Archive for jimmy

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #332: Carli Didn’t Dig the Ending

I received two quick emails from Carli . . . 

Hi James prellee I read your book bystander and I don’t really like how you ended it you should have ended it with more conflict but over all I really liked it and is there a second book

And what I really did like about the book I like that there was a lot of conflict and I like how Mary was a good friend to Eric and was introduced herself to Eric when he first arrived 

I replied . . . 
Sorry it’s taken me a couple of weeks to get back to you. I blame the turkey!
You sent two brief emails and I’ll try to answer them both here, toggling back and forth.
Let’s see: the ending.
Ah, the ending.
I know, I know. It doesn’t wrap things up in a tidy bow and it doesn’t conclude with a dramatic flourish. In many respects, you are not wrong to wish for those things. I usually do, too. But in this story, I wanted it to be as true to life as I could make it. So I sort of sidestepped “drama” in favor of “truth.” For better and for worse! I actually did write a more dramatic and “satisfying” ending w/ Eric helping to get Griffin caught for stealing bicycles, but it felt false (and forced) to me, so I ditched it.
I think in real life we kind of endure these things. We move past them over time. That annoying kid in 7th grade moves on, time passes, and we realize it’s behind us at a certain point. There’s no tidy resolution. In terms of artifice, of a fictional story, maybe that’s not the most satisfying way to go. But, hey, to be honest, I like the open-ended nature of the book. That these characters live on in our imagination, and that it’s up to individual readers to speculate about where things will go after that. I do leave a number of hints along the way.
Yes, I love Mary, too. She’s a minor but crucial character in Bystander. And one that was, I think, underwritten. My primary focus was on Eric’s experience. But Mary has guts, stands up to her friends, suffers the consequences of that decision, and undergoes the greatest change in the novel. I liked her so much, in fact, I made her the main character in my recent book, Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander. The book follows Mary closely, some time before the timeline of Bystander begins. We see her meet and become friends with Griffin. We learn about her troubled home life. We learn more about her uneasy friendship with Chantel. And halfway through the book, we pick up on meeting Eric on that basketball court (chapter one of Bystander) — this time told from Mary’s point of view. We also see that horrendous, painful moment with David and the ketchup.
Everyone has a story. And if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s to withhold our judgment on other people. We just don’t know what’s going on in their lives. For Upstander, I wanted to pull back the curtain and get to know Mary much, much better.
I hope you read it. There’s also an excellent audiobook available, if you prefer to read with your ears. 
My best,
James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #331: “Maxx Trax” Remembered, 37 Years Later






I’ve been randomly sharing samples of Fan Mail & my responses on this site since 2008. However, I haven’t posted as much Fan Mail the past couple of years, largely because I haven’t gotten as much. The pandemic shut it down — publishers don’t seem to forward mail the way they once did — and who knows. Maybe schools aren’t focusing on that kind of thing as much anymore. Everyone’s exhausted. Maybe it’s my own fading star. The ebbs and flows of a long career. I don’t know. 

But look at this: an email from a reader who remembers a beloved book that I published in 1986, my first book ever, Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue!

Pretty amazing, huh? 

What a gift to receive such a message. 


Dear Mr. Preller,

I was reading Maxx Trax to my daughter and decided to look you up.  I am happy to see that you continue to write children books.
Thank you so very much.  Your book has been in my life since 1986.  When I chose it out of a school book fair.  You’ll have to thank the artist as to a kid the picture on the cover caught my eye.
This book has traveled with me to Japan back to the US and again Japan.   I’m not military so that says something about the books importance while moving.
My son has a special place on his shelf.
I just wanted to let you know all these years later it is still one of my favorite books.
Keep up the fantastic work.
I replied . . .
Dear Jeremy,
Wow, what a great letter. Thank you so much.
The Irish have an expression, “Flowers for the living.”
We don’t have to wait for someone to die before saying something nice to them.
You did just that and I appreciate it.
Yes, yes, yes, that was my first book, written at age 25 in 1986 and, I think, a story that stands up today. Long out of print, of course. I wrote a sequel but for insane reasons (money, I suppose), Scholastic changed illustrators and went an entirely different direction. A total failure and the end of that.
The first book, your book, sold more than a million copies out of the gate. I was a junior copywriter at the time and I people were pretty surprised. However, I doubt there are many copies left in the world today. Hold onto your beloved, ragged copy.
Gratefully yours,
James Preller
P.S. You might enjoy more background info about my very first book by clicking here!

Three Children’s Books That I Loved: Featuring a Plucky Peacock, A Wild Acorn, and Animals in Pants!

I recently opened a new folder and titled it, “Beginnings.” I’ll keep starter files in there. Ideas. Words. Phrases. Seeds for possible stories.

It’s interesting how a line or phrase can open the door to a story. When I have ideas without words, it’s like I’m standing outside a giant egg and I can’t find my way inside.

Words are the voice, the tone, the key.

These past few years, I’ve been teaching a recurring class for Gotham Writers: “Writing Children’s Books: Levels 1 and 2.” We sometimes have special guests, which we all enjoy immensely. Recently we hosted Jen Arena, who has quietly put together an admirable career in children’s publishing. We talked, among a great many other things, about her most recent book:


Jen mentioned that the idea came in the form of a simple sentence that popped into her head one day: Acorn was a nut.

Those words — it always comes down to words, doesn’t it? — provided a way into the story, a door opening for the writer to walk through.

But better yet, that line didn’t survive the editorial process and didn’t make it into the final book. It became: Acorn was a little wild.

Definitely better.

Here’s to the wild ones.

Gorgeously illustrated by Jessica Gibson, who manages to give the whole thing vibrancy and energy.


Jen’s experience reminded me of the great Frank O’Hara poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter.”

Why I Am Not a Painter

Frank O’Hara

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

The place where inspiration begins isn’t always where the work ends. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.

The more I think about Jen Arena’s book, btw, the more I consider it a wholly successful picture book on every level. That is, I think: this is truly a great book. A quiet triumph.

Another book that I absolutely loved was Leave It to Plum by Matt Phelan.



This is a bright new series — planned as five richly illustrated chapter books — featuring an adorably upbeat peacock named Plum.

Plum resides at the Athensville Zoo, where the peacocks serve as proud ambassadors, enjoying freedom to come and go as they please. Their prime directive: “Mingle! Guide! Delight!”

Phelan’s cheerful illustrations grace very nearly every spread, imbuing the story with warmth and humor. 



Many of us know Phelan as an award-winning illustrator, author of groundbreaking graphic novels such as Storm in the Barn, Snow White, Bluffton, and more. But it’s his rich, robust writing that commands center stage here: 

Every morning the ambassadors met for the Mandatory Morning Meeting of Athensville Zoo Peacocks. As today’s meeting came to order, Hampstead, the head peacock, stood as usual under the Great Tree. All peacocks were in attendance.

All but one.

“PLUM!” bellowed Hampstead.

Plum skidded around the path and joined the congregation.

“Here, O Great Leader!” shouted Plum. “Bright-eyed and feathery tailed!”

“Kind of you to join us for the Mandatory Morning Meeting, Plum,” grumbled Hampstead.

“Wouldn’t miss it!” piped Plum. 

Last but surely not least, I fell in love with Suzy Levinson’s Animals in Pants.


This is such a fresh, clever, original twist on a children’s publishing standard: poems about animals. But these poems are different, for these animals are wearing all kinds of pants!

You’ll have to read it to believe it.

As someone who looks at a lot of picture books, I confess that after a while many of them blend together: too slight, too predictable, too familiar, as if we’ve already seen it all before. Not so here, for Levinson’s Animals in Pants strikes like a thunderbolt. It’s just nutty enough — silly, playful, joyous enough — to feel utterly fresh and completely new. 

Levinson’s short, sharp poetry is highly skilled, rhythmic and impeccable. And the art by Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell make this animal world come alive in bright colors with almost old-fashioned illustrations (read: a classic vibe), brimming with compositional inventiveness and color. But don’t take my word for it, take a gander for yourself:


This book is a winner and, for debut author Levinson, it marks what should be the beginning of a brilliant career.

Dahl & Matilda: “You Are Not Alone”

Come to the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, Saturday, 11/4 !

Here’s one of life’s surprises: I’ve come to actually love Rochester, NY (and Buffalo, too, while we’re at it; my apologies, Binghamton, I’m not quite there yet, but I’m trying!). So I’m especially thrilled to be participating in the 25th or 26th Annual Rochester Children’s Book Festival this Saturday the 4th.

Arriving Friday night, I’m excited to hang out with some of my long-standing friends in our bloody business — it is, as they say, a bunny eat bunny world — meet young readers, teachers, librarians, parents, sign books, give a dazzling presentation, and even hoist a beverage or two in the evenings — just a terrific weekend all around. Hopefully we’ll meet new friends & co-conspirators along the way.

Jump on this link for all the gory details.

Free parking, people. The whole dang thing is free!

(Except, you know, don’t forget to bring that little plastic credit card! There are writers & illustrators & READERS to support!)