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.