Hi! My name is ___ and I am a fifth grader from Sacandaga Elementary school. I was sick when you came and I was so sad. I love to write and your books inspire me! I am reading Justin Fisher Declares War and it makes me randomly laugh! I love having your signature in it! I wish I could have met you! I write to get my mind off things. I am going to start a book called Fake inspired by Bystander! Please get back to me, wish I could have seen you!
Confession: I never liked the cover to this one, was hoping for something funny and school-based, but I do like the tagline: “Fifth grade is no joke.” Too bad you can’t see it. Grumble, grumble.
____, what a bummer! I’m sorry you were sick, I could have used a friendly face in that rough crowd. Just kidding. Everyone at Sacandaga was great — in fact, I loved it so much, I even learned how to spell Sacandaga. When in doubt, type an “a.”
I wrote Justin Fisher immediately after Bystander, which was fairly serious, so I felt like writing something that was humorous and light-hearted. I’m glad you enjoyed both of them, my yin and yang.
Please give me your address and I’ll try to get something in the mail to you one of these days. But be patient, I’ll be traveling soon.
I’m always glad to hear from a fellow writer. And for the record, Fake is a great title.
Good News! I received an email from Kerrlita Westrick and Shirley Berow, co-chairs of the Grand Canyon Reader Award, organized by the Arizona Library Association. Instead of telling you about it, you can read the important bits for yourself:
Dear Mr. Preller,
It is out pleasure to inform you that your book, Justin Fisher Declares War, has been nominated for the Intermediate Book category of the 2015 Grand Canyon Reader Award! Congratulations!
The Grand Canyon Reader Award is a children’s choice award with approximately 45,000 Arizona students voting each year. Your book, along with nine other tiles, will be read by teachers, librarians, and students all over Arizona and voted upon by April 1, 2015.
Well, that felt good.
As a writer, all I’ve ever wanted was to be read and, hopefully, acclaimed to some extent. Approved of. Valued. Appreciated. I dream that at least some fraction of the reading public will say, in essence, “Hey, you did good.”
Making it on these state lists is so important to keep a book in circulation. So, absolutely, a heartfelt thanks from me. Much appreciated. When I look at the other titles on the list, well, it’s just crazy. Not expecting to win, that’s for sure.
Though it’s been well-reviewed, and sometimes even praised, Justin Fisher has been pretty much ignored by the purchasing public (not to mention my own publisher). A paperback edition has never been made available in stores.
Justin Fisher was conceived as part of a series of school-based stories, including Along Came Spider, which was honored by the NYPL back in 2008. Both books share characters and the same setting, Spiro Agnew Elementary.
Here’s a nice review of Justin from a 5th-grade teacher, Franki Sibberson, who called it “One of my go-to funny books for boys.”
From the first moment I saw these covers, I thought: “Uh-oh.” I expressed my worries to my editor, that they didn’t at all convey the stories were school based, but was told that the decision had already been made. End of discussion. Oh well. Everybody does their best, I guess.
To help the humor come out, I had really, really wanted the books to be illustrated, ala “Wimpy Kid,” but that was not in the cards either. But most wonderfully, a group of students from Pennsylvania sent me their own illustrations a couple of years back. I love student artwork. Here’s some highlights:
Now I can only hope for an invitation to visit school in Arizona.
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.
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 . . .
A girl sent this one via the interwebs. I removed her name for privacy:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
Anyway, sorry, long letter. Good luck with your story. It’s always nice to meet a young author.
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:
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.
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.
“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.