Archive for January 29, 2013

A Murder of Crows, Etc.

In Book #3 of my SCARY STORIES Series — launching this summer, so don’t make any plans — and I mean that, no plans whatsoever — I featured a whole mess of crows in the story. You know, when it comes to foreshadowing and a general air of ominousness, nothing beats a murder of crows.

We have Van Gogh to thank for that, his intimations of mortality in the great painting, “Wheat Field with Crows.”

And, of course, there’s Hitchcock. This is one of my favorite scenes in the history of film, the essence of suspense, the knot slowly tightening, the shots of the crows gathering, cut to Tippi Hedren smoking her cigarette unawares, and back and forth, back and forth, until we get that great shot of Tippi watching one crow in flight across the sky until it lands on the playground. And her eyes grow large. In the background all the while, children sing an American variation of a Scottish folktale, “Risseldy, Rosseldy.” Young, innocent voices. That’s cinematic perfection right there. I’ve watched it a dozen times.

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So I stuck some crows into my story, black harbingers of doom!, and even included a small tribute to a scene from “The Birds.” (Kids these days are always clamoring for more allusions to 1960’s films. It’s just the kind of thing that young readers nowadays expect to find in their chapter books.)

Crows are basically gross, for the most part. But useful as nature’s trash collectors. They eat the road kill, smashed squirrels and flattened chipmunks, and I think we can all agree that we’re grateful for that. Thanks, crows!

Quick crow story:

My wife Lisa is the best mother in the world. She’s tied, actually, with a long list of other mothers, but she’s right there at the top, tied for first place. One Easter long ago, when Gavin (13) and Maggie (12) were probably 3 and 1 1/2, Lisa woke early in the morning to set up an Easter egg hunt. We had a nice, woodsy backyard at the time. Plastic eggs? What? Is that what you’re thinking? Oh, please. No, Lisa used actual hard-boiled eggs and hid them around the lawn. Under bushes and often right there in the middle of the lawn, since at the time the kids were young and not exactly the best Scotland Yard had to offer.

Later it was time for the egg hunt. And lo, there were no eggs. Or, at least, very few to be found.

What happened to them? Where’d they go? We didn’t know. So we set out an egg in the middle of the lawn, ducked back inside, and watched by the window. Within two minutes, a big black crow landed, grabbed the egg in its talons, and flew off for a hearty breakfast.

While thinking about crows, and researching them ever-so-slightly, I came across this, which is why I began this post in the first place.

Oh, and here’s the brief excerpt from SCARY TALES, Book #3. In this scene, three students are trapped inside a school, surrounded by zombies, or ghouls, or whatever creepy thing they are out there. It’s not good. For a variety of reasons — the best one being “for dramatic purposes” — Carter decides to go for help. He needs to quietly make his way two blocks through the night fog, avoid the zombies that seems to be aimlessly milling around, find his folks, get help, and save the day.

(I know, it’s sounds kind of dumb, but it’s a lot of fun.)

Here goes . . .

Carter stepped out into the mist with supreme calm. Cool as a lake. It was foggy, but he could still see about 30 feet in any direction. He gave a thumbs-up to the worried faces that stood vigil at the door.

It’s all good.

A crow landed near his foot, cawed noisily. Then another, and another. Carter stepped cautiously, not wishing to disturb the birds. He noticed a dark figure ahead and veered away from it.

CAW-CAW! Carter looked up to see a crow dive-bombing from above, talons out. The black bird hit Carter’s head at full force, wham, and tore into his scalp.

“Ow, shoot,” Carter cursed. He staggered a step, dazed, and waited for the dizziness to pass. Carter tenderly probed the injury with his fingers. His scalp was torn. Under a loose flap of skin, his flesh felt like raw hamburger. It was wet.

He checked his fingers. Blood. Lots of it.

Oooooaaaaannnn, oooooaaaaannnn.

The moans came, louder and louder, from every direction. As if the creatures were calling to each other. Now more shapes appeared in the distance, moving toward him. “It’s the blood,” Carter thought. “They smell it.”

OVERHEARD: “I guess science is my favorite class — I just wish it wasn’t so serious.”

Lisa had asked Maggie, grade 6, about her classes and received the above reply. Which at first struck me as a hilarious thing to say about science. It was like saying, I don’t know, math should be funnier. Social studies, sillier!

But then I realized she might be onto something. When we think of our science teachers, most of them are dry, dull, strict. This is science, this is important: this is serious business!

And in fairness, it often is, kids can get hurt, things might explode.

But then there are those rare science teachers — and scientists like Bill Nye, on television — who bring the joy of discovery into the process. Or should I say, keep the joy. The wonder.

They find the fun and the funny. Like a child with a new toy, figuring out what makes it go. Discovering the awesomeness of it all.

On Facebook I “liked” a site called, “I Love F***ing Science.” I’ve always regretted the F***ing in that title because it makes it harder for me to share with others, especially anyone who might read my books.

This post reflects a few things I’ve picked up from there, and other places.

Just trying to bring the fun, Maggie. I’m glad you like science.

The Goal of True Education

I don’t think it matters if you are working or not. If the mail comes or it doesn’t. This is a day when, in your own time, you try to step back, reflect a moment, and appreciate Martin Luther King.

I’ve posted on Mr. King several times on this blog — here’s one — and for me his words continue to inspire me toward a better place.

Here Comes the Sun: Flashmob in Madrid Unemployment Office

Know this: Unemployment in Spain is at 26 percent. The country, and its people, are going through a very tough time. High taxes, plunging salaries, confusion, bitterness, anger, fear, desperation — with record numbers applying for jobless benefits.

So one recent day at the unemployment office in Madrid, a flash mob of musicians came along to brighten the day, at least for a few minutes. Watch, please.

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My thanks to Lauren Frayer, at NPR, for first bringing the video to light.

Fan Mail Wednesday #165: Ah-choo!

Here’s a face no one could deny . . .

I replied:

Dear Jillian,

Okay, before you get mad, first let me explain. I’ve had a cold all week. Sneezing and sniffling. So when I opened your letter, before I even read a word, I saw that square of material and thought, “Oh goodie, somebody sent me a handkerchief!”

So I blew my nose in it.

Then I read your letter and got a sinking feeling. I looked at the (used, soggy) piece of material. I have to admit: I’m a really good nose-blower! I hope you don’t mind.

Just kidding, Jillian. I was happy to sign the material for your “author’s and illustrator’s quilt.” I even tried to draw a picture of Jigsaw Jones, though I am not an artist. It sort of looks like him! (Kind of.)

Hey, just a thought. Why don’t you forget about all those other crummy author’s and illustrator’s and instead make one, giant “James Preller” quilt? The whole thing could be like, I don’t know, my head — giant-sized. My great, big smiling gob! Listen, Jillian, I’m not an expert, and I don’t work at Bed, Bath, & Beyond, but that sounds like a pretty terrific-looking quilt, if you ask me. Don’t you agree?

It’s just an idea.

I’ll tell you this, Jillian. You are one lucky girl to have an awesome grandma like that. My grandmother just sat around, watched soap operas on television, sipped an afternoon glass of sherry, and challenged us to spell impossible words.

Grandma Bridgie & me. We called her Granny Good Witch. And she always had butterscotch.

She’d suddenly announce, “Arachnophobia!”

“Huh? What was that, grandma?” I’d ask.


Silence. Finally, I’d say something like, “Um, A-R-R-I . . .”

She’d dismiss me with a wave of her bony hand and proudly recite, rapid-fire, “A-R-A-C-H-N-O-P-H-O-B-I-A! The fear of spiders.”

I’ll telling you, Jillian, this happened all the time.

Granny didn’t make any quilts, I’ll tell you that much.

So be sure to give your granny a big hug of thanks. I bet your grandmother thinks she’s the lucky one to have you!

And she’d be right!

Well, I guess you’re both pretty lucky. Me, too.

Ah-choo! No problem, I’ve got a hanky right here — oh, darn. Sorry about that!

My best,


P.S.: Thanks for helping me remember my own Grandma Bridgie. We called her Granny Good Witch. And she always, always had a little dish of hard candy — butterscotch, mostly — at her house in Queens Village, NY.