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.


I recently subscribed to a cool little site that, having now experienced it, I can recommend with confidence.

You may have already noticed the site on the “Book Reviews & Resources” sidebar — Wordsmith.Org: the magic of words. On the home page, you’ll find a “subscribe” option on the right, under the banner, A.Word.A.Day. The New York Times called it, “The most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace.” And who am I to disagree with “The Gray Lady?

Each day you’ll receive a (mercifully) brief email, introducing that day’s word. The words tend to be obscure but, like most words and some people, interesting once you get to know them. I’m enjoying it. Here’s a recent sample of one email:

with Anu Garg


noun: A poem in which the author retracts something said in an earlier poem.

From Greek palinoidia, from palin (again) + oide (song). It’s the same palin that shows up in the word palindrome. Here’s a palindromic web address:

The illustrator and humorist Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) once wrote a poem called The Purple Cow:
I never saw a purple cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.

“The more lighthearted palinodes were more successful, such as Geoff Horton’s recantation of his youthful view that a martini should be shaken rather than stirred.”
Jaspitos; I Take It Back; The Spectator (London, UK); Jan 24, 2004.

Let us enrich ourselves with our mutual differences. -Paul Valery, poet and philosopher (1871-1945)


Bernard Waber: An Appreciation

“When I am writing, I think of myself as a writer. But when I am illustrating, I think of myself as an illustrator. I think, though, that I try to create situations with my writing that will be fun to illustrate. The writer in me tries to please the illustrator.” — Bernard Waber.

Bernard Waber floats just under the top shelf of all-time great children’s authors and illustrators — you don’t hear his name much these days, when people list influences — but I suspect he’s under-appreciated. Certainly he’s written some great books, most notably Ira Sleeps Over and The House on East Eighty-Eighth Street., the first of many books starring Lyle the Crocodile. (Waber also has a knack for titles: A Lion Named Shirley Williamson is one of my favorites.)

I interviewed Bernard Waber in the early 1990’s. We spoke again a couple of years after that. I had hoped he could contribute to a book project, but we got sidelined when my son, Nicholas, was diagnosed with leukemia at age twenty-six months. Work just stopped for a while. Bernard understood, of course, and sent Nick a stuffed crocodile, some books, and a lovely handwritten note.

You don’t forget things like that.

So, yes, there’s bias here, an affection that goes beyond books. When I spoke with Bernard Waber more than 15 years ago — and I’m happy to report he is still going strong at age 84 — his intelligence shined through. He spoke about his craft with clarity and immodesty, as clear and refreshing as cool water. An innate goodness courses through his books. And his stories, no matter how humorous — how sly, dry, and understated — often contain real sensitivity. He writes from the heart.

“The nice thing about humor,” Waber told me, “is that after you have an idea that you think is humorous, there is always another side that’s sad and complicated. Those are the things you discover after you start writing.”

Ira Sleeps Over finds Waber at his best, capturing the inner angst of a childhood dilemma: the first sleepover. Ira is invited to sleep at his friend Reggie’s house — but he has never slept without Tah Tah, his Teddy Bear. Can Ira risk the embarrassment? With staccato dialogue, Waber deftly explores Ira’s confusing, conflcting emotions. In addition, the dynamic with the older sister rings so true. Because somehow Waber knows. He remembers.

His 2002 book, Courage, in which various characters encounter the need for bravery, was inspired in part by 9/11, though he primarily drew upon childhood memories of the Great Depression. I love the cover:

Waber told Becky Rodia, of Teaching K-8 magazine, “Courage is the summoning of core strengths, faith, and idealism in confrontation with life’s challenges. My parents’ bracing themselves against all odds during the Great Depression taught me valuable lessons in this regard. However, because we are humans with frailties, courage can also mean asking for help and support in the face of overwhelming circumstances.”

When I think of Bernard Waber, I think of someone who showed us what a picture book can achieve. Laughter, childlike appeal, and adult insight. For that, and for more personal reasons, I offer this tribute. I don’t know who handles these things, but I hereby nominate Bernard Waber for a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to children’s literature.

Note: If you enjoyed this appreciation — the fourth in a series — just click the links for thoughts on other literary lions: William Steig, Arnold Lobel, and Raymond Chandler.

For Writers Only (Okay, Relax, Illustrators, Too)

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

Thanks to Richard Spaulding, an old friend, who passed this along.

The man behind this video, Dennis Cass, has a pretty cool blogsite, Dennis Cass Wants You To Be More Awesome. He really does!

Do You Need a Dinette Set?

As a service to my readers who might be shopping for dinette sets, I submit this:

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

Yes, that’s a real commercial. Have a great weekend.

New York Public Library Top 100 — Part Two!

Well, this is crazy. I just got a call from Shannon Penney, the Scholastic editor for Along Came Spider, who informed me that Spider, too, was named by The New York Public Library in its 2008 list of “100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.”

I am honored and grateful.

I understand the list includes books for readers up to age eleven. The New York Public Library publishes a separate annual list of “Books for the Teen Age,” which will be announced later. The other Scholastic titles included on this list:

Nic Bishop Frogs by Nic Bishop
Sipping Spiders Through a Straw: Campfire Songs for Monsters by Kelly DiPucchio
Swindle by Gordon Korman
What to Do About Alice? How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy! by Barbara Kerley
Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls