Archive for November 30, 2010

So You Want to Write a Novel

I’m running out the door for a local school visit, but wanted to pass along a pretty great video.

It is frighteningly true: I’ve had similar conversations many times. I even mentioned the phenomenon in a recent interview, the shocking amount of people who want to skip the “writer” stage and proceed directly to “author.”

The video was made by David Kazzie, who blogs at The Corner.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #100! (Monday Night Edition)

Letters are great, but I especially love it when they include photographs.

Check out Bianca and Thomas from the wilds of New Jersey!

Their letters included a stamped, self-addressed return envelope, and I replied this way:

Dear Thomas & Bianca:

Thank you for the kind letters. I was especially glad to see that you included a photograph. I suppose if I was that good-lucking, I’d be handing out photos, too.

You’ll see that, as requested, I enclosed a signed bookplate. I’m sorry to say that I don’t actually have a supply of my own fancy bookplates to send out; I should probably get that done one of these days. I’ll have to add it to my “to do” list. I’m relieved that you “don’t mind one bit” if I have sloppy handwriting. Because it really is true: thank goodness I can type!

Thomas: No, I don’t do the illustrations. I’m a writer, the boss of the words. I think if you continue to improve as a reader, you might wish to try my book, Along Came Spider. It’s a little longer than Jigsaw, and the characters are older, but it shouldn’t be too very hard to read.

Bianca: Ack, no, I don’t live anywhere near the sea, even though the name of my town, Delmar, means “of the sea” in Spanish. However, in English I think it means “landlocked!” I have three children and they do read most –- but not all –- of my books.

I received a warm letter from your teacher, Ms. Kingsley. She sounds really, really nice. My parents are from Queens, NY, and so is Ms. Kingsley, so we kind of have that in common. And we both love Brooklyn, too. Oh, yeah, one last thing. She says you are GREAT KIDS and I believe her.

Keep up the good work. Keep reading, keep working hard in school.

My best,


Art for Sale: Sylvie Kantorovitz Wickstrom

My friend, the lovely and talented and confusingly-named Sylvie Kantorovitz Wickstrom . . .

. . . who was born in Casablanca, raised in France, and ended up in Albany, NY . . .

. . . where she has not only illustrated numerous children’s books . . .

. . . but has also continued to ply her craft as a fine artist . . .

. . . pretty good, right? I think her head might still be in France. I mentioned up top that Sylvie was confusingly named. Look at the book covers. She used to go by the name of Sylvie Wickstrom. Then she changed it to Sylvie Kantorovitz. She’s fun that way. We’re all waiting to see what name she’s going to come up with next. I’m quietly rooting for Sylvie Ishkabibble — just to further confuse the marketplace.

Sylvie just opened an Etsy site, where you can see (and purchase!) some of her original work for very reasonable prices. I just thought I’d give her a shout out. You know, use the powerful platform of to promote some beauty in the world.

NOTE: Greg Ruth, the illustrator of A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, also offers many original pieces of art for sale. Just click here!

Thank you, thank you very much.

Interior illustration, chapter 2, The Haunting of Charles Dickens, by Lewis Buzbee.

My Interview in Bangkok (sort of)

It’s never a good sign when a reviewer confesses that he’s “not into children’s books that much.”

Basically, I get to read them out of necessity, mostly with my students. Such is the case with The Case of the Vanishing Painting by James Preller, the 25th booklet in the Jigsaw Jones Mystery Series which I read with one of my thirteen year old Thai students.

The blogger in this case is a Bangkok-based, Romanian-born writer, journalist and educator named Voicu Mihnea Simandan. And he actually turned out to be better than okay. He gave the book a thumbs-up:

The story is well-written and is likely to keep kids glued to its pages. When a painting goes missing, Jigsaw Jones and his partner, Mila Yeh, try to find out who stole it. As Parent’s Night approaches and the painting is needed for the art exhibition, little detective Jones tries hard at eliminating the usual suspects. Of course, the “thief” is the last person you’ll ever expect. As with all books for children, all’s well in the end and everyone’s friends with everyone again.

Mr. Simandan  did not mention the book’s send-up of Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac, so I thought I would: There’s a loopy, swirling, incense-burning, shawl-wearing substitute art teacher named Ms. Nicks:

Our whole class filed into the art room.

“Yuck, what’s that smell?” Bobby Solofsky complained.

Joey Pignattano blushed. “Maybe it’s me,” he admitted. “I think I stepped in something on the way to school.”

“It’s not you, Joey,” Mila said. “It’s that.”

Mila pointed to a wisp of smoke rising from a clay dish. The dish was in the palm of our substitute art teacher’s hand.

“Jasmine incense,” Ms. Nicks warbled. “It soothes the spirit and improves creativity.”

A few moments later:

“Center your energies,” Ms. Nicks whispered.

“Does that mean ‘sit down’?” Eddie Becker asked.

“I think so,” I replied.

Anyway, I digress. It turned out that Mr. Simandan was impressed by my Fathers Read project — it’s coming soon, promise! — and sent along a terrific photograph. He’s a gifted blogger and book lover with a lively mind, so he asked if I’d be willing to do an interview.

You can read it in full by clicking here. Our conversation rtouched upon my writing process, blogging, school visits, astral physics (no, not really), and we even discussed the future of reading:

VMS: Everyone seems to believe that children no longer read and, with the availability of affordable e-readers, many believe that, sooner or later, children will no longer want to hold books in their hands. Please comment.

JP: I’m not too worried about reading, per say, though I suppose that sustained attention for longer works might be in some danger. Maybe, I’m not even sure about that. I accept e-readers as a natural fact. Things change. I just downloaded some songs to iTunes, for example, and I grew up loving “albums.” But it’s still music, you know. However, however. I do very much believe in the value of THE TANGIBLE OBJECT, whether it’s a CD or a paperback book. I think there’s a relationship to the book that can’t quite be replaced by an e-reader.

My good friends have a daughter, Lucy, who spent this entire past summer carrying around Twilight in her hands. She read it over and over, the book was frayed and dog-eared, it was used, handled, and so obviously loved. I think the book expressed something essential for Lucy, it became part of her self-identity. She was the girl who carried around that book, a Twilight fan, and on some level she wanted the world to know that fact. Again, e-readers are fine. You want to read the new Michael Connelly novel, an e-reader might be the perfect choice. But I think we’ll always need some real books in our lives. We attach to them easier. They seem to mean more.

I should also add what I often say. Books are furniture. I can’t imagine a house without them.

Thanks, and so on and so forth

I came across this quote on a school visit during some down time. I loved it immediately and copied it down:




— Theodore Roethke

Confession: I did a little digging and could not find the source for this quote, or even confirm its attribution. But who cares!

I’ll tell you why I love it. I live a modest life, a little dull, probably. I’m a cliche: three kids, the house in suburbia, soccer practices in the minivan, etc. It’s so . . . ordinary. And I guess I once suffered from the image of “writer” as someone who lives an adventurous life, travels to exotic places, experiences big things, has important friends. And maybe, at times, fleetingly, I wished I lived that amazing life. But that’s the thing: I do. I already do. I have three children. A beautiful, loving, caring wife. Good friends. A house! I could go on and on. That’s enough material for a writer, the everyday fabric of our lives. It’s enough for anyone. We just have to absorb it, appreciate it, stand before it as if front of an alter and revel in the awe of it, this ordinary miracle, life.

So I’m thankful today, as a writer, father, husband, brother, son, neighbor, earthling.

And also: I’m grateful to you folks for stopping by here, of all places, in this cluttered world. I appreciate it. Just today I had to double my costs to up the giga-somethings to host this blog’s steadily growing traffic. Craziness.

* Thanks, too, for the folks who sent in photos for my Fathers Read project. It’s coming in December, promise! I’m so happy about this, it feels absolutely right, and really hope it contributes in some small, positive way to make the simple statement: Reading is a guy thing. We need male role models to sit down with a book and be counted. Please, keep sending in those photos.

* You can vote in “The Kiddo Awards” for A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade in the category of Best Illustrated Book of 2010. Greg Ruth did the illustrations. I sooo don’t want to come in last place.

* Harriett Levy offers a special holiday message of love. And I have to say, I loved this video about nine different ways.

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Almost forgot . . .


One Book, One School: Some Photos & Reflections

I love this photo, somehow it says everything. This is why you write for children, those faces up there.

A while back I posted about how Bystander was being featured in some special “One Book, One School” reading programs. Lately I’ve been getting more requests in that area, and all I can say is that I love the idea of a shared reading experience that cuts across, and unifies, an entire school. It’s a tremendous honor when the educational leaders of a school select my book for that purpose. Stunning, amazing.

I was recently sent some photos by Joan Scott, the Library Media Specialist at Ephraim Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, MA. Here’s a few more:

For this particular visit, I was able to enjoy lunch with a select group of students. It’s just so much fun to sit down with these kids and really talk together — and for me, to hear them speak, and watch them fiddle with their Oreos, and listen as they share their thoughts and more than a few laughs.

I’m sorry that I can’t recall the name of this particular teacher, but it’s a great opportunity for me whenever I get the chance to sit down with real teachers in the trenches and learn from their perspective.

I’ve said it before. Just as in every other aspect of life, what a school puts into an author visit has a direct correlation to what the students get out of it. At Ephraim, the students were focused, prepared, and engaged — and that’s the key to a successful author visit, and a tribute to everyone at the school.

Here I am with the school principal Stephen Lambert and Joan Scott, who spearheaded the event. On some visits, I never meet the principal, as they are busy people with demanding jobs. Other times, I’ll meet one whose presence, whose attention and personal commitment, sends a powerful message to every student. This topic is important to us, we place value on this moment, and we care about you. Throughout the day, I chatted with this Principal Lambert and I can’t begin to express how impressed I was. Our conversations were wide and thought-provoking. Conclusion: This is a good man attempting to do the absolute best for the students and fellow educators in his school.

Honestly: Is this a remedy for bullying? Do events like this help? No one can say for sure. It can’t be measured. But I do believe that open honest dialogue, back and forth, feels like a crucial step in the right direction. Change can’t happen in a day. And a single book isn’t going to amount to much. But when an entire school comes together like this, the message is loud and clear:

We are a community of learners, we value things like respect and tolerance and compassion, because we understand that learning can’t begin without those qualities firmly in place.

In an interview earlier this year, I was asked: Is there anything that readers of [Bystander] can take from this story in order to better deal with bullies? I replied:

There are no easy answers. Quick story: My oldest son is sixteen. I often worried when he didn’t talk about his feelings. He’d clam up. Then I realized, he doesn’t necessarily have the vocabulary to even know what he’s feeling. To paraphrase Ron Burgandy in “Anchorman,” he was trapped inside a glass booth of emotion. Language is important, it’s a tool to help us perceive things, name things, understand. It’s common for kids to say something like, “Oh, I didn’t know that was bullying; I was just making fun of her shoes.” Like any good book, hopefully Bystander enriches the way readers understand their world.

I’m grateful I was able to spend a day at Ephraim Curtis Middle School, and inspired by their effort to address the issue with open, ongoing, thoughtful communication. Everybody pulling on the same oar. My thanks to everyone who helped make it possible. For those who may be curious, please know that Bystander will be published in paperback in Fall, 2011.

Fan Mail Wednesday #99 (Friday Edition)

Wow, I am so busy I can’t believe it. I am still revising my new YA, going on school visits, brainstorming-slash-scribbling a first draft for a new MG novel (so excited about this one!), planning Skype visits, and, yes, reading and trying to answer fan mail. Very, very time-consuming.

I’ve also been slogging along with my new blog project, Fathers Read. I’ve been getting some fabulous, wonderful, incredible photos and now have a pretty impressive array. While I’m eager to get this new blog up and running, some minor technical difficulties have slowed me down. I’m shooting for early December.

In the meantime, check out this spectacular letter from a third-grader named Kate:

Dear James Preller,

I am a big fan of your Jigsaw Jones books. I even asked my friend if she wanted to be detectives in the color code at first she did not know what a color code was but then I told her what it is. My favorite Jigsaw Jones book is The Case of the Class Clown! I have probably read more than ten jigsaw jones books. Because the jigsaw jones books are so cool and when I read them it feels like I am in the book just watching it all. And because the words that you use are so clear that they paint very clear and very nice pictures in my head. I have a question where do you get all you ideas from? Did you ever want to be a detective when you were little or did someone else in your family want to? Please write back.

Your fan,


I replied:

Thanks for that beautiful note. I began to melt when you described how the words “paint very clear and very nice pictures” in your head. You have a gift for words, Kate. Keep on writing.

I think all good writers dream of achieving something like that, where the reader can see the story, like a movie playing inside your head. And we do that, I think, by writing clearly and directly and by using specific details. When we “show, don’t tell.” It’s something I work at very hard, though I don’t pretend to be some amazing, fantastic writer. I learn something new every day and try my best, always.

Hey, did you know that Class Clown is now a touring musical? With songs and everything! How crazy is that?! I don’t know where you live, but if you go here you can find out the current tour schedule.

My ideas come from a run-down, ramshackle store in Rutherford, New Jersey. Twice a year I travel by emu to . . .

No, not really.

Much of my writing springs from my life and my family experiences. I grew up the youngest of seven children, and now I have three children of my own. You know, it’s funny. I once imagined that writers had these amazing lives, full of adventure and exotic places. But I’ve learned that the real adventure is what goes on inside your head, and in the rumblings of your heart, and that we can write about the most ordinary details and somehow connect with thousands and thousands of readers.

And, okay, sure — sometimes I just MAKE THINGS UP!

I’m glad you liked the color code. What’s great about that code is that it’s so easy to invent new codes based on the same idea. Here’s a “clothes code” (just invented on the spot):

lazy frog socks your scarf email

photo pages silly underwear message black

pants made bag pizza puzzle troop

bird hat me underwater elbow mittens

super slim burp shirt happy bling!

I was never a detective like Jigsaw, though I spied on my brothers quite often and became very good at snooping around for presents during the holidays.

By the time Christmas came, I had usually discovered each of my presents — hidden in closets and under beds — and that always make the actual Christmas Day a little bit of a disappointment. I already knew what I was going to get!

My best,


P.S. Kate, you might be curious to see a video I made, where I answered a different piece of fan mail. Nice sweater, don’t you think?

School Library Journal Reviews “Justin Fisher Declares War!”

My Scholastic editor, Shannon Penney, just passed along the upcoming SLJ review for Justin Fisher Declares War! After so much time went by since the August 1 publication, I just assumed that they had either: 1) ignored it; or 2) reviewed it, hated it, and Shannon spared me the sorrow. (Yes, that’s how I roll.) But no, this review is actually pretty nice.

“Dignity!” — I liked that word. Thank you, Terry Ann Lawler of Phoenix, Arizona!

PRELLER, James. Justin Fisher Declares War! 135p. CIP. Scholastic. 2010. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-545-03301-5. LC 2009053641.

Gr 4-6–Justin Fisher is lonely. Last year, he was the class clown; now, in fifth grade, he’s somehow turned into the class jerk. His antics in school and out are not getting him laughs–they’re getting him in trouble. As he is sent to the principal again and again, he becomes more and more desperate to fit in. Fortunately, with the help of an understanding teacher and a new friend, the boy learns how to be funny without being mean and saves the day at the school talent show. This quiet, universal story about a regular kid acting out who just needs a hand will make a good classroom read. Preller handles sensitive issues with dignity, and kids will identify with Justin’s eagerness to be liked and his snarky jokes. The book will be a particular hit with fans of Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho and Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee.–Terry Ann Lawler, Phoenix Public Library, AZ

Fan Mail Wednesday #98 (The Video Edition!)

Here at, we’re all about the latest in breakthrough technology. Actually, it was first suggested at least a year ago by my friend Paul, and I replied, “I’ll get right on it!” So I overcame my fears and, with the help of my 11-year-old son, posted my first Youtube video in response to the letter below.

What do you think? Are you purists aghast? Or merely agog? Is this something I should try again . . . or perhaps nevermore?

Please click on the video below to see my awkward, stumbling response. Experts in the business sometimes say that the camera loves certain celebrities.

Personally, I’m not feeling it.

Anyway, I don’t mean for the medium to overwhelm the content of Michael’s letter. I wasn’t sure how to reply to news of a reading teacher who prevented a boy from reading the books he clearly seems to enjoy. It’s not about me. But I do feel that when a young student expresses enthusiasm for a certain book or series of books, when he shows interest and motivation, that’s not something you want to suppress. Have at it, I say. At the same time, I’ve only heard one side of the story.

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Photo Dump: Scarecrow Edition

Just a quick share: a couple of years back I posted about the Preller Halloween tradition of building a scarecrow out on the front lawn. My father did it, now I do it. I have a photo from the late ’50s, before even I was born, and the scarecrow is virtually the same. We’re like artisans passing down the skill through the generations.

I want you to know that the tradition still lives, though this year I wanted to try something new: a burlap bag instead of a pumpkin. Craziness, I know. Turned out couldn’t locate a burlap bag, so went with a pillow case.

What do you think?

At the last minute, we decided to go with a little gore/red marker.

My lovely assistant grew about five inches this year . . . and turns ten soon!

Good old Maggie, she’s still up for quality time with Dad. How many more Halloweens have we got?

Okay, maybe I’ve still got a few issues to work out.

And about that old scarecrow . . .

Here’s proof — a scarecrow in front of my old house at 1720 Adelphi Road, Wantagh, NY. That looks like my brother John, front and center. I don’t know who or what exactly is standing next to him, masked and in white fringe. I’m hoping it’s not a relative.