Archive for August 27, 2009

Loudon Wainwright III, “History,” Revisited: Music Video Friday

Hopefully this will keep you entertained while I’m away for a week . . . hiking, sitting by fires, kayaking, reading, playing with my kids, reconnecting with Lisa, writing on a yellow legal pad by Rainbow Lake in the Adirondacks, and taking it real slow . . .


Released in 1992, “History” by Loudon Wainwright III stands today as one of the great, mature, singer-songwriter statements of all time.

This is an album by a 46-year-old man at the crossroads of his life, a series of songs that reflect adult themes such as parenthood, middle age, nostalgia, masculinity, divorce, love, and death. Not that it doesn’t carry some of Wainwright’s trademark satire and humor (“The Doctor,” “Talking New Bob Dylan,” “People In Love”), but here is one of Wainwright’s more deeply personal efforts.

Oh, I’ll just say it: It’s a masterpiece and you should own it.

I’ll be off the grid for a week, so today I’m posting an extra healthy helping of videos in tribute to one of the great discs of the past twenty years — even if not that many folks realize it, except for some hardcore Loudon fans, various critics, and this guy, who called it the CD of the year. Loudon, by the way, is the former husband of Kate McGarrigle, and father of musicians Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, and Lucy Wainwright Roche. There are three live clips below, Loudon performing songs from “History,” plus a fourth recording of “Men,” another tune off the CD that I have mixed feelings about (but what a plaintive voice and melody, kills me every time). Let me know if you like ‘em. He can go deep, and maybe you need to be in the right mood for it, but there are singular lines in these songs that cut to the heart and give it a twist. As a 48-year-old male, someone who has been “culturally marginalized,” my personal blip dropping off the radar, I hold this disk with ever-increasing appreciation. A great artistic achievement.

Also recommended: “Last Man on Earth,” and the soundtrack to “Strange Weirdos: Music from and Inspired by the Film Knocked Up — yes, that’s him playing Doctor Howard in the movie.

See you in September!

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long ago i hit you
we were in the car
you were crazy in the back seat
it had gone too far
and i pulled the auto over
and i hit you with all my might
i knew right away it was too hard and i’d never make it right

i was aiming for your buttock
but i struck your outer thigh
you had on a bathing suit
and right before our eyes
suntanned skin turned crimson
where the hand had hit
and my palm stung from hitting you so hard that i hurt it

against the law in sweden
charges can be filed
here it’s all too common
a parent hits a child

on your face i saw the shock
and then i saw the pain
then i saw the look of fear
the fear i’d strike again
then i saw your anger
your defiant pride
and then i saw one tear drop
the rest you kept inside

i said i was sorry and i tried to clean the slate
but with that blow i’d sewn a seed
and saw it was too late

these days things are awful
between me and you
all we do is argue like
two people who are through
i blame you, your friends, your school, your mother and mtv
last night i almost hit you that blame belongs to me

long ago i hit you
we were in the car
you were crazy in the back seat
it had gone too far
and i pulled the auto over
and i hit you with all my might
i knew right away it was too hard
and i’d never make it right

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There are pictures on the piano,
Pictures of the family,
Mostly my kids but there’s an old
Picture of you and me.
You were five and I was six
In 1952;
That was forty years ago-
How could it be true?

We were sitting outside drawing
At a table meant for cards,
And it must have been in autumn,
Falling leaves in the front yard,
With a shoebox full of crayons,
Full of colors oh so bright,
In a picture in a plastic frame,
A snapshot black and white.

You were looking at my paper,
Watching what I drew;
It was natural: I was older,
Thirteen months more than you.
A brother and a sister,
A little boy and girl,
And whoever took that picture
Captured our own world.

A brother needs a sister
To watch what he can do,
To protect and to torture,
To boss around-it’s true;
But a brother will defend her
For a sister’s love is pure,
Because she thinks he’s wonderful
When he is not so sure.

In the picture there’s a fender
Of our old Chevrolet
Or Pontiac-our dad would know,
Surely he could say;
But dad is dead and we grow old;
It’s true that time flies by;
And in forty years the world has changed
As well as you and I.

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When I was your age I was just like you,
And just look at me now; I’m sure you do.
But your grandfather was just as bad
And you should have heard him trash his dad.
Life’s no picnic, that’s a given:
My mom’s mom died when my mom was seven;
My mom’s father was a tragic guy,
But he was so distant and nobody knows why.
Now, your mother’s family, you know them:
Each and every one a gem,
Each and every one a gem.

When I was your age I was a mess;
On a bad day I still am, I guess.
I think I know what you’re going through;
Everything changes but nothing is new.
And I know that I’m miserable; can’t you see?
I just want you to be just like me.
Boys grow up to be grown men
And then men change back into boys again.
You’re starting up and I’m winding down;
Ain’t it big enough for us both in this town?
Say it’s big enough for us both in this town.

When I was your age I thought I hated my dad
And that the feeling was a mutual one that we had;
We fought each other day and night:
I was always wrong; he was always right.
But he had the power and he needed to win;
His life half over, mine about to begin.
I’m not sure about that Oedipal stuff,
But when we were together it was always rough.
Hate is a strong word; I want to back-track;
The bigger the front, then the bigger the back;
The bigger the front, then the bigger the back.

Now you and me are me and you,
And it’s a different ballgame though not brand-new.
I don’t know what all of this fighting is for;
But we’re having us a teenage/middle-age war.
I don’t want to die and you want to live;
It takes a little bit of take and a whole lot of give.
It never really ends though each race is run,
This thing between a father and a son.
Maybe it’s power and push and shove,
Maybe it’s hate but probably it’s love,
Maybe it’s hate but probably it’s love.

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When a ship is sinking and they lower the lifeboats
And hand out the life jackets, the men keep on their coats
The women and the children are the ones who must go first
And the men who try to save their skins are cowards and are cursed

Every man’s a captain, men know how to drown
Man the lifeboats if there’s room, otherwise go down

And it’s the same when there’s a war on: it’s the men who go to fight
Women and children are civilians, when they’re killed it’s not right
Men kill men in uniform, its the way war goes
When they run they’re cowards, when they stay they are heroes

Every man’s a general, men go off to war
The battlefields a man’s world, cannon fodders what they’re for

It’s the men who have the power, it’s the men who have the might
And the world’s a place of horror because each man thinks he’s right
A man’s home is his castle so the family let him in
But what’s important in that kingdom is the women and the children

A husband and a father, every man’s a king
But he’s really just a drone, gathers no honey, has no sting
Have pity on the general, the king, and the captain
They know they’re expendable, after all they’re men

The Little League World Series, Some Photos, My Reusable Bag, etc.

Just back from a memorable trip to Williamsport, PA, for the Little League World Series. I’m hooked for life. Here’s a few random snaps . . .

This is the view when we first arrived, coming down a hill from the parking lot, with teams loosening up before the 8:00 Saturday night game, Chula Vista, California, against Russellville, Kentucky. After watching Chula Vista power seven home runs — titanic shots — our jaws were on the floor. Wow.

On Sunday, Nick and Gavin — absolutely thrilled the entire day — watched four consecutive games, Mercer Island, Washington vs. Urbandale,  Iowa; Vancouver, British Columbia vs. Chinese, Taipai; Chula Vista (again!) vs. Peabody, Massachusetts; finally culminating in a match-up between Japan and Curacao, which featured a fascinating contrast in styles and more than a fair share of crazy plays. Was it a great game? Just check out this clip:

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We were right there behind home plate, about the fourth row. And we felt privileged to be there.

I missed some of the game action on Sunday, as I was the guest author at the Little League Museum, signing Mighty Casey and Six Innings. Met a lot of proud parents, thrilled kids, and happy visitors. I can’t recommend this trip enough to baseball-loving families everywhere. Despite the big-time nature of the event, including the top teams in the world and wall-to-wall television coverage, the place gives off a warm family atmosphere and somehow captures the essence of youth sports played at the highest level. The event is run to precision, benefiting from the hard work of 600-700 volunteers who do a tremendous job making sure that each visitor has the best possible experience.

As for me, today, I’m feeling pressure to finish a manuscript and get some administrative Little League things in order (I’m helping to organize “Fall Ball” for our own local league). In addition, we’re heading to a cabin in the Adirondacks for a week this Saturday, so overall it’s a great big CRUNCH.

I have a lot of ideas for this blog after Labor Day. A fabulous interview with a favorite author-slash-storyteller, the lovely, energetic Carmen Deedy, featuring her great (great, great) new book, 14 Cows for America. I also plan to start giving some background info on my upcoming bully-themed book, Bystander (due out September 29th!), and much more.

So a little sporadic this week, then a week off, then we’ll rock and roll.

By the way, I love this . . .

I’m Going to the Little League World Series (but 36 years too late)

As a 12-year-old Little Leaguer, I never dreamed of playing in the Little League World Series. We didn’t  have the sports saturation of ESPN back then, and my World Series dreams were of the Major League variety.

That’s me, back row center, age 12, as a Wantagh Little Leaguer: we were a fearsome squad.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be climbing in the car with Lisa and our three children, driving to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the Little League World Series, televised on ESPN. Best of all, I’ve been invited as a visiting author to sign books and give readings (Mighty Casey and Six Innings), for most of Sunday. I intend to catch a couple of games while I’m there.

Some historical highlights: Little League Baseball was founded in 1939, and the three teams were named after the original three sponsors: Jumbo Pretzel, Lycoming Dairy, and Lundy Lumber. By 1946, it had expanded to include 12 teams, all in Pennsylvania. The Little League World Series was first televised in 1953, with Jim McKay behind the mike . . .

. . . a team from just up the river, Schenectady, New York, lost 1-0 to Birmingham, Alabama. In 1974, LIttle League rules are changed to allow participation by girls . . .

That’s my Maggie. Love the boys in the background, the intensity.

Kirkland, Washington ends Taiwan’s 31-game winning streak in 1982, before 40,000 fans. Nothing much happens for the next 27 years, until the late summer of 2009, when James Preller brings his family to the World Series.

Thank you, Feiwel and Friends, for the gas money and more. Thank you, the good folks at the Little League Museum, for inviting me.

Now let’s play ball!

This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever: Laser School Photos

I found this site the other day, We Have Lasers!!!!!!!!!! (yes, ten exclamation points), which holds some of the same appeal found at

There’s not a lot to say. The host of the site runs a line that reads: “You begged your mom to pay the extra $4. A tribute to the greatest school photo backdrop there ever was.”

Here’s some sample shots, sans captions, and you’ll get the idea . . .

The Spectacle Blog

I don’t recall if I ever mentioned The Spectacle Blog, “a place for authors of middle grade and young adult books to discuss writing science fiction, fantasy, and everything else along the spectrum of speculative fiction.”

This relatively new blog, begun in January 2009, is notable, too, for it represents an emerging trend in blogging, the “multiple author blog.”  At this date, the Spectacle’s authors include: Parker Peevyhouse, P.J. Hoover, Jo Whittemore, Greg R. Fishbone, Linda Joy Singleton, Joni Sensel, and Steve Brezenoff. They do a good job, interviews, prizes, games, ponderings, questions, and ruminations about publishing in general. A hearty soup, as you’d expect when seven cooks are in the kitchen.

One of my favorite contributors is Parker Peevyhouse, maybe just because of her name. How do you not like somebody named Parker Peevyhouse? Parker’s first book will be published by Disney-Hyperion, don’t know when. She seems nice, lives in the Bay Area (always a good sign), and has a blogger’s gift for asking questions, rather than giving answers.

I hope P.P. and her battery of lawyers don’t sue me if I quote a recent post in full:

Writing character reactions to shocking events is hard enough when you’re writing realistic fiction. But when you’re writing science fiction and fantasy, it can seem nearly impossible.

Sometimes I get impatient with a character who is processing a shocking event–okay, so you’re actually an alien with telekinetic powers, get over it! I also tend to dislike the “after scene,” in which the character does little more than sit around at home and eat something and Think Things Over.

It’s also a problem when a character doesn’t freak out quite enough (an error I tend toward in my writing). I think back to the scene in the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when young Harry finds out he’s a wizard. The actor sort of gapes and says “I’m a what?” and looks rather dead-eyed despite his best efforts. But how is a person really supposed to understand how that kind of scene would actually play out? It’s hard to imagine the shock of such a realization.

So I ask you… how do you get into a character’s head in order to write a sufficient reaction scene? What novels or stories do you think have scenes realistically portraying shock?

I jumped down to the Comments section, read a few replies, and started tapping out one of my own. Loose, rambling, at times ungrammatical, and too long for the format. I wrote “as” when I meant “if,” and so on. I’m glad it wasn’t an SAT test.

While not very interested in wizards and dragons or the elastic nature of Time, I’ve long fantasized about “having a go”  at Magic Realism. (In my fantasies, apparently, I’m an Englishman from Derbyshire.) I am attracted to the idea of fantasy elements coming in close contact, or collision, with the boots-on-the-ground elements of a detailed, otherwise realistic story. Maybe ever since I read  about that character in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s influential novel, published in 1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude — an aging grandmother out hanging laundry, just floating up into the sky, gone forever.

Fantastical and strange, yes, but somehow a  perfectly poetic truth about loss and the passing of loved ones that could not be better expressed another way.

Anyway, I find myself returning to The Spectacle Blog when I can, and often find something worthwhile. For my ridiculously long response to Parker’s question, click here, and follow the Comments section down the Yellow Brick Road.

From Sketch to Final Art; Final Art to Cover

I’m sure my Nation of Readers will remember this sketch, which I talked about here, fifteen months ago.

Well, lubbers, double quick, set your deadlights on the final art:

“Ahoy, me hearties!” I cried. “Prepare to be boarded!”

Interestingly, in the above final piece the pirates and boy appear rather small, almost lost. But I’m looking at the proofs, which I recently received, and can assure you that, thanks to tight cropping across a two-page spread, it’s anything but the case. You have to see it on the page (a thought to keep in mind during the Dawn of Kindle).

For many artists, rough sketches are exactly that — rough. Sometimes extremely rough — more shape and placement and perspective than detail — to the point when you almost wonder, “Can this person draw?”

Funny, that question never arose when it came to Greg’s rough sketches.

One of the things that editor, Liz Szabla, loved about the art for this book was, in her words, “The pirates look like REAL PIRATES!”

That’s Liz, sometimes she talks in all caps, sometimes italics.


The other day I showed you this:

Below, please find the uncorrected, unapproved — read: still fretting the details, tweaking color tones, debating everything, etc. — cover design. A collaborative effort, indeed, involving the skill of many folks whose names do not appear on the front cover. (Please do click on the image, and double click, to see in greater detail.) I think this is part of what we mean when describing a book as “well published.” The tone of the relationships involved, the professionalism and courtesy, which is always hidden from view, plus the attention to detail throughout the entire process. I’ve experienced a wide range of extremes across the previous 20+ years; these days, I’m just feeling fortunate, because essentially all this good stuff happens without any help from me. To which I can only say, over and over again: Thank you.


NOTE: If this aspect of the creative process is at all interesting to you, and if you are not a long-time reader here, please check out my seven-part series of posts, “What’s in a book cover?” In it, I detail the cover process from concept memo to rough sketch to final cover — including interviews with an editor, art director, and illustrator — of an upcoming Jigsaw Jones title, beginning here.


POSTSCRIPT: Just realized that this is my 300th post since I started this blog, back in May, 2008. Each one, healthy and nutritious and self-absorbed.

Around the Horn: 6 Things & Music Video Friday

1) I thought this was very cool. Six word stories, illustrated!

2) Curious about this book.

3) This helped me rethink the opening of a new story. Nothing new under the sun, but there’s so much under the sun, it helps to get a little focus.

4) Amazing. But eight minutes long . . . is it worth it? Yes, yes, yes.

5) How to make a reader reluctant. (Give it a minute before the story starts in earnest; librarians will be especially glad they caught it.)

6) The last paragraph of this short article features an important reminder.

Thanks for the links: Stiles White via Greg Ruth, Bill Prosser, Dennis Cass, Betsy Bird, Julie Fortenberry, and, yup, my dear friend AOL.


Lastly, as this is Music Video Friday, from a band I am dying to see, “Wake Up,” by Arcade Fire. NOTE: I just realized this song is featured in the “Where the Wild Things Are” trailer, which somehow makes this portion of the post topical, rather than merely self-indulgent.

Look out below!

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Somethin’ filled up
my heart with nothin’,
someone told me not to cry.

But now that I’m older,
my heart’s colder,
and I can see that it’s a lie.

Children wake up,
hold your mistake up,
before they turn the summer into dust.

If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to

I guess we’ll just have to adjust.

With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’
I can see where I am goin’ to be
when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand.

With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’
I can see where I am goin’
With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’
I can see where I am, go-go, where I am

You’d better look out below

Fan Mail Wednesday #58 (Thursday Edition)

Let’s do it!

Dear Mr. Preller,
The Jigsaw Jones Mystery’s that you wrote are100,000,000% Awesome! I want to be a mystery book writer too. It’s so cool that Jigsaw and his partner Mila solve the crime really, really well! I’ve even started my all new crime mystery service and I have codes. How do you write so well?

Your #1 fan, Catherine Holt.

P.S. If you ever see a book called ” Inventions”, That’s my book!

I replied:

Dear Catherine,

YIPPEE! My Number One Fan! That’s so awesome! Where have you been hiding? Last week I heard from my #54,237th fan (he was lukewarm, at best; okay, actually, he was my cousin and wanted to borrow money). Believe me, it was not nearly as thrilling as hearing from my . . . Number . . . One . . . Fan.

Hold on while I jump around and celebrate.

Okay, whew, I’m back.

Seriously, Catherine, thanks for the compliment. It makes me happy. I can’t believe that you’ve got your own Mystery Service. Is there a lot of crime where you live? Maybe you should move to a safer neighborhood.

I made a note of your name, Catherine Holt. And let me tell you, that’s a great name for a writer. A strong name. Catherine Holt, author. No, wait. Catherine Holt, bestselling author. There you go.

I’ll look for your name when I’m in bookstores, and one day I’ll pick up one of your books from the shelves. I’ll remember this letter, and think, “Wow, my number one fan . . . she really did it!”

And I’ll write you a nice letter. Maybe even become your #1 fan.

Enjoy the rest of your summer, Catherine Holt, and good luck in school next year!

My best,


PS: Here’s two quick codes for you. The first is an alternate letter code, the second is an IPPY code.



If you can solve them, put the answers in the comments section. If not, I’ll wait a week and put them in myself.

Cover Art by Greg Ruth for “A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade”

One of the ruling ideas behind this blog is to document the working life of a writer. I try to skip the boring parts, of which there are many. But one thing that is never dull is when I first glimpse finished art for a book. About four years after I completed the manuscript for A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade (Feiwel & Friends, Fall, 2010), along comes the final cover art by the astonishingly talented, Greg Ruth. Obviously, art director Rich Deas hasn’t done his part of it yet, settling on a typeface and other design elements. So let me get this out of the way right now: Rich, my name should be bigger! I’m thinking GIANT TYPE, maybe orange neon, maybe with those sparkly bits they used on The Rainbow Fish. Definitely embossed. And, um, can there be fireworks included? Like instead of the letter “L,” there’d be actual bottle rockets? Which kids can light off. I’m just brainstorming here, typing out loud.

That said, take a gander at this:

I wrote the story right around the time Pirates were “hot,” and Jean Feiwel wasn’t sure if it could make it in the cluttered marketplace. She held onto it, and waited. I finally wrote to her and asked, “So . . . ?”

Jean decided to take it — after all, she liked it — and bide her time, determined to pair it with an illustrator who could do something fresh and original with it. She found Greg Ruth. And I was like, “Who?”

I looked up some of Greg’s work, here and here and, amazingly, here, and was blown away. Lucky me, lucky book. Impressively, Jean and Liz decided to let Greg stretch out his illustrations across 48 pages, rather than the traditional 32. Here’s another piece of finished art that will appear in our book, when — “Arrrr!” — the pirate-obsessed boy wakes up for the first day of school. Note: Be sure to click on the art to see it in full glorious detail.


Shiver me timbers, what a slobberin’ moist mornin’!

Me great scurvy dog slurped me kisser

when I was tryin’ t’ get me winks!

To read an interview with Greg, click here. And don’t miss Greg’s new book, Our Enduring Spirit (HarperCollins, Fall, 2009), where he illustrates President Obama’s inaugural address.

I Need a Book Suggestion

Lurkers, uncloak! I’m working on a story that features a relationship with a young,  earnest teacher and a boy who tends to do inappropriate things in the classroom. He gets in trouble a lot. They butt heads. The new teacher, clinging to his authority, is afraid to let loose, afraid to smile. No one is having a good time.

In the end, they come together. But that’s a process, as you know, not a Golden Moment. So it hit me that  they could bond over a funny book. The teacher loves literature; the boy, Justin, loves to laugh. Maybe the right book could bring them together . . . just a little. Or at least help break the ice.

But: Which book? Any suggestions? I’m thinking about a title that would definitely be read and enjoyed in a fifth-grade classroom.

A little help, please.