Archive for August 29, 2011

The First One Gone to College

It’s the question every parent inevitably asks. After, of course, what happened to my black hair?! My face??!!

How did this . . . turn into this?

Where did it go, all those times together? I don’t have anything to communicate, really. It’s hard to fathom even what I’m feeling, the signals jumbled, my wires crossed, because like Ron Burgundy I’m trapped in a glass booth of emotion.

I’m happy and excited for Nick. This is a good thing. An amazing time in a life. Just that it’s a new one for me, the boy gone.

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The Yoga & Reading Connection

I’ve been enthusiastic about yoga lately. I’m just a beginner, no peacock pose for me (yet!), but I’ve been getting more into it. I practice at home with DVD’s and do my best. I can feel that it’s healthy for me, and rewarding. The body learns to like it, to want it.

Yesterday I found myself comparing yoga to my old nemesis, running. Most runners I know are concerned, to varying degrees, with numbers. The times, the distances, the 10K and the personal bests, and so on. Usually when they have a conversation about running — how a race went, or the training for the “Fun Run!” — mathematics quickly enters into the equation.

We like to measure things. The numbers tell us where we are, help us navigate the process; otherwise we are like ships lost at sea, the night sky absent of stars. So we are comforted by numbers, and motivated by them, too.

Whereas with yoga, one of the principal tenants is that each one of us has our own yoga experience. If you can’t stretch beyond your feet, grab an ankle or a knee. There are no winners, no losers. People of widely divergent ability can take the same class and each person will have his own (valid, rewarding) experience. You can’t measure it. Anyone who practices yoga and gives an honest effort will get something out of it, each according to his own need and ability.

It was like reading, I realized. We can all sit down with the same novel and turn the same pages, encounter the same characters, events, and ideas. Do we have the same experience? Of course not.

Was one’s experience “better” than another’s? Well, okay, I suspect it’s true; I agree with Mr. Pirsig that the quality of experience matters, certainly in terms of reading comprehension and how our (singular!) understanding of a text effects emotional and intellectual responses. However, we immediately get into slippery areas, since readers understand texts differently, and there are no “right” or “wrong” responses to a work of art. A skilled yoga practitioner may well get more fullness out of a sequence of movements than someone who is not yet able to hold the poses correctly. But in the practice of yoga, nobody tries to measure these things. It would be absurd. The important thing is that you engage in the discipline of yoga and get out of it what you can.

Given practice and effort, we trust that the process-oriented experience will deepen over time. Just like with reading. Yet in the academic world, there’s pressure to quantify these experiences. We have to separate the minnows from the sharks. Bestow A-pluses and C-minuses. Issue standardized tests. Strive to measure results, meet target scores, and achieve statistical objectives. The numbers guide us to the point where, by the sorry end of things, the numbers rule over us. In our pursuit of quantifying the mystery we are in danger of losing the essential thing, because we lack faith in reading itself.

We should look at reading instruction, and writing instruction, the same way we look at yoga (as opposed to the runner’s mathematical model). Or at least, align ourselves more closely to the yogic perspective.

Trust that reading is enough. Any reading. Trust in the process, and reward the reader for engaging in that activity. Sure, an instructor must still instruct, walk the room, adjust a spine, remind one to stay conscious to the moment, breathe. Or think about the book. Dwell in it, reflect, ask questions, make connections.

In my perfect world, anybody who reads — regardless of ability, regardless of age or experience — gets an A+ and a “Great Job!” sticker.

Namaste.

Photo Me: Age 13

Today is my sister Jean’s birthday. Fifty-four years on this earth. So I dug out this old photo from a family trip, D.C. I think, perhaps Virginia. I seem to recall us heading down there to visit my brother John. Of the seven children, Jean was #6 and I was #7, so toward the end, as the elders fled, it was us.

I’d bet that I’m 13 in this shot, making this 1974, guessing.

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Don’t you love my retro kicks?

If you are like me, you can’t get enough of shots from this period, Nixon to Ford to Carter.

The glorious ’70s. The story of innocence lost.

Warning: Sarcastic, Hilarious Graffiti Added to Well-Intentioned Signs

This is a cheat today, I’m just passing along a few laughs and the name of a website that’s ideal for time-wasting. Seriously, if you’ve got a lot of time to kill, it’s no easy task. You are going to need to bring in the big guns.

Below I’ve nicked some examples, but the site, Happy Place, is loaded with ‘em . . . enjoy!

Fan Mail Wednesday #122 (Bystander Sequel)

Bryan writes:

Can you please make a second book for "Bystander"? I loved the book and wanted
to see more about eric and mary, griffin etc. It would probably sell. Thanks for
considering. 
I replied:
Bryan,
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Thanks for your note. It’s funny, I get asked that question a lot. I recently learned that in 2011, there were more movie sequels than at any point in history. It’s just expected that if you liked a movie, they’d soon churn out another with the number “2” after it. It’s natural for young people today to expect a sequel.
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It was different for my generation when sequels were the rare exception (I’m fifty, btw, but I feel forty-seven). The idealist in me tends to view sequels as these very cynical, marketing-based decisions. A crass bunch of fat cats sit around a big table, crunch the numbers, and proclaim, “Hey, we made a ton of money on this first movie. Let’s make another!” Same thing with books.
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It simply doesn’t strike me as a pure artistic effort. Most of the time, anyway.
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When I wrote Bystander, I buried myself in research about bullying. I came away convinced that I could write 100 different books on the topic, all from different perspectives. The ground was so fertile, there was so much to explore. But at the same time, I felt satisfied with my work. Bystander didn’t feel unfinished, and I didn’t have anything else that I was aching to say about these particular characters.
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Moreover, today I also feel strongly that — wait — did you say, “It would probably sell“?
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Ca-Ching!
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Let me call my agent.
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JP
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P.S. Seriously, though I never intended to write a sequel, I take your request to heart. When I think about it, there are two characters I could imagine exploring in more detail. Mary, since she was only a minor character in the book, and her experiences with cyberbullying seem particularly relevant today; and Griffin, because even I am curious about what happens to him. It might be fun to write a book that centers on the bully. The bad guy who might have some unexpected depths of his own. Hmmm.

Einstein’s Eyes: Chilling Story Behind the Famous Photograph

Last night I came across a chilling story behind a famous photograph of Albert Einstein.

The portrait was taken by Philippe Halsman, a photographer who had escaped Nazi Germany with Einstein’s help. Meeting together in 1947, Halsman held a camera while he chatted with Einstein. He asked Einstein if he believed there could ever be a lasting peace.

Einstein answered with weary resignation,

“No, as long as there will be man, there will be war.”

According to Walter Isaacson, from page 494 of the fine book, Einstein, that I described on Monday:

“At that moment Halsman clicked his shutter and captured Einstein’s sadly knowing eyes for what became a famous portrait.”

Here’s the Halsman photograph. You can almost see the thought lingering behind his eyes.

While I surfed that up, I also caught another wave — a copy of the first page of the letter that Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, alerting him about the potential of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” This was the letter that set the Manhattan Project into motion. As a side note, though this was a matter of utmost urgency, it required two months for the letter to be finally delivered into the President’s hands.

Einstein’s Desk

I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s warm, affectionate biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. I purchased a copy when the book first came out, but it sat on my shelf for a few years before I tackled it. Einstein’s popularity was, and remains, rather astonishing. He was, after all, a scientist. Before reading the book, I don’t think I fully appreciated how this man, this thinker, captured the public imagination. He became a bona-fide celebrity, a media darling who was often hounded by paparazzi. Think about that. These days, we’ve got Snooki and Charlie Sheen.

One of the things about fascinating people is that the more you know . . . the more you want to know. I feel that way about Bob Dylan, Charles Lindbergh, John D. Rockefeller, Ted Williams, Temple Grandin, Patti Smith. The list goes on. With most celebrities today, it feels like the exact opposite. The more we learn, the less we care to know. As Yoda might say, “To the shower rushing we go.

The book includes many photographs and, again, Einstein is simply one of those guys who never took a boring photograph. He’s like Keith Richards that way. Any picture with Einstein is interesting. Here’s one of my favorites, Einstein on the beach. Somebody should turn it into an opera. Oh, wait. He loved sailing, did you know that? Charming tales of him taking out the sailboat, drifting along all day, lost in reverie; more than once they had to send out the coast guard looking for him.

After college, I worked in Washington, D.C., for a year. No, not as a state senator — I was a waiter at Beefsteak Charlie’s on K Street. I think my favorite spot in the city was Einstein’s Memorial, a quiet spot missed by most tourists, not far from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The statue by Robert Berks is bronze, over 12 feet, and weighs more than 4 tons. I tried to lift it, but no go. Usually I just sat by his knee, enjoying the great man’s near company.

But the best photo of Einstein does not even include him. Einstein is absent, and yet wholly present. It’s the classic shot of his office in Princeton, New Jersey, taken by Ralph Morse for LIFE magazine on April 18, 1955, the day of Einstein’s death at age 76. Take a gander.

What a glorious, cluttered, creative mess. A great mind at work. Don’t you feel better now?

I should also comment that in the biography Isaacson does a marvelous job in giving us the whole man, not just the rumpled genius. Yet in rendering the whole man, Isaacson includes the science — in as straightforward and relatable way as possible. Still over my head, but when I jumped, I could almost touch Einstein’s stars.

For your listening pleasure, here’s a clip from the Philip Glass opera, “Einstein On the Beach.”

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Fan Mail Wednesday #121 (re: Teaching “Bystander,” and Some Thoughts on Bullying)

I’ve been in summer mode, the quiet season for teachers and librarians, and taking a break from my weekly Fan Mail Wednesday posts. But here’s a happy letter that might be useful to some of you out there, edited ever-so-slightly for privacy . . .

Hello, Mr. Preller.  I am a Library Media Specialist in Virginia.  Your book is on the Virginia Reader’s Choice Awards list and is a Battle of the Books selection. Because of that, I read it last spring.  I loved it so much I convinced my principal to buy 1200 copies for a One School, One Book unit.  She just authorized the purchase of books and has put me in charge of writing a unit for the whole school.  As a former English teacher I have written many novel study units, but this time it is for the WHOLE school.  To say I am overwhelmed is an understatement.  Any suggestions from you will be greatly appreciated.
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Again, thanks for writing this wonderful novel which accurately portrays middle schoolers and the seriousness of bullying.
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P.

I replied . . .

Dear P,

I am always floored when I hear something like this, it’s such an honor. I appreciate your support for the book and, I’m sure, your commitment to the greater causes of bullying and social responsibility in your school community.

I confess that while it is great news to learn that my book will find its way into the hands of readers, there’s a nagging part of me that worries about assigned reading. I know, I know. Even if you believe in the importance of self-selected reading, as I do, there’s no getting around the value of assigned books and shared reading experiences. Still, it’s disconcerting to see that I’ve become what I once hated most — homework.

That said, let me see if I can help you a little bit. Be warned, I’m not a teacher and I don’t play one on television.

One of the most important ideas embedded in this book — an idea I learned along the way, and came to understand better only upon reflection — also happens to be nearly-impossible to convey to middle school students. It might even be advisable to not even try. But it’s worth saying to you, here. Research shows that bullying peaks at middle school. Why is that?

Well, for starters, let’s agree that one of the most difficult achievements in life is to become, simply, yourself. It seems easy, but it is not. To be content in your own skin. To not look at others for all your cues. To accept and trust who you are, following your own inner compass. And at no time in life is this tougher than in middle school, when peers begin to replace parents as prime influencers. How to dress, what to talk about, what to listen to or watch on television, how to act, where to sit, who to speak with, who to avoid. This is how we forge an identity, an awareness of self — and all of these details are determined, to varying degrees, by the pack.

These kids care so much about what their peers think, and yet part of becoming a true individual is casting off those concerns. It’s a challenge for ANYBODY to stand up against the crowd. For a middle schooler, it’s nearly impossible. On a deep level, in terms of self-identity, they are the crowd. Generally speaking, the individual is almost indistinct from the amorphous mob, as if swallowed by a great whale. They are only gradually becoming aware of, at ages 12-14, who they are. The group, the social context, provides the first hints toward that great journey to self-discovery. You see where you fit, where you don’t. You watch others to learn about yourself. And at a time when they define themselves only as part of the larger group, we ask these children to not worry about what anybody else thinks. “Who cares what anybody thinks!”

Well, they care. A lot.

So in my heart of hearts, I think the lasting answer to bullying is to become a genuine, authentic, free-thinking, responsible individual. People are good, I believe that, and the closer people are to their true selves, the better and more moral they become (see, for reference: The Bystander Effect). Be yourself, and in doing so you are far more likely to give others the freedom to be themselves. Responsibility is the ability to respond, to act according to the courage of your convictions.

I realize that none of this helps in your task. It’s all background.

There are many pieces of me in this book, and I’ve often blogged about “inside” aspects of Bystander on this site. Here’s a few that might be useful . . .

* The story of one boy who helped inspire this book, “When I Stood By and Did Nothing.

* Here’s a note about the inspiration for the ketchup in Chapter One. I’ve found that kids today don’t generally know about Columbine,  but for me it was an event — and an awareness — that changed everything. The stakes were raised forever.

* The Bystander Effect – this strikes me as such a crucial idea, really the key to overcoming the bystander, do-nothing mentality. There’s a bunch of videos on the web about this, touching upon “the diffusion of responsibility.”

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* Martin Luther King, Jr and bullying. One quote in particular had to make it into the book.

* Dr. Milgram’s experiments and how they connect to bullying and the larger, more profound issues of individuality in the face of seeming consensus, the “authority” of the clan.

* Eric’s father, who struggled with schizophrenia, was modeled after my late brother, John.

* Creating the character of Griffin Connelly, the bad guy with a killer smile.

* How my hometown, Wantagh, Long Island, informed the book — and made it necessary to include Nixon’s dog.

* A rare interview with the author!

* A few possible talking points about Bystander.

* How one teacher’s offhand comment made it into the book.

Okay, well, sigh, I’m afraid that I didn’t help you very much. Too much philosophy, not enough practical info. But that’s your department. If you have any specific questions, please let me know and I’ll answer them. If you want to include a brief Q & A with the author in the Teaching Guide, let’s do it!

In the end, I’m an author and this is a story, a work of fiction. And as an author, I strive to “show, don’t tell.” I want to take readers on a journey, open up their minds, and hopefully inspire them to think about things for themselves. I don’t have the answers. I’m more like the Great Oz behind the curtain, a phony, a faker, but with enough wisdom to say to any reader, “There’s nothing I can give you. The answers are already inside you. They’ve been inside you all along.”

Thank you, again, for your kind note. I’ve felt from the beginning that this book, in the hands of a good parent or educator, could serve as a starting point for conversations. A talking book. I think the success of what you do will depend upon the interaction of students, their feedback and personal observations. As educators, it’s not what we pour into these kids, as if they were empty vessels, but how we help each child make connections to the outside world and draw that information out of themselves.

Good luck!

JP

Best Last Lines from Books

Stylist magazine has put together a list of The Best 100 Closing Lines from Books. Here’s a few of my favorites . . .

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Animal Farm, George Orwell

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Steig Larsson

“She opened the door wide and let him into her life again.”

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

“It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx

“There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

“A last note from your narrator. I am haunted by humans.”

The Beach, Alex Garland

“I’m fine. I have bad dreams but I never saw Mister Duck again. I play video games. I smoke a little dope. I got my thousand-yard stare. I carry a lot of scars. I like the way that sounds. I carry a lot of scars.”

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

“The old man was dreaming about the lions.”

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

“I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.”

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

“Are there any questions?”

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

“I ran with the wind blowing in my face, and a smile as wide as the valley of Panjsher on my lips. I ran.”

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

“She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

“I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

The Outcast, Sadie Jones

“He didn’t think about it, he went straight to a seat facing forwards, so that he could see where he was going.”

Before I Die, Jenny Downham

“Light falls through the window, falls onto me, into me. Moments. All gathering towards this one.”

They also compiled a list of 100 Best Opening Lines from Books.

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As an author, I guess it’s something to think about. It’s even more important with picture books. As James Marshall once told me in an interview, “The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles at the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it.”

Perhaps my best closing line comes from Hiccups for Elephant:

“Ah-choo!”

From A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade:

“I passed the mess and crossed the halls. Until thar she blew — me treasure!”

From longer works, I especially like the closing lines from Along Came Spider:

“Without looking back, Trey nodded, yes, tomorrow, then stepped inside, yes, and was gone.”

Here’s the closing lines from Bystander:

“All the while quietly hoping — in that place of the heart where words sputter and dissolve, where secret dreams are born and scarcely admitted — to score winning baskets for the home team. To take it to the hole and go up strong. Fearless, triumphant. The crowd on their feet. His father in the stands, cheering.”

More on Book Covers: New Paperback Cover for SIX INNINGS

In 2008, Feiwel & Friends published my first hardcover novel, Six Innings, a book that was eventually named An ALA Notable. The cover was fabulous, featuring the work of gifted illustrator Chris Sheban, whose style you might recognize from the covers of Because of Winn-Dixie, Brooklyn Bridge, Punished, The Tiger Rising, and more.

Six Innings sold reasonably okay, earned some kind reviews (and a Judy Blume comparison!), and nobody got rich; we were happy. When it was time for the book to go to paper, my publisher had to make a decision. Come up with a new cover, or simply reproduce the existing cover in a paperback format, which is what they did.

And the paperback edition did not sell. Understatement. It struck out, looking.

This could be for a variety reasons, but one line of thought was that we were dealing with two different markets. The hardcover, with awards and good reviews, sold well in the institutional market. Paperback was a different animal, targeted more directly to the reader. I want to say the less sophisticated consumer, but that’s not right. Children these days are plenty sophisticated, it’s just that their tastes are their own. To them, these days, the photographic approach seems to hold more immediacy.  At least that’s the current thinking.

So check out the new look (the original is up top in the header):

While I’ve got you (as my dad used to say), Linda Sue Park’s Keeping Score was another baseball-themed book that came out at the same time. And I confess: I hated the cover. That poor book, I thought. It just struck me, a former 10-year-old boy, as all kinds of wrong.

Someone must have agreed. Take a gander at the paperback.

Quite a difference, huh? It doesn’t look remotely like the same book. Curiously, in this case, the publisher went from a photographic to an illustrative approach, but more significantly re-thought the cover content and updated the design. A successful change, I think, though a dog and a fire hydrant makes me think of only one thing. Was that the idea? Dog pee? Maybe dog pee figures into the book somehow (I have not read it). The ex-boy in me wouldn’t have picked up that cover, either.

It’s also possible that the book was rewritten, with the girl character replaced by a black lab.

In the end, covers are a tricky business. The author’s job is what’s inside.