Archive for February 21, 2020

Photo: My Dog Echo

 

This is the creature who secretly writes my books.

Echo was a rescue dog, and the cliche is true: we do often wonder who saved who.

He’s part border collie, part who-knows-what. Fifty pounds, 17 months old, and faster than email.

He’s great off-leash and we walk miles together every day, almost never in the neighborhood or on leash.

It’s a great thinking time for me. Often, I never say a word. If I clap my hands, he comes running. It’s kind of cool.

Some random shots, mostly from this winter, taken along the Hudson river, an Albany golf course, and a couple of other spots. We’ve got about 8-10 different routes we usually take.

 

That Time I Went Full “Robocop” and Spoofed Protection Masks in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

In 2017, I wrote a middle-grade novel (grades 4-7) that was set in the “not-so-distant future,” titled Better Off Undead. As backdrop to the main narrative, the story quietly speculated on various environmental issues. I even took inspiration from the original “Robocop” movie, which brilliantly spoofed popular culture by featuring a variety of advertisements within the story. 

            

I bring this up because of the coronavirus and all the protection masks we’re seeing in our daily newsfeed. The images are everywhere. Below, a very brief scene that features the commercial I imagined. For context, I don’t think you need much. Adrian is a high-functioning 7th grade zombie and he has returned home after school. He makes his younger brother, Dane, a hamburger.

Booklist gave this book a starred review and called it “Hilarious.” For what that’s worth! 

 

   

 

I leaned against the counter while he munched happily, idly watching the TV by the sink. One of Dane’s favorite commercials came on, some company selling gas masks. A series of shots showed various models walking around wearing the masks -– while shopping at the mall, standing in an elevator, moving down a crowded hallway, even at a cocktail party. Anytime there were lots of people around, they showed a gorgeous body in a gas mask. The commercial cut to a close-up of a blonde actress. She yanked off her mask and smiled at us.

“EarthFirst Gas Masks,” she announced. “Sleek and stylish and eighty-percent more effective than ordinary surgical masks for protection against air pollution and other contagion!”

Her white teeth gleamed, her glossy red lips glistened, and something inside me stirred. Next a handsome actor with flecks of gray in his hair stepped beside her. “That’s right, Vanna. These masks will keep you safe from airborne diseases like dengue fever and super-duper-flu and,” he paused to shake his head, winking mischievously, “who knows what other germs are floating around out there nowadays! I know I’m not taking chances!”

Vanna laughed. Ho, ho, ho.

I snapped off the TV.

“Hey,” Dane protested.

“You don’t need to watch that stuff,” I said, “It’ll fry your brains.”

“I want one for Christmas,” Dane said.

“Christmas? Already? Let’s get past Halloween first. Then you can write to Santa,” I said. “I think there’s a new line of masks coming out just for kids. I read there’s even going to be a Darth Vadar mask.”

Dane sat swinging his feet in the air, munching silently, probably imagining himself in a Darth Vadar gas mask. He stopped chewing and looked at me with a funny expression. “Shouldn’t you cook it first?” he asked. He pointed at the package of raw hamburger meat.

I discovered that I had a hunk of raw meat in my hand . . . and in my mouth. I immediately spat it into the sink -– disgusting! -– and rinsed my mouth with water. “What the heck?!” I said, bringing a hand to my suddenly churning stomach. I saw that almost all of the raw meat from the package was gone. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I didn’t know I was eating it.”

Dane bit into his burger. A trickle of grease rolled down his chin, shimmering in the light. “I didn’t know people could eat hamburger meat without cooking it.”

“Don’t tell Mom, okay? I don’t want her to get more freaked out than she already is.”

Dane nodded.

“Remember to put the dishes in the sink when you’re done,” I reminded him. “I’m going up to my room.”

I trudged up the stairs, head spinning. What was happening to me?

 

SOME REVIEWS . . . 

“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.

Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale of a middle-schooler who craves normalcy, and environmental issues with some currency make the story even more relatable. Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers, and they’ll be glad of the hint at a follow-up.Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books.

“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

“Preller takes the physical and emotional awkwardness of middle school to grisly levels . . . [and] thoughtfully chronicles the anxieties of middle school, using a blend of comedy and horror, to send a message of empowerment and acceptance.” — Publishers Weekly.

NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND CHEAP!

Pledge for Valentine’s Day

 

Look Who’s Illustrating My Next Book

Yeah, this artist, the great Mary GrandPre. Maybe you don’t know her name, but I’m pretty sure you know her work.

So. How does that happen? How does it work in publishing, the writer-illustrator connection? I get asked that a lot.

Though there are exceptions and variations, my book with Mary followed a well-established pattern. Back in 2016, I submitted a manuscript to my editor which was accepted for publication. Just words on a page. In this case, interconnected haiku.

Looking back on a my original submission to Liz Szabla, my editor, dated 4/22/16, I laid out my basic vision:

 

 

This collection of haiku celebrates the first day of school and a vision of community. It provides a loose, flowing narrative that carries readers through the multi-faceted moments in a school day as it touches a diverse variety of characters while they move from the bus stop to the morning pledge, to recess and lunch and the final bell.

The poems offer the illustrator opportunities to show a rich variety of children –- wild and brave, silly and earnest, friendly and a little frightened. Through the artwork, illustrations should highlight recurring characters and allow readers to see happy interactions and first steps toward friendship. We are witnesses to the beginning of a new, diverse, and open-hearted community.

There’s flexibility here. The final number of poems depends entirely on layout and editorial’s vision for the book. There are 39 included here (which strikes me as slightly high, compared to other haiku collections of this nature), whereas it could be decided to go with as few as, say, 23 poems –- allowing room for effective double-page spreads for a single haiku. 

Later in 2016, or possibly early in 2017, I was informed that Mary GrandPre had agreed to illustrate the book. I did not immediately recognize the name. The look of the book would be up to Mary, the art director and designers at Feiwel & Friends, as overseen by Liz. Often, that’s the beginning and end of a writer’s communication with the illustrator. My manuscript did not come with notes to the illustrator, as many do, beyond what I shared above.

To my delight, I did receive a lovely, complimentary email from Mary, asking for my thoughts about possibly cutting some haiku. There was a conflict where the weather described was inconsistent. We went back and forth — Mary was gracious and lovely — and I was very happy to eliminate some, because that was always my intention. I had individual haikus that highlighted the statue of liberty, a student in a wheelchair, and a teacher in a hijab. We realized that since those images would be reflected in the book visually, we were able to cut those haiku in order to make room for others.

For example, I believe everyone hoped there might be at least one spread where there was just one haiku. It turned out to be one that centered on the school library. I wrote:

 

LIBRARY

The library door

Opens: Hear the whoosh and thrum

Of the school’s heart beat.

 

Note on the haiku, which followed the traditional 5-7-5 syllable/line count: a haiku does not usually come with a title. But for this book, because it was intended for very young readers, I cheated a little and gave each one a title in the original manuscript. Somewhere along the line I fretted about that, it was a little impure, and asked Liz if maybe we should eliminate the titles. Liz replied that she liked them, believed they worked, and that they also added a visual element to the pages. I said, as I recall, “Okay!”

At a certain point in the process, it’s the only answer available. 

All Welcome Here will be published on June 16, 2020. I’m so eager to hold it in my hands — I’ll probably receive a printed copy in early May, best guess — but I’m more excited to visit schools and, perhaps, even develop some haiku workshops for students of all ages.

So, yeah, Mary GrandPre. How cool is that? How lucky am I?

Can’t wait.

 

How Does a Book Survive?

I was pleased to spy my newest book, Blood Mountain, displayed with multiple copies in my local Bethlehem Public Library in Delmar, NY. I’m grateful they’ve embraced their role of supporting local writers. It’s so important for our survival.

Artists in our society struggle to earn a living and it’s getting harder than ever. People make assumptions about fame and wealth, but for the overwhelming majority of us, we’re barely clinging to our careers. 

The hardest part is the silence. Books take years and they come out and . . . the world just shrugs its shoulders. How can you make a difference? Little things. Request a book at your library. Order a copy from your local independent bookstore. Gift a copy to a favorite classroom teacher. We know they don’t have the financial resources to fill their rooms with as many books as they’d like. If you enjoyed the book, yes, please write a quick review on Amazon or GoodReads. Spread the word, suggest it to a friend. It doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg and simply your words makes such a difference.

Thank you, kind staff at the Bethlehem Public Library; thanks to everyone who has given this book, which I am so proud of, a chance to survive.

 

BLOOD MOUNTAIN IS A 2019 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION.