Archive for November 30, 2017

Pulling the Plug: Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out


Pulling the plug.

I’ll be honest, this is something I struggle with at times. The time-suck of the endless scroll, the dopamine hit we get from a like or a click. The internet experience can be like pulling on a crack pipe. It’s so easy for us to lose our way in the web of social media, lose our grounding in the natural world.

So today I share this image from the Japanese translation of Nightmareland from my Scary Tales series. I’d love to give credit to the illustrator, but I honestly can’t make head or tails of this language.

Carry on. And good luck to you, dear reader, in your efforts to unplug, echoing that idealistic 60s concept of tune in (to your deeper self, at the bottom where there is no “self”), turn on (to the natural, spiritual world), drop out (unplug from addictive, distractive social media).

How There’s a Touch of “M.A.S.H.” in My Book, BETTER OFF UNDEAD


My parents rarely took the whole family to movies. In fact, they rarely took themselves. Money was tight and with seven children covering a twelve-year span, a night at the movies was an expensive, unrealistic outing. However, I do recall a few family outings to the theater and can still name each movie: “The Immigrants” with Liv Ullman (I was too young and bored out of my mind), “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman (politically incorrect but I love it to this day), “The Godfather,” “Frenzy” (Hitchcock!), and “M.A.S.H.” And that’s it, the sum total of all the films I saw with my parents in the theater.

In particular, Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H.” stuck with me — it felt wild and irreverant — and then the popular television series further reinforced its influence on me. Without consciously thinking of the source, I borrowed a technique from the movie for my middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead.


I am thinking of the absurdist, omniscient P.A. announcements sprinkled throughout the film and, later, the series. What a brilliant device for satire and social comment. And not only that idea, but visually the way Altman fixed the camera on speaker. No reaction shots from beloved characters. We don’t even know the source of the voice who gives the announcements; it’s as if the words had fallen from the skies.


And on and on it goes. Here’s a great source for announcements from the television series. Please check it out, I’m sure you’ll find some favorites.


For my part, I believe young people experience this absurdity in a unique way each school day. Suddenly the voice blares on, interrupting whatever might be happening at any time during the day. I decided to feature the school principal in this manner. For example, the “Morning Announcements” chapter that begins on page 104:

On top of everything else, our principal was losing his mind. Maybe it was the job, I don’t know. There were days when our school felt like a madhouse — and the students weren’t the loony ones. Take today’s morning announcements for example, which began as usual with an ear-splitting buzz:

Kkccchh. “Is this on?” Kkccchh. Tap-tap, TAP-TAP. “Miss Shen? Is this thing” — whirr — “hey-ho, ouch! — What the . . . ? Good mooooorningggg, Nixon Middle School! This is your principal, Mr. Rouster!”

pa-speakersFrom my seat in the back corner of my homeroom class, I watched as everyone turned to the loudspeaker in listless silence.

The substitute teacher, Mrs. Perez, never looked up from her smartphone. Principal Rouster crowed. “All righty, then! I’ve got some good news, some bad news, and some really bad news. First, the good news! Our school recently received a large federal grant involving enormous sums of taxpayers’ money. I’m please to announce that there will be construction going on throughout the school. You may be inconvenienced by the occasional disruption.”

On cue, a series of loud noises — banging, chiseling, and the vibrating cacophony of a jackhammer — erupted out in the hallway. Next came a calamitous crash, a thud, and a muffled “Oops.”

Principal Rouster chattered on in a nasal voice, unruffled. “The bad news is that the construction will cause changes to our normal schedule. Until further notice, the cafeteria will be moved to the gymnasium. But P.E. will go on as scheduled. Just don’t confuse the meatballs with the dodgeballs! Heh-heh. The Choir Club will share a room with the Chess Club; they will both meet in the science lab. On Tuesday we’ll follow the Wednesday schedule, except for band members, who will adhere to their Thursday schedules — but only on Mondays. Lastly, the literacy center will be closed because of the asbestos problem recently brought to our attention by Janitor McConnell’s alarming rash. Get better soon, Mike!”

The girl next to me, Desiree Reynolds, muttered, “I wonder what the really bad news is.”

Principal Rouster continued, “The really bad news is that all bathroom privileges have been temporarily suspended. This should last only a few hours. In case of emergency, a temporary porta-potty has been set up in the mail hallway. I don’t have to tell you that with seven hundred students in the school, we’ll require a high level of cooperation and an almost Zen-like self-control of your bodily functions. Please avoid all liquids, and I strongly suggest that you tread lightly on today’s lunch special, the New Orleans gumbo. That stuff runs right through you.

“Thank you and happy learning!” 

I had originally intended to do more of this kind of thing throughout the book, but over time I felt it interrupted the pace of the story. I decided that a little bit would go a long way. That was my hope anyway! Here’s another quick bit, later in the book:

On Friday, the day of the “Halloween Fandango” — don’t look at me, I don’t name these things — Principal Rouster made another major announcement:

Kkkccchh. Kkkccchh. Tap-tap. TAP-TAP — SQUAAAWWWKKK. “Good afternoon, Nixon Middle School! Due to the recent discovery of toxic mold in various locations around the school, the Department of Health has temporarily shut down gymnasium B, our proposed setting for tonight’s Halloween Fandango! < snip > Not to worry! We’ve moved the dance to . . . THE PIT!”

Churlish screams, anguished cries, and wails of despair filled the room. “Not the pit, anything but the pit!” Desiree Reynolds moaned. 

“It smells like stale cheese!” groaned Arnie Chang.

“I got sick in the pit last year,” little Jessica Timmons confessed in her tiny voice, “and they still haven’t mopped it up.”



Oh, one final note of appreciation. At the end of the film, in a truly meta moment, the PA announcement is used to break through the fourth wall. It closes with this message:

“Tonight’s movie has been M*A*S*H.”


FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #260: Multiple Missives!



Here’s a teacher who combined several short notes from Jaycie, Gracie, Jaxson, and Daynan in one email, so I took the all-in-one approach, too.


Hello Mr. Preller,

My students recently read Jigsaw Jones and The Case of the Christmas Snowman. As part of their assignment, they decided to email you a letter. I have attached their letters below. Thanks so much for writing such fun and engaging books for 2nd graders!
Dear Mr. Preller,
I read the book the case of the christmas snowman. my favorite chapter is chapter three the christmas snowman. it is very funny. do you have some more books i can read like this one?  my favorite character is bigs melony. I like Bigs because he is funny.  How many Jigsaw books have you written?
Dear Mr. Preller,
I really like your book. i really like how you made a lot of interest in the favorite character is jigsaw jones. i really like how its favorite part is when they dig in the in the snowman.i like the book because its really interesting . my favorite chapter is ten cause they tried to solve the problem. my question is can you make more jigsaw jones books,how did you become a writer. i like how they solve the book . but i really like how they solve the problem,and how they found the penny. how many books have you wrote.
Hello Mr:James,

make more books please.I want some investigation. My favorite chapter was death of a snowman.Make a Halloween book and a christmas book.My favorite character was JigSaw and Bigs.My favorite part was when Jigsaw came to Bigs house. Why i liked the book because it has mystery’s.

Dear Mr. Preller,
I really enjoyed your jigsaw jones books they’r really cool.your books are the best books can you please make more.can you do a holoween themed jigsaw jones book?did you know we use your jigsaw books for our class?my favorite jigsaw book is the case of the christmas bigs maloney lieing or telling the truth? what are bigs maloney’s brother or brothers name?when are you gonna make a new jigsaw book ?
scinserely, Daynan.
I replied . . .


Thank you for your patience. It’s been a hectic couple of weeks with trips to Rochester, Buffalo, and Clearwater. Thanks, too, for sharing The Case of the Christmas Snowman with your students. As you may know, the Jigsaw Jones books went out of print some time ago. The happy news is that 8 “classroom classics” are now back in print through Macmillan, revised and updated. In addition, I wrote an all-new book, The Case from Outer Space, which was published in August. I’m really proud of it. Good things are happening!
Your students wrote terrific letters.
Jaycie: I have written 41 Jigsaw Jones books. Some are hard to find. I love Bigs Maloney. On the outside, he’s rough and tough. But deep down, I think he’s a nice guy. I’m especially proud of how Jigsaw stands up for himself even though Bigs is a lot bigger. I try to be a little funny in all my books. Thanks for noticing.
Gracie: I’ve lost track of all the books I’ve written, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 books. I enjoyed writing this book in particular because I learned about coin collecting. I even visited a dusty, cramped store for collectors that helped inspire the scene in the book where Jigsaw goes into the store. I started writing my own stories when I was little. Then I stopped for a long time, only to get back into it in high school and college. The key to becoming a writer? Write, write, write and read, read, read. The more you do it, the better you get. You learn by doing.
Jaxson: Yes! I like that scene too. As a kid I used to love wrestling with my bigger, older brothers. On Mondays, my mother would go out bowling and my father was in charge. Which meant that I could pretty much run around like a wild man. I tied a towel around my shoulders like a cape and jumped on the sofa cushions, imagining epic battles with various bad guys. I think that memory played a part in this book.
Daynan: I am very grateful to your teacher for using Jigsaw Jones in the classroom, and I’m glad you think the stories are cool. I wrote about Bigs in a number of other Jigsaw Jones books. His family appears in The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur, which will be available in stores on November 21.  His father is a florist!
Thanks, everybody, for the kind letters.
Keep reading, keep solving those mysteries!
And thanks again, Ms. L. Clearly you are the best teacher ever!
James Preller

McElligott & Preller Join Forces for a Super “Team Up” at The Open Door Bookstore: 12/2 @ 1:00 – 2:30

It’s two for the price of none! Matt McElligott and I are teaming up for a unique book signing at Schenectady’s Open Door Bookstore on 12/2 at 1:00 – 2:30. Come say hello and take care of that holiday shopping with signed books!

Matt is the big brain behind the ground-breaking “Mad Scientist Academy” series, which brings scientific fact to young readers in a fresh, graphic, fun-filled format. The latest title is The Space Disaster.

msa2-jacket-green-mockup     Dinosaur-cover

“McElligott has concocted a winning formula for learning as entertainment.”Kirkus Reviews.

I’ll be there to celebrate the publication of my own space-themed Jigsaw Jones book, The Case from Outer Space, along with the return-to-print of eight “classroom classics.” In addition, I’ll be signing my hot-off-the-presses release, Better Off Undead, for slightly older readers (grades 4-8).

Outer Space_FC     {FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400

“The latest early chapter book in Preller’s long-running Jigsaw Jones Mystery series has plenty of appeal for young independent readers.”Booklist.

“This uproarious middle grade call to action [Better Of Undead] has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.” — School Library Journal.




INJURY REPORT: Everything Was Great Until I Got Hit in the Face with a Baseball

IMG_3351True story: I was having a wonderful time in Clearwater, Florida, playing for the Albany Capitals in a men’s 50-up hardball tournament. The team had rented condos on the beach, I had a great view from my balcony, the fields were pristine, I was playing reasonably okay.

I was the crafty lefty who could still get batters out with an array of slop. Hey, that’s not a terrible thing.

Down the right field line: The scene of my misadventure.

Down the right field line: The scene of my misadventure.


All smiles before the game. I had to get a photo of this teammate, who we called "ZZ" for obvious reasons.

All smiles before the game. I had to get a photo of this teammate, who we called “ZZ” for obvious reasons.

And then, while playing RF at beautiful Spectrum Field (home of the Phillies A-level minor league team), I ran a long way to field a fly ball on the line. I got there but lost the ball in the lights at the last moment. And wham, the ball hit me directly in the face. I was stunned and embarrassed and deeply concerned about my health. It reach for my nose; it was still there. I felt blood pooling in my mouth. The roof of my mouth seemed wholly altered. I checked for my teeth. And I did not wonder, not for one second, what happened to the baseball or the baserunners or the score of the game. I just wanted to be okay.

Minutes later, I was on the bench, spitting out huge amounts of blood, grateful that I still had my teeth. For the moment, at least. Next I took a trip to Urgent Care. One nurse looked at me, said, “Oh my gosh,” and sent me to the hospital. They insisted I spend the night. CT scans, and so on.



The game was at a "real" minor league field. Sweet dugouts with a tunnel that led to indoor batting cages and locker rooms. I took this photo a few minutes after sitting on the bench, spitting blood, dazed and down-hearted.

The game was at a “real” minor league field. Sweet dugouts with a tunnel that led to indoor batting cages and locker rooms. I took this photo a few minutes after sitting on the bench, spitting blood, dazed and down-hearted.

The next day, after an overnight in the hospital — fearing these Florida doctors, who didn’t seem to know anything — who kept talking about “pulling teeth” and “multiple fractures” and “possible bleeding in my brain” — I flew back home to NY for a hasty visit with an oral surgeon.

Goodbye Florida, three nights early. It was totally great until it suddenly so wasn’t.

Yesterday, with my wife at my side, the evaluation was far more optimistic than I’d been led to believe. Overall, no structural damage. My cheekbones, my jaw, good. My upper palate suffered some trauma but should heal itself. Some teeth might not make it, but maybe they will. Soft foods for next 10 days. We’ll wait and see how the body reacts.

View from my balcony, shared with 3 other teammates.

View from my balcony, shared with 3 other teammates.

I didn’t lose an eye. Whatever is broken can be repaired. I’m okay. Amazingly.

I caught a baseball with my face and I’m going to be perfectly fine.

So now I am left feeling sheepish, a little humiliated. The day before, I had pitched a solid game against a very good team, leaving in the 8th inning with a slim lead. The story in my head was a good one. I was 56 years old, having a great time in Florida, still competing, still a semi-athlete who can help his team win games. The next day I’m knocked down in the outfield, the ball is bouncing away, and I’m wondering what in the world I’m doing out here. Playing the outfield under the stupid lights. I hadn’t played a night game in over 17 years. I always play in natural light. My eyes are failing. I’m getting old and diminished. Who was I fooling?

I felt, right then, like an idiot. Ashamed. Never again, I thought to myself.

And yet 24 hours earlier, my story was completely different. Which one was true? Which image of myself was accurate?

I think in the end both narratives are true. Like Whitman said, I am large; I contain multitudes. I’m both things, the still-good player and the diminished fool with failing eyes and lost skills. I got injured and it was completely my fault. No one to blame but myself.

So now I’m home with a sore face and luscious, full lips. I might finally lose that last 5 pounds I’ve been unable to take off. I’ll work on Monday. And we’ll see how it goes.

Life turns on a dime, doesn’t it?

A quick snap back when everything was going great, glad to be exactly in that spot, preparing to play another ballgame.

A quick snap back when everything was going great, glad to be exactly in that spot, preparing to play another ballgame.