Archive for January 27, 2016

Two Quick Cartoons on “The Writing Life.”

I recently came across these two comics and they made me, well, not LOL, but I believe that I chuckled inwardly, silently. My funny bone was tickled.

I didn’t make a big show of it.

Remember back in the early days of the interwebs when people used to type ROTFLMHO (or other body parts)? That drove me insane, because I would immediately envision it. A person actually rolling on the floor — the dirty floor! — rolling! — and laughing like a lunatic. Hahahahahaha. And rolling.

Who does that?

Yet I’d read it multiple times a day. Fortunately, those dark days of the interwebs are gone.

Wait, where was I?

Oh, yes, this, taken directly from my life:


And this:




Thank you, Peanuts, and thank you, Simpsons. Charles and Matt, two masters.

Carry on, writers!

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #224: Still No Snow, Etc.

As we learned from Susan on Seinfeld, licking envelopes is a dangerous business.

As we learned from Susan on Seinfeld, licking envelopes is a dangerous business.


Just answered a big batch of letters about Bystander.

I replied:

Dear _______:

Here I am, another Saturday. I’m reading reports of snow all over the Northeast, and outside my window: nothing. Not a flake. It’s almost a bummer. Almost.

I’ve got a big pile of 25 letters from Elma, NY, including one from you. This feels a little like déjà vu. It is impossible for me to respond to each letter individually. It would also be dreadfully boring, since many contain similar questions. You all read BYSTANDER. So I’m sending out this single letter, one size fits all!

Proof: The letters on my office floor.

Proof: The letters on my office floor.

BTW: I can’t stand licking all these envelopes. Gross. I feel like I might die, like George’s fiancé on “Seinfeld.”

Anyway: Juliana wondered why Griffin would ditch his old crew. My intention was to show the reverse, that his friends had grown tired of Griffin’s petty cruelties; it wasn’t cool anymore. Research shows that bullying peaks in middle school, and quiets down after that. Partly I think that’s because people wise up. After the conformity of middle school, everyone trying to fit in, dressing alike, a lot of people realize that it’s okay to be themselves. Anyway, that was my thinking about Griffin moving on to new friends. He was forced to, since many of his old friends had drifted away. Remember, Griffin is not without charm. He’s smart, clever, good-looking, charismatic. Attracting new friends isn’t the hard part. The real trick is in keeping them.

Valerie asked about the inspiration for different characters. Most of them were composites -– that is, bits and pieces from real people, things I read, etc. Real people were the starting points for David, and Griffin’s father, as well as Eric’s father, who is based lightly on my brother John, who also suffered from schizophrenia.

Jessica asked for a signature, but was kind enough to add: “If not, that’s totally O.K.” Loved that!

Many asked about a sequel. THE FALL is not exactly that, it’s more of a companion book, but it should appeal to readers who enjoyed BYSTANDER. I hope! My next book coming out is called THE COURAGE TEST (October), about a father and son who travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail. I’m very excited about it. There’s a brief excerpt on my blog.

The new paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

The new paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

Braden complimented me with an astute observation. He liked that I “did not rush to get the story over with.” Yes, Braden, thanks for noticing. It took me years to learn that skill, a common mistake in young writers. I try to recall the idea of “downshifting,” slowing down, allowing the moment to exist in full. A lot of writers just want to type “THE END.” And I get that, I do. My editor helps me, too; she’ll say, “Pause a beat. Slow down.”

Jenna says: “School ends in June so please write back if you can!” Yes, booyah, I just nailed another deadline!

Mikayla was interested in my family. I’m the youngest of seven children. I have a lot of information at my blog, Check it out 

Jacob’s favorite part of the book was when Eric got beat up. Guess what? It was my favorite part to write! I’d never done that before in a book. I also set that scene at a real place by my old high school in Wantagh, NY. Yes, President Nixon’s dog, Checkers, really was buried by my school.

Lily, that last scene is Eric’s wish, his heart’s desire, the reunion with his father that he longed for. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t.

Ethan, no worries, I wasn’t bullied in school. Classic bystander type. But I remember everything.

Alessandro, I would love to travel more, after I get my kids through college. So many places to see, other countries, but also love to see more of America. I really want to go on a river trip by the White Cliffs in Montana. (I recently got obsessed with Lewis & Clark.)

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail, a road trip that offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail, a road trip that offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.

Aubrey writes: “My favorite character would have to be Mary because she basically changes throughout the whole book.” Yes, yes, yes! Mary may be a minor character, but she is critical and possibly the book’s true hero. She’s key, for exactly the reason you stated. Brilliant, Aubrey!

For those of you I haven’t mentioned: Riley, Ryan, Lauren, Melanie, Ada, Owen, Daniele, Brandon, Mary, Ethan, Cal, Maggie (my biggest fan), Maddy, Anna, and Liam. Sorry, just ran out of time! Thank you, one and all. Teachers, too!

My best,

AUTHOR TO AUTHOR: A Conversation with Audrey Glassman Vernick


I’m not exactly sure when Audrey Glassman Vernick became a blip on my radar, but suddenly she was blipping everywhere. I felt like one of those guys in the mission control tower, trying to determine if this green blip was a “friendly” or an incoming missile. Ultimately, I decided that Audrey was a rising star.

I had the chance to meet Audrey personally, as opposed to through her books, at the 2015 Princeton Children’s Book Festival (thank you, Alison Santos!). We were at a backyard gathering, tired and happy after a long day. I bravely introduced myself, and we enjoyed a brief, easy conversation. I liked her immediately.

Anyway, I invited Audrey over to my swanky blog for today’s conversation. Here she comes now . . .


AGV: Why, it is swanky!

JP: I know, thanks. It’s the Picasso poster, isn’t it? I saved it from college. 









That’s the definition of class. It’s not just a hand or flowers. It’s both! And thanks for having me.

Glad to have you. About a month ago I read a bunch of your books. I was especially taken by Edgar’s Second Word, illustrated by Priscilla Burris. I even wrote to tell you how much I loved it, calling it “a small masterpiece.” Do you remember your reply?

I hope my first response was thank you. And I suspect my quick follow up was that you were one of approximately six people who read that book.


Yes, you were gracious. But you also mentioned that I was one of the few people to have actually read it. Which just goes to show that this is a crazy business. Your book has so much heart. It’s expertly constructed, like a well-built cabinet. We learn Edgar’s first word, “NO!” early on, so there’s a built-in tension: What will his second word be? That curiosity keeps us turning the pages. I was worried that the second word might be a letdown, but you totally delivered.

Thank you! Tension (and the building up thereof) is my very least developed writer skill, so extra thank you!

I interviewed James Marshall back in the early 90s, and he maintained that a strong ending for a book was essential. I’ll always remember what he told me: “The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles at the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it.” Wise words, and again, I think you nailed it with Edgar’s Second Word.

Let’s stop right here so I can faint. James Marshall!

I know, I was bragging to impress you. He’s one of my children’s book heroes. I can vividly remember our conversation. Heck, I can remember picking up the phone. James was friendly, funny, genuine, completely unpretentious.

George and Martha are the two main loves of my life. They are quoted with solemnity in the Vernick home.


Do you have a favorite line?

A truth about me (which does not go over well with kids at school visits): I am unable to pick a favorite anything except sports team (Yankees). Unable. So I could write some great lines here but then, minutes later, I’d erase and replace. (It is not easy being me.) Also, you sort of have to be looking at George and Martha along with reading their words to get the full picture. All that said, an oft-repeated line that comes to mind (you won’t even believe how lame this is) is:


“Boo!” cried George.

“Have mercy!” screamed Martha.


Nice, subtle. His humor is always natural, never seems forced. You never get the feeling that Marshall is trying too hard. 

The blog I had and still kind of have was in large part an homage to those two, about literary friendships.

Oh, nice idea. There’s Frog and Toad, of course. Do you know the book Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes? It’s pretty perfect.

I do not. But I shall seek it out. Pronto!

I blogged an appreciation of it a while back. Let me see, it’s around here somewhere. Here you go, click on the link

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

Back to your question.

Wait, there was actually a question?  

The ending! You asked about the ending! It was the first, and only, thing I knew about the book when I started writing it. I received an email from a college friend whose young not-book-loving son (Edgar!) sat through his mother’s read-aloud of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and, at the end, said, “Again.” I shared that with my wise agent, Erin Murphy, who said, “Well obviously you’re going to use that in a book, right?”


I don’t know if this happens to you, but when a book fails to sell, fails to reach an audience, I tend to slowly, inexorably begin to think of it as a failed book. And by extension, I begin to see myself as a failed writer. Intellectually, I know that’s wrong, but that’s my reality. So that’s why I’m dwelling on Edgar a little bit here. I want to be sure that you know it’s a great blipping book!

That’s a very George-to-Martha thing to say (maybe not the blipping part). Thank you! I have my dysfunctions when it comes to this publishing business. I suffer some jealousies. I focus on benchmarks I have not achieved. But I am pleased to say that in this one particular case, I still really love this book. Priscilla Burris’ illustrations are unspeakably sweet and perfect.


Yes, she did a terrific job. The right tone. 

And the people who read it respond so well to it. It just didn’t find its people. That happens. It wasn’t the first time it happened to me. A nice side note is that it was named a highly commended title by the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Outstanding Writing in a Picture Book.

First Grade Dropout, illustrated by my pal Matthew Cordell, turns on a lovely mistake. A boy absent-mindedly calls his teacher, “Mommy.” Where did that idea come from?

Some years I take part in Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), in which you try to come up with a picture book idea each day of the month. One day I wrote “kid calls teacher mommy,” something I know happens in my sister’s second-grade classroom with some frequency. (I’ve since learned it happens in nearly every classroom.)

Yes, it rings true. That’s probably why it’s funny.

FirstGradeDropoutIt sat on that list for years because it wasn’t a story yet, just an incident. One day I decided to give it a try. In my experience, you sometimes have to start writing a picture book to find the story. And that voice just came out. It happened again a few months ago, when I was looking for a follow-up to that book. I brainstormed ideas with my editor, but while we had fun and shared lots of embarrassing elementary-school memories, we didn’t hit upon anything usable for a book. Once I started writing, though, I found the idea for Second Grade Holdout, which is coming out next year (because Matt is F-A-S-T as well as fantastic).

I am crazy about Matt. I once slept in his guest room. He even drove me to the airport. Strangely, Matt insisted on dropping me off sixteen hours early, which was confusing.

You are wise to be crazy about Matt. He’s kind and funny and so talented. Immensely likable.

Well, let’s not get carried away, Audrey. He’s okay. But I’ll be hog-tied if I let Cordell hijack this interview! So, yes, you discovered the idea for Holdout . . . through the act of writing. Jane Yolen’s famous “butt in chair” advice. How do you actually get work done, Audrey? Do you have a time clock where you punch in each morning? Or do you wait for inspiration?

Somewhere in the middle. I am not disciplined. With picture books, I write when inspiration strikes, but with novels I need to force myself to sit and write. And I have to come up with sad little bargains to keep myself in the chair, writing.

Such as?

I’m only allowed to sit in the comfy chair with the heated blanket when I’m working on a novel. And once I’m there, it’s still a whole bargaining thing. If you finish the chapter, you can shower. Or eat breakfast. Or walk the dog.

Oh, that poor dog. Getting back to James Marshall, you share a great trait with him. You’re funny. And even better, you are able to write funny, which is a distinct and rare talent. There’s never enough of that in children’s books. Children’s publishing went through a biblio-theraputic period where every picture book had to be about something important. Laughter lagged behind.

I agree that there’s never enough funny. But there are so many more now than there used to be. The books that were considered funny when I was a kid and, for the most part, when my kids were little, were more amusing than genuinely funny. Lots of modern picture books are flat-out hilarious. It’s a really fun time to be writing them.

Can you name a few of your favorites?

See previous explanation of ever-changing favorites. That said, I believe the Pigeon books kind of burst the door open to a new kind of funny. Bob Shea’s books often crack me up and I have serious title-envy about his Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. Like debilitating jealousy.


Deborah Underwood’s Cat is a brilliant new character.

I really liked Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce and Julia Sarcone-Roach’s The Bear Ate Your Sandwich.

Good to know. I understand that 2016 is going to be a big year for you.

I have four books coming out.

Wow. Girl is on fire. You realize I kind of hate you now? A little.

I can both understand and accept that and will just quickly add that it’s possible I have four books coming out in six months -— the pub date for the last release of the year has not been set.

Shoot me now. I mean: I’m sooooo happy for you!!!!!


I’m curious, how do you do it? I find that writing picture books can be so difficult. I’ve been seriously trying for the past year and everything comes out half-baked, half-finished, half-awful. There are times it feels like throwing darts in a darkened room. It’s so easy to go down the wrong path. I wonder if you can talk about your process a little bit. Do you begin with a character?

I write both fiction and nonfiction picture books, and for the nonfiction ones, I look for a subject, get obsessed, research and write.

Do you first clear the topic with an editor?

I float it more than clear it. Or maybe those are the same. I am not writing with a contract, to be clear.

And for your fiction titles?

Just about every one has been different. Sometimes, the title comes first and leads the way to the story. Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums was the first of those for me. Once a whole first page came to me, unbidden:

“Zander was a monster. This wasn’t strange as his father was a monster. His mother too. Oddly, his sister was a fairy. And his dog was a skunk.”

That last sentence just killed me. (And then, as with many lines I love, I had to fight to keep it.) That’s from Unlike Other Monsters, coming out in June.


And his dog was a skunk. That’s a funny line. Comedy gold! Sometimes with the right sentence, even just a few words, or the right rhythm, a door seems to open. You can suddenly find your way in.

I don’t think any of my picture books has started with a character, which I didn’t realize until you asked. With novels, it’s always character. But it’s usually title/concept or incident that gets me started with picture books.

Getting back to what you said about going down the wrong path -— to me, that’s what is so great about picture books! If you do it in a picture book, you erase the last 100 words and go back to the fork. With a novel, hacking out 50 pages feels like pulling out a minor organ.

I maybe once cried when cutting 10,000 words from my book, Six Innings.

The first novel I wrote, Water Balloon, I wrote these extra 50 pages before the story really got going. I so wanted credit for those pages.

Even so, picture books have to be “just so.” You know? I feel like there’s more forgiveness in a longer work. More room to wander. With a picture book, basically 30 pages, there’s not a lot of space to get lost. That’s why I’ve concentrated on longer works, because I felt it gave me more control over my (and the book’s) fate. 

I adore picture books. I love writing them. I love the very fact of them. I enjoy every step of picture book writing and revising. But getting a first draft of a novel done -— the avoidance I have to fight is embarrassing. I’m in that place now. At least ninety percent through a novel I’ve been working on for years. I am looking forward to being done but not to what I have to do to be done.

That’s how I feel about exercise.

Me too.

I could be wrong here, but it seems there are not many folks that are exclusively writers who have built a reputation in picture books. There’s Tony Johnston, Eve Bunting, Ruth Krauss, Mem Fox, Charlotte Zolotow. It’s not a long list. Mac Barnett, of course, is doing great work now. Though it was only last week when I first realized that he wrote Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. I had previously thought of it strictly as a Jon Klassen title.

Well, crap. I guess I knew that but I never knew it in words. Thanks.

You’re welcome! I like that you’re a big baseball fan. Where’d that come from?

When kids ask this at school visits I always give the super-articulate answer that goes something like, “It’s hard to say why you like what you like. For example, I love pizza. Why? Because it tastes good.” Note to self: Work on that response.


I was on a panel recently with a bunch of seasoned writers –- Todd Strasser, David Levithan, others –- and they all had such great, pithy answers to audience questions. I was like, “Damn, I have to raise my game.” The whole staring and stammering thing won’t cut it.

I don’t think anyone will ever say that about me. You know what impressed me about that Vernick? Pithy answers.

Pithy can feel too slick on some folks. I like your stammering authenticity.

My love of baseball -— sunny days (I will always take a day game over a night game); the fact that it’s a sport without a clock, with a lot of time for a mind to wander, to wonder, to draw connections; and it’s a sport with an immensely rich history (albeit one with very few women in it).

I associate baseball with my mom, who is still a huge fan at age 89. She taught me how to throw, how to catch. So there’s a lot of transference there: by loving baseball, I’m expressing love for my mother. Also, I loved playing, and still do. Now that I’m finished coaching (had a 15u travel team last season), I’ll probably return to a Senior Men’s Hardball team next spring. Read that as: Old guys clutching their hamstrings. We’re all still boys at heart. Did you ever get to play?


First I have to say I just love that, your connection to your mom there. Organized sports for girls didn’t exist when I was younger. I played softball at camp and was sometimes good. In my neighborhood, it was mostly punchball in the street. A neighborhood of girls. Seriously, I think there was only one boy and we were terrified of him because he once threw a firecracker at my sister.

He was probably terrified, too. Don’t we all throw firecrackers when we’re afraid? I know you are a Jersey Girl, and a mother, but outside of that, I don’t know much about your background.

Okay, first of all, no. I grew up in New York City -— in Queens. I’ve lived in NJ 19 years. Wow. That’s a long time. But I definitely do not identify as Jersey Girl. Strike that from the record!

Done. Both my parents were from Queens, so I like this better, anyway.

I live near the ocean. When I lived on eastern Long Island —- my home before this one, and Boston before that -— my house was a block from the Long Island Sound. I hope to always live near a big body of water. My present and future dogs probably hope so too.

Have you written a dog-and-ocean book yet?

I cannot sell a dog book. It kills me.

I hear hedgehogs are trending. Or was that five years ago? It’s hard to keep up.

I wrote literary short fiction for adults before writing for kids. It’s a very good way to learn to accept rejection.

So how did you get into children’s books?

It’s a sad story. You’ve been warned.

When I was in my early twenties, my mother was taking a children’s writing class at the New School in NYC and she sent the first novel she wrote to one publisher (Dutton) and it was accepted. She died two months later, a pedestrian on the sidewalk, hit by a car around the block from my childhood home.

200px-Morning-glory-C6295bMy family was reeling for years. And in that time, we had to work with my mother’s very patient editor. My mother hadn’t even received her editorial letter at the time of her death, so all the revision fell to us. As you might imagine, we didn’t want to change a single one of her words. So that was my first step, as the literary executor of her estate. (The book, The Morning Glory War, was published in 1990 and received a really nice review in the Sunday Times.)

Wow. You must have taken a deep breath before typing that out. Like, “Okay, here goes, you asked.” I know that feeling, Audrey, since my oldest is a two-time cancer survivor. I’ve lost two brothers. These are not happy stories to tell at parties. Oftentimes, it’s easier not to get into it. And you’re right, it is sad, but it’s also an incredible story.

Yeah, as I wrote that out, I could see clearly that my family led me here.

Years later, I fell in love with the art of an outsider artist named Tim Brown, showed his art to one of my sisters, and she said that it belonged in a children’s book. Together, we wrote that book.

Which book is that?

Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship.

Hey, um, Audrey, this is nice and everything but . . . are you going to leave? I mean, ever? Or am I supposed to feed you now? I guess I have a pull-out couch . . .

Yeah, maybe tomorrow I’ll start pulling my stuff together. I could walk your dog. Do you have a dog?

Daisy. And two cats. And three kids. And four . . . well, it all stops at four. I don’t have four of anything.

I’m sure you have four readers of your blog!

Oh, dozens more. Dozens! We’re basically talking to ourselves here. It’s like the Cone of Silence in “Get Smart.” But before you go, is there anything you can share about your upcoming books? 

Okay, since you asked:

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton, illustrated by Steven Salerno, nonfiction about a Philadelphia girl playing professional baseball from age 10.


The real Edith Houghton.

The real Edith Houghton.


I Won A What?, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, about a boy who hopes to win a goldfish and ends up with something a wee bit bigger. And better.

Unlike Other Monsters, illustrated by Colin Jack, with the opening page mentioned above. And a novel, Two Naomis, written with my dear friend Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich.


How did you co-author a book? It’s seems difficult, fraught with peril. How did you handle it?

I have co-authored four books. Two Naomis was the first novel. We each wrote from the point of view of our own Naomi. So my chapters were the even-numbered ones — individual writing of separate chapters. When I co-wrote picture books, first with my sister and most recently with Liz Garton Scanlon, we just back-and-forthed a lot. Both experiences were really freeing and so much easier than doing it alone.

So what’s for dinner?

Get out! 

But before you go, by way of thank you, please accept this set of steak knives as a parting gift. I wish you all the luck in the world, Audrey. Keep up the great work.


FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #’s 222 & 223: Two for the Price of Nothing!



Okay, let’s roll. This one is from Kieran in Jersey, and in the interest of time I’ll only show an excerpt:


I replied:

Dear Kieran,

Thanks for your letter. Like you, I prefer The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar over The Case of the Groaning Ghost. There are 40 Jigsaw Jones books. I wanted them all to be brilliant and funny and entertaining, but of course no one can hit home runs every time they get up to the plate. Like the great slugger Ted Williams said, “I just try to put a good swing on the ball.”

As for your questions:

Jigsaw Jones has been out of print for a few years, but he's making a big comeback in 2017. I'm so happy about this.

Jigsaw Jones has been out of print for a few years, but he’s making a big comeback in 2017. I’m so happy about this.

1) Yes, I am currently writing my first Jigsaw Jones story in seven years. I don’t have a title yet, still fooling around with it. I believe we are hoping that it will come out in 2017.

2) I have gone skiing in some of the same places as you. These days, I prefer cross-country. No lines, no crowds! I’ve never gone snowboarding because I’m pretty sure I’d die.

3) Sorry, I don’t have any photos to send out. That’s just not something that fits my personality. Just the thought of a stack of glossy photos on my desk kind of grosses me out. I think I’m happier in the shadows. You’ll find the autograph below.

My best,



Letter #223 comes from Spokane, WA . . .

Scan 2

I replied:

Dear Dakota,

Hey, thank for that most excellent, typed letter. As you might know, I also write books for younger readers, and it’s refreshing to receive a letter that isn’t stained with grape jelly.

Thanks for reading Bystander and Six Innings. If you aren’t completely sick of me, you might also like The Fall, which explores some of the same themes as Bystander, but from the perspective of the so-called “bully.” It’s written in a first-person journal format, which makes it relatively quick and easy to read.

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail. And, yes, the cover doesn't lie: There's a bear.

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail. And, yes, the cover doesn’t lie: There’s a bear.

Yes, I love baseball. I guess you are a Mariners fan? I grew up a Mets fan, watching the games with my mother, and let me tell you, we’ve endured some rough seasons. But things are looking up these days. Got to love those big arms. My dream was to be a pitcher, but no fastball. Didn’t have the arm. Stupid DNA.

Good luck with ball this season. From the evidence of your letter, you are well on your way to becoming a very accomplished writer. I hope you keep it up. Sometimes our talents surprise us, in that they don’t always come from the expected places. You might dream of becoming a great ballplayer, like I did, only to discover that you have an innate talent for architecture, or medicine, or writing.

You never know!

BTW, nice signature. It will come in handy when you’re famous. 


THE COURAGE TEST, Coming in October: Cover Reveal, Excerpt, Keynote

A father and son

travel along the Lewis and Clark Trail,

a road trip that offers readers

a genre-bending blend of American history,

thrilling action,

and personal discovery.



Will has no choice, His father drags him along on a wilderness adventure in the footsteps of legendary explorers Lewis and Clark — whether he likes it or not. All the while, Will senses that something about this trip isn’t quite right.

Along the journey, Will meets fascinating strangers and experiences new thrills, including mountain cliffs, whitewater rapids, and a heart-hammering bear encounter.

It is a journey into the soul of America’s past, and the meaning of family in the expansive present. In the end, Will must face his own, life-altering test of courage.


Here’s a brief excerpt from the first couple of pages from THE COURAGE TEST (Macmillan, October, 2016). The spectacular cover was illustrated by Andrew Kolb. I hope you like it.


     My name is William Meriwether Miller. I was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. It was my dad’s idea. So I guess this trip was inevitable, like homework and awkward school dances. He’s dragging me down the old trail.

     It’s the last thing in the world I want to do.


Chapter 1




“We were now

about to penetrate

a country at least two thousand miles

in width, on which

the foot of civilized man

had never trodden.”

Meriwether Lewis.



     My mother pushes me out the door and I don’t know why.

     “I don’t want to go,” I tell her.

     “I know,” she says.

     “But why now?” I ask again. “All-Stars starts this week. I don’t want to miss it.”

     “We’ve been over this,” she says.

     She might as well say what every parent resorts to when they run out of good answers: Because I said so. There’s no explanation, no more discussion. It’s time for me to go.

     I feel ridiculously, stupidly, helplessly annoyed and there’s nothing I can do about it. I see in that instant my mother is getting old. Stray gray hairs, wrinkles around the down-turned corners of her mouth. She looks tired and thin, sick of arguing with me. I carry a fully loaded, metal-frame backpack on my shoulders, and a smaller gym bag in my right hand — stuff for the long drive, all my technology’s in there. I don’t want to go, but I can’t stand here forever. So come on, Mom, let’s do this.

     “You’ll have fun,” she says. “It’s good for you and your father to spend time together.”

     I give her nothing. Not a nod. I’m not even listening. I turn my back to her.    

     “Bye,” she says, and adds, “I love you, Will.”

     I walk away like I don’t hear.


     I raise my hand in goodbye without looking back.

     My father waits in the car. He steps out as I approach. I nod to him, hey. None of this is my idea. I have no say, no choice. I refuse to be happy about it. I’m not going to make this easy.

     “Here, um, let me help you with that,” he reaches to take my backpack.

     “No, I got it,” I say, leaning away.

     “Oh, okay, sure,” he says.

     He stands there, not knowing what to do.

     “Are you going to pop the trunk?” I ask. Because: obviously.

     Flustered, my father moves to the driver’s side door. He fumbles in the front pocket of his water-resistant khakis, drops the keys on the road, stoops to the ground. I glance sideways, slyly, to check how this is playing from the front window. But my mother is no longer watching.

     She’s gone.




     “Ready?” my father asks. His body is half-turned in inquiry, one hand on the steering wheel, the right gripping the ignition key.

     A question with no true answer.

     I don’t have a choice. So, sure, Dad, I shrug, I’m ready. But the truth is I’m not. He knows it, too, yet asks anyway. And away we roll.

     It is awkward all around.

     This is the man who moved out of the old house fifteen months ago. He started a shiny new life, soon featuring a new girlfriend, while my mother and I got stuck rebuilding the old one.

     As the car slides forward, I spy my friend, Yoenis, on the sidewalk. Tall and dark and slender, he juggles a soccer ball on his foot, tap-tap, tap and pop, and he snatches the ball between his hands. A bright smile sunbeams across his face. He’s a guy who can do anything he wants. Yoenis glimpses me through the car window and his smile drops. He waggles a finger skyward. His head shakes. I don’t know what it means. Is he pointing to the sun, the sky? Is he gesturing to God above? Or is he just saying, no, don’t go, you’ll miss everything.

     I wonder if he knows something I don’t know?