Archive for Bystander

Poster In the School Lobby . . . and a Quick Memory of Craig Walker

Here’s a quick snap of a poster in the lobby of our local middle school:

 

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Since the time I wrote Bystander, I’ve been invited into many middle schools. Often the funds for my visits have come out of a school’s “anti-bullying” budget, or some similar cookie jar. After a series of sensational tragedies involving bullied children became public, various government agencies got involved. Legislation was passed, and many schools attempted to address the core issues.

They felt compelled to . . . do something. Or in the most cynical reading possible, administrators at least recognized the need to protect themselves from lawsuits. A kinder and generally more accurate take is that the extra attention, the extra funds, gave the good people in those schools the opportunity to do something meaningful, to make a difference in the lives of these young people. They care. Because I’ll tell you, I’ve met the best of these folks, I’ve spent time with them, and I am awed by the goodness in their hearts — their motivations and intentions. I’m honored to play a small role in their larger mission.

Witness the flowering of hundreds of bully-prevention programs throughout the land.

At the same time, yes, I know there are teachers who roll their eyes, check the clock, and wonder when they can get back to teaching. There’s a curriculum to be covered and, ultimately, tests to be given, results to be measured.

On the whole, not perfect, it’s a multi-faceted issue, and we’re all trying to figure it out. But a good process, I think.

I’ve seen that the more progressive schools have gradually moved on from that narrow (and sometimes too negative) focus to address the larger issues covered under the umbrella of “Character.” I’m glad about that.

Best of all, I am seeing a greater emphasis on kindness.

Wedding, Walker 2My old pal, Craig Walker, used to joke that everything you ever wanted to know about love was on the Supremes “Greatest Hits” LP. And by that he meant, there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new that anybody can possibly say on the topic. There will be no new revelations forthcoming. We’ve heard it all already, and so often that it comes out like a tired cliche. No, you can’t hurry love. And you do keep me hanging on.

220px-Supremes_Greatest_HitsWhen it comes to the bad behavior associated with bullying, we can ask those involved, “How would you like it?” “How would it make you feel?” And maybe we can say something about doing unto others. Or being kind. Or a dozen other fairly obvious things that remind us how to be a good (read: caring, compassionate, thoughtful) person in this world. We can also tell them, in clear language supported by real consequences, that bullying is unacceptable.

I do believe that it’s part of every school’s mission to reinforce these messages, every day, in a thousand small ways. I’m glad that sign is in our lobby. It’s a minor thing, sure, easy to dismiss or ignore, but it’s still a signal amidst the noise. A lighthouse visible from the stormy sea.

All and all, not a terrible question to ask ourselves before we act, speak, or post:

Is it kind?

Fan Mail Wednesday #189: Flowers from Canada!

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Here at James Preller Dot Com, we’ve never felt constrained by outmoded, tedious concepts such as, ahem, days of the week. Oh brother, please. It’s always Fan Mail Wednesday in our generous hearts!

Here’s a really kind note sent from Prince Edward Island in Canada, a land where even the bacon is Canadian!

Dear Mr. James Preller,

I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for the creation of your young adult novel Bystander.  Not only do I appreciate the sensitivity and humanity displayed within the text, but you also manage to infuse humor.  It might make you smile to know that my grade seven students honestly plead with me to share another chapter during our read aloud time.

9780312547967I was a bit apprehensive at first as I read about Eric’s life back in Ohio prior to the separation of his parents. I was nervous that students would become emotional charged or upset as Eric spoke of how is family had “fractured.” I was worried that this would trigger a sense of loss or sadness as this is such a common experience for many young people.  If anything, students connected to his disappointment and confusion during a tumultuous time.  I was pleasantly surprised to witness how students empathized with Eric and Rudy. We spoke about empathy and how we all handle stress and grief in different ways.

In closing, I just wish to say thank you once again.  You can never know how far your words may travel, but may you celebrate the fact that they have touched the hearts of students in my grade seven English class. Thank you for your time and if you ever find the time to reply, I know that my students would be positively thrilled.

Sincerely,

Stacy, Prince Edward Island, Canada

I replied:

Stacy,

My goodness, wow. The Irish have an expression, “Flowers for the living.” That you don’t have to wait for someone to die before saying something nice to him, or about him.

I really appreciate receiving that good news. It was an exceptionally kind note of you to write. (Though I’m not entirely sure those two previous sentences were shining examples of “good” English, but, hey, let’s keep things loose for now.)

photo-19Yesterday I handed in the 2nd and final revision of my next hardcover (July, 2015), titled THE FALL. It’s not a sequel to BYSTANDER, and it might be one step tougher, but it does address many of the same ideas and themes as that previous book. After some group bullying behavior, there’s a tragic result. The story is told entirely from the point of view of one of the boys who engaged in those misguided acts of cruelty. Now he has to own it, what he did & didn’t do.

My best, and again, thank you!

JP

And Then There Were 5 (Plus a Few Words About an Upcoming Hardcover)

The first book came out in July 2013, and #5 comes out this October, 2014. Meanwhile, the manuscript for #6 has been written, edited, revised – now it’s up to Feiwel & Friends to turn those rough pages into a real book.

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I’m proud of this accomplishment. Proud of the quality of these books. Six stories, each unique, with new (diverse) characters and varied settings. Each one designed to get kids turning the pages, reading books, hearts beating faster, and enjoying the experience.

As an author, I’ve had to learn to control the things I can, and to accept the process. So much is out of my hands. Will these books find an audience? Will they get past the gatekeepers? Will readers love them? I can only hope . . . while I move on to write the next story that moves me.

The next book will be something altogether different, a hardcover, THE FALL, due out in Fall, 2015. Currently that book’s opening sentence reads:

Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have typed a message on her social media page that said, “Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway!”

(I’m just saying: It could have been me.)

It is a book about bullying, bystanders, responsibility, friendship, and forgiveness. It is a story that opens with a powerful quote by Bryan Stevenson, taken from his 3/5/12 TED Talk: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Thank you for giving my “Scary Tales” series a chance. I love those books and I’m fairly amazed that the first one came out only 14 months ago. I haven’t (only) been sitting around! And thanks, too, to everyone at Macmillan for helping to make these books possible. I’ve been fortunate.

Oh, yeah: Great books for Halloween, or any time of year!

 

Incoming: Revisions!

I got a big package in the mail yesterday . . .

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This bit, four real books, finally published, represents a final payoff. It’s done, it exists. There’s also something a little, I don’t know, deflating about it. An ending. Now it will go out into the world, probably to be largely ignored. That might sound a touch maudlin, or even self-pitying, and I’m sorry about that. But that’s the business these days. So many books don’t make it, even the good ones. It can be disheartening. And, yes, scary.

Hey, check out my new shirt . . .

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Cool, right? I love it.

And lastly, most exciting of all, came the editorial revisions for my upcoming book, THE FALL, a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I try to enter the process of revisions with an open mind and an open heart. I trust my editor, Liz Szabla, and endeavor to deeply consider all of her comments, thoughts, suggestions. This is a new opportunity for me to try to make this book better than ever. That involves, sometimes, letting go of old ideas, favorite sentences. It means stepping back — to truly re/vise, to see again — and, well, take another whack at it.

In a moment, the sound you’ll hear will be that of a writer rolling up his sleeves.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #187: A Lovely, Lively One from Ashley in MA

postalletter-150x150 I don’t share every letter, as there can be some repetition. But I quite enjoyed this one from Ashley, who, like me, is also a writer.

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I replied:

Dear Ashley,

It is so nice to hear from a fellow writer – even if, well, you are not exactly a “fellow” at all. I don’t think the “fellow” part is important anyway. But I dither. 

I mean to say:

Thank you for your detailed and wildly entertaining letter. I’m grateful that you enjoyed my book, BYSTANDER, and that you took the time to write to me. I realize from the heading that it was your “Summer Reading Letter,” but you obviously didn’t mail it in, so to speak. It felt genuine to me. And, yes, it was mailed.

(Sorry, weird mood.)

You sound a little like my daughter, Maggie, who is entering 8th grade. She plays soccer and basketball and, like you, is a 100% effort type of person. You can’t go wrong when you give your best. I love that about her. She is also sunny and optimistic, like you, whereas I can get a little gloomy at times, often thinking that it’s about to rain.

I’m glad, too, that you realize the importance of teachers. They come in all sizes and shapes, it’s true, and some are great while others are barely bearable, but when we can make a real connection with one, the entire world can open up in a new way. It’s amazing, really. As an adult, I find that I am more and more grateful to those people from long ago, those teachers and mentors, who gave me so much of themselves. They impacted me, they make a difference. Such a powerful gift – and a great, honorable profession.

9780312547967Of course, I guess there is a message to BYSTANDER, though I sort of hate to see it reduced to that. It’s a story, and I hope for readers to become involved in the characters, to step into their shoes, and see the dynamic from different angles. I want the reader to reach his or her own conclusions. 

Since you asked, many readers have asked if I was planning on a sequel. Short answer: no. Longer answer: I just wrote one! Sort of. Not really. It’s a new book coming out in the Fall of 2015, called THE FALL. In it I take on some of the same themes, but go to a darker place. I’m very excited about it. 

As for your questions, I guess that Mary, to me, is the key character to the story. Yes, she’s a minor character, but with a small and pivotal role. I think she is the book’s most courageous character.

Thanks again for that awesome letter, Ashley. I really like your spirit. 

Btw, you might also like my book, BEFORE YOU GO.

My best . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #186: In Which I Do a Reader’s Homework Assignment on “BYSTANDER”

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Here we go, folks, Fan Mail Wednesday. This one came via the interwebs!

 

9780312547967I am going to be a 7th grader this September. Over this summer, I decided to read Bystander. I have couple of questions.

1. How does Eric’s personality change throughout the story?

2. How would you describe Eric Hayes using metaphor?

It would be helpful if you could reply as soon as possible.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Rika

 

I replied:

 

Wait a minute, this sounds like homework! I hate homework! Or you trying to trick me into doing your homework?

Okay, I’ll play.

To me, Eric’s personality doesn’t make a radical change over the course of the story. I think his awareness changes, his understanding grows, as he observes more things. Remember, he’s new to the school; he has no past with any of those characters. That’s how I think of him in this story, he’s a witness, an observer, almost in a role that’s similar to that of a detective working a mystery. We generally don’t ask how Sam Spade changed in a story, or Philip Marlowe (classic detectives of American Literature, btw). Instead, Eric’s perception deepens, he learns, he grows. For “change,” I’d look to Mary, since I think she’s the real key to the story, even though she is a so-called minor character.

Describe Eric Hayes using metaphor? He’s a camera. Click. A video recorder. A secret listening device. He’s one of those cameras hidden behind the mirror at all the ATM machines. He sees, he records, he absorbs. He is also, as I wrote earlier, “like” a detective.

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tifAs you might know, I wrote the “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series. 40 books in all. And I’ve actually thought quite a bit about detectives, read a lot of mysteries, and studied up on the genre some. The key to a detective — in the great tradition of the detective novel through the years — is that he (or she!) is the moral compass of the story. The person with a deep sense of justice. The person who sorts out right and wrong in a world gone bad. The reliable narrator. The great detective is the through-line in the story, the voice you can trust in a world of lies and corruption.

Does that help?

Now go out and have a terrific summer!

And hey, Rika — you are welcome!

JP

 

 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #181: “I Hate Reading”

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Here’s a snippet of a much longer letter from Anabel in NY:

Fan Mail 181

I replied:

 

Dear Anabel:

I’m sorry to see that your long, lovely letter was postmarked March 12th. Since it was sent directly to my publisher, I can only surmise that it languished there for many weeks before finally reaching my home in upstate, NY.

So, please forgive the delay.

You do remember writing to me, don’t you?

It’s so interesting to learn that you “love writing” but “hate reading.” Usually the two things go hand in glove. I wonder if you’ve been reading the wrong books? In any event, I’m glad that you enjoyed Bystander. Books have given me so much pleasure in my life, I’d hate to think you’d miss out on the fun.

Don’t give up on books!!!

9780312547967To answer your questions: I have three children, now ages 21, 14, and 13. When I wrote Bystander, about 5 years ago, I guess I was beginning to project my own youngest two children in that middle grade environment. In conversations with my editor, Liz Szabla, we often got around to the topic of bullying and what we felt were unsatisfactory, unrealistic attitudes about it. Together we felt that it would be a good topic for me, because I’m sort of an anti-Disney type writer. It’s not all cupcakes, rainbows, home runs and unicorns with me.

I set the book on Long Island because I grew up there. It was a familiar environment and, for some reason, I placed this particular book there. At the same time, I’m currently writing one of my SCARY TALES books and it’s set in a swamp in southeast Texas –- and I’ve never spent a minute in that area. I had to learn and research as I wrote, which can also be fun.

I was never bullied in my life, nor was I a bully. I was a bystander, like so many of us, and that’s partly why I wrote the book from that perspective.

My best,

James Preller

This Makes Me a Gnome, I Think

I’m trying to say that, quite unexpectedly, I made a brief sidebar appearance in this month’s Better Homes & Gardens magazine. Thank you, Elizabeth Lombardo, whoever you are!

What, you don’t believe me?

Look, proof!

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Then This Happened: “Bystander” in Greek

Out of nowhere, without any discussion, I received in the mail three copies of a Greek translation of BYSTANDER.

I have the same-old standard observation about books: You just never know. Sometimes the world shrugs, indifferent. Books go out-of-print faster than ever these days. Not just the crummy ones, either. Other times, certain books take on a life of their own. Bucking the trend, BYSTANDER has actually managed to grow in popularity over the past several years.

You write a book, do the best you can, and release it into the world. You’ll need some luck, some help, and maybe some more luck. I grateful for this success — and I love seeing my name spelled out in Greek, where they use an entirely different alphabet.

I did not secretly, diabolically, hatch a plot for world domination. But, hey, I’d gladly settle for one measly Greek island (surely hey’ve got one to spare). Corfu, anyone?

BYSTANDER Contender for “Global Read Aloud 2014″

I arrived home last night after a terrific trip to Michigan, courtesy of the good, kind folks at West Bloomfield Township Public Library. I was treated much too kindly and given the opportunity to speak with young people from 8th grade all the way up to preschool.

(See what I did there?)

More details on that trip another day.

This morning a friend directed me to this link, with information about “The Global Read Aloud.”

“What in the world’s that?”

According to the site:

The project was created in 2010 with a simple goal in mind; one book to connect the world. Now with three years under our belt and more than 30,000 connections made, we realize we are on to something larger than us so we look forward to continuing the global connections.

The premise is simple; we pick a book to read aloud to our students during a set 6-week period and during that time we try to make as many global connections as possible. Each teacher decides how much time they would like to dedicate and how involved they would like to be. Some people choose to connect with just one class, while others go for as many as possible. The scope and depth of the project is up to you. In the past we have used Twitter, Skype, Edmodo, our wiki, email, regular mail, Kidblog, and any other tools we can think of to make these connections. Teachers get a community of other educators to do a global project with, hopefully inspiring them to continue these connections through the year.

I was surprised and honored to see one of my books listed along with such company. It’s nice to be in the conversation, much appreciated. The project looks at books in various categories, according to grades. There’s “Picture Book,” “Grades 1-3,” “Grades 4-6″ and “Grades 7-up.” Some of the folks named include some of my personal favorites, such as Peter Reynolds, Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, Anne Urso, Jo Knowles, and others.

Oh, wait. Before I forget, look at this cake that was made for me at Algonquin Middle School. It happened a while back, but I just found the photo on the net. I’m only a year and a half behind!

Here’s another sweet shot from that same visit to Algonquin. Thank you, Rebecca.

You can sign up for the Global Read Aloud right here.

Here are the 5 books listed for 7th-grade and up. It looks like I have some reading to do — which, to me, is always the primary point of these lists. Glad to be a contender:

  • Endangered by Elliot Schrefer
  • Bystander by James Preller
  • Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Gein