Archive for October 29, 2010

The Legend of the Adirondack Shark

Here’s some mindless fun — and I do mean mindless!

At the end summer, we joined three other families for a weekend camping trip at Forked Lake in the Adirondacks. Nine kids, seventeen folks in all.

It’s become a tradition for one of the fathers, Paul, to concoct a short, creative video with the kids. It’s a tradition, I emphasize, because so far we’ve been unable to stop him.

Alert viewers will see that I have a small but pivotal role in the film. Gavin, too, though you don’t see much of him. Maggie swims a bit and walks around in a bathing suit with a shark mask on her head. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. And my dear wife Lisa somehow got roped into the film’s most dramatic role — Lisa really had no idea what she was getting into.

Thanks, Paul, for the good times.

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Stand UP!

I’m back from visiting some schools down in Westchester, NY. Great time, loved it. When my kids were younger, I didn’t like leaving the house — and overnight trips just weren’t feasible, so I stayed local. But now I find that I’m not needed. Seriously. When I asked Maggie if she missed me, she grumbled, “Dad, I didn’t see you for two weeks this summer.”

I think that’s her special way of saying she loves me terrifically.

Anyway, I’m glad to be back at my desk. A lot of things to do, all of them good. I’ve got a manuscript to revise — and yes, I finally have a title for “the untitled YA” I’ve been working on all year, it will be called Before You Go — and photos for my FATHERS READ project to organize.

Please, please, please send photos to me of men reading. It’s that simple. We need to put those images out into the world.

A while back I blogged about a school in Fairhaven that featured Bystander for a “one book, one school” event. I recently received a photo from one of the event’s organizers of two 6th-graders, Amelia and Linda, who worked cooperatively on a poster and, ta-da!, won a school-wide contest. Pretty great, don’t you think?

I especially love those words at the bottom: Stand UP!

Ends & Odds & All Sorts of Crazy Good Times

I’m headed off across the wild tundra for three days of school visits in the vast, icy wasteland of Westchester, NY. You’ll have to find somewhere else to kill your valuable time. And to that end, I thought I’d offer some help:

* This year, I’ve teamed up with the fabulous Kerri McPhail at Children’s Authors’ Ally. Kerri helps coordinate author visits for me and many others. So if you are interested in an author visit, from me or perhaps somebody even better (!), follow the link and Kerri will work hard to meet the needs of your school and your students.

* To be perfectly honest, I’ve never read anything Nicole Krauss, but I enjoyed the description of her creative process. Here’s the first few opening lines from her brief essay, “On Doubt,” originally featured at Cory Doctorow’s great site, Boing Boing:

I begin my novels without ideas. I don’t have a plot, or themes, or a sense of the book’s form. Often I don’t even have a specific character in mind. I begin with a single sentence of no great importance; it almost certainly will be thrown away later. To that sentence I add another, and then another. A little riff emerges. If it’s going well–and it’s hard for me to say exactly what going well means, beyond the writing feeling authentic enough not to require immediate erasure–I’ll continue this sort of aimless unspooling.

The message I get from those words, and from Nicole, is basically: Just start writing. And let the writing itself lead the way. I’m not saying she’s right or wrong, or even right for me, just that I liked her message. For me, it’s easy to get stuck in the beginning, when I’m not sure what I’m doing next. Nicole’s approach sounds liberating. And again: There are no rules.

* I wish I had a baby to dress up this Halloween. Gallagher, anyone?

No? How about a chicken . . . inhabited by an alien? Cute, right?

* Canadian icon Gordon Pinsent reads excepts from the new book by author Justin Bieber. “Yes, I wore a white shirt. Yes, I got spaghetti.”

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* A personal library kit . . . made just for kids.

* Thank you, Reading Junky, for this nice review of Justin Fisher Declares War!

Author James Preller describes fifth grade to a tee in JUSTIN FISHER DECLARES WAR!  Every class has a Justin, and at some point, every class begins to object to the disruption caused by a chronic goof-off.  Preller’s novel offers excellent read-a-loud potential with ample opportunity for discussion about behavior and its consequences.  I’ll definitely be recommending this one to both students and teachers in middle grade classrooms.

* There’s something addictive and pure about looking at all these Thermos lunchboxes through the years.

* In the right classroom, with the right teacher, I think this could make a challenging writing exercise — narrating videos for the visually impaired. As Shana describes it:

I write and do voiceover narration for a company that audio-describes TV. It enriches the viewing experience for the blind in the same way that closed-captioning helps the hearing impaired.

The descriptive video writer’s job is to describe the unspoken action in the scene without distracting the viewer from the story, or stepping on the actors’ lines. It’s almost like rewriting a screenplay without the dialogue; I’m describing what’s going on in between that dialogue.

Be sure to use the link to view the brief samples of her work. Thanks, as always, to Whitney at Pop Candy for the link.

* I can’t read this stuff, but maybe you can stand it.

* Does your school kill creativity? Sir Ken Robinson suspects that it might.

* LASTLY, I still need your help. I need many, many more photos of men reading books for my upcoming FATHER’S READ blog.  I’ve gotten some great shots so far, of all sorts, but I need more. This small, worthy cause can’t work without your help.

Please submit your photos via email to: Jamespreller@aol.com with the subject heading, FATHERS READ.

Here’s a lovely one from my pal Nan, of her husband Stephen:

100 Things About Me as a Reader

I stole this idea from Franki Sibberson, who blogged about it here. Like Franki, I’m not going to reach “100” until later, or maybe later in this case means never. But it’s been an entertaining, thoughtful exercise to ruminate about these things, my reading life. I found that I had difficulty separating the “me as a reader” from “me as a writer,” to the point where I pretty much gave up. One thing leaks into the other and everything shines.

Anyway, you might enjoy giving this a try. Add a comment below, and create list of your own and share the link. I think it’s cool that some teachers use this idea in the classroom, with good results.

* I tend to read one book at a time — not one of those marvels who can juggle several stories at once.

* As a kid, I learned how to read (and write, I think) by reading the sports pages in the New York Daily News. So, yeah, I owe a big debt to Dick Young.

* I have no memory of either of my parents reading to me. Ever.

* Two books I remember best: Splish, Splash, and Splush and Go Up for Glory: Bill Russell. No idea why.

* Sometimes I pretend that I’ve read books when, in truth, I really haven’t. But don’t tell anyone.

* I tend to like “guy” books more than “girl” books, and male authors more than female authors.

* Autographs mean nothing to me; I much prefer a handshake. But now I see it as not so much a way of getting something — an autographed book! — but as a way to honor an author, to say thank you. So I’ve stood in line to do that a few times; Jean Craighead George was the latest.

* I have a little light that I clip onto my book when I read in bed, it’s like a torch in the darkness and I love it.

* Long books tend to scare me: the commitment!

* I’ve read many comic books over the years, but I can’t say I’ve ever connected with them in a “eureeka!” moment.

* These days I need glasses . . . rats.

* Reading to my children has had a huge impact on me as a writer, and I’m so grateful for the books they’ve brought into my life. I missed Beatrice Potter until Gavin came along.

* Books are furniture.

* When I was little, we had a fat book on our shelves called something like, “Tales of the Arabian Nights.” I’m making that title up, since I don’t remember; but I do remember amazing, wild illustrations of a horrible genie, arms crossed, and a disgusting cyclops. Drawings of men with swords, fighting impossible foes. I stared at those pictures countless times. It was my go-to book as a child.

* I often go on thematic reading binges. For example: To Kill a Mockingbird into Mockingbird into In Cold Blood. That kind of thing.

* I’ve read the first two books in “Hunger Games” series and though I don’t really want to read the last one, I might have to read the last one — if you know what I mean.

* I think that it’s perfectly fine to abandon a book before the end. In fact, I recommend it.

* When I feel like my reading habit is in decline, I’ll pick up a police procedural — something fast-paced and action-packed — and tear through it in a day or two. It gets me back in the flow.

* I love Raymond Chandler: those sentences! Pauline Kael, too!

* I read with a pen in my hand, almost always (and for that reason, dislike library books). I star, underline, write in margins, complain, etc. I have a physical reader response to a good book. Reading drives me to writing.

* Magazines get in the way of my book reading. I think the two formats are at war for my attention and there’s never a satisfactory balance.

* I don’t have a Kindle, but I don’t have a problem with it. Feels inevitable. Things change.

* For years I read extensively about baseball — all sorts of books, totally absorbed, deep deep deep into it. Then I wrote Six Innings, and haven’t read nearly as much about baseball since. It’s like I got it out of my system.

* A lot of children’s books disappoint me, and I sometimes wonder if there’s a prevailing idea that, “Hey, that’s good enough — it’s only a kid’s book.” And that really, really bothers me.

* I don’t like time travel. The logic breaks down and I’m not the type of guy who can accept those lapses.

* I’ve read the back of a lot of sugary cereal boxes.

* I hate it when seemingly intelligent characters are forced to make extremely poor decisions in order to move the plot along.

* I really love Richard Ford, and almost nothing ever happens in his books.

* I think some people might possibly read too much, too fast, like seeing three movies in one day or visiting twelve countries during a two-week trip to Europe. It’s not a race to tick off the most titles on a checklist. Quality over quantity, every time.

* I go first to the sports section when I visit used book stores. I am looking for baseball books to add to my collection.

* I used to read a lot of poetry, for a good ten-fifteen years. These days, almost never. But I think it was probably the most important reading of my life, that full attention to every word.

* I think if you’ve read a book more than 20 years ago, it almost doesn’t count.

* I don’t like the kissing parts in books.

* The newspaper is still where my reading day begins, and it usually involves scores of games.

* I worry about the blogging and the clicking and the surfing and the texting and if it has negatively effected my attention span. And yours.

* I love listening to audiobooks on long drives.

* I don’t have any nostalgic feelings about my hometown library. Back then, I didn’t hear the magic.

* Books were not important to me as a kid. But later, yes, very much. I still don’t know exactly what changed, or why. How did I become . . . a reader?

* I’ve spent hours and hours pouring over the lyrics in favorite albums — blasting the music, lying on the floor, puzzling over the words. Sometimes the albums didn’t come with lyrics, and I’d have to listen over and over again, lifting the needle, placing it back down, writing out the words phrase by phrase. Things seem to mean more when you have to work for it. Nowadays I go on Google and it’s all there, every word; I don’t have to study the song, and something essential’s probably been lost.

* I’m a slow reader.

* Neither of my parents read novels, almost ever. but most of my brothers and sisters were readers, and I’m sure that was a powerful model in my life. Jean and her Richard Brautigan, Bill and his Ray Bradbury, Al and his Kurt Vonnegut, Neal and his James Joyce . . .

* I still need to understand that reading is a vital part of my job. Sometimes it feels like goofing off, but I know, intellectually, that’s it’s everything.

FATHERS READ: A Call for Photos

There are many contributing factors that help explain why boys don’t read as much as girls. The structure of the school day, the chemical differences between the sexes, the books themselves, the lack of male role models, the overwhelming majority of women who serve as gatekeepers (teachers, librarians, editors, bloggers, reviewers), and so on.

I’ve wrestled with this issue a lot lately. Numerous times I’ve attempted to address it, but always ended up unhappy with my tone of complaint. I can do negativity pretty well and far too effortlessly. I wanted to do something positive, something constructive, even if it was small and quite probably useless.

Thanks in part to an offhand comment made to me by author Lewis Buzbee (a guy who routinely imparts wisdom in casual asides), I’ve reached the conclusion that one of the most powerful, positive factors to encourage and inspire boys to read is, very simply, to see their fathers read. Look, there’s dad sitting down with a book. Any book. Fathers don’t just chop down trees, fix door jambs, and watch football. We read, too. It’s a valid male activity, like burping. Think of the power of that simple image. There’s Dad with a book in his lap.

I recently acquired the domain name, fathersread.com. The site is not up and running yet, but I’m working on it. Kind of. Slowly.

Here’s where you come in. I need photos. Pictures of men with books. It could be any photo, and the wider the variety the better. Fathers with children, fathers alone. A shot with humor in it . . . or not. A shot where the book cover is important — or not at all. Really, what I’m asking for is photos. That’s all. We’ll see where that brings us.

Please submit your photos via email to: Jamespreller@aol.com with the subject heading, FATHERS READ. Thank you. I can’t do this without your help. If you can pass this request along to others, I’d appreciate it. In the meantime, here’s an unremarkable shot from a summer vacation, just a couple of guys lounging around, doing what guys do.

For more thoughts on the Reading Gender Gap, try these links:

* The New Gender Gap by Diane Connell and Betsy Gunzelmann

* America’s Reading Gender Gap by Bill Costello

* Unchartered Territory by Kristy Valenti, on boys and comics.

* Boys and Literacy by Elizabeth Knowles and Martha Smith.

* Connecting Boys with Books 2 by Michael Sullivan.

“It Gets Better”

This amazing speech, given by Texas Councilman Joel Burns, has been making the rounds on Facebook and other places. I believe it was first featured here, on The Huffington Post.

Maybe you’ve already seen it, and if so I know you’ll forgive me for sharing old news. But I’ve posted it here for anyone who might have missed it or passed it by. If you are like me, perhaps you’ve felt that nearly thirteen minutes is far too long to spend watching a video. Perhaps you felt that you’d get around to it another time, or that you already have a pretty good idea about what he says. That you are busy and there’s so much to do in the headlong forward push of days. And all I can say is, give yourself those thirteen minutes.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #95 (Friday Edition!)

Do you remember that classic scene in the original “Miracle on 34th Street,” when a line of uniformed postal workers comes into the courtroom to dump sacks of letters on the judge’s desk?

That’s the way it is around here every day at Jamespreller.com.

So let’s take a gander at one . . .

Dear James Preller,

My name is Dillon. I am in 7th grade and I go to _______ Middle School. Some things I like to do is ride dirt bikes and four wheelers because I have a lot of woods and fields to ride on. I also like to go hiking and find cool things like stuff in my creek and in my woods or anywhere.

I am reading the book Six Innings. I liked your book because I like baseball and books about baseball even though I’m not that good at it. When I read your book it was good. That’s coming from me and I usually don’t like to read at all.

My favorite character in the book was Dylan Van Zant. He was my favorite character in the book for a couple of reasons. One reason is he has the same first name as me. Another reason that Dylan Van Zant is my favorite character is because he is nice and not a mean kid at all.

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter to you. But before I am done I will ask you some questions and one is why did you pick Dylan Van Zant to be a nice kid and a really good baseball player. Like in real life sometimes people who are really good baseball players are mean. Another question is why did you pick the title Six Innings.

Sincerely, Dillon

I replied:

Dear Dillon:

Thanks for your letter. I liked that you began by telling me a little bit about yourself. Like you, I also enjoy nature, though I’m not really a dirt bike kind of guy. Too noisy. Growing up, I had some friends, Timmy Tighe and Frank Connelly, who built their own motor bikes — basically lawn mower engines attached to regular bicycles — and we loved cruising around on them. Their hands were always filthy, covered in oil and grease. These days, you couldn’t get me on a motorcycle if you paid me. I can only imagine skidding across the cement  . . . ouch, Ouch, OUCH. I guess if you’re a good rider you can’t let those negative thoughts into your head.

When I think of motorcycles, all I can imagine

is a long, sad stay in the hospital.

I’m glad you enjoyed my baseball book. It makes me happy when someone who doesn’t normally like to read writes to say that my book wasn’t as bad as he might have expected. Out of all the characters in that book — besides Sam’s father — I might have identified the most with Dylan Van Zant. As a Little Leaguer, I loved to pitch. I could never throw that hard, but I had great control and I absolutely loved standing on that mound with the ball in my hand, literally the King of the Hill.

It’s true what you said: Sometimes when people are very good at things, they can be obnoxious about it. You know, conceited, superior, like they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. (I can’t stand those types of people.)  I think with Dylan, he knows he’s not a superstar; he just loves playing the game.

I titled the book Six Innings because that was my first idea for the book, to use the structure of one Little League game — across six innings — to tell the story of the players and the plays. It was a sturdy format, because it gave me a beginning, middle, and end.

Mostly though, I have vivid memories of my Little League games, they were important to me, and I know that many kids felt, and still feel, the same way. Thanks for writing. I appreciate it. I hope you continue to seek out other books you might enjoy, even if the pickings look slim. I’m sure there are books in your school library that are just right for someone with your interests and obvious intelligence. Try your school librarians — professional know-it-alls, they love bringing good kids and books together.

My best,

JP

Forget the Book — Watch the Trailer!

Here’s the hot new trailer for A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade — just flown in from Hollywood on a big ol’ jet airliner!

My friends made this as a personal favor to me, at cost. I was surprised to learn these videos are so expensive to produce — upwards to $40,000! — and that they refused to start filming until the check cleared. I guess the Screen Actors Guild is a pretty powerful union. What can you do, you know? It’s not like the old days, when you could just write a book and hope people read it.

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Like the films of James Cameron, you can see every penny on the screen. For example, just look at that tree house/pirate ship . . . that’s all done on blue screen . . . much of the video was shot on location in the Caribbean (the well-tanned director insisted on “authenticity”) . . . and the “mother” figure is actually a product of Robotic Technology, first pioneered at Stanford University. Incredibly lifelike, and worth the $12,750. An alert reader may also recognize the vocal stylings of former child actor, Mason Reese. He really brought the intensity to the shoot, and it was just a privilege being around a Hollywood legend. (Note: Um, I never got to meet Mason, actually, but I did write a check, made out to “CASH,” for $3,200.)

Seriously: I really like this video. I love the homemade feeling and, of course, that it features ordinary boys at play the old-fashioned way. More and more, I’m seeing book trailers that are these elaborate, bloated, phony-baloney productions. How’s a little guy like me supposed to compete with that? With a book? Words on paper? Don’t be so naive!

The answer, of course: Robotics . . . and Mason Reese!

The Undying Appeal of a Double-Breasted Blue Blazer with Brass Buttons!

Here I am, checking my Twitter account, updating my Facebook status, networking with strangers on  “Linked-In” . . . and live-blogging “Autumn 2010: You Had to Be There!” for my Nation of Readers here at Jamespreller.com.

This shot was taken yesterday — a world away — up on Owl’s Head (off 73, near Keene). Easy hike, great views. We spent Sunday and Monday up in Lake Placid with friends. This photograph is me, attempting to get away from those same friends.

One quick story: Elliot is such a great kid, pure and sincere and six years old, I enjoy him so much. When we first arrived at the house, he was proudly donning a dusty old blue blazer he’d discovered in a closet. And basketball shorts. I don’t know exactly how it made him feel, wearing that jacket, but Elliot didn’t want to take it off. He even wanted to wear it on the hike.

God, I so remember being a boy.

NOTE: I realize the blazer is not, technically speaking, “double-breasted.” But you can’t deny the appeal of those b’s and d’s in the mouth, especially bouncing off “blue blazer with brass buttons.”

“One of my go-to funny books for boys.”

Thought I’d share a few reviews for my middle grade novel (grades 3-5), Justin Fisher Declares War!

Thanks to anyone who picks up this book and gives it a try. When I first wrote it, I thought of Justin as a light-hearted, character-centered book that might appeal to reluctant readers. It’s extremely easy to read. Though the characters are in 5th grade, I see this as a book that’s best for 3rd graders and up. Sigh, I’ll never understand the thinking behind the cover, but there’s nothing to be done abut that.

The first review is from Jaci Miller at Young Adult Books Central. To read it in full, go here:

James Preller’s likable book about class clowns and their inner workings will strike a chord with readers. Everyone wants to be liked and Preller intuitively taps this through Justin Fisher, a young man who tries just a bit too hard.

In a satisfying, but age-appropriate way, characters grow and change, including the antagonist, Mr. Tripp. Readers will root for Justin and, at the same time, shake their heads at his antics. Both student and teacher have been crafted with solid character motivations.

The short chapters also make Justin Fisher Declares War! a friendly read for more reluctant readers. A delightful addition to the world of humorous middle grade fiction.

Vikki Van Sickle of the Pipedreaming blog says that, Justin Fisher Declares War is officially one of my go-to funny books for boys.” Here’s another section of that review:

This book could be considered a loose sequel to Along Came Spider, but only because both books take place in the same setting and there are a few crossover characters. It is not necessary to read one to understand he other. James Preller’s writing style is breezy and fun. Having spent some time in elementary school classrooms myself, I found his dialogue and classroom antics very authentic. At some points I found myself thinking of Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine books. This is high praise, as Clementine is one of my all-time favourite early chapter book heroines. I think boys will relate to Justin and enjoy laughing along with his misadventures. Coming in under 150 pages, with short chapters and a fast-paced story, Justin Fisher Declares War is a great transitional book for boys.

Doret of the fabulous blog, The Happy Nappy Bookseller, also reviewed the book, and I’m grateful for that:

I really enjoyed Justin Fisher Declares War. Preller’s has a created a character in Justin, that isn’t all good or bad. The author previous novel Along Came Spider, is also set at Spiro Agew Elementary School. Anyone who has read it, will like being able to see how best friends Trey and Spider are doing. I don’t know if the author plans to set anymore novels at this school. But I hope so. Justin Fisher Declares War is a great suggestion for fans of Andrew Clements or Dan Gutman.

Lastly, I probably shouldn’t say this, but here goes: I have to grin when I see Justin on various Mock Newbery lists. The thoroughness of some of these folks is impressive and commendable. But let me tell you, just so you don’t fly to Vegas to lay down money on a longshot, this book is nowhere close to a Newbery. It does not belong in the conversation, and aspires only to be an easy, entertaining read with, hopefully, a few glimmers of hard-won insight thrown into the soup. I’d be happy with a review of, “Good fun!” I fully realize that a book like Justin, school-based fiction aimed at quasi-reluctant readers, isn’t going to make me rich. Honestly, it’s possibly too quiet for widespread boy appeal, but it was the story I needed to tell. I do hope this book picks up some readers along the way . . .

Speaking of the Newbery, last year it was obvious that When You Reach Me was the hands-down favorite. The year before that, I had read The Graveyard and wasn’t surprised by the selection. This year? I just don’t know.

Do you have a favorite?