familiar with the behaviors as educators have come to be. Ava is also a truly enjoyable and straight forward character. I always look for who the author has chosen to be the conscience or voice of reason in a book. It is rarely the main character otherwise there would be no drama or conflict. In the best written books, it is the voice that comes from the side. The one you almost ignore until they say what needs to be said. I thought the part where she told spider she thought he was Trey’s friend… her mistake, Trey is his friend was that small smart moment that teaches the reader what the author wants to say.

Congratulations on a well-written book that I am sure will be enjoyed by many readers in the years to come. Thank you.


I wrote back:

Robyn, please send me a mailing address, because you are this week’s lucky winner! I have a garage full of Ultra SilverSteel Kenmore Freestanding Gas Ranges — with 12,000 BTU power burners, an extra large window, and easy-to-clean cooktop features — and I’m going to ship one to your house just as soon as I can locate my cousin Earl, buy him a fresh case of Rolling Rock, and gas-up his pickup truck!

Congratulations. And look for Earl’s pickup truck in your driveway sometime during the next two weeks.


Okay, for real, that’s not what I wrote to Robyn. What I replied was personal and none of your business. But I just love the idea of sending my blog readers free home appliances. Imagine Earl’s battered, mustard-colored pickup truck pulling up to the house: “Robyn, honey? You better get on out here double-quick. There’s a delivery man here named Earl and he’s got some papers for you to sign.” Sigh, it’s my great longing. I want to be the only children’s author who gives away Kenmore Gas Ranges. Is that too much to ask? A fella can dream, can’t he? Otherwise, I mean, why write? Why be in this business at all?


On a whim, I purchased this shirt for my wife the other day. Fed up and fired up, she’s all about staying proud and saying it out loud, even if the neighbors don’t agree.

And to that, I add this essential viewing:

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Poem for Craig

I wrote this poem when my great pal, Craig Walker, passed away in the summer of 2007. I was on vacation in the Adirondacks when I heard, and I carried those feelings for the rest of the week. In many respects, it was probably the best circumstance for me. We stayed in a cabin on a quiet lake, took long hikes and solitary kayak trips, built fires, read books, breathed deep. And while there, shaken by the news, I wrote this poem. It’s been stuck in my computer ever since. Well, we recently passed the first anniversary of Craig’s death and I still find myself “trying to remember everything.”


for D. Craig Walker

I stopped sleeping through the night
after I got the message from Holly,
“Call me,” and I knew

I am awake in the Adirondacks
a pulsing dark pushes through the porch screens
and I’m trying to remember


out on the water there is comfort
the dip of a paddle in the lake
like two fingers in holy water
the presence of something we can’t name

you once said the best thing Mark Twain
ever did was to get Huck out on the water
that whole symbolic spiritual/psychological everyplace
and it is here I find myself on the sixth morning
now that I’ve grown accustomed to this new loss
my body adjusted to the weight of it, the heft of it,
the heave-ho of hauling around a heavy heart

I come upon a Great Blue Heron
the solitary predator at the edge of the marsh
prowling the muck, I drift very close
its physical shape I see as a musical note
how the green legs collapse like folding chairs
the S of the neck, the plumed head cockeyed
the Great Blue drives a spear into the water
comes up with a fish crosswise & swallows
I push away at last, return to the cabin
knowing I’ll see you again in my sleep


you should have become a wise old man
you should have hung around
it is all we ever craved from you,
more time, we could never get enough
of you

with you it was the pleasure of good conversation
as simple as that, the fine art of shooting the shit
‘till the shit was shot and the cigarettes smoked
the uncanny prolonged aerial back-and-forthness of it
like a game of catch — the ball just flew!
as Roger Angell writes, “never touching the ground”


and so we set out on our final night
my daughter my wife and I
we three on slender craft & crazy hope
to find again the Great Blue
on the vast impossible lake
we paddle out

I want them to feel what I can’t explain
the near clarity of that wild creature
but we turn back,
the lateness of the hour
the press of things not yet done,
the coming dark

on our return
it swoops overhead
hugs the shore
& alights not fifty yards away
like an honor bestowed
a gift offered
one last chance

and so softly we narrow the distance
draw closer
but something in its eye flickers
a movement, the wind kicking up
perhaps a distant calling, who knows,
and it rises again
on those great gray wings
aloft & gone & full of grace
and we try to remember

Olympic Pixie Packs Punch

If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you probably know Alicia Sacramone from the U.S. Gymnastic team. There’s a 15-second video flying around the web these days that you’ve got to see. Twice. I don’t know any of the backstory, though it seems pretty obvious: “Go on, hit Hulk. One free shot. Hulk be fine.”

File that under: Bad Ideas.

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Jigsaw Jones . . . the Musical?!

One of the amazing things about sending books out into the world is that unexpected things bounce back. For example, I got a call the other day from an affable fellow named Gary Blackman. He is the co-founder and artistic director of ArtsPower, a touring theater group that puts on musicals for young audiences — oftentimes, school groups — based on popular children’s books. They’ve done adaptations based on the works of Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, E.L. Konigsburg, Patricia Reilly Giff, and more.

And now they intend to create a musical loosely based on Jigsaw Jones #12: The Case of the Class Clown. Isn’t that cool? Yeah, I thought so, too. It won’t hit stages until 2010, but it is a strange little blip I can look forward to. I can’t imagine what that will feel like, sitting in the audience, watching a musical based on a book I wrote. Naturally, I shall endeavor to find a more posh class of friends asap, while I study up on all those fancy theatrical terms, such as “break a leg,” “downstage,” and “proscenium,” which I’m pretty sure means, “high forehead.”

Exit: Stage Left. To applause!

Kirkus Reviews Spider

Here’s what Kirkus Reviews had to say about Along Came Spider:

Spider Stevens and Trey Cooper have lived next door to each other their entire lives and have been best friends throughout their years at Spiro Agnew Elementary School. Trey has a type of autism that seems to accentuate the worst traits of ADHD and OCD. He has poor self-control, peculiar habits and awkward social skills. In fifth grade, Trey’s obvious eccentricities, once acceptable and even endearing, are now a liability, and Trey’s peers now regard him as weird and an outcast. This puts Spider in the difficult position of having to choose whether to remain loyal to his oldest friend or to abandon him to join the ranks of the popular kids. Preller adeptly portrays the psychological and social dynamics of this age group, and Trey is realistic and sympathetic as a misfit, if not as memorable as Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza or Jerry Spinelli’s David Zinkoff. The pressures Spider feels from his peers to belong and conform will resonate with middle-grade readers

I don’t know, reviews are so weird. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with this review, though naturally is doesn’t inspire me to do the Dance of Joy. The Spinelli/Zinkoff reference is from the book, Loser, btw, which several people told me to read when I first discussed Spider with them. The problem is, though I hugely respect Spinelli — first book, age 41! — I find it’s distinctly unhelpful to read another author’s take on a similar topic. It’s paralyzing. There are many times when I use books as sources of inspiration, but when I’m deep into writing, I stay far away from any material that might be close to what I’m doing.

One other thing about that word, autism. Trey Cooper is never diagnosed in the book. I never said that he is autistic, intentionally. I did that for several reasons, primarily because I don’t think that kids relate to each other that way. If somebody makes another child angry or annoyed, a typical eleven-year-old isn’t going to think, “Oh, his mother is an alcoholic,” or, “That’s cool, he’s got OCD.” The response is more direct and immediate. The second reason is that I’m not qualified to put a medical label on Trey, though I gave him many traits common with the vast array of characteristics that fall under Spectrum Disorders. Lastly, one aspect of the book is getting away from labels (jock, geek, brainiac, weirdo, whatever), and of trying to see the individual underneath, i.e., walking a mile in someone else’s sneakers.