Archive for November 30, 2009

Around the Web: Bystander, The Kidlitosphere, and a Grand Conversation

I confess: I sometimes have misgivings about the kidlitosphere. At times it feels like just another clique, and one dominated by women. I recognize that one woman’s ceiling is another woman’s floor; a “clique” could easily be described as a “community” — a source of strength and positivity.

There’s nothing wrong with women, of course. It’s just that I’m a guy. I have a male point of view. For example, the writers I most love tend to be men. Actually, that’s not true: They are men. I’m just like that second grade boy who won’t pick up a Junie B. Jones book (I know, I have two sons, and I’ve tried to press those books in their hands). If it seems like girl stuff, I’m not all that interested. Or at least, there are hurdles, dispositions, to overcome. Sorry. I have a gender bias. That’s not news, right?

The nature of this clique, or community, has always been at the center of the children’s book world, back from my earliest days as a junior copywriter at Scholastic in the late 80’s. Women, women everywhere. They were the editors, the librarians, the teachers, the reviewers —  and now, the bloggers.

Just to make myself crazy, I did a quick look at the 101 names listed as judges of the Cybils. By my estimation, which involved a little guesswork, 86 of them are women. That’s a lot, right? I’m not complaining, exactly, and I certainly don’t blame anybody.  If more men were around, then . . . more men would be around. It’s our fault: guys need to step up or shut up, I suppose.

I don’t know if I have a thesis point. I’m mostly just typing out loud. Other than to say that as a man in a woman-dominated kidlitosphere, I feel like an outsider. And I wonder if there might be some connection to boys and reading. If they feel as disconnected as I sometimes do.

Yet through this blog I’ve made some meaningful connections. A few friendships here and there. Last year I was invited to Dublin, Ohio, by Bill and Karen from Literate Lives. I still go back to their blog from time to time, because they inspire me with their enthusiasm, their dedication, their sense of purpose. Clicking on today, I saw that Bystander was the recent topic of discussion on a Tuesday night, as part of Bill’s annual “Grand Discussion” series. Check it out, here.

Bill even sent me this photo:

I was supposed to be a part of it, through an iChat link-up. But I couldn’t figure out the technology in time, to my great disappointment. If there was a lake next to my computer, you would have heard a groan of frustration followed by a splash. It’s one more hurdle I’m going to have to figure out, because it seems like a great way to connect with readers.

Thank you, Bill, for the friendship and the support.

——-

In other news, Musings of a Book Addict recently reviewed Bystander and had some nice things to say. But that’s assumed, isn’t it? I mean, if she didn’t have nice things to say, I wouldn’t link to it. I’m superficial that way.

For the full review, click here. For those short on time, here’s the money quote:

I see the problem of bullying in my school everyday. Sometimes it takes the form of a kid saying something mean to another. Sometimes it is a child saying something nasty about the other kid’s parents. All of it is a form of bullying. However, most kids don’t realize that just standing around saying nothing, doing nothing, when they witness bullying is just as bad. This was an awesome book and one I look forward to placing on my shelves at school.

This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever: Rules for My Unborn Son

Just discovered this blogand this book! — and I really like it. Surprisingly, it’s not all snark and wisecracks; most of the advice is almost traditional, but with a modern sensibility. There’s wit here, certainly, but heart also.

A few of my recent favorites (and I’ve only read about a 1/4 of the 400-plus rules so far):

409. A handshake beats an autograph.

405. No one wants to watch you practice the guitar.

401. You can do your homework after you finish playing outside.

400. In pickup hoops, let someone else call the fouls.

397. Don’t jog shirtless.

394. Try to lose the adverbs. Seriously.

9. Stand up for the little guy.

Great stuff, enjoy. And yes, I’m eyeballing that book as a Christmas present for a born son.

Bystander: Chapter 2 (and some thoughts on adverbs)

Click here in case you missed Chapter 1 a couple of weeks back — that is, I mean, if you want to. And don’t worry, there are 34 Chapters in the book; I’m not going to give away the entire thing.

One note about craft: I made it my mission to eliminate adverbs, particularly where it concerned dialogue. It’s interesting to me how that rigor affected tone, helped give it a  lean directness. It even affected the chapter titles, which are all one word in length: ketchup, school, slander, friend, shiner, locker, threat, etc. The narrator doesn’t often explain what characters are thinking, doesn’t intrude. There it is, this is what they are doing; good dialogue delivers the meaning without ornamentation. Let the reader figure out the whys and wherefores. Removing adverbs also forces you to demand more of your verbs; it forces you, I think, to write better. When it comes to dialogue, I favor “said” in most cases. Again, that conscious choice is about invisibility — the writer getting out of the way. So when Eric thinks at the end of the chapter, No choice at all, he doesn’t think it “immediately” or “sadly” or “angrily” or “remorsefully” or “suddenly.” He just thinks it.

On a side note, I recently finished a book for a different publisher where a copyeditor kept trying to insert adverbs into the final revise. And I kept hitting delete, delete, delete. Don’t get me wrong. The copyeditor helped in many ways, suggesting improvements throughout. I’m grateful for the help. But adverbs in dialogue? Almost always the answer is no, no, no.

2

[pretty]

THEY CAME SOON AFTER, AS ERIC HAD GUESSED they might. Four of them on bicycles. Three boys and a girl.

Eric was alone on the court, standing at the foul line. He dribbled twice, caught the ball in both hands, feeling for the lines of the ball with his fingertips. Foul-shooting was a ritual, a practiced set of precise patterns. He took a deep breath, blew the air out, bent his knees, eyes fixed on the rim. Elbow up and out, wrist flicked. The ball shivered through the mesh. Perfect.

The hunters came from around the far side of the big brick building. They weren’t pedaling hard, didn’t seem in any big hurry. They were talking and laughing as they rode, glancing around, the trail gone cold. Eric retrieved the ball and stepped back to the foul line. He glanced behind him, in the direction where the ketchup-boy had fled. There was no sign of the boy; he had vanished like a ghost among the tombstones. That left just Eric. And now the bike-riders were headed his way, four sailboats fixed on a distant shore, tacking this way and that in zigs and zags, but surely aimed toward the boy on the court in red basketball shorts, white new kicks, and a sleeveless tee.

The shaggy-haired boy in the lead pulled up right in the middle of the court, halfway between the foul line and the basket. He stayed on his bicycle seat, balanced on one leg, cool as a breeze. The boy looked at Eric. And Eric watched him look.

His hair fell around his eyes and below his ears, wavy and uncombed. He had soft features with thick lips and long eyelashes. The boy appeared to be around Eric’s age, maybe a year older, and looked, well, pretty. It was the word that leaped into Eric’s mind, and for no other reason than because it was true.

The other three stayed on their bicycles and slowly circled the perimeter of the court, riding behind Eric and then back around and around, the noose of their circle drawing tighter each time. They, too, said nothing, as if content to wait for instructions.

Eric wondered if something bad was about to happen. And he wondered, too, if there might be anything he could do to avoid it. A part of him watched the scene unfold as if he wasn’t in the middle of it, as if it was in a movie or something, as if he watched from an overhead camera, the cyclists circling like vultures around a carcass.

“You didn’t see anybody come by here, did you?” the boy asked.

“Looks like a French fry,” a skinny, hatchet-faced boy added. He laughed, and the third boy joined in. Eric glanced at them, avoiding eye contact, then turned to look directly back at the leader, the one who had asked the question.

“I’ve been shooting around,” Eric explained with a shrug. “I didn’t really –-“

“Nobody, huh,” the brown-haired boy said, sliding off his bike and dropping it carelessly to the ground. He didn’t look that big or that strong, but he moved with an easy confidence. There was toughness there, a hardness beneath the long lashes and full lips. The boy held out his hands, clapped once. Said, “Let’s see that ball, huh.”

Eric didn’t hesitate. He made a sharp bounce pass to the boy. “Sure, here,” he said, as if there was nothing he wanted more than to hand over his ball to this stranger.

The other two boys deposited their bikes on the grass. The girl –- with a high, round forehead and straight blond hair parted in the middle –- remained seated on her bike, wrists dangling over the handlebars, silently watching.

“You new around here?” the boy asked. He dribbled the ball a little awkwardly, his skills unrefined.

Eric nodded. Yes, he was new. Eric sensed that he’d have to be careful; this encounter could go either way. It could turn out okay, or go very bad. Threat hung in the air, though no one had said or done anything wrong. It was just a feeling Eric got. A knot in his stomach.

The boy turned to the hoop and took a shot that clanged off the metal backboard and bounced away. He grinned and shrugged, eyes smiling. “I’m not really one of those basketball guys,” he explained. “My name’s Griffin. Most everybody calls me Griff.”

“I’m Eric.”

Griffin gestured toward the school building. “You gonna go to school here? What grade you in?”

“Yeah,” Eric answered. “Seventh.”

“Lucky you.”

One of the other boys, the heavy, raw-knuckled one, snorted, “You any good at homework? We could use somebody to do our homework.”

The hatchet-faced boy laughed. His large front teeth protruded slightly, and his black hair was limp and ragged. Eric instinctively disliked him. Weasel, he thought.

Griffin smiled at Eric. “Don’t pay any attention to these guys,” he said. “They think they’re funny. Anything for a laugh, right, Cody?”

The ugly one, all beaked nose and buckteeth, blew a bubble and let it burst. “Good times,” he chirped. “Good times.”

“I feel sorry for you,” Griffin said to Eric. “You move here — and all we’ve been trying to do is figure out how to break out of this place!”

Griffin had a way about him, a certain kind of natural leadership that Eric respected. Words came easily to Griffin, his smile was bright and winning. Eric felt almost envious; Griffin seemed to possess a quality he lacked, a presence.

“So, tell us,” Griffin continued, commanding the court. “Why did you move here?”

“Well, it wasn’t my idea,” Eric confessed. “My parents . . . sort of . . .”

He trailed off. Better keep that part to himself.

“You don’t talk a lot, do you,” Griff noted.

Eric tilted his head, shrugged, embarrassed.

“He’s a shy boy!” the big one squealed.

“Shut up, Drew P.,” Griff said. “Get me that ball, will ya?”

And Drew P. got him the ball.

“Droopy, Droo-pee,” Cody chimed in a mocking, singsong voice.

“Get a life,” Droopy snapped back.

Griffin shook his head, as if the dialogue disappointed him. He explained to Eric, “His name is Drew Peterson. The other day we started calling him ‘Droop’ and ‘Droopy.’ Get it: Drew P.” Griffin smiled. “I don’t think he’s crazy about it.”

Eric didn’t respond, just listened and nodded.

Griffin weighed the ball in one hand. “You mind if we keep this?”

“What?”

“The ball, Eric,” Griffin said. “You don’t mind if I keep it for a while, do you? As a souvenir?”

“Yep, yep, yep!” Cody chirped.

Eric started to answer. “I, um –-“

“Um . . . what?” Griffin interrupted, his face a mask now, hard to read. “You think maybe you have a choice?”

The two other boys moved a little closer to Eric, one on each side. They seemed to grow in stature. A little taller, a little fiercer, the way a dog looks when its hackles are raised.

Eric did the math. Three against one, not counting the girl. She wasn’t doing anything, just standing by, watching.

No, no choice, Eric thought. No choice at all.

.

Excerpted from Bystander by James Preller. Copyright © 2009 by James Preller. Published in 2009 by Feiwel and Friends. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Twilight Meets Three Wolf Moon Tee

I bought the first book, wanted to like it, found it unreadable. For me, it was Bridges of Madison County bad, and that’s saying something.

I bought the t-shirt, and its mysterious power changed my life.

Here’s the parody that brings them together.

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Music Video Weekend: Gary Jules & Michael Andrews, “Mad World”

Not sure where I’ve been, but I just discovered this song — or this version of the song — as sung by Gary Jules for the Donnie Darko soundtrack. I have to listen to it every day. Sounds a little like Erik Satie meet Elliott Smith, and that’s a good thing.

It was originally written by Roland Orzabal and sung by Curt Smith of Tears for Fears, but Jules and co-writer Michael Andrews stripped it down to its sturdy core, sans the treacly elements of the Tears arrangement. I love the vulnerability in Mr. Jules’ voice. He nails the mood. And the video, directed by Michel Gondry, is sweet, too.

I also discovered that Adam Lambert did a decent-enough version of it on “American Idol,” full of sheen and surface gloss and smoke machines. Still: My money is on the Jules version.

Which do you prefer?

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The original, by Tears for Fears:

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Here’s Adam Lambert’s version, which is nothing new, basically just a prettified, copycat take on Jules and Andrews’ inventive reinterpretation. Or what Sting might call, TV karaoke:

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All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere

And their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow

And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had
I find it hard to tell you
‘Cos I find it hard to take
When people run in circles
It’s a very, very Mad World

Children waiting for the day they feel good
Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday
Made to feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen

Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello teacher tell me what’s my lesson
Look right through me, look right through me

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Runaway Dog

As we close in on Thanksgiving, and turkeys grow nervous, I thought I’d take a look at Jigsaw Jones #7: The Case of the Runaway Dog, since it features a Thanksgiving subplot.

The book opens with Ralphie and Jigsaw discussing the relative merits of various holidays.

“How about Thanksgiving?” Ralphie asked.

“I’m not crazy about the food,” I complained.

“You know what bugs me about Thanksgiving?” Ralphie said, shaking his head. “Stuffing! I mean, what IS stuffing, anyway?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” I answered.

My sentiments exactly, especially when I was Jigsaw’s age. Rags disappears while on a dog walk in the park, after Jigsaw lets him off leash to play “Pilgrims and Turkeys.” Rags was the turkey, and they chased him around with pretend axes. I modeled the park in the book after Washington Park, in Albany. There’s the open field on the hill, the lake, the bridge, the boathouse. It was a place I knew well, since it was where I used to run and where I took my old dog, Doolin, many times.

The big challenge in writing a series is trying to keep it fresh — for the readers and for me. Therefore, I always avoided the strict formulas employed by some other series. Another tactic was to introduce new characters along the way, or to put the focus on a hitherto secondary character. It was a transfusion of energy: new blood. In this book, a key witness came in the form of Mr. Signorelli, named after one of Nick’s preschool friends.

He was a retired old man, without family nearby, who enjoyed the park. He tells Jigsaw, “I spend most of my days in the park. I’ve made friends with a few squirrels. I bring ‘em peanuts and we keep each other company. I don’t know who looks forward to our visits more — me or them.”

I had a minor conflict with my editor at the time, Helen Perelman, over Mr. Signorelli. He smoked cigarettes. Helen wanted me to change that. But I wasn’t advocating it, just recognizing that some people smoked, and it didn’t necessarily make them Bad People. After all, both of my parents smoked all their lives, and I liked them pretty much. Persuaded, Helen allowed me to keep Mr. Signorelli intact.

In these books, I often try to include a school element. Ms. Gleason introduces an “I Am Thankful For . . .” project. It helped give the story a stronger connection to a typical elementary student’s life, where that kind of project is often done at this time year. It also lent the narrative another through-line to follow. For me, it can’t be plot/clue/mystery all the time. The truth is, when you break it down there’s not much detailed mystery to these stories; what I love, what I’m after as a writer, is all the other fabric wrapped around that basic skeletal structure.

When I grew up, my brother Billy, ten years my elder, was the #1 motorhead in the family. He loved cars and even worked at the Citgo gas station. For me, it was pretty awe-inspiring to have a big brother who pumped gas, who could open a car hood, tool in hand, and say, “Ah, I see the problem.” When he came home, he always had so many coins jingling in his pockets! I remember Billy spending a lot of time washing his hands, trying to remove the grease from underneath his fingernails.

So of course it was Jigsaw’s older brother, Billy, who borrows mom’s car to take Jigsaw on a ride to the Animal Rescue Shelter. To write that scene, I visited a rescue shelter in Menands, taking notes as I walked around. On school visits I sometimes tell kids that research isn’t always about dusty books in quiet libraries. Often it’s about getting out into the world, seeing things, talking to people. That is: it’s kind of interesting.

The dogs were kept in another room. It was like a big garage, with a cement floor and cement walls. The dogs were locked behind high, narrow fences. Some dogs sat and stared as we walked past. A cute Dalmation leaped against the fence, whining sadly. Most dogs barked. You didn’t have to be Doctor Dolittle to understand what they were saying — “Take me, take me. I’ll be good. Take me!

Other dogs just lay on the ground beside their water bowls. They didn’t seem to care one way or the other. They only lifted their heads and followed us with blank eyes.

It was one of the saddest places I’d ever been.

Jigsaw returns to the park to find Mr. Signorelli. Jigsaw advises him to quit smoking. The old man doesn’t seem very receptive. After some sly detective work, Jigsaw and Mila, along with the help of Ralphie, manage to track down Rags. Case solved, Jigsaw has one more thing to do. He again (conveniently, I’ll admit) finds Mr. Signorelli at the park on Thanksgiving morning. Jigsaw asks, “What are you doing today? For Thanksgiving, I mean.

I love this next paragraph, because I always like it when straight physical description can convey the inner feelings of a character:

He scratched the end of his nose and looked out across the lake. I followed his gaze. But there was nothing there. Just water and emptiness.

Jigsaw notices that Mr. Signorelli isn’t smoking.

Mr. Signorelli waved his hand, like swatting away a fly. “Don’t make a big deal out of it,” he said. “I’m not making any promises. Maybe I’ll quit. Maybe I won’t. We’ll see what happens.”

Jigsaw invites the old man to his house for pecan pie. His parents had already approved the gesture, and even Grams said it sounded like a terrific idea.

We walked out of the park together.

Just an old man, a dog on a leash, and me.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. Signorelli,” I said.

“Yes, it is,” he said. “It really is.”

——

Happy Thanksgiving, folks.

Watch Me, Dad

Lisa went out with Maggie last night to buy a new pair of basketball shoes, as they call ‘em these days. Used to be sneakers, but whatever. Maggie was thrilled; she’s very excited about playing hoops on the grades 3/4 travel team. She practiced dribbling all night — in the kitchen, in the living room, wherever it might give me a headache. Lisa and I watched and said, “Good, good, keep at it.”

At bedtime, Maggie asked if she could bring her basketball to bed with her. She wanted to sleep with it. Yeah, sure, knock yourself out, just don’t forget to brush your teeth.

This morning I drove Maggie to school. We were running late. Maggie, of course, wore her spotless new kicks. Just before climbing into the car, she said: “I can run faster now.”

“You can?”

She nodded, smiled. Oh yes.

“Put down your backpack,” I said. “Let me see.”

“Where do you want me to run?”

“I don’t know, across the front lawn to Don’s driveway.”

She walked to the far end of the lawn, methodically got herself into running position, and said, “Tell me when to go.”

“Go,” I said.

She raced across the yard.

“Good,” I said. “Now run back on the street. Let’s see how they do on cement.”

So she did, just as hard and determined as she could.

“Wow, Maggie, that was a lot faster — and I mean a lot. Those are pretty fast shoes.”

She smiled, proud and happy, pleased with her new powers.

Don’t you just love being a parent?

Fan Mail Wednesday #68

I’m sure that any reasonable reader of “Fan Mail Wednesday” will remember Jack from Golden, CO. I answered his letter last week. Well, here’s a nice follow-up note:

Dear Mr. Preller,

Thanks for your awesome answers to my questions. I cleaned Mrs. Brink’s clock. :)  She couldn’t believe that my Mom and I had written you. I definitely scored LOTS of brownie points. THANKS!

I am enclosing a picture of me (on left) and my friend Carson in front of the report board.

Everyone loved hearing about DAY Z.

I told them my favorite book that you had written is The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar. I wish you would write a Jigsaw mystery in which Jigsaw is in Colorado skiing.

I had a couple of other questions for you.

1. Did you have a collection when you were in second grade?
I collect typewriters, cars, coins, and coffee grinders.

2. Did you have a pen pal when you were growing up?

I am thinking about getting one. The love of my life from preschool, Elise Dickenson, moved to San Francisco. She asked me to write her.

Thanks,
Jack

P.S. I’m sending the Colorado Academy newsletter to you…I am on the cover convincing my big buddy that Jigsaw Jones ROCKS!

P.P.S  My Mom thanks you to . . . She is going to ask the school to bring you to us for a visit.

I replied:

Jack,

Great photo. It looks like you put a lot of work into that report. That’s good news about the Brownie Points! It always helps to store those up — you never know when you might need to cash them in.

I guess I collected a few things when I was younger, baseball cards and nickels and, of course, Peruvian Wind Chimes. But doesn’t every boy?

Wait, hold on. Coffee grinders? You collect coffee grinders? And typewriters? Hmmm. You are certainly an interesting young fellow. No wonder why Elise Dickenson thought so highly of you. I mean, if you meet a guy who collects coffee grinders, well, you want to hold onto something like that. I think you should totally write to her. I wonder if she likes San Francisco? Maybe she’s even seen seals sunning themselves on the rocks. It’s a great city.

Be well, my friend. Keep reading those books! And be sure to thank your mother for helping out with the emails. It was awfully nice of her, don’t you think?

JP

P.S. Quick DAY-Z story. Wonderful dog, great with kids, not the sharpest tool in the shed. My wife and I were out walking with her, and I was trying to get DAY-Z to sit when we came to a corner. After all, she sits perfectly well at home when we give her a treat. Well, on this walk, it just wasn’t working. I could not get it through her head. “Sit,” I’d say. “DAY-Z . . . SIT!” Then I’d kind of push down her butt in a firm manner, saying, “Sit. Sit. Sit!”

Lisa said, “You know, I don’t think DAY-Z associates sitting with being outside on a walk. She associates it with getting treats in the kitchen.”

“The problem,” I told Lisa, “is she doesn’t associate SIT . . . with actually sitting.”

Ah, sigh. She’s a work in progress. Like most of us, I guess.

P.P.S. Please note that I am changing the name of “Fan Mail Wednesday” to “Jack from Golden, CO Wednesday.”

Celebrating 40 Years of Sesame Street: Muppet Dopplegangers

I’m just passing this along. You’ll have to click here for the full megillah.

But here’s a few samples of Muppet Dopplegangers . . .

Thanks for the tip from Whitney at my favorite pop culture site, Pop Candy.

The Charles Chips Man

Does anybody remember Charles Chips?

I do, or just did, recently, after not remembering it for years and years. Suddenly, once again, there it was: a specific object of memory newly recovered, pressing up against my skull. That big 16-ounce drum of Charles Chips.

For me, pushing 50, closing out the first decade of the 21st century, it’s an almost dreamlike memory. Not that there was once a company that made chips and pretzels. But that those items were delivered, from home to home, in a truck that looked like this:

My brother, Billy, you see, was once a Charles Chips Man. He drove a truck exactly like that, wore some kind of brown uniform, and had a route that carried him to various points on Long Island. I don’t really know the specifics of his job; I’ll have to ask him about it over Thanksgiving. But I do remember, as concrete image (for “image” is the container of memory; we need to “picture” those wisps of time), those tan-and-brown tin drums on top of our refrigerator. I can remember my fingers prying open a tin, working around the lid in a circle, lifting bit by bit. We loved our Charles Chips at 1720 Adelphi Road in Wantagh, New York. Seven kids, remember. So on a regular basis, that familiar truck would pull up to our house and the delivery man would ring the bell. Oh, the excitement!

“Mom, the Charles Chips Man is here!”

He’d ask if we needed any, and of course we did, three or four cans every time. We’d return the old cans, which I suppose were reused, and then off he’d drive to the next Charles Chips-loving house on the route.

How was such a thing ever possible? Could it be true? Oh, it was true, and glorious. A man would drive around in a truck delivering potato chips and pretzels from house to house, and how we loved it.

And one day — I suppose it was one day — he was gone. Not enough business to sustain the route, or perhaps not enough children left in our house. The Charles Chips Man stopped coming, stopped ringing our bell. And this afternoon, when I told Nick and Gavin about it, they looked at me as if I had lived in another land, a distant impossible time before they existed, when their father was a boy.

Does anyone else remember?