Archive for July 29, 2010

Literate Lives Reviews “Justin Fisher Declares War!”

My friend Bill Prosser over at the outstanding Literate Lives blog just read and reviewed my new book, Justin Fisher Declares War!

You can read that review in full by clicking here. My favorite part of the review:

“It’s short!”

Ha! Actually, Bill created a photo mosaic inspired by the book and I thought it was a very clever, creative response to a book with some real pedagogic potential. In the comments section, Bill explained how he did it, so I thought I’d share that with my Nation of Readers (see below).

Yes, that sums up my book quite nicely. War and Peace it is not. According to Bill:

“I use Flickr to collect the pictures and use BigHugeLabs to create the mosaic. It’s really very simple and fun. I haven’t tried it with my students because I’m still looking for good picture collections that are accessible to my students.”

Bill is an old school guy, meaning that he’s hopelessly stuck on books, but by dint of effort he’s forced himself, admirably, to keep apace of technology. While I personally remain averse to Twitter (Bill just took the plunge into the Twitterverse — Ashton Kutcher, watch your back!), I do think he hit on something with this mosaic concept. Bill’s been happily making a few based on some of his favorite books (Savvy, Make Way for Ducklings, and more). Check out this post, “Some Tech Stuff for the Summer,” for the glorious details, cool images, and happy links.

Building Character

There are a million ways to create a well-rounded character, and all of them crystallize with concrete details. Today I’d like to share one small example.

I was reading an interview with a young actress, Elisabeth Moss, and a couple of times she described things as “super-[fill in the blank]!”

You know: “I was super, super, super-happy” and “she’s still super-young.”

That appealed to me as a writer, for a number of reasons. It’s a youthful, energetic, and distinctive way of speaking. I immediately imagined a female character who uses that phrasing in her dialogue. Since I’m currently revising a book, I’ll look at giving that vocabulary to a character (and only one character). I may discover that it works,  or find that it’s unnecessary or even excessive. We never wish to gild the lily. In which case I’ll file it away — read: hope to remember it — for another day.

The point is, I do seek out particular phrases or speech patterns for different characters. Charlie Brown says, “Good grief.” Jigsaw Jones says, “Oh brother,” “Go figure,” and “Yeesh.” Another character might say “like” a lot or utter something like, “Am I right or am I wrong?” As a writer, you try to find those singular ways of speaking, anything to help individualize a character. Then you look at clothes, or mannerisms — the way Mila Yeh pulls on her long black hair, or another character scratches behind his knees — and those specific details build character.

So thank you, Elisabeth Moss. You were super-helpful!

Guest Blogger at Mackids

I contributed to the cyber-clutter by posting over at the Mackids blog. Kathryn Hurley had asked me to write something about A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade. I mulled that over for a week or so, and came up with this, below.

Funny, in clipping it and pasting it here, I decided to ditch the first paragraph. That happens a lot with writing. You scribble and scribble, then realize that the story starts why down in the fourth paragraph. It would have been faster to start there in the first place, but I suppose you’ve got to go through the process of getting there . . .

I have vivid memories of playing alone as a little boy, the youngest of seven children. Inspired by “Batman” and “The Wild, Wild West,” I used to create epic battles in my living room. I’d fight imaginary villains, hurl myself headlong into the cushions, throw wild left hooks into the air, crash the bad guys’ heads together like coconuts. Likewise, I’d often go outside to pitch a rubber baseball against the shed behind my house. I’d imagine myself as a big league pitcher going up against the great hitters of my time: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and more.

And here’s the thing: There was always an internal narrative going on in my head.  “Two outs, bases loaded . . .” I’d mumble to myself, setting the scene. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was telling myself stories, inhabiting an imaginary world, learning how to write. This made me, of course, no different from any other kid I’ve ever met. These days, I’ll look out the window and see my son out by the pool, waving his arms, lips moving, telling himself some kind of story. It seems like it’s a fundamental aspect of being a kid, living in that imaginary world of our own making. Maybe that’s why we dream, I don’t know. Maybe it’s necessary.

So when it came to writing A PIRATE’S GUIDE TO FIRST GRADE, I think I was drawing on those memories of being a boy, a head full of imaginings. The boy in the book thinks about pirates. They are alive to him, and as he goes through the day they remain vital in his mind. The narrative itself isn’t much, a fairly uneventful first day at school –- with story hour and lunch and recess and a trip to the library. But I like the creative core of this book, the hard truth of a boy’s imaginings, the story in his head.

For an author, it’s a magical experience when an illustrator breathes new life into the manuscript, adds color to that black-and-white page. I’m blessed that Greg Ruth did such an amazing job with this story. But then again, Greg was a kid once, and somehow he still has that map that allows him to return to that creative place of the mind, a boy making things up. Maybe that’s the treasure to this job after all, where X marks the spot and we find ourselves alone in a room, lips moving.

Another Starred Review for “A Pirate’s Guide”

This makes me happy. A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade earned a second starred review, this time from Publishers Weekly . . .

“This rambunctious first day tale is fit for any young buccaneer. Leading an imaginary crew who are drawn in pale pencil, the red-haired protagonist shines his “snappers” (brushes his teeth), breakfasts on grub and grog, and boards the “great, grand jolly boat” (also known as the school bus), journeying to meet his teacher: “Silver was her name, and a fine old salt was she!” The pirates are ever-present companions, sharing in the ups and downs of the day (“We counted and spelled ’till we nearly dropped, brain-addled and weary”). Preller’s buoyant pirate-inflected storytelling and Ruth’s illustrations, which have a decidedly vintage flair, form an exuberant tribute to imagination and a spirit of adventure.”

Jack’s Mustache

Does anyone read Acknowledgments? I mean, I know that some folks do, but I doubt there are many young readers among that number. We knew that the Acknowledgments section was a useless body part, a pretentious sixth digit, folderol to skip past, along with Forwards and Prefaces and Introductions and (the aptly named) Appendixes. The story was elsewhere and that’s all we wanted, thank you very much.

In any event, an alert acknowledgment-reader might note that I mentioned Jack Rightmyer’s mustache as a source of inspiration for my new middle-grade book, Justin Fisher Declares War!, due for release August 1, 2010.

Here is the mustache in question, attached to the face of a young, first-year teacher who is desperately trying to look all growed up. Definitely a Groucho Marx thing going on here, as if it were smeared on with greasepaint.

Pretty inspiring, don’t you think? I interviewed Jack back in January 2009, because I had read and enjoyed his book, A Funny Thing About Teaching. You can find that interview in full by clicking here. During our conversation, Jack recalled his experiences as a first-year teacher, fresh out of college. This snippet comes from that discussion:

Tell me about that advice you got in the teacher’s lounge, “Don’t smile until Christmas.”

I think a lot of the veteran teachers saw me as this young twenty-two-year old kid who was going to get chewed up and spit out by the high school classes. I actually grew a mustache the summer before I began teaching so I could look a bit older.

Oh, that’s hysterical. Nobody would dare mess with The Mustache! Was it one of those baseball mustaches, you know, nine hairs on each side? Or were you like some studly Keith Hernandez?

A photo is worth a thousand words . . .

Good God, Jack! I just fell off my chair! Warn me next time you do that. That photo is so great, it should have its own website. Anyway, you were saying about the advice other teachers gave you . . .

These teachers cared about me. They wanted me to get off to a good start, and they felt I needed to come down hard on the students. Before my first class, some of these teachers got me so worked up I felt like I was going in as a prison guard and not as an English teacher.

At the time of that interview, I was in the beginning stages of writing Justin Fisher. Early on, I knew the book would turn on a contentious relationship between a teacher and fifth-grade student. At first, the teacher was classically bad — and pretty one-dimensional. It wasn’t working. My conversation with Jack helped me see that teacher in a sympathetic light, humanized him for me. The teacher, Mr. Tripp, was struggling just as much as Justin, both unhappy, both trying to be something they weren’t.

In Chapter Five, “You’re Going to Thank Me Later,” Justin becomes a little obsessed with Mr. Tripp’s upper-lip region. Here’s a brief excerpt:

By mid-October, the mustache was fully formed, brown bristled, thick as a push broom.

“Mr. Tripp? Mr. Tripp?” Justin interrupted a Wednesday geography lesson. “Is it hard to grow a mustache?”

“Not now, Mr. Fisher. We’re in the middle of –“

“Why’d you grow it?” Justin persisted.

The teacher’s forehead wrinkled and his brows lowered. He returned his attention to the map on the wall. “As I was saying,” he continued with his back to the class, “an isthmus is a narrow strip of land connecting two larger pieces of land . . . .”

Teachers had no idea how uncomfortable it was to sit in those hard wooden chairs. It was impossible to sit up straight all day long — but that was exactly what Mr. Tripp expected. Sit down and be still. How could anyone survive fifth grade without going a little crazy?

Justin’s solution: to tip his chair as far back as possible. He’d lean it on two legs, lift his hands off the desk, balance there for as long as he could, then catch himself at the last second. It was a habit that inspired Mr. Tripp to create The Justin Fisher Rule: All four chair legs on the floor at all times! After that, Justin had to pick his spots.

The problem with Justin’s daredevil game was that when he pushed it too far, the chair crashed to the floor.

Hey, it was usually good for a laugh.

But not lately.


That’s Jack’s book, above; product description, below.

Addressing the daily challenges that new teachers face in front of a class, this humorous, personal account shares the lessons learned from one mans lengthy teaching career. Imparting practical advice in an engaging manner, these truthful tales transport readers through a wide array of settings—urban and suburban schools, from sixth grade through college. Future educators will discover methods for using levity to build trust with their students and learn how to detect and avoid common pitfalls in the classroom. Offering advice on discipline, testing, bullying, and coaching, this memoir provides a fresh perspective on maintaining control of the class, while sharing the importance of using humor as a way to brush off the minor stresses of the job.

Starred Review from SLJ!

This Just In: The first mainstream review for my new picture book, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, illustrated by Greg Ruth. The review appears in the August issue of School Library Journal, and was written by Jasmine L. Precopio.

What does this mean for you, personally? Jeepers, do I really have to spell it out? Okay, since you asked: It means, good people, that it’s now officially safe for you to buy this book as soon as possible. Now in stock! Think of your future grandchildren!

Told entirely in pirate lingo, this story follows a boy and his entourage of ethereal salty dogs through the first day of school. “Me great scurvy dog slurped me kisser when I was tryin’ t’ get me winks!” The protagonist’s fruitful imagination turns ordinary routine into a high-seas adventure complete with a small, skirted buccaneer walking the plank during recess. In the end, where does X mark the spot? Treasure abounds in the library, with the chance to experience the adventure of the written word. The illustrations have a vintage feel, complete with boisterous grog-drinking, scabbard-waving, and bubble-pipe-smoking pirates. The combination of the muted tones of the pirates with the bold colors of the real world adds to the visual appeal. Despite the glossary, the text may prove a little challenging for the intended audience. However, it can serve as a tremendous read-aloud, especially on Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Fan Mail Wednesday #92 (Monday Edition: Writing Tips!)

I’ve been bad with the fan mail lately. Here’s one from a young writer:

Hi Mr. Preller,
I hope you remember me. You wrote a message in one of my jigsaw Jones books saying that I have talent and that I should keep writing.  Well I have been writing a lot since you taught me “show, don’t tell” in fifth grade at Hamagrael. Can you please give me some advice on how to  be a better writer? I am writing a novella, an anthology, and I am not  sure if I am ready to start a novel draft. How can I make a plot more interesting? What can you tell me about the editing and revising process?


To my surprise, I replied at some length:


It’s nice to hear from you again. Yes, I remember.

The only difference between a novella and a novel is length — and length is largely determined by story. Some stories take more time to tell. At some point, either in writing this novella or another story, you’ll find that the telling of it requires more words. The story will naturally grow longer, because there’s simply more to be said.

It’s a funny about plots, I always come back to a very simple idea:

Make something up!

Really, in some ways, it’s that simple. If you find the story drags, or if you sense that you are getting bored, it might be time to insert some new element into the story. A new conflict, a new obstacle, something. Or it might be the opposite — time to take something out, to cut the fat, eliminate (cautionary note: don’t worry too much about cutting early in the process; first you build, later you can trim). As a writer, I worry an awful lot about pacing, the speed of the story, how quickly the plot moves along. I learned some of those lessons while writing the Jigsaw Jones series, where I balanced the elements of the traditional mystery (problem, clue, clue, clue, solution: fence-post scenes that gave me a powerful through-line for the narrative), with all the little asides and explorations I like to include to provide depth.

Am I confusing you? I don’t mean to, but I remember you as being pretty smart, so I’m keeping my answer at a high level, writer to writer.

Sticking with Jigsaw, you can look at those stories as containing two separate strands: 1) The mystery, the propelling force that pushes plot forward to its conclusion, like an arrow shooting through the pages of the book; and 2) All the other stuff — the character development, small moments at the dinner table, or the classroom — that tend to deepen the story without particularly driving it forward.

So “story” usually runs in two basic directions: Forward or Down. Of course, the two can work together, and a specific comment about, say, a character’s fear of snakes will later have huge implications on plot. It’s not either/or. Remember Indiana Jones: “I hate snakes.” He says it early in the movie, almost as a throwaway line; later on, the seed planted, it grows into a pivotal scene in the film.

(And if you haven’t seen that movie yet, it’s time you did. Fabulous storytelling.)

As a writer, you should always try to be aware of what’s happening in your story. Ask yourself, What is the purpose of this scene? What is its function? What am I trying to do here? And then you write with that intention very much in mind; you have to know what you are trying to accomplish with each sentence. It could be that two people are great friends, it could be that Aunt Rosie has a cruel streak, or that Rachel is really lonely. But with each scene you write, you need to understand what you are doing and how it pushes along or deepens plot.

I’m not a great one for advice. I don’t like giving it, to be honest. Writers have to discover these things for themselves. But here’s a link to two recent blog posts by Lois Lowry that I found instructive. She’s a smart writer, highly aware of her craft.

Lois Lowry: thinking in scenes, etc.

Lois Lowry on character description: some details, but not too much.

Likewise, if you look at my blog, you’ll find a sidebar to the right. Under the heading CATEGORIES, you’ll find “The Writing Process.” It brings together dozens of blog entries that concern my experience as a writer. I don’t have the answers for you; every writer has to go down that road alone. But I do try to share my own experiences, the things I’ve learned about writing over the years. You might wish to randomly explore the links at your leisure.

Advice? Keep on writing, keep on reading — and pay attention to the world and the people around you. Value your individuality, the things inside you that no one else in the world can offer. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. There’s a lot of subtle forces in the world, peer pressure and societal expectations (and writing teachers included!), that will try to mold and shape you into something that conforms with everyone else. Resist that, especially with your writing. When you write, that’s where you should be most free, most truly Peggy.

Have a great summer and stay in touch.


Cue the Inspiration: Hey Jude

Two days ago I handed in the first draft for my next book, an untitled Young Adult novel. Actually, the working title has been Jude, Adrift, but I wonder about the commercial appeal of that title. Does it sound like a drag? Another possible title I’ve been thinking about, inspired by a character’s text message: Hey u.

The main character is named Jude Fox. And while it centers around an eventful car crash, I guess it’s a love story from a male point of view, a perspective largely missing in contemporary YA literature. Now that the book is settled, so to speak, I can go back to the lyric of Lennon & McCartney’s song, “Hey Jude,” and recognize how amazingly close it fits, as if I unconsciously wrote an entire book in response to the song.

Do you think that’s possible? Is that what I did, without even knowing it?

Or perhaps the themes of the song are so universal that it could fit almost any book, from Mudville to Go, Dog! Go!

Final point: I remember being a seven-year-old kid and watching this film on television with my brothers and sisters. It was a huge deal at the time, broadcast in 1968 on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which used to be must-watch TV in my house.

So, first, the introductory clip from the show:

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Wasn’t that cool? The sense of high seriousness of that introduction, of importance. And it’s a nice coincidence that I own the same jacket as Tommy!

Now the song in its entirety:

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Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

Hey Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

And anytime you feel the pain
Hey Jude refrain
don’t carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it’s a fool
who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
Na na na na na
na na na na

Hey Jude don’t let me down
You have found her, now go and get her
Remember to let her into your heart
then you can start to make it better

So let it out and let it in
Hey Jude begin
You’re waiting for someone to perform with
And don’t you know that it’s just you
Hey Jude, you’ll do
The movement you need is on your shoulder
Na na na na na
na na na na yeah

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better
Better, better, better, better, better, oh

Na, na na na na na na . . .


Click below if you want to hear Elvis Presley’s take on the song. I pretty much love it:

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Absent Parents in Children’s Literature

A friend of mine, author David Klein — whose debut novel, Stash, is due out later this month — alerted me to a recent interweb discussion about absentee parents in children’s literature.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford summarized the debate here, while making some solid, sensible points. Here’s one quick snip:

Another major factor in YA and MG literature is allowing the characters to fight their own battles. It’s a very common theme in YA for parents to be absent, abusive, oblivious, or otherwise useless. There’s actually a reason for this, other than the obvious ready-made angst factor. You see, for a story to truly be centered around an underage MC, they have to do everything themselves. Parents, guardians, and other adults can’t do it for them.

Of course, this is an old narrative device, wildly popularized (and trivially conventionalized) by the folks at Disney (Bambi, Simba, I’m looking at you). Seriously, the list of dead or missing parents in Disney films is long and almost comical in its predictability.

Note: This screen shot was filed under the caption,

“Awesome Moms,” so of course she had to go.

The role of parents is often a thorny issue in children’s books, for some of the reasons explained above. But as a devoted parent, I have mixed feelings. I understand the narrative expediency of eliminating parents, or making them appear incompetent, but at the same time I kind of hate it in books when every adult is a complete, useless waste of oxygen. I guess I’m much more offended by one-dimensional characters than the idea of absentee parents.

Personally, I tend to write sympathetically about parents in my books. The trick is to keep the story child-centered. Because, likewise, I also loathe it when a perfect adult prances into the story and solves the problem for the child.

In Bystander, my recent book about middle school bullying, I created an absent father and it served as an important fact in my main character’s life. A source of vulnerability, the limp in his walk. At the same time, Eric’s mother is outstanding. She does a lot of things right as a parent of a child who is bullied. For example, even though her role in the book is limited, Ms. Hayes has thoughtful family policies about computer and cell phone use, she advocates aggressively for her child with the school once she perceives a problem, she makes an effort to spent alone time with him and, basically, she tunes in. I like her and wanted to model how a good, caring mother might act under those circumstances, since I think that’s the most likely scenario. The adults in the school are also shown in a positive light.

Even so, the conflict and the drama remain with the boy, Eric Hayes, in his own world (mostly) away from home. Mom isn’t the answer, but she does provide a foundation of support.

In Six Innings, I’m pretty sure all the adults portrayed are sympathetic and realistic, though Mike Tyree’s parents are distracted by his sister’s athletic success. They don’t quite give Mike the attention he needs. When I started the book, a few people asked me, essentially, “Are you going to write about how the Little League parents and coaches are so awful and over-the-top?”

My answer, “No, not this time.”

In my experience, the coaches — while flawed and sometimes too focused on their own child — are good, decent parents who volunteer an incredible amount of time and energy to the benefit of many children in the community. These aren’t horrible people. And overwhelmingly, the parents in the stands are good folks, too. Hopelessly biased, a little irrational at times, emotionally invested, caring. What I respect most is they are . . . there. They show up, and if you ask me, that’s 95% of parenting: showing up, day after day.

Quantity time, not quality time.

Art: rough cover sketch by R.W. Alley,

where Jigsaw literally finds a skeleton

in the closet.

Lastly, since I’m on this topic, I’ve written almost 40 Jigsaw Jones mystery books. His parents are amazing, loving, funny, intelligent, present in every way. It’s a great family. Mila Yeh has a stepmother — and guess what? She loves Mila just as much as a birth mother. Part of that was inspired as a reaction against the negative cliches that are prevalent about stepmothers, but also by my own wife, Lisa, who is an incredible mother and stepmother.

Still: The stories are about Jigsaw, his adventures and struggles in his boyhood world, and that’s where the conflict takes place. So from my point of view, I think you can represent strong, capable, caring parents in children’s literature and still keep the story kid-centered and child-resolved.

This Feels Like an Amazing Clue from a Supernatural Mystery

I love this. Not only the creative inspiration — that someone saw those birds on the wire and made the imaginative leap to note them as musical symbols — but also that he, Jarbas Agnelli, had the energy and enthusiasm and talent to put all that work into it, culminating in a remarkable little video that lasts less than ninety seconds.

It’s got a Spielbergian, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” feeling to it, don’t you think? The idea of nature sending us a secret message, a cipher.

If only we can open our eyes to see it, the secret that’s been right in front of us all along.

Again: Strikes me as a scene from a possible book.

The photo is reportedly by Paul Pinto. A skeptical person might wonder if it’s all a hoax, thanks to skilled photo manipulation, but I don’t think it matters one way or another.

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