Archive for September 30, 2012

Overheard: “Dad, NOBODY goes to bathroom in school.” (Parenting a Middle Schooler: The Joyful Saga, pt. 2)

I work at home, so I’m aware when Gavin and Maggie return from middle school — I can hear them scurrying to the bathrooms. It’s a sprint. The quickest gets the bathroom off the main hallway, while the slower one hustles upstairs.

I’m not kidding. This is often the scene when they get home.

How often? Oh, hmmm, let me see, by my calculation . . . EVERY SINGLE DAY!

I ask, “Don’t they have bathrooms in that school?”

Gavin is politely dismissive. “Dad, NOBODY goes to bathroom in school.”


Could that be possible?

I decided to do a little research. So I staked out the main access road from the middle school, and lo, it was true. I saw students under heavy backpacks making the long trek home, like water-retaining camels filing across the open desert.

They all had to go, every single one of those kids. You could tell by the short quick strides and the crazy eyes.

No wonder they don’t learn anything in school these days. How can our children concentrate on multiplying integers when they sit with legs crossed and teeth clenched, thisclose to catastrophe?

If we want to improve test scores, maybe there’s an easy, low-cost solution in these days of fiscal belt-tightening: Make ‘em pee, that’ll help with their learnin’.

Back in my day at St. Frances de Chantal Elementary School in Wantagh, Long Island, we were required to get on “lavatory line” twice daily. Everybody. No options. We stood outside in the hallway — “No talking, Mr. Preller!” — and went into the big, cool bathroom five at a time. It smelled of vomit, ammonia, and urinal cakes composed of naphthalene and para-dichlorobenzene (both later found to be hazardous to our health, like the asbestos in the ceiling). After lunch, we lined up again. We were like dogs they took for walks. It worked. We did our business.

And we learned, boy, did we learn.

I used to think it was because of the discipline of the classrooms. Those no-nonsense nuns. The golden ruler. But maybe it was the lavatory line.

Oh, wait. Hold on. Hear that double-flush? My kids are home!

Thanks for listening.

Note: I found this illustration in cyberland.

It’s by Greg Clarke, and I love it.

Music Video Friday: Teenage Fanclub

I don’t know how I landed on this song, except that it always makes me happy — and Teenage Fanclub from Scotland is one of my all-time favorites. Here they are doing their Byrds-influenced, harmony-dripped jangle. Have a great weekend.

“I Don’t Want Control of You,” Teenage Fanclub, from their great CD, “Songs from Northern Britain.

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Cross-Eyed Maggie: Same Photo, Reenacted

This is one of my all-time favorite photos of Maggie, here with her good friend Zoe (left). Taken some time ago in Cape Cod, I believe. These two hooligans have been hanging around with each other since Year One, and they are still nothing but trouble.

Zoe’s mom put together a quick reenactment, which is pretty funny if you ask me. It might be cool to really go all out with the details, really try to nail this thing . . . but that would require effort. Maybe when they hit High School in three years we can do it all over again.

A Few Snaps from a School Visit

I had a great visit to Thomas Middle School, north of Chicago, a couple of weeks back. First-class all the way, the administration, teachers, students, everybody. They even sent me a bunch of photos from the visit. Here’s a few . . .

The day began with two large presentations, 450 students each, grades 6-8. All 900 students had read my book, Bystander, over the summer.

This photo gives you a little better sense of what I was looking at in the, er, cafetorium (my favorite word!). In this shot, I talk briefly about my love of the vanishing art of marginalia. Or, perhaps, how reading feeds the writing. (That’s a new shirt, by the way.)

I also had the opportunity to meet with two small groups for Writer’s Workshops. I enjoy when I get the opportunity for this kind of thing, because it’s less about me, more about writing, and more about the kids. Small and intimate. I love that moment when we get to hear what they’ve written — when what’s inside is brought out into the light. The boy in this particular photo laughed to himself the entire time he wrote. Giggling, scribbling, snorting, writing. He was not a “serious” writer in the tradition of Samuel Johnson. When it came time for volunteers to read aloud, he could barely get through his piece without cracking up. Were there farts in his story? I think there may have been, yes. Possibly some projectile vomiting, it’s hard to recall. But I loved that he was laughing, enjoying himself. It was fun. As a writer, the worst thing you can do is be boring to yourself, because if that’s the case, you’ll surely bore everybody else, too. This boy made us all laugh because he began first by making himself laugh.

I also got to sign books. How to do you spell that again? Is that Sarah with an “h”? Oh, really? Three r’s? Okay! A great school, and a great day. Thanks again, Marc Goldstein, for making it happen. I’m grateful.

Overheard: “I don’t know, ask Mom.” (Parenting a Middle Schooler: The Joyful Saga, Part 1)

To be clear: I love my 8th-grade son. I’m proud of him in a thousand different ways. He’s terrific; he completes me. It’s just that . . .

I kind of want to kill him sometimes. I mean, if it were possible to do that and still have him be alive . . . later on, just not now, exactly. Sigh. It’s complicated. I just . . . arrrrggghhh!

Is that so very wrong?

Anyway, about the overheard comment. It was spoken directly to me. My son (we’ll call him Gavin because that’s his name) and I were in a car and I was trying to find out what kind of sandwich he wanted. That was the sum total of my agenda: I wanted to buy the boy a sandwich, but I didn’t know what kind of sandwich, exactly. So I asked.

And the asking of this question annoyed my son. Okay? I was irritating my 13-year-old kid by asking him what kind of sandwich he wanted.

Add this to the topical list of things he didn’t, and doesn’t, “feel like” talking about. Sandwiches.

For more atmosphere: We were in the car and I was driving to the Soccerplex at 8:35 on a Saturday morning. I could have been in my bathrobe, reading The New York Times, sipping coffee, but I was not, no. Gavin had to ref two soccer games so I was driving him across town. Twenty-five minutes, there and back. I planned to return to pick him up at 11:30, when I would then shuttle him back home, he would get dressed for baseball, and we’d rush to Line Drive Field for the baseball game — which I would help coach for two and a half more hours of “my” Saturday (“my” in quotes, oh yes).

Because the boy would be hungry and hurried, I offered — at my wife’s suggestion — to stop first at Subway before picking him up, in order to deliver to said son a sandwich of his own devising. A small treat for the young prince.

It was at this point I asked, “What kind of sandwich would you like?” — much in the way a footman on “Downton Abbey” might inquire, say, about the precise hour Master would care to depart for the afternoon quail hunt.

Yes, love this show.

Yet my question irritated Gavin. He’d already been over it with Mom. So he rolled his eyes, grumbled, groaned “I don’t know,” and suggested that it might be easier if I asked someone other than . . . the eater of the sandwich!

And you know what? I didn’t bite. I didn’t offer any of a half-dozen responses that sprang to mind. Nope. I shut up, drove the car, asked Mom, bought the sandwich, picked the boy up, limo’d him home, coached the game, etc.

Thank you for listening. Is my time up already?

Why a Character Talks about Kurt Vonnegut in BEFORE YOU GO

For starters: I’ve always done it.

Always? Yes, in fact, always. It’s a tradition that started when I was six months old and referenced Go, Dog. Go! during a Skype with Granny. I continued to do it with my Jigsaw Jones series, and carried it over to Justin Fisher Declares War and other books. Basically, I like giving the nod to real books that I’ve enjoyed. It’s also, hopefully, a way of linking to the reader, by mentioning a title that perhaps he or she has read. In the case of Kurt Vonnegut, it fit Corey’s character — he would like Kurt Vonnegut and, I think, that inclination would tell us something about Corey. You are what you read, and what you eat, and what you wear, etc. As I wrote of Corey in the book, p. 81: “He had the rule-hating gene in his double helix.

And, absolutely, I do it for myself. I read Vonnegut in my teens — my generation’s YA — and still do. Still admire the man, the writer, the rebel mind. I don’t know how many teenagers read him nowadays, but I know I shoved Slaughterhouse-Five and Sirens of Titan into my oldest son’s hands.


Snaps: Two Baseball Shots of Gavin, in Cooperstown’s “Field of Dreams” Park

This summer Gavin had the opportunity to play at Cooperstown’s “Field of Dreams” park. His team was one of 104 teams from all over the country to participate in the weekly tournament. The boys stayed in barracks, played hard, and had a great time.

Here’s two shots. Amazing to me that he’s in 8th grade already. High school next year. With my oldest already in college, I know where this is headed. Sigh.

Fan Mail #159: Featuring Free Artwork!

Gander at this beauty from Canada . . .

It came with a short, sweet note from Megan:

Dear James Preller,

I love your books “Jigsaw Jones,” I love the mystery. My favourite part is how Jigsaw does not know who did it. Every time I read a book I just can’t put it down. I have read a lot of books but I love yours the best.

Yours truly,


I replied:


Thank you for your incredible artwork. I can remember that scene from the book, when poor Ralphie discovers that his bicycle is gone. You did a great job.

I’ve been puzzling over the zip code you wrote on the envelope, and even tried looking it up on the internet (very confusing, these Canadian rules about zip codes), so I’m not entirely confident that you are reading this right now. I tried, how I tried!

I’m glad you are reader. And grateful for that kindest, sweetest of phrases, “I love yours the best.” Oh my, that makes me smile.

Yours very truly . . . as ever . . .


Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

When I started this blog, one of my guiding concepts was to pull back the curtain . . .

. . . .to show some of the inner workings of the writing process. It’s not all gazing into the luminous sky, folks; more often, you’re digging in the muck, shifting dirt around.

On Monday, I got a quick note from Holly, an editor who was working on Book #1, Home Sweet Horror, in my new SCARY TALES series (July, 2013). I think this offers a glimpse into the issues that demand a writer’s attention — even after the manuscript has been read, copy-edited, approved, and “final” (a word that must always appear in quotes, alas, until the book is printed).

That is, the illustrations finally arrive from the artist and there might be minor problems, tweaks, oddities, etc. So, thus . . .

Holly wrote:


We have been going over the second pass of Home Sweet Horror (which looks amazing!) and:

On pg. 28, the lead in to chapter 4, the artist has drawn a great picture featuring a creepy old-fashioned rotary phone (see attached for the rough image).  It’s really got the right tone and will look fabulous in the book, but we are afraid that it might throw readers off a little bit. Would it be possible for you to add a quick description of the creepy old phone to the chapter so that we can keep the image?

Holly’s right: cool illustration. I reviewed the text, which read:

An hour later, Kelly came down and planted herself on the living room couch. Her nose was in a book, a tender love story about killer zombies.

“Do you think there’s anything creepy about this house?” Liam asked.

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Creepy? Yeah, you.”

“Can a house be . . . alive?” Liam ventured. “Like with, I don’t know, a spirit or something?”

“Oh, please, just shoot me now,” Kelly groaned. She turned her attention back to the book.

The phone rang.

And rang.

“Get it,” Kelly snapped.

“I’m not your slave. You answer it,” Liam replied.

No one moved.

After the fifth ring, the machine picked up.

Fourteen minutes later, I wrote back to Holly with my suggestions (amended text in red):

Does this work for you? If length is issue, could cut out “Dad says” and “Kelly laughed” lines. I’m open about this kind of thing, whatever you need. Cuts, additions, etc.


“Do you think there’s anything creepy about this house?” Liam asked.

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Creepy? Yeah, you.”

Liam frowned. “You know what I mean.”

Kelly set down the book. “There’s lots of things that are creepy about this house, Liam. Everything is so old and musty and gross. Even the phone is like a million years old. A rotary phone? Really? What’s up with that?”

“Dad says it’s a fixer-upper,” Liam countered.

Kelly laughed scornfully. “Ha!”

“Can a house be . . .

NOTE: Now, of course, there’s the small issue of “the machine” picking up. When I wrote the book, I imagined a contemporary household, not rotary phones. So maybe that’s a new level of concerns. Or maybe, more than likely, we’ll decide that it’s perfectly fine and no biggie and we’re tired and let’s move forward. After doing 40 Jigsaw Jones books, also illustrated, I’m familiar with triage. In defense of the artist — the incredible Iacopo Bruno from Italy! — there’s a great tradition in horror to set stories in slightly olden times. By removing the contemporary sheen, you invite the timeless. So his instincts feel right to me.

NOTE #2: I’m tripping over my revision suggestions. Maybe change “Liam frowned . . .” line to “Come on, Kelly. You know what I mean.” [No attribution, but implied.] And also, change “Kelly laughed . . .” to “Ha!” Kelly laughed. Kelly scoffed?  [Drop the adverb, transpose the quote & attribution.] Gosh, all these little puzzlements and small worries. I’ll never get it right. Help, Holly!

We are publishing four books this year, working carefully, but also with pace. It’s fun to work this way, and it suits me. Part of that is the fast turn-around, the go-go-go, and the fine art of letting go. Because after a while, you’ve turned “the phone” into this Big Deal Thing, when all the reader wants to do is move forward without a glitch. In the end, that’s what we’re trying to do here: remove the glitch, anything that might slow the reader down.

We are focusing on the phone, briefly, so the focus won’t be on the phone, oddly.

Another random thought about “scary stories” and the various permutations: I’m conscious of writing within established cliches, variations on familiar themes, following a long and powerful tradition. You have to, I think, embrace the cliches while at the same time endeavor to punch something new into each story. For me, that’s usually character. Who is in the scary house. Who is being chased by wraiths. And so on. The relationships, the dialogue. Because I’m not sure I’ll ever write a sentence that’s as good as, “The doorknob slowly, slowly turned.” And it’s hard to top a cabin in the words. Or the idea of someone being watched, or worked on by unseen forces, or . . . you get the idea.

I’m loving these books, and I think kids are going to love them, too. I’m shooting for Big Entertainment. (And I don’t say that about everything I do.)

So. Much. Fun.

Thanks, Holly!

PIRATE’S GUIDE Sequel, In Which Red Meets His Match

Here’s a touch of art from Greg Ruth, the amazing artist behind A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade and the upcoming sequel, A Pirate’s Guide to Recess.

I had an interesting experience writing this one, because it was the first time that I wrote a picture book knowing who the illustrator would be.

Note that the industry standard, in the absence of an individual who both writes and draws, is to begin with a manuscript and match it with an illustrator. Words first; art an afterthought. Think about that. Consider the advantages when one individual is both author and illustrator. As the great Bernard Waber long ago told me in an interview:

“When I am writing, I think of myself as a writer. But when I am illustrating, I think of myself as an illustrator. I think, though, that I try to create situations with my writing that will be fun to illustrate. The writer in me tries to please the illustrator.”

I shared that same feelling with Waber, that I was also writing to please the illustrator. I wanted to give Greg something. An offering. And that I was also writing to please myself (always), the reader, the art-lover; I wanted to see Greg get a pirate ship out on the water, watch as the confines of the actual world — in this case, the school playground — washes away. I wanted this story to fully enter the true, pure, imaginal world shared by Red and Molly. I thought it would be fun, sure. But more importantly, that’s how kids play. By agreement. “This piece of glass is the castle, and these rocks are the army, and this stick . . .”

I hope these books celebrate that playfulness. Intellectually, I wanted to see the next book extend the premise of the first book, not merely repeat the same joke.

Imagine this as a stunning double-page spread, printed with attention and care. The only words on the pages:

“Arrrrr,” Red muttered. “Rapscallions all.”

Anyway, writing with an artist in mind was completely new to me. Greg Ruth, specifically, was going to draw this thing that was in my head, transform it in his own way. Knowing that, I tried to create visual opportunities that would bring out the best in Greg.

It’s like, I don’t know, you’re having a party and there’s Fred Astaire sitting on the couch, chatting with Ginger Rogers. You put on a record because you want to see them dance. You don’t say, “Come on, everybody. Let’s play charades!”

Oh, about the book: It won’t be out until next summer, July 2013. Published by Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. More details on that another day.