Archive for May 21, 2019

“Books Have Souls,” A Passage from Susan Orlean’s THE LIBRARY BOOK

You know when you read something so good, you have to immediately reread that section? And then a week later, you go back to it again, and again and, weeks later, again again? Well, I’ve been feeling that awe over Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. There are many passages I could share, but this one in particular just keeps stabbing me in the heart.

I have a similar feeling about music. I don’t play guitar, I don’t play anything, but I love music. I’ve always admired how amateur guitarists — a middle school kid somewhere, or a lawyer home after a grueling day — heading down to the basement to plug in their stratocasters, being able to feel the great songs roll through their bodies like a river. To, you know, channel that original inspiration through their fingertips. That connection.


That’s how I feel about re-typing passages from great writers. I’ve done it quite a few times over the years. It’s a pleasure to feel those words run through me, even if they did not originate here. This section is from pages 55-56, the opening paragraph from Chapter 5.

I hope you enjoy it. Because if you don’t, well, I’m not sure we can continue to be friends:

I decided to burn a book, because I wanted to see and feel what Harry would have seen and felt that day if he had been at the library, if he had started the fire. Burning a book was incredibly hard for me to do. Actually, doing it was a breeze, but preparing to do it was challenging. The problem was that I have never been able to do harm to a book. Even books I don’t want, or books that are so worn out and busted that they can’t be read any longer, cling to me like thistles. I pile them up with the intention of throwing them away, and then, every time, when the time comes, I can’t. I am happy if I can give them away or donate them. But I can’t throw a book in the trash, no matter how hard I try. At the last minute, something glues my hands to my sides, and a sensation close to revulsion rises up in me. Many times, I have stood over a trash can, holding a book with a torn cover and a broken binding, and I have hovered there, dangling the book, and finally, I have let the trash can lid snap shut and I have walked away with the goddamn book — a battered, dog-eared, wounded soldier that has been spared to live another day. The only thing that comes close to this feeling is what I experience when I try to throw out a plant, even if it is the baldest, most aphid-ridden, crooked-stemmed plant in the world. The sensation of dropping a living thing into the trash is what makes me queasy. To have that same feeling about a book might seem strange, but this is why I have come to believe that books have souls — why else would I be so reluctant to throw one away? It doesn’t matter that I know I’m throwing away a bound, printed block of paper that is easily reproduced. It doesn’t feel like that. A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive on a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press — a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and it continues on, time after time after time. Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books “the potency of life.” I wasn’t sure I had it in me to be a killer.

School Visit Season Comes to a Close

Every year, I go out and visit as many schools as I can. And I guess I always will, so long as I’m invited. I don’t take that for granted. I’m grateful to every librarian, teacher, PTA member, administor, and school that has given me that opportunity and responsibility. I do the best I can, give it all I’ve got, and hope to leave each school just a little bit better than when I arrived. It’s not about me; it’s about books, and literacy, and creativity, and the love of learning. Hopefully I help light that fuse.

Yes, please contact me directly at jamespreller@aol.com (go ahead, make your AOL jokes, I can take it) with your queries about future school visits. It’s helpful to get those dates on the calendar for next year. If your PTA finds itself sitting on a pile of extra money, zing me an email. Maybe we can squeeze in one last visit before the school year ends — launch these kids into summer reading. Discounts available.

The photo below was taken in Gravesend, Brooklyn, on a visit to Magen David Yeshivah on McDonald Ave. So nice to visit a school for a second time. It’s a great treat for me to spend time in Brooklyn, my old stomping grounds. Love it there.

Thank you, all!

More Photos: A Middle School That Goes the Distance

I’m an unusual author — hey, let me finish the sentence before you start nodding your head! — in that I write across the board for grades K-8. That means I regularly get invited to elementary and middle schools. In general, elementary schools are warmer, fuzzier. The kids are more outwardly excited, more likely to come up and hug me around the knees. And they buy more books. 

Whereas middle schools tend to be a bit colder. You don’t get the same level of excitement and energy. There are all sorts of reasons why. The biggest, I think, is that it’s easier for an elementary school to get everyone on board. Whereas in middle schools, it’s every teacher for herself, everyone doing his or her own thing. I realize that’s a big generality, and there are exceptions in both directions.

Nonetheless!

At a recent visit to Algonquin Middle School, I enjoyed so many kind, warm, one-step-beyond-the-norm moments. All those little things contributed to a truly positive visit. Here are a few . . .

 

 

Ha, ha, ha. Will the real James Preller please stand up? These guys, along with their entire class, met me first thing in the morning. Hysterical and a little frightening.

 

     

 

A display in the main hallway that featured student artwork.

 

 

Cake. Yes, cake! The book won’t be out until October, but we’re excited about it already. I even ate lunch with a handful of students.

 

 

This young man, James, was really excited to meet me. He claims to have read all my books. Even my mother doesn’t go that far. Obviously, he’s some kind of a genius. A really nice guy, too.

 

 

One of the sweetest photos ever. I’m signing books, and this girl, Kath, is looking back at her mother; the shivery excitement is real. Forget that it’s me. Plug in any other author. The point is: this student, this young woman, quietly thrilled to meet a real, live author. To go home with a signed book, eager to read.

 

      

 

Another bulletin board in the library featuring more of my books.

 

And best of all, the energy and enthusiasm of young readers. They wouldn’t stop reading. None of it happens without the incredible dedication (and preparation) of school library media specialist Rebecca Ekstrom and the support that comes from the school principal, Mr. Messia, whose presence was felt (and appreciated) throughout the day. He cares and he models it for teachers and students. Thank you all, so much.

One Question, Five Authors #12: “Do You Have Any Heroes in Children’s Publishing?”

 

If I were English, I might say that I was dead chuffed by this edition of “One Question,” the internet’s laziest interview series. Thankfully, that expression won’t be expressed here. Not on my watch! Let’s just say I really like how this turned out. I was glad to see the various directions our contributors took in response to my open-ended question. Speaking of contributors: Lois Lowry’s in the house! I have enormous respect for Everything Lois and it is a true honor to have her visit my little blog, pull up a milk crate (note to self: buy chairs!), and hang out with the rest of us. Speaking of heroes, the answers here are provided by Heather Alexander, Lois Lowry, Elaine Magliano, R.W. Alley, and Kurtis Scaletta. Thanks, one and all! You did good.

 

Heather Alexander

My mother asks the same question about each book I’ve edited since I started in children’s publishing: “But where is your name?” The message came across loud and clear — all my hours of work didn’t count because my name wasn’t printed on the cover (or, really, anywhere). Throughout my reading-under-the-covers childhood, I’d naively believed that words flowed from an author’s imagination directly onto the page and then were bound seamlessly into the book in my hands. The important person’s name was displayed prominently on the cover, and those authors became my heroes. It wasn’t until I got behind-the-scenes did I realize how many talented people toil to make a book — and elevate a so-so author to a great author and a great author to an amazing author. Editors, copyeditors, fact checkers, designers, production managers — the list goes on. I was lucky to have been taught by some of the best editors in the business — true magicians able to conjure greatness from the clumsiest of sentences. I’ve also been fortunate, as an author, to have awesome editors and fact checkers carefully watching my back. So as far as children’s publishing heroes go, I’m giving my shout out to all the uncelebrated people behind each and every book. (And, now, if every author reading this writes the name of his or her trusted editor or designer in the comments section, I suspect you’ll make their moms so, so happy!)

 

Lois Lowry

It won’t come as a surprise to hear me mention Walter Lorraine, who become my editor after the editor who had acquired my first book in 1977 moved on to another company. Walter was/is deservedly renowned as an editor of picture books — Chris Van Allsburg, David Macaulay, James Marshall, and Allen Say were among his superstars. I don’t think he felt that the editing of prose was his forté. But when I landed (figuratively) in his lap, it was a fine pairing because I had a background as a photographer and had brought, I think, a heightened visual sense to my own writing. Walter perceived that, appreciated it, nurtured it. He was also a purist, as I am, and hated — as I do still — the commercialization of children’s books. He loathed the spin-offs: the toys and games and money-making gee-gaws vaguely related to literature. As he moved (grumbling) toward retirement, after fifty-five years in the field, he saw himself as something of a dinosaur in a publishing world that was moving away from the patient and painstaking encouragement of ideas and true art. I was fortunate to have been his colleague during those magical years.

 

Elaine Magliaro

My hero is Grace Lin. Grace is a dear friend. We met nearly twenty years ago when she was just starting out in children’s publishing. At that time, she was illustrating other authors’ books and writing and illustrating her own picture books. Since then she has truly blossomed as a master in the field of children’s literature. In addition to picture books, she has written early readers, realistic fiction, fantasy, and poetry. She’s won a Newbery Honor, Caldecott Honor, Josette Frank Award, a Theodor Geisel Honor — and been a National Book Award Finalist. Grace has definitely found success in her chosen profession.

I admire Grace for more than the awards that she has won, though. She is a hero to me because she has remained true to herself and to her heritage. Grace has provided young readers with a heart-warming look into her culture and her own personal experiences when she was growing up as a minority in upstate New York. She has been an advocate for the We Need Diverse Books movement and for gender equality in children’s publishing. She is a strong individual who has dealt with difficult situations in her life with great resolve and grace. I know her to be a true and loyal friend who NEVER forgets a kindness done for her. She is one of the finest human beings that I have ever known. The great success she has been met with has not changed the sweet young woman that I met years ago.

 

R.W. Alley

My hero in children’s publishing? I’m taking the question to mean, not authors and illustrators, but rather editors and publishers, which makes it more interesting. Editors and publishers shape the tone of an imprint.
 At the start of my career, there was a clear distinction between “trade” and “mass market” publishers. This played out in content (trade = literature, mass market = entertainment) as well as in production values (trade = dust-jackets over cloth covers, mass market = paperback and uncoated paper). Of course there was overlap, but generally that was the idea. Sendak was literature. Scarry was mass market.

I dropped into that world as a long-haired, clean-shaven, John Lennon glasses high school grad with a very heavy (by weight) portfolio and a NYC map marked up with publisher locales and switchboard phone numbers. Art directors had portfolio viewing days. Some met in person. 
My publishing hero was a meet-in-person art director, Grace Clarke. I came to know lots (but not enough) about Grace later. She was kind, but straight-forward. At our first meeting, she made it clear that my sketchbook was more interesting than my carefully curated (and matted) portfolio. She gave me a copy of the “new” series she was publishing (Tintin) from her then-desk at Western Publishing (Golden Books) and told me I should think about that format. (I did and I continue to.)
 But what elevated Grace to hero status in my small world was something I found out years later. My parents (respectable college professor and protective mother of an only child) wrote to Grace (my mom dictated the letter to my dad, as per usual) and asked her not to encourage my art. In fact, they asked that she please actively discourage it. Their son had college to attend and an academic path ahead. Art was at best a sideline. At its worst, a dead-end ending in a flophouse.

Instead, this is what Grace did. She filed away the letter, kept in touch and, right after I graduated from college, offered me my first book. It took her over fifteen years, but she finally revealed my parents letter. She said she’d waited to make sure she’d made the right call. In the meantime, I’d gotten more books, gotten married and gotten my parents kinda on board with the artist thing. For that waiting, for the care she exercised in tending the psyche of a young man in his relationship with his art and his parents, Grace Clarke is my publishing hero.
 Thanks for asking, Jimmy.

 

Kurtis Scaletta

My heroes are the school librarians, booksellers, preschool teachers, and so forth who create and cultivate readers, find the money to book authors, and make those authors feel appreciated. Yeah, they’re paid to do it, but not much. OK, I actually work at a literary organization so maybe this is a little self-serving! But seriously, I really do love all the people who help us do what we do.

Another of my heroes is a local author. Her writing is lovely and has won major awards but I admire her because of her kindness. She’s supportive of everyone who writes. She rallies behind anyone who needs it. She remembers everyone’s kids’ names and asks about them. She doesn’t just ask to be polite, she really cares.
The Greek origin of the word “hero” is a person who is both god and human. I’ve had enough of the heroes who are all about the god half, and appreciate more the ones who live up to the human half.

Seven Photos from the 11th Annual Hudson Children’s Book Festival

Thought I’d throw some photos up here, documenting my school visit to Montgomery C. Smith Elementary in Hudson, plus a shot from the pre-festival soiree, and the magnificent event itself. My thanks go to Lisa Dolan, Jennifer Clark and Bridget Smith for the kindness, the coolness, and the support. Besides, it’s not often you see me in a laundered shirt, so I had to over-share. Let’s do this, people!

This is the banner that greeted me in the main hallway of the school. Literally a great sign that it would be a happy visit. 

Besides my presentation to the 3rd grade in the auditorium, I was given the opportunity to visit an eager classroom for a cozy Q & A. At the end, this boy, Logan, was eager for me to see his writing. To bear witness. To be seen. Isn’t that what we all want? These are the moments, folks.

My basic go-to move in a photo is to point at something/anything. For some reason I went with the triumphant fist pump thing here: an abject failure. Though staring directly at the photographer, I seem unaware that a photograph might be transpiring. Oh, sigh. What a warm, beautiful, diverse group of students. Treated me like I was something special. Go figure.

Two of my pals in the book business: Matt Phelan and Jennifer Sattler. So much talent. It’s one of the nice parts of these festivals, getting together with fellow authors. We don’t actually complain ALL of the time. True story!

Signing The Courage Test. That title sold out early! All my “Scary Tales” disappeared quickly. Bystander, too. But more importantly: how do you like my shirt?

 

 

This shot is a little blurry — the day was a blur — but I remember this young man vividly. He drew this picture, based on a Jigsaw Jones book, sometime over the winter. He was eager to bring it to the Festival so he could give it to me. Proud of what he’d done. He knew it would make me happy.

A festival is full of small, intimate encounters such as this. Brief conversations about books, reading, life, school, whatever. To my right is a boxed lunch which I never did get around to eating. Thank you, Hudson Children’s Book Festival!