Archive for February 28, 2011

The Writing Life

This is the 600th blog post at jamespreller.com.

Will anyone read this? Google Analytics informs me that about 250 “visitors” will swing by today. Whoever they are, taking whatever they want. Close friends, curious guests, lost surfers riding the wave. I’m here to say it does not matter. I’d write it anyway.

Slip the note into the bottle, plug it up, toss it over the side, sail on.

I joke about my “Nation of Readers,” but writing this blog (and most writing in general), is not much different from scribbling notes on a raft in the open sea. Why bother? To what end? Those questions seem wholly irrelevant.

For most writers, there’s little feedback. Blog readers rarely comment, books are written and go out of print with barely a ripple. Most bottles, like books, sink unopened to the ocean floor. Still writers persist in throwing material into the void. Or maybe, like me, they have a drawer full of poems and stories that few will ever read. And it strikes me that this is the essence of the writing life. If the planet was empty, an arctic solitude barren as a blank page, a writer would still write. Because to write is to continue on despite, or in  spite of, the resounding silence. Writing might be our response to that white silence.

Not that it isn’t disappointing at times. It so often is. I get very discouraged, downhearted.  A writer wants to connect. And I’ll sometimes ask myself, Why do this? Who cares? Yet still, yet still. The hand moves over the keyboard, or lifts up the pen, pad of paper on lap, and words lay smote like fallen soldiers.

There’s a fundamental contrary to this solitary-seeming process. For writing is yin to reading’s yang. Somehow when we read — that most exclusionary of acts, far from the madding crowd — we are profoundly not alone. We swim in words, words, an ocean of words. An electric current shivers through us. Miraculously we are connected to something, someone else. We remember that the world was created with words. They told us that story in school. And He said, “Let their be light,” and behold there was light. Writers take note: it was the saying made it so.

The boy with his book and the girl with her journal, in their quiet rooms: Not alone. The writer in his basement, the reader on a crosstown bus.

I recently read an interview with Lois Lowry. She was asked a frivolous question about fame and success. And she gave a great answer:

My guess if that very few writers think about—or aspire to—fame. Certainly I never did. I think most of us are propelled, as I was, and am still, by a love of stories and a fascination with language, its cadence and precision. And so we find ourselves playing with those two elements, combining them, thinking about them. I did that from a very early age. My first published work was a letter to a children’s magazine in 1947, when I was 10 years old. Part of it said, “I am writing a book.” I was always writing a book—or a poem—or a story—or simply a list. I had started doing that, maybe even somewhat obsessively, when I was 7 or 8. And I continued. I don’t recall when I first thought: I want to be a writer someday. It was always simply a part of me, and my only real aspiration.

It made me think of my own writing, and my experience so far with my new blog, Fathers Read. I’ve gotten some support, heard some nice things, but right now, today, very few people visit the site. In sum: It’s a great idea, I love it, and nobody cares. That’s not self-pity, just an accurate assessment of the way things are. The world never promised to come running with open arms. Now maybe I don’t know how to market this thing, maybe I need to Tweet faster or Facebook harder, or maybe I’d rather write than market. Again I’m confronted by the question that all writers face. What’s the point? Why bother? Isn’t this all just a waste of time?

As if, in my fantasy, the notion of choice enters into it. As if not writing was an option.

So another bottle goes into the water. Gurgle, gurgle, glub.

I mean to say: Thank you, dear reader, for stopping by. I’d do it without you, almost certainly, but it is infinitely better that you are here. Six hundred blog posts, a bunch of books, a lifetime of reading and writing later. Alone, and not alone. Thanks.

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NOTE: The season for school visits is upon me. I’ll be away for much of the next six weeks, posting sporadically. It’s fun to get out and visit schools, but I’m such a homebody.

Alan Silberberg Interview . . . Part Two

If you missed Part One of the Alan Silberberg Interview, it’s absurd for you to be here. I mean, really. Please follow the link to catch up.

Don’t worry, we’ll wait . . .

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Late in the book, Milo gathers together a number of objects that remind him of his mother, that press the memory of her into his consciousness. Where’d you get the idea for that?

I think that comes from the fact that I really don’t have anything from my mother. Things did get thrown away or given away and it really was like she died and then she was erased. When I was writing the book I started to think hard about my mom and tried remembering objects that evoked her to me. That became a cartoon called “Memories Lost” which were all real objects from my childhood that connected me to her. After making that cartoon, it struck me that Milo would want to go out and replace those objects somehow and that’s why he and his friends hit up the yard sales.

There is a scene toward the end in one of my books, Six Innings (a book that similarly includes a biographical element of cancer), that I can’t read aloud to a group because I know I’ll start to slobber. It’s just too raw, too personal for me. And I suspect that might be true of you with certain parts of this book. I’m asking: Are there any moments that get to you every time?

I think there are two specific parts of the book that choke me up, though lots of little places make me reach for tissues. The chapter where Milo goes to the yard sale and finds a blanket that reminds him of the one his mom had will always get to me. My mom had that blanket, the “pea patch blanket” in the book — so as Milo wraps himself in it and remembers her getting sick — I am always transported to the image of my mom and her blanket. The second place in the book happens in cartoon form, when Milo remembers the last time he saw his mother, which was when she was already under anesthesia being prepped for surgery and she has had her head shaved and he can see the lines for the surgery drawn on her head like a tic tac toe board. That image is directly from my memory of my last time seeing my mother. It’s pretty heavy stuff.

And so powerfully authentic. Milo describes that period after his mother died as “the fog.” Was that your memory of it?

I think trauma at any age creates a disconnect inside us. I think the fog settled in for me slowly. As the initial shock of my mom’s death wore off a sort of numbness rolled in over me. It was a survival technique to cover all that hurt stuff with an emotional buffer and I think that’s what I mean about “the fog”. It’s like I knew there was a pain in me but I didn’t want to touch it or think about. It was just always there as a dull feeling deep inside. The Fog.

Speaking of fog, you watched a lot of TV as a kid.

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Ha! My two sisters called me “the walking, talking TV guide” because I always knew what was on and what channel. I’d never be able to do that today with all the satellite and cable channels — but back then, I was an authority on the network TV schedule!

We never got it at my house, but I remember being jealous of families who had subscriptions to TV Guide.

Absolutely! We didn’t have a subscription either but I would read the one at my friend’s house up the street and just soak it all up so I could be the authority for the upcoming week back home! Even before my mom’s death I loved TV — but after she died it really became a safe place to get absorbed into the fiction of other people’s lives. I loved cartoons and comedies the most back then.

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You’ve written for television in the past. In what way do you think that helped when it came time for you attempt a novel?

The best thing about being a reformed TV writer is I already knew how to structure a story and more importantly, thanks to my animation writing especially, I was already really good at setting the scene and making sure to also describe the action. Scripts rely on good dialogue so that was a skill I’d already started to hone. When I started Pond Scum (my first book) I thought of it as a long episode of a great TV show and I let the chapters drive the story as if it was a script.

When I talk to students on school visits, I’ll sometimes do a quickie “show, don’t tell” lesson, and I’ll describe it as creating a movie in the reader’s mind — in part because my skin crawls when I hear it described by authors as “painting pictures with words.”

Yeah, the writer as painter image doesn’t quite skew in my head either. And I bet the kids really relate to your idea of imagining a movie in their mind. That’s nice.

I wonder, what did the novel format allow you to do that, perhaps, you couldn’t achieve while writing for television?

TV is dictated by the time of each episode, whether it’s 30 minutes or 60 minutes the writer is being told how many pages to write and where the commercial act breaks appear. There are producer notes and network notes and it really is a bit of writing by committee. I am really thankful for my TV writing experience — but I so appreciate the freedom of writing a novel where I can do whatever I want and am not restricted by time issues or rules of what my characters can and can’t do. I am so much happier being in control of the world I create when I write a novel. Of course there are notes that must be worked with from the editor at the publishing house — but I have always found that to be a collaborative experience to make the book better. In TV — notes were usually a headache and lots of times they never even made sense! My book editors, Donna Bray on Pond Scum and Liesa Abrams on Milo — have made me a better writer and I am so thankful to them for that.

Can you think of anything specifically that they taught you?

I think one of the best lessons I’ve gotten was to stay true to the kid voice of the story. Sometimes I let my characters talk the way I’m thinking and the situation is all kid, but the language comes out too adult. Maintaining the kid POV is always in the back of my head thanks to my editors.

Yeah, I have that struggle, too. Once I created a second-grade character with rheumatoid arthritis who had a fondness for lemon cakes, Jay Leno, and bargain-priced resort wear. I had to rethink it. Question: How do you know when something’s funny?

That’s the million dollar question! I wish I knew that answer. I think I have a good sense of humor so if something strikes me as being funny — it usually is at least amusing. I’m not too big on dissecting jokes or looking for rules of comedy (with the exception of “the rule of three” and “words with a “k” sound”).

Yes, the classic scene from Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” with George Burns and Walter Matthau. I can’t find the exact quote, but the basic idea: Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber’s funny. Cab is funny. Taxi, not so much.

I saw the play version on Broadway and wish I could remember the cast but my mind is a blank. But it was funny. Very funny. As far as knowing when something is funny or not — I also like to run things by my wife and son — if they don’t at least crack a smile I know I am way off base!

I have this memory from college. This guy Dave used to introduce me to people, saying, “This is Jimmy. He’s really funny.” And I hated that. I finally had to say, like, Dave, dude, you’re killing me here. First, the pressure was ridiculous, and secondly, I didn’t want to play the clown. I can be funny at times, but it has to come in naturally. That’s how I feel about writing, too. I think I’m in trouble when I try to be funny.

Yeah, I was that guy at times but thankfully I can’t tell jokes so no one puts me on the spot anymore. I’m more of the guy who stands in the back of a group listening and then I add a zinger to the conversation — I’m a punch line guy who then shrinks back into the shadows!

Well, then feel free to say something funny, Alan. I’ve been waiting pretty patiently. Zing away. I sense that my Goofball Devotees are becoming restless.

No, really. This is when I bomb. The pressure to be funny will always result in the most un-funny thing possible, which I think I just proved with this last sentence.

No, that was hysterical, I laughed just watching the sweat pore off your head as you tried to think of something funny. Like the great scene with Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”

There’s a great line by one of the camera crew in that scene: “Nixon didn’t sweat this much.”

Back to Milo, did you worry that maybe you’d be blowing the appeal of your funny story by including the grief aspect. I mean, did some voice whisper in your ear, “Man, this is not the way to sell books to boys.”

Yes! As I mentioned, the initial goal was to just write a “funny book.” But once I realized what Milo’s story was — that he was the boy whose mom had died — it became a challenge to tell the story in a way that was both touching and funny. I stopped thinking about whether it would sell or not and concentrated on telling the story from a true place inside me. I had some deep seated confidence that this book would find its place and it was meant to find its way to Liesa Abrams at Aladdin. She embraced Milo immediately from her heart. I think that trying to write a “commercial” book is the worst way to go about it anyway.

So you think I should scrap the Geek Supernatural Romance I’ve been trying to write?

What? No vampires or zombies in it?

NOTE TO SELF: More vampires, jump on zombie craze.

Now, where were we? Oh yes, Alan Silberberg! Haven’t you gone home yet? How important are the illustrations to the book’s appeal?

I think it was important for me to add my cartoons to this story, in other words, be able to write and illustrate a book. Though I think the story could stand just fine as a text-only book, it’s clear that cartoons help get the book into certain young hands. But apart from that, I really felt the cartoons could add a dimension of story-telling to the book (not just funny eye candy).

You’ve said elsewhere that the words usually come first, that you are truly illustrating the story. But how does it affect you as a writer, knowing that you’ll have those illustrations? I’d think it would help with, say, a joke or funny moment. You’d be delivering the punch-line two different ways.

Exactly. I find that when I know there can be a cartoon anytime I feel like it — the writer part of my brain and the cartooning part kind of team up. I get a voice inside my head telling me, “Hey, you could punctuate that joke with a great doodle!” Certainly I found with Milo that there are parts of the book where I was having a hard time writing until I imagined how a cartoon would help the chapter be lighter or in some cases the opposite, where a cartoon could tell the sadness of the story in a visual way. I guess the writing was a little easier because I always had my cartoons to fallback on if I got stuck.

Any new books from you on the horizon? Or have you gotten up the courage to finally pursue that career as a catwalk model?

My legs are my best asset! Actually, I am almost done with the first draft of a new book for Aladdin. It’s another book that will include my cartoons but it is much more of a silly book than Milo. It’s a buddy story about two friends who want to be the school cartoonists and get more than they bargained for when their wishes come true.

Lightning round: Adam Sandler or Chris Farley?

Gonna have to go with Sandler.

Ouch. Okay, chin up: Ali or Frazier?

I’ll go with the Kelsey Grammer guy. Never liked Ali McBeal.

Separated at birth?

I think that’s Ally but . . . let’s move right along. The Halloween treat that makes you go back to the house a second time?

Has to be Nestles Crunch!

Top of your head, five favorite books?

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy, Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (any and all), Half Magic by Edward Eager and N.M. Bodecker (it was the first book I remember loving as a kid), The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.

Five favorite movies?

The Big Lebowski, Memento, Back To The Future, Monsters Inc, Defending Your Life.

First album you ever bought as a kid?

The Who’s Quadraphenia.

Five most played songs on iTunes? No cheating.

“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” Talking Heads, “I’ve Had It” Aimee Mann, “New York City Serenade” Bruce Springsteen, “Generator (Second Floor)” Freelance Whales, “Into The Woods” Soundtrack.

Nice list. It’s often a surprise what floats up to the top. Full disclosure, my five most played includes four  Dylan tunes (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”) and Van Morrison’s, “And It Stoned Me.” So: you live in Montreal, which surprisingly is still in Canada. Five favorite places in the city?

1) Schwartz’s has the best smoked meat sandwiches on the planet. 2) Westmount Library lets me fall asleep in their cozy chairs. 3) The Old Port of Montreal for the relaxed tourist ambiance of Europe with a Canadian twist 4) Shaika Café, where I like to write and watch the other people write while they watch me 5) This chair in my house. Love it!

Alan, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad we got a chance to meet. I’ll be watching your career and rooting for your success. Please accept this set of bamboo flatware as a parting gift. You’ll love giving your meals a tropical twist with real bamboo-like handles! The complete set serves one (and might be missing a fork). Shipping not included.

Some links to more interviews conducted by yours truly:

* Kurtis Scaletta

* Lewis Buzbee

* Carmen Deedy

* Deborah Kovacs

* Matthew Cordell

* Jack Rightmyer

* Travis Jonker (100 Scope Notes)

* Betsy Bird (Fuse #8)

* Bill & Karen (Literate Lives)

Congratulations, Jackson Murphy: Kid Movie Critic Is Set to Appear on “The Tonight Show”

In the Acknowledgements section of my 2010 book for middle-grade readers, Justin Fisher Declares War!, I credited an inspiring young man for, well, inspiring me:

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The boy’s name was Jackson Murphy.

Maybe you’ve seen him on television.

Long story short: I first spied Jackson while on a school visit. I had met his father previously, so on this day a preternaturally poised, articulate, very sweet fifth-grade boy came up and introduced himself to me. I was aware that Jackson had done some movie reviews on local television. I didn’t realize that his career as the next Roger Ebert was about to blow up. We spoke for a while, then I got back to my job that day as dancing monkey guest author.

An observer might have thought that Jackson was meeting me, the famous author. Turns out that I was meeting him! I should have asked for an autograph.

Months later, I returned to research the student Talent Show the school put on that year. Two energetic organizers of the program, Ms. Jackson and Ms. Zapka, kindly sat down with me to answer my many questions about the show: how they organized it, how they selected talent, any humorous observations, etc.  I knew right away that I wanted to use the idea for my half-finished book. They told me about one boy in particular who served as the show’s Master of Ceremonies. A preternaturally poised, articulate, very sweet fifth-grade boy named . . . Jackson Murphy.

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I loved all of it, especially how a troublesome student — not the real Jackson, but my fictional character, Justin — might experience success on the stage before an audience. A kid who struggled everywhere else in school, finally finding a place where he could shine. I even stole a couple of jokes that Jackson used that night at Red Mill Elementary.

I say all this because the real Jackson has become something of a Big Deal. He will be appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno this Friday night. You see, Jackson bills himself as “America’s #1 Kid Critic,” and goes as “Lights-Camera-Jackson” professionally, and has appeared on local and national television many times over the past few years. He’s met Seth Myers, Regis Philbin, Barbara Walters, Wile E. Coyote and many more.

In 2010, Jackson became the youngest person to win a New York Emmy Award for his movie review segments.

Not bad for a little peanut. Jackson is a good kid enjoying some incredible experiences. And so far, by all reports, he’s got both feet firmly on the ground. Congratulations, Jackson, I’m proud of you — and I’ll be watching.

Hat Tip to my favorite pop culture site, Pop Candy, for the heads up. Whitney Matheson rocks.

Here’s a scene from Chapter Eleven, when Justin auditions for the Talent Show:

“Do you need any props, or a table?” Ms. Lobel asked. “I see that you’re trying out as a magician.”

“Well, no, not exactly,” Justin said.

“Oh?”

“I hope it’s not a problem,” he said, looking at both teachers. “It’s just that I had . . . another idea. Last night. When I was lying in bed. Freaking out about the audition.”

People laughed. Ms. Lobel smiled. Justin felt that familiar happiness — laughter always made him feel good.

Earl Watkins called out, “He’s really good at falling off chairs!”

Justin grinned, sheepish. “It’s true,” he confessed. “I fall down a lot, but I always get back up again.” Justin swallowed hard, then blurted it out, the plan he had come up with the night before. “I want to be . . . you.”

Mrs. Mooney looked confused. “I don’t –“

“I want to be the MC,” Justin explained. “You know, introduce the acts, tell jokes, maybe wear a nice jacket and tie, comb my hair, like on the Academy Awards.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Mooney said. There was cold water in her voice.

PART TWO OF THE DEATH-DEFYING ALAN SILBERBERG INTERVIEW LANDS HERE ON FRIDAY.

Fan Mail Wednesday #110

What’s the point of being a children’s book author? Sweet, little letters like this one, from Annie.

I replied:

Hey Annie, thanks for your letter (and Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope!). No, Jigsaw does not have a cat. He’s currently catless.

I love your story about the swim team. I think your mom did you a big favor by not letting you quit, especially in the middle of the season. I totally agree with your mom. In our family, we play a lot of sports. My wife coaches basketball, I coach baseball, and my kids have played soccer, baseball, basketball, swimming, softball, and more. We strongly believe that once you start on a team, it’s important to stick it out to the end — you might find, like Jigsaw, that once you get past the bumpy parts, you enjoy it more than you thought. The best things in life never come easy. (We feel that way about musical instruments, too, and after a few years my kids have become crazy good).

Illustration by Jamie Smith.

Here’s a secret about Jigsaw and Mila. Don’t tell the boys, but I think Mila is really the smart one. She’s awfully bright, a big reader, and a loyal friend. I’m crazy about her. Jigsaw isn’t perfect, but he’s awesome in his own way. Even though he says he wants to quit, Jigsaw is really a kid who never gives up. That’s what makes him such a good detective. He might make mistakes along the way, but he always solves the case . . . with a little from his friends.

I hope you do check out more Jigsaw Jones books, Annie. Thanks for writing to me!

JP

P.S. The Case of the Wild Turkey Chase includes a number of codes and riddles. One of the most basic is a space code, where the spaces between individual words are not where they are supposed to be. Here’s my message to you, Annie:

KE  EPUPT  HE  GOO  DWO  RKANDK  EEPR  E  ADIN  GBO  OKS!

James Preller Interviews . . . Alan Silberberg, author of “MILO.” Part One (that’s right, there are “parts!”)

Readers can connect with Milo, by Alan Silberberg, in very different ways. I suppose that’s true of any book, we all bring our disparate selves to the text, but it seems especially true for Milo, a story for middle grade readers that embraces broad goofy humor on one end, and authentic, emotional grief on the other. Actually, that’s not true. Those qualities aren’t on separate ends, but are intermingled throughout. It’s a book where a boy can sneeze on someone’s neck in class, then return home to a house of fog and loss, where no one has quite figured out how to move forward after a death in the family. For me as a reader, it wasn’t the humor that hooked me. It was the humor combined with real emotional depth.

That rare thing in children’s books: a boy in full.

After I read Milo, I wanted to meet Alan because I sensed that he and I shared things in common. So I contacted Alan through his website and requested an interview. There was much I wanted to discuss, and our conversation flowed so naturally, that our Q & A went on slightly longer than The Reagan Years. I decided to break it up into two parts. I’m indebted to Alan for his time and patience and for the care he took in answering my questions.

(Whew. I’m relieved he’s not a Yankees fan.)

Alan! Hey, thanks for stopping by all the way from Montreal. Which is still in Canada, right? Could you please leave the soggy Uggs by the front door? Yeah, the moose, too. That’d be swell.

It’s true, Montreal is still in Canada. But you know, I’m from Boston (Go Red Sox!) so my heart — and shoveling technique — is from New England.

I gather that you didn’t initially set out to tackle this huge, daunting topic –- the death of a parent.

You are so right! When I started writing this book my goal was to write a pretty silly book that would include my cartoon illustrations. What started as a goofy look at a 7th grade kid starting a new school turned into something much deeper once I realized I had my own story to tell.

I know that this book grows out of your own personal experiences. Could you give us a little background on that?

My mom died of brain cancer when I was nine years old. It happened really fast too. It was a terrible time in my life and I guess I have always identified with that lost boy whose mother suddenly went away. In my family “death” never really got discussed so after she died we all just did our best to pretend we were okay, which on one level was comforting because I didn’t have to really deal with the grief and loss. With my sense of humor intact, I moved on from that life-altering event — but always dragging along a sad piece of me like a shadow.

A sad piece of me like a shadow,” that’s nice. I just finished a young adult novel that grapples with some of the same feelings, where things unsaid are more important than what’s spoken. But I don’t suppose you’d let me steal that “sad piece of me” line, would you?

Be my guest. Just buy me an iced espresso some time. And a cookie. Chocolate chip is always nice.

At one point in the book, Milo says, “I miss a dinner table that doesn’t feel lopsided,” and I completely understood that line.  I mean, you got me right there. My oldest brother, Neal, died of AIDS back in ’93. And after that, I often said that our family became like a ship that listed to the side. The ballast was off, you know. We never sat in the water quite right after that.

I think that’s what loss does to a family — even the most messed up families are a balanced whole. And the loss of someone we love just throws that balance totally off. And I think it doesn’t matter at what age we lose someone — that loss sets us adrift. I like your boat metaphor.

You attempt to do something that’s not at all easy –- balancing some traditional, goofy boy humor with a sensitive, heartfelt story about deep, deep loss.

Once I knew that the silly story I started out to write was drawing deeper from my life I made the decision to stay true to who I was back then. Life was suddenly sad — but I was still a funny kid. I think it’s important to have a balance in a story like this because life isn’t all one thing or another and a story about loss can also be a funny story. Of course the cartoons help to give the book a lighter tone, but to be honest, some of the cartoons are quite poignant and a bit sad too.

I have to say, I’m often frustrated when I encounter these limited notions about “what boys like” and, consequently, “what boys are and can be.” So we see books with the goofball stuff –- with varying levels of originality — but not very much in the way of emotion. Because I guess there’s this idea that boys don’t “do” feelings. And perhaps they don’t, I don’t know. But at the same time: it’s real, it’s true, this stuff happens to actual boys. As I’ve said before, it can’t all be farts and firetrucks.

I know what you mean. I hear it all the time that a book is a “girl” book or a “boy” book and sometimes I think that’s just marketing. Whether boys, or girls for that matter, will be drawn to Milo is out of my hands. I have gotten wonderful feedback from kids who have loved the book and have had the experience of knowing first-hand that the book has helped kids dealing with loss. At the other end of the spectrum — I know kids who have read the book because they love the cartoons and think the story is “real” but still made them laugh . . . and made them think. At the end of the day I want Milo to find its way into the hands of kids who like a good story and especially those kids who are ready for the real emotions that I wrote about.

Tell me a little bit about the father. He’s suffering, too, but because we see him from Milo’s point of view, we just get this sense that dad is basically out of it. For Milo, he has to find help elsewhere –- because dad’s not emotionally available.

Milo’s whole family has suffered a loss and though the story is told from Milo’s point of view he experiences his dad as being kind of absent. There’s one cartoon I did where Milo says that he misses his dad almost as much as he misses his mom, because his dad is having a hard time too. I think that’s what can happen when one parent dies. The child can lose two parents.

There are a few helpful adults in Milo’s world, and I think you handle them realistically. They don’t swoop in and save the day. In fact, well, nobody does. Nobody can. But they do help.

I guess it would have been too easy to have some adult be able to make everything “okay” for Milo. But that just isn’t realistic. What I did want to explore though is how Milo learns how to grieve his mom’s death with the help of his older neighbor. She doesn’t make everything right for him but she is the one who opens a door that leads him to say the goodbye he never said. It was a healing part of the book to write for me because I got to be Milo and say the goodbye I never said too. And that all happened through Milo’s relationship with the neighbor character, who was based on one of the moms in my neighborhood who took me in after my mom died.

That must have been a remarkable moment when you were able to hand her the finished book.

It was actually bittersweet because the real Sylvia passed away just after the book came out. I had told her months earlier how she had inspired a character in my new book and she was very happy about that. I was told by her family that they were able to read some of the book to her before she passed and that she was very touched by it.

I’m glad you were able to honor her with that gift of recognition after all these long years. I also really liked Milo’s friendship with Marshall. They are just boys, you know, going to the store, spending their money on junk food, sitting down on the curb, goofing around like a pair of glorious idiots.

And yet at the same time, Marshall is clearly not a total clod. I’m not sure what I’m saying, exactly, other than I think your book respects the complexity of boys –- and as an ex-kid myself, and a father of two boys, I really appreciate that.

Thanks. I really liked creating the relationship between Milo and Marshall. It just felt right that these two would know each other and get along so well. Marshall is a bit left of center, but I was hopefully not writing a geeky character, just someone who lives life in his own unique way. Milo is more of an internal guy and Marshall is an extrovert — so the combo really works. Thinking back to the friendships I had back at that age and being the father of a son who just lived it also helped me channel their relationship.

Alan, let’s pick up this conversation on Wednesday. I assume you can stay over, right? You can sleep on the cot. In the closet. With the Uggs.

And the moose.

PLEASE COME BACK LATER THIS WEEK FOR THE THRILLING, DEATH-DEFYING CONCLUSION OF THE ALAN SILBERBERG INTERVIEW.

CLICK HERE AND BE MAGICALLY TRANSPORTED TO PART 2.

A Boy Talking Movies

You need to stay to the end for this to make its full impact, and I strongly recommend that you do.

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The video was produced by Mama Hope:

Mama Hope is a non-profit organization focused on building self-sufficient communities in Sub-Saharan Africa.Mama Hope partners with Community Based Organizations and invests in high impact, cost effective projects, that meet their fundamental needs for food, water, education and health care. Mama Hope’s successful projects to date have directly benefited over 55,000 people.

You can learn more about Mama Hope’s “Stop the Pity, Unlock the Potential” Campaign by clicking here.

As a personal comment, I believe this video makes a point about all boy stereotypes. Forget, for a moment, that Alex is an African boy in Tanzania. In many respects, he can be any boy, head filled with action movies and explosions and whatnot. But like any boy, he’s much more than the stereotypes will allow. He’s also charming, also hilarious, also bright, also curious, also hopeful, etc. And those whole qualities should be reflected in the range of books to which boys are exposed.

Fan Mail Wednesday #109

Please note that you may click on the letter to enlarge it (very nice for older eyes).

Stephen writes:

I replied:

Dear Stephen:

My apologies for not replying sooner. I loved your letter, especially that it came with a Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (SASE). That was very considerate of you.

For someone who claims not to be a “book lover,” you’ve done pretty well if you’ve read more than twenty of my Jigsaw Jones books. I haven’t even read that many — and I wrote them! I think that as long as you stay open-minded about books, and willing to try new things, I’m sure you’ll continue to find something that you’ll like. There are so many great books out there for every kind of reader.

At the same time, I think you should read the things you enjoy. I have three children and they are all readers. When school gets hectic, they don’t read for pleasure as much, which is too bad if you ask me. I hate to see when too much homework gets in the way of reading for fun.

Pets-wise, we’re a two-cat & one-dog household. The cats are black and the dog barks at the passing breeze, the sound of footsteps a half-mile away, and the slow turning of the globe. It can get on my nerves sometimes. How do you teach a dog to stop barking? You’ve heard of the Dog Whisperer? I’m the Dog Screamer! (“DAISY! PLEASE!! I’M BEGGING YOU — STOP BARKING!!!”Nope, doesn’t work.

I think you’re very fortunate to live with your grandparents and aunt. My grandparents died long ago, and I still think of them, still wish I talked to them more, asked questions, listened to their stories, tried to understand what a different world they lived in — before computers and cell phones and so many other seeming essentials.

Yes, I like football.

Though I’m much more of a baseball guy. My middle son, Gavin (age 11) became a huge fan the past couple of years and his enthusiasm has brought me back to the game. Gavin even signed up for an ESPN Fantasy League — and won! We rooted together for the Jets and they almost made it to the Super Bowl. Almost, almost.

My best,

JP

The Ultimate Dad is an Adoptive Parent . . . and Wears a Yellow Hat

As a kid I loved Curious George and nothing’s really changed about that, despite a slew of less-than-stellar books published after the passing of H.A. Rey in 1977. There was a particular series done in the late 80’s, early 90’s — cheap 8″ x 8″ books based on grainy filmstrips — that was especially loathsome. I hated to see them monkey around so with my literary hero.

Best to stick with the seven “Original Adventures” produced during the lifetime of Hans Augusto Rey in partnership with his wife, Margret: Curious George (1941), Curious George Takes a Job (1947 ), Curious George Rides a Bike (1952), Curious George Gets a Medal (1957), Curious George Flies a Kite (1958), Curious George Learns the Alphabet (1963), and Curious George Goes to the Hospital (1966). After those titles, the quality slips badly. It’s just not Curious George anymore.

Here’s the man, H.A. Rey himself. And friends.

But I digress. My great pal Craig Walker, a late, beloved editor at Scholastic, once explained to me the appeal of Curious George in this way, and I’m paraphrasing:

“No matter what mistakes George makes, no matter how much trouble he gets into, at the end there’s always the Man with the Yellow Hat who forgives him, who loves him, who makes it all okay. Kids respond to that, and I think that’s part of the reason why those books are so popular.”

Isn’t that what a father is supposed to be? The safe place you can always come back to, the place where — no matter what — you’ll always be loved?

In related news, don’t miss the Curious George Campaign (click here for more details):

The Library partnered with the Ad Council, Universal Partnerships & Licensing and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company to develop public service announcements featuring the iconic characters from the Curious George series to encourage parents to read with their children. The television, print and outdoor PSAs feature George and his best friend and mentor, “The Man in the Yellow Hat” reading books together asking parents to “Read to your child today and inspire a lifelong love of reading.”

NOTE: The trouble with two blogs is sometimes a given post could sit snugly in either location. I put this one here for two reasons: 1) Right now, more eyes land here; and 2) I’m trying to keep “James Preller,” the personal stuff, out of Fathers Read, or at least on the fringes. Basically, I say less over there, and want the pictures to speak for themselves. But by all means, please swing by and check it out. I’m proud of what’s up there, and grateful for the support it’s gotten from folks both famous and far-flung.

As always when it comes to Curious George, lets try to stay legal, shall we, because heaven forfend:

For Lisa

Hey, honey. Happy Valentines Day.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #108: Boy reads book, shoots bear, continues reading book, writes report, asks for signed copy

I’ll admit it: Sometimes fan mail can get a little repetitive, become a chore. That’s not a complaint, I realize how lucky I am, and blessed, but there’s a lot of letters I don’t share here with my Nation of Readers.

That changes now. Beause this letter is awesome in about six different ways:

I replied:

Gunnar,

Okay, that’s flat-out the coolest letter I’ve received in a while. Just to be clear: you were reading my book, got tapped on the shoulder, so you set down the book (careful not to lose your page) . . . and SHOT A BEAR!

Like, a real bear?

Somebody like this:

With teeth like this:

Oh, dear. I think I might have climbed a tree instead. But, wait. Black bears — which is what they’ve got in the Upper Peninsula — can climb trees, can’t they? In which case, maybe I would have stayed home and watched reruns of The Office.

Clearly, you are a gifted writer. I hope that you write about some of those experiences in the woods, the suspense of the hunt, the companionship with your grandfather, the waiting, the shot, all of it. I understand that it’s a gorgeous part of the country. Frankly, the hunt is a world I don’t know much about, but it appears to be something you have in your blood, even in your name. It’s one of the stories that only you could tell, and I think that’s what all writers seek, those stories that are uniquely our own. That’s rich soil for our writing.

Here at James Preller Dot Com, we have a policy, # 6.12:

6.12: When someone tells you that they shot a bear, and then that same person (possibly still armed) asks for a signed copy of your book, and he includes the book and a SASE in the letter . . . then you SIGN THE BOOK!

And if you want my wallet, Gunnar, here you go. Just don’t point that thing at me.

Thanks for including your book report on Six Innings. I love it when a review quotes a section of the book, it makes me feel like a real writer.

Excellent job, Gunnar.

My best,

JP