Archive for 5 Questions

5 QUESTIONS with Jay Cooper, author/illustrator of the “Bots” Series, “The Last Kids On Earth” Graphic Novel, and the New “Styx and Scones” Books!

Jay Cooper is just another one of those young, vibrant, obnoxiously talented people that I’ve learned to despise with every fiber of my being.  

Wait, did I say that out loud?

I mean: Jay is a great guy, full of kindness and warmth and vast enthusiasms. I take pleasure in watching his career lift off into the stratosphere. Terrific things are happening. And a big part of Jay’s success — besides the fact that the man works damn hard — is that he has a gift for connecting with young readers. The sensibilities align. It’s a tired cliche to say that it’s because Jay’s a kid himself. This is a grown actual man with a job and a wife and children and a house. I’m pretty sure he pays federal income tax. But you get the sense that Jay still gets jelly smeared on the sofa cushions and sometimes forgets to flush the toilet and lines up hours in advance for Marvel movies and roots like a kid, with pure innocent glee, for his/our beloved New York Mets. Every pitch, every game. He’s that kind of guy.

Let’s say hello.



1) Welcome to James Preller Dot Com, Jay Cooper. Grab a milk crate and have a seat. I sometimes puzzle over the question:  Why do I like Jay Cooper so freaking much? And I’ve settled on this: It’s because you have so many passions and enthusiasms. You look at this crazy, mixed-up world of ours and respond with optimism and good cheer. So Jay, without giving this any deep thought — since I know that’s difficult for most illustrators —  please name 10 random things that you are loving right now. You’ve got 30 seconds . . . 

This is starting out like a game show, and I’M HERE FOR IT. (Rubs hands…sets timer… GO!)

  1. Only Murders in the Building
  2. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie: stylistic, cool, and crunchy
  3. Kimberly Akimbo on Broadway
  4. Cross-hatching
  5. School visits (Man, I missed getting in front of a crowd over the last couple years.)
  6. The Maurice Sendak-themed vintage leather jacket I just painted for a gala
  7. Wednesday (The Addams Family themed show… not the day of the week.)
  8. Old school comic books
  9. Svengoolie monster movies on Saturday night
  10. Running in the morning (I need to do more)


Hold on. What jacket? Show us, please.

2)Ah, thanks. It reminds me a little of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” album photo — but for book nerds. Question: Who or what or when were the big influences on your art work? What feeds it?

Wow, that is such a gigantic question.


I’d say my primary source of inspiration since the beginning has been Graphic with a capital “G”: It started with Sendak and Seuss at 4, web-slung straight into Marvel comics at age 6 via Stan the Man, John Buscema, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, George Perez then went SPLOINK into Mad Magazine and the humorists around age 9 or 10 with Sergio Aragones’s Groo, Spy Vs. Spy, Don Martin… And afterwards, of course, Edward Gorey, Charles Addams and Neil Gaiman filled in the grave in my teens. And this is of course the tip of the iceberg… so very, very many more have inspired me over the years.


3) It’s hard to answer this question, but it’s something that many kids find mysterious and otherworldly, so please give it a try: Where do your ideas come from? I mean, here you are, bursting with books, making it all look easy. Perhaps you could answer in terms of this new series, Styx and Scones.

The short, cryptic answer is: ideas come from everywhere, anywhere and nowhere.

Now for the long answer: the germ of an idea is still just the germ—you have to give it soil and space to grow into something special and strong. Styx and Scones is a great example: that dog and cat have been in my head for 9 years now and are finally becoming a book this June. Styx was originally created for an unpublished board book, Ciao Meow. She rode a Vespa and wore Penelope Pitstop helmet. For my first school visit presentation, I dropped the Vespa, reimagined her as “Words” and teamed her up with a dog “Pictures” to demonstrate to children how pictures and words are often not expected to interact in literature. My agent suggested using them for a book, but some essential element was missing. Two years ago, I drew a witchy cat flying and out-of-control broom with an assortment of other witchy pets for an agency calendar, and I knew that was the world this pair should live in. Once I added some magic, a couple of old witches and mashed up the world of the Smurfs with some Gorey cross-hatching goodness it all made sense: a pink witchy cat named Styx, and her best friend, a witchy dog named Scones. That’s a roundabout way to say that inspiration is quite often a long, multi-step process. Sometimes you gotta stir the risotto a long time.

Not really a question: Who wins more games this season for the New York Mets, Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander? (We should start a message thread with children’s book people who are also Mets fans. Paging Alan Katz! I think that’s everyone.)

Scherzer. But only because he’s got two different colored eyes, and he’s such a character. I’m always drawn to characters. I still miss Justin Turner as a Met. He wasn’t great on the team per se, but I loved that red hair and beard. I used to shout out a John Sciezka title whenever he came to bat: “Viking It and Liking It!”

Wait. Did I mention John Sciezka earlier as an influence? Lane Smith? Those guys were BIG inspirations right after college.

4) Do you ever consider writing a book with more text, more serious topics? How are you going to surprise us in the future? Any ideas on the back burner?

Oooo! GOOD QUESTION, Jimmy! I do have an idea for a middle grade novel. But (see above) it’s still only a germ. So not sure how long it needs to cook. And I think it needs a co-writer. I’m big on teams. My favorite books are collaborations. (Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett is my favorite book going on thirty years!)

5) I remember first meeting you at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival. You came up to me and said hello. A young guy with a fabulous waxed mustache (at the time), relatively new to the business. I’ve been rooting for you ever since. I see that you’ve started to do some school visits. How has that experience gone for you, walking through those doors, speaking to all those kids? They must love you. Do you have a message or a main idea that you are trying to get across?

Mister, I’d never have talked to you if you didn’t just radiate goodness. I knew literally no one. I think that was my second festival? (I’m still a bit shy around other creators.) Kids, however, are a different animal entirely. I LOVE getting in front of them and just cutting loose: funny stories, drawing exercises… I think I sweat off a few pounds each time I present.

And I do have a message. A few, actually. 

The first is that reading what you love makes you a strong reader. Don’t listen to any noise about what you read being too goofy, silly, violent, poopy, whatever. I’m the person I am because I fell head over heels for comic books and humor magazines. Comics boosted my vocabulary,  they taught me grammar, and narrative structure. Positively reinforced reading leads to more. I’m living proof that Spider-Man leads to loving Shakespeare, and Mad Magazine to Maya Angelou. 

The second is it took three failed books for one to succeed. That process was necessary. And learning from mistakes and not giving up is key (that’s one for all the aspiring writers/illustrators out there!)

The third is just built-in to the presentation. Growing up in Dover, Delaware in the 70s and 80s, I never met a person who worked as a creative professional (aside from my art teachers, who I adored). Books felt like they were handed down from the gods atop Mt. Olympus. When I moved to NYC and met people who were creative for a living my whole perception of the world shifted. The impossible was suddenly tangible and quite possible, if I was determined to put the work in. 

I feel like I should ask you a question, Jimmy.

Oh, wow, yeah. Normally I’d be happy to loan you money, Jay, but you see —

No, I’m not asking for money.

Okay, fire away. 

I’m seeing some awesome school visits you’ve been on recently. You radiate calm, cool and collected. I am an energetic mess. Any tips how I can pace myself? Second question: how do you balance the content to make it more about the students and less about yourself? That’s one thing I’m trying to tweak.

Okay, briefly: In terms of pacing, I used to ask that, too. How do teachers do it? This is exhausting! I quickly realized that I’m not a jugular, I’m not a magician. So I’ve tried to calm down and just be authentic, honest, and respectful. I’m not here to razzle-dazzle anyone. Sure, we try to laugh, too. And I work hard. But ultimately, you can only be yourself.

And regarding the second part, it’s a good sign that you even ask that question. If you love the kids, and I know you do, then it will flow out of you naturally and everyone in the audience will see it, and feel it, and know in their hearts that you are there for them.  We’re just vehicles given the amazing opportunity to try to inspire readers, writers, compassionate thinkers. It is 100% for them and about them. Far bigger than you or me. 

JAMES PRELLER is the author of a wide range of books, including the popular Jigsaw Jones series. He has also written middle-grade and YA novels: Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, The Courage Test, The Fall, and more. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious EXIT 13 series for readers ages 8-12: The Whispering Pines. Book 2 comes out in August — so save up!

5 Questions with Dan Poblocki, Author of TALES TO KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT

What can I say? Dan Poblocki is a scary dude. Though we’ve never met, Dan and I have been criss-crossing paths over the years. We’re both upstaters (Dan’s in Saugerties; I’m in Delmar) and we share an affection for suspenseful, scary stories. Dan’s been doing great work for years and more people are beginning to notice — I picked up Liar’s Room at a recent Scholastic Book Fair — and I thought it was time to put a focus on those chilling tales that keep readers turning pages late into the night. 


1. Can you remember the first time you were scared by a book or a movie? You must have liked it, right? 

I’m not sure if it was the first time I was scared by a film, but one that has stuck in my memory over the decades was an ABC Weekend Special called “The Red Room Riddle,” a half-hour short TV movie based on a 1972 middle-grade novel by Scott Corbett. I don’t think I ever picked up the book version, but I remember some moments of the movie nearly stopping my seven-year-old heart. Two kids lured into a haunted house, getting locked in a mysterious red room, a throbbing red orb that emits a siren sound, secret passages, see-through people, and lots of fire. I rewatched it recently and it’s relatively toothless, but it gave me some insight into how little it takes sometimes to freak out a kid. It’s funny because so much of what’s in this short TV movie has ended up in my own books. Secret passages, ghosts, getting trapped in places where you don’t want to be. Fun! So apparently, yes, I did like it. But it was a funny feeling. I didn’t understand why I liked being so scared. It certainly made me seek out more stuff like it. That’s how I ended up finding books by Mary Downing Hahn, Bruce Coville, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and John Bellairs at the local library and book fairs.

2. I’m curious to know your thoughts on horror as a genre. What do you think are the virtues of scary stories? And — same question, really — why do you think so many readers keep coming back for more? 

I think one virtue of the horror genre is that it holds our attention. So, if a young reader has a hard time sticking with books, a scary one might be a good suggestion. Horror novels act as a hook, so once you get a taste for turning those creepy, creepy pages, you’ll want to seek out that adrenaline rush again and again. That’s how it was for me, at least. There are many other reasons to seek out or play around in the horror genre. One reason that I heard recently was from Ally Malinenko, author of the Bram Stoker Award Nominee, This Appearing House. Ally wrote that we don’t necessarily write horror stories to scare children. We write them to help children become brave. I couldn’t agree more. 


Oh, that’s excellent. Acclaimed horror writer Peter Straub contends that “dread” is essential for a great horror story. And I guess dread is the evil twin of suspense. That anticipatory dread we feel as we watch our protagonists head down into the basement where danger lurks. Note: This technically does not count as a question. We’re just talking!

I can get on board that a sense of dread is a precursor to suspense. I suppose it’s all in how you formulate your story. Dread leads to suspense. Suspense grabs the reader, makes them want to find out what happens next. Is all of this necessary for a story to be considered “horror?” I’m not sure, but it sounds like it might help! I wish I had something more profound to say, but I find I’m not so good at deconstructing the magic behind all of this. But dread and suspense are probably not the only ingredients for “great” horror. For me, I usually have to care somewhat about the characters before the dread or suspense kicks in, so that when the author shoves them down a chute into the darkness, I really worry for them. But like, in a good way. 


3. People sometimes worry about a book upsetting a reader. So they ask, “How scary is it?” And I’m sure that’s valid, particularly with young readers. But would you agree that one of horror’s goals is to up/set a reader? To disturb a universe? Shake ‘em up a little? Or is it just good fun? 

I don’t really worry about whether or not I’m going to upset a reader. In fact, I think what makes my particular kind of scary story slightly unique is that maybe I do try to upset the reader? Maybe not emotionally, but . . . with their expectation of what can happen in a scary story? If that makes sense?

Is this the goal of all horror? Absolutely not. I think the ultimate goal is to entertain. But entertainment can disturb a universe and also be good fun. Based on emails I’ve received, I do know that I’ve upset some readers regarding what’s happened to certain characters I’ve written. But the readers seemed capable of handling what I did to them. Some even rewrote the ending to help them cope with my tragic decisions. If that’s what you’ve got to do, that’s what you’ve got to do, and I’m fine with it. 

4. I also think that many readers, on some level, actively seek out that sensation of disturbance. To me, when we think about life, I’ve always seen growth as something that results from periods of disequilibrium followed by equilibrium. Reading a scary story tips us over and sets us right again — and we’re the ones who get to turn the pages. The reader has control. Anyway, sorry, I digress. Tales To Keep You Up at Night is a collection of short stories woven within a larger structure: Amelia discovers a dusty tome in the attic. How did that book come together for you? 

A few years back, I wrote a short story that I wanted to submit for an anthology. When that anthology didn’t work out, I realized I had so much fun with the shorter format, so I decided to write my own collection. Once I’d gotten a few more down on paper, I thought it would be cool to bind them inside the larger story of a girl who finds a mysterious book of scary stories in her grandmother’s attic. 

From there, Tales got more and more meta, especially when my editor suggested that the stories tie more directly into Amelia’s own history. After some rejiggering, Tales to Keep You Up at Night sort of turned into a novel, playing with themes of what a story can do, how a story can change over time, how stories can change us. What I think is my favorite thing about Tales is that you can read any of the stories on its own, and it stands alone and is satisfying (I hope). But if you read all the stories, they join together, telling a much bigger tale. So the reader is rewarded for sticking with it.  

Also, when I was young, I always longed to find myself inside a scary story, so this book was also a kind of twisted wish-fulfillment.


5. Could you tell us about the main character in your current work in progress, and maybe why that kid appeals to you as writer?

I’ve just put the finishing touches on More Tales to Keep You Up at Night, which releases in August of 2023. In More Tales, we follow a new character, a kid named Gilbert, who happens upon a trio of cassette tapes and an old Sony Walkman. On the tapes, someone has recorded a bunch of scary tales, and Gilbert must listen to them in order to save his big brother, Antonio, who’s been hurt in a strange accident. You don’t have to read the first book in order to understand what’s happening in the second, but those who do will discover connections between the two and see how the tales in both books open portals to a larger shared world. I had a blast writing it, and I hope readers will follow me through this next doorway.


JAMES PRELLER is the author of a wide range of books, including the popular Scary Tales series. An author of picture books and easy-to-reads, he has also written middle-grade and YA novels: Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, and more. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious EXIT 13 series for readers ages 8-12: The Whispering Pines. Book 2 comes out in August, which means that Dan and I ought to have a sequel party together at the Spotty Dog!

5 Questions with Martha Brockenbrough, Author of TO CATCH A THIEF

Martha Brockenbrough occupies a lot of different places in children’s literature, fiction and nonfiction, picture books to chapter books to young adult novels. Martha’s newest book comes out this April and it’s her first middle-grade title — just right for mystery lovers (and if you like dogs, all the better!). Let’s get to know her a little bit. 



1. We’ve never met, so let’s start at the beginning. Were you one of those kids who knew from an early age that you wanted to be an author? 

I loved books before I knew it was possible to be an author. I had it in my head that the world already had all the books it needed—and I was so happy to learn in third grade that I could be an author. I’d considered being a veterinarian, but my aversion to blood and suffering means author is the far better career choice. As a kid, I read everything I could. Fiction, nonfiction. Stuff for kids. Stuff for grownups. If it was in print, I was curious. I was pretty darned shy as a child, and inside the covers of a book, I had all the company I ever wanted—with none of the forced Free to Be You and Me singalongs.

Martha: “I’m the one with the short dark hair. This is me in middle school. YIKES!”

2) You’ve written a somewhat dizzying range of titles and genre — from adult titles all the way up to picture books  — but To Catch a Thief is your first middle-grade novel. How and why did that come about for you and, tacking on to that, what if any new challenges did the middle-grade novel present?

I’ve written many different types of books for the same reason I read many formats. I love it. To understand a category well enough to write it is, for me, how I express that love. It’s been a really fun career, and even though I completely ignored the 2009-era advice to “have a brand,” I’ve truly built a life around story. Middle grade might just be my favorite thing to read, but it was kind of a tough nut for crack. There are so many ways to do it, and I had to discover my way. When I was that age of reader, I loved mysteries. I fancied myself a detective or a spy. I even made my younger sisters and me secret dossier folders out of envelopes and I felt extremely cool doing that. Encyclopedia Brown, the Three Investigators, Agatha Christie—I loved it all (and read Agatha Christie instead of doing Calculus. No regrets.).



3) Let’s talk about the setting for To Catch a Thief. It is this very quaint, benign little seaside town where everybody knows your name. I’m almost hesitant to say this, but I was reminded of the old Boxcar Children in terms of the warm and cozy and convivial vibe. Was that intentional from the get-go?

I was coming off writing a biography of Donald Trump and an extremely gory YA retelling subverting a dozen or so fairytales. I wanted something comforting. I wanted tomato soup and grilled cheese. So I wrote everything I love, loosely basing the setting in a community called Seabrook on the Washington Coast. I did make everything about 37 percent more disheveled. I’m one of five kids, though, so I know what it’s like to grow up in a crowded house with a leaky roof, and I really know what it’s like to want a dog for a pet.

4) Well, yes. Indeed a lost dog plays a prominent role in this story — along with a child’s desperate longing to own that dog. 

When I was nine, a chocolate brown toy poodle followed me home from school. My mom checked his tag—his name was Randy—and made me return him to the address on the tag. When I knocked on the door, the woman who answered offered me the dog. I told her I’d have to ask permission. I wore my mom down a day or so later and was so excited that I told my friends at school I was getting a dog. I stopped at his house to pick him up. The woman opened the door and told me she’d already gotten rid of him. Not long after, though, my parents brought home a puppy. A golden retriever. And in the 42 years since, I’ve had five of my own (along with several cats). At the moment, I have two goldens, Dottie and Millie. They are my ladies, and they keep me company as I write and they demand I take breaks. They help me cook, they shed on my friends, and they teach me lessons about joy, devotion, and forgiveness every single day.

Martha’s ladies.


5) As the author of Unpresidented, you did an enormous amount of research and spent a lot of time living in the mind of Donald Trump. That seems like trauma to me. “Post-Trump Stress Disorder.” How did you recover from that experience? In some respects, it feels like writing Catch was a healthy antidote. A spiritual cleanse. So what’s your coping strategy for the 2024 election? Seriously, help me. I’m dreading it.

This book definitely helped, as did my early chapter book series, which launches its second title this year—Frank and the Masked Cat. (Yes, there’s also a dog in it. OF COURSE.) It was extremely traumatic to do the Trump book. When you really dig deep into that stuff and see the patterns, it’s not hard to predict what will happen. “Anything to win” was the thesis of that book, and it bore tragic fruit on January 6, 2020. One of the most traumatic parts, I think, is having a bit of the Cassandra syndrome. That book is entirely factual and so many people don’t believe it. It’s because they don’t want to, and because we’ve been conditioned to think that “both sides” are to blame. Sometimes that’s true. It’s not here.


The midterm election should give all of us heart. But I hope it doesn’t make us complacent. Democracy is hard work. We are the people, and we owe our nation our best efforts. Children’s books are now in the crosshairs of the liars and the bigots—words I do not regret using and will not apologize for. There is no pornography in children’s books. None. Zero. There are many beautiful stories that embrace the diversity of all of our lived experience. All people are equal. All lives are equal. Everyone has the right to their body and especially to their hearts. There is no negotiating or discussion on that point for me, and it’s really not complicated.

The miserable fringe wants to keep young people from recognizing the humanity in all of us. Once kids have internalized that value, the bigots lose forever. So we have work to do as writers, as artists, and as citizens. And look, I know people say, “Oh, we have to meet them halfway. Name calling never helps.” Other people can take that approach, and I encourage them. I prefer to deal in unvarnished truths, and my concern at this moment is not for the feelings of the fever-dreamers. It’s for the people they’re threatening.

To end this on a positive note, though: the generation of young people fills me with hope. They are just. They are committed. They care about the planet. They’re savvy when it comes to the nuances of identity. It’s a fantastic challenge and a privilege to be able to write for such extraordinary humans.

JAMES PRELLER is the author of a wide range of books, including the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. An author of picture books and easy-to-reads, he has also written middle-grade and YA novels: Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, The Fall, and more. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious EXIT 13 series for readers ages 8-12: The Whispering Pines. Book 2 in the series, The Spaces In Between, comes out in August. Can’t wait, won’t wait!


5 Questions with Alicia D. Williams, Author of the 2023 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, “THE TALK”


When I first read The Talk, I instantly knew that I wanted to highlight that book here. And I definitely wanted to learn more about (and from) author Alicia D. Williams. When Alicia began this process with me, she was already the author of a Newbery Honor Book (Genesis Begins Again). Then on Monday, less than a week after we’d finished swapping emails, The Talk was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Pretty good.


But before we get to the actual interview, allow me to break format and share this email exchange that I had with Alicia.

I wrote:

I have an adventurous old friend, a woman, who recently made a video describing the safety measures she routinely takes. The fist-sized pepper spray canister concealed tightly in her hand, the other kind of spray that shoots farther, the new stun gun she now carries in her pocketbook. I came away informed but also saddened by it all. As a man, I’ve rarely had those fears that so many women experience on a regular basis. Am I safe? Am I going to be okay? Can I protect myself from attack? It’s a world I can only try to imagine.
I felt some of that while reading your book. This is not my world, not my experience. It’s devastating that “the talk” is necessary. And in all honesty, I also had to work through some of my feelings about the depiction of white people in your book. They all look so angry and hateful. I wondered about the messaging of that to young readers. It gave me pause and I guess I’m still a little uneasy about it. But when it comes to art, I believe that a degree of discomfort and dis/ease can be an essential part of the process. Your book should disturb my universe. And, of course, The Talk is so more than that: a celebration and a message of love.
Alicia replied:

Thank you for showing me the grace of time. Yes, the talk is very uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable and heartbreaking to give as a parent. And the conversation isn’t a one and done conversation either. It happens every time a situation occurs that needs to be addressed, a new event that needs to be talked about, when traveling or sending your child out with friends. And I get being uncomfortable with the illustrations as a white representing person. I wanted the average white reader to question themselves, their biases, and stereotypes that they subscribe to. I want them to be aware of the “look” so when someone around them is giving the look, then they can tune into the uncomfortable feeling and hopefully be an ally. I’ve gotten that look way too many times and even just recently when my car was stopped in a mall shopping center because I “looked like I needed help.” As part of the work of making our world more equitable, we all need to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable, as diverse leaders say.

1) Hey, Alicia. I wonder if you could please tell us something about your childhood?

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. We moved around a lot, so it was always a challenge to make friends, especially since I was a quiet, shy kid. And chubby. Fat shamed too. So, these things made me go inward. I would rather be curled up in a corner reading a Judy Blume book. Or spinning records on my record player while pretending to be a radio deejay. Back then, children played outside all day until the streetlights came on. Sometimes I would try to tag behind my brother as we sped through the neighborhood on our bikes, but I couldn’t keep up with him or his friends. Many times I’d be at my grandparent’s house which provided stability, so I had friends to look forward to. We’d go to the corner laundromat and play the pinball machines or my favorite video games, Centipede and Galaga. 

I wish I discovered my voice or was given permission to speak my mind as a kid. If so, when presented a chocolate bunny award for our third-grade egg decorating contest, I would’ve asked for the coloring book and crayons instead. In fourth grade, I would’ve tried out for the school play, The Wizard of Oz. In fifth grade, I would’ve asked the teacher why she only let boys color the banners that hung in the hallway and never girls, and that I was an amazing colorer. 

But no, I was a decent, quiet student. Well behaved. There was nothing special about me, but I always knew I wanted to be special. As a little girl I used to pray, I want to do something that will reach the masses. I had no clue what that would be. Probably didn’t understand the prayer in itself. But I knew, deep down, that I wanted to do something great in life.

2) My goodness, The Talk. What a powerful, empowering, profound and yet incredibly sad book. I’m aware that “the talk” is a real thing, quite outside my own childhood (and parenting) experience. When and why did you decide to try to make it into a picture book for young readers? 

Thank you.

The subject of “the talk” has been in my mind for several years. Yet, I didn’t think I should write the story because of potential blind spots as a woman. I held no experience living as a Black male nor had I raised one. But I raised a girl and knew my worries were almost the same. I gave my own daughter the talk when shopping, when she got her driver’s license, and when staying at AirBnB’s. Still, I tried to give the story away to male peers. Even tried to enlist a male poet to co-write it specifically as a picture book because I envisioned it to be a poetic conversation like poet Dudley Randall’s poem Ballad of Birmingham.  Eventually, I let it go figuring the story will ride the wind and land at the hands of the right writer. 

In 2020, I, along with so many others, was deeply impacted by George Floyd’s and Ahmaud Aubrey’s murder, as well as the last words of Elijah McCain. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus. But one night when I did manage to rest, a little chatty voice woke me and wouldn’t let me rest until I grabbed a pen and paper. The boy, the character Jay, introduced me to his friends, family, and everything he was proud of. Those same moments of pride came with a warning or a talk. The story literally unfolded that night. 

3) A lifetime to experience, years to ponder, and a night to write. Sounds about right. As a writer, you are a believer in the bad first draft. Or, at least, the imperfect one. How does that self-permission help you move forward with the work? 

It is easy to talk about the idea of writing a bad draft, of just letting go and write. But it is so so much more difficult to actually practice it. For me, it takes many starts to let go and finally give myself that permission. But once I do, I keep pushing myself to just keep going. Mentally, I have to repeat a mantra very similar to Dora from Finding Nemo . . . just keep swimming, just keep swimming. And even then I may struggle. I am still learning my process. And each book requires a different process in how it wants to reveal itself to me. I think the biggest thing is learning to be gentle with myself. That’s just as important as coming to terms with imperfection.

4) Your Newbery Honor Book, the novel Genesis Begins Again, took years for you to write and rewrite and rewrite. It was especially interesting to me, because I think it’s such a primary lesson for all writers, in that you started with a story that was closely autobiographical. But over time, you were able to pull back and fictionalize the story. Could you tell us more about how that process developed for you, and what that distance gave you as a writer? 

The story began in graduate school. And yes, the whole “write what you know” came into play. I knew about a girl who had been bullied and who didn’t believe she was lovable because of the way she looked. And yes, I borrowed a lot from my life, initially. Then I realized that my ego controlled the story as I retold scenes as they occurred. This made the story feel forced, and well, dated. 

The only solution was to divorce myself from the story; give Genesis her own voice. Once I did this, the story became much more interesting. Genesis took risks that I would never have. She said things that I would have never said aloud. I was able to put Genesis in trouble and not rescue her. As one of my teachers said, “No trouble, no story.” Once I did this, I let Genesis figure out solutions on her own—even if she made a mess of things. With each revision, I discovered more layers for Genesis and the other characters. With each revision, the characters began to speak to me and dictate how they would react and act in different scenes and events. If I didn’t listen, my editor would catch it and make a small note that read “authorial.” And I knew that it was me who was speaking and not the characters themselves.



5) You recently wrote poignantly on social media about your father, who is no longer alive, and imagining him saying all the things he never got a chance to say to you. Looking at you now, and considering the beautiful & important things you’ve already accomplished, what do you think he’d be most proud of today?

Alicia with her proud father and mother.

Oh, wow. I have never really thought of what he’d say. But now as I think about this—okay, I’m about to be vulnerable in this moment—I think my father would be proud that I love and parent my daughter in a way that he wasn’t able to (show) love and parent me. And I truly believe he would be proud, that with all I’ve gone through in my childhood, I am honoring myself and the prayer that I whispered as a child to “reach the masses.”

You’ve done good, Alicia. It’s been a pleasure to have you visit here. My hope is that educators will use The Talk with learners of all ages to initiate conversations that are open, honest, thoughtful — and yes, even uncomfortable — in classrooms across our great and troubled land. Thank you for that. I’m sure that somebody’d be awfully proud.

JAMES PRELLER is the author of the “Scary Tales” books and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. He has also written middle-grade novels, including: Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, Six Innings, The Fall, and Courage Test. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines, available in stores in February 7th, 2023. The sequel, EXIT 13: The Spaces In Between, comes out in August!

5 Questions with Ann Braden, Author of “The Benefits of Being an Octopus”

I first met Ann Braden the same way as so many others, primarily through her debut novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. An important book that gives face, and heart, and soul, to economically-disadvantaged children who have long been under-represented in children’s books. Ann is a former middle-school teacher and she clearly, deeply, knows that world and those young people. But there’s something else. Something even more significant. Ann has, I believe, a quality that we find in some of our best children’s writers: a generosity of spirit. Read her books and you’ll see what I mean. And so, Ann and I connected on Facebook. I wrote to see if she might possibly want to answer “5 Questions” for us. Happily, Ann said yes and so here we are. As always, keeping our interview down to only 5 questions was the real battle. Every night I kick myself and mutter, “Why didn’t I call it 6 questions??!! Arggggh! Dumb, dumb, dumb!”




1. There are two kinds of teachers in the world: those who “get” middle schoolers, and those who would rather not, thank you very much. You are a former middle school teacher, therefore I assume you have some insight into, and affection for, middle school children. What do you like about ‘em? 

I love that middle schoolers are just waking up to the world around them, and that when they recognize that something isn’t fair they want to DO something about it. I also love that they think they are opaque, but actually are usually transparent goldfish bowls of the basic human emotions of wanting to belong and doubting yourself.

2. Human goldfish bowls, I like that. As for me, I enjoy their plasticity, how they haven’t yet hardened into shape quite yet. Changeable, flexible, open. There’s still hope! Not many authors experience the great success that you enjoyed with your debut novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. An overnight sensation! But hold on, it didn’t really happen overnight, did it? How much time — in dreams and effort — went into that first novel? Or was it really that easy? 

Yes, it was really that easy. 


So, the first manuscript I wrote got completely rejected by agents. So, I wrote a second one, which got lots of full requests, but then all ended up as rejections. So, I wrote a completely different manuscript (my first MG) and that was got me an agent! YAY!! And then, it was rejected by editors. And then I wrote two new manuscripts that I was really excited about (#4 and #5) and they went out on submission. Soon I was working on my SIXTH manuscript, convinced that at least ONE of the other manuscripts would sell by the time I was done with it, and so this time, I figured, I wouldn’t have to “sell” this manuscript. I’d already have an editor. This time I could just be honest.

And then both the 4th and 5th manuscripts were rejected, which meant the 6th manuscript was a lost cause, and I decided I never was going to get published and that there were probably better things I could do for this world than spending seven years writing things that no one else was ever going to read. So I quit writing.

And then after about 8 months, I started getting really grumpy, And I finally realized that even if no one was ever going to read what I wrote, even if I didn’t like the new story I was working on, even if it meant getting up at 5am…I still needed to write. Just for myself. Just to be able to start my days with the creative part of my brain churning.

And a few days later, I found out that a publisher had made an offer on that sixth manuscript. It’s jaw dropping, really, the way the universe can work. 

So, you’d think that would be the happy ending, right? 


Five months before the book, which now had an official title of THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS was supposed to be published, I got a call from my agent. She told me to sit down. Naively, I thought it would be good news. But no. It turned out that my publisher had just fired their entire children’s division – my editor, my publicist, anyone who knew anything about children’s books – and it wasn’t clear if they were even going to still publish the book. 

That was a rough day.

But then, we thankfully found out that yes they would still publish it (it had just gone to ARCS), so that was a relief. But it was also clear that no one at my publishing house was going to do ANYTHING to get the word out about this book. I thought: maybe 100 people will read it – that would still be better than nothing. 

But then, when I got those ARCS into the hands of educators, magic started happening. I think it was partly that there are kids like Zoey in every school and partly that there just weren’t that many books yet that showed them as the heroes that they are, but the buzz started building over the next many months – entirely based on word-of-mouth among fabulous educators – and it just took off in amazing ways.

So, yes, basically an overnight success, if that one night is nine years (full of rejections and setbacks) long.

I lead an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books,” and I will be sure to share that story with the group. It will depress them all! So much work. Your new novel comes out in May, Opinions and Opossums. Are you only going to use “O” animals as major metaphors? Is there an Oxen in the book after this? An Ocelot? (My theory conveniently ignores  Flight of the Puffin. Anyway, none of this is a real question. I’ve only got 5 and I want to make them count.)


3. I mean to ask: Could you tell us about the point when Opinions and Opposums clicked for you? When all those loose ideas come together and you realized, wow, this is actually going to be a book.

No, it’s a pattern, see? Octopus, Puffin, Opossum, then Pangolin, Ostrich… No, actually I think of these books almost like a trilogy that will conclude with the Opossum, exploring the economic divide, political divides, and then religion -– but more importantly spelling out a secret hidden code of O, P, OP – which conveniently aligns with one of the themes of the Opossum book: OPOPinions, AKA Other People’s Opinions, and if you say that three times at midnight, while at a secret meeting with your neighborhood opossum, you’ll be able to unlock the…. 

Ahem, I mean, let me answer your real question. 

Oh rats, I thought we were going to get into some deep Wicca enchantments there for a minute. 

I was doing lots of school visits in the spring of 2019, and I also had a book under contract with my dream editor, Nancy Paulsen, but it was a book that did not exist yet. So, I tried not to panic (and instead bask in this dream come true!) and I took my notebook and set up four pages with the headings THEME, CHARACTERS, SETTING, and PLOT. And I decided that for two months I would try to write down one thing a day in any of those categories. For me, plot is always the hardest, but theme (which to me basically means: stuff I’m angry about that I want to explore) usually comes first. And I remember being at a gas station in Kentucky when I realized that three big themes (which I had thought would have to all go into different stories) could actually play off one another in the same story, and be far more authentic that way then they would have been on their own. That was when the story really started coming to life for me. The themes were: 1) questioning some of the patriarchal assumptions that have been baked into Christianity — while still finding a way towards faith, 2) how the death of my father when I was a baby shaped me in ways that were different than simply missing a parent, and 3) how quirky friendships (especially cross-gender ones) have the power to push back against all sorts of misguided social norms. That was when the story really started coming to life for me.

Contrary to published rumors, Ann Braden has no plans to feature an ocelot in her next book. We’ve tried begging, but nope. 


4. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a suburban town in Connecticut, Fairfield. Opinions and Opossums is loosely based on a fictionalized version of it actually. There were some wonderful things about it as a place to grow up (there were so many places I could bike to!) but I was also very ready to leave the conformity and the outsized emphasis placed on Other People’s Opinions (those OPOPinions!) as I got older. And of course, all of that worked its way into this book.

5. Now that you are a published author — a dream come true — and you are already kind of a big deal — what’s the best thing about actually being a published author? The paparazzi? Getting all the best tables in the fancy restaurants? The private charter flights to exotic destinations? Um, no? Then what’s so good about?

The two things that are totally a dream come true are:

1. Getting to work with my editor Nancy Paulsen. Getting to create something alongside a pure genius is one of the greatest joys life can offer.

2. Being able to connect with kids at a deep level of understanding without even having to say a word. As a teacher, you work so hard to convince students that you love them for who they are, but it’s always a complicated process and you never quite know if it’s getting across the way you want. But when you write a book, it’s like writing a love letter to kids (taking all the time it needs to make sure you’re communicating that love exactly how you want), and then you get to send it not just to the kids in your town, but to thousands and thousands of kids all over the country! If I was wishing for a superpower, that’s what I’d wish for. I’m still dumbstruck that this is what I get to do.

JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, the “Scary Tales” books and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines, available in stores in February 7th, 2023. The sequel comes out in August!