Archive for June 29, 2009

Summer Hours

Due to staff cuts (I had an accident shaving), I’m likely to post with less frequency through July-August. Likely? Because you never know; I can’t resist passing along a funny video or good news. But my basic thought is to cut back on my blog time over the summer, mostly because I don’t think the readership is there.

But please click back every once in a while. I’ll be around.

The MTV Moonwalk

I came across this clip and had to share it. Stunning. And not too long.

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Thoughts on “A.Word.A.Day”

Previously I’ve plugged Anu Garg’s most excellent email subscriber service, A.Word.A.Day. Sign up and every day you get an email that takes about 15 seconds to read. Some days I click delete, most days I don’t.

Today’s word is “excoriate.”

verb tr.:
1. To severely criticize someone or something.
2. To strip off the skin.

Isn’t that great? The way those two meanings dovetail together? How severely criticizing someone is connected to literally stripping off their skin. That’s what it feels like; it’s right there in the root of the word, you idiot!

The email includes pronunciation, meaning, etymology, notes, and usage. Concise, clear, quick. Garg always concludes with “A Thought for Today.”

Today’s thought: “No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country.” — Alexis de Tocqueville, statesman and historian (1805-1859).

Something to ponder in the early morning, the cost of war, and perhaps an inkling to how someone we love might feel when we criticize them. Just for clicking on an email. No wonder why The New York Times called it, “The most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace.”


Weird day yesterday, with Farrah and Michael, two iconic figures closely connected to my childhood. This doesn’t make me feel old, exactly, but something akin to it. Mortal?

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New Evidence, Re: Are Women Born This Way?

Are men and women different? Boys and girls? And if so, is it a question of nature, or nurture? Do society’s conventions steer girls and boys down different paths, or are they born different?

Here’s one clip of video evidence, only 26 seconds in length, that appears to support one side of this great debate. Enjoy.

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My favorite part is the father. It’s as if in his mind he’s projecting across the next 18 years, stunned, amazed, delighted, baffled, frightened. Or perhaps, like some men, he’s thinking of his own marriage, that these 26 seconds stand as a vivid microcosm, analgous to other larger systems operating here on Earth.

Deleted Scenes 4: Six Innings

The Little League season has taken a turn. The regular season is gone. My team of 9-, 10- and 11-year olds finished with a strong record, 11-5, good enough for 2nd place. They were my cardiac kids; we lost five games by a total of seven runs. Now I’m coaching a team of 9-year-old All-Stars. We’re practicing every day. And at my local Little League at Magee Park in Delmar, New York, there’s the big championship game tomorrow. The 12-year-olds, the Majors. Two of my friends are the rival managers. I’ll know many of the kids on the field. It is the exact circumstance, recurring annually, that inspired my book, Six Innings.


During the revision process for Six Innings, I cut more than 10,000 words, much of it back story. When I first started writing it, even before I thought about the game itself, I wrote all sorts of stand-alone character pieces that had nothing (and everything!) to do with the championship game, the book’s six innings.

Sometimes when I speak with students, we’ll talk about the importance of character, as well as the maxim, “Show, don’t tell.” In this scene, I wanted to show readers something about Dylan Van Zant, his determination, his stick-to-it-iveness. But also: let them know that he choked under pressure once before, because we’re going to see him in a similar situation one hundred pages down the road. I could have told the reader, “Dylan tenses up sometimes, freezes, but he’s also a very determined guy.” Instead, I invented this little story about a foul-shot contest. Or actually, two contests: The first one, his response to losing it, and then the second contest.

I ended up cutting the whole shebang. But somehow  the book is better for it just the same, because by writing I learned everything I needed to know — and show — about this one character, Dylan Van Zant.

The sample below is taken from the middle section, which I labeled at the time, “Headlights.”


Dylan began practicing for next year’s foul-shooting contest on the very next morning.

He was the first in the house to awake. Dylan didn’t brush his teeth, comb his hair, or eat breakfast. He just threw on some shorts, his sneakers, an Under Armour t-shirt, and stepped onto the driveway. The free throw line was already marked off. Dylan walked to it, head down. He bounced the ball rhythmically — boom, boom, bah-boom; boom, boom, bah-boom — alternating hands, remembering the agony of yesterday’s missed shots. Clang, the ball hitting the rim and bouncing away. The tightness in his arms, the dryness in his mouth. That taste of failure.

Dylan took one hundred foul shots. That was the bargain he struck with himself. Every morning, he would go outside and shoot free throws. Most mornings, he kept the promise. Sometimes, life intervened. So he’d shoot in the afternoon.

One particular day, Dylan overslept, raced to school, and worked on a science project late into the night. It was past his normal bedtime. Darkness had fallen, and with it rain; the court was cloaked in velvet. So Dylan asked his mother to please, please, please pull up the car and turn on the headlights. And there he stood at the line in the shimmering dark, knees bent, eyes on the rim, firing up free throw after free throw until he was satisfied, and soaked, and cold. The day’s bargain complete.

The contest would not be for another nine months.

This time, vowed Dylan, I’ll be ready.


For other deleted scenes from Six Innings, click here, and here, and here.

A little trivia: the name Dylan Van Zant brings together two of my favorite songwriters, Bob and Townes, who wrote one of my favorite songs ever, “To Live Is to Fly.”

Fan Mail Wednesday #51-52 (Tuesday Edition)

Sometimes fan mail can be incredibly uplifting, thoughtful, perceptive, touching. And sometimes a kid just wants to say hello, just wants to connect somehow. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s great.

Dear Mr. James Preller,

My name is James and I am seven years old.  I like your Jigsaw Jones
books.  They are exciting.

Your Friend,


I replied:

Dear James,

Thank you for taking the time to send that note. I’m glad you like my books. From the beginning, I’ve always thought of those books as “entertainments,” lively stories that were fast-paced and fun to read. Hopefully you take a little ride and touch down softly at the end.

Have a great summer — and don’t forget to keep reading. My kids just signed up with a Summer Reading Program through the local library, because we want them to read all summer long. Otherwise their brains turn to oatmeal and they stare vacantly into space, mouth agape, drool hanging from their lower lips. It isn’t pretty. And we don’t want that, do we? Besides, there are so many great books out there, so much to read and learn.

By the way, I noticed that you share the same last name as one of the boys in Jigsaw’s class. Did you know that? He’s featured most prominently in books #11 and #27.


Letter #52:

My son is enjoying your books.  I am looking for a complete list of the books because I am having to search the surrounding libraries to find them.  Hopefully you can help….at least let me know how many have been written.  Thanks.

My answer:

Dear Steve:

Well, you win the Parent-of-the-Week Award. Look out your window, a truck will soon be arriving that contains a large box, with six air holes, shipped from South America. It is your prize. That’s right, you’ve won a live anaconda, one of the largest and most powerful snakes in the world. Be warned: It kills its prey by constriction, so avoid hugs or other friendly overtures. And please, pish and tosh, no need to thank me, don’t mention it.

Wikipedia has a fairly current list of Jigsaw Jones titles, just click here. In brief, there are 32 books, numbers 1-32. Then there are six so-called Super Specials, numbered 1-6. There’s also a collection of detective tips, ingeniously titled, Jigsaw Jones’ Detective Tips. In September, there’s a new one coming out on Scholastic Book Clubs, The Case of the Secret Skeleton (and it’s pretty awesome).

If my math is correct, that makes 40 titles in all. So it’s not like I’ve been sitting around eating chocolates.

At this point, I really don’t understand what’s happening with the books. A growing number seem to be out-of-print or available only through book clubs. Dying on the vine, as my friend would describe it. So good luck with your search. And careful with that anaconda.

Thanks for your interest.


Overheard: Father’s Day Card

Father’s Day yesterday, and I was living large. Lisa and the kids made a big breakfast, then it was time for the cards. Maggie, age 8, made one in school. And it contained a classic line. I wonder if you can find it:

Dear Dad,

Happy Father’s Day! Thank you so much for all the things you have done. For supporting me, helping me, playing with me, and everything else. It would take years to find a dad to replace you. I love you!!



An Interview, a Few Links, and Song

Let’s take it around the horn:

1) I recently answered a few questions from the good folks at the pithily named blog, Books We Love from the Park Ridge Public Library Children’s Staff.

Here’s a taste of the goodness you’ll find there:

Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?

Well, deadlines help, because they force you to knuckle down. I generally know when a book is finished, and I’m all too happy to push myself away from the desk and say, “Done.” But when I read my so-called “finished” books — published books that have sat on my shelves for years — I still come across things I’d like to change, do differently. It’s never perfect, far from it. I forget who said it, but somebody once observed, “Books are never finished, they are abandoned.” That kind of makes sense to me.

(And so on and so forth.)

2) The ever-entertaining Julie Halpern, author, librarian, blogger, sugar addict, and pop culture vulture, had some fun tweaking an old 1991 book cover. It’s part of a new series of blog entries she intends to write, “Julie’s Most Awesome Book Covers.” If you like that kind of stuff — and who doesn’t? — then git on over there. Julie’s new book, Into the Wild Nerd Yonder: My Life on the Dork Side, is coming out someday. I don’t know exactly when; just ask her.

3) Sometimes we get busy and forget. So this is just a reminder of what great children’s book blogging looks like. Count me in as a big Peter D. Sieruta fan.

4) And while we’re talking blogs and swapping links, nobody does a better job at eliciting lively, thoughtful discussion in the comments section than Roger Sutton. He’s been having a very good week.

5) Sometimes I worry that with the influence of “American Idol,” and the over-the-top song stylings it favors (we used to call it “showing off”), people may have forgotten what a great vocal performance sounds like. The difference between real soulfulness and the trappings of soul. Click on this one, featuring Mavis Staples, and remember . . .

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“The Wild Things” by Dave Eggers: Be Still My Heart

Why does this gross me out?

Is it just me?

Cashing in on  “a timeless and time-tested tale.” (What a phrase, oy.)

Just in time for the movie!


Product Description
The Wild Things — based loosely on the storybook by Maurice Sendak and the screenplay cowritten with Spike Jonze — is about the confusions of a boy, Max, making his way in a world he can’t control. His father is gone, his mother is spending time with a younger boyfriend, his sister is becoming a teenager and no longer has interest in him. At the same time, Max finds himself capable of startling acts of wildness: he wears a wolf suit, bites his mom, and can’t always control his outbursts. During a fight at home, Max flees and runs away into the woods. He finds a boat there, jumps in, and ends up on the open sea, destination unknown. He lands on the island of the Wild Things, and soon he becomes their king. But things get complicated when Max realizes that the Wild Things want as much from him as he wants from them. Funny, dark, and alive, The Wild Things is a timeless and time-tested tale for all ages.

About the Author
DAVE EGGERS is the author of such bestselling works as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), You Shall Know Our Velocity, and What Is the What. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house, and currently teaches writing in San Francisco at 826 Valencia, a nonprofit tutoring center and writing school for children that he cofounded with his wife, the novelist Vendela Vida.


Yes, as Nan commented below, McSweeney’s is threatening to publish a special “Ragbk,” fur-covered edition . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #50

Sometimes I get packages of letters from a class or school. Dozens of letters. I thought I’d cull some lines from one such package, sent by Ellen Schumer at The Red Mill School. Usually in this “fan mail” series, I try to give complete, thoughtful, respectful answers to serious questions.

Not today.

You are so  funny. Last night I was wondering what it would be like eating on a door. I asked my mom if she could go out and buy a door, but unfortunately she said no. — Ryan.

Moms can be so heartless. You should have asked Dad.

Some of my favorite things to write about are animals that are canivores. I enjoy reading about carnivores too. I think I like carnivores because of their sharp fangs. — Troy

I’m thinking you’re not a big salad guy.

The Jigsaw Jones books that you write are hularias. I love drawing pictures too! The story about a door as a table was too funny! I could barely hold my insides in. I am thinking of being an author when I grow up. — Rachel

That’s why on school visits I always bring a mop.

You are a great writer Mr. Preller. I hope you have fun writing books. — Lucky


I loved it when you were really funny. — Nadaya.

The other times, not so much?

When you read Mighty Casey you cracked me up. When the kid went pee in the outfield that was hysterical. — Damon

Note to self: Add more scenes of public urination to books. Readers seem to love it.

When you were a kid were you picked on? — Aidan

No. But I saw it sometimes and I remember it all very clearly, the faces, the fear, and the confused feeling of standing there, hands at my sides, doing nothing, wondering what to do.

I hate carrots. I know they are healthy but I don’t like them that much. I eat carrots but not that much! — Nicole

You are going blind. Eat those carrots!!!

You are very funny because you stole your brother’s homework. Could you write more than 300 pages? — Edward

In a row?

I hope you come back really really soon. — Justin

Thank you. It’s probably best if your school brings in a different author or illustrator. Change is good. But I’ll always remember Red Mill.

I read all of your Jigsaw Jones books. I love  all of them. You are funny. I love Six Innings. I love the way you write your books. — Ashley

Woud your parents mind if I adopted you? Or rented you out for a weekend or something?


POSTSCRIPT ABOUT BAFFLING DOOR REFERENCES: On visits, I sometimes tell a brief story about the kitchen table we had when I was growing up. Yes, it was a door.