Archive for June 28, 2022

Fan Mail Wednesday Triple Threat #324-326: Oooooh, Secret Codes!


I received three letters from the same classroom, each including a SASE (thank you!). Two of the letters came with secret codes. All of them were fairly similar and signed using only an initial (for privacy, I gather). I enjoyed responding to them, not all that seriously. 

But first, the codes: 

Here are my replies . . . 


Dear N,

Just N, hmmm? That’s mysterious.  

Let me guess: Noah, Nadine, Neo, Nico, Nancy, Nigel . . .

(Stop me when I get it right.)

Natasha, Nehemiah, Nelson, Naomi . . . 

(I’m fading here.)

Nevan, Neely, Nori, Naadir . . .

(I give up!)

As for your code: “Can you figure out this pass code to read it if you can read it.”

Did I miss anything? 

I’m glad you enjoyed Food Fight’s satisfying conclusion!

My best,

James Preller

Dear T,

That’s it, huh? Just T. 

Wait a minute, I’ve got it!

This is Mister T!

“I pity the fool!”

Thanks for the SASE: Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope.

Saves me some money!

Be well and keep reading,

James Preller

Dear A,

I wonder. A what? A banana? A pizza pie? A really good book? A reader?

I’m a B, personally: baffled, bewildered, bamboozled!

Let’s see if I can crack your code. 

(This is fun, thanks.)

“James Preller I really liked the book the case of the food fight!”

Okay: 1) That’s good news! 2) Pretty sure this makes me a genius!

Have a great summer — not a bummer!

My best,

James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #323: A Great Teacher, A Wonderful “Thank You,” & Another School Year Comes to a Close

One thing I’ve noticed — and I bet you’ve noticed it, too — is how rarely we receive “thank you” notes anymore. In any form. Not handwritten, not via email, not even a quick text.

People are busy and otherwise preoccupied and that kind of thing seems to be vanishing. The world is a poorer place for it.

Not that I need a thank you, but I notice when it’s not there.

As a driver, when I pause to let another car into “my” lane, or allow a pedestrian to pass, I always look for the little wave. That simple act that says, I see you.

I’ll continue to do those small things regardless of a response. But jeez, people. Where’s my little wave? Would it kill you?

Enough of the preamble, let’s go to the main event.


This package came the other day. I recognized that it was from a second-grade teacher in Ohio, Rose. I had enjoyed a paid Zoom visit with her class about two months back (one of Rose’s old friends had gifted me to her — even though all she ever wanted was a motorcycle).

Oooooh, fancy paper.

It’s a handcrafted hamster! Rose had threatened promised to send one. Each year — I think I’ve got this right — Rose reads Jigsaw Jones: The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster with her class. And each year they make their own hamsters. In Rose’s classroom, literature meets art. Rose probably includes science, too, teaching about real hamsters. It’s called cross-curricular learning. Or maybe just “fun,” depending upon whom you ask. 


That’s not all. The package included a card, signed by the entire class.


So kind — and what a warm activity for these young students to share. Reflection and gratefulness and thanksgiving. “We love books!”


I received photos, too. Can’t show them all.


But here’s another!


And lastly, maybe best of all, the handwritten note.

Pretty great, right? How lucky am I?

So here we are, late June, summer begins and another school year ends. As always, I am grateful to every teacher who shared my books with young readers. I couldn’t survive in this bunny-eat-bunny business if not for you — promoting literacy and a love of reading.

We recognize in this one package the profound difference that one teacher can make in a classroom, modeling positive social behaviors — again: reflection, appreciation, thankfulness, manners. Think of the difference that dozens of teachers make in a school, and hundreds make in our communities, and hundreds of thousands make in our world.

Rose is just one person, a humble second-grade teacher, loving those kids, managing through a pandemic, doing her level best — impacting her students and giving us all more reasons to hope for the kinder, more gentle future.

Please, don’t thank me, Rose.



Thank you, teachers, everywhere.

A Few Thoughts on Writing in the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” Format — Everything is Backwards!

“If you build a wee home
with love and care,
a magic fairy will come. It only takes faith
and a little imagination.”

Something different from me, a lighthearted project in the CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE format (thank you, Chooseco). Despite their popularity, I never felt that a fairy story was my domain. But why not? After interviewing author Liza Gardner Walsh (who is fabulous, and a fairy *expert*), I was inspired by the possibilities — beginning with the hope-filled activity of building a fairy house with natural materials. Of course, my fairy is not called Silverwings or Emerald Dancer. He’s named Bert the Below Average, and not all of his magic works out as planned. Hopefully a lively, funny, entertaining book that can be read, and reread, again and again, each time with a new ending. Now available, 80 pages, ages 5-8, wonderfully illustrated by Norm Grock.


I wanted to talk a little bit about writing in this crazy format, because it was so different from anything I’ve done before. You see, the books are backwards.

Briefly, the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (CYOA) format, trademarked by Chooseco, requires a unique set of assumptions and rules. The idea is that YOU, the reader, has agency: the story is about you, and you make decisions along the way. So it is written in the second person, a first for me.

Talk to the owl? Turn to page 16. Hide from the owl? Turn to page 36.

But there’s something else that makes these stories so weird to write: The endings don’t matter.

I mean, they don’t matter in the usual way that endings matter. In the case of Fairy House, a book of only 80 pages, there are 13 different endings.

When most of us write books, the ending matters a lot. I mean, a really lot. It’s the dramatic conclusion, the culmination, the part where full meaning takes place. The last joke, the grand finale, the end of the trail — the part we’ve been driving toward the entire time.

Well, throw that all away.

As the writer of a CYOA story, you can’t get too invested in any one ending. In fact, this is very important: there’s no “true” ending. It’s not like there’s one “right” ending and then a bunch of dead ends. That would be the wrong way to think about a CYOA. Every ending is valid; every ending has to work and satisfy the reader. You are not driving the boat — it’s the reader at the wheel, making all the decisions.

You have surrendered the most important part of your story — usually the reason for telling the story. No, you’ve handed it over to some unknown reader in Boise, Idaho . . . or Burbank, California . . . or Istanbul, Turkey. 


So what’s the trick? It’s the beginning that matters most. Think of a CYOA story as a tree. Picture that image in your mind. The unseen roots, the powerful trunk, the many branches. The opening of the story is the trunk. The many possible choices, or pathways, are the branches that grow from out of that trunk.

The CYOA form is dendritic. Tree-like.

If you don’t have a strong trunk — a sturdy set-up — than it will never hold the weight of all those possible storylines.

It takes a little time for the opening to Fairy House to establish itself. The reader doesn’t begin to make choices until page 9. Here’s the opening of the story . . .



You sit on a tire swing in your backyard. Kicking the air, going nowhere. Bored, bored, bored. Your parents work at home and stare at their computers all day long. You feel lonely and there’s nothing to do. But you remember something your grandmother once said: “If you build a wee home with love and care, a magic fairy will come. It only takes faith and a little imagination.”

Could it be true? You decide to find out.

You pick a spot beneath an oak tree. You gather up acorns, tree bark, pine cones, a cardinal feather, flower petals, stones, and more. You make a little bed of sticks, cushioned with soft fir needles. You add a layer of moss for a blanket. You finish it all off with two magnolia leaves framing the front door. 

Your fairy home looks awesome — a magical little world — and you want to show someone.

“Maybe later,” your mother says, click-clacking on the computer keyboard.

“Maybe later,” your father says, scrolling through rows of numbers on the computer screen.

Neither parent even looks at you.

The black cat, Midnight, seems curious. She follows you outside, prowling softly on padded feet.

And you wait, and you wait some more. But nothing happens — because nothing ever does. Oh well. You set up your stuffed bunny, Old Mister Ears, to keep watch. You go inside for the night. 

The next morning, you check. Strange, the moss blanket has been tossed to the ground. Perhaps it was the wind. Or a restless chipmunk. An acorn falls, landing with a dull thump. You hear a groan: “Oof!” You see a flash of movement, quick as a hummingbird. But it wasn’t that. These wings glowed

You spring to your feet to investigate. Moving quickly, you peek around the old oak to gaze at the quivering stems of April daffodils. Something cowers behind them.

You drop to your hands and knees, scarcely breathing. 

Hardly taller than your thumb, the creature has unusually large eyes, long skinny legs, and small, delicate wings of a honeybee. 

And so you say, ever so gently, “Well, hello there.”




Let’s close out with another (happy!) illustration by Norm . . . 


Thanks, as always, for your interest & support.














Fan Mail Wednesday #321: from Kaya in Istanbul



For many years now, I’ve been receiving fan mail from a school in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s always a thrill to get them, just the idea that something I wrote can make it all the way there — and then, years later, we connect through that shared book experience. Writer and reader. Words bring us together. It’s kind of beautiful when you think about it. Here’s one from Kaya . . .

Dear Mr Preller,

I am Kaya from Turkey. I am a fifth grade student at Hisar College. English my foreign language. I read your book Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Best Pet Ever. I really enjoyed it.  It was for my English project but it was so good. I had so much fun.
I like your book because I love detective stories.  I was curious about who stole the Grand Prize. Also, I like your book because it was about animals and I have pets. I have two dogs and they like to play with shoes  like Rags. I remembered my dogs Hugo and Coco when Teddy says his dog steals shoes.
In the beginning I thought it was a human who stole the prize. I was surprised when I learned that it was an animal. I was suspicious about Solofsky like Jigsaw and Mila were. I thought that he was lying. I didn’t like this character but in the end I was so happy when he was innocent. I liked the friendship and work of Mila and Teddy. I was happy when they solved the detective case. I wished that Jigsaw and Rags would win the contest. I was disappointed when the hamster won it.

Some of the vocabulary you used was difficult for me but I learned new words. Normally I read slowly but I was curious about your story and I read it so fast.

I liked the pictures of your book. They helped me to understand your story better. In my opinion the book can be more interesting if pictures are colorful.

I want to read other books of Jigsaw Jones this summer.  They look so interesting.

Nice to meet you.
Kaya Ö


I replied . . .

Dear Kaya,

I must have a very good friend in Turkey, because I sure get a lot of letters from students at your school. For years and years now. It’s amazing how one teacher can make such a big difference.
You are very impressive to be able to read and write in English with such skill and charm.
I am a dog lover, too. My dog is named Echo and I am pleased to report that he no longer steals my shoes. As a puppy, he went through a phase when he ate 2 remote controls for our television. What a mess! Nowadays Echo is nearly perfect. But sadly, he’s afraid of thunder. Storms send him into a tizzy. We have to figure out a solution, because it’s getting worse.
My sweet sensitive dog.
I enjoy writing about Bobby Solofsky. He’s always trouble. Like Jigsaw says, he’s a pain in the neck . . . only lower. When writing mysteries, it’s important to have a few different suspects to keep readers guessing. Bobby is good for that. In my most recent Jigsaw Jones book, The Case of the Hat Burglar, I was able to explore Bobby a little bit more. Jigsaw even visits his house, sits in his kitchen. I think maybe he’s not such a bad kid after all.
Thanks for reading my book. You sure must be one smart cookie!
My best,
James Preller
P.S. At the risk of sounding too self-promotional, I do have other books that might work for a reader with your sophistication and ability. That is, the characters are older than Jigsaw Jones — as are you — but the stories are not much harder to read. If you like scary stories, I think you’d do well with my “Scary Tales” books.  Also, I have three books in the “Big Idea Gang” series that again are not much more difficult to read. Good luck & thank you, Kaya!

Fan Mail Wednesday #320: Concentrate!

I’m actually behind on some Fan Mail, feeling guilty about it, hoping to address the mini-backlog soon. Thought this one from Raiden might be worth sharing. His letter struck me as original and I tried to reply in kind.





I replied . . . 

Dear Raiden, 

Thank you for your kind letter. 

Yes, you are right. Books do help us feel things. We meet new characters and, for a little while, sort of go through life’s adventures with them. 

As readers, that helps us learn, and discover, and grow. 

I thought it was wise when you mentioned that reading helps you learn how to concentrate —- and that concentration helps you work. I struggle with that myself. Sometimes my brain bounces around from one thing to other. Is it going to rain later? And what’s for dinner? And boy it sure would be fun to go to the movies! And Raisinets are delicious —- but maybe I should give Milk Duds a second chance. And on and on and on. 

In the end, my brain is just scrambled eggs and I haven’t accomplished anything. At those times, I tell myself: “Concentrate, Jimmy!” 


Do the one thing in front of you. Read for 15 minutes and have that be the only thing you do. The same is true for playing sports, or talking to a friend, or eating a meal, or following along in class. 

When we concentrate, we teach our brains how to think.

Yes, it’s true, reading can make us smarter. It can help us do better in school, maybe even get an important job someday. But push all that aside for a minute. For me, reading gives me pleasure. Books make me happy. 

I hope books make you happy, too.

You said it yourself in your letter, “I feel like I’m in the story and it lets me feel free.”

Wow. Just wow.

Keep reading, Raiden. No matter who you are, no matter what you love, there are books out there that are just right for you. 

I am so glad you wrote to me!

Your friend,

James Preller