Archive for December 21, 2015

Cookies, Carols, Movies, Santa, Jigsaw Jones, and Holiday Greetings



Well, we’re getting to that time of year again, when I accept the challenge and attempt to prove that man can live by cookies alone.


Also, for our family, there’s Christmas and all the good that comes with it. Yes, the songs, the songs, the songs. I’ve long collected “cool yule” tracks and dutifully compile new playlists every holiday season. This year’s favorite, among so many strong contenders, is Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family.”

Of course, I love the movies, too. Elf, the Grinch, Charlie Brown, A Christmas Story (my favorite), Rudolph, and Die Hard.

Because . . .



Even so, a writer still has to make a living. And believe me, I’m still typing!

51poJdDWQNL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery, I gave Jigsaw the toughest case of his career — Sally Ann Simms wants proof that there’s a Santa Claus. And I gave myself a tough assignment, too. I attempted to write a truly heartfelt, entertaining Christmas story with soul, soul, soul. It’s out of print now, like all books Jigsaw, and honestly I’m not sure anyone noticed at the time, but I still like book a lot. It captures a fleeting something of holiday spirit. Who knows? Maybe it’ll come around again.


Here’s a quick moment that still makes me smile, ten years later:



Scan 1



Happy holidays, one and all!

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #220: “If You Don’t Like It, Write Better”



While — sure! of course! — I always enjoy receiving a big, old, 8 1/2″ x 11″ envelope filled with student letters, I admit to mixed feelings. Yes, I’m grateful and honored. Yet I can’t help but recognize that this was the product of an assignment. Some letters can seem rote, and I get it. However, I recently received a particularly wonderful batch, 23 letters in all, filled with insights & curiosity & ridiculously kind words. Here’s the teacher’s cover letter and my response to the class . . .

Scan 4



I replied at length:

Dear Ms. Becker & Students,

Thank you for that impressive package of letters. I’ve received similar packages before, but yours was particularly outstanding for the overall quality of the letters. They struck me as authentic, rather than, say, written by a bored kid going through the motions.

And, hey, if you were a bored kid going through the motions, good job, you sure fooled me!

I’m sorry to say that I simply don’t have the time to respond to your letters in the manner that you deserve. I apologize for my one-size-fits-all reply.

Several of you asked about a sequel, and I didn’t plan on one while writing the book. I was satisfied with the ending, leaving the future for these characters up to the reader. People ask what happens to them –- and that’s a nice compliment to give a writer – but the honest answer is that I don’t know. Or more to the point, I never got around to making up those stories. Books have to end somewhere, or else I’d be writing about Mary’s grandchildren.

Even so, I remained interested in the perspective of the so-called bully. That’s why I wrote THE FALL, which I see as a companion to BYSTANDER. Along the lines of, “If you liked BYSTANDER, you might also like . . .”


Jessica asked if anyone helped me with the story: Yes, my editor, Liz Szabla, was particularly important with this book. Mostly her help was in the form of conversations. We talked about the ideas, our own experiences, things we’ve seen and felt. She didn’t really inject herself into the writing of the book -– she left that up to me – but she was a great sounding board. In life, it’s essential to have that person who says to you, “I believe in you. Go for it.” For this book, for me, that person was Liz.

Philip asked if I have “a secondary job in case book writing fall through.” That kind of made me laugh, while giving me a minor heart attack. Do you know something I don’t know? Philip even included a bonus scene, where I could glimpse a future adventure for Eric. I liked it; nice work. BTW, Philip, to answer your question: No, I don’t. And some days it scares me silly. No kidding.

Some asked about Eric’s father and how he might figure in the book’s ending, or, I should say, an alternative ending for the book. If you go to my blog and search, “My Brother John . . . in BYSTANDER,” you’ll get the background story about Eric’s father. It’s not a tale with a happy ending, I’m sorry to say.

Many of you said really, really kind things to me. I want you to know that I appreciate your kindness. In particular, Alyssa, thank you! Paige and Grace and Katelyn and Toby, you guys, too. The truth is, this can be a hard business sometimes. It’s not easy to make a living. It’s not easy to be rejected, or suffer poor sales, or watch a good book go out of print. I am often filled with doubts and uncertainties. There are times, especially recently, when I feel like a failure. Lately I’ve been thinking of myself as “moderately talented.” Nothing great, you know? Oh well. But this is what I do, what I love, and I have to keep working at it. I have a Post-It note on my computer that reads: “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, WRITE BETTER.” That’s what I’m trying to do.

My current mantra.

My current mantra.

I just wrote a book about a father and a son traveling along the Lewis & Clark trail. It’s a genre-bending blend of nonfiction and fiction, a story of family, a wilderness adventure –- whitewater rapids, an encounter with a bear –- and, I hope, a quest for the real America. The book, titled THE COURAGE TEST, should be out in 2016. After that, I wrote a pretty wild story that’s set in the not-too-distant future. And, yes, there are zombies in it –- but it’s not their fault! I’m also trying to write haikus, making a small study of them, because I’ve got the seed of an idea. They are not as easy as they look!

The next idea is always the flame that burns the brightest, that keeps creative people moving forward -– making paintings, performing in plays, practicing the guitar, telling stories. We all have to find the thing that makes us happy. And if you are lucky enough to find it, then hold on tight.

Thank you –- each one of you – but I’ve got to get to work! I’m sorry again for not writing to you individually. Thanks for understanding.

James Preller


Fan Mail Wednesday #219: Childhood Toys & the Next Book


Look here, it’s a letter from Sander!


I replied:

Dear Sander,

Thanks so much for your letter. Thanks, also, for including a Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope, otherwise known as a SASE. Since you are a detective, I wonder if you can figure out why they call it a “SASE”?

Any ideas?

I’ll wait.

Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dee.

Anyway, I am glad to hear from a detective. I’m always looking for new ideas. Have you solved many mysteries?

Growing up, I was the youngest of seven children. Check it out:

Here's the seven Preller children in 1966. I'm the short one in the middle, surrounded by GIANTS!

Here’s the seven Preller children in 1966. I’m the short one in the middle, surrounded by GIANTS!

While I was not a detective like you, I was a spy. I fondly remember a particular toy I had — it was a periscope that extended way out — which allowed me to peer around corners to spy on my family. I loved sneaking around in my socks (better for silent creeping). It was like being invisible! But before you try it yourself, let me warn you: It’s dangerous work. Don’t get caught.

Hey, Sander: I gave a version of my childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. He uses it to solve a mystery in THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT. Cool, right?

I even gave a version of my childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. He uses it to solve a mystery in THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT. Cool, right?

I like your wish. No one has ever expressed that to me before. You must be an original thinker. That means you think of things that nobody else in the world has ever thought. Amazing. I’m very impressed. You have a good mind. It must be all that reading!

I have not written a Jigsaw Jones book in the past six years. However, I have happy news. I am writing a new one right now! I mean, I’ll be writing it after I finish writing to you. I wish I could tell you more about the story, but to be honest, it’s still a mystery to me. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. The book won’t be out until the year 2017. I expect you’ll be shaving by then.

Good luck with your detective work. Life is a mystery — we sure do need more good detectives around to help us figure it out.

My best to you, and happy holidays!

James Preller 



“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

I’m sharing this poem because it came to me at a time when I really needed it. Maybe you feel the same way. Have a great weekend.


Remembering Vera Williams: Artist, Activist, Inspiration



Vera Williams passed away at age 88 on October 16, 2015. I wanted to make note of it beyond a quick comment on Facebook, but her death came at an inconvenient time for me — though, I’m sure, it wasn’t the best timing for Vera, either. I can type that glib phrase because I’m confident that she would have agreed, and laughed out loud. Vera laughed a lot.

We never met in person, though of course I read and admired many of her books, most particularly “More, More, More,” Said the Baby, which I adore. It’s one of those rare things, a nearly perfect book about something as simple and profound as love. I had the pleasure of interviewing Vera over the phone, back in 1990. We chatted for an hour or so. She was lovely and warm and generous and completely genuine, just as anyone who had encountered her books would imagine.

21Williams-Obit1-SUB-blog427She was also, I learned, deeply political. No one had to scold Vera Williams about the importance of diversity or any such thing. Her politics were personal, and she recognized that the personal — as well as the creative — was always political. We are talking about values, really. The things that are important. Vera actively cared about the world and the children who inhabited it. She marched, she protested, she stood up for things. It’s on every page in every single book. For me, as someone who often looks around at this world in heartache and dismay, and who also writes for children, I find myself increasingly searching for appropriate ways to express those values in my own life and work. Vera, I think, helped show the way. You just go ahead and do it, as natural as breathing, come what may.

She will be missed.


Below, here’s my two-page write-up as it was published in my book, the clumsily titled, The Big Book of Picture-book Authors & Illustrators. Like so many of my books, it’s long out of print, but I often spy it in tattered condition on school bookshelves during visits. I’ve been lucky enough to interview folks like Tedd Arnold, Molly Bang, Aliki Brandenberg, Norman Bridwell, Ashley Bryan, Eve Bunting, Barbara Cooney, Donald Crews, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, James Marshall, Barbara Park, Jerry Pinkney, Patricia Polacco, Faith Ringgold, Lane Smith, Peter Spier, Bernard Waber, Charlotte Zolotow, and many, many more. It’s sad to think how many of them are gone. Vera Williams was one of the best.

I will remember her with fondness and respect, forever grateful for the books she left behind.

Vera 1

Vera 2