Archive for June 30, 2014

Stephen King, Scary Stories, and Me

This comic made me laugh and shake my head in recognition.


To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that I belong in the same sentence as Stephen King, the master, but I can identify with the perils of writing “scary” stories.

In my experience, it’s not the kids fleeing the room. I know for a fact that, generally speaking, there’s a huge readership out there for scary tales. I’ve stood before too many groups of excited students, from California to Michigan, Texas to New Jersey, Virginia to Connecticut (just this year) to have any doubts about the appeal of those stories. The big obstacle is the gatekeepers, the teachers and parents, people worried about what a scary story might do to a young reader — or, even worse, the worry about the potential backlash, the complaining parent. That’s the worst form of censorship in today’s world, I think, how the fear of parental complaint prevents some books from entering classrooms.

In the meantime, today I finished writing the first draft of Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster. It was fun for me to invent new characters — twin brothers and a lively neighbor, Rosalee Serena Ruiz — and set that story near a polluted swamp somewhere in East Texas. New stuff for me, new challenges. I can’t wait to see what the illustrator, Iacopo Bruno, does with this one.

Thank You, Arizona Library Association!

Good News! I received an email from Kerrlita Westrick and Shirley Berow, co-chairs of the Grand Canyon Reader Award, organized by the Arizona Library Association. Instead of telling you about it, you can read the important bits for yourself:

Dear Mr. Preller,

It is out pleasure to inform you that your book, Justin Fisher Declares War, has been nominated for the Intermediate Book category of the 2015 Grand Canyon Reader Award! Congratulations!

The Grand Canyon Reader Award is a children’s choice award with approximately 45,000 Arizona students voting each year. Your book, along with nine other tiles, will be read by teachers, librarians, and students all over Arizona and voted upon by April 1, 2015.

Well, that felt good.

Justin FisherAs a writer, all I’ve ever wanted was to be read and, hopefully, acclaimed to some extent. Approved of. Valued. Appreciated. I dream that at least some fraction of the reading public will say, in essence, “Hey, you did good.”

Making it on these state lists is so important to keep a book in circulation. So, absolutely, a heartfelt thanks from me. Much appreciated. When I look at the other titles on the list, well, it’s just crazy. Not expecting to win, that’s for sure.

Though it’s been well-reviewed, and sometimes even praised, Justin Fisher has been pretty much ignored by the purchasing public (not to mention my own publisher). A paperback edition has never been made available in stores.

Justin Fisher was conceived as part of a series of school-based stories, including Along Came Spider, which was honored by the NYPL back in 2008. Both books share characters and the same setting, Spiro Agnew Elementary.

UnknownHere’s a nice review of Justin from a 5th-grade teacher, Franki Sibberson, who called it “One of my go-to funny books for boys.”

From the first  moment I saw these covers, I thought: “Uh-oh.” I expressed my worries to my editor, that they didn’t at all convey the stories were school based, but was told that the decision had already been made. End of discussion. Oh well. Everybody does their best, I guess.

To help the humor come out, I had really, really wanted the books to be illustrated, ala “Wimpy Kid,” but that was not in the cards either. But most wonderfully, a group of students from Pennsylvania sent me their own illustrations a couple of years back. I love student artwork. Here’s some highlights:




Now I can only hope for an invitation to visit school in Arizona.

February is wide open! Brrrrr.

Writing Process, from “Notes” to Final, plus a Brief Excerpt from NIGHTMARELAND

images-2I didn’t want to get an iPhone, but now I’m fighting an addiction. One feature that I use, in the absence of pen and paper, is the “Notes” function. Perhaps because of the inherent limitations of typing into a phone, any notes I input tend to be condensed, telegraphic, coded, and therefore borderline poetic. At least, sharing some of the qualities of poetry.

In the example below, I was thinking of a scene I had to write in Scary Tales #4: Nightmareland and I came up with a plot idea: He would write a message in the snow.

nightmareland_cvr_lorezMore background: The main character, Aaron, is trapped inside a video game. He is outside in the snow, hunted by a pack of wolves. It is very cold, a very dangerous situation. At the same time, his sister has just discovered his frozen body on the living room couch. She turns to the television screen and lo, there he is, inside the game.

Here are the exact notes I wrote to myself, followed by the scene I actually got around to writing and publishing.


< notes >

Moon falling into snow

Branches stars hands curled

Tight the cold air solid

In his chest winter

Pressing into his skull

Clouds form

From his mouth

He thought of Carrie

His sister his only


But how but how

And he knew

To reach her

He wrote in the snow

I’ve always liked that technique in poetry, by the way, the line rolling over into the next one, for example: “Branches stars hands curled/Tight . . .” Or, say, “His sister his only/Hope.”

I don’t think I was consciously “writing” at that point. Closer to scribbling. There were images, concepts I needed to get down so that later on I could recall them, write them out properly. So in that sense, the outline, if you will, was really just a bunch of trigger words. Seeds. Starting points. It was sort of interesting, though, how upon re-discovering these notes today I couldn’t help but appreciate the poetry in them, those jotted words clumsily & hastily thumbed.

Here’s how it went in the book, where really the only idea that survived in this section — outside of some of the mood I needed to capture, “moon falling into snow,” — was that he would write a message in the snow, drag his boot through it, to reach that someone who (he somehow sensed) was watching on the television set.

The rest is all iceberg theory. That 90% of what we write remains unseen, hidden beneath the surface.

Got it?

From pp. 43-44, “Nightmareland”:

Aaron inspected the torch. It was burning down, dropping gray ash. The flame wouldn’t last much longer. The wolves were patient. They sat on their haunches, biding time. The biggest wolf — the black one with the scar — lay down in the snow. The others in the pack followed suit.

The wolves were willing to wait for their next meal. 

Aaron was surrounded on all sides. Behind him loomed the great, iron fence.

He was trapped.

The flame began to sputter, like a candle in the wind.

Again he felt it, a presence.

Someone was watching him. He felt like a character in a movie. And he sensed something else: Whoever was watching Aaron, he or she was rooting for him.

He was not alone after all.

It gave him an idea. Acting quickly, Aaron dragged a heel across the snow. Up, across, down. Up, across, across, across . . . 


Fan Mail Wednesday #182: A Jigsaw Jones Fan from Canada


A tough time of year for fan mail, since I’m trying to respond before the school year ends. Oh well, I can only do my best. Here’s one that came from Canada — and included original art.

Fan 182

fan 182 letter


I replied:

Dear Shane:

Thank you for your kind letter. I’m glad that you enjoyed the first book in the “Jigsaw Jones” series. I wrote 40 of them. (Crazy, I know.) But don’t worry, you don’t have to read them in order. Or any of them, for that matter.

When I searched "marshmallow monster" on my computer, I found this. Yipes! It has nothing to do with my book. I don't think I'll ever eat a marshmallow again.

When I searched “marshmallow monster” on my computer, I found this. Yipes! It has nothing to do with my book. I don’t think I’ll ever eat a marshmallow again.

The books are getting hard to find these days –- they like to hide in dark places, like hamsters -– but it sounds to me like your teacher has several in your classroom. Be sure to thank her for me.

Also, libraries are great places, don’t you think? I recommend that you go to the library often this summer. All those beautiful books and fabulous air conditioning!

I love that you included an illustration with your letter. What a nice bonus!

Have a terrific, fun-filled, book-filled summer.

My best,

James Preller


P.S. If you like scary stories, you might want to check out my “Scary Tales” series. There are four books out so far. You might want to wait a year or two, it depends on how you feel about spooky things. Maybe you should only read them during the day?

SCARY TALES #4: “Nightmareland” — Now Available Where Fine Books Are Sold!

Happy to remind you that this book was published on Tuesday and is now available. This is a story that came directly from suggestions from students on class visits — a basic idea I heard over and over again. Welcome to Nightmareland. Where you’ll meet Aaron, Addy, and Freddy the pizza guy.



I published my first book almost 30 years ago, in 1986. By now, most of them have gone out of print. That’s the way it goes, I guess. Especially with my old publisher, Scholastic, where they recently let every book I’ve done with them go out of print, including beloved titles that sold more than a million copies each, such as WAKE ME IN SPRING, HICCUPS FOR ELEPHANT, and the entire “Jigsaw Jones” series.

Just, poof, gone.

(Note: You can still find the books, for now, but it’s not easy.)

So much for immortality. It’s a tough business, not for the meek or, I’ve learned, the idealistic. It’s hard not to feel discouraged by it all, as I do.

But you keep writing, because that’s all you know, and you keep trying to do the best work possible. Let that be the best revenge. And you hope that maybe it adds up to something the end.

Fortunately, my books with Macmillan are almost all still available (except for Mighty Casey, which never sold).

In addition, I have regained the rights to many of those out-of-print titles, including the entire 40-book Jigsaw Jones series, so I’m holding out the faint hope that another publisher might wish to revive ’em. I would love to write a new Jigsaw Jones book someday.

Though there are days when I feel like guy . . .