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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!

A Conversation with Judy Bradbury — former Classroom Teacher, Reading Specialist, and Author of the New “Cayuga Island Kids” Series

“I was deep in the trenches with kids
who struggled with learning.
We all rolled our sleeves up
and dug in
to make sense of what they had trouble grasping.
I’ve spent years around learners of all ages
and it’s the joy
of seeing someone’s eyes light up
when they achieve a goal
or nail a concept
that wins the day for a teacher.”
— Judy Bradbury

 

I love it when a classroom teacher steps out and decides to write for kids. I mean, teachers know, right? All the research that I do to try to get things right, these teachers experience on a daily basis. Judy Bradbury began her professional life as a classroom teacher. Since that time, Judy’s rich and varied career has centered around reaching and teaching learners of all ages (from adults all the way up to preschool). Today we’re celebrating the launch of Judy’s new chapter book series for young readers, “The Cayuga Island Kids.”

 

 

Welcome, Judy! We met at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival some years ago. At the time, I thought of you as primarily a professional books writer. An educator more than, say, a fiction writer. Forgive me if I got that wrong. 

I am actually both (and I make a mean mushroom risotto, too). 

Risotto? Wait, did you say . . . mushroom risotto? Cancel the interview! I’m hungry NOW!

Sorry, Judy, I kind of lost my head there. So, um, what were you saying?

As long as I can remember, I wanted to teach. I had an entire classroom set-up in our basement, from a chalkboard, to a plan book, to a row of those wooden desks with ink bottle holes that my father snagged when the school down the road was remodeling. I’d get all the neighborhood kids to play school, and they knew going in that I was going to be the teacher. I also wrote throughout my childhood—a letter to convince my dad to let me take more dance classes (that was probably my first persuasive essay), a “book” for my younger sister about the twin dolls she received for Christmas, letters to the editor, and more. I began my teaching career as an elementary teacher at the age of 20 and eventually became a reading teacher. I taught struggling readers in high school for many years. I also have taught at the college graduate level. My first books for children were picture books in a series that featured math in each story. I’d say that project perfectly blended my love of teaching with my desire to write for children.  

I’m always interested when a children’s writer has an academic background. You have a real sense of how children learn and what they need to succeed.

I like to think that’s true, though I don’t see myself as an academic. I was deep in the trenches with kids who struggled with learning. We all put our sleeves up and dug in to make sense of what they had trouble grasping. I’ve spent years around learners of all ages and it’s the joy of seeing someone’s eyes light up when they achieve a goal or nail a concept that wins the day for a teacher. For authors, it’s when readers connect with characters, are tickled by text, or find another solution to a problem they’re facing—one they might not have thought of had they not read that book. In many ways, books and teachers can be game changers and maybe life savers for kids.  

Though I’m eager to discuss your new chapter book series, first I’d like to learn more about your background with professional books. 

I have always had a passion for reading and reading aloud to kids. Even as a high school teacher I read to my students every day. These kids, who wouldn’t have opened a book if you promised them there was gum inside, would beseech me to continue reading when I stopped. Gradually, they’d start asking me to read stories with certain themes. I’d notice them perusing the magazines and books in my classroom library. (I had a couch in the room and I used a big portion of my yearly budget on trade books and an array of magazines that teens would be interested in reading.) As a mom, reading together with my daughter was a treasured time. We still talk about books with one another. It’s a lifelong bond we formed before she could talk that has carried on through her life. So it is sort of natural that the professional resources for educators I have written center on reading aloud to kids. They offer methods, materials, activities, book recommendations, poetry connections, and ways to connect kids with books and develop a love of reading. 

How can a parent encourage “the reader” in their child?

My advice is simple: read to your kids. Read widely. Enjoy the experience with them daily. 15-20 minutes is all you need. Have reading materials available everywhere—from bedrooms to bathrooms, to seat pockets in your car. Visit the library. Buy books as gifts. Encourage your children to explore books on their interests, and also widen their horizons by choosing books they might not have thought to pick up, but that you feel certain they will enjoy. Oh, and I tell parents this. Reading with your children goes beyond just reading picture books when they’re young. Your books for older readers, for example, would be ideal. They are excellent conversation starters. So, I say to educators and parents alike, read to kids, even when they’re in college. 

I’m curious about your work as a former “character education columnist.” You wrote about issues that centered on emotional learning? 

I did. Before it was known as social-emotional learning, this realm of interpersonal skills was called character education. Each month I wrote a column focusing on trade books that related to the month’s theme and also had a strong SEL component. I absolutely loved writing for LibrarySparks. Those articles were very satisfying to pull together. My Children’s Book Corner blog is an outgrowth of that experience. Each month I interview an author and/or illustrator of a new release and offer resources for using the book with kids. I choose books with strong SEL themes that also connect in some way to curriculum.

It seems like kids are going through so much right now that it’s almost impossible to measure the impact of their Covid experience.

I think that’s true, and it’s why I am buoyed by the reports that sales of books—especially children’s books—have risen during this unprecedented time. As readers we know that books can transport us to other places, offer us fresh perspectives, and lighten our spirits.  

Anxiety appears to be at an all-time high.

It does, and I like to think that books have helped, as have all the authors and illustrators who reached out to offer readings, virtual visits, activities, and more to schools and home-schooling parents scrambling with the new normal this past year. The kidlit community—including publishers—came to the aid of educators and families in a big way; it was heartwarming to witness such a meaningful and well-executed expression of support. It demonstrated solidarity and a willingness to assist. Uplifting moments such as these help us breathe. I hope as 2021 moves forward we are able to move away from such high anxiety and that with distance we are able to look back and find solace and takeaways in some of the silver linings in the Covid cloud. I hope we can focus on how positive expressions are an option even in distressing times: they lift us all up—those who give as well as those who receive.

So now you’ve made this exciting shift. You are the author of a new mystery series. Would it be fair to say that this series is a dream come true for you?

It is indeed a dream come true. I was always writing for children, working on my craft while I was deep into creating resource books for educators. But in reality, I didn’t have enough time to do both. I decided a few years ago to put all my energies solely into writing for children. I turned down a few requests to write another educational resource, and that was hard to do, but I had spent some time assessing my priorities. My heart was in writing for children. That gives me the most joy. So I committed to that fully. 

That’s impressive. And a great lesson in persistence and following your bliss. Please tell our readers about the books.

I’m very excited for this series! The seed of the idea for The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship resulted from a feature article published in the Niagara Gazette in 2015. It detailed the discovery of a cannonball in the backyard of a resident of Griffon Avenue on Cayuga Island. He was installing a fence when he unearthed it. Cayuga Island is a small residential island a few miles upstream from Niagara Falls. Griffon Avenue is named for the Griffon—a treasure ship built in the 1600’s by Niagara Frontier explorers in the area where the cannonball was discovered. It is at the center of one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Great Lakes. The ship sank in 1679 and was never recovered. Well over a million dollars has been spent trying to locate its remains. With the backyard find, the question was, Could the unearthed cannonball be from the Griffon?

My cousin sent the Gazette article to me because I grew up on Griffon Avenue on Cayuga Island. (So did she. I guess you could say we are Cayuga Island Kids). She figured the article would interest me, and she was right! I found myself thinking about whether there was a story there for kids. Finally, I contacted the owner of the cannonball—a high school teacher in Niagara Falls with five kids. He was gracious enough to meet with me, show me the cannonball, and detail the discovery. I began to think about writing a story for kids centering on the discovery of a cannonball. I wanted it to be realistic fiction: part mystery, part adventure. The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship is the result. It is set in present time on Cayuga Island and features five diverse, resourceful, likeable, and lively friends who love a good mystery and are always up for adventure. 

These kids are kind to each other. They are bright and interested in the world. How important was that to you?

You nailed it, Jimmy. It was everything to me that the overarching common quality in these diverse kids would be kindness. I am so pleased when readers get this. Yes, these kids have different interests and skills, attention spans and insights, but above all and in spite of their differences, they care about each other, support each other, have fun together, and work to solve problems together. They are friends. And they care about their world—which continues to be evident in Book 2, The Adventure of the Big Fish by the Small Creek, in which they organize a community event, and in Book 3 The Case of the Messy Message and the Missing Facts when they tackle misinformation, jumping to conclusions, glitter pens, and chocolate chip cookie recipes.

I think the illustrations capture that feeling. 

I absolutely adore the illustrator of the Cayuga Island Kids series! Gabriella Vagnoli is amazing; she “got” these kids from the first sketches she submitted when being considered by our publisher to work on the Cayuga Island Kids series. She is intuitive, fun to work with, and smart. She brings life to my characters and overall warmth to the series. I am grateful to be working with her.

You didn’t go into this thinking “series,” did you?

No, the idea to make this story book 1 in a series (The Cayuga Island Kids) grew from conversations I had with my terrific publisher Marti Gorman of City of Light Publishing. After she acquired it, she asked me to consider making it into a series. Of course I said yes. The second book, The Adventure of the Big Fish by the Small Creek, will be out in September 2021, and the third book, The Case of the Messy Message and the Missing Facts, follows in Spring 2022.

Well, Judy, thank you for stopping by. I wish you good fortune with this lovely series. Thank you, too, for all the work you’ve done supporting teachers and children in the classroom. 

Thank you, Jimmy, for inviting me to talk with you about reading and writing, The Cayuga Island Kids, and my mushroom risotto!

 

James Preller is the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series and many other books, including Bee the Change (from the “Big Idea Gang” series), All Welcome Here (a picture book of connected haiku), and Blood Mountain (wilderness thriller for middle-grade readers). Look for Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, coming this May.  And then buy it. Cheers!

Fan Mail Wednesday #304 and #305: Two Letters from Alaska

 

Here’s two for the price of none! The third book in my “Big Idea Gang” series, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin, seems to be getting some positive attention. Perhaps the environmental, activist message strikes a chord. Here two students in Anchorage wrote to me about it, so I thought I’d do a combo post here.

Here’s Hailey . . .

 

I replied:

 

Dear Hailey,

Thank you for reading my book, Bee the Change, from my “The Big Idea Gang” series.

You noticed an interesting detail in that story – how Kym, in that situation, was brave; but Lizzy, who was usually bolder and more confident, felt nervous.

It kind of flipped, right?

I think life is like that. No one can be great at everything. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. There are people who are nervous around big dogs, while other people just want to give ‘em a big hug. For the purpose of this story, it gave Kym an opportunity to shine (after Lizzy was mostly the “star” of the first book, Worst Mascot Ever).

Writing these books (there are three so far), I wanted to show how when we are faced with big problems, that it is often best to think small and make a difference in your community. There used to be a popular expression: “Think globally, act locally.” We can all become overwhelmed by the Big Problems in the world –- asking ourselves, “What difference can I possibly make?”

Hopefully in these stories I help shine a light on the small but important ways that children like you can help make the world a better, kinder, safer place in your own communities. You are our best hope for the future.

My favorite character in Bee the Change was absolutely Otis Smick. He makes me smile, and I love the way Stephen Gilpin, the illustrator, drew him.

Thanks for your sweet letter,

James Preller

And here’s Mia . . . 

I replied: 

Dear Mia,

I wonder if you go to the same school as Hailey? I’d bet a dollar that you do. Anchorage, Alaska. Wow. I’ve never been there, but it sure sounds like an adventurous place to live.

Are bears just like always eating people?

“Where’s Penelope?”

“Oh, she got eaten by bear.”

“Darn, I hate when that happens!”

 

Okay, probably not. But still, the Alaskan wilderness strikes me as vast and formidable and a little bit scary. What a cool place to live.

Anyway, thanks for reading Bee the Change. As you might have guessed, I am very interested in our natural environment –- I love the great outdoors, hiking and camping and exploring — and our connection to all the living creatures that share this planet with us. To quote the poet Gary Snyder: “We must try to live without causing unnecessary harm, not just to fellow humans but to all beings.”

Recently I’ve read fascinating nonfiction books about beavers, and coyotes, and buffalo. It’s just something I enjoy and care about. Some time ago I read about “colony collapse disorder” and became worried about honeybees. Later, when doing research for a different book (Better Off Undead), I met a middle school science teacher who kept a hive box in the school garden! My visit with her was similar to when Kym and Lizzy visited Ozzie’s farm. Like Ozzie, Ms. Ford enjoyed sitting quietly in a chair, a book on her lap, and watching the bees come and go. That’s where most ideas come from for me –- from real life, the things I see, the people I meet, and, yes, the books I read.

I am excited to learn that you and your friends are involved in a cleanup project. That’s so awesome. You are making a difference in our world! Imagine if everyone did just a little bit? What a difference we could make!

My best,

James Preller

 

ALSO IN THE SERIES . . .