Archive for May 29, 2015

School Visit: Messages on the Wall


When I visit schools — which is often, and always gratefully — if time allows we’ll arrange for me to enjoy lunch with an intimate group of students. It’s always relaxed and informal, just talking, hanging out together, trading desserts. In some groups the conversation turns to literary concerns, but more often we just sort of chat, talk about ourselves, and try to crack each other up. I like it because, finally, it’s not strictly about me, me, me. My power point, my dumb books. These visits become more about them, and the truth is that I’m probably more comfortable that way. I’m surely more entertained.

Anyway, there was a white board in the room earlier in the week. Toward the end, as the principal was trying to pry the students away, a few of them wandered over to the board to write brief messages. I snapped a photo of these two, just to share with you, My Mighty Nation of Readers!

Sweet, huh?



Sophie, you are welcome, the pleasure was all mine.

And Elizabeth, I’m not offended at all. There’s so many great books out there, I’m just glad you picked one of mine.


Fan Mail Wednesday #209: “I HATED reading (until now).”






Dear James,

HI! I’m Sara M. I’m a fifth grader in KY. I’ve recently taken a liking to your books, (meaning I read three of them all in one day this weekend.

Long story short, I HATED reading (until now.)

We just had our school, Barnes & Noble, book fair. I was looking around for some scary stories (because that’s my favorite genre.) I stumbled upon your first book. I read the first 3 pages and I was hooked. BLOODY MARY    BLOODY MARY    BLOODY MARY.  I bought it. I took it home that night and read it. I LOVED IT SO MUCH! So, I immediately got hooked on your Scary Tales series.

I then became obsessed with finding the other books in your series. On Saturday, my dad took me to the library. We found three of your books. The next day at school I started reading them. I read all three of them in one day.I want to encourage you to write a thousand more books 😉

Please write back if you get the chance. Also, if you write back, please list all of the Scary Tales books you have OUT right now and one that you are currently in THE MAKING of.

Looking on library pages to find more of your books,

your #1 fan,


I replied:

Dear Sara,

Thank you. That’s just about the most wonderful letter a writer can possibly receive. I’m so glad that you found books to love. Goodness knows there are so many great ones out there, it was just a matter of finding the right match. I hope you don’t think it was me, James Preller, because it’s not. I’m just a guy. The powerful thing is reading itself, and books, and worlds opening up before your eyes — that awesome feeling you get when you make that connection.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER.

I’m proud of you for sticking with it. Also — and this is important, Sara, so listen up — I hope that you are grateful to your father who took time on a busy Saturday to bring you to the library for more books. Not everybody has a parent who would do that, so consider yourself lucky. I guess he wants to see as a reader, too. (Your local librarian did a nice job too, since not everybody is hip to my relatively new “Scary Tales” series.)

There are currently five “Scary Tales” books in print, and a sixth one coming out in early July: Home Sweet Horror; I Scream, You Scream; Good Night, Zombie; Nightmareland, One-Eyed Doll; and Swamp Monster.

I published my first book in 1986, and have written a wide assortment of books since. With this series, I tried to write the most exciting, OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezthrilling, suspenseful, unputdownable stories that I possibly could. Fast paced, easy to read, filled with twists and turns and incredible illustrations (by the great Iacopo Bruno).

Thanks for your sweet letter. I love your enthusiasm. Keep it up this summer. Just remember that one good book leads to another, and another, and another. Talk to your librarian. I’m sure that he or she will have  recommendations for you in the scary book department. In the meantime, if you want to check out other books of mine, you might like Bystander or, coming this September, The Fall. I have my fingers crossed on that last one; very excited about it!

My best,

James Preller

Setting, Character, Plot: A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse into SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER


One mission of this blog is to pull back the curtain to share, cough-cough, some insight into my writing process. So I thought I’d gather up some images and talk about the making of my upcoming book in the “Scary Tales” series, Swamp Monster (Macmillan, July 7, 2015).


Curiously, any description of “how” a book is written is as much “story” as the book itself. And by that I mean, of dubious veracity. Who can accurately recount where ideas come from? And in what order? Like writing the book itself, any description of origins mostly feels like I’m making it up as I go along.

But anyway!

Swamp Monster is the 6th book in the series. Each story is different, a new setting with new characters, yet each one promises a “Scary Tales” experience. What attracted me to this over-arching structure, inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” TV series, was the width of possibility. The stories could be quite different, not at all narrow or typical. After writing a few that were quite conceptual — I Scream, You Scream and Nightmareland, in particular — I settled on simpler, more traditional thrills in the most recent stories: The One-Eyed Doll and Swamp Monster.

That is, I began by thinking about the scary thing.

Somehow the idea of a Swamp Monster appealed to me. In no small part because of the setting. A swamp! As I was largely unfamiliar with swamp life in particular, I had to do some research. I read about the fauna and flora of typical swamps, and soon settled in my mind that this story could take place somewhere in Southeast Texas. I found and saved random images that fed my imagination, such as these:

lrg_bald_cypress_swampSpanish Moss




Okay, so that felt pretty creepy to me. To up the ick factor, and to help explain the mutant monster, I opted for the toxic swamp gambit. The book begins:

The Dirge Chemical Plant had been dumping toxic sludge into the swamp for the past twenty-five years.

A few paragraphs down:

DRIP, DROP, SLURK. It leaked into the streams and waterways, into ponds and lakes. Poison soaked into the ground.

What about the creatures of that environment? The fish and birds and snakes and gators? The animals that drank the water daily? That swam amidst the burbling toxins? Well, most died off. But some adapted. Mutated. Learned how to feed off the toxic waste. Those creatures grew stronger, bigger, tougher.

More dangerous, too.

The pollution was the worst out on the Dead River, which ebbed into Dismal Swamp like a last, dying gasp. Hardly anybody lived out there. Nobody important. Some poor folks, mostly. And that’s where our story begins — with two boys, Lance and Chance LaRue. On this day, they were knee-deep in the foul, nasty water, swiping at mosquitoes, searching for frogs.

That was their first mistake.

Before the plot kicks into full gear, I introduce readers to the twins. Describe them and swiftly set them on the path to danger.

Character meets Setting:

The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches — no jelly to be found at home — the boys felt strong and adventurous. They went deeper into the woods than usual. The trees thickened around them, with names like black willow and water hickory. Long limbs hung low. Spanish moss dangled from the branches like exotic drapes. Snakes slithered. Water rats lay still and watched though small, red eyes. Once in a while, a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.


My original idea was basic. I was particularly intent for this story to create a strong plot-line running through the book. A direct plot like an engine on a track, no meanderings. So the boys find an egg and bring it home. Plot begins in earnest.  I soon realized that the egg would not be enough. Sure, it would hatch and Lance and Chance would discover that they were soon proud parents of a little monster.


But where was the horror in that?

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watchful in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.

That night, the boys are awakened to sound of tap-tap-tapping from inside the egg. They watch in awe as the creature hatches.

“That ain’t no turtle,” Chance said.

“Nope,” Lance agreed. “Look at those claws, those teeth. I’ve never seen nothing like it before. What do you think it is, Chance?”

“I sure don’t know,” the oldest boy replied. “But I’ll tell you what. I don’t ever want to meet the chicken that laid that egg.”

At that moment, the newborn raised itself to full height, about six inches. With an angry hiss, the creature opened its mouth wide like a boa. A blood-red neck frill rattled open. SPLAT, SPLATTER! The creature spat black gobs of goo against the side of the pail.

“Whoa, it’s a monster,” Lance whispered in a soft, appreciative voice. “Our very own swamp monster.”

And with those words, the two boys stared at each other . . . and high-fived.

At this point, I introduce a new character to thicken the broth, and we meet the spectacular Rosalee Serena Ruiz.

If someone had to discover their secret, Rosalee was the best person for it. She could spit farther, burp louder, run faster, and snap thick branches across her knee. Rosalee was a girl all right, but the boys didn’t mind. In fact, they barely noticed.

I had decided by this point, actually before this point, that my little monster was not enough. Cool, but not quite terrifying.


I needed something more. An angry mother. So Rosalee prods the boys back into the deep swamp — she wants an egg of her own — and that’s how the mother catches their scent. She hides in the water.

To my surprise, I wrote scenes from her perspective.

With a subtle movement, she glides through the black water like a hawk riding the currents of the wind.

A thought troubled her mind.

Others were out there . . . Others had come to her home, her alone-place. She had sensed them, smelled them.

So she hid, as she always did.

She moved in the safe dark, the cool dark, and she grieved again for the egg that was gone. The child she never knew. That was her loss. And then, slowly, painfully — like a cloud that gathers itself in the stormy sky — a new question formed in her skull.

Was the egg stolen?

Had it been taken . . . by the Others?

Those faces in the woods?

She had glimpsed them.

Their ugly, round eyes.

Their skin like smooth stones.

Little monsters.

New feelings began to stir inside the heart of the swamp creature.

Feelings of anger, of rage and revenge.

Her eyes opened, yellow in the black water.

Squilch, squilch, squilch.

Under cover of darkness, she follows them home.


An image came to me. The monster, wet and awkward on land, arriving at the LaRue’s house on the edge of Dismal Swamp.

Of the door opening, of her entering.

“Upstairs, quick!” Chance ordered. He grabbed the knife off the table.

The boys bounded up the stairs in threes. By the time they reached the landing — BOOM! CRUNCH! — the front door flew open, knocked off its hinges.

The swamp monster stepped into the house.

I can’t give away any more story here. You’ll have to read the book to find out the rest.

Illustrations by Iacopo Bruno, taken from the book SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER, due in stores on July 7th.


This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever: Brush the Cat’s Teeth!


Thank you, interwebs! And hat tip to my pal, the brilliant Jen Sattler, who tirelessly hunts this stuff down to bring it to the attention-deficit masses.

As it happens, tooth-brushing has figured large in my ouvre.

There’s this, from Wake Me In Spring:

Illustration by Jeffrey Scherer.

Illustration by Jeffrey Scherer.


And this, from A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade:

Illustration by Greg Ruth.

Illustration by Greg Ruth.


Yikes, I feel a trilogy coming on.

So, yes, obviously, I have some dental issues. Carry on!