Archive for August 31, 2010

Artwork From the Cutting-Room Floor

Greg Ruth, illustrator of A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, recently shared a piece of art that never made it into the book.

Don’t you love it? The thick brushstroke of blue, the off-kilter headlong forward whoosh of the whole thing. How can something that great not make it into a book? What else is in Greg’s garbage pail? Can you imagine having that much talent?

I should note that to their great credit, the folks at Feiwel & Friends expanded the book beyond the industry standard of 32 pages, going to the expense of a full 48 pages. Very rare, these days. I believe they reached this decision when Greg’s artwork came in, and sometime after they picked themselves up from the floor. When you look at Greg’s illustrations — his first true picture book for children — you can understand why they felt compelled to give him the scope and space his work deserved. Something special was happening.

I wonder if the sample above was an abandoned cover concept, since it conveys a similar energy to that of the final cover art (see masthead, up top). I’ll have to ask Greg about it. And if true, I can understand the wisdom of moving from 1950’s-styled wagon to a yellow school bus. (POSTSCRIPT: Greg confirmed that my speculations were correct.)

Here’s an early sketch that Greg also shared, another scene that didn’t make it into the book:

For more on deleted scenes from a writer’s perspective, here’s a few blasts from the past:

* Deleted Scenes: Six Innings

* Deleted Scenes 2: Six Innings

* Deleted Scenes 3: Six Innings

* Deleted Scenes 4: Six Innings

* Deleted Scenes 5: Six Innings

This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever: XTRANORMAL Turns Text Into Movies!

I just discovered xtranormal, a wildly fun, easy-to-use, possibly addictive website that allows you to create animated movies on your computer. As they put it, “You type. The 3D actors speak. It’s that easy.”

Intrigued, I checked it out. Without putting much thought into it, I grabbed a copy of my new middle grade novel, Justin Fisher Declares War!, and turned to a brief exchange between two teachers. It was an atypical choice, since rarely have I published scenes that are exclusively between adults (and if anything is going to drive me to attempt an adult book, it’s that limitation).

Setting: This scene actually takes place in the Teacher’s Lounge, near a table with desserts, and Justin (who ducked in to steal a brownie) is hiding behind a chair, eavesdropping on the conversation. Author’s Note: When I tried this scene without Justin, it didn’t work for the book. I needed his POV, so the eavesdropping allowed me to have the best of both worlds.

By the way, I got the idea for this dialogue — an older teacher’s advice of, “Never let them see you smile” — from an interview with a middle-school teacher/author.

Sadly, I have not been able to figure out how to embed the scene here on my blog, so you’re going to have to click here to check it out.

Pretty fun, don’t you think? I showed it to a teacher friend who told me she uses the site with her middle school students to teach dialogue. “They LOVE it!” she said.

I could imagine other authors creating similar scenes based on their own books. It’s a kick to see it come alive, especially for someone like me, with an inner Scorsese. We might even see a rash of new book trailers using this technology. If I have time, I’d like to recast some moments from classic books. You know, Wuthering Heights and Jigsaw Jones, for example.

Unless you beat me to it.

I made another one last night, when I should have been sleeping. It’s from Chapter Seven, with Justin trying to talk himself out of trouble. There’s some problems with camera angles and whatnot, somehow it went a little screwy — and my actors are a little wooden — but I can’t play around with this forever. Enjoy!

JUSTIN FISHER: Recommended for the Read-Aloud Classroom

Though I published my first book in 1986, it wasn’t until recently that I experienced book reviews. Despite a crazy assortment of books, plus forty titles in the Jigsaw Jones series, the books were never, to my knowledge, reviewed.

That’s the paperback world. I began to think my name was James “Critically Ignored” Preller. The consoling factor was the books were being read by their intended audience, with titles like Hiccups for Elephant and Wake Me In Spring selling more than one million copies (thanks to the might of Scholastic Book Clubs). Beats a review any day. And yet, and yet. There’s something about the validation that comes from a positive, industry-sanctioned review. I think I longed for somebody to say, “Okay, he’s in the club!”

Things changed when I entered the hardcover world in 2008 with Six Innings. Suddenly my work was deemed review-worthy. The coach tapped me on the shoulder; I grabbed my helmet and raced in from the sidelines: I was a playa!  I’ll admit it: the world of reviews represents a confusing, seemingly arbitrary process. While I’m grateful to each reviewer who spends time with one of my books, I’m still afraid to read most of them. Some reviews are perfunctory at best, even when they say decent things about a book. Other reviews are canny and insightful. The whole process feels like a crapshoot. Who are these reviewers, anyway? These strangers who can fill my head with praise or cut me off at the knees (example: for the generally well-received Mighty Casey, a book-lover for Kirkus Reviews snarked: “As a writer of verse, Preller, author of Six Innings, makes an excellent prose novelist.”)

Freaking ouch. I’ll never rhyme again!

And then there are rare reviews that are just incredible, because of the source. That’s how I feel about this latest blog review by Franki Sibberson for Justin Fisher Declares War!

I first learned of Franki when I became a fan of her blog, A Year of Reading, which I discovered on the blogroll over at Literate Lives. I figured that Franki was just another fabulous Ohio-based teacher who loved books (they seem to grow like mushrooms out there). Later I noticed Franki’s name referenced in Ralph Fletcher’s most excellent book, Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices.

I did a little research and soon learned that Franki was an accomplished author herself, co-authoring Beyond Leveled Books (with Karen Szymusiak and Lisa Koch), Still Learning to Read (Karen Szymusiak), Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop (again with Karen Szymusiak), and more.

Clearly, Franki knows and cares about teaching reading in the elementary school. She’s invested and dedicated. As a former school teacher told me over lunch earlier this week, “teaching is an act of hope.” My guess is that Franki would nod her head at that comment.

So I’m honored by Franki’s review of Justin Fisher Declares War! A book that has not gotten much attention to date.

Click here to read the review in full — and then be sure to bookmark Franki’s site, because it’s an inspiration and an education. Here’s an excerpt from the review (I confess that it amounts to more than half of Franki’s review, because I didn’t have the heart to cut any good parts):

I am a huge James Preller fan but this may be my favorite from his list. Most of my teaching life has been in grades 3, 4, and 5. I feel very at home in 4th and 5th grade classrooms. I love the age and James Preller must also love this age. He really understands them and the struggles they deal with. Over the years, I have learned what a huge transition this age is for kids. They go from being little kids, to being big kids and it is sometimes a little confusing.

In this book, we learn that since 3rd grade, Justin Fisher has been the class clown. He is always up to something. He has good friends but in 5th grade, that seems to be changing. His friends and classmates have had enough and are starting to keep their distance. For me, this book is about figuring things out. Things that are cute and funny when you are 8, are no longer cute and funny when you are 11. This is a hard lesson for kids and finding their place in the world gets trickier. But Justin finds his way, thanks to an amazing young teacher (one that clearly deserves a spot on 100 Cool Teachers in Children’s Lit!).

If I were in the classroom this year, this would probably be my first read aloud. The first read aloud has always been key and the choice is always a hard one but there are so man reasons that JUSTIN FISHER DECLARES WAR would make a great first read aloud.

<< snip >>


Franki recently listed some recent raves for middle grade fiction — and I know I’ll be checking them out soon (if not reading every one, at least buying a few for my fourth-grade daughter, Maggie):

Out of My Mind by Susan Draper

Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord

Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (already on my night table)

As Simple as It Seems by Sarah Weeks

Obviously, Franki really likes books with blue covers (goldfish and water optional).

And you know what else? She’s a huge James Preller fan!

Back to School: This Dad Is Okay with It

I know some folks hate to see the end of summer, but as a parent I am ready for the kids to go back to school. With both parents working full-time, figuring out activities and child care across TEN LONG WEEKS (!) of summer has been both a challenge and a disruption. Plenty of great times, sure, but tough on productivity.

For us in upstate New York, we won’t start until Wednesday the 8th because, you know, in today’s agrarian society we need the kids out working the fields to help bring in the harvest. After Wednesday’s half day, the kids will take off on Thursday, then go for the first full day on Friday the 10th. Never fear: they’ll get a weekend to rest after that grueling stretch.

I like the two scenes below because I identify with Dad’s gleeful little secret. As someone who grew up on “School’s Out,” released in the summer of ’72, I love the refreshing twist of this Staples commercial:

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

The scene from “The Cosby Show,” which you can see by clicking here (sorry, I couldn’t locate it on Youtube) takes a minute before it kicks in, but the wait is worth it. After Rudy wakes up Bill to announce it’s the first day of school, she leaves to get dressed.

Then Bill and Claire have this exchange:

BILL (very excited, kisses his wife awake): “Claire, Claire, Claire! It’s the first day of school.”

CLAIRE (sits up): “It’s the first day of school??!!”

BILL: “First day of school!”

CLAIRE (big smile): “We get the house back!”

Booklist Online Gives PIRATE’S GUIDE a “Twins’ Thumbs Up!”

Thank you Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan, writing for Booklist Online, for the kind comments about A Pirate’s Guide for First Grade.

Cindy and Lynn take a collaborative, two-headed approach to book reviews, giving the traditional book review the old Siskel & Ebert update. I think it’s a cool idea that works — and that might even work best when they disagree.

For the full review, please click here or walk the plank. Your choice.

The money quotes:

“A whale of a tale perfect for young buccaneers . . . Reassuring and packed with humor, this is a perfect choice for any small swabbie feeling a little nervous about setting sheets to the wind for first grade.” — Lynn


“My favorite illustration of Greg Ruth’s is the one of the young lass walking the plank (a teeter totter being held horizontal). I also appreciate the author and illustrator’s inclusion of just how tiring it is to be at school for a whole day. I’m headed back next week and I am ready for a nap already.” — Cindy

Cindy notes the book includes a nod to libraries, but I’d also like to echo her thoughts and give a nod to nods. I could use a nap myself!

Detail from double-page spread, art by Greg Ruth. Wish I could scan the whole thing, since the facing page is so much fun, but I can’t, so there you go.