Archive for Justin Fisher Declares War!

Thank You, Arizona Library Association!

Good News! I received an email from Kerrlita Westrick and Shirley Berow, co-chairs of the Grand Canyon Reader Award, organized by the Arizona Library Association. Instead of telling you about it, you can read the important bits for yourself:

Dear Mr. Preller,

It is out pleasure to inform you that your book, Justin Fisher Declares War, has been nominated for the Intermediate Book category of the 2015 Grand Canyon Reader Award! Congratulations!

The Grand Canyon Reader Award is a children’s choice award with approximately 45,000 Arizona students voting each year. Your book, along with nine other tiles, will be read by teachers, librarians, and students all over Arizona and voted upon by April 1, 2015.

Well, that felt good.

Justin FisherAs a writer, all I’ve ever wanted was to be read and, hopefully, acclaimed to some extent. Approved of. Valued. Appreciated. I dream that at least some fraction of the reading public will say, in essence, “Hey, you did good.”

Making it on these state lists is so important to keep a book in circulation. So, absolutely, a heartfelt thanks from me. Much appreciated. When I look at the other titles on the list, well, it’s just crazy. Not expecting to win, that’s for sure.

Though it’s been well-reviewed, and sometimes even praised, Justin Fisher has been pretty much ignored by the purchasing public (not to mention my own publisher). A paperback edition has never been made available in stores.

Justin Fisher was conceived as part of a series of school-based stories, including Along Came Spider, which was honored by the NYPL back in 2008. Both books share characters and the same setting, Spiro Agnew Elementary.

UnknownHere’s a nice review of Justin from a 5th-grade teacher, Franki Sibberson, who called it “One of my go-to funny books for boys.”

From the first  moment I saw these covers, I thought: “Uh-oh.” I expressed my worries to my editor, that they didn’t at all convey the stories were school based, but was told that the decision had already been made. End of discussion. Oh well. Everybody does their best, I guess.

To help the humor come out, I had really, really wanted the books to be illustrated, ala “Wimpy Kid,” but that was not in the cards either. But most wonderfully, a group of students from Pennsylvania sent me their own illustrations a couple of years back. I love student artwork. Here’s some highlights:

justin-1

justin-1a

justin-5

Now I can only hope for an invitation to visit school in Arizona.

February is wide open! Brrrrr.

Justin Fisher . . . Illustrated

The huge success of The Wimpy Kid series was soon followed by a spate of copycat publishing. This kind of “borrowed idea” publishing happens after every bestseller and it’s pointless to complain. But with Wimpy Kid, some publishers seem to have missed the main lesson. So we see countless new books rolled out about dorks and losers, nerds and geeks, whereas I’ve always maintained that a big part of the Wimpy Kid’s success was one of format over content. The books looked great, inviting, funny, accessible. They were illustrated!

I don’t think it’s a mystery: readers, especially reluctant readers, like pictures in their novels. They like the text broken up, with multiple entry points along the way. Witness the line of “illustrated classics,” which have been around only since forever.

We’ve seen it with Captain Underpants. Seen it with the Geronimo Stilton, first published in Italy. But also think of a book like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Caberet, which effectively used illustrations to serve and deepen an already sophisticated manuscript. The book was a revelation — but it also taught us something we’ve known for decades. Yes, it’s more expensive to illustrate books, but those illustrations can broaden that book’s appeal. Look at the terrific job Matthew Cordell did with Justin Case, written by the very talented Rachel Vail. My point: A book doesn’t have to be a cliche in order for it be illustrated.

After that, let the number crunchers do the math.

Quick story about copycat publishing. I was at a book convention, long ago, and had the opportunity to hang out with the president of a small publishing company. A friendly guy, he specialized in down-market books. That is, cheap, affordable books that came in at the right price point, undercutting the competition. He had recently made a boatload of money by ripping off the Where’s Waldo books. As we drove in his expensive car, he told me with glee about the exact eureka moment when he had the idea for his successful new series of books. I thought to myself at the time, “Wow, he’s telling me with great pride about the day he got the idea . . . to steal the idea!” It was kind of spectacular, and a publishing moment I’ve never forgotten.

I had once hoped that my book, Justin Fisher Declares War!, would be illustrated. It had a funny main character, school-based adventures, and was written on an easy, accessible level for middle-grade readers. Unfortunately, my publisher did not share my view for this particular book.

Which is why I’m so pleased to share these student illustrations. You see, I just spent an incredibly happy week in State College, PA, visiting five different schools along the way. After one such visit to Corl Street Elementary, I was presented with a gift that included a letter from Sue Harter. She explained that two teachers, Mrs. Evans and Mr. Schmidt, had read the book with their 5th grade classes. Under the guidance of ace librarian, Mrs. Davis, the students summarized key points for each chapter and later, in art class, illustrated favorite scenes.

So my wish came true after all.

I don’t have the names to give credit to all the illustrators . . . but you know who you are. And in truth, it’s the entire effort that I applaud, everyone who participated, thank you. I love your work.

The fateful day in the school cafetorium when a plate of spaghetti came down on Justin’s head.

A little graffiti mischief.

It was a fade in the 50’s . . . and a way to get attention in 5th grade. Oh, and by the way, YUCK.

Butterflies in his belly before taking the stage at the school Talent Show.

I see braces in this kid’s future.

Mr. Tripp, a good sport, shows up with a sock stuffed in his mouth . . . in his colorful boxers.

Thank you, Corl Street Elementary!

Fan Mail Wednesday #111 (Re: Book Titles)

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Don’t you love the icon that I use for every Fan Mail Wednesday? A word of explanation for younger readers: It’s an illustration of something we used to call “a letter.” You see, long ago, we used to — and you’re not going to believe this — write words on actual paper (made from trees!) to our friends and relatives and business associates. Then we’d place the paper in a sealed envelope, called an ENVELOPE, and then . . .
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Nevermind.
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A girl sent this one via the interwebs. I removed her name for privacy:
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Hi, I was at the school that you were at today at Vail Farm 3/30.  I was wondering how you come up with titles because I’m a writer too. I’m writing a book that is about a girl who gets picked on a lot just like the book bystander. But just so you know I didn’’t steal it from you.  But any way I can’t come up with a title for it so that’’s all I want to know.
Love,
X
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I replied:
Hey, X. Thanks for writing. You must have been one of those students with your hand raised when we ran out of time. Sorry I didn’t call on you.
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Titles are a tricky business. I can’t say that I’m an expert. With books like Six Innings and Bystander, I had those titles very early on. In fact, writers will often plug in a “working title” for a book in progress. It’s not the final title, or at least doesn’t seem to be, it’s just something handy to call the untitled book. For Six Innings, my working title was . . . Six Innings. That was always the concept for the book from the beginning, very clear in my mind. So when it came time to officially name the book, I used the working title.
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With Bystander, my first title idea was Predator. That’s because I began by focusing my research and note-taking on the bully character, Griffin Connelly. But after a short while, I became convinced that the real story was with the bystanders. In life, there are a few bullies and some victims, and then there’s the rest of us, the overwhelming majority, the bystanders. We are often silent, yet hold all the real power. I knew it should be the focus of my book, and the title. Of course, there are all sorts of bystanders. The floaters and the enablers, the watchers and the cheerers and the ones who simply walk away — all with our own roles to play in the schoolyard drama. Few of us are purely innocent.
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Speaking of bullies, have you ever noticed that they almost always need an audience? They don’t bully unless there’s somebody to watch it, to cheer them on, to laugh. Fights are the same way. It’s interesting when you think about it, isn’t it? What would happen if there was no audience? Do bullies need bystanders in order to exist? Are we their oxygen?
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Back to titles: In many cases, writers don’t have a title until the book is finished. Editors have told me not to worry about the title, just write the story, worry about the title later on. It can be hard, because you do need a good title. I wanted my title for Justin Fisher Declares War to be Justin Fisher Declares War on Fifth Grade, but that was vetoed due to length. I never felt that we got that title right.
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When I begin a book, I often purchase a composition notebook. My working title for Justin was Talent Show. Maybe I should have stuck with that.
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Here’s the first page from that notebook. I wrote it in the Bethlehem Library in Delmar. I had this idea of Justin defacing a poster in school and it’s the first scene I wrote, event though it doesn’t happen until Chapter Four of the book.
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Often writers will go back over a story and see if there’s a word or phrase in the text that somehow stands out. You’ll see that a lot when you read books, the book’s title buried somewhere deep in the pages of the book. I’d recommend that strategy for you. Reread your story. Does a character say something that could work as a title? Is there a symbol in the book that somehow represents a character or an idea?
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With Jigsaw Jones, my publisher wanted a title from me before I even wrote the book or, in some cases, knew what it was about. It drove me crazy.
The other strategy is to ask for help. That’s what I do. I’ll have a reader — my editor, almost always — read the manuscript and we’ll talk about titles together. Sometimes it takes another person who has some distance from the story to see what it’s really about. And isn’t that nice, when someone can give you the title?
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Lastly, brainstorm. I’ve created long lists of potential titles. Then you can review them, whittle them down, and maybe share them with other people. Maybe even people who haven’t read your story. Which titles appeal to them? Is there a title that gets them curious? Nowadays this is called “crowd-sourcing,” when you simply ask a bunch of random people for their opinions.
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Anyway, sorry, long letter. Good luck with your story. It’s always nice to meet a young author.
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JP

Congratulations, Jackson Murphy: Kid Movie Critic Is Set to Appear on “The Tonight Show”

In the Acknowledgements section of my 2010 book for middle-grade readers, Justin Fisher Declares War!, I credited an inspiring young man for, well, inspiring me:

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The boy’s name was Jackson Murphy.

Maybe you’ve seen him on television.

Long story short: I first spied Jackson while on a school visit. I had met his father previously, so on this day a preternaturally poised, articulate, very sweet fifth-grade boy came up and introduced himself to me. I was aware that Jackson had done some movie reviews on local television. I didn’t realize that his career as the next Roger Ebert was about to blow up. We spoke for a while, then I got back to my job that day as dancing monkey guest author.

An observer might have thought that Jackson was meeting me, the famous author. Turns out that I was meeting him! I should have asked for an autograph.

Months later, I returned to research the student Talent Show the school put on that year. Two energetic organizers of the program, Ms. Jackson and Ms. Zapka, kindly sat down with me to answer my many questions about the show: how they organized it, how they selected talent, any humorous observations, etc.  I knew right away that I wanted to use the idea for my half-finished book. They told me about one boy in particular who served as the show’s Master of Ceremonies. A preternaturally poised, articulate, very sweet fifth-grade boy named . . . Jackson Murphy.

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I loved all of it, especially how a troublesome student — not the real Jackson, but my fictional character, Justin — might experience success on the stage before an audience. A kid who struggled everywhere else in school, finally finding a place where he could shine. I even stole a couple of jokes that Jackson used that night at Red Mill Elementary.

I say all this because the real Jackson has become something of a Big Deal. He will be appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno this Friday night. You see, Jackson bills himself as “America’s #1 Kid Critic,” and goes as “Lights-Camera-Jackson” professionally, and has appeared on local and national television many times over the past few years. He’s met Seth Myers, Regis Philbin, Barbara Walters, Wile E. Coyote and many more.

In 2010, Jackson became the youngest person to win a New York Emmy Award for his movie review segments.

Not bad for a little peanut. Jackson is a good kid enjoying some incredible experiences. And so far, by all reports, he’s got both feet firmly on the ground. Congratulations, Jackson, I’m proud of you — and I’ll be watching.

Hat Tip to my favorite pop culture site, Pop Candy, for the heads up. Whitney Matheson rocks.

Here’s a scene from Chapter Eleven, when Justin auditions for the Talent Show:

“Do you need any props, or a table?” Ms. Lobel asked. “I see that you’re trying out as a magician.”

“Well, no, not exactly,” Justin said.

“Oh?”

“I hope it’s not a problem,” he said, looking at both teachers. “It’s just that I had . . . another idea. Last night. When I was lying in bed. Freaking out about the audition.”

People laughed. Ms. Lobel smiled. Justin felt that familiar happiness — laughter always made him feel good.

Earl Watkins called out, “He’s really good at falling off chairs!”

Justin grinned, sheepish. “It’s true,” he confessed. “I fall down a lot, but I always get back up again.” Justin swallowed hard, then blurted it out, the plan he had come up with the night before. “I want to be . . . you.”

Mrs. Mooney looked confused. “I don’t –“

“I want to be the MC,” Justin explained. “You know, introduce the acts, tell jokes, maybe wear a nice jacket and tie, comb my hair, like on the Academy Awards.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Mooney said. There was cold water in her voice.

PART TWO OF THE DEATH-DEFYING ALAN SILBERBERG INTERVIEW LANDS HERE ON FRIDAY.

Fan Mail Wednesday #96

Dear Mr. Preller,
My son bought your Along Came Spider book at the school bookfair. At first I thought he chose it for the cover art, but he assured me he had read the back and the story sounded appealing. As a habit I try to read the books my children select. My son is just nearly on the autism spectrum -- so again, as a habit I try  to read books my children are interested in when I am unfamiliar with the  story.  First, I read it in one sitting and it nearly made me weep . . . as a  parent of a "Trey" and as a parent volunteer in our elementary school.  I  felt the story was just so well thought out and really hit the areas that a lot  of 9-11 year old boys have trouble with.  (Forgive me only having boys I'm  not sure how parents with daughters would feel.) I have recommended your book to  our school principal and will be talking to the school social worker about the  possibility of using it for a directed reading 'book club' for small group  instruction and Social Development curriculum.

Do you have discussion points available for your books if they were to be used as a book club book? Perhaps, one that you have already completed you could maybe email? I would like to lend our copy to the school social worker with some suggested book club discussion points. Our school also has an active social development committee and with all that goes on in the world of kids to navigate through books like Along Came Spider might be a helpful way to engage them in some dialogue both with their peers and their own feelings through self-dialogue as part of this curriculum.
I look forward to reading more of your materials.
Thanks again so much for taking the time to get back to me.
Lianne

I replied:

Lianne,

Thanks for your note. Your approval really means a lot, coming from someone with your personal experience.

Spider was named 100 Best Books for Reading and Sharing by the New York Public Library Association in 2008. I wrote a follow-up book, Justin Fisher Declares War!, that can be considered a very loose sequel. It takes place in the same school, Spiro Agnew Elementary, and some characters recur in minor roles (Trey, Spider, Ms. Lobel), though the emphasis is on several new characters in a different fifth-grade classroom. In addition, my book Bystander, set in a middle school environment, also focuses on similar issues of exclusion, bullying, and tolerance.

I am impressed by your commitment to social development in the school. Obviously, it’s essential to build a community of learners, with tolerance and respect as cornerstones to every classroom. I’ve heard from teachers who have used Spider as a read-aloud, for the reasons you pointed out: it can serve as a good conversation-starter.

It’s interesting that you asked about discussion points. Nothing like that has been formalized. However, I recently set up a Skype account and I’m interested in exploring those possibilities. If you’d be willing to work with a complete novice, we could arrange for a free 15-minute question-and-answer chat where we can talk about the talk. Obviously, we’d need to work out some details. Author Skyping has become all the rage lately, and I’ve been looking for a way that works for me. Generally, authors charge a fee ($100-$200), request that books are offered for sale, and that the gathered group is prepared with thoughtful questions.

What do you think?

You would be my guinnea pig!

JP

An early, rejected version of the cover,

which I still much prefer.

POSTSCRIPT: Lianne, and other curious readers, might be interested in this book, by Kathryn Erskine. Though Aspergers is much more likely to occur in boys, this book looks at it from a girl’s point of view. I own it, but haven’t tackled it yet. It’s on the stack, or the pile, or the list, and I’m sure that all readers can relate.

Ends & Odds & All Sorts of Crazy Good Times

I’m headed off across the wild tundra for three days of school visits in the vast, icy wasteland of Westchester, NY. You’ll have to find somewhere else to kill your valuable time. And to that end, I thought I’d offer some help:

* This year, I’ve teamed up with the fabulous Kerri McPhail at Children’s Authors’ Ally. Kerri helps coordinate author visits for me and many others. So if you are interested in an author visit, from me or perhaps somebody even better (!), follow the link and Kerri will work hard to meet the needs of your school and your students.

* To be perfectly honest, I’ve never read anything Nicole Krauss, but I enjoyed the description of her creative process. Here’s the first few opening lines from her brief essay, “On Doubt,” originally featured at Cory Doctorow’s great site, Boing Boing:

I begin my novels without ideas. I don’t have a plot, or themes, or a sense of the book’s form. Often I don’t even have a specific character in mind. I begin with a single sentence of no great importance; it almost certainly will be thrown away later. To that sentence I add another, and then another. A little riff emerges. If it’s going well–and it’s hard for me to say exactly what going well means, beyond the writing feeling authentic enough not to require immediate erasure–I’ll continue this sort of aimless unspooling.

The message I get from those words, and from Nicole, is basically: Just start writing. And let the writing itself lead the way. I’m not saying she’s right or wrong, or even right for me, just that I liked her message. For me, it’s easy to get stuck in the beginning, when I’m not sure what I’m doing next. Nicole’s approach sounds liberating. And again: There are no rules.

* I wish I had a baby to dress up this Halloween. Gallagher, anyone?

No? How about a chicken . . . inhabited by an alien? Cute, right?

* Canadian icon Gordon Pinsent reads excepts from the new book by author Justin Bieber. “Yes, I wore a white shirt. Yes, I got spaghetti.”

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* A personal library kit . . . made just for kids.

* Thank you, Reading Junky, for this nice review of Justin Fisher Declares War!

Author James Preller describes fifth grade to a tee in JUSTIN FISHER DECLARES WAR!  Every class has a Justin, and at some point, every class begins to object to the disruption caused by a chronic goof-off.  Preller’s novel offers excellent read-a-loud potential with ample opportunity for discussion about behavior and its consequences.  I’ll definitely be recommending this one to both students and teachers in middle grade classrooms.

* There’s something addictive and pure about looking at all these Thermos lunchboxes through the years.

* In the right classroom, with the right teacher, I think this could make a challenging writing exercise — narrating videos for the visually impaired. As Shana describes it:

I write and do voiceover narration for a company that audio-describes TV. It enriches the viewing experience for the blind in the same way that closed-captioning helps the hearing impaired.

The descriptive video writer’s job is to describe the unspoken action in the scene without distracting the viewer from the story, or stepping on the actors’ lines. It’s almost like rewriting a screenplay without the dialogue; I’m describing what’s going on in between that dialogue.

Be sure to use the link to view the brief samples of her work. Thanks, as always, to Whitney at Pop Candy for the link.

* I can’t read this stuff, but maybe you can stand it.

* Does your school kill creativity? Sir Ken Robinson suspects that it might.

* LASTLY, I still need your help. I need many, many more photos of men reading books for my upcoming FATHER’S READ blog.  I’ve gotten some great shots so far, of all sorts, but I need more. This small, worthy cause can’t work without your help.

Please submit your photos via email to: Jamespreller@aol.com with the subject heading, FATHERS READ.

Here’s a lovely one from my pal Nan, of her husband Stephen:

“One of my go-to funny books for boys.”

Thought I’d share a few reviews for my middle grade novel (grades 3-5), Justin Fisher Declares War!

Thanks to anyone who picks up this book and gives it a try. When I first wrote it, I thought of Justin as a light-hearted, character-centered book that might appeal to reluctant readers. It’s extremely easy to read. Though the characters are in 5th grade, I see this as a book that’s best for 3rd graders and up. Sigh, I’ll never understand the thinking behind the cover, but there’s nothing to be done abut that.

The first review is from Jaci Miller at Young Adult Books Central. To read it in full, go here:

James Preller’s likable book about class clowns and their inner workings will strike a chord with readers. Everyone wants to be liked and Preller intuitively taps this through Justin Fisher, a young man who tries just a bit too hard.

In a satisfying, but age-appropriate way, characters grow and change, including the antagonist, Mr. Tripp. Readers will root for Justin and, at the same time, shake their heads at his antics. Both student and teacher have been crafted with solid character motivations.

The short chapters also make Justin Fisher Declares War! a friendly read for more reluctant readers. A delightful addition to the world of humorous middle grade fiction.

Vikki Van Sickle of the Pipedreaming blog says that, Justin Fisher Declares War is officially one of my go-to funny books for boys.” Here’s another section of that review:

This book could be considered a loose sequel to Along Came Spider, but only because both books take place in the same setting and there are a few crossover characters. It is not necessary to read one to understand he other. James Preller’s writing style is breezy and fun. Having spent some time in elementary school classrooms myself, I found his dialogue and classroom antics very authentic. At some points I found myself thinking of Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine books. This is high praise, as Clementine is one of my all-time favourite early chapter book heroines. I think boys will relate to Justin and enjoy laughing along with his misadventures. Coming in under 150 pages, with short chapters and a fast-paced story, Justin Fisher Declares War is a great transitional book for boys.

Doret of the fabulous blog, The Happy Nappy Bookseller, also reviewed the book, and I’m grateful for that:

I really enjoyed Justin Fisher Declares War. Preller’s has a created a character in Justin, that isn’t all good or bad. The author previous novel Along Came Spider, is also set at Spiro Agew Elementary School. Anyone who has read it, will like being able to see how best friends Trey and Spider are doing. I don’t know if the author plans to set anymore novels at this school. But I hope so. Justin Fisher Declares War is a great suggestion for fans of Andrew Clements or Dan Gutman.

Lastly, I probably shouldn’t say this, but here goes: I have to grin when I see Justin on various Mock Newbery lists. The thoroughness of some of these folks is impressive and commendable. But let me tell you, just so you don’t fly to Vegas to lay down money on a longshot, this book is nowhere close to a Newbery. It does not belong in the conversation, and aspires only to be an easy, entertaining read with, hopefully, a few glimmers of hard-won insight thrown into the soup. I’d be happy with a review of, “Good fun!” I fully realize that a book like Justin, school-based fiction aimed at quasi-reluctant readers, isn’t going to make me rich. Honestly, it’s possibly too quiet for widespread boy appeal, but it was the story I needed to tell. I do hope this book picks up some readers along the way . . .

Speaking of the Newbery, last year it was obvious that When You Reach Me was the hands-down favorite. The year before that, I had read The Graveyard and wasn’t surprised by the selection. This year? I just don’t know.

Do you have a favorite?

This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever: XTRANORMAL Turns Text Into Movies!

I just discovered xtranormal, a wildly fun, easy-to-use, possibly addictive website that allows you to create animated movies on your computer. As they put it, “You type. The 3D actors speak. It’s that easy.”

Intrigued, I checked it out. Without putting much thought into it, I grabbed a copy of my new middle grade novel, Justin Fisher Declares War!, and turned to a brief exchange between two teachers. It was an atypical choice, since rarely have I published scenes that are exclusively between adults (and if anything is going to drive me to attempt an adult book, it’s that limitation).

Setting: This scene actually takes place in the Teacher’s Lounge, near a table with desserts, and Justin (who ducked in to steal a brownie) is hiding behind a chair, eavesdropping on the conversation. Author’s Note: When I tried this scene without Justin, it didn’t work for the book. I needed his POV, so the eavesdropping allowed me to have the best of both worlds.

By the way, I got the idea for this dialogue — an older teacher’s advice of, “Never let them see you smile” – from an interview with a middle-school teacher/author.

Sadly, I have not been able to figure out how to embed the scene here on my blog, so you’re going to have to click here to check it out.

Pretty fun, don’t you think? I showed it to a teacher friend who told me she uses the site with her middle school students to teach dialogue. “They LOVE it!” she said.

I could imagine other authors creating similar scenes based on their own books. It’s a kick to see it come alive, especially for someone like me, with an inner Scorsese. We might even see a rash of new book trailers using this technology. If I have time, I’d like to recast some moments from classic books. You know, Wuthering Heights and Jigsaw Jones, for example.

Unless you beat me to it.

I made another one last night, when I should have been sleeping. It’s from Chapter Seven, with Justin trying to talk himself out of trouble. There’s some problems with camera angles and whatnot, somehow it went a little screwy — and my actors are a little wooden — but I can’t play around with this forever. Enjoy!

JUSTIN FISHER: Recommended for the Read-Aloud Classroom

Though I published my first book in 1986, it wasn’t until recently that I experienced book reviews. Despite a crazy assortment of books, plus forty titles in the Jigsaw Jones series, the books were never, to my knowledge, reviewed.

That’s the paperback world. I began to think my name was James “Critically Ignored” Preller. The consoling factor was the books were being read by their intended audience, with titles like Hiccups for Elephant and Wake Me In Spring selling more than one million copies (thanks to the might of Scholastic Book Clubs). Beats a review any day. And yet, and yet. There’s something about the validation that comes from a positive, industry-sanctioned review. I think I longed for somebody to say, “Okay, he’s in the club!”

Things changed when I entered the hardcover world in 2008 with Six Innings. Suddenly my work was deemed review-worthy. The coach tapped me on the shoulder; I grabbed my helmet and raced in from the sidelines: I was a playa!  I’ll admit it: the world of reviews represents a confusing, seemingly arbitrary process. While I’m grateful to each reviewer who spends time with one of my books, I’m still afraid to read most of them. Some reviews are perfunctory at best, even when they say decent things about a book. Other reviews are canny and insightful. The whole process feels like a crapshoot. Who are these reviewers, anyway? These strangers who can fill my head with praise or cut me off at the knees (example: for the generally well-received Mighty Casey, a book-lover for Kirkus Reviews snarked: “As a writer of verse, Preller, author of Six Innings, makes an excellent prose novelist.”)

Freaking ouch. I’ll never rhyme again!

And then there are rare reviews that are just incredible, because of the source. That’s how I feel about this latest blog review by Franki Sibberson for Justin Fisher Declares War!

I first learned of Franki when I became a fan of her blog, A Year of Reading, which I discovered on the blogroll over at Literate Lives. I figured that Franki was just another fabulous Ohio-based teacher who loved books (they seem to grow like mushrooms out there). Later I noticed Franki’s name referenced in Ralph Fletcher’s most excellent book, Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices.

I did a little research and soon learned that Franki was an accomplished author herself, co-authoring Beyond Leveled Books (with Karen Szymusiak and Lisa Koch), Still Learning to Read (Karen Szymusiak), Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop (again with Karen Szymusiak), and more.

Clearly, Franki knows and cares about teaching reading in the elementary school. She’s invested and dedicated. As a former school teacher told me over lunch earlier this week, “teaching is an act of hope.” My guess is that Franki would nod her head at that comment.

So I’m honored by Franki’s review of Justin Fisher Declares War! A book that has not gotten much attention to date.

Click here to read the review in full — and then be sure to bookmark Franki’s site, because it’s an inspiration and an education. Here’s an excerpt from the review (I confess that it amounts to more than half of Franki’s review, because I didn’t have the heart to cut any good parts):

I am a huge James Preller fan but this may be my favorite from his list. Most of my teaching life has been in grades 3, 4, and 5. I feel very at home in 4th and 5th grade classrooms. I love the age and James Preller must also love this age. He really understands them and the struggles they deal with. Over the years, I have learned what a huge transition this age is for kids. They go from being little kids, to being big kids and it is sometimes a little confusing.

In this book, we learn that since 3rd grade, Justin Fisher has been the class clown. He is always up to something. He has good friends but in 5th grade, that seems to be changing. His friends and classmates have had enough and are starting to keep their distance. For me, this book is about figuring things out. Things that are cute and funny when you are 8, are no longer cute and funny when you are 11. This is a hard lesson for kids and finding their place in the world gets trickier. But Justin finds his way, thanks to an amazing young teacher (one that clearly deserves a spot on 100 Cool Teachers in Children’s Lit!).

If I were in the classroom this year, this would probably be my first read aloud. The first read aloud has always been key and the choice is always a hard one but there are so man reasons that JUSTIN FISHER DECLARES WAR would make a great first read aloud.

<< snip >>

—–

Franki recently listed some recent raves for middle grade fiction — and I know I’ll be checking them out soon (if not reading every one, at least buying a few for my fourth-grade daughter, Maggie):

Out of My Mind by Susan Draper

Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord

Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (already on my night table)

As Simple as It Seems by Sarah Weeks

Obviously, Franki really likes books with blue covers (goldfish and water optional).

And you know what else? She’s a huge James Preller fan!

Fan Mail Wednesday #93 (blog post #500!)

There are days when I question this blog — why I do it, if it’s worth the time and energy — and, with less frequency but much more sting, I question if what I do for a living has been a colossal mistake. I struggle to pay bills, struggle to create something lasting and worthwhile, and I wonder if trying to make it as a writer was just delusion. Maybe I should have sold insurance with my father after all.

That old punchline applies, “Don’t quit your day job.”

I suspect other writers have felt this same way.

I don’t know if there’s an easy cure for it, but I do know that the absolute heart of the writing life is what happens when a book miraculously reaches a reader — a young person — and that reader is moved in some way, inspired to think new thoughts, feel things, see the world from a fresh perspective. Maybe laugh a little, too. It doesn’t pay the mortgage, but it helps me get through those times of doubt and worry.

Kids always ask, “Is it fun being a writer?’

It’s a lot of things. The rewards are immense. But I’m not always sure I’d recommend it.

Dear  Mr. James Preller,

My name is Vassiliya. This is my 1st time writing to you. I should tell you about myself. Well, my favorite color is blue. My favorite animal is a dog. My favorite food is chicken with rice. I am 9 and I have no brothers and sisters. Now I think I should tell you how I look like. Well, I have light brown long hair, brown eyes, and white skin [In the summer it’s tan]. I read your book Justin Fisher Declares War. I liked it a lot. I wrote a book this year. It’s called The Day We Ran Away. It’s funny. I might publish it but, I’m not sure yet.

P.S. Please, write back.

Your New Fan,
Vassiliya

I replied:

Dear Vassiliya:

Thank you for your email. As you can tell from my preamble above, I’m having one of those no good, horrible, terrible, not very good days. I also know what helps: rereading your note, which you sent a few weeks back, to help me remember why I write in the first place.

You see, there are days when I almost forget.

Yes, I am more of a dog person than a cat person. My dog, Daisy, is Not Too Smart. Don’t get me wrong. She’s sweet and loving and as good as can be. But if a bedroom door is halfway open, she has no idea how to get out of the room. Not a clue. My cats — we have two of them — watch Daisy with amusement. They roll their eyes, lick their paws, and purr with feline superiority.

I’m glad you liked Justin Fisher Declares War! I hoped it would be a light, fast, funny book for kids in 3rd, 4th, 5th grade.

I’d be happy to hear more about your story, The Day We Ran Away. Is it based on a true story? Are you funny in school, or just on paper?

Seriously: Thanks for writing. It means a lot. This job can be tough sometimes, a little lonely, and with a share of disappointment. Hearing back from a reader like you, and a fellow writer like yourself, well, it just makes me glad.

JP

PS. My dog writes letters to camp. When my daughter, Maggie — she’s 9, like you, Vassiliya — went to sleepaway camp for a second week this summer, she asked for one thing: “I want another letter from Daisy. A long one.” I don’t know when Daisy finds the time to sneak into my office to type those letters. Or how, come to think of it, she even learned to type. I guess she’s not so dumb after all. Hey, she’s even written to President Obama. And just look at that face. Soooo cute!