Archive for January 16, 2018

“Sticks and Stones” in Honor of No Name-Calling Week (Yes, It’s a Thing)

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This is no name-calling week (and yes, click the link, learn how your school can participate, and you can even buy the pencils!). And in honor of this week’s theme, I’d like to share the second-shortest chapter in my most recent book, Better Off Undead. The shortest, by the way, is only one word; try to beat that.

To set the scene, Adrian, a zombie, is having a hard time adjusting to middle school life. He begins the book as more or less the ultimate outsider, being the only zombie officially registered at Nixon Middle School, where they clearly had never heard of “No Name-Calling Week.” A real shame. Here on pages 47-48, Adrian reflects on some of the names he’s been called . . . 

STICKS AND STONES

Let’s list the names:

I am shuffler, ankle-dragger, shape-shifter, howler, freak. I am living dead, soulless corpse, brain-sucker, crawler, spitter, wraith, wuss, dumb butt, flailer, mutant, hant. I am gorgon, raver, basilisk, shambling undead, moaner, groaner, ghoul, death talker, puke machine, shade, half-life, cadaver, wailer, flailer, biter, roamer, feeder, lurcher, loser, infected fleshbag, vermin, oddball, slob, dipstick, drooler, death rattler, human fail. 

I am other, alien, outcast, misfit, and I live in your town. 

I am zombie, and names will never hurt me.

But inside, I’m a flower rising up through a crack in the sidewalk. I’m a hawk riding the upswells of wind, an athlete leaping hurdles, heart pumping, blood pulsing . . . 

Inside, in the places that no one can see, I’m freaking amazing. 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #265: After the Skype

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Fresh from my Skype visit, I received this kind note from North Carolina, which is an actual state in the United States.
 
Thanks again for the wonderful Skype session today!  My classes had some great discussions about the responses that you gave to their questions!  It was an incredible experience for them, and me!
 
I would love to purchase a Bystander poster.  Please let me know if you have such a thing to offer.
 
I finished The Fall today.  I loved it, too!  I ordered The Bell Jar because I am very curious after you referenced it several times in the text. 
 –
I am attaching a photo from our session today.  Our media specialist may have more, but this is the only one that she sent me.
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I am looking forward to ordering your latest book!   Also, my students are begging me to read The Fall to them.  I have asked our guidance counselor to read it first to make sure that she thought it would be ok as a read aloud.  It obviously touches on a more sensitive topic than Bystander. It will definitely be made available for checkout to my students either way.
 –
Thanks so much! 
 
Susan
 

I replied . . .

Dear Susan,

Thank you for this note and the photo. Was I really that dark during the Skype? Or is it just the photo? I wonder if I should focus on proper lighting in the future.
 –
I enjoyed the questions and the experience, thank you for making it happen.
 
9781250090546.IN01I appreciate your thoughts on The Fall. I understand where suicide is a sensitive issue, and should give any educator pause before sharing the book with a large group. However, The Fall was (loosely) inspired by real events. These terrible things happen. The book is not really “about” the suicide, but goes deeper into the potential implications of cyberbullying, i.e., how we treat each other. Honestly, for me, the deepest theme in the book is forgiveness.
 
I’m proud of that book and know that many readers, generally grades 7-up, have been enthusiastic about it. The book was nominated for the Sakura Medal in Japan and listed in the 2017 ALA midwinter meetings (by YALSA) as a “quick pick” for reluctant readers.
 
If this is any help, I’ve listed some review comments below.
 –
“Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).” — Booklist.
 –
“Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse.” — School Library Journal.
 –
“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” (Fiction. 10-16) — Kirkus.
 
 “It was 2:55 am as I finally gave up on the notion of sleep.  Having started reading THE FALL by James Preller earlier in the day, I knew sleep would not come until I had finished Sam’s story.  Now, having turned the last page, it still haunts me and will for quite some time.”Guys Lit Wire.
 –
“I didn’t realize the emotional impact this book had on me until the very last sentence when it brought tears to my eyes. This was a heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship, bullying, and the aftermath of all of it.” — Expresso Reads.
 
Thank you, I hope our paths cross again.
 –
James Preller
And yes, Dear Readers, there’s even a postscript — because Susan wrote back with this . . .
 –
I agree with everything that you said about The Fall.  Our guidance counselor is halfway through it and says that she absolutely loves it!  We both agree that it does not focus on the actual suicide.  The theme of forgiveness, as well as students realizing what could possibly happen as a result of bullying is very powerful.
 
My students are begging me to read it, so I feel almost certain that it will happen!
Thanks again for being so approachable!  We met with a parent this morning and all she said her son was talking about last night was the SKYPE with you!  This is such a powerful opportunity for our students, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to make it happen!

RoboCop, Ronald Reagan, and How a 1984 Campaign Commercial Gets Reimagined in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

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

One of the most enjoyable aspects about writing Better Off Undead was that it was set in the not-so-distant future. That was a first for me, and a revelation. A simple fact that turned everything in the book into social commentary. And at the same time, I felt inspired to include everything but the kitchen sink into my creative blender: climate change, makeover shows, train bombs, pollution, GMOs, school testing, zombies and bats and bees and whatever else hit my radar.

RoboCop-1987-PosterI was also inspired by the faux-commercials and sly asides throughout the original 1987 “RoboCop” movie directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Peter Weller. It was a movie that satirized popular culture in all sorts of astute and clever ways. To cite one example: Instead of Battleship, the popular family game is called Nuke ‘Em! Ha-ha. The movie does a terrific job skewering corporate greed and immorality. The corporate machine just wants to be a machine; it doesn’t care about sunsets or art or, you know, us. (It might serve us, but it won’t ever care.)

This is one of the powerful aspects of science fiction. The moment we begin to describe a future society, we automatically comment on the values and efficiencies of our current one. When characters sit on a bench and watch the evening sky for hologram advertisements (page 120, “Under a Hologram Sky,”) I’m saying something about the monetizing impulses of our world. And when I have young Dane watch a commercial on page 82 for “EarthFirst Gas Masks” — “Sleek and stylish and eighty percent more effective than ordinary surgical masks for protection against air pollution and other contagion!” — I’m taking articles I’ve read about pollution in China’s cities, with ordinary citizens walking around wearing surgical gas masks, and extending it into the future, broken world of my book. “That’s right, Vanna,” a gray-haired man chimes in. “These masks will keep you safe from airborne diseases like dengue fever and superflu and –“

And so on.

ScanThis sort of thing goes on throughout Better Off Undead. It’s a world gone wrong. How else explain a zombie, Adrian Lazarus, walking around in Nixon Middle School? (By the way, I did not realize until today that “RoboCop” included a reference to Lee Iacocca Elementary School. Nice, right? In the future our heroes will be corporate CEOs; “greed is good,” Gordon Gekko, and all that. What could possibly go wrong?)

When I created the evil corporation, K & K Corp, central to Adrian’s adventure, I naturally drew inspiration from the despicable Koch brothers. I tried to imagine how they might attempt to manipulate public opinion for personal profit and remembered a famous television commercial from the 1984 Presidential Election (I was fresh out of college and definitely paying attention). It was Ronald Reagan’s classic “It’s Morning Again in America” commercial that proved so effective for his campaign. Could have been titled, “It’s all good!”

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Anyway, here’s the scene at the end of Chapter 21, “Talal Clues Me In”:

Dane was taking a bath when I got home. My mother was on the computer. I clicked on the television. A commercial came on. I’d probably seen it a hundred times before, but this time I noticed the names at the end of it.

The commercial flashed a series of short film clips, each more beautiful than the next. A fishing boat leaves a harbor, a man in a business suit gets into a cab, a rugged farmer drives a big-wheeled tractor, a cowboy saddles up, a car and a moving van pull into the driveway of a huge home, a teary-eyed grandmother watches a wedding scene in church, various citizens hoist American flags up flagpoles, rows of smiling children look up in wonder, a proud eagle soars across the sky. Final image: a logo on the side of a huge glass-and-steel building for K & K Corp.

NOTE: I have to interrupt here to point out that the paragraph above and immediately below is a fairly accurate description of the 1984 commercial. I watched it and wrote. And also, yes, of course, flags and jobs and weddings and boats and farmers and grandmothers are all good things. It’s just, you know, exponentially manipulative. And super white, by the way. Anway, back to our excerpt:

While all those images floated past, a man’s voice spoke in soothing tones. The words scrolled across the screen in block letters as he spoke:

BE AT PEACE.

THERE IS NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT.

ALL IS GOOD, ALL IS WELL.

THE BIRDS ARE SINGING.

IT IS MORNING IN AMERICA.

BE HAPPY, RELAX, SMILE.

WE ONLY CARE ABOUT YOUR HAPPINESS.

{FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400In smaller print, it read: THIS HAD BEEN A PAID ADVERTISEMENT BY K & K CORP.

“That’s some frown, Adrian,” my mother said. She had joined me in the kitchen and was poking around in the refrigerator. “What’s bothering you?”

“Huh? What?” I replied. “Nothing. I’m fine. I was watching that commercial and –“

“Don’t you love it?” my mother said while slicing into a giant, perfectly pink, wonderfully round, genetically engineered grapefruit. “I see that commercial every day, and every day it makes me smile.”

I made an effort to smile right along with her.

“Be happy. Relax. Smile,” my mother repeated. “Those are words to live by!”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I wondered why K & K Corporation was spending millions of dollars on commercials to brainwash us all.

They didn’t want us to worry.

Because of course they didn’t.

Everything was fine.

Be happy. Relax. Smile.

 

For reference, here is the full text of the original commercial, which I encourage you to watch by clicking here:

“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you check out the book. 

Here’s the full review from Booklist . . .

star-512“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc. Having inexplicably survived a fatal hit-and-run accident over the summer, aptly named Adrian Lazarus is off to seventh grade, sporting a hoodie to hide his increasing facial disfigurement and lunching on formaldehyde smoothies to keep himself together. Simultaneously resenting and yet understanding the varied reactions of his schoolmates—which range from shunning to all-too-close attention from a particularly persistent bully—Adrian is also surprised and pleased to discover that he has allies, notably Gia Demeter, a new girl with a peculiar ability to foretell certain events. Preller might have played this as a light comedy (and there are some hilarious bits), but he goes instead for darker inflections. Even as Adrian sees himself becoming ominously aggressive (while developing tastes for roadkill and raw meat), his discovery that fabulously powerful data miners Kalvin and Kristoff Bork are ruthlessly scheming to put him under the knife in search of the secret to his longevity cranks the suspense up another notch. Nonetheless, in a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — Booklist, Starred Review

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #264: Bystander on Long Island

 

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Here we go . . . my 10th year of sharing a small selection of my fan mail on the interwebs. An honor I never take for granted.

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I replied . . . 

 

Dear Samantha,

Thank you for your impressive, typed, two-page letter. It’s nice to hear from a reader on Long Island, my old stomping grounds. I was born in Wantagh, emptied garbage cans at Jones Beach, road my bicycle to the mall, and, yes, even hung out at President Nixon’s dog’s grave near my high school. My mom, age 91 (long, slow clap for that!), lives out in Greenport on the North Fork. Wine country, I guess. So I still find myself out there, though I now live in upstate.

I’ve been to Commack, and not just to drive past (though, yes, I confess: mostly that). I vaguely remember doing a school visit out there at some point. It all tends to blur. So we have that in common, the Island and good bagels.

9780312547967Anyway, I’m glad that Bystander made you reflect a little bit on your own life. I agree with your thoughts about social media, how bullying is actually more subtle, less obvious than what we (typically) see in movies, i.e., the big dumb kid shoving someone into a locker.

I feel there are endless ways of writing about bullying, a million stories to tell. No book can hope to say it all. I sometimes think that Mary was the secret hero of Bystander, though I suspect her story is under-written; it mostly takes place offstage. For better and for worse, I decided to focus primarily on Eric. When a book or movie can get us to think, to make connections, to become aware, that’s a very good thing. That’s art, right? The movie you see and keep wondering about days later. The poem that makes us shut to book and gaze out the window, wondering.

Ultimately, I tried to write a good, fast-paced, involving story. The rest is up to you.

My best,

James Preller