I slacked off over the summer — I admit it, people, and that’s the first step to recovery — so let’s get back to chopping away at this pile of fan mail.
Here’s a combo pack, from two brothers . . .
Entertainingly, Christopher’s older brother, Alex, enclosed a note, too.
I decided to answer them in one fell swoop, so to speak . . .
Dear Christopher & Alex:
This is the first time that two brothers wrote to me in the same envelope. So, um . . . congratulations? Or maybe . . . Thank You!
Up front, off the bat, I have to apologize to Alex: I’m pretty much 99% certain that’s a pizza stain on your letter. It did not arrive in that condition; my pepperoni slice (delicious), eaten at my desk, left it there. An oily remains.
(It’s not just a letter, it’s a napkin, too!)
I think my favorite thing about your package is how the letters reveal a family of readers, and that behind the scenes there’s a pretty awesome mom, encouraging you guys to pick up books and read. Way to go, Mom!
I only wish I heard from Grandma. Who is she reading, Rick Riordan? I’m not good enough for granny?!
I hope that you are happy with your move to Connecticut. It must be challenging to fit into a new school, make new friends, learn new neighborhoods, all of that. So good luck.
You were kind — all of you — to send me such nice letters. And I’m especially grateful to your mother.
When I speak at schools, a teacher will often come up to ask if I wouldn’t mind wearing some kind of amplifier/microphone thingy around my neck for a student who is hearing impaired.
And of course I don’t mind. I put it on and forget about it. Easy.
Styles vary, but it usually looks something like this.
After a presentation last Friday at Northbrook Junior High, about 25 miles north of Chicago, a small female student approached to ask for the return of the assistive listening device that hung around my neck. She had a nice smile, a sweet presence, and I liked her immediately. We chatted for a short while. I asked how she managed when people didn’t wear the device, and about lip reading, and getting by. I told her that I suffered from hearing problems myself, a surgery with a specialist in Ohio and a second one planned. I understood, on a personal level, how terribly isolating hearing loss can be.
We said goodbye. As she left, I commented to a nearby teacher about how much I liked that girl. “She’s probably a writer,” I added. You can often tell. She was thoughtful and attentive, a watcher, an observer. In my experience, those are the types who make writers. The quiet ones. And there’s that other thing about writers: it’s something you sense in people, the way they absorb their surroundings. You can tell there’s something going on between the ears.
It’s rarely the way they talk, but more the quality of their listening.
“Yes, she’s a very good writer,” the teacher informed me.
A few minutes later, my friend, Erin, was back. She handed me a poem. A small group of teachers and I were about to have lunch in another room. But I read the poem while Erin stood by, watching. And finally, when I reached the end, I told her that it was incredible, that I was moved by it, that I admired and envied her talent. “You are such a great writer,” I told her, and I meant it. Erin smiled, a terrific smile, and told me that I could keep the poem. And I did, but not until I got her autograph. In green ink, no less.
Erin Rosenfeld. The writer.
I don’t know. I do a lot of school visits, a lot of blabbering about me, me, me. But it’s always these small moments that make it worthwhile, that make me feel like there’s value in it. When out of the blue a connection is made, and I meet somebody like Erin, and maybe in some small way she’ll remember this moment, for I know I’ll remember her. So much talent, insight, and depth of feeling in someone so young.
So here is “Logophile Poem,” by Erin Rosenfeld. As I understand it, Erin wrote it about a year ago. Words, words, words. Coming from a young girl who leans in and listens hard. Who reads lips. Who watches. Who see things that others might miss. And who in her own way hears the music on a deeper level than us all.
I’m glad I met you, Erin. You struck a chord in me. Keep writing.
A special shout out to Annette Farmer, a most awesome librarian (and triathlete!) who worked so hard, along with Marc Goldstein, to bring me out to Illinois in the first place. Thank you.
I’m flying off to the Windy City this afternoon to visit two schools, Thomas Middle School and Northbrook Junior High. This will be my first visits of the new school year, so I’m looking to kick out the cobwebs, blow the rust off my thumb drive, and hopefully make a positive impression. The idea for me is always to try to leave each school a little bit better than when I first arrive.
This is another example of my book, Bystander, opening new doors for me, as it was my first true middle school book, featuring 7th-grade characters. So many books fade away with barely a whimper (even the good ones!), it’s such a blessing that this one seems to have taken hold in schools across the country, places where they are eager to read, explore and perhaps illuminate some of the issues that center on the bully-target-bystander dynamic. But mostly I hope this is a book that keeps readers turning the pages, a book they’ll enjoy. If it inspires students to think, well, amen to that. We can use all the thinking we can get around here.
Tomorrow, my kids, Maggie (6th) and Gavin (8th), go off the Middle School together, so I’m pretty steeped in this age group. My oldest, Nick, is now a sophomore in college. Yikes.
One other really nice aspect of this trip is that I am finally going to meet two of my publishing pals, Julie Halpern and (the insanely prolific) Matthew Cordell. That’s right, I’m spending a night on their couch — and I’m keeping any change I find under the cushions. That money’s mine. And the Cheetos, too. Matthew and I first met, electronically, when we did a picture book together, Mighty Casey (speaking of books that fade away). We bonded over Arnold Lobel and William Steig, Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt, and we’ve become true friends entirely through email. Now I guess we’re putting that notion to the test. I also share a publisher with Matt’s wife, Julie, who is a librarian and a terrific writer. She’s deep and funny and I’m a huge fan.
I am really looking forward to hanging out with those guys. They have a young daughter, too, Romy, who keeps asking, “When’s Preller coming?” That cracks me up.
I basically took the summer off from blogging, so feel a little wobbly about it, my palms sweating on the handlebars, not sure I remember how to do this. I don’t know what happened, exactly, just somehow tired of the “James Preller” corporate thing. Ha. Mostly, I wanted to concentrate on other writings, as I’ve been deep in a new series that I’m writing for Feiwel & Friends. It won’t launch until The Fabled Summer of ’13, but I’ve nearly finished the third book in the series.
NOTE: I just reread this and had a chuckle about that “nearly finished” line. It only signifies that I’m an old pro when it comes to deadlines and editors: a manuscript that has not yet been handed in is always “nearly finished.” Any writer who says otherwise is a fool and a boob.
As for my new series, it feels like I’m that kid behind the snow fort, busily stacking up a supply of snowballs. Can’t wait to fire ’em out there. More on that topic another time.
I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time guy, but I’m now reading three very different but equally remarkable books concurrently: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem, and Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor.
Normally I don’t do that to myself, the three-books-at-once bafflement, but the mixture of long novel, short nonfiction, and poetry seem to complement each other nicely.
I have a long and sordid relationship with poetry, and I’m especially happy to find this sweet collection by Keillor, based on poems featured on “The Writer’s Almanac.”
Writes Keillor in the introduction:
Oblivion is the writer’s greatest fear, and as with the fear of death, one finds evidence to support it. You fear that your work, that work of your lifetime, on which you labored so unspeakably hard and for which you stood on so many rocky shores and thought, My life has been wasted utterly — your work will have its brief shining moment, the band plays, some confetti is tossed, you are photographed with your family, drinks are served, people squeeze your hand and say that you seem to have lost weight, and then the work languishes in the bookstore and dies and is remaindered and finally entombed on a shelf — nobody ever looks at it again! Nobody! This happens often, actually. Life is intense and the printed page is so faint.
Keillor, as curator, has a point of view. He likes poems that tell a story, poems that are direct and clear, that don’t sound too “written.” Poems that communicate. He quotes Charles Bukowski, “There is nothing wrong with poetry that is entertaining and easy to understand. Genius could be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”
And I put a big star in the margin when Keillor described his former English major self — a tender self I identified with, all those lessons that have taken me so long to unlearn, the bad habits of academic thought, “back when I was busy writing poems that were lacerating, opaque, complexly layered, unreadable.”
I have a file drawer jammed full with opaque and unreadable poems.
Now I see that as my writer’s quest, this effort to write clearly (and yet, even so, to write interestingly, to achieve moments of “lift off”), to overcome my own big stupid fumbling ego, those temptations to craft “look at me!” sentences that dazzle and bore readers. Perhaps that’s the great gift of writing for children of all ages. They don’t go for the bullshit. You can deliver any kind of content — really, there’s nothing you can’t say in a children’s book — but please don’t overcook it.
One last phrase from Keillor, in praise of Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton and, for that matter, all Good Poems:
“They surprise us with clear pictures of the familiar.”
So that’s how I’ve vowed to begin my days, by reading a few poems each morning. To sit in the chair, coffee at hand, and try on the silence. My favorite from today was Charles Simic’s “Summer Morning.”
You might enjoy it, too.
As a final treat, here’s Tom Waits reading “The Laughing Heart,” a poem by Charles Bukowski. Full text below.
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight