Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

AUTHOR TO AUTHOR: A Conversation with Audrey Glassman Vernick

 

I’m not exactly sure when Audrey Glassman Vernick became a blip on my radar, but suddenly she was blipping everywhere. I felt like one of those guys in the mission control tower, trying to determine if this green blip was a “friendly” or an incoming missile. Ultimately, I decided that Audrey was a rising star.

I had the chance to meet Audrey personally, as opposed to through her books, at the 2015 Princeton Children’s Book Festival (thank you, Alison Santos!). We were at a backyard gathering, tired and happy after a long day. I bravely introduced myself, and we enjoyed a brief, easy conversation. I liked her immediately.

Anyway, I invited Audrey over to my swanky blog for today’s conversation. Here she comes now . . .

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AGV: Why, it is swanky!

JP: I know, thanks. It’s the Picasso poster, isn’t it? I saved it from college. 

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That’s the definition of class. It’s not just a hand or flowers. It’s both! And thanks for having me.

Glad to have you. About a month ago I read a bunch of your books. I was especially taken by Edgar’s Second Word, illustrated by Priscilla Burris. I even wrote to tell you how much I loved it, calling it “a small masterpiece.” Do you remember your reply?

I hope my first response was thank you. And I suspect my quick follow up was that you were one of approximately six people who read that book.

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Yes, you were gracious. But you also mentioned that I was one of the few people to have actually read it. Which just goes to show that this is a crazy business. Your book has so much heart. It’s expertly constructed, like a well-built cabinet. We learn Edgar’s first word, “NO!” early on, so there’s a built-in tension: What will his second word be? That curiosity keeps us turning the pages. I was worried that the second word might be a letdown, but you totally delivered.

Thank you! Tension (and the building up thereof) is my very least developed writer skill, so extra thank you!

I interviewed James Marshall back in the early 90s, and he maintained that a strong ending for a book was essential. I’ll always remember what he told me: “The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles at the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it.” Wise words, and again, I think you nailed it with Edgar’s Second Word.

Let’s stop right here so I can faint. James Marshall!

I know, I was bragging to impress you. He’s one of my children’s book heroes. I can vividly remember our conversation. Heck, I can remember picking up the phone. James was friendly, funny, genuine, completely unpretentious.

George and Martha are the two main loves of my life. They are quoted with solemnity in the Vernick home.

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Do you have a favorite line?

A truth about me (which does not go over well with kids at school visits): I am unable to pick a favorite anything except sports team (Yankees). Unable. So I could write some great lines here but then, minutes later, I’d erase and replace. (It is not easy being me.) Also, you sort of have to be looking at George and Martha along with reading their words to get the full picture. All that said, an oft-repeated line that comes to mind (you won’t even believe how lame this is) is:

 

“Boo!” cried George.

“Have mercy!” screamed Martha.

 

Nice, subtle. His humor is always natural, never seems forced. You never get the feeling that Marshall is trying too hard. 

The blog I had and still kind of have was in large part an homage to those two, about literary friendships.

Oh, nice idea. There’s Frog and Toad, of course. Do you know the book Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes? It’s pretty perfect.

I do not. But I shall seek it out. Pronto!

I blogged an appreciation of it a while back. Let me see, it’s around here somewhere. Here you go, click on the link

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

Back to your question.

Wait, there was actually a question?  

The ending! You asked about the ending! It was the first, and only, thing I knew about the book when I started writing it. I received an email from a college friend whose young not-book-loving son (Edgar!) sat through his mother’s read-aloud of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and, at the end, said, “Again.” I shared that with my wise agent, Erin Murphy, who said, “Well obviously you’re going to use that in a book, right?”

Right.

I don’t know if this happens to you, but when a book fails to sell, fails to reach an audience, I tend to slowly, inexorably begin to think of it as a failed book. And by extension, I begin to see myself as a failed writer. Intellectually, I know that’s wrong, but that’s my reality. So that’s why I’m dwelling on Edgar a little bit here. I want to be sure that you know it’s a great blipping book!

That’s a very George-to-Martha thing to say (maybe not the blipping part). Thank you! I have my dysfunctions when it comes to this publishing business. I suffer some jealousies. I focus on benchmarks I have not achieved. But I am pleased to say that in this one particular case, I still really love this book. Priscilla Burris’ illustrations are unspeakably sweet and perfect.

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Yes, she did a terrific job. The right tone. 

And the people who read it respond so well to it. It just didn’t find its people. That happens. It wasn’t the first time it happened to me. A nice side note is that it was named a highly commended title by the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Outstanding Writing in a Picture Book.

First Grade Dropout, illustrated by my pal Matthew Cordell, turns on a lovely mistake. A boy absent-mindedly calls his teacher, “Mommy.” Where did that idea come from?

Some years I take part in Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), in which you try to come up with a picture book idea each day of the month. One day I wrote “kid calls teacher mommy,” something I know happens in my sister’s second-grade classroom with some frequency. (I’ve since learned it happens in nearly every classroom.)

Yes, it rings true. That’s probably why it’s funny.

FirstGradeDropoutIt sat on that list for years because it wasn’t a story yet, just an incident. One day I decided to give it a try. In my experience, you sometimes have to start writing a picture book to find the story. And that voice just came out. It happened again a few months ago, when I was looking for a follow-up to that book. I brainstormed ideas with my editor, but while we had fun and shared lots of embarrassing elementary-school memories, we didn’t hit upon anything usable for a book. Once I started writing, though, I found the idea for Second Grade Holdout, which is coming out next year (because Matt is F-A-S-T as well as fantastic).

I am crazy about Matt. I once slept in his guest room. He even drove me to the airport. Strangely, Matt insisted on dropping me off sixteen hours early, which was confusing.

You are wise to be crazy about Matt. He’s kind and funny and so talented. Immensely likable.

Well, let’s not get carried away, Audrey. He’s okay. But I’ll be hog-tied if I let Cordell hijack this interview! So, yes, you discovered the idea for Holdout . . . through the act of writing. Jane Yolen’s famous “butt in chair” advice. How do you actually get work done, Audrey? Do you have a time clock where you punch in each morning? Or do you wait for inspiration?

Somewhere in the middle. I am not disciplined. With picture books, I write when inspiration strikes, but with novels I need to force myself to sit and write. And I have to come up with sad little bargains to keep myself in the chair, writing.

Such as?

I’m only allowed to sit in the comfy chair with the heated blanket when I’m working on a novel. And once I’m there, it’s still a whole bargaining thing. If you finish the chapter, you can shower. Or eat breakfast. Or walk the dog.

Oh, that poor dog. Getting back to James Marshall, you share a great trait with him. You’re funny. And even better, you are able to write funny, which is a distinct and rare talent. There’s never enough of that in children’s books. Children’s publishing went through a biblio-theraputic period where every picture book had to be about something important. Laughter lagged behind.

I agree that there’s never enough funny. But there are so many more now than there used to be. The books that were considered funny when I was a kid and, for the most part, when my kids were little, were more amusing than genuinely funny. Lots of modern picture books are flat-out hilarious. It’s a really fun time to be writing them.

Can you name a few of your favorites?

See previous explanation of ever-changing favorites. That said, I believe the Pigeon books kind of burst the door open to a new kind of funny. Bob Shea’s books often crack me up and I have serious title-envy about his Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. Like debilitating jealousy.

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Deborah Underwood’s Cat is a brilliant new character.

I really liked Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce and Julia Sarcone-Roach’s The Bear Ate Your Sandwich.

Good to know. I understand that 2016 is going to be a big year for you.

I have four books coming out.

Wow. Girl is on fire. You realize I kind of hate you now? A little.

I can both understand and accept that and will just quickly add that it’s possible I have four books coming out in six months -— the pub date for the last release of the year has not been set.

Shoot me now. I mean: I’m sooooo happy for you!!!!!

Aww!

I’m curious, how do you do it? I find that writing picture books can be so difficult. I’ve been seriously trying for the past year and everything comes out half-baked, half-finished, half-awful. There are times it feels like throwing darts in a darkened room. It’s so easy to go down the wrong path. I wonder if you can talk about your process a little bit. Do you begin with a character?

I write both fiction and nonfiction picture books, and for the nonfiction ones, I look for a subject, get obsessed, research and write.

Do you first clear the topic with an editor?

I float it more than clear it. Or maybe those are the same. I am not writing with a contract, to be clear.

And for your fiction titles?

Just about every one has been different. Sometimes, the title comes first and leads the way to the story. Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums was the first of those for me. Once a whole first page came to me, unbidden:

“Zander was a monster. This wasn’t strange as his father was a monster. His mother too. Oddly, his sister was a fairy. And his dog was a skunk.”

That last sentence just killed me. (And then, as with many lines I love, I had to fight to keep it.) That’s from Unlike Other Monsters, coming out in June.

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And his dog was a skunk. That’s a funny line. Comedy gold! Sometimes with the right sentence, even just a few words, or the right rhythm, a door seems to open. You can suddenly find your way in.

I don’t think any of my picture books has started with a character, which I didn’t realize until you asked. With novels, it’s always character. But it’s usually title/concept or incident that gets me started with picture books.

Getting back to what you said about going down the wrong path -— to me, that’s what is so great about picture books! If you do it in a picture book, you erase the last 100 words and go back to the fork. With a novel, hacking out 50 pages feels like pulling out a minor organ.

I maybe once cried when cutting 10,000 words from my book, Six Innings.

The first novel I wrote, Water Balloon, I wrote these extra 50 pages before the story really got going. I so wanted credit for those pages.

Even so, picture books have to be “just so.” You know? I feel like there’s more forgiveness in a longer work. More room to wander. With a picture book, basically 30 pages, there’s not a lot of space to get lost. That’s why I’ve concentrated on longer works, because I felt it gave me more control over my (and the book’s) fate. 

I adore picture books. I love writing them. I love the very fact of them. I enjoy every step of picture book writing and revising. But getting a first draft of a novel done -— the avoidance I have to fight is embarrassing. I’m in that place now. At least ninety percent through a novel I’ve been working on for years. I am looking forward to being done but not to what I have to do to be done.

That’s how I feel about exercise.

Me too.

I could be wrong here, but it seems there are not many folks that are exclusively writers who have built a reputation in picture books. There’s Tony Johnston, Eve Bunting, Ruth Krauss, Mem Fox, Charlotte Zolotow. It’s not a long list. Mac Barnett, of course, is doing great work now. Though it was only last week when I first realized that he wrote Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. I had previously thought of it strictly as a Jon Klassen title.

Well, crap. I guess I knew that but I never knew it in words. Thanks.

You’re welcome! I like that you’re a big baseball fan. Where’d that come from?

When kids ask this at school visits I always give the super-articulate answer that goes something like, “It’s hard to say why you like what you like. For example, I love pizza. Why? Because it tastes good.” Note to self: Work on that response.

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I was on a panel recently with a bunch of seasoned writers –- Todd Strasser, David Levithan, others –- and they all had such great, pithy answers to audience questions. I was like, “Damn, I have to raise my game.” The whole staring and stammering thing won’t cut it.

I don’t think anyone will ever say that about me. You know what impressed me about that Vernick? Pithy answers.

Pithy can feel too slick on some folks. I like your stammering authenticity.

My love of baseball -— sunny days (I will always take a day game over a night game); the fact that it’s a sport without a clock, with a lot of time for a mind to wander, to wonder, to draw connections; and it’s a sport with an immensely rich history (albeit one with very few women in it).

I associate baseball with my mom, who is still a huge fan at age 89. She taught me how to throw, how to catch. So there’s a lot of transference there: by loving baseball, I’m expressing love for my mother. Also, I loved playing, and still do. Now that I’m finished coaching (had a 15u travel team last season), I’ll probably return to a Senior Men’s Hardball team next spring. Read that as: Old guys clutching their hamstrings. We’re all still boys at heart. Did you ever get to play?

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First I have to say I just love that, your connection to your mom there. Organized sports for girls didn’t exist when I was younger. I played softball at camp and was sometimes good. In my neighborhood, it was mostly punchball in the street. A neighborhood of girls. Seriously, I think there was only one boy and we were terrified of him because he once threw a firecracker at my sister.

He was probably terrified, too. Don’t we all throw firecrackers when we’re afraid? I know you are a Jersey Girl, and a mother, but outside of that, I don’t know much about your background.

Okay, first of all, no. I grew up in New York City -— in Queens. I’ve lived in NJ 19 years. Wow. That’s a long time. But I definitely do not identify as Jersey Girl. Strike that from the record!

Done. Both my parents were from Queens, so I like this better, anyway.

I live near the ocean. When I lived on eastern Long Island —- my home before this one, and Boston before that -— my house was a block from the Long Island Sound. I hope to always live near a big body of water. My present and future dogs probably hope so too.

Have you written a dog-and-ocean book yet?

I cannot sell a dog book. It kills me.

I hear hedgehogs are trending. Or was that five years ago? It’s hard to keep up.

I wrote literary short fiction for adults before writing for kids. It’s a very good way to learn to accept rejection.

So how did you get into children’s books?

It’s a sad story. You’ve been warned.

When I was in my early twenties, my mother was taking a children’s writing class at the New School in NYC and she sent the first novel she wrote to one publisher (Dutton) and it was accepted. She died two months later, a pedestrian on the sidewalk, hit by a car around the block from my childhood home.

200px-Morning-glory-C6295bMy family was reeling for years. And in that time, we had to work with my mother’s very patient editor. My mother hadn’t even received her editorial letter at the time of her death, so all the revision fell to us. As you might imagine, we didn’t want to change a single one of her words. So that was my first step, as the literary executor of her estate. (The book, The Morning Glory War, was published in 1990 and received a really nice review in the Sunday Times.)

Wow. You must have taken a deep breath before typing that out. Like, “Okay, here goes, you asked.” I know that feeling, Audrey, since my oldest is a two-time cancer survivor. I’ve lost two brothers. These are not happy stories to tell at parties. Oftentimes, it’s easier not to get into it. And you’re right, it is sad, but it’s also an incredible story.

Yeah, as I wrote that out, I could see clearly that my family led me here.

Years later, I fell in love with the art of an outsider artist named Tim Brown, showed his art to one of my sisters, and she said that it belonged in a children’s book. Together, we wrote that book.

Which book is that?

Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship.

Hey, um, Audrey, this is nice and everything but . . . are you going to leave? I mean, ever? Or am I supposed to feed you now? I guess I have a pull-out couch . . .

Yeah, maybe tomorrow I’ll start pulling my stuff together. I could walk your dog. Do you have a dog?

Daisy. And two cats. And three kids. And four . . . well, it all stops at four. I don’t have four of anything.

I’m sure you have four readers of your blog!

Oh, dozens more. Dozens! We’re basically talking to ourselves here. It’s like the Cone of Silence in “Get Smart.” But before you go, is there anything you can share about your upcoming books? 

Okay, since you asked:

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton, illustrated by Steven Salerno, nonfiction about a Philadelphia girl playing professional baseball from age 10.

 

The real Edith Houghton.

The real Edith Houghton.

 

I Won A What?, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, about a boy who hopes to win a goldfish and ends up with something a wee bit bigger. And better.

Unlike Other Monsters, illustrated by Colin Jack, with the opening page mentioned above. And a novel, Two Naomis, written with my dear friend Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich.

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How did you co-author a book? It’s seems difficult, fraught with peril. How did you handle it?

I have co-authored four books. Two Naomis was the first novel. We each wrote from the point of view of our own Naomi. So my chapters were the even-numbered ones — individual writing of separate chapters. When I co-wrote picture books, first with my sister and most recently with Liz Garton Scanlon, we just back-and-forthed a lot. Both experiences were really freeing and so much easier than doing it alone.

So what’s for dinner?

Get out! 

But before you go, by way of thank you, please accept this set of steak knives as a parting gift. I wish you all the luck in the world, Audrey. Keep up the great work.

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Remembering Vera Williams: Artist, Activist, Inspiration


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Vera Williams passed away at age 88 on October 16, 2015. I wanted to make note of it beyond a quick comment on Facebook, but her death came at an inconvenient time for me — though, I’m sure, it wasn’t the best timing for Vera, either. I can type that glib phrase because I’m confident that she would have agreed, and laughed out loud. Vera laughed a lot.

We never met in person, though of course I read and admired many of her books, most particularly “More, More, More,” Said the Baby, which I adore. It’s one of those rare things, a nearly perfect book about something as simple and profound as love. I had the pleasure of interviewing Vera over the phone, back in 1990. We chatted for an hour or so. She was lovely and warm and generous and completely genuine, just as anyone who had encountered her books would imagine.

21Williams-Obit1-SUB-blog427She was also, I learned, deeply political. No one had to scold Vera Williams about the importance of diversity or any such thing. Her politics were personal, and she recognized that the personal — as well as the creative — was always political. We are talking about values, really. The things that are important. Vera actively cared about the world and the children who inhabited it. She marched, she protested, she stood up for things. It’s on every page in every single book. For me, as someone who often looks around at this world in heartache and dismay, and who also writes for children, I find myself increasingly searching for appropriate ways to express those values in my own life and work. Vera, I think, helped show the way. You just go ahead and do it, as natural as breathing, come what may.

She will be missed.

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Below, here’s my two-page write-up as it was published in my book, the clumsily titled, The Big Book of Picture-book Authors & Illustrators. Like so many of my books, it’s long out of print, but I often spy it in tattered condition on school bookshelves during visits. I’ve been lucky enough to interview folks like Tedd Arnold, Molly Bang, Aliki Brandenberg, Norman Bridwell, Ashley Bryan, Eve Bunting, Barbara Cooney, Donald Crews, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, James Marshall, Barbara Park, Jerry Pinkney, Patricia Polacco, Faith Ringgold, Lane Smith, Peter Spier, Bernard Waber, Charlotte Zolotow, and many, many more. It’s sad to think how many of them are gone. Vera Williams was one of the best.

I will remember her with fondness and respect, forever grateful for the books she left behind.

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Great Article: “Horrors! This Child Is Reading Horror!”

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Thanks to Google Alerts, I found this terrific & timely article by Paula Willey in The Baltimore Sun. Willey does a great job here, writing calmly and directly about the value of “scary books” for (some) young readers.

My lovely daughter, Maggie, some years back. To our surprise, she loves horror. Loves it!

My lovely daughter, Maggie, some years back. To our surprise, Maggie loves horror. Loves it!

Personally, I got into scary books late in life, after many school visits where I met young readers who loved that shivery, edge-of-the-seat feeling. This is not just a Halloween thing, btw. An affection for horror goes year round. After raising two boys who never cared for horror — and openly said so, I should add — my sweet Maggie came along and she loves those creepy, crawly feelings. Go figure.

Another reason why I wrote “Scary Tales” in the way that it’s written — short, fast-paced, easy-to-read, series format — was because of all the reluctant readers I’ve met over the years. I’ve had them in my own kitchen, munching Doritos, blithely telling me how they don’t like books. So I challenged myself to write stories that attempted to be so entertaining & enjoyable that even these boys would read to the last page (they are, alas, almost invariably boys). I wanted them to experience that proud, “I just finished a whole book” feeling. And to then realize, “Hey, I kind of liked it. I’ll try another.”

In the old days of publishing, we’d call books in this category “Hi-Lo.” High-interest, low-reading level. My estimation is that “Scary Tales” is written somewhere on the 3rd-grade level, but with stories that appeal all the way up to 6th grade. The look is cool and edgy, so there’s no stigma to reading “baby” books.

Here’s a snip from the article. Thank you for the kind mention, Paula Willey!

ONE-EYED DOLL.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from  SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL.

Picture, if you will, a smiling, well-adjusted child. She’s tucked into a corner of the couch, reading happily, quiet but for the occasional giggle. Is that an “American Girl” book she’s reading? A silly fractured fairy tale? On the cover, you spy a slime-drenched, bloody snake; the title is spelled out in dripping, neon-bright letters: “The Zombie Chasers: World Zombination!”

Horrors! This child is reading horror!

Many grownups are a little uncomfortable when a kid exhibits a taste for stories of terror and mayhem. They worry that their children will become desensitized to violence or will have nightmares. Some just want their kids reading “better” books. There’s a perception that scary books like the “Goosebumps” series by R. L. Stine are of low literary quality and have no value.

It’s true that “Goosebumps” books, along with series like James Preller’s “Scary Tales,” “Spooksville” by Christopher Pike and P. J. Night’s “Creepover,” are short, formulaic, and written at a fairly low reading level. However, librarians know that these books sometimes play a crucial role in inviting children into reading, or helping a reader bridge the gap between books he is beginning to find “babyish” and longer books with more complexity.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Many people who grew up to be very accomplished readers — and writers — claim to have read nothing but “Goosebumps” for years when they were kids.

In addition, children are very aware of their ability to handle scary stuff. When I help a child pick out a book, I’ll often ask, “How do you do with scary books?” Of all the questions that I ask during the book selection process, this is the one they answer most forthrightly: “No scary books!” or “I can handle medium-scary.” And then there’s the little angel who proclaims, “The scarier the better!”

 

For the full article, click here.

Paula Willey is a librarian at the Parkville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. She writes about children’s and teen literature for various national publications and online at unadulterated.us. 

 

 

“A Deserving Porcupine.”

 

Yesterday I reread Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon.

It was published 60 years ago, btw, in two-color.

Weird format, too.

And, of course, it’s perfect.

But what I keep thinking about these past 24 hours is that throwaway phrase, “a deserving porcupine.”

Do you recall it? Possibly not.

Harold thinks about a picnic, and pies, and being Harold, he goes a little overboard.

He hated to see so much delicious pie go to waste.”

Here’s what kills me:

So Harold left a very hungry moose and a deserving porcupine to finish it up.”

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Ha.

That phrase: a deserving porcupine.

How did Crockett Johnson even think of that? Out of all the available adjectives for a porcupine, he deemed this particular one “deserving.”

What did it do to deserve such treatment? I guess we’ll never know, but it feels to me like there’s a story there, somewhere off the page. The deserving porcupine appears on only one page of the book, then off Harold goes, in search of a hill to climb . . .

I should add this postscript:

TheFallIt’s pub day for my new book, The Fall

I really think everybody should buy it. That would be awesome. Thanks!

An Interview with Chris Sheban: Illustrating Book Covers, from Rough Sketch to Final

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Chris Sheban is a talented artist who has illustrated the covers to some books that you might know and love — all without fanfare. You probably didn’t realize it was him, if you even thought about it at all.

Here’s just a few you might recognize:

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I was very happy when my editor, Liz Szabla, told me that Chris would be doing the cover of my 2008 book, Six Innings. I was eager to see it, and nervous, too, since I couldn’t imagine what he and art director Rich Deas might come up with.

I waited and hoped until one day a jpeg of the cover art arrived in my email.

I was relieved, ecstatic, verklempt. Or go ahead, Dear Nation of Six Readers, insert your own baseball metaphor here. It was a home run. A stand-up triple. A squeeze play, um . . . oh, whatever. I loved it. That luminous blue-green.

Sad to say, I failed to thank Chris. Because I had never met the guy, and we had no interaction whatsoever, and I was raised by wolves. We were only connected by this one book, still clinging to semi-obscurity, and that was it. I should have reached out to Chris, sent a card or box of HoHos, but I didn’t.

for preller interviewRecently Chris appeared on Facebook, sharing a trove of rough sketches in addition to samples of light-infused finishes. I don’t know how Chris achieves it, but his work glows. He was also, I realized, a process guy. Organized too; he saves everything. I wrote to Chris and said, more or less, you may not know me, but I want to thank you for that terrific cover.

Actually — I just looked it up — and I wrote exactly this: “I’ve always been grateful to you for that beautiful cover of Six Innings; it only make sense that we don’t know each other on FB too.”

Chris wrote back and said something I didn’t expect. He said that he loved the story and loved working on it.

I was like, “You actually read it?”

Because up to that point, I didn’t realize that illustrators could read. Kidding! (A little.) But I honestly didn’t expect that he read the whole entire stinkin’ book. When I commented on that, Chris explained, “Absolutely read it. Yes, and read the others, too. Trying to get a feel for the story. Never easy to make one image sum up a whole book.”

So that’s when we got the idea to take this conversation to another level, complete with sketches and rough drafts.

Here you go, sit back and relax . . .

CHRIS SHEBAN: So after reading the manuscript, the first rough thoughts look something like this.

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JAMES PRELLER: I like that, “rough thoughts,” not “rough sketches.” Would it be accurate to say that you see them more as ideas than as drawings?
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CS:  Absolutely. At this “thumbnail” stage, I’m more concerned with the idea. What will make the most impactful cover. Composition is important. Should I focus on the pitcher, the batter, how big should I make him, etc. I’m not thinking about color yet. That comes later. You usually don’t know where the title type will go, but you want to consider that as well. Looking at some of these sketches, I’m not sure I was following my own advice. The pitcher in this sketch at the bottom right looks a bit more like a sasquatch than a human. I’ll worry about that later.
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JP: Sasquatch would have made a great closer. Or designated hitter (he can mash, but he can’t field.) Anyway, yes, this is like a writer’s sloppy copy. You don’t want to get bogged down with confining notions of quality.
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CS: I work by attrition…if I just do 112 sketches, one is bound to be decent, no?
JP: That’s exactly how I write haikus. I start with 112 syllables and whittle down from there. While the ultimate goal might be finding “the right word,” when I start out I’m pretty much looking for “any word.” And by “any” I mean: ANY. Just trying to defeat that blank, white page.
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CS: When I was working on the cover art for Because of Winn-Dixie, I inadvertently left a great big hole in the middle of the art. The girl and dog were down below, with the mobile homes above. And in the center? Not much. There’s no hard and fast rules about title placement, but generally it’s towards the top or bottom. Generally. You don’t want to draw the eye dead center, where there’s nothing going on but dirt. But I did. The solution? Put the title there!
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JP: How big are these sketches?
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CS: Each thumbnail is roughly an inch and a half to two inches. Easier to see the whole picture quickly. I sketch on tracing paper.
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JP: Tracing paper! I have such happy memories of tracing paper. My father had his own insurance business and I used to go to his office on rare weekends — he had a new-fangled “electric” typewriter and boxes of tracing paper. I drew and drew and drew, usually copying from the Sunday comics. What else have you got, Chris?
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CS: Well, here’s a few more rough sketches:
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JP: Too cool. As you delve deeper, you seem to be zeroing in on the drama between pitcher and batter, as opposed to other sketches that are more pulled back. A tighter focus.
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CS: Yes, maybe a little more. Sometimes pulling in close can add a bit of drama. I’m not sure why I had the kid sweating in that one sketch. Was there sweating in your story?

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JP: My characters never sweat; they perspire. This is literature, after all.
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CS: I’m sorry. The sweat may have been a reaction to how I was feeling at the time, worrying about making a half-decent cover. Yes, now I remember. That was me.
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JP: Wow, look at this sketch. It has a sculptural quality, as if baseball had been around in the 1500s and Michaelangelo was, say, a season-ticket holder at the Colosseum, chasing foul balls, shoeing away cats.
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CS: The pitcher looks a little disjointed to me. And is that an oven mitt on his left hand? 
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JP: Why yes, I believe that is an oven mitt. Obviously this was before the game had evolved, back when players such as Ty Cobb and Three-Finger Brown wore oven mitts. Ho-ho, I digress, a little levity there folks, free of charge. I love this glimpse into your process, Chris. Any number of these would have made terrific covers.
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CS: After a little back and forth with the art director, a direction is chosen, then I’ll work up a rough color comp which I’ll use as reference for the finished piece.

JP: How much back, and how much forth, exactly? There must be times when you think, “ACK, they picked the wrong one!”-

CS: That’s the danger of sending too many sketches. Inevitably, most will be mediocre, some awful, but maybe there’s one or two that are decent. You hope they go for the best one. If they pick an awful one, you have no one to blame but yourself, because you did it in the first place. Sometimes I’m an idiot.

JP: Actually, once upon a time I packaged books for Scholastic. My art director and I had to go through the “approval by committee” process many times. It’s a lovely experience if you enjoy water torture. There’s a skill in the choices you present, as well as the ones you hold back. Sometimes you try to direct the response; other times, you honestly don’t know.

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CS: I tend to fall into the latter category, the “I honestly don’t know if it’s a good cover idea, or just plain bad” category. Sometimes having that second (art director) or third (editor) pair of eyes and opinions really helps if you feel like you don’t have a clue. When sending multiple sketch ideas, I gently suggest which one or two I feel are the best . . . then they pick a different one.

 

JP: At this point, you turn to color.

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CS: These rough color sketches are just pencil sketches that I photocopy to a larger size, then paint with watercolor and some pastel.

JP: Isn’t that cheating?
CS: Yes, probably so. It would really be cheating if I photocopied the sketch up to size, painted on it, and sent it in as finished art. Actually, that’s something I’m hoping to pull off some day. Cut out all the in-between steps and finicky final art stuff that you worry and fuss over for too long, and end up with a lifeless piece of art.
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JP: Well, that’s the constant danger, isn’t it? The over-worked, over-wrought piece of art, like a late-period Steely Dan album. When it gets too polished, you might lose the raw vitality. Refine it to death.
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CS: Haha. Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder. It’s frightening and depressing to think that with age comes your artistic “Muzak” years. I’m currently working on using the actual rough sketch, with all its grainy, searching lines, as an underdrawing. By working over the top of that, you can keep some of the looseness of the line work showing through. I do this while listening to early Steely Dan.
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JP: I’ve seen that strategy before, though my mind is drawing a blank on good examples. It sort of honors the layers of process while also, as you say, keeping the looseness. It’s not something you typically see in cover illustration. In musical terms, it’s the punk aesthetic, where they felt that something powerful had been lost during the refinements of the genre. Down with Pink Floyd! Up with the Sex Pistols! And yes, let’s value the mistakes! It’s that core belief in raw energy at the expense of, cough-cough, revision and improvement. The trick is finding that elusive balance.
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CS: I doubt the author ever gets to see the sketch ideas. This is awkward . . . maybe there’s one here that you like better than what we ended up with. Sorry.
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JP: No, no, I love the cover you ultimately came up with — except, of course, my name should have been bigger (but I always say that). Every time I look at that book, I feel grateful to you. Seriously. Also, I respect and understand the process. I’m the boss of the words, not the cover. There comes a point where the author needs to get out of the way in order to allow the visual artists to do their work without interference. Not me chiming in with, oh, “I imagined him with freckles!” or whatever other suffocating, literal-minded idea I might have.
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CS:  Anyway, from this point the final drawing/painting is done on watercolor paper. The graininess happens with the addition of Prismacolor pencils on the rough surface of the paper.
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JP: You know, when people describe Disney World as a “magical” place, I always groan inside and think, How about commercial? Or, I don’t know, admirable in its efficiency? But when I look at your work — and the journey it takes to reach the final cover — it really does feel like something almost magical has occurred. Not awesome, in the cliched, verbal tic sense of the word, but awe-some. Or awe-full, full of awe. Thanks for sharing this with me and my Nation of Six Readers. We’re like the Iroquois that way, btw (but not at all). I’d love to talk more about your books another time, where you live, your picture books, your favorite music, hobbies, whatever. Just basically get to know you better. Can you come back soon?
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CS: I would love to. However, after I read what we’ve discussed, it may send me into a mild depression. I may be reluctant to expose my pedestrian nature again.
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JP: I hear you, Chris. All of my favorite artists and writers are filled with self-doubt. Can there by any other way? Otherwise you are dealing with raging egotists, and I hate those people. I like your modesty and self-effacement. But know this: Your talent shines forth in everything you create. I admire and respect your work.
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CS: As George Gobel famously told Johnny Carson, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” Thanks for inviting me. I really enjoyed it (I think).
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TRANSCRIPTION: “Going Home” by A. Bartlett Giamatti (On Baseball, The Odyssey, and Returning Home)

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Many years ago, in 1989 in fact, I enjoyed the memorable experience of attending a public reading at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York. The program was a special evening in Selected Shorts history, created by Roger Angell and A Bartlett Giamatti, who was soon to assume his duties as Commissioner of Baseball. I still remember the evening vividly, the great selections and talented readers. Years later I tracked down the CD compilation and highly recommend it. Some of my favorite stories from that night include John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass,” T.C. Boyle’s hilarious “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” and Giamatti’s classic, “The Green Fields of the Mind.”

51gxcjdkowl_sl500_aa300_piaudiblebottomright1373_aa300_I was recently reminded of some musings by Giamatti about the nature of baseball, and specifically how the game relates to the idea — the concept, the notion, the pull — of home. His ideas suddenly seemed vitally important to me, helpful to something I was (and still am) writing. So I found the track in my iTunes Library, listened and listened again while transcribing word for word. Here I offer you that one three-minute preamble — words that struck me, and have stuck with me, for more than 20 years. Now, hopefully, a lasting internet artifact.

Please note that I endeavored to transcribe his words faithfully and accurately. The punctuation is my own, faithful to my own ear and to what I imagine to be, perhaps, Mr. Giamatti’s own predelictions, though I’m sure he would have managed the lineup differently. Any sloppiness to these sentences is entirely, I think, due to context. He was speaking from notes, as I recall, but the expression was primarily oral, not written. Thoughts are not always “complete,” as if were.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, scholar and former Commissioner of Baseball.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, scholar and former Commissioner of Baseball.

 

“There is no great long poem about baseball. It may be that baseball is itself its own great long poem. This had occurred to me in the course of my wondering why home plate wasn’t called fourth base. And then it came to me: Why not? Meditate on the name for a moment. Home.

Home is an English word virtually impossible to translate into other tongues. No translation catches the associations, the mixture of memory and longing, the sense of security and autonomy, the accessibility, the aroma of inclusiveness, the freedom from wariness, that cling to the word home, that are absent from ‘house’ or even ‘my house.’ Home is a concept, not a place, a state of mind where self-definition starts; it is origins. A mix of time and place and smell and weather wherein one first realizes that one is an original — perhaps like others, especially those one loves, but discreet, distinct, not to be copied. Home is where one first learned to be separate, and it remains in the mind as the place where reunion, if it were ever to occur, would happen.

So of course home drew Odysseus , who then set off again because it isn’t necessary to be in a specific place, in a house or a town, to be one who has gone home. So home is the goal rarely glimpsed, and almost never attained, of all the heroes descended from Odysseus . All literary romance, all Romance Epic, derives from The Odyssey and it is about going home. It is about rejoining, the rejoining of beloved, rejoining of parent to child, the rejoining of land to its rightful owner or rule. Romance is about putting things right after some tragedy has put them asunder. It is about restoration of the right relations among things. And going home is where that restoration occurs because that’s where it matters most.

Baseball is of course entirely about going home. And to that extent, because it is the only game you ever heard of where you want to get back to where you started (all the other games are territorial; you want to get his or her territory), not baseball. Baseball simply wants to get you from here back around to here, and that I think is why baseball is its own long poem, its own endless epic. We’ll come back again to this later. What we’re going to engage in now however is the way in which baseball, while it has never given itself to the literary expression that is as epic as its own unfolding, is clearly, in a game that recommences with every pitch, superbly fitted to the short poem. To the quick burst, for the shot. And we have three distinguished readers and three distinguished poets who have written quite remarkable, both descriptive and analytic, poems about baseball.”

The poems that were read following Giamatti’s introduction were: “Polo Grounds” by Rolfe Humphries, “Pitcher” and “Base Stealer” by Robert Francis, and “Cobb Would Have Caught It” by Robert Fitzgerald.

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Robert Fitzgerald, “Cobb Would Have Caught It”

In sunburnt parks where Sundays lie,
Or the wide wastes beyond the cities,
Teams in grey deploy through sunlight.

Talk it up, boys, a little practice.

Coming in stubby and fast, the baseman
Gathers a grounder in fat green grass,
Picks it stinging and clipped as wit
Into the leather: a swinging step
Wings it deadeye down to first.
Smack. Oh, attaboy, attyoldboy.

Catcher reverses his cap, pulls down
Sweaty casque, and squats in the dust:
Pitcher rubs new ball on his pants,
Chewing, puts a jet behind him;
Nods past batter, taking his time.
Batter settles, tugs at his cap:
A spinning ball: step and swing to it,
Caught like a cheek before it ducks
By shivery hickory: socko, baby:
Cleats dig into dust. Outfielder,
On his way, looking over shoulder,
Makes it a triple. A long peg home.

Innings and afternoons. Fly lost in sunset.
Throwing arm gone bad. There’s your old ball game.
Cool reek of the field. Reek of companions.

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Also of note: The Poetry Foundation, where I signed up for spectacular email updates,  recently provided a link to a sweet collection of baseball poems. Click here and start running around the bases . . . Lots of good poems there, even some home runs.

Talking with Cynthia DeFelice: About Writing, Inspiration, the Common Core, Boys, Guns, Books and More

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I have long followed and respected the work of author Cynthia DeFelice, who over the past 25 years has put together an expansive and impressive body of work. No bells, no whistles, no fancy pyrotechnics. Just one well-crafted book after another. There’s not an ounce of phony in Cynthia; she’s the genuine article, the real magilla. Last November, I was pleased to run into Cynthia at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. Pressed for time, we chatted easily about this and that, then parted ways. But I wanted more. Thus, this conversation . . . I’m sure you’ll like Cynthia almost as much as her dog does.

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Greetings, Cynthia. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this conversation. I feel like we have so much to talk about. We first met sometime in the early 90s, back when Frank Hodge, a bookseller in Albany, was putting on his elaborate, gushing children’s book conferences.

UnknownIt’s nice to be in touch with you again. I’ll always remember those conferences​ with Frank Hodge.  He made me feel validated as a fledgling writer.  He left me a voice mail telling me how much he loved the book Weasel.  I played it over and over and over!   In 1992, the Hodge-Podge Society gave the first ever Hodge-Podge Award to Weasel.  It meant the world to me.  Those were great times for authors, teachers, kids, and for literature.

Frank forced me to read your book — and I loved it. So I’ll always be grateful to Frank for that; it’s important to have those people in your world, the sharers, the ones who press books into your hands and say, “You must read this!”

Well, good for Frank! He is definitely one of those people you’re talking about. His enthusiasm is infectious.

We’ve seen many changes over the past 25 years. For example, a year or two ago I  participated in a New York State reading conference in Albany for educators. The building was abuzz with programs about “Common Core” strategies & applications & assessments & implementation techniques and ZZZZZzzzzz. (Sorry, dozed off for a minute!) Anyway, educators were under tremendous pressure to roll this thing out — even when many sensed disaster. Meanwhile, almost out of habit, organizers invited authors to attend, but they placed us in a darkened corridor in the back. Not next to the Dumpster, but close. At one point I was with Susan Beth Pfeffer, who writes these incredible books, and nobody was paying attention to her. This great writer was sitting there virtually ignored.

9780374400200To your point about finding fabulous authors being ignored at conferences, I hear you. It can be a very humbling experience. I find that teachers aren’t nearly as knowledgeable about books and authors as they were 10-25 years ago, and not as interested. They aren’t encouraged in that direction, and they don’t feel they have the time for what is considered to be non-essential to the goal of making sure their kids pass the tests. Thankfully, there are exceptions! You and I both still hear from kids and teachers for whom books are vital, important, and exhilarating.

But, yes, I agree with you completely that literature is being shoved to the side. Teachers tell me they have to sneak in reading aloud when no one is watching or listening.

When I was invited to speak at a dinner, along with Adam Gidwitz and the great Joe Bruchac, I felt compelled to put in a good word for  . . . story. You know, remind everybody that books matter. In today’s misguided rush for “informational units of text,” I worry that test-driven education is pushing literature to the side. The powers that be can’t easily measure the value of a book — it’s impossible to reduce to bubble tests — so their solution is to ignore fiction completely. Sorry for the rant, but I’m so frustrated with the direction of education today.

Well, it’s hard not to rant. It’s disconcerting to think how we’ve swung so far from those heady days of “Whole Language” to today’s “Common Core” curriculum — about as far apart as two approaches can be. I think the best approach lies somewhere in the vast middle ground between the two, and teachers need to be trusted to use methods as varied as the kids they work with every day.

On a recent school visit in Connecticut, I met a second-year librarian — excuse me, media specialist — who was instructed by her supervisor to never read aloud to the students. It wasn’t perceived as a worthwhile use of her time.

Well, that is sad and just plain ridiculous. I was a school librarian for 8 ½ years. I felt the most important part of my job was reading aloud to kids

I didn’t realize you were a librarian. 
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9780374398996Yes, I began as a school librarian. But, really, my life as a writer began when I was a child listening to my mother read aloud.  And every crazy job I had before I became a librarian (and there were a lot) helped to form and inform me as a writer.  This is true of us all.  I had an actual epiphany one day while I was a librarian. I looked up from a book I was reading aloud and saw the faces of a class of kids who were riveted to every word… I saw their wide eyes, their mouths hanging open, their bodies taut and poised with anticipation – I was seeing full body participation in the story that was unfolding.  I thought: I want to be the person who makes kids look and feel like THAT.
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And that’s exactly who you became. Which is incredible. This can be a tough and discouraging business; I truly hope you realize how much you’ve accomplished.

Thanks, and back at you on that. I think we have to constantly remind ourselves that what we do is important. I think we’ve all had the experience of being scorned because we write for children. The common perception is that we write about fuzzy bunnies who learn to share and to be happy with who they are.

I loved your recent blog post about the importance of books that disturb us. I’m still amazed when I hear from a teacher or parent –- and occasionally even a young reader –- saying they didn’t like a book or a scene from a book because of something upsetting that happened in it. Conflict is the essence of fiction! No conflict, no story (or, worse, a boring, useless one). I love my characters, and I hate to make them go through some of the experiences they have, but it’s got to be done! Did I want Stewpot to die in Nowhere to Call Home? Did I want Weasel to have cut out Ezra’s tongue and killed his wife and unborn baby? Did I want Erik to have to give up the dog Quill at the end of Wild Life? These things hurt, and yet we see our characters emerge from the dark forests we give them to walk through, coming out stronger and wiser. We all need to hear about such experiences, over and over again, in order to have hope in the face of our own trials.

I admire all aspects of your writing, but in particular your sense of pace; your stories click along briskly. They don’t feel rushed, there’s real depth, but there’s always a strong forward push to the narrative. How important is that to you?

I love beautiful writing, I love imagery and metaphor, and evocative language. But all that must be in service to story, or I am impatient with it.  I don’t like show-offy writing.

The ego getting in the way.

Yes. Even the best writers need an editor to keep that ego in check! I seek clarity — what good is writing that obscures and obfuscates? The purpose is to communicate, to say what you mean. That goes for all kinds of writing, not just writing for kids. Kids want to get to the point. So do I.

Can you name any books or authors that were important to your development as a writer? Or is that an impossible question to answer?

 Impossible. Because there are too many, and if I made a list I would inevitably leave out a person or book I adore. Safer to say that every book I’ve read -– the good, the bad, and the ugly –- all are in there somewhere, having an effect on my own writing.

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You are what you eat. Also, your love of nature — the great outdoors! — infuses everything you write.

Nature and the great outdoors, yes.  My love of these things will always be a big part of my writing.  I find that after a lifetime of experience and reading and exploring, I know a lot about the natural world, and it’s fun to include that knowledge in my writing. Sometimes I worry that kids are being cut off from the real world.  But I do know lots of kids who love animals and trees and flowers and bugs, love to hunt and fish, to mess around in ponds and streams, build forts,  paddle canoes, collect fossils — you name it. They give me hope for the future.
Where do you live?

On and sometimes in (during the floods of 1972 and 1993) Seneca Lake in beautiful upstate New York.

Is that where you’re from?

Nope. I grew up in the suburbs of northeast Philly. I came up here to go to college and never left.
Your books often feature boy characters. Why do you think that’s so?
9780374324278You’re right: more than half of my main characters are boys.  I’m not sure why.  And I don’t know why I feel so perfectly comfortable writing in the voice of a 10-11-12 year old boy.  Maybe because my brothers and I were close and we did a lot together?  Maybe because my husband still has a lot of boyish enthusiasm?  At any rate, I am crazy about pre-adolescent boys, their goofiness and earnestness and heedlessness.  My new book (coming out in May) is called Fort.  It features two boys, Wyatt and Augie (age 11) who build a fort together during summer vacation.  I had so much fun writing it.  (I have to admit, I love when I crack myself up, and these guys just make me laugh.)
While writing, are you conscious about the gender gap in reading? This truism that “boys don’t read.”

I am. Sometimes I am purposely writing for that reluctant reader, who is so often a boy. I love nothing so much as hearing that one of my books was THE ONE that turned a kid around, that made him a reader.

I just read Signal, so that book is on my mind today. I had to smile  when Owen gets into the woods and his phone doesn’t work. No wi-fi. It’s funny to me because in my “Scary Tales” series I always have to do the same thing. If we want to instill an element of danger, there has to be a sense of isolation that doesn’t seem possible in today’s hyper-connected world. “What? Zombie hordes coming over the rise? I’ll call Mom to pick us up in her SUV!” So we always need to get the  parents out of the way and somehow disable the wi-fi. You didn’t have that problem back when you wrote Weasel.

9780312617769Thanks for reading Signal.  And, yeah, it’s really annoying that in order to be plausible in this day and age, you have to have a reason why your character isn’t on the phone with Mommy every time something goes wrong.  (Another good reason to write historical fiction!)  In Fort, Augie lives with his grandmother and doesn’t have money for a cell phone, and Wyatt’s with his father for the summer. His parents are divorced, and (unlike Mom) Dad doesn’t believe in kids being constantly connected to an electronic nanny.  So — halleluiah!  Wyatt and Augie are free to do all the fun, dumb, and glorious things they feel like doing!
My friends and I built a fort in the woods when we were in high school. Good times, great memories, just hanging out unfettered and free. I included a fort in my book, Along Came Spider. For Trey and Spider, the book’s main characters, the fort represented a refuge. It was also a haven for their friendship away from the social pressures and cliques of school. A place in nature where they could be themselves. So, yes, I love that you wrote a book titled Fort. I’ll add it to my list! (You are becoming an expensive friend.)
Well, now that I’ve discovered your books, I can say the same. Money well spent, I’d say.
Where did the idea for Signal originate?
The inspiration for Signal came one morning as I was running on a trail through the woods with Josie, my dog at the time.  She proudly brought me a white napkin with red stuff smeared on it.  I thought, Whoa, is that blood?  No, whew. Ketchup.  But what if it had been blood?  And what if a kid was running with his dog and she brought him pieces of cloth with blood stains?  Eww.  That would be creepy!  And scary, and exciting, and mysterious — and I started writing Signal.

You’ve always been extremely well-reviewed. Readers love your books.  And yet in this day of series and website-supported titles, where everything seems to be high-concept, it feels like the stand-alone middle grade novel is an endangered species.

I have been lucky with reviews.  But, sadly, I think traditional review sources are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as blogs and websites and personal media platforms take over. That’s not good news for me because I am simply not interested in self-promotion.  Can’t do it.  Don’t want to do it.  I just want to write the best books I can and let them speak for themselves.  I know it’s old-school, but there it is.  You said that a stand-alone middle grade novel is becoming an endangered species amid all the series and “high concept” books out there, and I think you’re right.  But when that stand-alone book somehow finds its niche audience, when kids and teachers somehow discover it and embrace it as theirs . . . , well, it’s a beautiful damn thing, and it’s enough to keep me writing, for now.

For now?!

Well, my husband is 9 years older than I am and recently retired, and there are a lot of things we still need to do!

Like what?

We have a farm property we are improving by digging a pond, and by planting trees and foliage to benefit wildlife. We stocked it with fish, and enjoy watching it attract turtles, frogs, toads, dragonflies, birds and animals of all sorts. So we like to spend a lot of time there, camping out. We love to travel, and are headed next on a self-driving tour of Iceland. We also have four terrific grandchildren we like to spend time with. I could go on and on with the bucket list…

By the way, I agree about the blogs. I think we are seeing a lot more opinion — more reaction — but less deep critical thought. It’s fine and useful for a neighbor to tell you they hated or loved a movie, but it’s not the same as a professional film critic providing an informed, and hopefully insightful, critique. Yet somehow today it’s all conflated. 

Well, there is a similar phenomenon with self-published books. I’m not a total snob about it, and there are plenty of good books that didn’t go through the process of being accepted by and edited by a professional at an established publishing house. But I’ll repeat that everyone needs an editor. And I’m often amazed at the brazenness of people spouting off in various social media platforms, often without being fully grounded in the subject they are pontificating about. But, hey, maybe I’m just getting to be an old fart.

Yeah, I don’t Tweet either. We’re being left in the dust! My observation is that the “kidlitosphere” is comprised 90% of women. Of course, many of those bloggers are passionate, smart, generous women who genuinely want to see boys reading. But I always think of a favorite line written by one of my heroes, Charlotte Zolotow, where a boy imagines his father telling his mother, “You never were a boy. You don’t know.”

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I don’t think it’s an ideal thing that the blogging world — which has become such an important source of information about books — is overwhelmingly female. Of course, the situation is not at all their fault. 

That’s why it’s so great that there are writers out there like you, Bruce Coville, Tedd Arnold, Jon Scieska, Neil Gaiman, Jack Gantos –- who not only write books boys like, but are out there in schools demonstrating that REAL MEN read and write! I don’t know what we can do about the gender gap other than to be aware of it and to write the best books we can, books that both boys and girls will devour.

Tell me about Wild Life. Once again, you are mining the world of adventure — a boy, a dog, and a gun.

I never got as much mail from kids, teachers, grandparents and other caregivers as I did after that book came out. In our hyper-politically correct world, GUNS = EVIL. You can’t talk about them in school. So where does that leave a kid who spends his or her weekend hunting, who studies nature in order to be part of it, who hunts respectfully, with care, who is enmeshed in family history and tradition, who through hunting feels part of the full complexity of life?

8901928I had to keep silencing the censors in my head telling me I couldn’t put a gun in an 11 year old kid’s hands, unless it was a matter of survival in a book set back in “the olden days.”

I was amazed and immensely gratified to learn that a lot of kids found themselves and their interests represented in Erik’s story. I didn’t write it with an agenda in mind. I simply wrote it based on the experiences I’ve had when my husband and I take our bird dog on her yearly Dream Vacation to North Dakota to hunt pheasants.

Ha! I love that your dog has a Dream Vacation.

I get so much joy from watching her do what she was born and bred to do. I cherish our days out on those wide open prairies, and have learned to see the subtle and varied beauty of the landscape. I was just hoping to write a rip-roaring good story that incorporated all that wonderful stuff. Our hunting experiences have nothing whatsoever to do with “gun violence” of the sort you hear about on TV. It’s been interesting to hear from kids who really get that.

Yeah, I enjoy meeting those kids, often out in the western end of New York State. One of my readers from the North Country sent me this photo. Isn’t she great?

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Oh, man, I love that! We can’t forget those kids are out there.

What’s next, Cynthia? Any new books on the horizon?

Possibly, just possibly, a sequel to Fort. But that’s all I will say, even if you use enhanced interrogation techniques.

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Huge-rubber-duck-13--196-pWe do not waterboard here at Jamespreller dot com, and I resent the implication! Those are merely bath toys that happen to be . . . nevermind!

According to the rules of the interwebs, I see that we’ve gone way beyond the approved length of standard posts. Likely there’s no one left reading. It’s just us. So I’ll end here with a big thank you, Cynthia, for putting up with me. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I hope I’ll see you again in Rochester at the 19th Annual Children’s Book Festival

Yes!  I look forward to seeing you there.  It’s an incredible event, and gets bigger and better every year.

 

 

 

 

 

Discovering Chris Raschka’s brilliant picture book, THE COSMO-BIOGRAPHY OF SUN RA

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I was wandering around my local library, picking my way through the biographies in the children’s section, when I came upon a surprising picture book about the great jazz musician, Sun Ra.

You could have knocked me down with a feather. I love Sun Ra, but I never expected to find a picture book about him.

Though Sun Ra’s music has a small but loyal following, he’s always been on the fringe. A little “out there,” so to speak. Not of the mainstream. In fact, Sun Ra himself contended that he was not from this planet. He claimed that he was from Saturn.

Clearly, this was a work of love for Chris Raschka.

Here’s the book trailer — check it out — and I’ll continue below.

 

 

One nice thing about Chris Raschka is that he’s already won two Caldecott Medals. And the terrific thing is that after you win awards like the Caldecott Medal — the highest award for illustration in children’s literature — then people kind of let you do what you want.

So the smart people at Caldlewick Press didn’t tell Chris Raschka that doing a picture book about Sun Ra was crazy. They didn’t say that 99.8% of picture book readers had never even heard of Sun Ra. And that the parents probably hadn’t either. No, they said, “Great, let’s do it.”

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The artwork is vibrant, colorful, free, spontaneous, wildly alive. In other words, it magnifiently matches its subject matter.

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But the truly brilliant stroke to this biography comes in the first few sentences, as follows:

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Sun Ra always said that he came from Saturn.

Now, you know and I know that this is silly. No one comes from Saturn.

And yet.

If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much.

Let’s say he did come from Saturn.

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Well, on My 22, 1914, Sun Ra landed on Earth.

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And so the story goes.

I love a book when it clearly comes from a personal space, not from a cold, SunRa71calculated look at the marketplace. Raschka created the book that was in his heart; I know this is true without ever having met the man. It is a celebration of the true artist, brave enough to go his own way. Two men, in fact, Sun Ra and Chris Raschka, who followed the beat of a different drummer. Because that’s what real artists do. They create the work and let the rest of us sort it our for ourselves.

I’m here to say, thank you, Chris Raschka, for this incredible gift.

Your brilliant book.

Here’s a quote from Chris Raschka taken from an interview with Smithsonian magazine:

“I wanted to write about Sun Ra because he steps outside the boundaries of traditional jazz more than anyone. I was aware of him in high school because he was so far out there, even rock ‘n’ roll teens like myself knew about him. When his selection of singles came out I was even more struck by the breadth of his interest in all kinds of music. It was my experience with Sun Ra’s own openness to things that made me more open to him. Openness is something any teacher strives to instill in his or her students. I think all of my jazz books about the four musicians I’ve written about so far, are about people that most ten year olds have never heard of. My hope is to let kids hear these names early, so that when they are teens or adults the door is already just a little bit open.”

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I’ll close with a clip from Sun Ra himself, created during his time here on Earth. Open your ears, your heart, your spirit.

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Letter from a Former Teacher

It’s something I don’t do enough: say thank you, say I remember you. But recently I recalled a former teacher, Mr. Mullen, whom I studied under for two art classes at the College of Oneonta. I was an English major, but the approach I took at the time was to take as many classes as possible, with an emphasis on the best teachers regardless of discipline. That’s how I found Mr. Mullen, who taught a variety of art survey and appreciation courses in addition to studio art classes for practicing artists.

Original digital drawing by James Mullen -- and the cover of the card he sent to me.

Original digital drawing by James Mullen — and the cover of the card he sent to me.

I really liked and admired this man. I’d see him around campus and he always had time for me. I’d stop by his office to talk. I can still remember the thrill I felt when he suggested we go for a cup of coffee, as if we were equals. At the time I’d been writing sporadically for the school newspaper — freelance style, where the editor basically printed whatever I gave him, without deadlines — and Mr. Mullen was always interested and thoughtful in his comments. He liked my righteous indignation, I guess. We talked about stuff. And, obviously, clearly, he cared about me. I’m still grateful for that.

I located Mr. Mullen a few years back. He’s retired now, living in Endwell, NY, of all places. We joked about that, how I supposed he had picked the perfect town for his retirement years. Let’s hope so, right? Anyway, I hadn’t written to him in a while until recently when, out of the blue, I popped a book in an envelope and included a brief note. I’m sure I told him how well I remember his kindess, and what a great teacher he was, and, well, thank you, again.

Still a practicing artist who favors working in the miniature, Mr. Mullen replied with a card of his own, a paean of sorts to Wegman’s, and to friendship.

Inside it read:

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I think that card tells you something about Jim Mullen and the graceful, dignified way he walks through life. He is a good man and, therefore, a treasure.

I don’t often do the right thing. Or at least, not often enough. But I’m trying, in my old age, to do a little bit better in terms of kindness and generosity. And what I keep learning, over and over, is that every time I give, I invariably receive more in return.

I wrote an old teacher a letter. A note of thanks. And I’m here today to suggest to you that maybe you should consider trying it yourself, if you haven’t already. Send that note. Say thank you, say I remember. I promise that you’ll be glad you did.

In his response to me, Mr. Mullen recalled a book I had sent him a few years back, a Young Adult novel titled BEFORE YOU GO. I hesitated about including a section of his handwritten response here in blogland, but in the end I think there’s value in sharing it, if only to underscore that it meant something to him.

Teachers’ hearts are made glad to be remembered. And now I have a new goal in life: to have a cup of rotisserie chicken noodle soup in Wegman’s with good, old Mr. Mullen. Wouldn’t that be something?

 

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What the Hey?! Some Guy Named “James Preller” Is Featured in an Interview at Kirkus — and It’s Pretty Good!

Tomorrow is Halloween, and author James Preller wants to scare your children—the safe, exhilarating type of scare, that is, which comes from a well-constructed set of spooky stories just for the younger set. He’s been doing this not just on Halloween but all during the year with Scary Tales, his chapter book series of ghost stories, launched last year and illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.Chilling and thrilling and very often spine-tingling, the series offers up serious page-turners for students who enjoy reading frightening tales while on the edge of their seats. It’s a far cry from Preller’s Jigsaw Jones series of chapter books, which debuted in 1998, the beloved fictional detective stories for children that are still circulating in libraries. The latest and fifth book in the Scary Tales series, The One-Eyed Doll, was just released. It brings readers hidden treasures, deserted houses, and a creepy one-eyed doll, who moves and tells stories. Needless to say, it’s a good fit for Halloween—or, really, any time of year.Next year, Preller will also see the release of a middle-grade novel, one that follows 2009’s Bystander, which the Kirkusreview called “eminently discussable as a middle-school read-aloud.” The Fall, as you’ll read below, addresses bullying, but not for the sake of jumping on the bullying bandwagon. That’s to say that as soon as many schools kicked off anti-bullying crusades in recent years, we suddenly saw a flock of books about bullying in the realm of children’s literature. But Preller isn’t one for the “bully” label.Let’s find out why.
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The Scary Tales series started in 2013, yes? How much fun has it been to scare the pants off of readers?
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OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezWriting “scary” has been liberating. A blast. In the past, I’ve mostly written realistic fiction. But for these stories I’ve tapped into a different sort of imagination, what I think of as the unpossible. The trick is that once you accept that one impossible element—a zombie or a ghost in the mirror—then the story plays out in a straightforward manner.All storytelling has its backbone in realistic fiction.
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So many kids, even at a surprisingly young age, are eager to read scary stories. I tried to fill that gap. “Scary” thrills them. It makes their hearts beat faster. Yet I say to students, “I’m sorry, but nobody gets murdered in these books. There are no heads chopped off. No gore.” To me, the great sentence is: The door knob slowly, slowly turned. That delicious moment of anticipation, of danger climbing the stairs. I’ve tried to provide those chills, while still resolving each book in a safe way.
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You do a lot of school visits, as I understand it. What do you see the very best teachers and librarians doing (best practices, if you will) that really get children fired up about reading? 
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In its essence, teaching is enthusiasm transferred. The best educators seem to do that naturally—the excitement, the love of discovery. It leaks into everything they do. I think it’s about a teacher’s prevailing attitude, more than any specific activity.
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Speaking of school visits, I assume you still visit schools to discuss Bystander, especially given the subject matter. How have middle-schoolers responded to that book in school visits? 
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DOLL_Interiors_07The response to Bystander has been incredible—and humbling. Many middle schools have used it as their “One School, One Book” community reads, which is such an honor.I attempted to write a lively, unsentimental, informed, fast-paced story. I hope that I’ve given readers something to think about, while leaving them to draw their own conclusions. I didn’t write a pamphlet, 10 steps to bully-proof your school. Robert McKee, in his book Story, says that stories are “equipment for living.” I believe in the power of literature to help us experience empathy.
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What’s next for you? Am I right that there’s a new Scary Tales coming out in 2015, as well as a new novel? Working on anything else you’re allowed to discuss now? 
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I have an ambitious hardcover coming out next year, titled The Fall (Macmillan, Fall 2015), in which I return to some of the themes first explored in Bystander. We’ve seen “the bully” become this vilified subcreature, and in most cases I don’t think that’s fair or accurate. Bullying is a verb, a behavior, not a label we can stick on people to define them—especially when we are talking about children. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”The book is told in a journal format from the perspective of a boy who has participated in bullying—with tragic results—and now he’s got to own it. A good kid, I think, who failed to be his best self. To my surprise, the book ended up as almost a meditation on forgiveness, that most difficult of things. The opening sentence reads:

“Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have sent a message to her social media page that read, ‘Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway! (I’m just saying: It could have been me.)”

I was guided throughout my writing by a powerful quote from the great lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

THE ONE-EYED DOLL. Copyright © 2014 by James Preller. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Iacopo Bruno and used by permission of the publisher, Feiwel & Friends, New York. 

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.