Archive for October 31, 2011

Reminder: The Concrete Temple Theatre performs BYSTANDER this Friday, 11/4, in Hudson, NY

Just a reminder for those of you in the area . . .

Special thanks to the Hudson City School District Arts & Humanities Fund and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation for making this debut performance possible. I’m honored, surprised, and eager to see it — and wondering where this endeavor might take us before we’re through. Maybe to a school near you?

I’m So Doing This: Free Lorax Pumpkin Carving Template

Click here to download a free pumpkin carving template.

This has been a pumpkin service announcement.

Fan Mail Wednesday #127 (Writing Advice)

Certainly by this point, faithful readers of have realized that for me, “Wednesday” is a mystical proposition rather than, say, an actual day. Fan Mail Wednesday happens when I get around to it, basically, and these days it’s been tough. I’m traveling like never before. On Tuesday I was in Hudson, NY, and yesterday in Deep River, CT. In both cases, everyone had read my book, Bystander. Teachers, administrators, students, everybody. Incredible. Even the janitor gave me hug (no, not really).

I gave my fancy new Power Point presentation and I think I’m getting the hang of this thing. Talking about Bystander — my writing process, yes, but also about the bullying themes in the book — really challenged me. In the end, I realized that I did not write an anti-bullying prevention program; I wrote a story. And that story, and literature in general, can be a powerful tool for standing in someone else’s shoes. For learning compassion, empathy.

Frankly, at this point, I sense that many of us are becoming a little sick to death of bullying as the pervasive “it” topic. As I darkly joked with an administrator yesterday, predicting the spat on new bully-themed books that are surely to come, “Bullies are  the new wizards.” But I do know that this subject matters. And matters deeply, urgently. Character matters. Building community matters. Caring, tolerance, relationships, peacefulness, civility — all these things are a vital part of school, and life. Bullying is just a subset of those overall goals. There is no learning until community exists.

Anyway, here’s an absolutely terrific letter from K . . .

Hi, it’s the girl that was going to email her piece of writing to you at Mt. Greylock Regional High School (AKA: K_____)

I’ve never actually written an email to an adult before, so I have no idea how or what to type. I wish I could’ve had more time to talk to you at the workshop — Bystander was AMAZING. I spent hours reading it and then had to hide it in my bed with a flashlight when I was supposed to be in bed. Please don’t tell my parents. (:

(Oh, and I have a question. I was dying to ask you but completely forgot to. When you were in the auditorium with us, you said you had some pictures in your books (I’m having a short-term memory loss at the moment, can’t remember which books they were…) that were done by somebody that also drew graphic novels, if I’m correct. Which graphic novels were they? I could’ve sworn I heard you say “Kanon” and “Clannad,” which are my two favorite books/shows ever. )

Your blog is also amazing. The picture of the little kid getting “eaten” by the shark costume made me smile. It made my day.

By the way, when I got home, I showed the paper that you signed to my little sister. She said that you actually showed up at her school, too. Lanesborough Elementary. And she was incredibly jealous about the autograph. She says hi, by the way. 🙂

And… I’ve decided to type out the writing piece that I wrote on here because I reaaally want your advice on how I can become better at writing. (I’m starting to think about being an author, it sounds fun. ♥)


[K’s Writing Sample]

The adrenaline flowed through me, being the only thing that made me keep moving onwards. Whenever I slowed down, the fear crashed into my mind, interuppting all tired thoughts.

I was running from my once-best friend. Dakota, the girl I had once shared my feelings with and had fun with, was now hunting me down. Slowly, a little hand grasped my bigger one, our fingers entwining. Angel. I would never let you go.

Staring downwards, still running for my life, big blue eyes met my brown ones. They were curious, wondering what exactly what was happening, but overall, terrified. Her lower lip trembled.

“Why is she chasing us?” Was Angel’s question. I had no idea myself. Shaking my head, I turned away. Angel whimpered softly, and clutched my hand so tight my fingers went numb. “I’m scared.”

Smirking, trying to stay brave (although my insides were crashing apart), I turned back around. “Me too.”

“I miss Dakota,” Angel started wiping her face with her dirty sleeve. How long had we been running? Gritting my teeth to keep back tears, I sniffled.

“Me too.”

Then, like God despised the both of us, he performed his “magical powers,” and created a miracle. Rain. I finally let my tears go, collapsing to my knees as I called out Dakota’s name over and over again. Wide-eyed, Angel stared at my tear-stricken face. She gripped my shoulders, glancing around cautiously.

“What’s wrong?” Her horrified whisper made a lump appear in my throat. I swallowed.

“N-Nothing,” I stuttered, although the tears kept falling. Angel stroked my cheek, trying to stop the tears. How great, I thought despite myself, for a 6 year old to be comforting a 13 year old.

Angel sighed, and her eyes caught something glowing in the shadows.

“Celeste,” She whispered my name, terrified. I don’t like the tone of her voice…

“What?” I tried to stay somewhat calm-sounding, but not even her could miss the panic.

“Flashlight beam.”


I got up.


So that would be it. ♥ If I ever do become a author, I’ll aim to make that a part of the first book that I publish. ♥ What do you think of it? 🙂

Sincerely, K_____

I replied:

Dear K_____,

Thank you for your fantastic email and writing sample. I loved visiting Mount Greylock. I don’t normally get the opportunity to teach writing workshops, since schools usually want me to see as many students as possible, and workshops are of necessity small and intimate. I feel inexperienced, like I really have no idea what I’m doing. Yes, I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years — I must know something! — but teaching is a different skill. And teaching writing, well, I’m not at all sure how to go about that.

Personally, I never really took writing classes. I did one workshop in college and didn’t like it. I tried another one some time later, for poetry, and it was okay. So my experience is that I’ve learned by reading — deeply, widely, attentively — and by doing. That is, by writing. Getting published, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with editors who’ve been very smart, so I’ve learned from them, too.

I have no memory of writing in school, though I suppose it must have happened. I did keep journals, though, in my teenage years and beyond. Note the distinction, “journal” not “diary.” I was never one for documenting the day. “Dear Diary, today I went to Auntie Em’s for lunch. We had grilled cheese sandwiches.” And so on. I used my journal to write thoughts, ideas, observations, poems, short stories. It was a place to go with my thoughts, and every writer needs a blank page.

The artist I mentioned was Greg Ruth, who illustrated A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade. You can learn more about Greg by clicking here.

Illustration by the insanely talented, Greg Ruth.

Your writing sample was very dramatic, very exciting — and left me, the reader, with so many questions. In short: I want to know more! I love how you drop us right into this thrilling moment, running for their lives (I think), frightened, desperate. And also, the relationship between the sisters, the hands clutching. This is exciting stuff. Even the name, Angel, is arresting. So, really, I think you’ve GOT TO KEEP GOING with this story.

What’s the deal with Dakota?

You can do that in at least three ways, it seems to me: 1) By seeing your sample as somewhere in the middle of your story, and going back to write what led up to this moment; 2) Through flashback, perhaps entering the thoughts, memories, of the main character; 3) By having Dakota herself appear, and all of this come out through dialogue. My point? You’ve grabbed us, gotten our attention, now you’ve got to answer our questions.

You wrote your piece in our workshop, probably not knowing the answers yourself. Don’t worry; that’s writing. Sometimes we write to figure it out, to discover, to learn. Think of it as a journey — and follow, follow, follow.

I don’t think that it’s productive to worry too much, at this stage in the journey, about getting things perfect. But as a reader, I did feel some confusion about Dakota. They were running from her . . . but missing her? They were running from her . . . but suddenly stopping to cry out her name? Has she transformed in some way? Is the real Dakota gone? What’s happening? You don’t need to answer every question in this one scene, but you do need each character’s actions to make sense and be consistent. Every moment has to ring true.

Thanks for your letter. And say hello to your sister. Good luck with the writing. And please, above all, HAVE FUN with it. Enjoy yourself. I like how in real life you have a younger sister. I think you could go deeper into that fictional relationship in your story. Sisters. It’s something you know in your heart.

My best,


Photo Dump: Three Days in Williamstown

I recently enjoyed a three-day visit to Williamstown, Massachusetts. I visited three schools: Lanesborough Elementary (where we forgot to take photos), Mount Greylock (grades 7-8), and Williamstown Elementary. It was particularly fun to interact with such a large range of grades and interests — from getting down on the reading rug with a small but hearty band of preschoolers to presenting in a large auditorium to seventh- and eighth-graders. The topics ranged from hiccuping elephants to baseball to childhood cancer, from second-grade detectives to middle school bullying. We were all over the place, right where I like to be.

This was the 14th year of the annual “Words Are Wonderful” Literacy Festival (please, educators, click on the link for more information and inspiration). Let me tell you, these fine folks know how to celebrate books, and language, and music, and children — and it’s all done with a lively, happy, infectious spirit. All I had to do was show up. Seriously, it was like they hit the home run themselves and told me to trot around the bases. Um, sure! Even better, I came away with these terrific photos (and more), thanks to my new friend, Jessica Dils. Special thanks must also go out to generous, kind Liz Costley, for providing me with a cozy place near town to rest and sleep. I needed it.

Some faces in the crowd.

This lovely book-lover sat next to me at lunch. And she ate like a rhinoceros.

I love this shot, it’s a classic stare-down.

It’s great when groups are small enough so we can interact. They ask questions and I tell ’em, “I have no idea. Next!”

I am holding one of my earliest known works, Tarzan’s Adventures, once available for only 12 cents.

We were all relieved when milk didn’t spurt out this girl’s nose. She laughed and laughed.

These guys formed their own reading group, and they all read Justin Fisher Declares War. We ate lunch together — and it was delicious.

At Mount Greylock, I did one big presentation in the auditorium, then worked with three different groups in a workshop setting. We all made lamps. No! I jabbered for a while, then they wrote. Enthusiastically, impressively, joyously. Really, these kids were great.

This boy was eager to share his extremely well-written piece about farts. He cracked himself up so much while reading it, he had to pause sometimes for air.

During a break, I chatted with super teacher, Liza Barrett. Liza puts in a lot of work every year to make the Words Are Wonderful literacy festival a success. In five minutes, I knew I was with a dedicated, caring, energetic, compassionate, fully committed teacher. Yet she treated me like I was the star. As if! Here’s to great teachers everywhere.

We slammed about 95 preschool and kindergarten kids into one small space while I desperately tried to keep them amused. Look at ’em. Tough crowd. Scary crowd. Fortunately, I carry extra duct tape — and used it on the more squirmy ones.

I liked this cool guy’s shirt. I offered him five bucks for it. No dice. It’s impressive when you meet a young guy who’ll look you in the eye and have a real conversation.

A quick snap after one of the workshops. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: How lucky am I?

A Family Halloween Tradition . . . Falls Into the Gutter

I’ve previously documented our Halloween scarecrow tradition. It’s something we enjoy, keeping it alive for at least 60 years now.

Well, this year, I don’t know what to say . . .

Here’s the view from the other side (and yes, he’s doughy) . . .

And now the backside again, the view from the street . . .

It’s either the most awesome Preller scarecrow ever, or a serious lapse in taste.

As for the old days, here’s a snap from 1953. My father built these every year . . .

This is about 20 years later, from the 70’s. It’s amazing, but most of our family photos are cropped this way. It’s hard to imagine why, or what was so difficult about keeping everybody in the frame, but there it is . . .

This is a more recent example, 35 years after that, from my own front yard, thanks to a little (and I mean, a very little) help from my kids . . .

Last year we experimented with the pillowcase head and gratuitous gore . . .

But this year, 2011, I’m afraid we’ve finally cracked. Wait, wrong word. Butt . . . you know what I mean. I guess you could say it’s a living tradition, we’re not slaves to the old ways of doing things. Or maybe, in my mother’s old expression, “We’re all going to hell in a hand basket!”