Archive for October 29, 2009

BYSTANDER: A Shout Out to Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”

Eric Hayes, the main character in Bystander, plays guitar. He’s also missing an absent father, who occasionally sends CDs in the mail. Here’s a brief excerpt from Chapter 4, the first time that subplot is explored. To set up the scene: Eric’s father calls the family at their new home, five hundred miles away. The conversation does not go well; 13-year-old Eric is uncommunicative. The phone call ends.

Click, and he was gone, again. Call over.

Eric looked at the phone in his hand, shot daggers at his mom, snapped it shut. He went into the kitchen, looked for something to eat. A bowl of Rice Krispies, some pretzels, anything.

His mother barked something about dinner being almost ready, and not to spoil his appetite. Rag, rag, rag. So he grabbed his iPod instead,  slid open the back door, and parked himself in a lawn chair. Eric turned the music up, let it pour into him, fill him up. He had downloaded the songs from his dad’s CDs. Eric did not curse, or cry, or seem to feel much of anything. It was all just a swirling mass, a crazy mess inside his numb skull. He closed his eyes and heard Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page pick out the first notes of “Communication Breakdown,” rapid-fire like a machine gun on the open E string, before hitting three big chords, D-A-D. Then singer Robert Plant’s siren wail: “Hey, girl, stop what you’re doin’!”

It had rained and some worms crawled from their holes out onto the brick patio. Eric grabbed a stick and idly poked at one, turning it over. That’s how he felt, he decided. Just like that worm. Pushed around, prodded by a stick. After a while he’d crawl back into his hole. And then, in a few days, off to school. A new hole with red bricks and homework.

It would be a fresh start. A new beginning. Isn’t that what his mom said? New and improved. Guaranteed or your money back.

I hit on that particular song, “Communication Breakdown,” for maybe too obvious of reasons. But ignoring the song’s title for a minute, it’s on the first Led Zeppelin LP. I remember listening to that album as a young kid, staring at that cover — which depicted, I later learned, the 1937 burning of the Hindenburg airship. This was probably around 1971 or so, when as the youngest of seven I reveled in my siblings’ record collections. It wasn’t classic rock back then; it was brand spanking new.

Though I’m not a musician, my character, Eric, played guitar — so I knew he’d hear it differently than I did. Eric would understand the notes, what Jimmy Page was doing. I figured I’d have to look up the tabs, maybe describe it through Eric’s ears, the way a musician might hear it.

That’s when I learned that part about the open E string. Then those three fat chords: D-A-D.


Perfect, right? It could have been G-F-G, or whatever, and that’s what I would have typed. I’m glad it worked out way better. A happy accident.

Note: If you want to rock, stick around for the solo, at 0:49. Can’t wait for my Gavin, age 10, to learn how to play this all the way through, and believe me, it’s gonna happen. The kid’s got talent.

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By the way, came across this review today. I’m always glad when they spell my name correctly:

“Preller displays a keen awareness of the complicated and often-conflicting instincts to fit in, find friends, and do the right thing. Although there are no pat answers, the message (that a bystander is hardly better than an instigator) is clear, and Preller’s well-shaped characters, strong writing, and realistic treatment of middle-school life deliver it cleanly.”Booklist.

A Bad Break: Some Photos

It’s basketball season. We’ve got two kids on travel teams, Gavin (5th grade), and Maggie (3rd grade). Plus, there’s the rec league for Nick (11th) and Gavin. My wife, Lisa, played hoops in college — team captain! — and coached AAU and high school teams for many years. She’s over 6-1, has sharp elbows, and loves the game. So in addition to her demanding job as a midwife, and her vocation as a Super Mom, Lisa is coaching two teams: Gavin’s rec team and Maggie’s travel team. She’s so busy we have to call a “time out” in order to have a conversation.

When in passing we glance at our family calendar in the wild hope of finding some Jimmy & Lisa Time, it looks like this:

I’m not complaining. I often remind myself they grow up fast, we’ll miss these days when they are gone. And also: I don’t want to be the guy who complains through the best years of his life.

Anyway, Maggie just experienced a minor setback (we were playing soccer in the front yard).

That’s all right. Maggie practiced last night with the cast — didn’t shoot too well, but she was out there — and it comes off in a couple of weeks. Frankly, I’m more concerned about losing Maggie’s help with the leaves. She loves driving the John Deere and helping her dad. Right now, in addition to everything else, we’ve got leaves out the wazoo.

No plans yet to write a basketball book — I hear the title Travel Team has already been taken — but I guess it’s just a matter of time. It would be nice to focus on the girls, don’t you think?

Fan Mail Wednesday #66

Let’s get to it. I’ll plunge my hand into the giant barrel I keep beside my desk . . .  let’s see what we have here . . . a fish? Oops, wrong barrel. I use that one for target practice. Okay, next barrel. It’s a letter from a mother and a daughter in New Hampshire. And sadly, they are quarreling. Stand back, folks. Put on your protective goggles. This is a job for a trained professional — disputes of this nature can tear a family apart.

Dear Mr. Preller,

My 9 year old daughter, Sarah,  has to do a school project and design a small pumpkin to look like the main character in her book report, Jigsaw Jones! This could be quite interesting! However, the problem is we’re having difficulty finding out what color hair he actually has. We’re torn between brown and orange in our house. We were hoping you might be able to answer this for us. Thanks…we love reading your books!

Sharon & Sarah

I replied:


Jigsaw has brown hair. At times it does look a little light, but I’ve never thought of him as red- or orange-haired.

I’d love to see a photo of the final pumpkin!


And thus, domestic serenity is restored. Thank you, thank you very much. Mom soon wrote back — typing with a damaged digit — and included photos!

Hi Mr. Preller,

I’ve attached pictures of Sarah’s final project. Her fourth grade class had to read a book with a mystery and then create this project. On each index card are various topics: information about the book itself, setting, characters, main character and the mystery.  The cards had to be attached to the pumpkin which was to be created any way the kids wanted to look like the main character in the story.  Although I told you my children do their own projects, I lied…I did end up having to help Sarah with this one as the blue cap was a bit tricky with the glue gun! Plus, after letting her use the glue gun and her applying hot glue to my thumb instead of her project I sort of took back control to the weapon!

Anyhow, thanks for taking the time to respond . . . . my children, ages 10, 9, 7 and 4, all thought it was “SO COOL” that we received an email from you!

Sharon & Sarah

As I later wrote to Sharon: “I love this!” I mean, okay, it’s a little bizarre, I’ll admit it, but I’m honored nonetheless. It took me a minute to realize that Jigsaw had a magnifying glass, which came as a relief, since at first I wondered why Jigsaw was smoking a Cuban cigar.

Arrrrr: Greg Ruth’s “52 Weeks Project” Revisited

One of life’s little pleasures is the email I receive each week from illustrator Greg Ruth, as part of his second annual “52 Weeks Project.” Each weekly missive includes a brief note from Greg — who has a writing style, and a way of thinking, all his own — and a new, original illustration.

If you wish to get in on the fun, just go to his site (links below), email Greg directly, and ask to be added to the mailing list. In addition, you can view the entirety of last year’s “52 Weeks Project” . . . or visit Greg’s storefront to purchase one of the originals. Last year, I bought this baby, cheap. And if you’d like to join Greg’s freakish cult message board community, sign in here.

Here’s today’s note and picture:

One of the things about old 18th century portraiture that I truly love is the weird and oftentimes dangerous allegory within them. The clearly staged scenes always have this sense that we’ve caught our subject either returning from some deed or about to embark on one. Picking up on that, this dubious young lad seems clearly at the ready to storm any breach, open window or galleon’s starboard. Sullied from a recent scuffle or self-damage flowered from boredom in the suburbs… I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Perhaps Greg still has pirates on the mind, since he’s fresh off illustrating our upcoming picture book, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade (Feiwel and Friends, July, 2010). Perhaps he’s feeling untethered, unbound by the restrictions of the picture book audience. There’s no dripping blood in our little book, of that you can be assured!

This has been a public service announcement.

What Is a Book for Boys? One Suggestion: “Patrick and Ted” by Geoffrey Hayes

I’ve been dwelling lately on the concept of “books for boys.” It’s a huge topic, one that I can’t possibly address in a single blog entry. I mean, yes, we’re all aware of the gender gap in reading, that many teachers and parents struggle to inspire in their boys a love for reading. There’s been progress made, an awareness that boys are different from girls, and that their tastes in books often reflect those differences. Enlightened teachers are allowing boys to self-select more of their own reading material; graphic novels are gaining popularity and respect; and so on.

Bu when I encounter lists of “books for boys,” I’m often left deeply dissatisfied — even troubled. Because these well-intentioned lists are often guided by limited stereotypes: boys like action, boys like trucks, bodily humor, adventure, violence, etc. Okay, true enough. But these lists led us to an extremely narrow view of what a boy is, and what a boy could be. What about friendship stories? What about sensitivity to others? Gentleness? Don’t boys love their mothers, don’t they struggle with relationships, don’t they ever feel lonely or afraid?

I’ve been thinking about an old favorite book, Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes. It is out of print. I first encountered this quiet little picture book back in the 80’s, when I wrote copy for the SeeSaw Book Club, edited by Craig Walker. Yet it has lingered in my memory ever since. I think it’s a perfect story, one of the few books I wish I’d written. So I finally got around to purchasing a used copy. Let’s take a look at it:

Whoops. Because the image is not available on the internet for screen capture, we’ll have to go to my cheap scanner. My apologies to Mr. Hayes — and to you, Dear Reader — for the darkness, the low resolution. The actual book looks a lot better.

It is the story of two boys, best friends. They did everything together, even quarrel sometimes. But those brief spats did not matter . . . “because Ted was Patrick’s best friend, and Patrick was Ted’s.”

Then, one summer things changed . . .

A quick aside: This is such a classic story format, and a great model for new (and veteran!) writers. So many stories begin by establishing a timeless permanence. The well-ordered past, where time is frozen and things are always true. We meet the character, or the place, find out what he or she or it is like. And somewhere along the line we turn the page to find a phrase like this: “And then one day . . .” The story leaps into the present moment (if not literally the present tense). Now the real story begins. I think of these as “and then one day” stories. You’ll find that  structure everywhere.

Back to those best friends, Patrick and Ted. One summer, Ted goes to stay with his aunt and uncle at their farm. He even advises Patrick, “Don’t let anyone else use our hideout.

Patrick is sad and lonely.

But as the days pass, he makes new friends, has new experiences. He joins in with others, he goes to the movies with Mama Bear, he plays alone.

A hideout of his own. Patrick is learning something valuable here, something vitally important.

Then, happy day, Ted returns — with two pet geese!

I love that sentence: “They were loud and quick, and Patrick did not like them.”

The boys argue, get angry with each other — Patrick pushes Ted against their hideout! — but they resolve the conflict to play happily together once again.

And yet there’s been a fundamental shift. Their world has changed . . . inside and out.

“. . . because Ted was still Patrick’s best friend, and Patrick was Ted’s.”

End of story. And by the way, isn’t that great, when you look back at the book, those two illustrations of the swing? First we see Patrick in solitude, seated on the swing, motionless. On the last page of the book we see the swing again: Patrick is smiling, swinging high, pushed by his friend. Again: just right.

Is this not a book for boys? My guess is you won’t find it on many lists. So when we try to serve boy readers, let’s not be so quick to put them in a box labeled, “What Boys Like.” Let’s remember that they have feelings, and struggle with friendships — that they experience confusing emotions — just like everybody else.

One of my favorite comments about my book, Along Came Spider, came in a blog review by Karen at Literate Lives. It was the first time anyone had reviewed the book:

I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendships and themselves, so it was a delightful surprise to find and read an advance review copy of a book that deals with boys trying to find where they belong in Along Came Spider, by James Preller (due out September 2008).

Interesting, isn’t it? It came as a surprise to the reviewer, a fifth-grade teacher, to find a book that dealt with content typically found in a book for girls. Things like friendship, discovery of self, fitting in. Does that mean Spider, like Patrick and Ted, is destined for obscurity, the furnace where “out-of-print” books go to die? Perhaps so. Perhaps it’s not a book that most boys will naturally pick up. I mean: I realize that it isn’t. Just as I know that a book titled “Patrick and Ted” isn’t going to bring boys clamoring. But I can’t believe that when they read it, they won’t see themselves reflected in those pages.

It is, after all, a book for children.


To learn more about Geoffrey Hayes, click here to read an interview.

He is also featured at everyone’s favorite blog, the always great Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, just click like crazy right here.

And thank you, Geoffrey Hayes, for writing and illustrating that wonderful book.

Harvey Milk on “Hope”

I found this quite by accident. Lucky day, I guess . . .

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This is known as “The Hope Speech,” but I understand Milk gave many variations of this speech for years. I believe this version comes from a speech he gave soon after his 1977 election to a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay elected official in the United States.

When he was walking among us, and I was in high school, I failed to fully realize that he was a true American hero. Is he in the school textbooks today? When we talk about great civil rights leaders, surely there’s room for Harvey Milk. I can’t imagine learning about American history without hearing his voice. Just listen to those words . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #65 (Friday Edition)

I debated whether I should include this or not, as it’s something of a cheat. I am friends with the writer of this letter — we’ll call her Nell, as that’s her name — so she’s biased in my favor. Even so, Nell is a dedicated teacher and this note says all the things I hoped to hear. I can’t help but share it.

Hi Jim,

This is my first time checking out your blog.  Lots of great stuff!  I am enjoying the extra time afforded by a Columbus Day (I know many parents, like you, cringe at a day off of school already, but we teachers love it), to slow down from the hectic back-to-school pace and do some of the reading and things I want to do, not have to do.  Apple picking with the kids is next on the list.

After reading Lestor Betor’s email to you, I thought I would share with you my class’s reaction to Along Came Spider.

I decided to begin the school year with Along Came Spider as our class read aloud.  I thought it would be a good way to engage in conversations about how we want our fifth grade classroom to be. Just last week we read the part where Spider asks Trey to give him some space at school and maybe they could just be friends at home and our read aloud discussion erupted.  The kids who were sitting back glassy eyed, who I didn’t think were really listening, but dreaming more about what they would do when the dismissal bell rang in 15 minutes, were leaning forward hands waving wanting to share their thoughts about Spider, Trey and Ryan’s actions and reactions. They were so eager to share their stories of how it feels to be left out, made fun of and ignored, and it has been a great springboard for conversations on bullying, respect and doing the right thing. They can’t wait to find out what Spider is going to do.

I am looking forward to reading Bystander, and I am sure many of my students will go to it after finishing Along Came Spider.

Take care,

Instead of replying to Nell’s email, I think I’ll just drive over to her house to give her a hug. Or maybe, if her husband, Matt, is home,  just offer Nell a couple of books for the classroom instead. We’re trying to keep the hugging thing on the down-low.

BYSTANDER: A 2009 Junior Library Guild Selection

I received a curious package in the mail today, a padded envelope from the Junior Library Guild. It included a congratulatory letter from Jeanette Rivard, stating in part:

In keeping with our goal of providing extraordinary reading experiences for children, Bystander has been awarded the designation, “A Junior Library Guild Selection” for Fall 2009.

The Junior Library Guild Selection designation is unique in that it is typically awarded so early — often in advance of publication. With its distinction as one of the first awards given, it is often viewed as a bellwether of future success.

That’s some word, bellwether. It means: a male sheep, usually castrated, with a bell hung from its neck, that is followed by a flock of sheep. Well, my goodness, thank you very much, I think (as I slowly cross my legs).

The package also included a nifty JLG lapel pin, pinned now to my t-shirt, and a handsome certificate “suitable for framing.”

What? No bell?

Hey, pretty cool. Casting aside thoughts of castrated sheep, I thank you very much! Now if only we can get the rest of those pesky awards to fall in line. Baaa.


His name was Ben and he was waiting for me when I arrived at Blue Creek Elementary. Ben was holding my book, Six Innings, in his hands.

Could you . . . ?” a teacher asked.

Yes, yes, of course.

So we ducked into the empty library, where Ben and I could have a few moments together. I was told that Ben had osteosarcoma, the same illness contracted by a character, Sam Reiser, in my book.

We talked quietly. I told Ben about my oldest boy, Nicholas, a sixteen-year-old who had gone through five years of chemotherapy. “He’s doing great now,” I said. “Healthy, strong.” Both boys shared the same oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Pearce. I explained that Dr. Pearce helped me with Six Innings, and showed him where I thanked her in the acknowledgments. We agreed that she was very kind.

Ben was gentle, he smiled often, there was softness in his eyes: a sweet boy. And all the while, Ben looked at me as if I was the one who was special. As a writer, sometimes by some miracle you touch someone. But with Ben it was different. He was the one who left a lasting mark — on me and so many others.

I learned last week that Ben passed away, October 12th, 2009. He was nine years old.

I did not attend Ben’s wake. I was told by one of his teachers that among the objects displayed was a signed copy of my book. The story meant something to Ben. He may have related to Sam’s experience. “It’s been so hard,” Sam confided in the book’s last pages. But Ben probably most enjoyed the baseball, the humor, the fun of boys at play.

Ben was probably similar to my Nick. At least that’s what I saw, as I blinked back tears, when I looked into Ben’s eyes. Back when we first gathered to explain to Nick, at age nine, that he had relapsed with leukemia — that the cancer was back — Nick sat and listened quietly. Dr. Pearce laid out the protocol, the path Nick’s life would take over the next two years. This will happen, then this will happen, and then this will happen. Like a story unfolding, though no one could say with certainty how it would end. Dr. Pearce asked if Nick had any questions. Nick did. “Can I go to my friend’s house now?” he asked. That seemed to me, then and now, the perfect reaction.

I saw Ben only twice that day, once alone in a library, once as part of a larger group. But I’m looking at him now.

I’ll always remember the few minutes I spent with Ben Stowell.

Ben’s family has established The Ben Fund to assist other families dealing with childhood cancers, c/o HSBC, Latham Branch, 494 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, NY 12110. Ben leaves behind a twin brother, James, and his parents, Stacey and Tim. My heart goes out to them.

James Preller Interviews . . . Carmen Deedy, author of “14 Cows for America”

I was happy when I came across the book, 14 Cows for America, written by a long-lost friend, author and storyteller Carmen Deedy. We’ve since exchanged a few emails, caught up on our lives (to the extent that’s possible), and shared the unlikely hope that maybe someday we’ll find ourselves in same place at the same time. Usual stuff: “We’ll have lunch!” To date, it’s happened exactly once. In the meantime, Carmen is someone I’ll be rooting for, cheering from the sidelines. A true talent and a smart, singular woman. Today, I’m glad you’ll get to meet her. Because look, here she comes now . . .

Carmen, wow, great to see you again. We’ve met only once, a long time ago. Was it Paris, sometime after the war?

The Germans wore grey, I wore blue –– or was it plaid?

Oh, wait, I remember now. It was at a convention center in Raleigh. My bad. It’s so easy to confuse the two. So it’s been about fifteen years. At that time, as I recall, you had recently published The Library Dragon. Between then and now, your career has really blossomed.

That’s a generous assessment, old friend. Actually, I spent a whole lot of years as a single mom, and for nearly five of them I did very little writing.  School author visits, a good bit of editing, but writing? Not so much. Getting three lovely and creative and maddening young women through adolescence while keeping the roof over our collective heads pretty much sucked every ounce of creative life out of me. “I am woman, hear me whimper,” was the sum and substance of my feminist credo in those days.

I’m fuzzy on the timeline. You’re an internationally known storyteller who has performed at The Kennedy Center and the Folger Shakespeare Library.  You gave a talk to the TED folks –- and I’m pretty sure they invite only brilliant people with fertilizer ideas worth spreading. You were (or still are?) a regular contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Did that all happen after the girls were grown?

Nope. Just wasn’t doing a great deal of writing. The aforementioned events were short and sweet and helped bring in the bacon, as it were. But I couldn’t seem to carve  out many stretches of time to write during those years.

Do you see yourself as primarily a storyteller, rather than a writer? What’s the distinction?

The distinction? Um, the WRITING STUFF DOWN part. Storytelling, on the other hand, is the ancient art of live narrative. In other words, someone (preferably carbon-based, as opposed to a dvd, mp3, etc.) opens his or her mouth and, without props, video enhancement, sets or backdrops, or fellow performers, conjures up an entire world –– makes something out of nothing if you will –– employing only the spoken word.

Ah, but I didn’t answer your question.  Do I think of myself as a writer or a storyteller? Short answer: a writer. Nonetheless, one art form informs the other.

How does a person become a professional storyteller? Do you just hang out a sign on the front lawn? I mean, forgive me, but it seems like such a phony baloney job. Bankers must look at you and say, “You re a . . . what?!”

My dear Mr. Preller, if I am applying for a loan, I never say I’m a storyteller (and, by the by, saying you’re a writer doesn’t gain you much traction with the banking lot either).  I say raconteur. It’s sooooo continental.

I know as a writer of children’s books, I’ll often get those baffled looks from some folks at parties after they ask the usual question: “So: What DO you DO?” You know who I mean, the guy in the suit with the big job. And he’ll always follow up my answer with another question, not even bothering to feign disinterest, “Any books I might know?” This from a guy you can’t imagine having read a children’s book –- even as a kid. So I’ll answer something like, “How ‘bout those Yankees!”

I think it’s pretty common for most people, particularly those who don’t make their living from writing, to read a children’s book and think, “Piece of cake.” When I hear that, I usually smile sweetly, lean in, and whisper, “Dare ya.” The truth is, of course, that children’s picture books do not occupy the same place in the literary world as, say, the works of Leo Tolstoy. But you do have to say a lot with a little — and in that respect, writing a picture book is kind of like taking War and Peace — and turning it into a haiku.

When you started as a storyteller, an old friend came to see one of your early shows. Afterward, she told you, “The truth? I don’t think you’re a storyteller.” How did you overcome that? Is there enough ice cream in the world to heal that wound?

Never underestimate the curative powers of Rocky Road, my friend.

Where do the stories come from?

Brooklyn, NY. It’s the last place you look. But I suppose you want an answer that’s a bit more serious-minded, so I will say this: stories swirl around us constantly: in the subway, at the lunch counter, around the corner from the cereal aisle. They are everywhere, vying for the writer’s attention. Tragically, I can be a mite distractible; I know I’ve let some great ones pass me by.

Your new book, Carmen, 14 Cows for America . . . wow.

What a remarkable story, beautifully told. It’s already gotten some great press. You must be thrilled.

I am very happy that it’s been so well received.

There are a lot of great lines in the book, but the ones that conclude the book really hit me:

“Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded,

nor a people so small that they cannot offer mighty comfort.”

Those words were especially resonant, like a bright, burning quiver shot to the heart. Do you remember when you first wrote those words? Did you realize –- you must have realized! -– how good it was at the first instant?

I have a nameless elementary school girl to thank for that.  Not the precise words, of course, but the sentiment. She reminded me of Aesop’s fable –– the lion and the mouse –– big things need small things, said she. From the mouth of babes.

Yes, but you heard her. You listened. Maybe that’s the real secret to good writing.

Maybe. Then again, maybe I just got lucky.

It’s an interesting perspective to think of 14 Cows as a retelling of “The Lion and the Mouse.” How did the book come about?

I read about the gift in April of 2002 in The New York Times. I sat on my porch stoop and wept. It would be many years and a great deal of research later before I would hold a finished manuscript and eventually find the protagonist, Kimeli Naiyomah, and ask for his blessing. Little did I know that he would join us as a sort of cultural consultant, and even adding his own end note to the book. It has been, in many ways, an strange and wondrous and indescribable journey.

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To me, with such a huge story, I’m impressed by your economy of language. I would have been overwhelmed, not knowing where or how to begin. How did you find that voice? Did you have a first sentence, an image? I guess I’m asking, what was the door that first opened for you, allowing you into the story?

I was at the Carson McCullers House, in Columbus, Georgia.

I had been granted a writing fellowship and was having a devil of a time getting the story down. I should note here that this was, by now, 2007. I had notes, articles, documentaries, and sundry documents that I had compiled and hauled to Columbus; it amounted to years of research and only served to further overwhelm me. I wasn’t new to picture book writing and well knew the perimeters. I had fewer than 32 pages to work with. I was near despair, when I woke up one morning and reminded myself that this was a story for children, and needed to be told simply, just as I would have liked to hear the story when I was a child. To sustain a sense of immediacy, I opted for the present tense. That kept it simple, as well.

Well, you succeeded brilliantly. Lightning round. Five favorite foods?

My mom’s arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), Vietnamese Bubble Tea, chicken pot pie, watercress salad, Thai mango and sticky rice,  coq au vin,  my dad’s empanadas . . . sorry. It’s not that I can’t count, it’s just that I LOVE food.

Nobody makes a good chicken pot pie anymore.

Or yeast rolls. What ever happened to yeast rolls in school cafeterias? Now it’s low-fat granola bars. I tell you, my friend, we are witnessing the de-evolution of our race.

As my mother would say, “We’re going to hell in a hand basket.” Still one of my favorite expressions. I love channeling my parents that way, filling my mouth with their words. Now that my father is gone, I make a point of keeping those echoes bouncing around. It’s strangely satisfying to repeat a phrase that he used to say, keep it alive, like a postcard with “Love always” written on the back.

I know what you mean about those voices that linger in our heads. My wonderful and wickedly wise dad love of Cuban aphorisms. Among my favorites: Our wine may be bitter, but it’s our wine. (This one in 7th grade when I was complaining about my mother, my hair, zits, and the banality of reading Steinbeck.) He who laughs alone is remembering his own mischief. (This, when I caught him sitting at his desk, howling to himself, in what he thought was a solitary moment. I never learned what marvelous memory he was recalling, but it only served to increase his mystique as a Man of Mystery.) And my favorite, one that touches on love and true camaraderie, When you cry, I taste salt.

That’s a beautiful line. Of course, the bitter wine aphorism reminds me of a great line spoken by Lt. Frank Drebin in “The Naked Gun” movie: “It’s a topsy-turvy world, and maybe the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans. But this is our hill. And these are our beans!” Next impossible question: Five favorite books?

Shadow of the Wind, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Charlotte’s Web, Great Expectations, The Book of Unholy Mischief.

A diverse, challenging list. What do you admire most about Dickens, or if you prefer, Great Expectations?

Well (coyly), one of my new books (not out yet) is about a street cat, a tower raven, and Charles Dickens. I just re-read Great Expectations this summer, and there were places  where I laughed out loud. What a wordsmith, what a keen observer of human nature. Dickens made you see the human being within the characters. Why, even the loathsome and repulsive Miss Haversham (the elder) becomes a pitiable creature by book’s end. And his descriptions, and the marvelous names for his characters . . . ya know, I AM aware that it’s not cool to love Dickens anymore. I mean, a full page devoted to describing a room? But, oh, what a room . . . (I am officially out of the nerd closet now, and I want you to know I’m okay with that.)

Five things about your native homeland, Cuba, that you miss?

My family, heat that penetrates your bones, my first language, cobble stone streets made for perambulation, the sea and its sticky brine perfume.

Politics, briefly: What is your hope for the future of American-Cuban relations? I have a friend from England, a drummer, who visits all the time and loves it there. I’m jealous of him, and jealous of Sky Masterson.

I wish there was openness. Am I wrong about that?


Okay, you are on your front porch at your home in Georgia, peaceful under the stars. There’s a song playing and a drink in your hand. What’s the song? What’s the drink?

Carlos Gardel singing “Volver” . . .

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. . . accompanied by a whiskey and soda, twist of lime.

Thank you very much, Carmen. It’s really great to catch up with you again. I mean this: I’m so proud of you and all that you have done with this lovely, meaningful book. I hope it finds a place in every library in America. As a parting gift, please accept this (still warm!) cheeseburger from Sonic Drive-In.*

Does it come with plantains?

* No Masai cows were injured in the making of this cheeseburger.

Note: If you enjoyed this interview with Carmen Deedy, you might also like this recent interview with author Lewis Buzbee.

Let’s close with Carmen telling a story . . . for that happy-go-lucky TED crowd.

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