|That shirt, that hair, that light fixture, that wallpaper! That was me in the 1970’s.
Here I sit — getting long in the tooth, as the expression goes — and one of life’s surprises is that I never grew up. At least, not in the way I imagined I would. I’m bigger and older, sure. Not the skinny beanpole I used to be. Now I must carefully trim the hair that grows out of my nose and ears (no one had warned me about that!). But I still like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I find that I still care — deeply, foolishly, insanely — about the score of professional baseball games. I mean to say: I care the same way that I cared when I was ten years old. I used to think that we were supposed to “grow out” of those childish things, discard our younger selves like an old pair of jeans. But now I know that people don’t grow that way. I’m still that kid. I am the youngest of seven children. I was born during a snowstorm. I grew up in Wantagh, Long Island. I had four older brothers, two older sisters, and a perfectly satisfactory pair of parents whom I called “Mom” and “Dad.” When I was quite young, with everyone else off to school, I used to draw pictures and make homemade comic books that I sold to friends and neighbors. Was I dreaming of becoming an author? No, absolutely not. I fully intended to play baseball for the New York Mets. But I did enjoy making up stories, creating my own little worlds. In a way, I had my own publishing company, complete with door-to-door product distribution. When you think about it, I pretty much do the same thing today. I’m still making up stories. It’s my job.
|Here’s all seven kids in my family: Neal, Bill, Barbara, Al, John, Jean, and me, as my mother still says, “the baby.”
Those childhood years were important to me. And I bet they are pretty important to you, too. I don’t think of children as unfinished products, like minor league baseball players hoping to get to the “big leagues” of adulthood. Somehow we’re all the same, young and old alike; or, I guess, we’re just not nearly as different as some folks pretend. I still remember being a kid. I still feel those feelings. And it’s not like I’m looking back on fifty years on the planet and watching what happened to some other person. That was me, the same “me” that I am today. When I write books for children, I often call upon those childhood memories, those feelings, that person I (once) was. And what I discover is that he’s always there, whispering in my ear, that ten-year-old kid. Still me.
I think the greatest gift of my writing life for children has been that it’s forced me to reflect deeply on my own childhood, and the people who were important to me in those years. The older you get, the more memory fills you up; there’s more past than future; and now I look back with newfound appreciation and humility. I’ve been a lucky guy.
Anyway, the years rolled by and I went to college in Oneonta, New York. I graduated in 1983. I worked as a waiter for a year, then was hired as a copywriter for Scholastic publishers in New York. I worked on the SeeSaw Book Club, writing blurbs about literally thousands of children’s books. It was during this time when I first “met” authors (through their books) such as James Marshall, Arnold Lobel, Maurice Sendak, Bernard Waber, Eric Carle, Joanna Cole, William Steig, and many more. This experience inspired me to write books of my own. My first picture book was called MAXX TRAX: Avalanche Rescue, published 1986, and no longer in print. It was about super-powered trucks. But it was also about being the youngest, the smallest, the one who wasn’t included in the “big kid” games. You see, I knew those feelings from my own life. For this book, I gave those feelings to a truck named “Little Brother.”
|Here’s a sample of my early work. Notice that I wrote the numbers backwards, and taped the book on the wrong side. I guess I’m just a lefty from Long Island after all!
Since then, I have been fortunate enough to publish a variety books, ranging from movie adaptations to Hello Readers, nonfiction books about sports and animals, even a book for teachers. I have written under various pen names, including Mitzy Kafka, James Patrick, and Izzy Bonkers. I have even been a ghost writer for other people who were too busy to write their own books!
I’m probably best known for writing the “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series. Or, at least, those are the books that brought me some recognition as an author. I love those characters, their kindness and decency, with and charm. Good tales, well told, I’d say. But I’ve also been busy with a number of other projects. Six Innings came out in 2008 and I’m proud of it. It’s published by Feiwel & Friends, in hardcover, and the whole process was a great experience for me. I was thrilled when it was named an ALA Notable Book; finally, after all these years, to see librarians and reviewers take notice of my work. I’ll never forget who my real readers are, but it’s always nice when an adult approved, too.
Along Came Spider (Scholastic) came out that same year and was named to the New York Public Library’s list of “100 Books for Reading and Sharing.” Like Six Innings, it deals with friendship under duress. And, hey, isn’t it always? The Spring of 2009 saw the publication of a hardcover picture book, Mighty Casey, again with Feiwel & Friends; it’s a twist on the classic poem, “Casey At the Bat,” featuring the hilarious artwork of Matthew Cordell. Both Spider and Casey have subsequently gone out of print. That’s the publishing world these days. If it doesn’t sell big right away, it goes away. These truths are hard for an author. But like everyone, we have to face that rejection and move forward, still believing in ourselves. Not always easy!
Bystander (Feiwel and Friends) came out in Fall, 2009. It’s an important book for me, as it deals with bullying in a Middle School. Hopefully readers will find it tense and exciting and see their world realistically conveyed. It was named a 2009 Junior Library Guild Selection and earned many favorable reviews, including this starred review from School Library Journal: “Preller has perfectly nailed the middle school milieu, and his characters are well developed with authentic voices. The novel has a parablelike quality, steeped in a moral lesson, yet not ploddingly didactic. The action moves quickly, keeping readers engaged. The ending is realistic: there’s no strong resolution, no punishment or forgiveness. Focusing on the large majority of young people who stand by mutely and complicitly, ithis must-read book is a great discussion starter.” This book has brought me into many middle schools across the country, and it’s been a profound honor (and responsibility) to talk to sophisticated students not only about my life as a writer, but also about issues of compassion, and empathy, and kindness.
In 2010, we saw the publication of two new hardcover books. First out, there’s A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, a picture book. The illustrations are by Greg Ruth and he is a big-time talent. Kirkus Reviews called it “good fun, me hearties!” and I agree. I had to study up on talking like a pirate to write that one. In August, Scholastic published Justin Fisher Declares War!, a middle-grade book (ages 8-12) that is set in the same school as Along Came Spider. It brought back some of the same characters in minor roles, while shifting the focus to entirely new ones. It’s the same world, it’s just gotten a little bigger. This light-hearted, humorous tale should be an easy, breezy read. It was my first book after Bystander, so I was looking for something gentler, simpler, and funnier.
My first true Young Adult novel, Before You Go, was published in July, 2012. (Be careful, it might set the world on fire — or not! It’s hard to say.) The book is set on Long Island — with many scenes at Jones Beach — and features 16-year-old characters. It’s been a very happy, rewarding writing experience. I took my time on it, because sometimes you simply need to write the book you need to write.
On July, 2012, I published the first book in my SCARY TALES Series. My inspiration was the old “Twilight Zone” TV series. Different settings, characters, even genre, all somehow unified by a tone and the delivery of the promise: You’ll get something a little weird, with varying degrees of creepy, and always with a twist. I love these books. The first book in the series, Home Sweet Horror, won a 2013 Cybil Award in the category of early chapter books. There are six titles in all.
What else? In the summer of ’13 came A Pirates Guide to Recess, the sequel to A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, both illustrated by the incredible, spectacular Greg Ruth. Early in 2014, I handed in a manuscript to The Fall, a book which I consider to be a companion to Bystander. It deals with many of the same issues. The concept for the book is that it’s written in the first-person, a boy who has been engaged in some cyber-bullying is writing in his journal, recounting the traumatic events of the past year or so. If you liked Bystander, this is the book for you.
2016 saw the publication of The Courage Test. It was named a 2016 Junior Library Guild Selection, ties directly into the Lewis & Clark Trail, and has earned many favorable reviews, including this starred review from Booklist.
Last in 2016, I handed in a revised manuscript for a wild, environmentally-concerned book (set in the near future!) that I first started writing in 2010, titled Better Off Undead. It begins with a 13-year-old boy, Adrian Lazarus, who becomes a zombie and, there being not much else to do, goes off to middle school. I see him as the ultimate misfit. And from there, the book slowly gets weirder, with tons of social commentary and satire. This book should see the light of day in 2017. The theme of climate change resounds throughout the book.
Perhaps most exciting of all, 2017 saw the publication of a brand-new Jigsaw Jones book, The Case from Outer Space, and the reprinting of four previously out-of-print titles, now with Macmillan: The Case of the Mummy Mystery, The Case of the Bicycle Bandit, The Case of the Smelly Sneaker, and The Case of the Glow-in-the-Dark Ghost. By 2019, I published another all new Jigsaw Jones title, The Case of the Hat Burglar, and revised several more out-of-print titles. Now there’s 14 Jigsaw Jones books easily available.
2019 also saw the publication of three “Big Idea Gang” books — chapter books that tie into persuasive writing — and my middle grade wilderness survival novel, Blood Mountain, recently named a 2019 Junior Library Guild Selection. Think Hatchet meet Misery . . . and there’s a dog!
In Spring of 2020, I’ll have a new picture book out, All Welcome Here, illustrated by Mary GrandPre. It’s written entirely in haiku and celebrates the openness, the acceptance, the tolerance and diversity of our public schools. Mary’s artwork is amazing.
In the meantime, I still live in good old Delmar, New York (near Albany), with my wife, Lisa. We have three children: Nick (26), Gavin (20), and Maggie (18). We have a black cat named Midnight and a rescue mutt, Echo. And that, dear readers, is entirely far too much about me!