Archive for August 24, 2010

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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