Archive for May 29, 2013

Starred Review, A PIRATES GUIDE TO RECESS (Coming Soon!)

It’s been a good week for reviews. Publishers Weekly just gave my new picture book — illustrated by Greg Ruth — a starred review. Eager readers can meet Greg at the Eric Carle Museum on June 8th. In the meantime, I’ll be at BEA in NYC to sign pretty much anything that’s put in front of me. (Except for feet. I will not sign feet.)

Using the same blustery pirate slang and vintage-style artwork that propelled A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, Preller and Ruth transform a school playground into a swashbuckling adventure featuring two rival captains—Red (from the previous book) and fearsome Molly. Their respective pirate crews are again rendered in pencil, creating a ghostly effect, and their surly theatrics will pull readers through this nautical fantasy. “Don’t scowl so, sweet Red!” Molly tells Red after his crew mutinies. “We’re just having a little yo ho ho.” Preller and Ruth put kids at the helm as they communicate the joy of escaping into a world of pretend. Ages 3–6. Author’s agent: Rosemary Stimola, Stimola Literary Studio. (June)

Publishers Weekly Reviews First Book in SCARY TALES Series: “Home Sweet Horror”

“Gasp-worthy scenes and chilling twists.”

It’s a long slog, this business of getting published, with many milestones along the way. The concept, the contract, the first draft, the editor’s notes, the first glimpse at the artwork, revision, and more revision, the advance reader’s copy, and so on. It takes a while, the result of contributions from many good people.

Before there’s even a finished book, comes the first review.


Well, I guess there’s no turning back now.

May 20, 2013, issue of Publishers Weekly.
Home Sweet Horror
James Preller, illus. by Iacopo Bruno. Feiwel and Friends, $14.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-250-01887-8
Preller (the Jigsaw Jones mysteries) serves up gasp-worthy scenes and chilling twists in this illustrated chapter book that launches the Scary Tales series. Suspense builds gradually: when eight-year-old Liam, his widowed father, and older sister, Kelly, arrive at their ominous-looking new home, he sees a flicker of light from an upstairs window; the next morning, he hears floorboards groaning, radiators hissing, and someone moaning. Preller raises the stakes as Liam, investigating a clanging noise in the basement, falls through a stair and feels “a thin, skeletal grip” on his dangling leg; later, Kelly and a friend attempt to summon Bloody Mary—a bit too successfully. Sound effects reproduced in large type amplify Liam’s fear, and Bruno’s heavily inked, etching-like pictures intensify the story’s spookiness. In contrast to the scary bits, Preller also gives the story a tender emotional undercurrent: the family is still aching from the death of the siblings’ mother, who may still be looking out for her family. Just enough chills to keep burgeoning readers flipping pages. I Scream, You Scream pubs simultaneously. Ages 7–10. Agent: Rosemary Stimola, Stimola Literary Studio. (July)

Writing Advice from a Master: “There’s Only One Question and One Answer.”

I have an uncomplicated relationship with the books of Stephen King.

For the longest time, I ignored ’em.

The problem was two-fold:

1) for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to them in high school, which was too bad, because of what happened next;

2) next, I went to college and got educated.

College can mess you up. I was a Lit major, trying my hardest to be a good student and a sublime writer, and for the most part that meant dealing with IMPORTANT BOOKS and LITERARY WRITERS and DIFFICULT TEXTS. I don’t regret any of that — it’s where I learned to love books, and I enjoyed many great teachers —  but I wish somebody said, “You know, don’t underestimate the value of a good story.”

It sound ridiculous, of course, since “a good story” is only everything.

But it took me a long time to grasp that plain fact. My head was in the clouds; my nose was in the air.

In college, I learned a lot, and later in life I had to unlearn a lot.

So I’ve come to Stephen King late in life. And now that I’m here I am filled with great respect for the man and the writer. I previously wrote about his excellent book on writing, titled — wait for it — On Writing. I’m not an expert on these things, but I found it to be the best, most relatable, no-nonsense book on THE JOB (& CRAFT) of writing as anything I’ve come across before or since.

I’m currently reading 11/22/63, King’s great novel about time travel and a man who seeks to change history by thwarting the Kennedy assassination.

Here’s a few lines from p. 150, which struck me as great advice and, for a writer with my flaws and proclivities, an essential reminder. Maybe it will help you, too?

“In both fiction and nonfiction, there’s only one question and one answer. What happened? the reader asks. This is what happened, the writer responds. This . . . and this . . . and this, too. Keep it simple. It’s the only sure way home.”

I posted this long ago, but thought I’d hurl it into the maw of the internet once more just in case you didn’t catch it the first time around:

Here’s a quick recap of Stephen King’s 12 guidelines:

1. Be talented

2. Be neat

3. Be self-critical

4. Remove every extraneous word

5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft

6. Know the markets

7. Write to entertain

8. Ask yourself frequently, “Am I having fun?”

9. How to evaluate criticism

10. Observe all rules for proper submission

11. An agent? Forget it. For now

12. If it’s bad, kill it

School Visits: Small Treasures

I am preparing to hit the road tonight, three nights away from my home and family, and I’ll be honest: a big part of me hates being away. The leaving is the worst part.

No, there are no tearful farewells. My middle schoolers just yawn, shrug; they know they are in good hands with Mom, and understand that I’ll be back. It’s normal. The cats don’t care. The dog, baffled as always.

I’ll be happy when I’m there, mostly, and enjoy the schools, the teachers and students. And I will also now admit, finally and at last, that I know I’m doing something worthwhile. We’re talking about things that matter, about finding what you love, about books and writing, family and kindness. It’s good stuff that I bring in my little bag, glad tidings from the generous heart of children’s literature.

So I was packing, cleaning out old papers, making sure I had the right books. And I found this, amidst a clutter of similar pages:

I’ll tell you how it typically happens. I’m walking down the hall with a teacher, on my way to setup the Power Point or to the library to sign books. Heading to the next thing. Children in the halls sort of stare at me and whisper. Then some sweet someone comes up and hands me a page, we chat a shy moment, I stuff it into my bag, says thanks, move on.

Just another treasure I don’t fully value at the proper moment. I’m rushing to the next place, or blathering about something with an adult. I mean, I’m not rude, I’m not a jerk to these kids. Just that it takes me a month to dig the page out of my bag and look at it again, seeing it maybe for the first time, thinking again again again: how lucky am I?

At least somebody’s excited.

Adventures in Audio: The Best “Audiobook in the Car” Story I’ve Ever Heard

I was at a dinner earlier this week at The Stockade Inn in Schenectady, NY, in celebration of the Children’s Literature Connection. It was an intimate, modest, friendly event with under 100 attendees, featuring keynote addresses by Karen Beil and Jennifer Armstrong.

I love this photo of Karen in the classroom.

I mean, there it is, there it is right there.

Anyway, I got to chatting with a librarian about this and that, and we hit upon the subject of books on tape. Or CDs, rather. She had a long commute to her job and passed that time by listening to books. We talked about that moment when you are in the car, listening to the book . . . while sitting in your driveway, unwilling to turn off the engine. You don’t want to get out.

Anyway, the story: At one point, she decided to try the Charles Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities.

Listening to it on her way to work, she found the story confusing, nonsensical, poorly structured, maddening. The book had strange flashbacks, then jumped forward in time, characters were angry, then they were happy, then they were mad again. It was crazy, a hot mess of a book. She told me, “I hated it, HATED IT. I was saying to myself, ‘This is a classic? I hate this stupid book. It makes no sense!'”

Later on, at home, she pulled out the book and began flipping through the pages, trying to find her spot. She went forward, then back, then flipped forward a few more pages. Something was wrong. There were gaps, things left out, while other scenes seemed out of order.

Then she realized the problem: “I had accidentally set the CD player on RANDOM!” she told me with a great laugh. “I listened to the entire first disk that way, bouncing from track to track, and I hated it!”

I’d like to report that she has since rectified the problem, and gone on to appreciate this work of classic literature. But, alas, she is too scarred. “I still hate it,” she confided. “I will always hate it.”

I think even Charles might understand.