I’m extremely grateful to Jack Rightmyer for this generous review of my new book, The Courage Test, in a recent edition of the Albany Times Union newspaper.
An author sends a book out into the world. After that, there’s very little control over what happens next. Reviews, awards, invitations to speak at schools. Or sometimes, the cluttered, dusty world simply coughs and shrugs with indifference. Out of print, forgotten. Ultimately, I always hope for readers, it’s really all any author can ask. Articles like this one below do so much to help that hope become realized.
Most American authors get around to it eventually, the road novel, where two different characters set out on a journey to discover the country and more importantly to figure out who they are.
“We’re a car culture,” said local young adult and children’s author James Preller. “Americans love to be on the road. It’s awesome. This was my first attempt at writing the quest/journey book, and I loved the structure of it. My two characters were attempting to get to the West Coast. It’s a plot with built-in drama and the myth of the eternal return home.”
This is Preller’s fourth book for children ages 10 and up. Seven years ago he hit it big with “Bystander,” a book about bullying just when the topic was hitting a fever pitch around the country. Two years ago, he wrote “The Fall” about teenage suicide. His latest book, “The Courage Test” (Feiwel and Friends, 224 pages, $16.99), is a father-and-son journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail from Fort Mandan to the Pacific Ocean.
“I really wanted to write a father/son book,” said Preller, who lives in Delmar and is a parent to three teenagers. “I got the idea after reading Roald Dahl‘s book ‘Danny the Champion of the World.’ I loved the relationship of the father and son in that book, so I created two characters and set them out on the Lewis and Clark Trail.”
The story is told from 15-year-old Will’s point of view. He’s not too happy to stop playing on his summer baseball team to take a cross-country trip with his dad, who has recently left his mom and has a new girlfriend. Will’s dad is a professor and an expert on the legendary explorers Lewis and Clark. He thinks it would be good for his son to do something difficult like hike in the backcountry and go whitewater rafting.
“I want readers to like Will, even if he’s a bit of a jerk at times,” said Preller. “There’s a natural tension between a teenager and a parent, and I want the reader to sense that.”
Will and his dad don’t have much in common. “Will’s dad tends to lecture like he’s standing in front of a class, and he doesn’t care at all about baseball. My dad was like that. I learned my love of baseball and how to play the game from my mom. When my dad would throw a baseball to me, he was awkward and uncoordinated, and I’m sure I looked at him in a strange way. My kids look at me that way today when I sometimes butter my bread.”
Preller did an enormous amount of research on Lewis and Clark before writing the book. “I’d love to say I got in a car and traveled the route I wrote about, but no one was paying for me to take that trip,” said Preller. “What I did was read blogs, look at maps and photos of the Lewis and Clark Trail. There are so many resources on hand today. As I wrote the book, I felt like I was on the trip, and as a writer, I was able to use my imagination.”
Some of the plot takes place while the characters are whitewater rafting, and there is even an encounter with a bear. “I’ve gone rafting. I’ve seen bears. I’ve been to Montana, so I’ve experienced the essential feelings of what these characters were going through,” said Preller.
What readers begin to discover as they read this book is that Will’s father is bringing his son on this difficult trip to toughen him up for some hard times ahead. “Will’s dad is a bit of a geek, and he really does believe his son will be a stronger person by following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. That might be a bit idealistic,” said Preller, “but the essential experience is spending time alone with his son where they can face this hardship together.”
In researching this book Preller read numerous books about the Lewis and Clark adventure. “At first I thought they were only a metaphor for the plot of my book, but the more I read about them the more I was impressed about these explorers. They were amazing and flawed individuals, and I decided to include a lot of information about them throughout the book.”
He was impressed with how detailed their daily journals were as they explored the unknown territory of the West. “Lewis could hike 20 or 30 miles a day then journal and draw incredible pictures of the plants and animals he had encountered. He read the stars to figure out where they were on a map. There were many locations where they could have turned back, but they kept going right through dangerous Indian territory and up and down the Rocky Mountains.”
Preller has had a successful career as a writer for over 20 years. His Jigsaw Jones series for beginning readers has sold millions of copies, and new editions will soon be available. He has also recently completed a series of Scary Tales that are always popular around Halloween.
“One of the great joys of writing for young people is the opportunity to visit schools throughout the country and meet your readers,” said Preller. “I tell my young readers to write from your heart. Write something that means a lot to you, and read every day.”
A NOTE OF CLARIFICATION: My children are Nick (23), Gavin (17), and Maggie (15). In addition to picture books and series titles for younger readers, these are my other middle-grade titles: Along Came Spider, Six Innings, Bystander, Justin Fisher Declares War, Before You Go (YA), and The Fall (now in paperback).