Archive for April 29, 2009

Hudson Children’s Book Festival: May 16th

Come join us for the 1st Annual Hudson Children’s Book Festival on Saturday, May 16th. I’ll be there along with actual luminaries, such as: Donald Crews, Michelle Knudsen, Fran Manushkin, Emily Arnold McCully, Coleen Paratore, Charles Smith, Seymour Simon, Hudson Talbott — and many, many more. The event will feature the usual book signings and book buyings, but also hands-on workshops, individual author presentations, and panel discussions on a variety of topics: the creative process, female characters by female writers, reluctant readers, first amendment rights, and getting published.

I’m always discovering new authors at these events — completely amazing, talented folks whom I’ve never, ever heard of. But then: It’s not my job to keep track of this stuff. So while there are some more established names that might be more familiar, here’s a great opportunity to catch some rising stars.

A lot of people have put in a tremendous amount of work in an effort to pull this off — starting something from nothing always takes guts, and more time than you ever expected — so come on out to Hudson and lend your support. Bring the kids! Bring the grandparents! Bring the checkbook!

And please, say hello.

My Life as a Fashion Trendsetter: Brad and I

On our recent family vacation to the Southwest, we hit some unexpected nasty weather in Taos, New Mexico. Middle of April: Snow. Yuck. Our plan for that day had been to see the Taos Pueblo, take a hike down a gorge to some hot springs beside the Rio Grande, and generally bask in the environment.

But we soon realized that it was cold and wet and miserable. What to do?

Answer: Go to K-Mart, buy some ponchos for $5.99 each, and make the best of it!

We called ourselves “The Blueberry Gang” and had a great time, all things considered. Next day we headed out of town in search of better weather (and we found it).

Little did we realize that we would become fashion trendsetters. But I guess that comes with the territory when you live a life of fame and glory. People were going to copy us. Famous people. Like Brad Pitt, as evidenced by this recent snap taken at Niagara Falls:

I have to say — and I hope this doesn’t come off as too vain — but I don’t think Brad pulls off the poncho look as well as we did. The thing is, you have to wear a K-Mart poncho with confidence. You are making a statement. You have to believe. And, yes, even strut. Whereas Brad, to me, it just looks like he’s afraid of getting wet. What’s more, when buying a K-Mart poncho, you have to pony up for the $5.99 model. It looks to me like Brad went cheap and tried to get away with the $1.99 special. A classic “What Was He Thinking?” moment.

Even so, you have to give Brad credit for doing the tourist thing, pretending to be a regular guy. But you won’t see me returning the favor: I wouldn’t be caught dead with that handbag.

Friday Fun Clip

Just some nutty, creative fun on a Friday.

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

Hat tip to Dennis Cass for bringing this clip to our attention.

Husbands and Wives: A Quick Story

My daughter, Maggie, age eight, had a long-standing appointment with the orthodontist (note to self: write faster!). But as the date neared, my wife, Lisa, realized she’d be unable to bring Maggie to the appointment.

So she called the receptionist.

Wife: “Hi, this is Lisa Preller. I’m calling in the hopes of changing my daughter’s appointment. It turns out I have a work conflict. I’m sorry, I know it’s been in the book for a while. My husband could still take her, but he’s not, you know, detail oriented and, um, I had just hoped that maybe if it wasn’t too much trouble . . .”

Receptionist: “Say no more, dearie. I have a husband, too. How’s next Tuesday work for you?”

Fan Mail Wednesday #39 & #40

Okay, it’s time for my lovely, sleek, sequin-bedazzled assistant, Bert, to crank that handle on the big wheel and we’ll see what letters rise to the top this week.

I am writing you an email with my student, Ryan, whom you met when you visited Jefferson Elementary School.  (Ryan was the one who told you about the missing ‘r’ in Along Came Spider blog).  In working with Ryan, he was very excited by your visit and talking to you in the office while you were signing books.  He wanted to think of and pass along some ideas he thought you might like for future books or stories, and he asked me if we could email you.  So here they are:

1.  A family vacation – kids in the back of the car; having to share a DS or DVD player…hitting…stealing each other’s things, candy,…etc.  Could be a good setting or premise.

2.  This one is for Jigsaw Jones:  The Case of the Missing Remote Control…(boy wouldn’t that make people mad!)

3.  Also for JJ:  Case of Missing Play Station 3.

4.  A story involving “Killzone 2″ (this is a PS3 game that involves aliens; but you could make it funny for kids…Ryan says)

Hope you like the ideas.  Ryan loves reading your books.  He likes how “He does his books”.  He is currently reading Six Innings with one of his teachers.

Thank you for taking time to read our email.  Also, we are glad to see you fixed the “r” on your website.

Ryan and Karen

My reply:

Dear Ryan:

I remember meeting you, and I’m grateful that you pointed out my typo on the blog. I was surprised: That was the only misstaak I ever made!

Thanks for passing along your ideas. In exchange, I’ll do your homework for a week.

Um, not really.

About your ideas:

#1) Your instincts are very good. Since Jigsaw has three brothers and a sister, I’m sure there are many times when sharing becomes difficult. I could see that as being a good way to explore some family relationships before getting into the mystery proper — or maybe it could tie into the mystery in some way.

#2) A missing remote control? I bet you Dad is sitting on it! Or maybe Mom took it,  tired of all the bickering over video games? Or perhaps it fits into your first idea — a little brotherly revenge. Interesting.

#3) This would be tougher to pull off — such a large, expensive item — and not quite in keeping with the types of mysteries I like to write about. Not that it wouldn’t work for a story, but probably not a Jigsaw Jones mystery.

#4) Honestly, I hear this kind of idea a lot. A boy gets sucked into a video game, or whatever. And while aliens are always a good time, the Jigsaw books are Realistic Fiction, where I strive to keep things, er, realistic. Not that it’s a bad idea, just that I’m probably not the right guy to make it work.

Thanks again, Ryan, for all your ideas. Feel free to keep some of them for yourself — and maybe one day I’ll be writing a fan letter to you!


Letter #40

Hi I’m Jason and I’m doing a report on you. I could not find any answers to some questions so I am emailing you.

Will you make any new mystery series?

Will you make new Jigsaw Jones books?

What do you like to write the most?

What kinds of books or authors did you like as a child? Why?

When and how did you discover you wanted to be an author?

Thanks for your time and answering my questions.


My reply:


A report? On me? Wow. What happened, was Lyme Disease already taken? To answer your questions:

Right now, I can’t foresee undertaking another mystery series. But I am thinking about something more along the lines of a Thriller, which is sort of a sub-genre of Mystery. It’s an idea that’s looming on the horizon, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. And one thing I’ve learned as a writer: Don’t talk about it, write it.

The Jigsaw Jones series is in a strange place right now. My publisher, Scholastic, wants to put new ones on book clubs only, not in stores. That sort of bums me out. But I do have a new one coming out this September, called The Case of the Secret Skeleton. I’m very happy with it. If Scholastic wants more, they know my phone number.

As a writer, I enjoy trying many different things. Each genre, from humor to mystery, presents its own challenges. Right now, I’m trying to write a funny book, and some days I just don’t feel all that funny. A rabbi walks into a deli and orders a ham on rye . . .

As a boy, I didn’t read many books. But I did enjoy sports stories. I vividly remember reading a biography called, Seeing It Through: The Story of a Comeback, about Tony Conigliaro, a Red Sox ballplayer who was badly beaned in a game. Wow, what a story!

The first writers I loved were the sports writers in the newspapers who covered my beloved New York Mets. In that sense, columnist Dick Young of the New York Daily News was possibly the most influential writer in my life. I loved his style: fast, punchy, sharp, lively, opinionated, and he knew his stuff — even if he did turn into a crabby old man at the end, writing a mean-spirited series of articles that helped drive Mets pitcher, Tom Seaver, out of New York.

In my view, people don’t start out wanting to be “authors.” Or, I guess, I don’t think they should, exactly. We begin as writers. And for that, you don’t need permission from anyone else; you don’t the approval of publishers or even the eyeballs of readers. In my early teens, I started writing in journals, scribbling my thoughts and feelings, poems and ideas, and at the same time I became an avid, careful, studious reader. I mean, I really started to pay attention to writers, trying to notice what they did and how they shaped their sentences, built plots, made characters vivid and alive. I learned how to write by reading — slowly and carefully. I’m still a very slow reader. What’s the big hurry, anyway?

Thanks, Jason. Good luck on the report.


Times Article, Columbine, Picture Book Countdown, and Some Vacation Photos

It’s Tuesday the 21st, and I’m back at the desk, working under a deadline. I have to admit that I’m not in Full-On Blogger Mode — it’s like I’ve forgotten how — but here’s what’s up exactly now.

I’m still stunned by yesterday’s cover article in The New York Times, written by C.J. Chivers.

Photo: Tyler Hicks.

A tense, dramatic, tautly-written account of an ambush in Afghanistan, it struck me as such a different kind of article than I remember seeing before. Maybe I’m wrong, but my sense is that after years of regulations that attempt to control war coverage, perhaps now there’s a new openness about war reporting. Could that be true? Regardless, this article signaled to me that there was a shift of some kind. I applaud this article, the courage of the reporter, and the Times by putting this story front and center, above the fold on page one. It’s too easy to forget that we’re at war, that young men are killing and dying, that there’s a cause and a cost. By all means, read the story.

I did a school visit recently, where I spoke with approximately 400 6th-grade students. In part, I focused on my upcoming book, Bystander, which centers on bullying and its effect on five main characters: Dylan, Griffin, Mary, David, and Cody. The idea for the opening scene was inspired by a piece of information I picked up on Columbine and ketchup packets. If only for myself, I needed that allusion echoing through my book. When I asked the students if they’d ever heard of Columbine, only two hands were raised. I guess that surprised me. After all, that event changed our schools forever. Just the other day I was in an elementary school when they had a “lock-down drill,” you know, because there’s “a wild animal loose in the school.” I imagine my second-grade daughter, Maggie, picturing a deer skidding through the halls, like a clown in socks.

Anyway, this new book, Columbine by Dave Cullin, is at the top of my reading list. The cover designer for the book, Henry Sene Yee, recently posted a detailed account of how he arrived at that remarkable, understated, haunting cover. Fascinating.

On a different note, Elizabeth Bird at Fuse 8 continues to deliver great content at a reasonable price (free). She’s been counting down the top 100 picture books of all-time (based on a readers’ poll), and if you haven’t gotten over there, it’s a real treat.

Art from Virginia Lee Burton’s, The Little House.

Elizabeth isn’t just providing another tired list, she’s doing research, showing artwork and videos, clips from reviews, and personal commentary. It makes you want to go back and read those books all over again; and in some cases, discover the few that somehow fell through the cracks.

Lastly, a few shots of Canyon de Chelley, Navajo land, in Arizona near the New Mexico border, another one from Taos Pueblo, one from Mesa Verda, and a couple of shots of people who came along for the ride. It was a great vacation/adventure.

. . . and Friends?

I got a fat package in the mail yesterday, sent by my editor at Feiwel & Friends, Liz Szabla. It contained their Fall 2009 catalog, along with ARCs for eight upcoming novels:

Everything for a Dog by Ann M. Martin

In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith

Spellbinder by Helen Stringer

The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander

Buck Fever by Cynthia Chapman Willis

The Eyeball Collector by F.E. Higgins

Bystander by . . . that would be me (and for the record, I can’t wait to talk about this book, and the topic of bullying in general)

One of Jean Feiwel’s stated missions for her new publishing venture, after something like 20 years at Scholastic, was to Keep It Small. And so far, she’s stuck to that goal, despite the temptations to grow, and Grow, and GROW. But still: Feiwel AND Friends. If you are like me (read: hopelessly cynical), then you probably think, “AND Friends,” yeah, right.

But I do feel a difference. Part of that is based on my association with the merry crew that makes things happen at F & F. It’s a small staff and I think I’ve met them all, even the person who gives Liz and Jean their weekly pedicures, and I’ve even Facebooked a few. (Yes, it’s a verb now.) But there’s also, for me, a sense of community with the other authors and illustrators. We’re all on the same team, so to speak, and like a fan in the stands, suds in hand, I’m rooting for them.

Will I read all these galleys? Nope. I mostly read adult books. But I’m eyeballing that new Andrew Smith book, curious about what he’s done with it. And Julie Halpern is a fresh, original voice — so uncool that somehow she’s totally the coolest one of all. Then there’s Spellbinder, a debut novel, which on the surface seems familiar and yet strange at the same time. Who is Helen Stringer, anyway?

A confession: I’ve never had much interest in cultivating friendships with other authors. I know a few on Facebook and whenever I read their status updates on new galleys or their writer’s block or revision process or whatever — well, it just turns me away. I’m just not interested (as I sit here, blogging, semi-ironically, at this Shrine to Myself). The idea of going on, say, an “artistic retreat” with a bunch of other writers makes my skin crawl. I’m not sure why that is, exactly, but it’s real for me. Maybe I like regular people better. Or maybe I’m too competitive, or too insecure. Maybe it’s like ordering a Bud in a can when there’s some snazzy cherry-flavored micro brew available. I don’t know.

But this crowd at Feiwel and Friends? It’s hard to explain. Just a sense I guess, a feeling that’s kind of sloppy and formless, like a first wet kiss. A little creepy, but kind of nice, too. A little like . . . friendship. With benefits. Like free ARCs!

And by the way: I’m back from vacation. Hear me roar.

Away on Vacation

Squander your free time somewhere else — because we’re away on vacation! Back in business by the 20th.

These are some of the places where we’re going, and we’re very excited:

Worst Book Cover Ever: Passover Edition

A few faithful readers might recall this October post, which nominated a title for worst book cover ever.

Well, my friend Alan recently emailed with another strong contender — and just in time for Passover.

Um, gee, no thanks. I’m not really thirsty. But it sure looks good!

Happy holidays, everybody.

School Visits: Some Photos

Here’s some photos from a recent school visit to Jefferson Elementary, in Schenectady, New York (but it sure looked like Rotterdam to me). We had a great day, thanks largely to the efforts of the tireless Beth Bini and the whole Jefferson Elementary Wrecking Crew.

I believe that 80% of the success or relative failure of a school visit comes down to the school. The advance work of teachers, the PTA, the support of the administration, etc. They lay the groundwork for a positive visit. Or not. Then the author comes in and basically does a job, which is the final ingredient. Essential, for sure. But without that preparatory effort by the school leaders, reading books, talking about writing, building a sense of anticipation — excitement about books! — then the author is running uphill all day long and the whole day just isn’t what it could be for the students.

Which is why I’m so grateful to Beth, and everyone else at Jefferson.

Anyway, here’s a bunch of photos of me, me, ME, mememe. A little gross, but I don’t do this too often and the shots are kind of cool.

Somebody at one of the presentations took these pictures. This would be from my talk to K-1 students. I do entirely different talks for grades 2-3, 4-5, and middle schools. Here I’m reading my new book, Mighty Casey: “Still, the hounds took the field/ with bounding, bursting pride/ win or lose, they did their best;/ they could always say, “We tried.”

It’s hard to make out here, but I love the Elmo, a camera-projection-thingy-tool-gizmo that makes it easy to show images up on a big screen, even for semi-Luddites like me. Two outs, bases loaded. Uh-oh. It’s Casey at the bat.

I like to show kids the books that I made, and sold to friends and neighbors, when I was a kid. This shot is from Tarzan’s Adventures, available for only twelve cents, with the numbers written backwards. Fortunately my mom bought and saved the lone copy. My other books from that time, such as Hercules Kills Danger, are gone forever.

This is right before I nearly killed myself by standing on a folding chair (bad idea).  I’m explaining that if it was me up in a tree, and not Tarzan, that I’d definitely stay up there until the lion went away. Which is why he’s a better character for a story than I’d ever be. You see,  I was a boy, and I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it?

Wake Me In Spring — no idea what I’m doing here. The truth is, I don’t have a license to do this stuff. I half expect to get hauled away any minute.