Archive for January 31, 2009

Who Needs A Librarian Anyway?

My local community is in a minor state of upset over a recent School Board decision to NOT replace a retiring elementary school librarian, who stepped down on January 30, 2009.

On a personal note, the retiring librarian in question, Nancy Smith, was the first school librarian in my community to reach out to me as an author. She was always supportive and enthusiastic. But not just to me. Nancy was (and still is) beloved by many students at Elsmere Elementary in Delmar, New York. Her daily presence has been a huge asset to that school, and she’s enriched the lives of countless students.

But times are hard. And budget cuts are necessary. So with Nancy’s impending retirement, the Board quietly decided that Elsmere could do without an everyday librarian. Instead, a revolving door of visiting librarians — or media specialists, if you prefer — from district schools have been told to fill in the gaps as best they can.

This issue goes beyond my little patch of earth here in Delmar, New York. It touches the core of the kinds of budgetary decisions that are going to be made in schools across the country. Many difficult cuts are ahead for all of us, with communities forced to make painful decisions. All of us will be asked to make sacrifices. Every school is going to wonder: Who needs a librarian anyway?

In dealing with this issue, Nancy helped steer a group of parents to a valuable resource: The AASL Crisis Toolkit. I recommend that you give it a look-see. It begins:

If you are looking at the AASL Crisis Toolkit, chances are your program is danger of being reduced or eliminated. This kit is designed to assist you as you build meaningful and effective support for saving your program. That means educating and rallying stakeholders to speak out on behalf of school libraries.

If cuts are not imminent, visit AASL’s School Library Program Health and Wellness page for prevention strategies. The ideal time to start advocacy efforts is before there is a crisis.

The kit is remarkably comprehensive, and includes topics such as “Crisis Planning,” “Crafting Messages,” “Getting People Involved,” “Research,” “Advocacy,” and more. There are also handy links to studies that have found correlations between library programs, media specialists, and test results.

In any event, none of this is easy, and none of it is clear. Except that this is only the tip of the iceberg. In an article by Jarrett Carroll, published in the January 28, 2009 issue of The Spotlight (our small, local paper), titled “Elsmere Won’t Hire Librarian,” there are many salient quotes (sorry, I can’t provide a link at this time):

A group of residents protested a move by the school district to not replace the elementary school librarian when the current one has retired — a move that district officials said is necessary as the school tries to rein in spending in the face of state aid cuts.

Commented Superintendent Michael Tebbano, in language that is going to become all too familiar:

“This is going to be a big crisis we’re trying to manage, and it’s going to get worse. Realistically, the $30,000 or so we save will not solve the fiscal crisis, but I do have a fiduciary responsibility to the district.”

The article continued:

Board of Education President James Lytle called the current economic crisis “the real deal,” and echoed Tebbano’s sentiments on the situation.

“I hope the parents and children of Elsmere give this a fair chance,” he said of the librarian situation. “I’m afraid, like what Mike said, this could be the first taste of what’s to come.”

- – - – -

Buckle in, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Attend meetings, get informed. And if you believe in the value of school librarians, get prepared to answer the question: Who needs a librarian anyway? Answer it with facts. Answer it with passion. And most of all, get organized, and answer it with a chorus of voices. Tough times ahead.

WHO

NEEDS

A LIBRARIAN

ANYWAY?

2009 ALA Children’s Notable Books: Holy Wow!

The American Library Association website has put up a “Final – Uncorrected” list of 2009 Children’s Notable Books. I am honored and thrilled to see Six Innings on that list, amidst such spectacular company. Congratulations, all.

According to the site:

Each year a committee of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) identifies the best of the best in children’s books. According to the Notables Criteria, “notable” is defined as: Worthy of note or notice, important, distinguished, outstanding. As applied to children’s books, notable should be thought to include books of especially commendable quality, books that exhibit venturesome creativity, and books of fiction, information, poetry and pictures for all age levels (birth through age 14) that reflect and encourage children’s interests in exemplary ways.

My special thanks to the members of the 2009 Notable Children’s Books Committee: Caroline Ward, chair, The Ferguson Library, Stamford, Conn; Betty Carter,  Coppell, Texas; Elise DeGuiseppi, Pierce County Library System, Tacoma, Washington; Eliza T. Dresang, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington; Roxanne Hsu Feldman, The Dalton School, New York, N.Y.; Darwin L. Henderson, College of Education, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio; Barbara Immroth, School of Information, University of Texas, Austin, Texas; Kathleen Isaacs, Pasadena, Maryland; Marie Orlando, Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, New York; Sally Anne Thompson, Paradise Valley, Arizona; Martha M. Walke, Children’s Literature New England, Inc., South Strafford, Vermont.

Really, I don’t know what to say. I am honored and appreciative. If I was Oprah, I’d buy you all brand new Honda Accords!

Failing that, there’s only this: Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Fan Mail Wednesday #28 (Thursday Edition)

I read today that the U.S. Post Office lost $2.8 BILLION last year, and is on track to lose $6 BILLION this fiscal year. They are talking about eliminating a delivery day, possibly Tuesdays.

And yet Fan Mail Wednesday marches on (thanks largely to the internet)! So let’s roll up a sleeve, reach into the giant metal cage, and see what we’ve got this week . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,

My name is Sam and I am in third grade and I live in Missouri.  I  like playing soccer and reading books. I picked one of your books to do my book report on.  I had to do a mystery book.  I picked The Case of the Bicycle Bandit.  I picked this book because I like reading Jigsaw Jones books.

I like this book because I like bicycles.  I like all the characters but my favorite was Ralphie.  I like Ralphie because he likes Old Rusty. My favorite part of the book was when Jigsaw had the X-2000 and spied to look for Ralphie’s bike.  I liked when they fixed up Ralphie’s bike and painted it blue.

Thanks for writing this book.

Your Fan, Sam

I wrote back:

Dear Sam:

A few things in that book come from my childhood. I was the youngest of seven children, with four older brothers. We had a shed in the backyard, crowded with assorted old bicycles, parts of bicycles, rusty tires, broken chains, and spray-painted bicycle frames. My older brothers were always working on their bikes, improving them, putting on banana seats and chopper handlebars. My own bikes were often hand-me-downs, bikes I had inherited from my brothers. So that’s what I imagined Ralphie riding. And like Ralphie, I became very adept at slipping a greasy chain back onto the sprocket.

I thought of those old bikes when I had Jigsaw describe Ralphie’s bike, “Old Rusty,” on the first page of the book:

Old Rusty could shake and rattle. But it couldn’t roll. Not very well, anyway. Its tires were bent. Spokes were missing. The handlebars were twisted. The seat was ripped. The fenders rattled. The brakes squeaked. And worst of all, the chain kept falling off the whatchamacallit. After every block, Ralphie had to stop. He got off, turned the bicycle upside down, and carefully slipped the chain back onto the round thingy.

I’m glad you liked the part about the X-2000, with “special extender action.” I had a toy just like it when I was little. It was a periscope that extended out, and it even allowed me to peek around corners to spy on my family. I loved it. My brother Billy’s girlfriend, Janice, was not as thrilled, though I certainly was!

Thanks for your letter, Sam. And thanks for reading my book!

JP

P.S. Just for fun, here’s an old photo of my family, from back around 1966 or so, before everyone’s hair grew long. I’m the youngest, sporting a clip-on bowtie. This must be Easter, because that’s the only time my father ever pulled out the camera.

This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever: Jackson Pollock

It’s Jackson Pollock’s birthday.

Check out this fabulous link below, scroll and dip and dive and swirl. Every time you click it changes color. So. Much. Fun.

For the record: I’ve got five kids here and me: two 4th-graders, two 2nd-graders, and a preschooler. They eat like rhinos and they frighten me.

http://jacksonpollock.org/

Why You Should Always Check Your Children’s Homework

Snow Day today! I have to take off work, since Lisa is studying furiously for some kind of gigantic test — she’s about to become a certified nurse midwife with a job at highly-regarded Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, and this is her final hurdle. Lisa took her first nursing class (you must first have a nursing degree in order to become a midwife) when Gavin, age 9, was three months old. She’s like that turtle that wins the race, and finally she’s about to cross the finish line. It has been a long haul and I’m so proud of her. Amazing woman.

As a result, I’ve got Gavin and Mags today. Not sure what the weather will allow us to do. It could devolve into the dreaded “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” movie. But hopefully we’ll tramp around in the snow with Daisy, maybe some sledding, absolutely some hot chocolate, and of course I’ll have to haul out the manly snow plow!

In any event, an educator friend sent this along yesterday. Regardless of its (dubious?) veracity, it was too good not to share. Plus it fits into today’s snow shoveling theme.

It turns out that mommy isn’t a pole dancer. She works at Home Depot where she often sells snow shovels!

Jen Robinson Reviews “Six Innings”

The ubiquitous, voracious Jen Robinson reviewed Six Innings. And all I can say is, Whew!

I admit it. A part of me hates reviews. It’s not intellectual, it’s emotional. They scare me. I freeze up and can’t read them. I was born without an ounce of Teflon; I want everyone to like everything and nothing rolls off my back. So it took two days, plus a prod from my editor, for me to muster the courage to read Jen’s review. Now here is essentially a nice woman, spreading love and good cheer, and I’m terrified. The review is lengthy, and to read it in full you’ve got to hit this link, but here’s a couple of quotes.

You see reviews sometimes that say “there’s baseball in it, but that’s not what the book is about.” But I would argue that Six Innings is about baseball. It’s about the purity of the game. The flow and ebb from inning to inning. The dynamics between the players. The role of the pitcher and the role of the coach. This book is a veritable ode to baseball.

I like Jen’s point. In marketing this book, we feared that it would be shoved into the “just a sports book” box. Not, cough-cough, children’s literature. It’s not about baseball, it’s about the wide range of boys who play it. But: Jen is right. It is about baseball, and that’s okay. Because the game is large and it is sturdy; it’s inclusive; it provides enough ground for a lot of things to enter the story if you allow them. I think it’s important, if we really care about boy readers, that we recognize that a book can be “about” sports and still run deep.

Jen goes on to quote various passages from the book, including this one, which was one of my favorites, because it sort of sums up my feelings for the game:

“And so it goes, typical baseball chatter, the talk that fills dugouts everywhere, the words that occupy the spaces the game provides, those gaps when nothing much seems to happen. To love baseball, to truly love the game, you’ve got to enjoy those empty places, the time to think, absorb, and shoot the breeze. A ball, a strike, a grounder to short. The slow rhythm of the game, a game of accumulation, of patterns, gathering itself toward the finish, like the first few miles of a marathon, not dramatic except for what it might mean later in the race.”

Again, Jen’s full review is worth reading, but here’s one last quote I can’t resist including:

I really enjoyed Six Innings. It’s beautifully written. I found myself sharing passages aloud as I was reading. And the end of the book brought tears to my eyes.

I keep having this vision of Jen Robinson reading aloud passages from Six Innings . . . to a Siamese cat. “Listen to this, Snookles . . .”

Finally and for no reason at all, here’s a rare shot of me in full raging Little League mode, talking with a 7/8 year-old, Kevin.

It’s Good to Be Neil Gaiman: Newbery Medal Winner

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard was just announced as the Newbery Medal Winner. Amazingly, it’s about the only book on the long list of potential titles that I actually read. I often thought about blogging on it over the past month — it was an interesting book, and I wanted to talk about it — but I decided that I didn’t really want to review children’s books on this site, especially when Six Innings was mentioned by a (very) few as a potential far-flung dark horse candidate. For the record, I never thought so and didn’t even hope, but I felt very glad to be read and considered. After many years of writing the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, I began to get the idea that no adult or librarian or even (most troubling) the editors in my own publishing company read them critically. So I felt truly honored just to somehow squeeze into that Great Conversation with my first hardcover novel, published by Jean Feiwel at Feiwel and Friends. I’ll forever be grateful to Jean for that leap of faith and the great opportunity she gave me to write the best book I possibly could at the time.

I’m happy for my fourth-grade son, Gavin, who is just now in the middle of reading The Graveyard at my urgent, badgering request. They make a big deal out of the Newbery in school, and I’m sure he’ll be proud to say that he’s currently reading it. Cool factor ten. Gavin started it a couple of weeks ago, and interrupted that twice for the latest Wimpy Kid and Knuckleheads. My oldest son, Nick, age 15, also read it on my recommendation. I also urged Liz Szabla to read The Graveyard, and emailed my friend Greg Ruth with the same recommendation.

Should it have won? I have no idea, given my pathetic reading record, though I’m not at all surprised. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed The Graveyard, I did see it as episodic, with a couple of chapters that didn’t work (for me), in that they seemed kind of stand-alone pieces that were wedged into the larger narrative. I also felt that the Harry Potter echoes were at times too strong. We never really learned why Bod’s family was murdered, and I felt it odd that Bod never seemed to really desire to unravel that huge mystery. He never seemed to ask: Why? But I guess we’ll get that in the sequel.

In the end, congratulations Mr. Gaiman, a writer I truly respect and admire, whose blog is an inspiration. I’m quite sure that young readers (4th grade and up, I’m guessing) will very much enjoy this book. It’s fast, exciting, singular in mood, creative, heartfelt, utterly contemporary, and very well-written. And it has a great first sentence: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

Congratulations also to Honor Winners: Kathi Appelt (The Underneath), Margarita Engle (The Surrender Tree), Ingrid Law (Savvy), and Jacqueline Woodson (After Tupac and D. Foster).

Greg Ruth Illustrates “Our Enduring Spirit: President Barack Obama’s First Address to the Nation.”

Back on November 5th, the day after the election, I acted quickly and purchased this remarkable, evocative piece of art from my friend, illustrator Greg Ruth. For the story on that, and where to find other art by Greg, click here and follow the links.

As it turns out, I was not at all alone in my appreciation of Greg’s work. Another old friend, publisher Brenda Bowen of the Bowen Press imprint at HarperCollins, was so inspired by Greg’s work that she signed him up for a wonderful project. Here’s a clip from an article by John A. Sellers in PW’s Children’s Bookshelf:

This October, HarperCollins’s new Bowen Press imprint will release Our Enduring Spirit: President Barack Obama’s First Address to the Nation, a 40-page picture book with illustrations by Greg Ruth.

The book will consist of the President’s speech (adapted for young readers—the entire speech will also be included, in the back matter), biographical notes about Obama, as well as an overview of his first 100 days in office. Graphic novelist/illustrator Ruth (Freaks of the Heartland; Sudden Gravity) had been sketching Obama throughout the Presidential campaign, and when Bowen Press publisher Brenda Bowen, who was on Ruth’s mailing list, saw additional Obama artwork that he had created on election night, she called Ruth and signed him up for this project, in anticipation of Obama’s inauguration.

This pleases me in so many ways I can’t begin to express it. I first met Greg when he signed up to illustrate my upcoming picture book, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade (Feiwel & Friends, 2010). We’ve exchanged emails, bonded over Magic Realism and Kelly Link, our children and books, our love for Liz Szabla and our fear of Facebook, and many other things. He’s just so incredibly talented — a true artist — and a nice guy, too.

There’s a lesson in this for creative people. Greg was inspired by Obama, filled with hope and excitement, so being an artist he began to sketch. There was no master plan. He wasn’t thinking about books, or sales, or furthering his career. He was simply following his enthusiasms, expressing what was inside, what had to come out, his bursting joy. That it led to a book — and such an important book — came to Greg as a complete surprise. Good things happen when you follow your enthusiasms.

For me, personally, the story deepens because Brenda is an old friend, from back in our days at Scholastic together. We were friends inside the office and out, even belonging to a small, happy reading group together. We’ve laughed a lot. Time passed and these days we rarely have much contact, but those old affections never die; I’ll always be crazy about Brenda. So now all those loose threads come together with this book that celebrates Obama, and the renewed hope that so many of us have for our country.

Lastly, just to add one more thread, I wanted to post a photo that was taken on October 25, 1986, at Brenda’s parents’ beach house on the Jersey shore. A whole gang of us went there for a madcap weekend. It’s a shot of me and Craig Walker, one of the greatest friends I’ve ever known. That night we drank beer and watched Game Six of the World Series together — one of the most stirring, improbable, momentous comebacks in baseball history.

I was always proud and pleased that Craig kept this photo on his office wall. After he died, I visited his office. It was a terrible feeling, walking into that room. I looked around, lost, wanting something to keep. And I took this photo off the wall . . .

Along Came . . . Another Blog from Ohio

Let’s face it, we can’t spend all day clicking links and reading blogs.

Right? We just can’t, much. Things to do and all that. But still, some folks make it hard. I just found a nice blog, curiously titled, Best Book I Have Not Read’s Weblog. It’s written by Kristine Something, a former fourth-grade teacher who now serves as a Curriculum Coordinator. Yes, another blogger from Ohio — who knew that Ohio was such a hotbed for book-crazed bloggers?

Kristine wrote about Along Came Spider yesterday, comparing it to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky.

Kristine writes:

I think the fifth grade teachers are going to really enjoy sharing this book. Having this book as a shared reading experience will open windows to conversations about peer pressure and differences. I wish that the book had been around those first couple years I had a student similar to Spider, and struggled to find words to help nine year-olds accept/understand the differences in some of their classmates. Having a character in a book that can be discussed can really open conversation in an amazing way!

Thanks, Kristine. Honestly, that’s always been my hope with this book, that it would be a good “talking book” in an inclusive, community-minded classroom. For Kristine’s full comments, click here.

Meanwhile over at Literate Lives, Bill and Karen conclude their insane 28-day countdown to the Newbery. Bill somehow manages to squeeze Six Innings into Day 27.

I may have to move to Ohio. I’ve been reading, and absolutely LOVING, Ralph Fletcher’s important book, Boy Writers . . .

. . . and he gives a huge shout out to author Franki Sibberson (who suggested the book idea to him). Franki is yet another Ohio-based blogger, and you can find her at A Year of Reading. Do you see what I mean about Ohio? It’s like the little state that could.

They should make a new map. Delete the names of cities and insert the location of all the bloggers.

Fan Mail Wednesday #27: Signed Copies

I got this note all the way from Jersey! Actually, I figure the info in my response might help somebody else, so I thought I’d pass it along.

Dear Mr. Preller,

My name Jordan and I am eleven years old. I go to school in New Jersey. Your book, Along Came Spider, was a really good book. I have recommended your book to all of my friends. I couldn’t stop reading. Your characters really put a vivid picture in my mind. Trey was my favorite character. He has real guts to turn his hair green. Trey was also very funny. I will have to read some more of your books. I am so glad that I chose your book to read. Will you be willing to sign my copy of Along Came Spider if I sent it to you? You are a wonderful author.

Sincerely,
Jordan :)

I answered:

Jordan:

You are absolutely correct. I am a wonderful author! Heck, I’m a fabulously wonderful . . .

Wait, hold on. Not humble enough? Maybe I came off a little egotistical there, do you think? That wouldn’t be good for my carefully controlled image as a warm, kind-hearted children’s author. So let me try that again . . .

My Dear Jordan:

You are absolutely correct. I am a wonderful author! Thanks for your kind letter. I am really glad to hear your reaction to my book. You know, after you write a book, you just hope that people will find it, read it, like it. There are so many other great books out there. I’m grateful that you read mine.

I think Trey is funny, too. One of the great things about Trey is that he’s his own person. He goes his own way. At a time in school when so many kids worry about what everybody else thinks, Trey has a quirky little gift — he doesn’t really know what everybody thinks! So he’s free to be perfectly himself.

And while Trey has many difficulties in school, I also made sure to show that Trey had many, many strengths. He’s a nice guy. He’s smart. He knows all kinds of interesting (and not-so-interesting) facts. He loves nature (except squirrels, which he hates). Trey is very good at building things. And, yes, he has the singular courage to dye his hair green. Like you said, he has real guts.

As an aside, my own son once dyed his hair green, but under very different circumstances. Nick was sick and it was all going to fall out anyway, so he figured, might as well have fun with it. (Nick has guts, too.)

Anyway, yes, I’d be happy to sign your book. (Or anyone else’s, for that matter.) Just send me the book and be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope so I can return it to you. My address is 12 Brookside Drive, Delmar, NY, 12054.

Thanks for writing.

JP