Archive for March 11, 2010

Fan Mail Wednesday #81 (Thursday Edition)

Woo-hoo, it’s Fan Mail Wednesday! Wait, no. Today is Thursday. It can’t be Fan Mail Wednesday. Can it? That’s impossible. No recurring feature on an author’s blog could possibly be so powerful that it transcends the laws of time and space!

But oh, yes, faithful readers. Witness the power and majesty of Fan Mail Wednesday. It doesn’t care what day it is . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,

My name is Gizela. I like your Jigsaw Jones Mystery books. They are so awesome. I always want to solve the mystery before I read it. But it is so hard for me. Most of the mysteries are so interesting.

I just like it when the mystery is solved. Why do you write these books? What made you write these books? When did you first write your own book?

Why did you make these characters? Where did you get all these ideas? Why did you put a dog in these books? Why did you name the books Jigsaw Jones?

I like your Jigsaw Jones Mystery books because it has a problem and they solve it. I like the dog too. I like your books because they have funny mysteries. I hope to hear from you!


I replied:


Boy, I love your name. It’s a name I want to sing, not say. So much more melodious than, oh, Frank or Bert or even Prunella. Gizela, Gizela . . . GIZELA!

I love books. I love reading. Now maybe as a young kid, that wasn’t so much the case. I read, but I don’t remember totally loving it. I loved physical things like baseball and wrestling and eating cinnamon Pop-Tarts. But I was lucky. I had four older brothers, two older sisters, and most of them read books. It seems like such a minor detail, but I think it’s important: I SAW them reading! It looked like a reasonable activity, something a boy might do and enjoy. In fact, my brothers often pressed books into my hands, telling me I’d love them.

But the next question is . . . how did I cross over from reader to writer? It seems like a wild leap across a great distance. I guess it felt natural. I liked to draw. I filled notebooks with dice games and baseball statistics. That is: I happily spent time alone with a pencil or crayon in my hand. Writing became a natural extension of that physical activity. There’s only so much you can do when you’re alone with a piece of paper and a pencil.

How can I explain this? I love music. It’s a big part of my day, every day. Yet I can’t play an instrument. I never had a lesson. I’m in awe of people who can do it. Growing up, I came to understand — wrongly, of course — that OTHER, MORE TALENTED PEOPLE did that stuff. That was the message I got: Leave the music to the professionals. Step away from the tuba. But for some reason, when it came to books, I thought to myself, I can do that.

That’s an important sentence right there, Gizela, so let’s say it again:





And because I believed it, so it was true. If I could wish anything for you — or for my children, or my friends — it’s that they can feel the same way about things they care about. I want you to look at a beautiful painting, or the achievements of an athlete, a dancer, a doctor, whatever, and say to yourself, “I can do that.”

Because I really believe you can.


P.S. Oh, yes, the dog. As a kid, I never had one. No dog. I lived for years in a sorry state of doglessness. As an adult, dogs came into my life and I’ve (mostly) enjoyed sharing my house with them. When I make up stories, I sometimes give characters little gifts. Jigsaw has an awesome tree house — another thing I never had as a kid. How I wanted one! Because I like Jigsaw, I gave him the tree house I never had. I also gave him . . . a dog. It felt right.

This is our family dog, Daisy. She drives!

Asking “What If” Questions & Pulling on Threads: A Short Sample from “Justin Fisher Declares War!”

I’ve always loved the writing process, how a jumbled ball of yarn becomes an actual sweater. Conversely, it’s amazing to me — pulling on that thread and watching how the fabric unravels.

Back in September, 2008, I wrote this on my blog:

I have an idea for a character who gets into trouble at school. The book is about this kid, and, in part, the surprising relationship he builds with the school principal. But how and why does this boy get into trouble? What does he do? What kind of hilarious escapades can I conjure? Then one notion hit me over the weekend: He smuggles a goldfish into school!

I love that idea. I can WORK with that idea. That is: There are possibilities that appeal to my sensibilities. So then begins the series of questions: How does he do it? Why? What goes wrong (because something must go wrong)? I’ve already daydreamed over a host of options — involving a thermos, soup broth, and a swallowed goldfish — but I know I’m not there yet.

Below, please find a brief scene from my upcoming middle-grade book, Justin Fisher Declares War! (Scholastic, August 2010). The scene represents the realization of those bloggy wonderings. Yesterday I read this passage aloud to a group of foruth-graders. We’d been talking about the importance of asking “what if” questions. In this case, what if a boy wanted to smuggle a goldfish into school. How might he do it? The answer to that question is the scene you write.

If writing fiction is anything, it is asking “what if” questions, following the logic and playing with those possibilities — thinking it through. After all, “what if” questions are at the core of what’s now called “Speculative Fiction” and, I hasten to ask, what brand of fiction is not speculative? We’re all daydreamers here.

Here’s the scene:

Justin understood that he’d never get past the front door carrying his sister’s goldfish bowl. She’d freak out and wail like a siren, and his mother would end up yelling. No, Justin needed to come up with a foolproof plan. And after a few minutes of heavy-duty thinking, he did.

The next morning, he asked his mother for tomato soup for lunch.

“You never eat it when I give it to you,” she said.

“This is different,” Justin assured her. “I really need soup today, Mom. It’s like . . . Soup Day in school and . . . all the kids are bringing in different kinds of soups and –“

“Soup Day?” His mother raised an eyebrow.

“It’s a guy thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Okay, okay.” His mother relented. She opened the cupboard, shifted a few cans around, and said, “Sorry, we’re all out of tomato. How about chicken noodle?”

“Perfect,” Justin clucked.

Operation Goldfish was in effect.

At the next opportunity, Justin snuck into the bathroom, dumped out the soup, and rinsed the thermos clean. Then, on tip-toe, he entered the forbidden zone — his sister’s room. The room itself was hideous, a monstrosity of purple and pink, with Disney posters and stuffed animals. Justin couldn’t imagine how his sister managed to sleep in there.

Justin paused by the door, listening. Lily was downstairs, eating Pop-Tarts. Justin poured water from the goldfish bowl into the thermos, spilling only a small puddle on the rug. With a net, he fished out the goldfish and dropped it into the thermos.

What about air? Justin wondered, as he screwed the cap on. I can’t suffocate my sister’s fish.

He thought about trying to find a hammer and nail. Maybe he could drive small holes into the screw top.

“Justin? What are you doing up there?” his mother called. “You better get moving if you want to make it to school on time!”

“Coming!” Justin hollered. He placed the thermos back into his lunch box, stuffed that into his backpack, and hustled down the stairs. He figured he’d open and close the cap every hour or so, just to make sure the goldfish got enough air. He might have been a little mischievous, but he wasn’t a cold-blooded fish murderer.

I’ve called this “my rebound book,” since it comes after the more serious, precise Bystander. This one is loose, light, short, funny. Rereading my early notes from the blog, I realize that I changed Justin’s relationship from the principal to his classroom teacher, Mr. Tripp. That struck me as more immediate, more natural, and allowed me to make his teacher more sympathetic. Originally, I conceived of the teacher as sort of a one-dimensional uptight obstacle, but it got much more interesting when he became a well-rounded person — a first-year teacher, nervous and well-intentioned, who makes some mistakes in handling an attention-seeking student.

Aside: I think the single worst character in the Harry Potter series — the character I consider a major failure — is the one-dimensional Dolores Umbridge, appointed High Inquisitor of Hogwarts in the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Lacking all shade and substance, she ruined much of the book for me.

I hated her, but not in the way J.K. Rowling wanted me to hate her.

“Six Innings” in Paperback, Only $6.99, Cheap! *

“The novel goes beyond fastballs and first base to the heart of the game—the players—in a way even non-sports fans will love.”USA Today.

Six Innings went into paperback last week. So now all you tightwads you can pick up a copy at consumer-friendly prices! The book includes a special Q & A with the author (me!), a sample chapter from Bystander, and advertisements!

Here’s two questions from the Q & A as a FREE BONUS SAMPLE for my bloggy friends:

What was your best subject in school?

P.E. and recess.

Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

Since I usually write realistic fiction, I try to begin with an accurate understanding of a child’s world, often by sitting in on various classrooms in my community. I have three children, ages 9, 10, and 16, so that helps me stay connected. I don’t think you can examine something like “childhood” under a microscope, like a lab technician in a cold, white room. For a writer you’ve got to feel it, and for whatever reason, I still remember.

Actually, um, I changed my mind. That wasn’t free. What am I crazy, giving this stuff away? In today’s economy? Think again. You owe me, oh, $2.95, which I’ll accept in cash, check, money order, credit card, PayPal, or shards of pretty glass.

I mean to say . . .

The surprisingly decent folks over at the Mac Kids Blog are featuring the book on something called the interwebs! They did a nice job.


Sob, it’s times like these when I wish my mother could turn on a computer.

Seriously, we’re done here.

Get moving.

* $6.99, that is, unless you’re in Canada, where it’s $8.50.  Hey, I saw that Olympic hockey game. You didn’t realize payback would come so soon, so hard, did you?

Music Video Weekend: Remembering Belushi, “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

Since I was remembering the inspired genius of John Belushi just the other day, I figured I’d keep the good times rolling by sharing this classic comedy bit from SNL. Here’s Belushi’s hilarious take on  Joe Cocker, doing his/their version of “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

I can still picture seeing this for the first time. Back when you had to stay up late to watch it, because you dared not miss anything. No Tivo, no Youtube, no nothing. We were eating dirt back in those days — and we liked it!

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

“Bystander” on the Blogs

My friend, author Kurtis Scaletta, said it well in a recent interview. Regarding reviews, he explained, “I mostly just want people to know I exist, I think.”

And because he thinks, he does exist, or so I’ve gathered. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I read.

Oh, nevermind.

Isn’t this picture funny??!!

The point is — and there’s always a point here at, people, sometimes you just have to look under the cushions — Kurtis expressed something felt by most of us scraggly author-types.

You write the book, you wait, you hope, and sometimes the indifferent world doesn’t even bother to shrug its shoulders. For all the “buzz” and “hype” that some books generate — and often deservedly so — there are many others that slip by seemingly unnoticed, then unceremoniously pulled from the shelves after three creepy months. That’s why I appreciate anyone who takes the time and effort not only to read my book, but to respond in some way. Truly, truly, it’s the greatest gift you can give to a writer. Your attention, your valuable time. Thank you, guys, very much.

On Thursday morning, thanks to the wonders of Google Alerts (if you don’t use it, you should), I found three new reviews for Bystander.

* In a detailed, thoughtful review for the “Book Look” section of the Lincoln Daily News, Louella Moreland writes: “I must give Mr. Preller a gold star for taking on this topic as well as he did. The story is interesting, which may make the lesson a little easier to swallow. It would make a great book for class or family discussions.”

* Here’s a cool new blog, titled Future Librarian, Kids! He’s just up and running, and I remember those early months of trying to figure it out, so hop on over and say hello. He’s posted some well-written reviews and also took the time to remember School House Rocks — and  you’ve got to love that in a blogger. In a review that was obviously written with great care, the unnamed “future librarian” writes: “The theme of keeping silent over speaking up runs deep throughout the book . . . Needless to say, I read Bystander fairly quickly and really enjoyed it. It captures the feeling of middle school quite well and I really felt compassion and understanding for all the characters.”

* I nominate Kiss the Book for having the best logo image. This is an impressive, long-standing site — they first hung out their shingle way back in the waaaay back, circa 2003! Were computers even invented back then? Were they banging out reviews on stone tablets? The reviews are written by, ahem, “school library professionals and vetted student reviewers.” Each review includes ratings for language, sexual content, and violence, like so: “Bystander, 223 pgs. Feiwel and Friends, 2009. Language – PG (7 swears, 0 “f”), Sexual Content – G; Violence – G.” Check it out!