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Sample Chapter: “Armadillo Blues” from the BIG IDEA GANG

So, finally, two books are coming out on January 29 from my new series, “The Big Idea Gang.” A third title will arrive sometime in May 2019.

Essentially: a group of elementary school students use their powers of persuasion to make a difference in their local community. The challenge for me was to make that (covert) mission as entertaining as possible for the innocent reader who is seeking a good story.

The early reviews have been particularly kind. You can read them here and here.

One of my favorite quotes: “Preller addresses topics such as kindness, activism, immigration, community involvement . . . A fresh new series nudging readers toward social change and kindness towards others.” — School Library Journal.

Hopefully you’ll pick up a book and share it with a young reader. Below you’ll find Chapter One from The Worst Mascot Ever.

 

1

 

Armadillo Blues

 

         The trouble began when a giant, purple armadillo ran onto the field behind Clay Elementary School.

         Well, “ran” isn’t exactly the right word.

No, not “jogged” either.

         The armadillo stumbled.

         It bumbled.

         It huffed and puffed.

         It gasped.

         And finally paused, panting, to face a gathered crowd of students. The armadillo bellowed into a megaphone, “ARE YOU READY — FOR –- (gasp, wheeze) — THE FUN RUN?”

         Pointing his right front claw, the armadillo led the charge. He ran forward, but his tail snagged on a tree root. Rip! Whoops! No more tail! Cotton stuffing floated into the air, carried by the wind.

  Shivering on the cold November afternoon, students of Clay Elementary watched in wonder. They stood huddled together like a colony of penguins. The boys and girls were not dressed for the chilly weather. Most wore running shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers. A few pulled on wool hats and gloves. It was time for the annual Fun Run for Fitness.

         “I’m freezing!” Connor O’Malley complained. His teeth chattered. “I can’t feel my toes.” He turned to his twin sister, Lizzy. “Are my lips turning blue? I actually think my face has frozen solid. I might freeze to death.”

         Lizzy poked her brother’s cheek with a finger. “It feels like a hockey puck.” She grinned. “I think you’ll survive.”

 

  “Hey, why aren’t you cold?” Connor asked.

         “I came prepared. I stuffed heat packs into my socks,” Lizzy said. “Just call me ‘Toasty Toes.’“

         “Oh no!” Kym Park interjected. “Look now.”

         All eyes turned to watch as the school mascot, Arnold the purple armadillo, slipped and tripped and sprawled belly-first into an icy mud puddle.

         “Whoa, belly flop,” Connor said.

   “Ladies and gentlemen, the armadillo has landed,” Deon Gibson observed.

         Connor and Deon bumped fists.

         Every student at Clay Elementary knew that Principal Tuxbury was in there. Deon shook his head. “Worst . . . mascot . . . ever.”

         Lizzy frowned. “The costume does seem a little droopy.”

         “I’ll say,” Connor agreed.

         “It’s a sad, sorry armadillo,” Deon agreed.

         “I wonder why we have an armadillo for a mascot?” Lizzy wondered. “We live in Connecticut. I don’t think there are any armadillos in Connecticut. Are there?”        

         “We have possums,” Deon said. “That’s kind of the same. Isn’t it?”

         Lizzy frowned.

         Kym had other concerns. “I hope Principal Tuxbury isn’t hurt.” She was right to fret. Groans echoed from inside the armadillo’s plush-and-chicken-wired head. Ms. Baez, the school nurse, rushed to the fallen mascot. She began yanking on the armadillo’s head.

         “It’s stuck. Nurse Baez needs help,” Kym said.

         “Let’s go!” Connor roared.

         In moments, students and teachers formed a long chain –- all yanking and tugging on the fallen armadillo’s head.

“Oof, huzzuh, gork!” Muffled cries came from inside the mascot.

         The head remained fixed to the body of the costume. It would not budge. Principal Tuxbury was trapped.

         “Should we call the fire department?” Kym asked. No one replied to Kym’s question. Because no one heard it. The screaming was too loud.

         “Heave!” beseeched Nurse Baez.

         “Ho!” the students cried.

         “HEAVE!”

         “HO!”

         And finally, with one mighty tug, the head ripped off. It flew up into the sky. The long line of tuggers toppled to the ground, heels kicking the air.

         The grubby mascot sat up. The headless costume now exposed the bald, round, unhappy skull of Principal Larry Tuxbury. He looked around, dazed and confused.

         “Are you all right, Mr. Tuxbury?” Nurse Baez asked. “Perhaps you should lie down on a cot.”

         “Never again,” he muttered. “You’ll never, ever get me into that ridiculous suit again!”

         From that day forward, it would always be remembered as the best “Fun Run” ever.

         It was the day the armadillo died.

 

          

THANKS FOR STOPPING BY!

–       

Great News: Here’s the First Review for “The Big Idea Gang” — and It’s Pretty Terrific!

The first two books in my upcoming series, “The Big Idea Gang,” won’t be out until January. But the first review just landed.

Money quote from Kirkus: “Upbeat and empowering!”

Here’s the full review, which is available online and will be, as I understand it, in the October print edition:

 

“A group of friends campaigns to change their school’s mascot. After a comedic mishap with the worn-out costume for Clay Elementary School’s longtime mascot—Arnold the Armadillo—friends Lizzy and Connor O’Malley (twins), Kym Park, and Deon Gibson see an opportunity to get the school a more compelling mascot: the bulldog. They propose it to their teacher (Isadora Zipsokowski, called Miss Zips), who insists they take their idea to the principal themselves. But not all of their classmates are in favor—domineering Suri Brewster opposes them, arguing against the bulldog and organizing a pro-armadillo contingent. The friends work on a new mascot idea—a dragon—and present their case to the principal, who puts their idea against the status quo, represented by Suri, to a schoolwide vote. The job of speaking for their side falls on Lizzy. In the face of her anxiety, her friends rally together to help her support her arguments. When the time comes, Suri speaks well, but Lizzy’s humor and sound logic carry the day. In a delightful twist, Suri is a story antagonist who isn’t antagonistic—she and Lizzy are mutually supportive as they face public speaking. A final segment provides tips on how to structure persuasive arguments. Publishing simultaneously is a sequel, Everybody Needs a Buddy. Lizzy, Connor, and Suri present white, while Kym is Asian and Deon is black. An upbeat and empowering series opener. (Fiction. 6-9)” — Kirkus.

Works In Progress: “The Big Idea Gang,” and More!

 

In a somewhat bizarre twist of fate, I have six new books coming out in 2019: one picture book of haiku, celebrating the inclusiveness of the school community: All Welcome Here, illustrated by legendary Mary GrandPre of “Harry Potter” fame; a new Jigsaw Jones title, The Case of the Hat Burglar, illustrated by R.W. Alley; and for older readers, a heart-pounding middle-grade /YA adventure novel, Blood Mountain, with a brother and sister, ages 11 and 13, lost in the wilderness for six days. The new year will also see the launch of a chapter book series, grades 2-4, the “Big Idea Gang,” beginning with two books in January. Above you’ll see a rough sketch by Stephen Gilpin — who is incredible — from the third title, Bee the Change. Each book loosely or directly links into persuasive writing concepts, children using their powers of persuasion to make a difference in their/our world. Honeybees played a big role in my middle-grade zombie novel, Better Off Undead, and I’m not done writing about them yet. Other titles in the series: The Worst Mascot Ever and Everybody Needs a Buddy (featuring playground “buddy benches,” of course). As usual, I’m hoping elementary school readers find these books.

Now eagerly booking school visits. Give me a jingle!

BEE THE CHANGE: First Review!

It’s not just the good ones. If I had a terrible review, I’d share it with you.

Of course I would.

Well, okay, almost definitely not.

(I had a review from Kirkus, long ago, where the reviewer playfully suggested that I never write poetry again. That felt good! Actually, it was an off-hand, thoughtless remark and I didn’t give it much weight. In fact, I’ve forgotten all about it! Wiped from my memory!)

I’m a little thin-skinned when it comes to negativity. Fortunately, not a lot of it comes my way. My work tends to elicit indifference, a yawn echoing through the stratosphere, rather than outright hostility.

The universe can be a cold place.

Which is all a blathering preamble intended to say, cool, look, here’s a review for Bee the Change, the 3rd book in my “Big Idea Gang” series, illustrated by the tremendous Stephen Gilpin. This is what they said about it in School Library Journal:  

PRELLER, James. Bee the Change. 96p. (Big Idea Gang). HMH. Jul. 2019. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781328857705; pap. $5.99. ISBN 9781328973399.

K-Gr 2–The Big Idea Gang is back in this beginning chapter book series featuring third graders who hope to make a difference in their community. Kim and Lizzy visit beekeeper Ozzie, whose charismatic personality and enthusiasm for bees motivate the girls to raise awareness of the important environmental role that bees play. After pitching the idea to their supportive teacher, Miss Zips, the kids brainstorm at the library and come up with a plan to invite Ozzie as a guest speaker and plant some flowers in the school garden. Friendly characters who want to effect change are paired with upbeat text and cheerful pencil drawings. Endpapers include bee facts.  VERDICT A solid choice for series fans and early chapter book collections.Ramarie Beaver, Plano Public Library System, TX

 

That’s fine, right? Not amazing, but solid enough. Honestly, many series books don’t even get reviewed, so I’m grateful to see the series get some attention. Thank you, Ramarie Beaver!

What else am I grateful for?

Stephen’s incredible illustrations, the way he made these characters come alive before my eyes. I’ve never spoken to Stephen, I suppose he’s gone on to bigger and better things, but I’m very glad he passed my way. 

Here’s a few samples of Stephen’s style from the book:

 

Early in our story, Ozzie introduces Kym and Lizzy to his honeybees. He talks to them about colony collapse disorder, and about the vital role bees play in our ecosystem. It’s all connected, you see. Kym and Lizzy leave inspired to make a difference. 

 

 

Here’s Deon and Connor, the other two founding members of the “Big Idea Gang.” This series has been noted for its kindness — good kids basically treating each other with respect and cheerful generosity — and Stephen’s art deserves much of the credit.

 

 

Quick story: This shaggy-haired character appeared in a large-group illustration in the first book of the series, Worst Mascot Ever. He stands up, enthusiastic as a puppy, after Lizzy gives a terrific speech. Understand: He was just a drawing at this point. No dialogue. Just a face in the crowd. But what a face. I decided we needed to meet him, so made him a key character in Bee the Change, based solely on Stephen’s rendering.

Thank you, Stephen.

Thank you, SLJ.

And thank you, teachers and media specialists, for giving these modest little stories space in your Book World. 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #281: Happy Birthday, Kiera!

Here’s a particularly entertaining letter from Kiera, who is having (hopefully!) a swinging, taco-friendly birthday on Sunday. Hey, Kiera, you don’t look a day over 37. I mean 9!

I replied . . .

 

Dear Kiera,

Oh my, what an entertaining letter that comes to me all the way from Keosaugua, Iowa. Here on my birthday –- number 58! –- it feels like a gift from the universe. Thank you.

When I look deeper into the envelope, I find a bracelet you’ve crafted for me, using Jigsaw Jones’ favorite colors, borrowed from the New York Mets. I’m wearing it right now (see photographic evidence as proof). True story!

How did you know I desperately needed one?

Our kind and shaggy goldendoodle, Daisy, died two months ago. It was heartbreaking for all of us. Like your dog, Daisy was not (at all!) the brightest, but she may have been the sweetest. To ease our pain, we got a new puppy, which my daughter named Echo. He’s a rescue pup, part border collie, part who knows! He’s full of energy and mischief. My days are filled with long walks and attempts to keep Echo from eating the furniture.

I’m glad you are a Jigsaw Jones fan. I love The Case from Outer Space and The Case of the Buried Treasure very much, but I think that the new one, The Case of the Hat Burglar, might be the best of all. It comes out in August.

Happy birthday, Kiera. You are a terrific writer, by the way. Funny, too. Keep it up! I hope there are gazillions of tacos in your future!

Besides baseball, my favorite sport is . . . READING! It should be in the Olympics.

Oh, also: I have a new book that just came out (January 29th), called The Big Idea Gang: Everybody Needs a Buddy. I think you might like it. Did you ever hear of a “buddy bench”? The story is about that, and more! Friendship, kindness, community. And benches.

Thanks for making my birthday a happy one. Your friend,

 

James Preller