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:

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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.

A Simple Idea for Teachers

Maggie came down to my office yesterday, very excited.

“Mrs. Szczech called!” Maggie enthused. “She asked if I wanted to come into school to help set up her classroom!”

Mary Szczech was Maggie’s third-grade teacher last year. She also taught Gavin a few years back. And she’s one of the best, most beloved teachers I’ve ever encountered, a great spirit.

As we all know, there’s nothing quite so wonderful as a great teacher, and Mary is that.

So that’s where Maggie is right now, pedaling her bike to Mary’s classroom. I thought it was kind when she reached out to her former students, invited them back into the classroom. They’ll have so much fun, the girls laughing together, stapling pictures to the wall, organizing the books, neatening up the shelves. Mary claims, “They really do help keep me focused.” But you know what? I think she misses those kids — and I know my Maggie feels the same way.

It’s a nice tradition, a warm touch, and a happy way to help these children transition back to school after an endless summer. Thank you, Mary.

“Super Sad True Love Story” — A Vote Against Book Trailers

It used to be the author photos on the flap jacket. That’s what killed some books for me.

I’d pick up a novel, feel its heft in my hand, survey the cover design, read the front flap copy, then turn to discover the author photo. Gasp. He’s wearing a corduroy jacket and a smug expression; she’s holding an albino cat! Immediate dislike. I dropped the book and hurried away.

Call me superficial, but it’s hard to read a book written by a face like that. So, generally speaking, I didn’t.

Nowadays, it’s book trailers. I suggest you avoid them at all costs, particularly when produced by the “Cult of Personality” school of cinema, starring Oh, Clever Me and His Special Guests, “The Me Toos!”

The real super sad true story here is, sixty pages in, I had been impressed with the book.

Shteyngart is a singular talent, funny and absurd in the tradition of Gogol and Kafka, razor sharp and contemporary. He’s already been called “our greatest satirist” (Edmund White), “indispensable and important” (Jay McInerney), “exhilarating,” “hilarious,” “heartbreaking,” and “ingenious” (the rest of the world). That is, he’s been lauded with seriously great press, either implying or outright stating that the future of American fiction is in Gary Shteyngart’s hands.

And truly, I’m fine with that. I was, as stated previously, enjoying the book. But I made the mistake of watching the trailer and my stomach turned. The video featured a particular brand of inner circle pretentiousness and uber cool I’ve come to loathe. We see the author and his/her famous/fabulous friends crack wise, all immensely pleased with themselves (and cross-promoting, too!), and I had to run. This kind of thing seems everywhere these days.

And I’m sorry to say it, but this style of self-promotion has become teeth-grindingly true in children’s books, too. The top cats from the It Table gather around to pat each other on the back.

I’m sorry I saw Mr. Shteyngart’s book trailer. I’d rather not hate, you know. Because ever since, I’ve found it hard to find my way back to the book.

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A part of me pines for a time that likely never existed, as vapory and soft focus as Reagan’s “Breakfast in America,” before shame died, before we lived in this culture of relentless self-promotion, of book trailers and blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and on and on and on . . .

When there was just the book, not all the other crap.

On a related note: I so want to buy J.D. Salinger’s toilet!

An Author Thanks the Stars

I formed my diabolical master plan back in 1989.

At the time, I still worked at Scholastic on the book clubs, and Is Your Mama a Llama? was a huge seller. Now no offense to the book’s author, Deborah Guarino, but I strongly felt that the success of this title rested on the huge talent of illustrator Steven Kellogg.

In other words, nice text, great illustrations. Thus Deborah Guarino enjoyed the fruits of a bestseller, but if her manuscript was illustrated by someone less spectacular, it would not have had close to the same popularity. I’m saying: the author got lucky. And that says nothing bad about Deborah Guarino.

Right? That’s not an outrageous theory. Sometimes the illustrations make the book. For an author, that can be tough to swallow — the words do, after all, inspire the pictures! — but 95% of picture books live or die on the illustrations. I bet Jane Yolen thanks her lucky stars for Mark Teague’s incredible work on the (seemingly inexhaustible) “How Do Dinosaurs” series, where he takes a good, sturdy text and lifts it to something superbly popular.

Jane also wrote one of the most beautiful picture books of all time, Owl Moon, which I consider one of the most perfect books ever created. Jane can be absolutely brilliant, a masterful writer. But thank goodness for those gorgeous illustrations by John Schoenherr. Rarely have words and pictures achieved such harmony, a transcendent whole.

And I’m sure Jean Marzollo feels the same about Walter Wick. Jean’s rhyming text for the “I Spy” books is fine, and she deserves much credit for conceiving of that idea, but it was Walter’s execution that hit it out of the park.  After that first book, anybody could have written the sequels — but only one person could have created those photographs.

Times like that, an author smiles, thankful to the stars for aligning. Because heaven knows, it’s a rough slog and there are many long stretches when the sky looks cloudy and gray.

So that was my diabolical plan: Come up with a serviceable text, then have some genius come along to lift it to the stratosphere.

Which is all preamble for how I feel about Greg Ruth’s work on A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade. Yes, I produced the idea and the words for a good picture book. But it was Greg who made it soar. Now I’m just riding the wind, hanging on to his kite tail.

Greg’s work has distinguished this book from so many other fine, deserving titles. A Pirate’s Guide has earned two starred reviews and many strong notices. Most recently, Karen McPherson wrote a  round-up of “classy new school-themed” book for Scripps Howard News Service that included our salty tale. This is especially gratifying because these articles are distributed to hundreds of newspapers nationwide. Good press, indeed.

Here’s Karen’s commentary:

“A young pirate fan takes readers through an unusual school day filled with swashbuckling buccaneers in “A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade” (Feiwel and Friends, $16.99). Written entirely in pirate lingo by James Preller, this book will have young readers shouting “Arrrr!” and “Shiver me timbers!” in no time. But it’s the illustrations by Greg Ruth that really put a spotlight on the protagonist’s active imagination; Ruth shows the boy surrounded by pirates — drawn in brown — wherever he goes. Kids will love the contrast between the antics of the imaginary pirates and the regular school-day routine. (Ages 4-8.)”


Fan Mail Wednesday #93 (blog post #500!)

There are days when I question this blog — why I do it, if it’s worth the time and energy — and, with less frequency but much more sting, I question if what I do for a living has been a colossal mistake. I struggle to pay bills, struggle to create something lasting and worthwhile, and I wonder if trying to make it as a writer was just delusion. Maybe I should have sold insurance with my father after all.

That old punchline applies, “Don’t quit your day job.”

I suspect other writers have felt this same way.

I don’t know if there’s an easy cure for it, but I do know that the absolute heart of the writing life is what happens when a book miraculously reaches a reader — a young person — and that reader is moved in some way, inspired to think new thoughts, feel things, see the world from a fresh perspective. Maybe laugh a little, too. It doesn’t pay the mortgage, but it helps me get through those times of doubt and worry.

Kids always ask, “Is it fun being a writer?’

It’s a lot of things. The rewards are immense. But I’m not always sure I’d recommend it.

Dear  Mr. James Preller,

My name is Vassiliya. This is my 1st time writing to you. I should tell you about myself. Well, my favorite color is blue. My favorite animal is a dog. My favorite food is chicken with rice. I am 9 and I have no brothers and sisters. Now I think I should tell you how I look like. Well, I have light brown long hair, brown eyes, and white skin [In the summer it’s tan]. I read your book Justin Fisher Declares War. I liked it a lot. I wrote a book this year. It’s called The Day We Ran Away. It’s funny. I might publish it but, I’m not sure yet.

P.S. Please, write back.

Your New Fan,

I replied:

Dear Vassiliya:

Thank you for your email. As you can tell from my preamble above, I’m having one of those no good, horrible, terrible, not very good days. I also know what helps: rereading your note, which you sent a few weeks back, to help me remember why I write in the first place.

You see, there are days when I almost forget.

Yes, I am more of a dog person than a cat person. My dog, Daisy, is Not Too Smart. Don’t get me wrong. She’s sweet and loving and as good as can be. But if a bedroom door is halfway open, she has no idea how to get out of the room. Not a clue. My cats — we have two of them — watch Daisy with amusement. They roll their eyes, lick their paws, and purr with feline superiority.

I’m glad you liked Justin Fisher Declares War! I hoped it would be a light, fast, funny book for kids in 3rd, 4th, 5th grade.

I’d be happy to hear more about your story, The Day We Ran Away. Is it based on a true story? Are you funny in school, or just on paper?

Seriously: Thanks for writing. It means a lot. This job can be tough sometimes, a little lonely, and with a share of disappointment. Hearing back from a reader like you, and a fellow writer like yourself, well, it just makes me glad.


PS. My dog writes letters to camp. When my daughter, Maggie — she’s 9, like you, Vassiliya — went to sleepaway camp for a second week this summer, she asked for one thing: “I want another letter from Daisy. A long one.” I don’t know when Daisy finds the time to sneak into my office to type those letters. Or how, come to think of it, she even learned to type. I guess she’s not so dumb after all. Hey, she’s even written to President Obama. And just look at that face. Soooo cute!

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Marshmallow Monster

I turn your attention to Jigsaw Jones #11: The Case of the Marshmallow Monster (still in stock!).

The idea for this one can be traced to Rockville Centre, New York, home of my third-favorite brother, Al. (Just kidding, bro.) He mentioned that the neighborhood men enjoyed an annual father-son camping trip. I immediately recognized the story potential, a convenient device to get Jigsaw out of his school environment. Remember, writing a series presents its own set of difficulties, boredom (the “been there/done that” syndrome) being one of them. I’d found that to keep the work fresh and self sane it was best to break out of the perceived formula whenever possible. I modified the idea by including girls on the trip. After all, where would a camping trip be without Mila Yeh? It would be like forgetting the s’mores.

* In the folklore tradition, no matter how outrageous the tale, there’s usually a pedestrian message behind each story. The story might involve, say, banshees and ghosts, but the message amounts to: don’t go to bed without first doing the dishes. For the campfire story in this book, the adult intention was to encourage the campers to stay inside their tents at night. However, it spurred a much different result. I needed one of the fathers to tell a scary story, thought of this guy . . .

. . . and invented Shirley Hitchcock’s dad. You may notice the resemblance, as illustrated by Jamie Smith, below.

Mr. Hitchcock stirred the fire with a long stick. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. We sat gathered around the warm flames, waiting. “I shouldn’t have said anything,” he muttered, scolding himself. “I don’t want to scare you kids.”

A chorus of voices rose up.

“It’s okay.”

“We won’t be scared.”

“Besides, we like getting scared.”

Later on, Mr. Jordan calls the storyteller by his first name, and the winking tribute was complete: “I’d say that’s enough for tonight, Alfred. It’s time these kids were ready for bed.” Do any young readers get this reference? Doubtful. I do it for my own amusement, and for any parents and teachers who might be reading the books aloud.

* I borrowed the handclap rhyme from some neighborhood kids, David and Emily. When I heard it, I knew I could use it in a book someday — and with their permission, did.

Chicka-chicka, boom-boom.

I can do karate!

Chicka-chicka, boom-boom.

I can move my body!

Chicka-chicka, boom-boom.

I won’t tell my mommy!

Chicka-chicka, boom-boom.

Oops, I’m sorry!

* Due to the benign culture of the stories — it’s a safe world where everybody’s nice, basically — I struggled to invent scenes where Jigsaw could encounter real danger. Only infrequently was I able to give the young reader an edge-of-the-seat, trembly feeling. I think I managed it in this one, however. I get a kick out of writing in that tradition, where the doorknob slowly, slowly turns.

* I still like the opening to Chapter Two — reminds me of my father — though I wonder if it’s already dated in these days of the GPS:

We got to the campground right on time. That is, if your idea of “right on time” includes a flat tire and getting lost in the middle of nowhere. That’s the place right after my dad says, “I know a little shortcut.”

It’s a few mile past, “I don’t need a map.”

* Lastly, the book features another sly tribute — this time to Bogart and Bacall and the classic film, “To Have and Have Not,” based on the Hemingway novel, screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Falkner (who could write a little bit).

I shook my head. “Too dangerous. It’s something I have to do alone.”

Danika took off her necklace. She handed it to me. I saw that it was a leather string with a whistle attached. “You might need this,” she said. “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and . . . blow.”

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