“Where have all my friends gone/they’ve all disappeared.”
A favorite band, the mighty Jayhawks. Have a great weekend.
“Where have all my friends gone/they’ve all disappeared.”
A favorite band, the mighty Jayhawks. Have a great weekend.
Sometimes fan mail comes from unexpected places . . . and says just the things you long to hear.
Hello Mr. Preller,
I am a full time dad for 3 young boys, Isaiah (8), Luke (7), Noah (3). Your books have been a staple for our bedtime reading time. I’ve found myself reading on after I hear the 3 stooges snoring away. I genuinely appreciate your style and content. My 8 year old is usually the one to discuss possible outcomes and facts about the stories the next day. In a time when innocence, manners and values seem to escape our kids media, I admire Jigsaw Jones for the stories that make us think and still hold to some old school innocence.
If you’re ever down around Newport News, Virginia, let me know. Our Elementary school may be interested in your appearance next year.
Thanks for that great letter. As much as my books are intended for children, I always wonder about the parents out there. After all, I identify with both perspectives, much in the way I see myself in both Jigsaw and his father, Mr. Jones. Like you, I’ve spent many, many hours reading to my children. I know what it’s like to read on after they’ve fallen asleep; I know how it feels when we discover a wonderful, worthwhile story to share. And, yes, I’ve read poorly-written books and cringed at TV shows and movies with inappropriate language.
In our house, words like “dumb” and “stupid” and “fat” are considered bad words — language that my children are not allowed to use. I never expected that I’d become a conservative parent (as I am one heck of a cool guy, believe me!), but in this regard my wife and I are mindful of setting limits for our children. It’s so disappointing to encounter those same words, and more significantly, the attitudes that inform those words, in popular media. When I started this series, I decided that my readers were young, and that there was time enough for them to encounter those things . . . elsewhere. So thank you for noticing. And while I strive to avoid obvious messages, writ large — I gag at the Berenstain Bears, for example — I am fully aware that values are imbedded in every story we tell. The way characters interact, the way I might describe someone’s appearance, or how I depict a dinner scene. I’m proud of Jigsaw’s friendship with Mila, the respect and caring they show for each other.
You know what TV show I really came to admire? This is almost embarrassing, and might even surprise you . . .
. . . but, yep, Full House. I know, I know. How uncool is that? But the more I saw it, the more comfortable I became with allowing my children to watch it. Those characters were genuinely decent. They were a family — Jesse and Joey, D.J., Stephanie, Danny and Michelle — all doing the best they could, struggling with everyday problems: Joey has to change his first diaper . . . Stephanie is afraid of going to kindergarten . . . D.J. struggles with music lessons . . . and a frozen turkey threatens to ruin Thanksgiving! A little bland? Um, yes. But also realistic and reassuring for young kids. It’s not easy to pull that off, week after a week, in a culture that celebrates all things “edgy.” Fortunately, there are many, many great children’s books that are age-appropriate. There’s no end to the good things available to you and your family — and to me and mine.
As for being down in Newport News, I don’t have anything planned. Since I live outside of Albany, New York, a trip like that would require the coordinated efforts of a school district, where I would have the opportunity to visit schools for 3-4 consecutive days. There’s travel, hotel arrangements, basic economics to consider. That said, it’s been done before. I’m always happy to discuss the possibilities with any school that shows interest.
Have a great summer — and thanks again for bringing my books into your home, and sharing them with your children. I consider it an honor and a responsibility.
My best to Isaiah, Luke, and Noah!
Nice photo, right? That’s Gavin and a friend. A couple of pretty good baseball players. They come to your town, it’s best you lock up the women folk.
I helped coach eleven All-Star games across two tournaments, and the experience occupied four full weeks. We practiced a lot. Both tournaments, we made it to the championship game. Both times, we lost, 4-3. But in entirely different ways.
The first one was brutal. Up 3-0 in the bottom of the final inning, one out, nobody one, the opposing team came back to score four runs to win it. We watched them celebrate on the field, while our boys slowly walked off, some of them absolutely crushed.
The good thing is, you can buy them a Popsicle . . .
. . . they lick their wounds, and five minutes later they are all smiles.
After winning four in a row in the next tournament, and really playing great baseball, our team again reached the championship game. Down 4-1, our boys chipped away, Gavin scored twice, and in the final inning we found ourselves down 4-3, with two outs, the bases loaded, and a good hitter at the plate. I liked our chances. Alas, a soft pop to second base and we were done. Another tough loss, another celebration to watch, another second-place trophy.
The next morning, Lisa and I dropped Gavin and Maggie off to sleep-away camp, gone for two weeks, first time ever. Can’t even speak with them for a full week. Tonight, Monday, we’re taking Nick (age 16) and two of his friends to see Coldplay up in Saratoga. Life is good. And the new days keep coming like Popsicles.
Here’s yesterday’s photo of Gavin and Maggie when we dropped them off to camp. I don’t think we’re ever going to get that hat off his head — such a badge of honor, so much pride in it. Maggie? She’s got life in a headlock, not as worried about her.
Driving away, Mom and Dad were not quite as sanguine. A little heavy hearted.
So we stopped off to buy ice cream. We might need to do that a lot.
This is nice. And more than a small surprise.
Someone named Melissa from Wichita, Kansas, a stay-at-home mom with “an Avid Love of Reading,” has put together a list of of 100 Top MG Books. You can keep up with Melissa’s book reviews at the aptly-named “Book Nut” blog.
It’s a strong list, and not just from my biased point of view. There’s classic and contemporary titles, diversity, and a wide variety of genre. Many of the names are what you’d expect. Joan Aiken, Lloyd Alexander, Judy Blume, Lewis Carroll, Kate DiCamillo, Sid Fleischman, Neil Gaiman, Rudyard Kipling, C.S. Lewis, Lois Lowry, Katherine Patterson, Mitali Perkins, J.K. Rowling, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E.B.. White, Jane Yolen . . . and, gulp, James Preller.
That’s crazy company. I keep hearing Cookie Monster singing, “One of These Things Doesn’t Belong.”
Thank you, Melissa!
When I speak to students, I remind them that I’m an ex-kid myself. It’s not as obvious as it used to be. I was a boy who loved boy things, with no burning interest in books or writing. I make that point only because it’s true.
When I was a kid, some of my friends began a tradition that we came to refer to as, “The Turkey Bowl,” where we played a loose, informal game of tackle football on Thanksgiving morning. And there I see it on the first page of my 3/1/01 manuscript: The Case of the Turkey Bowl, a title that would not last.
I played so much tackle football as a kid. Usually at Beech Street School in Wantagh, Long Island, with boys named Pat Sweeney and Jimmy Bradshaw, Michael Rose and Gary Francke, and whoever else was around that day. Nowadays I’m involved in youth sports from the adult perspective. And I make the same sour observation: “Kids these days, they don’t know how to play unless there’s five grown-ups standing around looking bored.”
It’s something that we’ve lost over the years — dis-organized ball — and I think it was something important. Kids today don’t have the freedom, or possibly the wherewithal, to play self-regulated sports. It just doesn’t seem to happen much. And maybe that explains to a degree why I like living in upstate New York. It feels about 30 years behind the times, in a good way.
The first chapter of this book is based on my memory of those days, those great games we used to play. I remembered one of my greatest triumphs: the day I tackled Michael Lenninger. He was an older kid, bigger, stronger, but somehow he joined our game. Every neighborhood had a Michael Lenninger, and on this day the guy was killing us, a punishing runner who left would-be tacklers scattered like bowling pins. Well, during that game I became determined to take down Michael Lenninger. I knew it would hurt. But the next time he charged up the middle, I held my ground, wrapped my arms around his churning legs, and dragged that big bull to the turf. I remember that moment vividly, across almost 40 years, even though it was a big deal to exactly no one else. Why? Because it mattered to me, it was important. I showed courage and resolution on the proving grounds of Beech Street School; I proved something to myself.
In the book, Jigsaw tackles Bigs Maloney — or at least attempts to:
Bigs pawed the ground, snorted, and charged.
Where was a red cape when I needed one?
Whap, kersplish, oof, splaaaaaatt!
The next thing I knew I was lying flat on my back. Dizzy, I stared at the spinning sky. A few clouds floated past. They were white and fluffy. One even looked like a wittle, itty-bitty bunny wabbit. Off in the distance — far, far away — I heard Bigs Maloney rumble into the end zone. Or maybe it was a herd of rhinos tap-dancing on my skull. I wasn’t sure.
Joey knelt beside me. He poked at me with his finger. “Jigsaw? Are you okay?”
I blinked. At least my eyelids weren’t broken. “Anybody get the license plate of that marching band? I think I was just trampled by a tuba.”
In most of the books in the series, I try to reference a real book — usually one that I admire. So in Chapter Three, we find Jigsaw and his father reading Skinnybones by Barbara Park. I’d probably just read that book with my son, Nick, and we both enjoyed it very much. I once got to interview Barbara Park, in fact, and she was wonderful, alive and warm and funny.
My boys refused to read her Junie B. Jones books, since like many boys they were repulsed by the idea of a female protagonist. For some reason, Maggie never really got hooked, though she read several. As for me, I admired Mick Harte Was Here, and was happy to show a little love for Barbara in this book. Also, I think it’s one of those things that helps make the stories realistic for readers. “Hey, I read that book!” Just another way of connecting their world to Jigsaw’s.
Another writer I’ve always respected is Dick Francis. I recently loaned one of his books to a literary friend, and he sort of sniffed at it, unimpressed, and returned it to me unread. Probably in a hurry to read more Margaret Atwood. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyway, Francis writes mysteries, thrillers, suspense novels set in the world of horse racing. The books aren’t wildly ambitious. He just writes bestsellers that people like to read. A little adventure, a little love interest, a strong main character, an unfolding mystery: voila!
I had a friend in high school whose mother was an avid reader and a huge Dick Francis fan. She turned me onto him. I remember her complaint about many “literary” books by flashy writers: “Too many words, too many words,” she’d sneer. She liked writers who got to the point; who didn’t show off; who told a story and got out of the way. Her tastes would not have gone down well at the Academies of Higher Learning. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but Mrs. Flynn had given me a lesson that would stick with me, and grow inside me, for years to come. The value of restraint.
Back to Dick Francis: One of his things was there’s always a strong nonfiction element to his stories. He’d research a topic and integrate it into the story. So you’d read one of his mysteries and in the process learn about photography, or the brewing process of a single-malt scotch, or horse breeding, or whatever. I loved that about Francis, and have tried to emulate that aspect in my Jigsaw Jones books.
I’m wondering: Is emulate a fancy substitute for steal?
In this book I do a bit about turkeys, the wild compared to the tame, and so on. Just a little content in the book, so maybe somebody learns a little something along the way — and I always do it knowing that I owe the concept to Dick Francis. Now you know it, too. Hopefully, again, it also reflects the lessons that typically go on in real schools, another connection to the reader’s world.
Oh, hey, look at Chapter Six, “The Kid in the Hall.” Here’s a combined reference to my beloved New York Mets and Dav Pilkey. In terms of plot, Jigsaw is looking for a witness, and who better than the biggest troublemaker in school, the kid who is perpetually sent outside to sit in the halls. His name is George Seaver (Tom Seaver’s birth name) . . .
. . . and his teacher is Mrs. Koosman, named after probably my favorite southpaw of all time.
I modeled the character of George Seaver on what I imagined a young Dav Pilkey to be like, a kid making his own comic books in the hall, dreaming up adventures, talented and a little weird. I’m sure that Pilkey talked about this in an interview somewhere. From my book, The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators:
This outrageous behavior did not endear Dav to his teachers. “When I was in second grade, I got in trouble a lot. To punish me, my teacher would send me out into the hallway. Before long, I was spending so much time in the hall that my teacher moved a desk out there for me.”
Dav seized the opportunity by stuffing the desk with art supplies and paper. To keep himself busy, he drew pictures and made up stories. Dav didn’t realize it then, but he was preparing himself for his future career. “I used to staple sheets of paper together and write my own comic books,” he remembers. “I had invented a whole slew of amazing superheroes, including Captain Underpants, who flew around the city in his underwear giving wedgies to all the bad guys.”
Thus inspired, I wrote this scene:
George was drawing a picture and giggling to himself. Without looking up, he said, “Jigsaw, Mila. What’s what?”
“More like who’s who,” I said. “We’re working on a case. We’re wondering if you might have seen anything.”
George finished the picture. It showed a boy flying happily above the clouds. I looked closer. The boy in the picture looked exactly like George. He shoved the page under a stack of papers.
“What are you drawing, George?” Mila inquired.
“Comics,” George replied. “I’m going to publish graphic novels someday.”
“But in the meantime,” I said, “you’ll be happy making Mrs. Koosman bonkers.”
George smiled. “Hey, it’s a living.”
I stole a joke from Woody Allen in Chapter Eight.
Somebody stole Bigs Maloney’s sneakers, forcing a cancellation of the game, and Jigsaw has to confront the prime suspect, Lydia Zuckerman, the notorious Brown Street Bruiser. But before I get to the joke — and you’ll recognize it when it comes — I have to say that I’m happy with how Jigsaw stands up to Lydia in this scene. And also, how it was foreshadowed in the football game. Jigsaw’s character is consistent, even if his results may vary. The guy has got guts, and we see that in the very first chapter.
Lydia is big and tough, and she’s in the middle of her exercise routine:
“Not now,” Lydia said.
“I’ve only got a few questions,” I offered.
“I’m busy,” Lydia retorted. “Get out.”
Lydia grabbed a towel and ran it across her face. She started on a set of push-ups.
I stood beside her, arms on my hips. “I don’t want trouble,” I said. “But a witness saw you at the scene of a crime. I’m not leaving until you give me answers.”
“What crime?” Lydia grunted.
“Bigs Maloney’s sneakers took a walk,” I told her. “Thing is, Bigs’s feet weren’t in them at the time.”
I turned to leave.
Lydia looked me up and down. “Hey, detective. You ever think about exercising?”
“I tried lifting weights once,” I answered. “But they were too heavy.” [Thanks, Woody!]
Lydia smiled. “You’re funny, Jones.”
“Yeah, a regular laugh riot,” I mumbled.
Thanks for listening! From what I can tell, this book is out-of-print and unavailable in stores. I can’t tell you how that feels.
Watch out, folks — step back, step waaaaaay back. Because this here is Fan Mail Wednesday, the Triple Threat Edition!
Hello! I am an elementary school teacher and have a collection of author signed books in my classroom. I was wondering if I could send you my copy of Six Innings for you to sign for me. I would include return postage. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Happy to do it!
12 Brookside Drive
Delmar, NY 12054
Note: I shared this email because the same answer goes for anyone else who wishes to make a similar request. I’m happy and honored to sign a book any time, any day of the week. I think the idea of building a classroom collection of signed books is pretty cool and probably not that difficult. I’d bet that most authors would be happy to do it. The SASE, a forgotten courtesy, is key.
Hello Mr. Preller.
My son and I love your Jigsaw Jones books. We have a question about The Case of the Sneaker Sneak. Is there a typo on page 19 with the secret code? We have both done the secret code and it does not make sense. When we do the secret code we get the following:
Is Helen u nmts or what?
Thank you for your help.
Kelly + Kyle
Dear Kelly & Kyle:
Thank you for bringing this to my attention. We have since located the person responsible for this error, and he has been flogged by wet noodles and reassigned to a warehouse in Outer Siberia.
Justice is swift and oh so sweet.
Erm, okay, this sounds vaguely familiar. Hold on while I take the book off the shelf:
Yes, there’s a mistake in there. When you crack the code it now reads: IS HELEN HELEN NRTS OR WHAT?
Ugh. Not what I had in mind. It should read: IS HELEN NUTS OR WHAT?
I remember finding that mistake in the finished book. It bummed me out. We’d like to think of our finished books as perfect, not a comma out of place, not a word misspelled. And we try so hard — all of us, the writer, the editor, the copyeditor (or proofreader), designer, etc. Unfortunately, mistakes happen. While I’ve made my share of them, I can honestly say that in this case it wasn’t my fault. Because the code could not be typeset in the standard manner, it became “art” rather than “text,” and not my bailiwick. Which is why things probably got messed up: too many cooks in the kitchen. Also, the publishing schedule for series books can sometimes be tight and unforgiving, and that compounds the problem.
Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Believe me, heads will tumble.
Oh, by the way: I recently read that book again, #16 in the series, for the first time in at least 6 years, and I was surprised by how much of it I really enjoyed. You inspired me to write about it in a future blog post, some behind-the-scenes stuff, as I’ve done for other books. But I will say this: I hate the title, I’ve always hated the title. Just the worst. I got overruled by the committee on that one. It happens. Rats and Snails! Double Rats!
POSTSCRIPT: My editor at Scholastic, the mercurial Shannon Penney, wrote to say: “Just wanted to make sure you know that the code typo in SNEAKER SNEAK has since been fixed, so no worries about that!”
My name is Doha.
I am in 6th grade.
i am 11 years old.
You are my favorite author.
I love your Jigsaw Jones books.
My reading tutor told me to ask you how
many times did you have to edit and write
your last book before you published it?
And what was your last book you published?
Just wanted to say again i love your books.
And if your reading tutor told you to jump off a bridge? Would you do it? Would you?
Doha, my friend, you can’t do everything your reading tutor tells you to do.
Unless, hmmm . . . have you been hypnotized lately? Think back: Do you remember any kind of watch swinging back and forth, back and forth, with your reading tutor murmuring the words, “You are getting sleepy, so sleepy.” Does any of that ring a bell?
Because it’s possible that you are under the spell of some kind of evil scientist crazy person. I’m just typing out loud here, throwing out ideas. We have to consider all the possibilities.
Anyway, for the sake of this letter, let’s assume that it was a harmless suggestion. “Write the author, bug somebody else for a change.”
Okay, okay. I’ll play along with your tutor’s sick twisted plan suggestion. I tend to revise as I go. Constantly. I don’t have a number for it. But it seems like every time I read something that I’ve written, I fiddle with it a bit. I have to change something, especially the first few times I read it. After a while, it sort of stabilizes. At the same time, when a scene doesn’t sit right, I’ll go over it and over it endlessly, twenty times, easily. Sometimes I’ll then revert back to the original — reinstate what I had crossed out — when I realize to my horror that some of my changes only made it WORSE!
I mean to say: There is such a thing as too much fussing around.
I believe a good policy would be to carefully read over what you’ve written two times. Be open to make changes, try your best to make it better, and move on.
But no matter what anyone says about the importance of revision — and it is essential, and actually kind of fun — the single most important thing is to get those initial words down on that blank sheet of paper. Let it flow, let the story and the feeling come without worrying too much about whether it’s any good or not. There are great things inside of us all. Writing is one way of letting them out. And in many ways that requires an act of faith, a leap of trust, a belief in yourself, in Doha — a belief that you’ve got something inside you that no one else carries around. Your thoughts and feelings, memories and fears, dreams and ideas.
Your job as a writer is to tap into that river and let the words flow.
Since you asked: My new book is called Bystander (isn’t the cover awesome?), and it will be out in late September. I hope you read it!
Thanks for writing.
First off, apologies to my Nation of Readers — I’m looking at you, Liz — for the sporadic posts this summer. But it’s not like I didn’t warn you.
Back about a year ago, I posted about a phone call I’d received from Gary Blackman, co-founder and artistic director of ArtsPower, a touring theater group that puts on musicals for young audiences — oftentimes, school groups — based on popular children’s books.
He told me that they intended to create a musical loosely based on Jigsaw Jones #12: The Case of the Class Clown. I said something pithy like, “Cool,” and that was about it. The sum total of our relationship.
A year passed and I haven’t heard another word about it.
But by coincidence, I came across this stunning announcement the other day.
Brimming with music, charm, and humor, ArtsPower’s new production – based on the book by renowned author James Preller – will make audiences laugh and think as they learn the secret codes that Jigsaw must decipher to solve the mystery.
I gather that groups can book a show. And get a load of that word, “renowned,” that’s a first. Maybe now I’ll start getting some respect over at Duncan Donuts.
And weirder still, apparently the show is coming to a town near me, at the Kitty Carlisle Theatre at The Egg in Albany. Tickets for groups of 20 or more cost $7.00 each. Better yet, it’s starring Lisa Ling as Mila! (No, not really.) The truth is, I don’t know a blessed thing about this show. Nada, zilch. I assumed it wasn’t happening.
So what do I do? Buy a ticket, sit in the last row, put a bag over my head . . . and hope? The thought of it gives me heartburn. I know, I know; I’m an idiot. This is fun stuff. I should be giddy. Problem is, I’ve never been real good at giddy.
I’ll work on it.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s just a squishy idea I can’t really get behind. When asked about writer’s block in a Q & A, I made this comment:
I don’t believe in it, frankly. It’s one more of those “mystical” things that writers are supposed to endure. I have a lunch pail attitude to my job, since I don’t have the luxury – in time or money – to sit around waiting for the muse to descend. I’m trying to pay the bills, you know? So I make things up. What I have learned – and what I will concede – is that there are times when the energy fails. (Writing, to me, requires great enthusiasm and energy.) I realized a while back that it was usually a sign that I was boring myself: That the story I was writing, or the specific scene, was flawed somehow. I was on the wrong path – and boring myself to tears. When the writing is right, I am fully engaged. When bored by my own words, I need to walk away and rethink things. Usually it means honing in a little closer to the rumblings of my own heart.
However . . . things change. But what I’ve been experiencing is not the standard understanding of the term, where you are struggling with a plot, unable to solve the puzzle. I mean, that happens, but to call it “writer’s block” seems a little twee to me. Take a walk, get your butt back in the chair, do the work, you know.
But I do think that we — all of us — can become blocked by our own insecurities, angers, frustrations, fears. Stopped cold in our tracks, often by things we don’t fully understand. The problem isn’t the work so much as the person doing the work. The book isn’t the problem; the story is there, mostly, or close enough. The problem is I’m not there, not wholly present. It’s not the block, it’s the writer.
On that note, here’s “Sick of Myself” by Matthew Sweet. I advise you to play it loud.
Boy, I’m a drag today, aren’t I?
Dan Finnerty and The Dan Band (he’s the wedding singer from The Hangover and Old School) recreate Beyonce’s hit, “Single Ladies.”
Have a nice weekend.
I remember how I first dreamed of a book with my name on it.
I’d read about other writers and how they felt. The way William Faulkner exalted on the day when he finally received the finished jpg file in an email from his editor . . . and how he immediately posted that image on Facebook with the status line, “HOW COOL M I?”
Oh, the magic of those times.
I mean to say: Look at this! It’s only been kicking around in slightly-unfinished form since forever, because the art director, Rich Deas, needed to hold onto it for last-minute microscopic tweaks and noodles. And believe me, nobody tweaks and noodles like Rich. I owe that guy about twelve beers and a bowl of tweaks and noodles.
Anyway, I love this cover, I think it establishes the right tone. It’s appropriately dark and graphic and — oh, lord, here comes that word we can’t escape these days — edgy.
But regardless of the cover, I always make the same comment: My name should have been bigger. I’ve read that Faulkner felt the same way.
I’m told that I’ll be holding an advance copy of the book sometime in August, that it will hit stores in late September. You work and work, then wait and wait, worry and fret. I’ve learned that the only solution to this sorry state is to be working on a new book. Which reminds me . . . I’ve got to go!
I’ve enjoyed doing this semi-organized, possibly-ongoing series of interviews, especially when it comes to meeting important voices in the kidlitosphere. I hope you agree that it’s nice to get to know the people behind some of our more frequently-visited blogs. One such destination is the oft-entertaining, 100 Scope Notes. Travis has a lively mind, he’s young and insightful, and — to be perfectly honest — it seemed like it would be cool to hang out with him. I mean to say: If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. I’m like a Roman Emperor that way, sort of a cross between Tiberius, Caligula, and Herod Agrippa, but with typing skills. But let’s move along, folks . . . because here comes Travis, hauling around a pile of books.
Greetings, Travis. It’s nice to finally meet you. Thanks for stopping by.
Well, it’s an honor. Sorry I’m late — I was away for a week visiting family.
How’d that go?
Great, but very filling. You ever have it happen where a trip back home all of a sudden becomes an eating tour? It’s like all decisions were based around food. I found myself saying things like, “Well, we can’t go to the ‘60s-style drive-in tonight, because I really wanted to get to the Italian restaurant with the moose head on the wall. And let’s not forget about the homemade cookie shop for dessert.” You can see how things can get out of hand pretty quickly.
Oh, I get it. You’re here for the cheese log.
You have one of those? If you’ve got a box of Toasteds crackers, it’s on.
You’ll be putting it on the Ritz, my friend. As the 1950’s ad campaign so truly proclaimed: “Nothing tastes as good as Ritz . . . but Ritz!”
So, tell me. You became a librarian in 2005, and started blogging back in the halcyon days of late 2007. That officially makes you a grizzled veteran of the blogosphere. Did you have a plan when you started?
Let me begin by saying I have played a lot of soccer in my day, and have thus taken many, many soccer balls to the head. I’ve always had a hard time remembering which books I’ve read and why I liked them or didn’t like them. My memory not what it should be, I began 100 Scope Notes mainly to record my thoughts and feelings about books I was reading. I also like the idea of making book reviews entertaining in their own right, so I’m always trying to accomplish that.
So it really began as a classic “web log” without any great ambitions. Did you think anyone would read it?
Hmm. Yes, I suppose I figured I could dupe a few shut-ins into reading my opinions, but I didn’t expect much more than that.
It’s very impressive what you’ve accomplished. (Listen to me, I sound like Yoda: “Lost a planet, Obi Wan has.”) Congratulations.
Thanks. Fun, it has been.
Grow up, where did you?
Northern Michigan. Are you familiar with the Mackinaw Bridge? Close to that.
A great place to grow up and very picturesque. I love it. Pretty far up there, however. Let’s just say that there were times in elementary school where I was slightly embarrassed to admit that I didn’t snowmobile for fear of getting shunned by my peers.
I find your blog very inspiring. I mean, authors tend to blog out of necessity, some sense of self-promotion. Other folks blog because it’s part of their job. But your blog, and others like yours, either by teachers or librarians or enthusiastic parents, comes from what appears to be a purer place, an abiding love of children’s books.
I definitely want the focus to be on books. Self-promotion isn’t really my bag. I have this completely unreasonable desire to Google my name and have it say “I’m sorry, that person must not exist, for we can find no evidence saying so”. I’ve been doing pretty well at that so far, although I guess this interview may hurt the pursuit of that goal. I’m a school librarian, so the blog is mostly for others in my profession. I use blogs I trust for finding great books, so I want to do the same for others.
So why children’s books? How did you get here?
That direction was not always clear. Roald Dahl was the first author I loved back in elementary school. In middle school I was huge into comics and then I went through a serious periodicals phase in high school . . .
Travis, hey, it’s perfectly natural for boys of a certain age. Bodies mature, maybe you discover your father’s (cough, cough) “periodicals,” as you prefer to call them, and . . .
Wow, I really walked right into that one.
I guess you did.
I had an agreement with the high school library aide where I could go behind the counter and grab the latest magazine issues before they went on the shelves. Thus I have perused more issues of Entertainment Weekly than I care to mention. When I went to college, I knew I wanted to work with the elementary school crowd. Getting back into children’s books stemmed from that. There are so many great books for kids that it was easy to get sucked back in. After I picked up my elementary teaching certification, I went back to school for library/media. Now I work in a school district with four elementary schools that I split time between.
You have an eye for book covers. I enjoy it when you highlight “Unfortunate Book Covers.” It pains you when a good book has a bad cover. Tell us a little bit about that. Do you think there are common mistakes?
I think folks who work in the book world can identify with this. You love a particular book and put it face out on the shelf, assuming that it will get snatched up right away. Most do, but occasionally there is one that seems to have been coated with child repellent. I’m glad that my hurt comes through, because it’s truly painful to see a great book sit just because its cover has seen better days.
Two of the books I’ve featured, Boy and Danny the Champion of the World, were especially difficult to call out, because I really, really love those books. I think sticking with a cover for too long is the most common mistake. I understand that there are lots of reasons why every book can’t get a makeover every ten years, but there are plenty of books that get passed over because they don’t look current. Really, there is an endless supply of these, so I see that feature popping up for quite a while.
I wonder if Jigsaw Jones falls into that category. He’s about that age.
Naw, I don’t find that that’s the case in the schools where I work. Actually, it’s pretty rare for series books to fall into the Unfortunate Covers territory. Readers get familiar with the characters and continue checking out books in the series, so a bad cover doesn’t have as much of a negative effect.
I enjoy your “cover controversy” posts, where you highlight look-alike covers. Do you have a larger point about imitation, or are you simply pointing out coincidences and trends just for the fun of it?
My whole motivation for pointing out similar covers boils down to something along the lines of, “Hey, look at that!” I would imagine that creating appealing covers is a difficult job, so I don’t get too frustrated that popular trends emerge. Although there are two cover types that I think have to go:
1. Girls in Victorian-era costumes.
I think I speak for everyone when I say that we appreciate your courageous vow to keep us “updated with any new sock-related cover art developments.” You strike me as a talented writer. Intelligent, inquisitive, and funny. Do you write fiction? And I’m really hoping that your answer is, “Yes.”
Do nonsensical ramblings count as fiction? If so, then yes, I write fiction almost daily. If that description doesn’t cut it, then the answer is no.
You’re in –- “nonsensical ramblings” definitely qualifies. It’s probably how most writers get started.
While I once toyed with the idea of writing a collection of “inspired by real life” short stories, all I have to show for it is a list of chapter titles that I lost a few years back. I have been getting some encouragements lately, however (and I’m counting this question as one), including some from an author/illustrator whom I really respect. So a commitment of pen to paper may be in the cards at some point.
What have you gotten out of the blogging experience? I’m sure a lot of people look at it and think, “Oh dear, that seems like a lot of work.” What’s the payback?
I like the fact that the work I do on 100 Scope Notes makes me better at my job. I’m able to make better decisions in terms of book purchasing and recommending because I’m reading and writing about these things all the time. I also like the creative aspect of it, coming up with different ways of talking about children’s lit.
What makes a good blog?
I have a prepared statement for this. Here goes. Ahem:
1. Authority. How well do you know your stuff? Can you explain why you liked/didn’t like a book? (Note: Writing in all caps is not a good way to show authority).
2. Voice. Do I feel like I can connect and identify with you? Do you like Frisbee? Me too – we can hang out.
3. Opinions. Dude, you gotta take a stand. Did you like a book or not? Don’t be shy. Do you seem like a reasonable person who makes sound judgments? Did you like the song, “We Built This City”? If so, then your opinions are suspect.
4. Updates. There are exceptions, but as a general rule, if you only post once a month, I’m going to lose interest.
Well said. And for the record, I can say with 100% conviction that I hate the song, “We Built This City.”
What about author blogs. What do you like about them? And what don’t you like?
I like the behind the scenes stuff. It’s also a plus if they have an opinion of some of the book-related topics of the day. Also, it helps when they don’t do that “click here to read more!” thing, which really cramps the style of anyone checking out the site from Google Reader.
I find some of them fall into the trap of being too relentlessly self-promotional. Like, I know you are a big success and everything, but I’m kind of getting turned off here.
You’ve gotta have a good balance — talk about your books, but talk about not your books too.
You seem really exited about going to ALA in Chicago. Why is that? Don’t get out much?
The short answer is no. Here’s the long response: I’m excited because it sounds like cool things happen there. I’ve always wanted to attend the ALA conferences, but could never swing it. This time there is no excuse, as the conference site is just a couple hours away. I’m going to write some posts for 100 Scope Notes and the ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children) blog while I’m there, so that should be fun. I’m expecting a good time. I got a little too excited and made up some business cards. Currently, I’m busy planning out my food schedule for the trip. So far I’ve got Ann Sather for breakfast, Shaw’s Crab House for dinner, and — wait, this is sounding familiar.
I hear that Matthew Cordell likes cupcakes. You should try to meet him.
Say no more. I just added a chance meeting with Mr. Cordell to my itinerary.
Keep a cupcake in your pocket just in case. Why did you pick the name, “100 Scope Notes”?
It wasn’t a moniker that I’ve always had in my back pocket. When I knew I was going to start a blog, I wanted the title to be a library term. I cracked open my Dewey decimal classification guide and started looking around for something. In true librarian form, I always have Dewey nearby –- even in the car, where I keep a travel-sized reference in the glove compartment. Just kidding, but that would probably be a big hit if someone published that. Anyway, when I came to the term “scope note” I figured that would be a good choice. A scope note helps to clarify or define, which I thought was appropriate. I added the 100 because I thought it would be easier for people to remember and find if they were doing a search for it.
With today’s changing delivery systems, this age of New Media, are you concerned about the future of “the book”?
You know that section in Popular Science where they look back at an article that appeared in the magazine 60 years ago that says something like, “In 1996, civilization will rely on invisible, fudge-powered trains for travel,” and we all say. “ha-ha, look how silly we were”? I think making a prediction about where books are heading might come off a bit like that. But if I had to make one it would be this: In the year 2012 we will have invisible books that will somehow be fudge-powered.
You also review books for the School Library Journal. Lately there’s been some blog chatter about blog reviews, the quality or lack of quality, etcetera. Is there a difference when you post a review on your blog compared to the reviews you do for SLJ?
I have been keeping up on that blog vs. journal discussion and it makes for some interesting reading. There is definitely a difference between my reviews for SLJ and 100 Scope Notes. In SLJ I do my best to stick to a more professional format. The length guidelines really force you to make every word count. Writing this type of review has definitely made me more conscious of getting to the point and has made me a better writer overall. Then I write a blog review and it’s like, “Hey, I can do anything I want here!” I like having the opportunity to do both styles. While some of my blog reviews are nontraditional, I still hold myself responsible for giving my honest opinion with information to back it up. I would like to think that the quality, while delivered in a different way, remains the same.
What do you think of negative reviews?
They’re essential. I don’t delight in writing negative reviews, but people need to know the truth.
But what if they CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH? (Um, sorry. That was my Jack Nicholson impression. Pretty intimidating, right?)
I have yet to upgrade my VHS version of “A Few Good Men”, but I would say that’s pretty accurate. The rub is that I’m always looking to read books that I think I’ll enjoy, thus you’re likely to find more positive reviews on 100 Scope Notes. This fact makes professional journal reviews so vital as they review everything: good, bad, ugly, unreadable, and ridiculous.
If you could meet any author, who would that be? I mean, besides me.
Well, my other number one would have to be Jon Scieszka. Although now that he’s the Children’s Lit Ambassador, a meeting might be tough to pull off. Security detail, helicopters, body doubles, armored cars, you know how it goes. I also have some mixed feelings when it comes to meeting authors. I never really know how to chat them up. Do I steer down the “undying affection” road and just talk about the author’s books, or should I go with the more difficult to pull off, “You’re famous but I’m cool so I’m going to talk to you about other things” approach? It’s a tough choice so I usually just hedge my bets and remain uncomfortably silent. Any suggestions?
I think you treat them the way you treat anybody else, from the waitress at TGI Fridays to your neighbor to the high-powered executive. As equals, you know. At the same time, if he or she has written something that has touched you in some way, that means something to you, that’s always a nice thing to hear.
Ah, the old, “Imagine you’re at T.G.I. Fridays” approach. Very crafty, Preller. I will attempt this technique.
Oh, please, Travis. You can call me, “Mr. Preller, Sir.” Lightning round: Five websites you can’t live without?
Yes, yes this music site has sort of gotten a bad rap lately due to large doses of hipster backlash, but I’ve been reading it for years and when they like an album, I often like it too. I also completely borrowed some of their ideas for my site.
A Fuse #8 Production
A great childrens lit blog: informative, funny, thought-provoking. This one was starting back when I was beginning my library career, and it’s been fun to follow ever since.
While I probably read every Entertainment Weekly from 1996-2004, I no longer have easy access to that magazine. BuzzFeed fills some of the gap. Slightly gossipy for my tastes, but they seem to have a thing for kid’s books, which I appreciate.
No description needed
Question: I’m 48, so I know what I’m doing on Facebook, i.e., misguided nostalgia, reconnecting with people who didn’t like me the first time around. But a young fellow like yourself, what are you doing? Connecting with old preschool buddies?
No, no, of course not. Elementary school buddies.
Working at four elementary schools, I place a lot of book orders. Follett’s Titlewave site is the best in the biz as far as I’m concerned. Wow, I really sound like a pitchman right now, don’t I? Moving right along…
This site is cool. Artists create works and they sell different sized prints beginning at 20 bucks.
What music are you listening to these days?
Music is a big thing for me dating back to my saxophone virtuosity in middle school band. I was the second to last chair, but then the last chair guy moved to another school, so I was demoted for the rest of my days. I also was a DJ for my college radio station where I did theme nights. As you can imagine, themes such as “Depressing Songs” and “Songs I Can’t Stand” made for uplifting listening.
Oh, you are one of those “mixed tape” guys. Confession: I make a new playlist on my iPod every month of the year. And Travis, I just have to say: Are you feeling this, too? Because I think we’re starting to bond.
I’m a bit obsessive with the iTunes –- I rate all the songs and make ridiculous smart playlists, like, “Please list songs that I have skipped less than 10 times, but have played more than 20. Move songs with artist names that contain the word ‘Cougar’ off the list.” Between iTunes, GoodReads.com, and 100 Scope Notes, I occasionally feel like I just rate things all day long.
What are your five most played songs on iTunes? No cheating.
“This Must Be the Place,” Talking Heads. “No One Does It Like You,” Department of Eagles. “Karma Police (Live on David Letterman),” Radiohead. “Trains to Brazil,” Guillemots. “Soul to Squeeze,” Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Any recent favorites, discoveries?
I really could go on for awhile on this question, so I’ll just list a few things:
Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala
The song “A Postcard to Nina” is one of my all time favorites
Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
I’ve talked about them a little on 100 Scope Notes. I would hazard to guess that this band may have more librarian fans than any other. This album should come wrapped in a cardigan.
Pete and the Pirates, Little Death
This is sort of a pop rock group. Great songs, but I still have trouble telling each song apart – I guess that means they’re consistent?
I just got this after hearing them on NPR’s All Songs Considered. I’m glad I did. Fans of Arcade Fire would likely get into this.
Would you burn me a CD, some kind of Travis hipster pop-geek mix?
I’m already mulling over some picks. I’ll just need your mailing address.
Five favorite movies?
This seemed completely original when it came out. Memorable characters with dialogue that immediately draws you in.
Every year Pixar comes out with a new movie some critic declares that it’s their best yet. Don’t believe them –- this movie is the best they’ve ever done. Successful on so many levels and entertaining the whole way through.
2001: A Space Odyssey
This one is sort of the classic “attention everyone, I have good taste” pick, but I loved it, and I really think it changed the way people think about movies. I’m still fairly shocked that this was actually in movie theaters in 1968. Things move slowly, but the tension that builds is crazy.
Cool Hand Luke
This one started a whole older movie craze for me. I didn’t think that watching a chain gang build roads and engage in egg-eating contests would be entertaining, but I was wrong.
Classic quote: “What we got here . . . is a failure to communicate.”
School of Rock
There may have never been a role more tailor made for an actor than Dewey Finn for Jack Black. Hilarious.
“I pledge allegiance . . . to the band . . . of Mr. Schneebly.” I put that quote in my upcoming book, Bystander, partly because I love that movie so much.
Five favorite children’s books?
This book was like my reintroduction to children’s lit. In college I wasn’t reading many kids books. I picked this one up right as I was beginning my student teaching. Amazing. The storyline fits together so well. I thought, “Dang, this is what books for kids should be.” I’m actually kinda getting chills just thinking about how great that story is.
Where the Wild Things Are
Aught Nine is the year of the Wild Things. With the movie coming out, everyone is getting nostalgic for this classic. I have to say that of all the books I read as a kid, this one stuck with me the most.
What you said about Holes is true for me with Wild Things. I found that book soon after college and it totally changed my thinking about children’s books. Everything was suddenly possible. These books could have real emotional and psychological depth. Which is why, of course, I wrote Hiccups for Elephant.
The City of Ember
Sci-fi masterpiece. There is such a great buildup in this book. A serious page-turner.
Arnie the Doughnut
This picture book should be in every library. Funny, with a delightfully absurd ending that never fails to make kids smile. One of my all-time favorite read-alouds.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
As a kid, I was on a mission to hunt down every Roald Dahl book ever written (The Vicar of Nibbleswick was the most difficult to find back in those pre-internet days, by the way). “Charlie” was the one that sent me down that path.
Well, Travis, it looks like our time is up. Thanks for hanging out and eating my entire cheese log. I admire your alert, open, engaged mind — and for a skinny guy you’ve got quite an appetite. Enjoy ALA! Blog like there’s no tomorrow! And eat like a Roman Emperor!
I’m off to start fasting . . .