Archive for September 29, 2010

Don’t Look! We’re Celebrating Banned Books Today

“I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen.”Judy Blume.

We are celebrating banned books at the Guilderland Public Library tonight (Wednesday, 9/29). Author Lauren Myracle will be there via Skype visit, and many more local authors will attend in support of the cause. I have been granted five minutes to read anything, and it’s an impossible decision. So given the format, and the obvious choices — Huckleberry, Mockingbird, Fahrenheit, Catcher, etc. — I decided to go with Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen. It’s such a fun book to read aloud.

And besides, audiences always love the gratuitous nudity!

Published in 1970, In the Night Kitchen earned many awards, including Caldecott Honor Book. However, it has been often challenged in schools and librarians, usually for its depiction of a butt-naked Mickey, without any “offensive” parts lopped off. The book ranked #21 on a list compiled by the American Library Association of “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999).

As a cool aside, I learned today that In the Night Kitchen was, in part, an homage to illustrator Windsor McCay’s “Little Nemo” comics. This blog post is fun, brief, visual, and worth reading.

Here’s a few more of my favorite quotes on the subject book banning:

“A word to the unwise. Torch every book. Char every page. Burn every word to ash. Ideas are incombustible. And therein lies your real fear.” – Ellen Hopkins.

“A censor is a man who knows more than he thinks you ought to.” — Laurence Peter.

“All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.” — George Bernard Shaw.

“To reject the word is to reject the human search.” — Max Lerner.

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” — Joseph Brodsky.

“Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there.” — Clare Booth Luce.

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” – John F. Kennedy.

And best of all . . .

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”Amendment I, Bill of Rights, United States Constitution.

Boys Meets Youtube, Answers Back, Naturally

I’ve talked about my son Gavin’s interest in music before. Recently turned eleven, he’s played piano since age four, and then picked up guitar about three years ago. An extremely self-motivated kid, he often goes to Youtube for guitar lessons. He’ll pick out a song, watch the video, then go off and play it.

Interestingly — to me, at least — he wants to respond in kind. Obviously, Gavin lives in a different world than I did as a kid. A couple of days ago he announced that he made some videos and put them on Youtube. “You did what?” we asked.

(Why do I suspect, as parents, we’re all going to be asking that question a lot. “You did . . . WHAT??!!)

I don’t know how to make a video, and I don’t know how to get it on Youtube. But for Gavin, it’s entirely natural for him to figure that out.

Anyway, here’s two of his recent efforts.

This one he made yesterday, while I was upstairs reading When You Reach Me with Maggie: “The Wind Cries Mary” by Jimi Hendrix . . .

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

And over the weekend, on piano, he knocked out a crazy tune by Alan Hovhaness, “Macedonian Mountain Dance.” This song he heard another boy play at piano camp over the summer, and returned home determined to learn it. And did, completely on his own . . .

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

We just sit back in amazement, frankly. Not that he’s perfect, or that these are refined versions, but that he’s out there . . . doing . . . communicating in this modern world.

An Appreciation: SKELLIG by David Almond

I enjoyed a remarkable school visit to Sudbury, MA, last Friday. It was for a “One School, One Book” program, where approximately 1,000 students, grades 6-8, all read my book, Bystander, over the summer. I gave three presentations in a large, full auditorium and tried not to disappoint, though I think I’m still figuring out how best to talk about that topic without coming off as didactic.

But that’s not why I’ve gathered you here today.

I want to praise this book:

If I had a few extra lives, I’d start a blog that focused on “re-reviews.” That is, thoughtful discussions on books that had been around for longer than two minutes. So much about our culture is dedicated to the Cult of the New, our consumerist chase of the latest and greatest, that I think we sometimes lose sight of what truly deserves our attention.

So for the drive out and back to Sudbury, almost three hours each way, I took the audiobook of Skellig out of my local library. And really, I have no idea how I found this book, how it came to my hands. When I realized the reading was recorded by the author himself, and not by a professional actor, my first reaction was, “Uh-oh.” But Almond did a tremendous job. There is a gentleness and vulnerability to his voice that perfectly suits the book’s narrator, Michael; I can’t imagine it read by anyone else.

I loved this book as much as I’ve enjoyed any children’s book, period. I’m not sure how Skellig would be categorized these days, now that everything seems to get lumped into “speculative fiction,” but I think of it as “magic realism.” But done with precision and always with an eye toward larger truths.

In the story, a boy, Michael, meets a strange man-creature who appears to be living in an abandoned garage. “What are you?” Michael keeps asking.

I thought he was dead. He was sitting with his legs stretched out, and his head tipped back against the wall. He was covered in dust and webs like everything else and his face was thin and pale. Dead bluebottles were scattered on his hair and shoulders. I shone the torch on his white face and his black suit.

As the story unfolds, we learn the deeper story about Michael’s baby sister, who is struggling to survive in the hospital somewhere between life and death, attached to tubes and wires.

This book reminded me of some essential lessons in writing. Most essentially, the magical element — Skellig himself — is present to serve and deepen the psychological/emotional truth of the story. It’s not there as a cheap fill-in for story itself, or as some handy excuse for plot.

I think in these days we’re seeing more and more so-called magical elements in books, but they don’t seem magical at all — more like marketing, in fact. A tacked-on fad.

Reading Skellig helped me reach this conclusion: The magic has to serve the realism, not as some easy substitute for genuine feeling.

Almond clearly wrote this story from a deep emotional place, there is heart and soul on every page — a book that feels absolutely urgent and necessary — and as we journey into the mystery of Skellig, the character, we sink deeper into Michael’s own fears and turmoil as a sweet, confused boy “in distress” who is trying to make sense of it all.

In a world of strangeness and horror and the sweet stirrings of new love.

Rarely do I ever read a book and think, “I wish I wrote that.” Or more accurately, “I wish I could one day write a book as good and deep and honest as that.” But that’s how I felt about Skellig, a masterpiece.

That said: I have no idea what my kids will make of it. I imagine that some readers might find the book too slow, too sophisticated, with not enough action. But for my taste, and for why I read books in the first place, Skellig blew me away, knocked my head off my shoulders.

“One Book, One School”

I don’t know where to begin, what to say.

Let’s start with a couple of photos that were recently sent me from Hastings Middle School in Fairhaven, MA.

On Thursday, 9/16, all the students, staff and faculty at Hastings participated in a “One Book, One School” Event. This past summer all students read the same book, Bystander. Of all the books in the world, they selected mine. Amazing. The books were purchased with generous donations from individuals and community organizations. The half-day culminated in book discussions, art projects, role-playing, and more — all tied into my book. The goal of this event was to bring the topic of bullying into the classroom and have the entire school participate in the process. Students were asked to take a pledge: Take a Stand! Don’t be a Bystander, Be a Hero!”

One of the day’s organizers, Ann Richard, sent along this follow-up note:

Mr. Preller,

We all loved the book and had a great time with the discussion.  We sent this press release out after the event with some great photos. I have included them for you to see.

The students created wonderful posters and really seemed to get a lot out of the day.  We used the discussion questions from your publisher as a starting point and created some vocabulary lists and other activities to round out the day.  Each classroom had one poster that they all signed to pledge to not be bystanders, and the entire faculty and staff signed an entire bulletin board to pledge as well.  We also all received a sticker that said, “Don’t be a bystander, be a hero.”

Other area schools are considered using the books in their curriculum this year because we were so successful with it.

Thanks again for such a great book!

And now I return to the same place where I began this post, a little tongue-tied, not knowing where to begin, or what to say, except . . . thanks. I’m honored and grateful.

And, yes, encouraged.


Tomorrow night I head off to visit a school for another “One Book, One School” event, this one at Ephraim Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, MA. So after dinner I powered up the iPod, sat down with my Sharpie and a glass of water, and signed 650 book plates. I’ve always had a lousy signature, and still maintain that nothing beats a handshake, but I feel blessed each time somebody asks.

“How Kids Can Handle a Bully”: Um, Thanks, I Think, But Not Exactly . . .

I recently came across this mention in The Washington Post, under the title, “Two books about how kids can handle a bully“:

To learn more about bullies, read “10 Days to a Bully-Proof Child” by Sherryll Kraizer (DaCapo, $15) and give “Bystander” by James Preller (Feiwel & Friends, $17) to your daughter. This riveting young adult novel tells teenagers all they need to know about bullies and how they can handle them best.

I can’t speak for Ms. Kraizer’s book, which aims at “bully-proofing,” but my novel does nothing of the sort. It’s far from a how-to book, and it certainly does not provide easy answers. No disrespect, but I’m skeptical about the promise of “bully-proofing” anybody — maybe it’s just the term I don’t like, it feels too facile, too much like marketing. But to be clear: I recognize that it is important to provide realistic, practical strategies for adults and children to help curb bullying. Credit goes to Ms. Kraizer for contributing to the cause.

To read about this boy in

a 2008 NY Times article, click here.

Bystander — which works best, I think, for readers ages 10-14 — is a work of FICTION. Ms. Kraizer’s book is NONFICTION. We are using entirely different tools, each with its own strengths and limits. I’m not opposed to the pairing of our books in The Washington Post, just the sloppy “one size fits all” presentation, making a promise for my book that it can’t possibly fulfill.

I don’t believe it is in the fiction writer’s realm to “solve” problems. We are better at presenting them, hopefully providing insight, understanding, a little light. I hope that Bystander is a good conversation starter, and a dramatic way for readers to see themselves within the triad of bully/victim/bystander. But as a matter of fact, my impulse to write the novel was partly in reaction against all the books and movies I encountered that promised simple, unrealistic solutions to complex, knotty problems. There’s no magic fix. Rather than providing answers, I hope my book helps readers figure out some of the questions.

My middle son, Gavin, is just about to embark on his first year in middle school. It’s a time of great physical and emotional changes, complicated by the rising hegemony of peers: a difficult transition for any kid to navigate. I won’t pretend that any of this is clear-cut, or that any child’s identity can be neatly labeled, given the multitude of social roles he likely plays within a single day: athlete, student, son, pet-lover, bully, neighbor, victim, friend, brother, etc.  We’re all a burbling mixture of confidence and insecurity, strength and vulnerability, compassion and insensitivity, black and white and a whole lot of gray. It ain’t easy.

Back to the blurb: I was glad the writer found my book “riveting,” and yet also amused, because clearly he/she didn’t read the book. Can one be riveted by the smell of a book? The flap copy? The heft of it in one’s hand? Can a book look riveting?

Not that I’m complaining, but.

For parents and educators, I can strongly recommend two nonfiction books which helped in my research: The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso; and Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying, by Rebekah Heinrichs. Despite Heinrichs’s focus on children with Aspergers, I found that the book’s themes and issues were universal.

Children’s Book Day: Marker Misery

Living where I do, in the hole of the donut (read: Albany area), I don’t get to meet many children’s book authors and illustrators. So Children’s Book Day at Sunnyside presented a rare opportunity to eyeball the competition. I mean to say: hang out with my colleagues!

During the two-hour signing session, I found myself sitting next to Rebecca Stead. Who is, like, a really big  deal. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to know it. She’s down-to-earth, totally unpretentious. So I kind of had to like her, even though she’s an award-winner and everything.

Whenever a kid came up to Rebecca to have a book signed, Rebecca smiled sweetly — with those straight white teeth of hers — and gestured to an array of six different-colored markers. She asked, “Which color would you like?”

This made me look pretty bad, what with my one lousy black Sharpie. I silently fumed. The audacity! I mean, did she have to wear the Newbery Medal around her neck? Really? So maybe I kicked the table a few times, right when Rebecca was signing. “Oh, gee, sorry, it looks like you ruined another book,” I’d apologize.

It felt good.

And yes, I’m lying about the Newbery Medal necklace.

Sometimes kids would slide over to me and ask for an autograph. I’d hold up my lone Sharpie, glare hatefully at Rebecca, and ask, “Which color?” I’d add in a whisper, “Say black.”

Anyway, despite the horror show of the whole marker situation, it was a decent day and a treat for me to make personal connections with some people I knew only through their books. By happenstance, my daughter, Maggie, is reading When You Reach Me right now. In fact, I read the first few chapters aloud to her, and was again reminded of Rebecca’s gift.

I think one of the most difficult things to do as a writer — something I struggle with all the time — is to create a loose, informal tone and yet still write well-crafted sentences — especially when writing in the first person. To write informally, I’ll tend to insert filler words like “just” and “kind of” and “like” or whatever. You know, the empty words people actually use. But if you aren’t careful, those sentences get flabby. Wordy. Soft around the edges. And I hate flabby sentences. So you have to work hard to find a balance between the casualness of a conversational tone and, say, the ruthlessness of the hard, clear, lean, direct writing which I value.

Rebecca’s book has been justly praised for its plotting — the remarkable puzzle-mystery she constructed — but for me, it’s the sentences. The humor. The tone. The way she writes, word by word, sentence by sentence.

Another fabulous celebrity I’ve meet is Charise Harper (she tweets!). We sat next to each other last year (I guess that’s how I meet people, they plop down next to me and if they aren’t stuffy with South London accents, we’re okay). Charise is one of those endlessly creative people — always making, drawing, folding, doing. A playful spirit and a little nutty in a good way. I think she’s a true, bone-deep artist.

She makes fun little videos, too:

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

Overheard: “I can taste things without eating them. That’s my power!”

Okay, a few things:

* My daughter is an enthusiastic girl, prone to exclamations and grand pronouncements. Especially when it comes to food. Maggie loves to eat, and does so with the zeal of a rhinoceros. Last night I told her that Mom had a meeting after work, and then we had to run out for Open House Night at school, so I was ordering pizza for the boys.

“What am I going to eat?” she asked.

I said I’d order a chicken parm sub for her.

She replied:

“Really?! Today, this morning, I had the taste of chicken parm in mouth. I can taste things without eating them. That’s my power!”

* We are two days away from Talk Like a Pirate Day. With my new picture book out, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, it’s assumed that I’m one of those wildly extroverted guys who loves to talk like a pirate. So I’ve done a couple of radio shows, giving it my all, billowing and sputtering. These things are best filed under, “Live & Learn.”

Regrettably, due to an excess of rum and ill-advised gusto, I cut off my right hand and inserted a hook.

I hoped it would lend me street credibility, a quality that’s equally important to rappers and children’s book authors alike. But now I can only wear slip-on shoes. Arrrr.

A while back I nominated Kiss the Book for best logo image — and my support has not wavered. It’s actually a very good site, and you can find it on my handy, dandy sidebar. The good folks over there recently reviewed A Pirate’s Guide.

Here’s the booty quote:

“If you want your students to spend the next few hours speaking and acting like pirates – this is exactly the right book for you. What a fun way to start the school year – ending with a trip to the library to find the buried treasure!”Kiss the Book.

* Lastly, two reminders: If you are within range of Tarrytown, NY, this Sunday, September 19 (which is, coincidentally “Talk Like a Pirate Day”), you’ll find me and dozens of way better authors & illustrators at “Sunnyside.” Click here for more details.

But if you are close to Ashton, MA, you can hang out with me heartie, illustrator Greg Ruth — hoist the mainsail, swill some grog, the whole magilla. I heard they are going all out for what should be a great, grand, jolly time, transforming a bookstore, Elmer’s, into a Pirate Ship! I hope Greg takes pictures. Look at the cool poster he created:

A Week in a Life of 4th Grade Girl: Stop the Bus!

It’s been some week for my daughter — not that she’s noticed. But as her parents, Lisa and I have been shaking our heads, renewing our vigilance, and wondering what’s to come.

Over the course of five days, three different events have happened.

1) While visiting a friend after school, she was allowed to walk to the stores in town to go buy a muffin. Two 4th-grade girls, alone. This is not something we’ve ever allowed on our watch.

2) While visiting another 4th grade friend, who (we just learned!) has a page on Facebook, the two of them spent time on FB. Again, never-ever on our watch; we’re completely opposed. It caught us completely by surprise.

3) While sleeping over at a friends house, they watched “Twilight.” Maybe not that big a deal, but again, we were in no hurry at all to cross over into that world. Compounded with the other recent events, we could sense something slipping away.

The lesson: Don’t ever let Maggie leave the house! Better yet, we might have to keep her in box, buried deep in the closet.

Under the shoes.

Maggie is not yet ten years old. And I often think the same thing when observing other families: What’s the big hurry?

Yes, these eventualities will happen, all in good time. But I’m all for holding them off as long as possible. Obviously, we’ve got to monitor things more closely, and not assume that every family — no matter how wonderful — shares the same vision for our daughter.

That’s our job.

Slow Reading, Close Reading, Quality Reading

“Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.” – Thomas Newkirk.

I don’t think any writer would disagree: Reading is the foundation for writing. It’s how we learn. But how do we read? And why? And perhaps: How do we want our children to read?

I’ve mentioned it here before, I’m an awfully slow reader. And I’ve come to realize that I read differently than more casual readers, since “plot” is not often my primary focus, or perhaps because I “sub-vocalize,” a definite no-no in speed reading circles. (It’s telling that we often advise writers to read their work out loud, since that same activity is perceived as a negative in terms of reading “quickly and efficiently.”)

I’m not saying that my way is the right way. But when I reflect on it, I will confess that I didn’t really learn how to read until college. Maybe that was developmentally appropriate, maybe I needed to be that age before I could grapple with the dynamics of book.

Anyway, about a month ago a friend passed along this article from USA TODAY by Mary Beth Marklein,  “Professor pushes return to slow reading.”

Here’s the opening few paragraphs:

At a time when people spend much of their time skimming websites, text messages and e-mails, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire is making the case for slowing down as a way to gain more meaning and pleasure out of the written word.

Thomas Newkirk isn’t the first or most prominent proponent of the so-called “slow reading” movement, but he argues it’s becoming all the more important in a culture and educational system that often treats reading as fast food to be gobbled up as quickly as possible.

“You see schools where reading is turned into a race, you see kids on the stopwatch to see how many words they can read in a minute,” he said. “That tells students a story about what reading is. It tells students to be fast is to be good.”

The article goes on to mention that slow, or close reading has begun to pop up more in elementary schools. For me, it’s all food for thought. I guess there’s that old criticism, the reaction against teachers who “kill the book” by over-teaching it. As a former English Major, I can sympathize. But still, we have to ask: How much are readers getting out of the books they read? Is it better to read five books well than it is to race through 25 titles? When we talk about reading, at what point should the concept of quality enter the equation?

The article continues:

In a 2007 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the executive humanities editor at Harvard University Press describes a worldwide reading crisis and calls for a “revolution in reading.”

“Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words,” Lindsay Waters wrote.

What do you think? Malarky from the Ivory Towers — or are they onto something?

How might this apply to a fifth-grade classroom?

By complete coincidence, I recently found this book, Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose, while I was digging around in my local library for something else entirely. Actually, I’m thinking the book found me.

I brought it home and read it . . . slooowly, as always. I enjoyed it, reading the examples from different texts, really looking at what’s happening on the page, bringing more of myself to bear on the text — and so I’m totally on board with Ms. Prose’s drift.  Here’s a blurb from a Publishers Weekly starred review:

“The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading — carefully, deliberately, and slowly. While this might seem like a no-brainer, Prose masterfully meditates on how quality reading informs great writing . . . Prose’s guide to reading and writing belongs on every writer’s bookshelf alongside E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.” — PW.

Newkirk shares a similar point of view, though directs it at educators (please click here to read his article in full):

Open any newspaper and you are likely to find a story of some school whose students have read a million, two million—some big number of pages. As a payoff, the teachers wear pajamas for a day, or the principal shaves his head or agrees to eat worms, a reward to the delighted students. Then Pizza Hut or some other franchise that sponsored the event hands out coupons for nonnutritious food to the voracious readers.

It’s all great fun, a good story, a terrific photo op. But something bothers me about this picture—it’s as though reading has become a form of fast food to consume as quickly as possible, just one more cultural celebration of speed.

This association of good reading with speed permeates our schools, from the hugely popular Accelerated Reading Program, to “nonsense word fluency” tests in which young children have to decode “words” at a rate of more than one per second, to standardized tests in which reading is always “on the clock.” To be quick is to be smart; to be slow is to be stupid.

In the article, Mr. Newkirk provides some practical suggestions for the classroom. I particularly liked this one, since it’s what I’ve been doing for the whole of my adult reading life:

A page from my copy of The Gathering by Anne Enright.

Writes Mr. Newkirk:

Annotating a Page

In this activity, students probe the craft of a favorite writer. They pick a page they really like, photocopy it, and tape the photocopy to a larger piece of paper so they have wide margins in which they can make notations. Their job is to give the page a close reading and mark word choices, sentence patterns, images, dialogue—anything they find effective

For example, this sentence appears on the opening page of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996): “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood” (p. 11). We can hear the way McCourt repeats the words worse, miserable, and Irish, creating an ascending scale of misery. It’s a great sentence that deserves attention.

A variation of this activity is a quote-and-comment assignment in which students copy out passages by hand that they find particularly meaningful and then comment on why they chose those passages. Copying a passage slows us down and creates an intimacy with the writer’s style—a feel for word choice and for how sentences are formed. At the end of a unit in which my students have done a great deal of reading, we celebrate by selecting passages we want to hold on to and reading them aloud to the class. It always interests me to see which passages the students select.

A Day to Reflect