Archive for December 30, 2016

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #238: Jasmina Has a Scary Idea



Here we go . . .



I replied:

Dear Jasmina,

It’s a mystery: Your letter is dated 9/30/16 but the envelope is postmarked 28 NOV 2016.

Did it take you that long to find a stamp?

Thanks for your letter. I’m always glad to hear from a “Scary Tales” fan.



I think you are right about clowns. There’s something inherently frightening about clowns. It’s the creepy makeup, right? The big feet? Just the insanity of anyone who’d dress up like that? The famous horror writer, Stephen King, famously conjured a truly scary clown character in his classic book for adults, It. Maybe there’s room for one for somewhat younger readers. I’ll think about it. Thanks for the (free) tip. Btw, if I do write the book, I’m not sharing the money, Jasmina!

To date, I’ve written six books in the “Scary Tales” series. I don’t know if there will be more or not; it’s up to the book-buying public, to be honest with you. I am planning a new thriller/scary story for middle grade readers, where I take the fear to a new level. With “Scary Tales,” I always had to hold back. With this one, I’m hoping to raise it a couple of notches. Tentative title: Blood Mountain.

Can you handle it?

Have a great holiday and a happy new year!

James Preller



Star of Stars, Wonder of Wonders


When we write, sometimes we reach for something we can’t quite express. In this case, a sense of wonder in the great big world.

It’s the trying that counts.

This illustration is by R.W. Alley from the upcoming “Jigsaw Jones” book, The Case from Outer Space. It’s the concluding image from the book, placed on second-to-last page.

I had the opportunity to review the sketches before R.W. went to finals. He does such an exceptional job, full of care and warmth, I don’t ever say too much. In this instance, I had only one change to suggest.

Here’s the initial sketch for that final scene:


I asked Bob if he’d consider making them smaller. Pulling way back. I wanted to see Jigsaw, his father and grandmother, together under the stars, small in the great wide world.

More sky.

The book concludes:

After a while, we headed to the car.

My father led the way. He took the flashlight. 

I walked with Grams.

She held my elbow.

We went slowly.

“Careful,” I said.

And together we headed back.



I don’t think I ever did that before, stringing together so many one-line paragraphs. It seemed to fit the mood I was searching for.

I don’t know if I completely hit what I was reaching for in this scene, but I do know that Bob’s illustration will help bring readers a long way toward that goal. It’s nice for an author to have someone to lean on.

One other note. My mother is 90 years old. There’s a bit of her and me in that scene, when Grams takes him by the elbow, fearful of falling.

Today I’m grateful for this book, for Bob Alley, for my mother, and for our smallness in this great big world.

It’s a good thing, right? Just to be reminded of that fact. Our smallness.

This site, featuring images from the Hubble Space Telescope, does that for me. A place to visit every now and then. A reminder of our smallness, yes, but also our connection to the deepest, greatest mysteries.

Merry Christmas, folks. Or happy holidays. Or however you wish to express your wonder, your joy, your sense of beauty, your love.







FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #237: A Video Blast from Nadia!



This lively letter concluded with a bar code that I could scan, complete with password, in order to see a video by the letter writer. In this case, the lovely Nadia. I’ve only included an except of her letter, which went two pages, in addition to my response.

Here’s Nadia:


I replied:

Dear Nadia,

I love the video attachment you included in your letter. I’ve only received a couple of those in the past, so it was a real treat to see your face and get a blast of your personality. And it did come through in blasts, loud and clear. Pleased to meet you!

I’d make one for you but that would require for me to know what I’m actually doing and, ummmm, that’s not happening. I think I’m most comfortable with my fingers on the keyboard. Point a camera at me and I tighten up.

You favorite place is Hawaii? I’ll try not to be too jealous. I’m a fan of Poughkeepsie, New York. Sigh.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from THE ONE-EYED DOLL.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from THE ONE-EYED DOLL.

Thank you for the kind words about my “Scary Tales” series. It’s a funny thing about scary books. They seem to attract the sweetest readers. People I’d never expect, bright and lively and full of joy, will come up and tell me how much they looooove creepy stories. Well, I’m doing my best. I’ve written six “Scary Tales” books so far. At the end of 2017, I’ll have a midde-grade book coming out, Better Off Undead. It features a seventh-grade zombie, Adrian, as the main character. It’s a wild story that touches upon climate change, spy drones, colony collapse disorder, forest fires, beekeeping, evil billionaires, makeovers, water shortages, and more. As someone with a keen interest in the health of the planet, I guess that’s what I personally find scary: the future!

img_2054In addition, I’ve got a new “Jigsaw Jones” coming out, The Case from Outer Space (August, 2017, Macmillan). My dog Daisy is fine, thanks for asking. She needs a walk right now and it’s super cold outside. I don’t want to do it. But I love her, and I suppose that true love involves doing things you don’t always want to do. Better put on my extra-thick socks!

Keep reading, happy holidays, and let’s hope for a better year in 2017!

James Preller

WRITING PROCESS: About that Epigraph


An epigraph — neither an epigram nor an epitaph — is that short quote  many authors use at the beginning of a book. It can be most anything: a song lyric, a line from a poem or novel, a familiar adage, whatever we want it to be.

It can be seen as a book’s North Star, both inspiration and aspiration. A source or a destination, a map or a summation. It can be a joke, a statement of theme, or an obtuse and too-erudite dud.

An epigraph is one of those small parts of a novel that many readers (and some writers) ignore. No problem. Like the spleen, an epigraph can be removed without any real loss of function.

Yet it can serve as a signal in the night, like an orange flare screaming parabollically across the sky. An indicator of intention.

It can be a thread to pull, a riddle to unravel, or a key to solving the book’s enigma.

Personally, I’m a fan. Epigraphs have played a larger role in my books as my career has crabbed sideways.

That said, I don’t believe I hit a home run with the epigraph in my book Six Innings. It misses the mark. So we won’t talk about it. And I’m not sure that the epigraph for Bystander was particularly successful:



Where you been is good and gone

All you keep is the gettin’ there.

— Townes Van Zandt,

“To Live Is to Fly”


I love that song by Van Zandt and it lingered in my mind during the writing of that book. To me, those two lines represented the plasticity of the middle school years, that intense period of becoming, and of life in general. “The journey itself is home,” as Basho wrote. I think that’s especially true when we are young, trying to figure things out. Anyway, it’s a good quote, but perhaps not especially germane to the book. It doesn’t shine a ton of light.

Moving right along . . .



For The Fall, I employed the dangerous double epigraph. Maybe it’s a matter being unable to decide, but I liked the way these two worked together. These quotes speak directly to the book’s main ideas: responsibility and identity.

As an aside, I’ve been catching up with Westworld recently — so much fun — and was pleased when Bernard asked Dolores to read the same passage from Alice in Wonderland.

“Who in the world am I?” Good question.


In a eureeka moment, I found what I believed was the perfect epigraph for The Courage Test. The book was basically done — written, revised, and nearly out the door when I rediscovered this long forgotten quote while at a museum:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

My book was about just such a journey. The main character, couragetestfrontcvr-199x300William Meriwether Millier, was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, who figured large in the story. And at the end of the book, Will returns home to the place where he started with new insight. The epigraph fit like a glove. The only problem might be, is it too pretentious? T.S. Eliot? The Four Quartets? In a book for middle graders? What can say, it spoke so eloquently to the story that I had to include it.

I also feel good about the epigraphs to my upcoming book, Better Off Undead, (Fall, 2017). It’s a book that’s set in the not-too-distant future and features a seventh-grade zombie as the main character. It’s a wild plot that touches upon climate change, spy drones, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, forest fires, privacy rights, airborne diseases, beekeeping, crude oil transportation, meddling billionaires, bullying, makeovers, and the kitchen sink. There’s also a plot device that links back to “The Wizard of Oz,” the movie.

I don’t have a cover to share at this point, these are the two epigraphs:


What a world, what a world.

— The Wicked Witch of the West,

“The Wizard of Oz”


and . . .


There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

— Leonard Cohen,



For this book, I’m also tempted to tell you about the dedication — which is also concerned with the future of the world. But let’s save that for another post.

Do you have a favorite epigraph/book pairing you’d like to share? Make a comment below. Please note that new comments need a moderator’s approval before the comment appears. This helps limit the whackjobs and crackpots to a manageable few, seating for everyone, sort of like Thanksgiving dinner at the relatives’ house. Cheers!

5 QUESTIONS with MATT PHELAN, Graphic Novelist and Creator of “Snow White”


Welcome to “5 Questions,” where the number 5 is conceptual rather than literal. Today we feature one of the most acclaimed graphic novelists working in children’s books today, Matt Phelan.




Yo, Matt, I’m over here. Yeah, no, look this way. It’s just weird with you staring off into the distance like that. I’m literally right here. Fine, whatever, let’s just get through this. Take us back to the period before the idea came for this book. Is there a “between books” stage for you, when you are not exactly sure what’s next? Is that stressful? Are you walking around with your antenna up, hoping for lightning to strike? Or do you keep a spare file of “BRILLIANT IDEAS” by your bedside for just such occasions?

My mind tends to wander quite a bit, so I often have new ideas percolating when I should be focused on the book at hand. I have notes for Snow White going back ten years when I was pitching Storm in the Barn. I have a few ideas on low simmer now that I hope to get to eventually.


That’s how I feel about painting my living room and front hallway (and upstairs bathroom, and guest bedroom, and). It’s all on low simmer. But for you that simmer reached a boiling point. Was there a specific moment, or an image, that came to you? Why that particular period in New York City?

I was thinking about apple peddlers in the Great Depression (as one does) . . .


. . . and my brain connected that with the stepmother in “Snow White.” I sketched an image of a busy street, people racing by, with a single young woman stopped in her tracks before an old hag holding out an apple. I liked that idea so much that I began to think of more parallels for elements in the tale if they were set in the early 1930s.


Yes, that’s part of the book’s pleasure. It’s cool how you re-imagined the seven dwarfs, for example, as street urchins. In that case, you had to find a balance between making that allusion, but not turning those boys into cardboard stand-ins for Grumpy and Sneezy and Bashful, and so on.

The Seven came to me early on, inspired in part by the Dead End Kids from the movies of the 30s and 40s. But considering their situation –- orphans, runaways hiding in alleys and warehouses at night –- I realized that withholding their names would be of utmost importance to them. That was a clear contrast to the Disney film, where if you remember anything, it’s probably the names of the dwarves. I did give the boys some of the same personality traits in passing, so it would be fun for the reader to make those connections.

The Dead End Kids.

The Dead End Kids.

Those translocations are so much fun. The equivalencies aren’t absolute. It’s not, oh, this kid equals Sleepy. But, well, he does look a little tired.

Bringing the elements of the story like the seven dwarves into the time period started as an exercise, but the more I thought about it, the more I became invested in the characters and what I could maybe bring to this ancient story.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The challenge in any retelling is to answer that essential question every artist must face, for any work of art: “So what?” In your case, I think you were able to explore a familiar story, turn it around, pull it apart, and discover new elements. Upon reflection, what did you learn about the story of “Snow White” in the process of your work? Did anything surprise you?


I was surprised about how much it started to mean to me on an emotional level. The scene where the boys reveal their names to Snow became the whole reason to do this book. For me, the book is about how there is more goodness in the world than evil, that there is beauty everywhere despite how bleak things may seem. I wrote the story three years ago, but it sadly seems very timely and relevant today.

I recently wrote my first road trip book, and one of the best things about it, as an author, was that I knew when/where the story was going to end. It’s comforting to know where you are in terms of beginning, middle, and end. You enjoyed a similar luxury in this case.

Yes. I agree. It was refreshing to have a framework to the plot from the start. But the story is so solid that it also allows for invention within that framework.


Your book benefits from our familiarity with the classic story. Everybody knows it. That known structure gave you more freedom to pick your spots, skip over the boring bits. You didn’t have to fill in every blank space. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. I also use “chapter headings” which look more like title cards in a silent movie. That device acts as a dramatic shorthand. I could write “Late Night at the Butcher’s” and I’ve already set up not only the setting but an idea of what is going to happen there.

I agree, that was an effective device, a pause but also a jump-cut into the next scene. Hey, it had to be fun killing off the evil queen-slash-stepmother. In the movie that’s such a tense, dramatic scene. The seven dwarfs are not cuddly and cute in that surging, swelling scene; there’s murder in their hearts. The origin material was dark. That had to a challenge for you, to meet that big climatic moment head on. Were you particularly pleased on the day you figured out she’d not only get electrocuted . . . but she could fall off the building as well. Well done, sir!

My ending plays off the Disney one which I think they changed for good reason. In the original Grimm, the stepmother is invited to Snow’s wedding only to find that Snow orders her to dance to her death whilst wearing burning iron shoes (for the amusement of the wedding party). A tad sadistic for our heroine, I think. Disney used lightning, but I opted for her to go up in lights on the marquee of the Ziegfeld theater. The fall was probably a nod to King Kong now that I think of it.

How do you make these paintings? How many are there? I ask because my sense is that when I look at some graphic novels, many individual images appear rushed, unfinished. But in Snow White, I can see –- I think –- the deep care and commitment to every single image. It’s so impressive.


I use traditional media: pencil, ink, and watercolor on watercolor paper. I’ve made it a rule since my first graphic novel to never ever count how many individual panels are in the book. Each panel is a painting, maybe three to six per page, more than two hundred pages . . . it’s a lot. 

Right, it’s one of those deals where if you knew in advance, if your really calculated the amount of work, it would be hard to get started. Like taking your kids on their first hike. “Don’t worry, kids, it’ll be fun!”

Yeah, the “hike” is not about the number of steps it takes. It’s all part of the greater whole. I wanted each panel to have the correct mood and atmosphere, but at the same time I never wanted one particular panel to cause a reader to stop and dwell on it. I want you to keep moving. Pace is important.

And pace is mostly a function of layout, right? The decision of multi-panel spreads compared to, say, a strong single image. At what point do you make those design decisions?


The actual sizes of the panels are decided when I’m doing the first loose thumbnail drawings. You are correct about size and number of panels dictating pace. It’s like a musical score, in a way. For Snow White, I did try something a bit different, in that each page was drawn completely fresh on a blank sheet of paper. I had rough sketches to inspire me, but I did not enlarge the sketches and use them on a light-box as a guide like I’ve done before. By drawing it again fresh, I hoped to catch the energy and life of the sketches. If it was wrong, I just drew it again. Watercolor is also a great way to give your paintings energy and unpredictability. It’s hard to completely plan or fix a watercolor painting. You get what you get. That’s an exciting way to work.

I relate that to music. A belief in the positive value of raw performance — live in the studio — including the messiness of it. Rather than, say, polishing a song to perfection. Something vital gets lost in the refinement. The flawed version is somehow better.

I couldn’t agree more. I’d rather listen to something with mistakes played like the musicians’ lives depended on it than a supremely polished “perfect” performance. I’ll take the Replacements over Steely Dan any day.

I know you love music. Do you listen when you paint? Did this book have a specific soundtrack, or sonic influences?

I listen to music when painting and maybe during the writing (but only instrumental music). I do make playlists for the books. Snow White’s playlist had some leftovers from Bluffton, plus soundtracks like Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Magnificent Ambersons and Max Steiner’s great score for King Kong. I also included The Jazz Age, a recent record by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra that arranges Roxy Music songs in a hot jazz style. It’s brilliant.

Yes! I have The Jazz Age. At first I wasn’t too keen on the idea, it felt gimmicky, but then I heard it. Good times. I’ll have to explore the scores by Herrmann and Steiner. Thanks for the tip, Matt Phelan!


614852MATT PHELAN does a great job with his website, which he stores somewhere on the interwebs. You can visit for free, but like the Hotel California, you may never leave. Matt splits his efforts between graphic novels (The Storm in the Barn, Bluffton, Around the World), picture books (Marilyn’s Monster, Xander’s Panda Party, and more), and whatever else inspires his attention. Like, oh, listening to Replacements records.



ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: Bruce Coville, London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, Matt Faulkner, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

8) Matthew Cordell, “Wish”

9) Jeff Newman, “Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?”