Good News! I received an email from Kerrlita Westrick and Shirley Berow, co-chairs of the Grand Canyon Reader Award, organized by the Arizona Library Association. Instead of telling you about it, you can read the important bits for yourself:
Dear Mr. Preller,
It is out pleasure to inform you that your book, Justin Fisher Declares War, has been nominated for the Intermediate Book category of the 2015 Grand Canyon Reader Award! Congratulations!
The Grand Canyon Reader Award is a children’s choice award with approximately 45,000 Arizona students voting each year. Your book, along with nine other tiles, will be read by teachers, librarians, and students all over Arizona and voted upon by April 1, 2015.
Well, that felt good.
As a writer, all I’ve ever wanted was to be read and, hopefully, acclaimed to some extent. Approved of. Valued. Appreciated. I dream that at least some fraction of the reading public will say, in essence, “Hey, you did good.”
Making it on these state lists is so important to keep a book in circulation. So, absolutely, a heartfelt thanks from me. Much appreciated. When I look at the other titles on the list, well, it’s just crazy. Not expecting to win, that’s for sure.
Though it’s been well-reviewed, and sometimes even praised, Justin Fisher has been pretty much ignored by the purchasing public (not to mention my own publisher). A paperback edition has never been made available in stores.
Justin Fisher was conceived as part of a series of school-based stories, including Along Came Spider, which was honored by the NYPL back in 2008. Both books share characters and the same setting, Spiro Agnew Elementary.
Here’s a nice review of Justin from a 5th-grade teacher, Franki Sibberson, who called it “One of my go-to funny books for boys.”
From the first moment I saw these covers, I thought: “Uh-oh.” I expressed my worries to my editor, that they didn’t at all convey the stories were school based, but was told that the decision had already been made. End of discussion. Oh well. Everybody does their best, I guess.
To help the humor come out, I had really, really wanted the books to be illustrated, ala “Wimpy Kid,” but that was not in the cards either. But most wonderfully, a group of students from Pennsylvania sent me their own illustrations a couple of years back. I love student artwork. Here’s some highlights:
Now I can only hope for an invitation to visit school in Arizona.
Quick, sad story: That book came out in 2008, was named one of the top 100 books of the year by the awesome folks at The New York Public Libraries . . . and it went out of print three years later. Just like that, poof, gone.
Hard to find these days, especially in paperback.
Can you imagine how that feels for me?
Anyway, ah, pish and tosh. I like ALONG CAME SPIDER for the same reasons that you did, for the mixed feelings it gave you. Friendship is a complicated thing, and it’s not always clear what’s the right thing to do. I do believe, personally, that we know the answers in our hearts, or in our stomachs, if you prefer. Unfortunately, the right thing to do is often not the easiest.
Anyway, favorite books? That’s tough. I’m liking BYSTANDER a lot, and feel that might work for you, too. Lately I’ve been having a blast writing the “Scary Tales” series. So much fun. Right now I’m trying to create a toxic swamp creature.
Could anything be more fun than that? I don’t think so!
Of course, I’ll always love my favorite character, Jigsaw Jones.
I wrote a new book, THE FALL, due out in 2015. It’s a tough, sad book set in a middle school and I’m really excited about.
Be well, take care. Sorry, I don’t have any photos that I can send out – consider yourself lucky!
P.S. As a reader of the book, you might enjoy this recent photo I discovered. I guess the folks at Crayola finally wised up. Good for them.
For readers of this blog who don’t know the book, Trey is a boy on the spectrum. He enjoys drawing, especially with his crayons. At one point, Trey muses, accurately:
There used to be a color called Flesh, but in 1962 — the same year that Wilt Chamberlain scored one hundred points — the name got changed to Peach. Trey had read about that once. It made perfect sense to him. People were different. They came in all colors and shapes. You couldn’t say that one color was Flesh, and Trey thought it was really dumb of the Crayola people to make that mistake.
I love looking at these faces. This class, along with every other 4th-grade classroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan, received free copies of my book, Along Came Spider, as part of their “One City, One Book” program.Then they entered a contest and won a visit from the author.
I’m not really interested in conjuring up a new review for it, since most of it has already been said. For example, from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Perlstein’s interpretation of what’s going on inside [middle schoolers] hormone-charged world is information every educator and parent should have . . . . A fascinating and important book.”
But as a writer, as someone who finds this stuff useful — applicable, insightful, helpful, necessary — I just want to say: Thank you, Linda Perlstein, great job. Very impressive, not only the detailed, intimate research, but somehow organizing that mound of raw data, as it were, into such digestible (and entertaining) form.
I’ve been working on a book about middle schoolers, seventh-graders to be precise, and at the same time sharing a house with a seventh-grader of my own. This book feeds and informs that work. So as always, I’m reading it with pen in hand, underlining, starring, writing in the margins, endlessly fascinated, sympathetic, horrified, amused, saddened. Such an age of change and uncertainty.
I share the above as an example of my marginalia. I nodded during that passage, because it exactly echoed the central theme of my 2008 book, Along Came Spider.
Anyway, here’s another brief passage I loved. Perlstein is writing about Jackie Taylor, a seventh-grader, her inner thoughts and musings:
If there were a giant question box in the sky, to which you could submit any query without fear of embarrassment, Jackie would ask two things: How do you make out? and What happens after you die?
For the most part, I don’t talk about writing in global terms. It’s an individual process, and it’s not like I think I’m a master. I mean, sure, I’ve been writing professionally since 1986, so I’ve learned some things along the way. As time goes on, even I have to admit that I probably know something. Even so, I try to limit that to sharing my own experiences, things that have worked for me, rather than pretending to know what works for everyone. I’m more student than teacher. Nonetheless, one guideline of this blog since inception has been to be open about my work as a writer, no matter how squirmy that might make me feel.
I mean to say: A huge, huge part of me lands in the A.J. Liebling camp, who wrote: “The only way to write is well and how you do it is your own damn business.”
That’s why I don’t type status updates about my work on, say, Facebook, or begin party conversation by expounding upon my work routine. My brother, Al, sells insurance and I sure don’t want to read on Facebook about how he does it behind the scenes — just make sure I’m covered when we bend a fender, bro. However, I submit that a writer’s blog is different: You came here, I didn’t hound you down, so it’s your own damn fault if I sometimes prattle on about me, me, me. There’s an assumed interest that, again I contend, just isn’t there in most of social situations.
Back to the topic at hand, research: It’s like that last line in the Jefferson Airplane song about Alice In Wonderland, “White Rabbit,” I agree with the dormouse: It’s vital to feed your head. Ideas don’t usually appear in a vacuum. My most enthusiastic writing is fueled by new knowledge, new information. My focus is largely on building character, revealing character through events. If I only write about what I know — a rant I’ll save for a later date — then all my characters will ultimately be limited by the contents of one (not necessarily fascinating) character, me.
1) I’m writing something now and it struck me that a minor character might be really into tropical fish. He’s got a fish tank, reads books about fish, is just deeply into it. I have a personal connection to that, since when I was growing up my father had a fish tank and, for a while, my brother and I picked up the hobby (Billy even bred Siamese Fighting Fish — craziness, believe me!). But this was long ago. Let’s see . . . what else? As a kid, I loved the movie, The Incredible Mr. Limpet with Don Knotts. More recently, I’ve renewed contact with an old college friend who is . . . really, really into tropical fish. So he got me thinking about it again.
The reality is that I don’t know much about fish, but I want to create a character who does. So I’ll do research, see what comes up, try to write some scenes, go visit a fish store, and who knows. It might work for me, stimulate my imagination with facts and ideas, or not.
2) In Along Came Spider, I very much wanted to show that Trey, a positive, wonderful boy with autism, had his own unique talents and interests. For one, he loved animals and had a special affection for birds. He built his own bird houses and hung them in his back yard — and, in the book, one such house becomes a meaningful gift for the school librarian, Mrs. Lobel. However, I had a problem: I personally can’t build a piece of toast, much less a bird house. Time for some internet research to stimulate my brain with facts and ideas.
Here’s part of the scene that resulted, excerpted from Chapter 13, “Ava Bright.”In a meeting arranged by Trey’s oldest friend, Spider, Ava Bright visits Trey in his backyard:
They found green-haired Trey sprawled on his back patio. He was on his knees, hunched over scraps of wood and various tools — measuring tape, saw, hammer, drill, chisel, screwdrivers.
Ava’s eyes widened as she took in the entire backyard, the stand of breathtaking oaks, maples, and pines, the field of wild grass beyond. She arched her back and gazed up at the great old trees. “This is really, really nice,” she murmured.
Trey scrambled to his feet. “Oh, hi. I didn’t hear you guys.”
“What are you building?” Ava asked.
“A gift,” Trey answered. “It’s a nest box.”
“A nest box?”
“Most people call them birdhouses,” Trey said, “but most people are wrong.”
Spider grinned. He had heard Trey recite facts about birds and nest boxes many times. It was amazing and, at the same time, So Totally Out There. Trey could sit for hours in perfect silence, but when he got going on one of his favorite topics — like birds or rocks or ice cream — he would talk nonstop. And it didn’t matter if you paid attention or not. It was as if Trey had so many facts crammed into his head, he couldn’t keep them locked inside. Spider imagined a volcano spewing hot lava: Mount Trey.
“Can I help?” Ava asked. “I mean, I don’t know anything about nest boxes, but I’m pretty good with a hammer.”
Trey nodded, sure she could help. He looked at Spider with a question in his eyes.
“Sounds good to me,” Spider said.
Trey showed them what to do. And while he did, he explained things to Ava, who was either astonishingly polite or very interested — or both. “About one hundred different species of birds nest in natural cavities,” Trey said. “You know, like holes in trees, the eaves of houses, things like that.”
Ava nodded, listening as she made measurements on a length of pine board.
“But lots of trees are cut down every year,” Trey said. “That’s bad for birds. Their natural habitat is shrinking. Plus, other animals — like squirrels, which I do not like — he said with surprising hostility — “all compete for the nesting places. Lots of songbirds like nest boxes. Bluebirds, titmice, chickadees, wrens –“
“It’s nice that you build them,” Ava said. “I’m sure the birds appreciate it.”
“Well, we have to take care of them, don’t we?” Trey said matter-of-factly. “I mean, they can’t build these by themselves. And it’s so easy for us.”
Even though Spider had heard Trey say things like that many times before, this time the words struck him in a different way. We have to take care of them, don’t we? It was a simple thing to say. A clear, true thought. We have to take care of them, Spider repeated to himself. It’s so easy for us.
The clouds parted and a warm yellow sun shone down. Ava, Trey, and Spider worked together for the next couple of hours, laughing and talking. Ava asked a lot of questions — she had a curious, interested sort of mind — and Trey had all the answers. He explained how the nest box roof needed at least three inches of overhang to protect the birds from hard rain. He showed Ava how to spread a coat of petroleum jelly along the inside of the roof to keep away wasps and bees. And with a chisel, Trey patiently grooved the interior walls of the house. “It helps the baby birds climb to the opening,” he explained.
Ava was impressed. She looked around, suddenly puzzled. “But I only count two nest boxes in your yard,” she said. “I thought you built lots of them?”
“I give them away,” Trey answered. “Birds are territorial. They don’t like it if you put the boxes too close together. They don’t like crowds, and I totally agree with them,” he said. Trey finished screwing the last galvanized screw into the nest box. “There,” he said proudly, holding up the final creation.
“You’re very talented, Trey,” Ava said with admiration. “And smart. Isn’t he, Spider?”
“He’s one of a kind,” Spider replied, grinning.
<< snip >>
The scene continues at a leisurely pace, the three kids hanging out together, building a friendship over hammers and wood. Nothing amazing ever happens in this book, frankly, a minor crisis or three, but my point in sharing this scene is to show how it grew organically out of my research for this character. He was interested in something I didn’t know anything about. As a writer, I felt in no way limited to write about only what I knew — what I knew was that I needed to feed my imagination with facts and ideas! I wanted to learn and grow as a person, as a writer. Once I got to a point where I knew something (new), I was able to write, k/newly inspired.
That scene, and some core metaphors for the book, grew out of that research.
When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s “off with her head!”
Remember what the dormouse said:
“Feed your head
Feed your head
Feed your head”
Here’s my second oldest brother, Billy with cigarette, on an early 70’s Christmas morning when he received the soundtrack to “A Clockwork Orange.” I remember being a little kid — Billy was ten years older, this was likely 1971, so I was 10 — and listening to him tell me all about that movie in jaw-dropping detail. That’s my sister Barbara, left. (Don’t you just love old family photographs?)
Anyway, just in the next two months, I’m looking at trips to MA, CT, NC, SC, and FLA. And I’m in discussion with educators in MI, NJ, CO, OH. It’s a change from my pre-hardcover life, when most of my visits were local. These far-flung visits require a lot more organization from the schools, because I can’t possibly visit a school for one day in, say, Kentucky. I’d spend more time traveling than working, and that’s a crazy commute.
Here’s a letter that is very kind and somewhat typical.
Hi James -
We’re wondering if you’d be available to visit MI in March 2011. We’ve tentatively chosen Along Came Spider as our One Book, One City for Kids title, but we’d really like to have the author visit us after the kids have finished reading it. I think our kids would really enjoy meeting you!
We purchase a paperback copy of our OBOC for Kids title for every 4th grader in the city, hoping that that will help get the word out about how much fun reading can be. The students start reading in January and then usually have the author visit for a couple days in March, visiting 4 schools. We’re flexible about the dates, and have run the program from March to May instead, but would really like the January – March reading months as our first pick, with you coming here two days in March. Those dates have typically been a Monday/Tuesday. We’ve had good luck with school visits then.
We’re curious about your availability, and of course, we need to ask the questions about fees and travel accommodations before we make final decisions.
Thanks, and we look forward to hearing from you soon!
Great to hear from you.
I’ve got to figure out some kind of proactive approach to this recurring “problem” (in quotes!) in my professional life. Because it’s killing me.
So, long story short: Yes, thrilled, I absolutely WANT to visit Grand Rapids. I’d love to do it. The time-frame is still open for me.
However, I live near Albany, NY, so there are travel hurdles to overcome. I haven’t looked into the reservations, but I assume it would not be direct, making the travel pretty time-consuming. A lost day. My basic policy — and believe me, I’m still trying to figure this out — is that I need 3-5 days worth of visits to make the travel worthwhile.
I have to add, I’ve been fielding many requests for Bystander lately, so your interest in Along Came Spider both surprised and delighted me. I love that book, but recognize that it’s fairly quiet and, frankly, hasn’t been a huge seller (though it earned some very nice attention). Have you seen the companion book, Justin Fisher Declares War? Same school, different teacher, but some overlap with students (Trey and Spider make cameos).
I’m sorry, I really am, because I understand that good people tried their best, but I get depressed every time I look at these covers. What do they communicate about the books? The ex-boy in me thinks, Yuck. Does saying so make me a bad person?
I’ve been meaning to blog about a visit I enjoyed last year, when a school district in PA coordinated their efforts for a full 5-day visit. It was such a rewarding experience, because the librarians knew each other, used parental volunteers, and we even got to go out for a nice dinner and drinks one night. I really think that’s the model on how to do it, when hoping to attract authors who must travel. It requires more planning, but I think the payoff is huge.
Anyway, um, I’d love to hear that you think some other area schools might like to hop on the bandwagon. As you may know, I have titles for grades PreK-8, and am still most popular for my Jigsaw Jones series, so hopefully I might be appealing to other elementary schools.
Please stay in touch. And thank you — thank you, really — for giving this your time and effort.
I published my first children’s book in 1986, back when the Mets won their last World Series. So from time to time, perfect strangers will assume that I know my way around the block. They ask for directions, “Do you have any advice for writers?”
It’s a question that’s always stumped me. I don’t feel like Moses coming down from the mountaintop, tablets in hand –- it’s not a role that suits me — and most of the things I have to say are obvious and have already been said. To wit: reading helps, and writing is also essential.
(It is amazing to me, by the way, how many people want to be authors before they become writers.)
Upon reflection, I can point to one practical activity that’s been absolutely critical to my work as a children’s author: I spend time in classrooms. Not as a visiting author, but as an observer. I sit in the back, out of the spotlight, and watch.
So that’s my advice. Contact a local school, explain yourself, try to find a teacher who would be willing to allow you into the classroom. You might find some resistance, but I’ve discovered that in every school there’s going to be a teacher who loves books, and writers, and believes in an open classroom.Most folks are very happy to share their world if you approach them in the right way.
Even if your book is not set within five miles of a classroom, it’s a world worth knowing –- because that’s where kids live, six hours a day, five days a week, ten months of the year.
In the best arrangements, I’ve found teachers who have let me come and go as I pleased. Maybe I won’t show up for three weeks, maybe I’ll come and stay for half an hour, or half a day. I am always respectful that I am in their domain, and aim for invisibility. In short order, the students forget that I am present –- and busily get on with the business of being completely themselves. Children in the wild. Which is exactly what I’m after.
Speaking of that, I’ve also learned that children are more themselves outside of the classroom. It’s beneficial to spend time in the cafeteria, the school bus, or outside during recess. I’ve set many, many scenes out on the playground.
For me, I usually begin with a blank notebook -– figuratively and literally. I’m not looking for anything particular, beyond what’s real for these kids. That’s what writing for children comes down to, I think. You have to know their world.
In recent years, I’ve hung out a bit in fifth-grade classrooms. I noticed the way one girl –- frowning and alone — set herself apart during P.E. There was a red circle on the floor and the teacher asked the kids to sit inside it. Everyone did except for this one girl, who sat down outside it, the tip of her foot just touching the line. I’ve seen the way a teacher’s eyes rolled in her head when, in the middle of a lesson, a boy stood up to sharpen his pencils: Whirrrr, whirrr, whirrrr.I’ve learned how kids are disciplined during recess, where in one school they were forced to stand by “the wall.” The punishment: watching everyone else run and play. All of those observations informed my book, Along Came Spider. Currently I’m trying to get my foot into the door of a particular Middle School that’s not in my local community. I want something different, with a more diverse population. How is it going to help my next book? No idea. But at the very least, I know it will help get those heavy, dull gears in my head rolling again.
Mostly, it’s been a accumulation of details, little truths, seeds.And what happens for me –- what always happens –- is that I begin to see the possibilities for story. I get inspired. And my blank notebook fills with words.
My son bought your Along Came Spider book at the school bookfair. At first I thought he chose it for the cover art, but he assured me he had read the back and the story sounded appealing. As a habit I try to read the books my children select. My son is just nearly on the autism spectrum -- so again, as a habit I try to read books my children are interested in when I am unfamiliar with the story. First, I read it in one sitting and it nearly made me weep . . . as a parent of a "Trey" and as a parent volunteer in our elementary school. I felt the story was just so well thought out and really hit the areas that a lot of 9-11 year old boys have trouble with. (Forgive me only having boys I'm not sure how parents with daughters would feel.) I have recommended your book to our school principal and will be talking to the school social worker about the possibility of using it for a directed reading 'book club' for small group instruction and Social Development curriculum.
Do you have discussion points available for your books if they were to be used as a book club book? Perhaps, one that you have already completed you could maybe email? I would like to lend our copy to the school social worker with some suggested book club discussion points. Our school also has an active social development committee and with all that goes on in the world of kids to navigate through books like Along Came Spider might be a helpful way to engage them in some dialogue both with their peers and their own feelings through self-dialogue as part of this curriculum.
I look forward to reading more of your materials.
Thanks again so much for taking the time to get back to me.
Thanks for your note. Your approval really means a lot, coming from someone with your personal experience.
Spider was named 100 Best Books for Reading and Sharing by the New York Public Library Association in 2008. I wrote a follow-up book,Justin Fisher Declares War!, that can be considered a very loose sequel. It takes place in the same school, Spiro Agnew Elementary, and some characters recur in minor roles (Trey, Spider, Ms. Lobel), though the emphasis is on several new characters in a different fifth-grade classroom. In addition, my book Bystander, set in a middle school environment, also focuses on similar issues of exclusion, bullying, and tolerance.
I am impressed by your commitment to social development in the school. Obviously, it’s essential to build a community of learners, with tolerance and respect as cornerstones to every classroom. I’ve heard from teachers who have used Spider as a read-aloud, for the reasons you pointed out: it can serve as a good conversation-starter.
It’s interesting that you asked about discussion points. Nothing like that has been formalized. However, I recently set up a Skype account and I’m interested in exploring those possibilities. If you’d be willing to work with a complete novice, we could arrange for a free 15-minute question-and-answer chat where we can talk about the talk. Obviously, we’d need to work out some details. Author Skyping has become all the rage lately, and I’ve been looking for a way that works for me. Generally, authors charge a fee ($100-$200), request that books are offered for sale, and that the gathered group is prepared with thoughtful questions.
What do you think?
You would be my guinnea pig!
An early, rejected version of the cover,
which I still much prefer.
POSTSCRIPT: Lianne, and other curious readers, might be interested in this book, by Kathryn Erskine. Though Aspergers is much more likely to occur in boys, this book looks at it from a girl’s point of view. I own it, but haven’t tackled it yet. It’s on the stack, or the pile, or the list, and I’m sure that all readers can relate.