Archive for April 15, 2019

T-Shirt on a School Visit

Somewhere in Vermont last week, I came across a young student wearing this t-shirt and took a photo.

There’s a lot of great shirts out there.

And now I’m home for a stretch, because all we really care about in April is testing, testing, testing. 

As positive and energizing as a school visit can be, I sometimes come away from those visits with a tinge of sadness. The job of teacher has changed. So much stress over things that, to me, don’t matter very much. That’s a textbook definition of anxiety, btw, to be responsible for something over which you have little control. Those scores.

One thing is painfully clear: teachers generally don’t know books as much as they used to. The climate has shifted. Burdened by responsibilities, so many teachers don’t seem to be readers anymore. It’s not in their purview, and it’s not expected of them anymore. Maybe it’s me. But in many conversations I’ve had that perception confirmed by school librarians, teachers, other authors. Books just aren’t seen as central to the job anymore. I’m not seeing that old enthusiasm or that joy.

It’s April now, the cruelest month. Sharpen those pencils, kids, fill those answer bubbles . . . 

As Long As You’re Learning, You’re Not Failing

Fan Mail Wednesday #286: Inspired by “The Twilight Zone”


This one comes from Seattle, via a terrific tutor who went the extra yard for her student . . .

Dear Mr. Preller, 
My tutor and I were reading your book, Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream and we loved it a lot.  We reached the end of the book and you left it on a cliffhanger.  We thought that it would be awesome if you could make a sequel to this book. I would love it if we could know what happens to Sam and Andy and Mr. Overstreet. 
I love this kind of story telling. I love scary books and after reading this book you’re my go to author for scary books.   
Are you going to make a new book for Sam and Andy?  
I think your work is great.  If you could make a new book it would definitely be a book I would tell my friends about.
I think you are a genius.
P.S.  I am using my tutor’s email to write to you.  


I replied . . .
Thank you so much for this outrageously kind letter. Genius? I’m afraid not! But I’m very glad you found my “Scary Tales” series — there are 6 books in all — maybe more to come someday. We can only hope.
Don’t you love Iacopo Bruno’s illustrations? I sure do. 
Have you ever heard of Fan Fiction? It’s where readers respond to books . . . by writing. Each new writer takes on those same characters to explore new adventures, new situations. By all means, feel free to write a scene or an entire story based on what you think could happen in a sequel. And if you do write something, send it my way!
For this series of books, I was very much inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” show. Each episode was different — new characters, new situations, and often different genres — but each one provided a unique twist. Viewers always got that “Twilight Zone” experience. I’ve tried to achieve that format and feeling in these six books. These days, I’m super excited that Jordan Peele is bringing back a new Twilight Zone for your generation. 
My new scary story is actually realistic fiction. A wilderness survival story titled Blood Mountain. A brother and a sister lost in the mountains. It comes out in October and I’m so proud of it. 
Please thank your most excellent tutor for sharing my books with you. 
My very best,
James Preller

That’s So Dumb: Tales from the School Bureaucracy

Here’s a true story that’s hard to believe. Unless, of course, you work in a bureaucracy. I gather that teachers could tell this kind of story all day long (and I’m all ears, folks!). The crazy, confounding things that happen at school because of goofy rules and red tape. 

Here’s one I can share. I’m in a library in Tennessee, a visiting author setting up for a morning presentation. The students are due to arrive any minute. I look at the wall to check the time. “Um? What’s up with the clocks?”

The librarian explains the situation with a mixture of bemusement and resigned frustration. The work order came in over the summer to install the new clock. However, the work order made no mention of removing the old clock. So the technicians drilled new holes in the walls, rewired things, and put in the new clock. At some point, some figure in the building asked, “What about the old clock?” The men (I assume, from how the story was told to me) examined the work orders — every word, period, and comma —  and concluded, “Sorry, there’s no mention of removing anything. That will require a separate work order.”

End of story.

I stood there, blinking. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” the librarian told me. “It’s going to be another year before they come back and remove all the old clocks.”

“Wait. You mean it’s not just . . . ?”

“Yes, there are two clocks in every single room in the elementary school.” 

I studied the clocks once more. “Do we know which one’s right?”


Fan Mail Wednesday #284: Emergency Author Interview!


At a recent school visit, an eager student came up to me after a presentation hoping for an interview. Unfortunately, it was toward the end of the day, I still had books to sign, etc. There wasn’t time. I said I’d be happy to answer questions if she wrote to me. Usually it ends there.

And guess what? She persisted.

We admire that attribute in young women, don’t we?

Here’s the email, sent by Chloe’s librarian, and my response.


Hi Jimmy,

I apologize for the rush, but a student of mine, Chloe, has some interview questions that she needs answering as soon as possible.
1. What was the first  book you ever wrote?
2. What was the favorite book that you’ve ever written?
3. If you were not an author, what would be your second career and why?
4. From where do you get your inspiration? Do your kids inspire you?
5. When you were young, were you good at reading?
6. What is your favorite book?
7. What “role” did you play when you were in school? Were you the teacher’s pet? The sports jock? The bully?  etc
8. Why don’t any of your characters get killed?
9. How does your childhood affect your career as a writer?
10. What made you decide to become a writer?
11. Are you working on a new book? And if so, what is it about?
12. Would you want to choose any of the covers for your books?
13. How long do you think you will keep writing?
Thank you so much!
I replied:
Since this is a rush, let me answer without too much thinking . . .
1. Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue! It was a picture book about superpowered trucks.
2. Blood Mountain, coming in October.
3. Editor. Something with a creative element involving books.
4. Inspiration is all around me, including my children.
5. Good at reading? Hmmm, I think so; I don’t recall having any problems with it. But I was not an enthusiastic reader until high school, college.
6. Of all books? Oh my. Where the Wild Things Are is pretty darn good! I like Owl Moon a lot. My favorite novel from the past year is titled Overstory by Richard Powers.
7. I didn’t really fit into a category. Not a jock, not a clown. I flew under the radar with a small group of close friends. The misfits?
8. I have had characters die in The Fall and Before You Go, but those books are for older readers (grades 7-up). I’ve also had characters face serious illness in Six Innings and The Courage Test. So it’s not all been just rainbows, cupcakes and unicorns. And, technically, Adrian in Better Off Undead is a 7th-grade zombie — he died and reanimated — so I’ve got that covered, too.
9. My childhood, my roots, profoundly affect everything I write. Most clearly and obviously in the Jigsaw Jones series, where he is the youngest of a large family — like me.
10. I don’t think we “decide” to be writers, so much as we pick up a pen and make time to write. It can be a journal, a letter, a poem, a story, whatever. It’s just how I’ve processed my thoughts and feelings.
11. I am the “thinking” stage of a new book that features Mary, a minor (but crucial) character in the book Bystander. Haven’t written a word yet — but I’m getting there!
12. Would I like more of a voice in the creation of my book covers? Yes, yes, yes.
13. I will write until the day I die. There’s no reason to stop. Of course, I may not have any readers left. But the truth is, I’d do it anyway!
Thanks for asking.
My best,
James Preller