Archive for October 30, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Every family has its own holiday traditions. When I was growing up on Long Island, we helped my father build a scarecrow every Halloween. It wasn’t anything elaborate, just two lengths of wood hammered together crosswise, but as kids we just wouldn’t feel right without that scarecrow on the front lawn. It was a constant in the constellation of childhood, a fixed star. Thanks to the passage of time, the sediment of sentiment, I love that memory more each year. So I’ve kept that tradition alive with my own family.

We had to get him dressed. Nobody wants to see a naked scarecrow.

At our house, every scarecrow needs a pumpkin head. We accept no substitutes.

We fit it, nice and snug, onto his 2″ by 4″ neck. Then plant him and stuff him with leaves.

Scary, right?

That’s Nick on the right. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it! (Wonka reference.)

Of course, we had to carve pumpkins. Lisa leads that effort. She relishes new challenges. But not me. I like to do the exact same thing year after year. That makes me either an iron-willed traditionalist (AKA, “Old School”) or incredibly dull. Gavin and I went with the classic look (left); Maggie and Lisa created the cat (center), earning first prize; and Nick carved a mean Jack-O-Lantern (right) with eyebrows, which I think is just wrong. Everybody knows that Jack-O-Lanterns don’t have eyebrows. Duh!


Nooooo, wise guys, I didn’t decide to be some forlorn 70’s kid for Halloween.

That’s my actual life we’re looking at. Don’t I look thrilled? I lived with that lamp, that wallpaper, those wide lapels in Wantagh, Long Island. Analyzing the photo further, you get a hint of the black-and-white cushioned chair against the backdrop of that wallpaper. Just imagine living with that visual collision of patterns . . . all the time. Welcome to my world.

Actually, these photos are the result of more housekeeping. I finally fixed some broken links on my BIO page. Here’s my whole family, all seven of us, from a slightly earlier time: I’m the baby, up front and left-of-center. Which is still true today.

My oldest brother, Neal, went off to Princeton around that time, and came back a long-haired freak! My next oldest, Billy, dropped out of college and was soon drafted into Vietnam. He returned a short-haired freak — but the important thing was that he returned. Times changed pretty fast during The Nixon Era. I always wanted to set a book in that period, 1969-70, my year of small miracles. Not a memoir, but fiction grounded in that time period. When my mother woke me early one morning to watch a grainy television picture of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon; and even more amazing, when I saw the Mets take Game Five of the World Series. Cleon Jones caught that final out, dropped down to one knee, squeezed it tight. And somehow, through that wild season, we had survived.

By the way, this is my 100th post!

The Reading Zone Reviews Six Innings

I’ve been building and organizing my links lately — there’s so much great stuff out there, and I want my blog to “only connect” — so I clicked on The Reading Zone to see what’s what. And lo! There’s a review of Six Innings right there on the front page. It’s always interesting when a reviewer admits to not liking baseball, and then watching how they handle that. Here’s the conclusion of the review:

This is a story that baseball fans, especially boys, will flock to. The game is described in detail, which may turn off some non-sports fans, but you can tell that James Preller poured his own passion for baseball into the story. I am looking forward to introducing it into my classroom library because many of my boys play Little League and I know they will connect with this story. However, this is also a story about friendship, family, and the pressures that kids deal with. I can see some of my girls connecting to these aspects of the book and also enjoying the story.

I didn’t know anything about the Cybil Awards, so I clicked away. Guess what? It’s the “premier Web awards for children’s literature.” Actually, the site is pretty great and I’ve added it to our growing sidebar.

This whole business of “learning-something-new-every-day” can be pretty distracting. At some point I’m just going to stop. I’m going to get myself a rocking chair. And I’m going to find a big wraparound front porch (don’t have one, dream of one). And I’m going to put a blanket on my lap, grab a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and spew. I’ve always wanted to be that Old Man. Cranky, irascible, dyspeptic, holding forth on how we’re all going to hell in a hand basket (my mother’s phrase). I don’t know why. It just seems like fun.

I like the idea of performing roles, fulfilling expectations. For example: Dad is food shopping. Uh-oh. He’s going to come back with something delicious that’s bad for us, some not-exactly-food-stuff that Mom would never, ever buy. It becomes an obligation. A familiar dance. A kind of joy. And I throw the Cap’n Crunch into the cart.

Artwork from

Fan Mail Wednesday #18

Sometimes I receive amazing letters from classroom teachers. And boy, I love amazing letters from teachers!

Mr. Preller,
Thanks so much for writing Along Came Spider. I’ve just finished it as a read aloud with my 4th and 5th graders. I selected it because I have a student who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s. I thought the book was insightful, inspirational, and made my students inquisitive.

I found your post about the book covers ironic. One of my reasons for writing to you was going to be to ask you about the cover. I now understand that you didn’t have much say in the cover but thought you might be interested in the discussion that it generated in my classroom as we were reading.

Of course, the first question that the students asked was “Which one is Spider? I told them I didn’t know, but we would probably find out during our reading. As we journeyed through the story, several predictions were made about “who was who” on the cover. Here are just a few:

“Spider sounds like someone who would have green hair.”

“Trey must be the one looking to the side because in the story we read that he doesn’t like to look directly at people.”

“It must be Trey who is staring at the wall, just like at recess.”

And then the revelation……”It’s Trey with electric lime hair.”

The students wanted to know if you purposely hid clues on the cover. They also wondered if you were purposely trying to throw them off because the boy on the cover could be Ryan. Even though it appears it was unintentional, I appreciate the discussion it generated!

As I stopped in the middle of the book for a written comprehension check, one of the questions I asked was which of the main characters do you most identify with. Three of my students said they identified with Trey because they were being bullied or they felt like were being pulled in different directions by their friends. Without reading your book I am not sure how I would have known about this. Interestingly, the student with Asperger’s identified with Spider!

Sometime books entertain us and sometimes books inspire readers to reveal true thoughts and feelings. Thanks for writing one that does both!

Michele S.

After the feeling returned to my fingers, I typed this reply:

Dear Michele,

Thank you for that exceedingly kind and thoughtful letter. As a writer, I never know how a book will be received. I mean, I know what I hope the book conveys, but I’m never sure if others will find those same qualities. And then there’s this: I’m just glad (and amazed) when somebody reads it at all! I was hoping that Spider would be embraced by classroom teachers.

That’s why it was so gratifying to read your letter, especially hearing about the class discussions. I think of Along Came Spider as a “talking” book. A springboard that, in the hands of the right classroom teacher, can lead to positive classroom conversations.

As for the new cover, you are right, it just happened at the last minute without any input from me. It was more like, “Oh, by the way, we changed the cover.” I didn’t mind it, actually, and I understood where my publisher was coming from. They only wanted to sell the book — and I’m shallow enough to be all for that.

The creative license they took with the cover shoot surely caused some of the confusion. At the time of the wall scene, Trey’s hair was its normal color. He did not dye it until much later in the book. I guess the art director felt green hair would add interest to the cover. She might have been right. Part of making a book is, I believe, trusting in the collaborative process. Unless you feel like something is absolutely a mistake, you have to let talented people do their jobs. And hope for the best.


Worst Book Cover Ever?

Looking for links to supplement tomorrow’s blog entry, I did a quick search of “bad book covers” and happened across Cooking With Pooh.

Um, gee, no thanks. I’m not really hungry.