Archive for December 20, 2013

Scared of Santa, Revisited, Again (because it never gets old)

I’m REPOSTING from the “Greatest Hits” collection . . .


No, I don’t know why good, sane, well-intentioned people do this to their children.

This guy terrifies even me — I keep thinking he should have a lit Chesterfield and a glass of bourbon in his hands, not an innocent lamb.

I remember that my parents once gave me the “opportunity” to meet Santa at a shopping mall somewhere on Long Island. I sized up the situation from a distance, planted my feet, and said, “Nuh-ugh.” A Christmas Story is surely my favorite holiday movie (absolutely love it), and they handled this particular life passage — the visit with Santa — to perfection. But then again, I think that whole movie is genius.

Here’s the book, and here’s my original post (with different photos) about the book from last holiday season.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #172: Leal Writes from Istanbul!

Dear James Preller,

My name is Leal. I’m 10 years old and I go to ______ School in Istanbul in Turkey.

This year for our semester project, I read one of your books. It was “The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur.” I enjoyed the book a lot and the ending was full of surprises. My favourite characters are Mila, Jigsaw and their close friends. I didn’t like Bobby because he is dishonest and sly. I’m planning to read “The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster” and “The Case of the Christmas Snowman” too.

Thank you for writing these lovely and heartwarming books.

Have a nice week,


I replied:


Thanks for writing. I’m so glad that you found my book, JIGSAW JONES #17: THE CASE OF THE DISAPPEARING . . .

Hey, wait a minute.

Did you say . . . Istanbul?

In Turkey?

Are you sure you didn’t mean, Istanbul, Pennsylvania?

That’s so cool.

I get a lot of letters from New Jersey — and Jersey is fine, truly — but Istanbul!


I love my Jigsaw Jones books. I try to fill each mystery with little twists and turns, so I’m glad that you found the story was full of surprises.

When I wrote it, way back in 2002, my son Nick was getting into magic tricks. That’s where I got the idea for the story, I guess — a magic trick that goes wrong.

Leafing through the book, I noticed a moment when Jigsaw actually uses a pay phone. Yikes! I guess the world has changed.

I am currently writing a new series for readers your age. Readers, that is, who like scary stories. It’s called “Scary Tales.” Each book is a new story, with completely new characters and settings. Three books are out so far: HOME SWEET HORROR; I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM; and (my favorite), GOOD NIGHT ZOMBIE. The next one will be called NIGHTMARELAND — a boy gets sucked into a video game and his sister, who doesn’t even like video games, is the only one who can help him escape. Together, they have to beat the game.

Thanks for your kind letter.

I hope you have a good week, too!


RE-POST: Pretty Lights on the Tree, I’m Watching Them Shine

Sometimes you can hear a song a hundred times and on a random afternoon it will hit you in a new way. Whap, right upside the head. As a huge Bob Dylan fan, that happens to me frequently, where I’ll suddenly appreciate, say, Dylan’s piano technique on “Blind Willie McTell” — and need to hear that song every day for weeks.

That happened to me recently with “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector.

Specifically, these simple lines:

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me

Those lines have all the qualities of a successful haiku except for the syllable count — that attention to concrete detail, the lean clear prose (no purple or wasted words), and a darting movement from exterior, objective reality to an interior emotional state, where “outside” and “inside” become linked through juxtaposition.

I admire lines that can be as unadorned as, “Pretty lights on the tree/I’m watching them shine.” I love how that straight description conveys an inner depth (I’ve talked about that quality before, most recently here). I think it’s difficult to pull off, using simple words, yet evoking a depth of feeling that lies somewhere below language.

“You should be here with me.”

And, absolutely, it’s Darlene Love’s vocal performance that puts it over the top.

A lot of people have done this song, with mixed results: U2, Death Cab for Cutie, Mariah Carey, John Martyn, Hanson, Bruce Springsteen, etc. But nobody, but nobody, touches Darlene Love’s version, produced by Phil Spector on this 1963 LP: “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.”

On this essential disk, Spector lends his signature “Wall of Sound” treatment to a number of secular holiday tunes, enlisting the vocal talents of the Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and Darlene Love. A few years back, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #142 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time — not bad for a holiday album.

Here’s Darlene Love on a 2012 visit to “Letterman” — just a stunning version, given the full arrangement it so richly deserves. Violins and cellos, nine backup singers, a horn section, random percussionists pounding on the kitchen sink, and . . . snow!

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

The snow’s coming down
I’m watching it fall
Lots of people around
Baby please come home

The church bells in town
All singing in song
Full of happy sounds
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home

Here’s Bono and the gang giving it a go:

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In this recent cover by Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard eliminates the celebratory element that has crept into recent versions, to capture the sadness and longing that is at the song’s (true, I think) core.

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

EINSTEIN: The World Is a Dangerous Place . . .

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #171: Ten Questions and Answers (Mostly About My Book, BYSTANDER)

Okay, I’m reaching my arm deep into the giant barrel of letters I keep here in my office . . . I’m swirling my hand around . . . and what’s this? . . . an email from Virginia!
How’d that get in here?
Thanks so much for coming to our school today. The students were very excited, and as an English Teacher let me personally thank you for writing a book (BYSTANDER) that interested 7th graders. Many a day, the students wanted to continue past the points I stopped to know what was coming next. All students were able to participate in discussions. On that note, my students had some questions I’m hoping you can answer when you have a moment. Thanks again.
1. When was your first book published and how old were you?
2. How long did SIX INNINGS take to write?
3. What had been your favorite book and why?
4. Is there going to be a movie for BYSTANDER?
5. What advice would you give to young writers?
6. What made you decide to be an author?
7. How long did BYSTANDER take to write?
8. Was Eric’s dad really in the crowd at the end or was that wishful thinking?
9. What is the premise of your next book?
10. Who was Eric based upon?
I replied:
1. I published my first book in 1986. I was 25 years old. It was titled MAXX TRAX: AVALANCHE RESCUE! It sold more than one million copies. I signed a bad, flat-fee contract and earned only $3,000 from the book. No royalties. I’m not bitter! That was 27 years ago. Water under the bridge. I’ve forgotten all about it! Really!!!
2. Hard to remember, but probably about 3 months to reach a finished first draft. Revision was tough on that one, because I had to cut 10,000 words. I guess I wandered down a lot of side paths and needed to get back on the main road, or what I think of as the “through-line” in the narrative. The early draft had too many digressions, I needed to stick closer to the game.
3. I never think in terms of favorites, but I really do love the character of Jigsaw Jones.
4. There are no plans for a movie, but — ca-ching! — that sure would be awesome.
5. Writers come in all shapes and sizes. Everybody has stories that no one else can tell. You need to read a lot — and read, at times, slowly, critically, with the mind of a writer. Rather than getting totally caught up in the story, try to become aware of the writer behind the words, the choices, the decisions, the words and their effects. Also, obviously: Spend time writing.
6. The dream took shape in college. Growing up, I wasn’t one of those kids who loved going to library.
7. I researched BYSTANDER for a couple of months, visiting schools, talking to experts, reading widely. The writing, which took four months, grew out of that.
8. That’s wishful thinking. Look at the words on the page. “All the while quietly hoping — in that place of the heart where words sputter and dissolve, were secret dreams are born and scarcely admitted . . .”
9. The book I’m writing now returns to some of the themes in BYSTANDER, but is sympathetic to “the bully.” For me, I don’t like to label young people as any one thing, especially as a “bully.” Bullying is a behavior, not a thing. It can’t possibly define a person. I’m looking at it from that perspective.
10. Eric is not based on anyone in particular. I see him as witness, observer. He’s new in town, so the reader meets the characters in school at the same time as Eric.
Thanks, I loved visiting Virginia and I hope to make it back again someday soon. I didn’t get to eat in every restaurant in Richmond on the last trip.