Archive for Fan Mail

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #267: A Letter in Braille

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I received an interesting envelope the other day. 

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A closer look . . .

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And inside . . .

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If you look closely, you can see the raised dots under the lettering. Braille, of course. Here’s my reply . . .

Dear Jaquan,

Thank you so much for your letter. I am always grateful whenever a young person reaches out to me in kindness after experiencing one (or more!) of my books.

But your letter was unique, and it moved me. The truth is, I’ve never before received a letter in braille. Nor have I heard from a reader who knows my work only through audio books. Normal for you, but new to me.

By writing your letter, Jaquan, you opened up a glimpse of your world to me. I thank you for that. Running my own clumsy fingers across those little bumps on the page, my eyes closed, I can scarcely imagine how you have the sensitivity and skill (and brain power!) to decipher that extraordinary coded language. I bow my head to you in admiration and respect.

I don’t know which books you’ve heard on audio. To be honest, I’ve long been disappointed that the vast majority of my work has not made it to audio. I guess I’m not a big enough deal. A few Jigsaw Jones titles in the past, that’s it. I wonder if in your world there are people providing you with homemade audiobooks? If so, wow, that’s a generous thing for someone to do.

I am aware that our public service radio station has a service where volunteers can come in to read books for the blind. I’m sorry to say that in the past I’ve always concluded that I didn’t have the time. Or maybe I just lacked energy, or heart. Now you have me thinking about it again, wondering if that’s something I should be doing.

I wish you good health and happiness. Happy reading. And thanks, ever so much, for your note. You’ve inspired me.

James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #266: All About Monsters

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Sam writes . . .

 

Dear Mr. Preller,

HI! My name is Sam. I am in 4th grade. I was wondering if I could interview you for a school research project. my topic is monsters. I can send the questions by email if it is convenient for you.
 
Sincerely,
Sam
 
And the next day . . .
 

Hi Mr.Preller! These are the interview questions.

 
 1) what is the most common monster?
 
 2) what are common monster traits?
 
 3) why are monsters feared?
 
 4) how are most monsters created?
 
 5) how do your monsters act?
 
 6) how did you create your monsters?
 
Thanks for making the time to do this!
 
sincerely,
Sam
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream.”

 
I replied . . . 
 –
Sam,
– 
You should know that I don’t know any monsters personally — and I mean, monster-monsters, not monstrous people or events — we all c8ef36cf51ff34e2a2e8e1bbed323631have a little monster inside us, I believe — so I’m not sure I have the exact brand of expertise you seek. For my “Scary Tales” series, for example, I usually make up “monsters” that I imagine might frighten a reader, or frighten me, though I have yet to write a story about a monster-dentist. Talk about scary! I could call it, THE ROOT CANAL! Or, I don’t know, THE BRACES TIGHTEN!
 –
(I never had braces, but the idea terrifies me.)
 –
Another scary title for a monster story might be, oh, THE CONGRESSMAN!
 
Yikes, horrifying. 
 –
So I guess in that sense monsters can come in all shapes and sizes. Not necessarily swamp monsters or werewolves or zombies.
 –
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: The One-Eyed Doll."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: The One-Eyed Doll.”

 
Anyway, that said, let me try to answer your questions, Sam.
 
1. The most common monster? The one under your bed.
 
2. Common traits? They like to hide in dark places.
 
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: Swamp Monster."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: Swamp Monster.”

3. Monsters are feared because they are . . . other. Different. Not us. But the reverse can also be true. In my book Swamp Monster, the creature from the swamp, the so-called “monster,” simply wants her baby back. An egg has been stolen from her. She’s a loving mother. So I ask you, as I did in the book, who is really the monster in that story? I guess it depends on your point of view.

 –
4. Monsters are created from the dark places in our imaginations. Once they are dreamed up, they are free to go about as they please. There’s no putting the toothpaste back into the tube, so to speak.
 –
5. Like every other character in a book or story, monsters want something. The question is always: What does this character want? In The One-Eyed Doll, the “monster” — I use quotes here, because I’m not always comfortable labeling these creations as monsters — wants to be a real girl. Not a monstrous desire at all. But of course, in order one_eyed_dollesec01to get what she desires . . . well, that’s the scary part. The wanting can be a sort of disease, a sickness that allows you to do horrible things. Greed is the kind of disease that can turn ordinary people into monsters. They want what they want. When I think of monstrous people in our world, the common characteristic is a lack of empathy. They don’t care about anyone else but themselves. Selfish, greedy. They don’t care who they hurt as long as they get what they want. Once you begin to think about how someone else might feel . . . once you walk around in someone else’s shoes, see life from their point of view . . . that’s when you lose your ability to be a monster.
(These are complicated thoughts, Sam, and I’m not sure I’m articulating them well, but maybe worth a conversation with a teacher or parent or some friends. There are so many types of monsters in the world, it’s hard to keep them sorted out. Can you be a bully if you truly, deeply think about how your target feels? Can we rip the immigrant father away from his children if we truly succeed in imagining their hearts and minds? Can we pollute a river if we care about our planet and the people who live on it?)
– 
To me, a monster is almost always deeply egocentric, unable to think of anyone else’s feelings but his/her own.
 
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: Nightmareland."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: Nightmareland.”

 
6. How do I create them? The glib answer is that, as a writer, my job is to make things up. And I do that piece by piece, characteristic by characteristic. When I wrote a book about bullying, Bystander, the character who was the “monster” in that story — a boy who did 9780312547967monstrous things — I made sure that he was attractive in many respects. A good-looking kid. A smooth talker. Nice smile. That’s what made him especially dangerous. He didn’t appear, at first, as a monster. Quite the opposite. Sometimes the scariest kid in class is four feet tall and wears blonde pigtails and has a terrific smile. And sometimes the monster might be childhood illness, as in my book Six Innings. Or a mother’s cancer in The Courage Test. Not something I made up, but recognized as a actual terror in the real world. But again, let’s get back to traditional monsters, and what the monster wants. In Good Night, Zombie, the monsters are zombies. They aren’t complicated. They just want to eat. Unfortunately, we’re on the menu!
 –
Thanks for your questions.
 
I’m curious. What are you going to do with them? 
 
My best, 
 
James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #265: After the Skype

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Fresh from my Skype visit, I received this kind note from North Carolina, which is an actual state in the United States.
 
Thanks again for the wonderful Skype session today!  My classes had some great discussions about the responses that you gave to their questions!  It was an incredible experience for them, and me!
 
I would love to purchase a Bystander poster.  Please let me know if you have such a thing to offer.
 
I finished The Fall today.  I loved it, too!  I ordered The Bell Jar because I am very curious after you referenced it several times in the text. 
 –
I am attaching a photo from our session today.  Our media specialist may have more, but this is the only one that she sent me.
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I am looking forward to ordering your latest book!   Also, my students are begging me to read The Fall to them.  I have asked our guidance counselor to read it first to make sure that she thought it would be ok as a read aloud.  It obviously touches on a more sensitive topic than Bystander. It will definitely be made available for checkout to my students either way.
 –
Thanks so much! 
 
Susan
 

I replied . . .

Dear Susan,

Thank you for this note and the photo. Was I really that dark during the Skype? Or is it just the photo? I wonder if I should focus on proper lighting in the future.
 –
I enjoyed the questions and the experience, thank you for making it happen.
 
9781250090546.IN01I appreciate your thoughts on The Fall. I understand where suicide is a sensitive issue, and should give any educator pause before sharing the book with a large group. However, The Fall was (loosely) inspired by real events. These terrible things happen. The book is not really “about” the suicide, but goes deeper into the potential implications of cyberbullying, i.e., how we treat each other. Honestly, for me, the deepest theme in the book is forgiveness.
 
I’m proud of that book and know that many readers, generally grades 7-up, have been enthusiastic about it. The book was nominated for the Sakura Medal in Japan and listed in the 2017 ALA midwinter meetings (by YALSA) as a “quick pick” for reluctant readers.
 
If this is any help, I’ve listed some review comments below.
 –
“Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).” — Booklist.
 –
“Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse.” — School Library Journal.
 –
“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” (Fiction. 10-16) — Kirkus.
 
 “It was 2:55 am as I finally gave up on the notion of sleep.  Having started reading THE FALL by James Preller earlier in the day, I knew sleep would not come until I had finished Sam’s story.  Now, having turned the last page, it still haunts me and will for quite some time.”Guys Lit Wire.
 –
“I didn’t realize the emotional impact this book had on me until the very last sentence when it brought tears to my eyes. This was a heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship, bullying, and the aftermath of all of it.” — Expresso Reads.
 
Thank you, I hope our paths cross again.
 –
James Preller
And yes, Dear Readers, there’s even a postscript — because Susan wrote back with this . . .
 –
I agree with everything that you said about The Fall.  Our guidance counselor is halfway through it and says that she absolutely loves it!  We both agree that it does not focus on the actual suicide.  The theme of forgiveness, as well as students realizing what could possibly happen as a result of bullying is very powerful.
 
My students are begging me to read it, so I feel almost certain that it will happen!
Thanks again for being so approachable!  We met with a parent this morning and all she said her son was talking about last night was the SKYPE with you!  This is such a powerful opportunity for our students, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to make it happen!

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #264: Bystander on Long Island

 

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Here we go . . . my 10th year of sharing a small selection of my fan mail on the interwebs. An honor I never take for granted.

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I replied . . . 

 

Dear Samantha,

Thank you for your impressive, typed, two-page letter. It’s nice to hear from a reader on Long Island, my old stomping grounds. I was born in Wantagh, emptied garbage cans at Jones Beach, road my bicycle to the mall, and, yes, even hung out at President Nixon’s dog’s grave near my high school. My mom, age 91 (long, slow clap for that!), lives out in Greenport on the North Fork. Wine country, I guess. So I still find myself out there, though I now live in upstate.

I’ve been to Commack, and not just to drive past (though, yes, I confess: mostly that). I vaguely remember doing a school visit out there at some point. It all tends to blur. So we have that in common, the Island and good bagels.

9780312547967Anyway, I’m glad that Bystander made you reflect a little bit on your own life. I agree with your thoughts about social media, how bullying is actually more subtle, less obvious than what we (typically) see in movies, i.e., the big dumb kid shoving someone into a locker.

I feel there are endless ways of writing about bullying, a million stories to tell. No book can hope to say it all. I sometimes think that Mary was the secret hero of Bystander, though I suspect her story is under-written; it mostly takes place offstage. For better and for worse, I decided to focus primarily on Eric. When a book or movie can get us to think, to make connections, to become aware, that’s a very good thing. That’s art, right? The movie you see and keep wondering about days later. The poem that makes us shut to book and gaze out the window, wondering.

Ultimately, I tried to write a good, fast-paced, involving story. The rest is up to you.

My best,

James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #263: It’s 2 Degrees Out, Let’s Talk Baseball (Obviously)!

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The mail always gets delivered — through rain, sleet, and mind-numbingly (toe-numbingly?) cold weather. This one’s from Kaprice in Iowa!

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I replied:

Dear Kaprice,

I am always glad to receive a letter about Six Innings, but it’s especially true today in the midst of frozen winter. It is actually 2 degrees outside as I type this. Two skinny degrees! Fortunately the sky is clear, the color of a robin’s egg, and the sun brightly reflected on the snow. Not a good day for baseball, but not so bad for sipping tea and staring out the window.

Titles can be tricky! For some books, I know the title from the beginning: Bystander and Six Innings, for example. For my new book, Better Off Undead, oh dear, that one took forever. But that book took me six years to write (don’t ask!), so I had plenty of time to come up with a lot of bad ideas. My original title was Zombie Me, which I still think is pretty good.

paperback-cover-six-inningsLike you, I am a baseball fan and enjoy reading about the sport. Roger Angell once famously quipped that writers love baseball so much because it’s the only sport that’s slow enough for them to understand. For Six Innings, my idea was to use the game as a structure for writing about characters, people. I knew from the beginning that I wanted the heart of the book to take place over the course of one game, six innings at the Little League level. But again: the game was only a device for exploring character. Real people, what they think and feel.

My oldest son, Nick, 24, is a two-time cancer survivor. I was inspired by his experiences, in particular his friendship with a boy named Sam Lewis. I find that’s often how it works with writing: the details of our own life inevitably leak into our stories, even the ones that are “made up.”

Thank you & Happy New Year!

James Preller