Archive for Mighty Casey

Good, Clean Fun: ANOTHER BROTHER Book Trailer

I first learned of Matthew Cordell when he was hired to illustrate my picture book, MIGHTY CASEY. Despite Matt’s great artwork, the book never really found an audience, and I guess it sort of died on the vine, as they say. But there are two great things that came out of that book. First,  my ongoing friendship with Matthew and his amazingly talented wife, Julie Halpern. Someday I hope we’re all in the same room! In my opinion, Matt is a hugely gifted illustrator, and a true artist, and an heir in his approach and dedication to Arnold Lobel, who is one of my all-time heroes. He’s also got a touch of William Steig.

Look, I’ll say it. A lot of children’s book illustration, while technically spectacular, isn’t very appealing to kids. Matt’s work, on the other hand, is loose and inviting and draws readers into the story. Like Lobel, and Steig, and James Marshall, and all the best. I really think Matt is that good, and he’s just scratching the surface.

Secondly, I’m gladdened by the consistent pleasure I experience when on odd times I pull out MIGHTY CASEY and read it aloud to large groups of students. I’m telling you, it works every time. We laugh, we have fun, and by the end these kids are right there, leaning in, eager for the play at the plate. Sales or not, those experiences tell me that Matt and I did good together — we made something, you know, put it out into the world. It’s all we can do.

Anyway, Matt created a homemade trailer for his new picture book, ANOTHER BROTHER. Now on sale on every street corner, car trunk, haberdashery — and independent bookstore, too!

Enjoy . . .

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Let Kids Read Comic Books . . . D’uh!

Instead of “Let Kids Read Comic Books,” I almost titled this entry, “Don’t Be an Idiot.” Because I can’t believe this needs to be discussed anymore.

Over at Imagination Soup, they ran a good piece with a solid message: “8 Reasons to Let Your Kids Read Comics.” Check it out, there’s a lot of worthwhile links attached to the article.

Here’s their list of “8 reasons” in brief.

1. Comics are fun to read.

2. Comics contain the same story elements and literary devices as narrative stories.

3. Comics provide built-in context clues.

4. Reading a comic is a different process of reading using a lot of inference.

5. Readers need variety in their reading diet.

6. We’re a visual culture and the visual sequence makes sense to kids.

7. Reading comics may lead to drawing and writing comics.

8. The selection of graphic novels is bigger, better, and reaches a wider age-range than before.

Yeah, feh, okay. I get that. We have to establish that comics are credible resources, that they’re valid in the classroom, so there’s a perceived need to throw in a lot of pedagogical goobledygook. But I don’t care. Because one thing I know is that many (many!) professional authors began their childhood love of reading with comic books. And that those authors are frequently men (AKA, ex-boys).

They read what they wanted to. They read what they liked. They read, period.

This dismissive notion of “boys reading junk” must be addressed. As well-meaning adults, we need to become sensitized to our bias against certain types of reading. We have to become aware of the messages we send to boy readers, the disapproving way we view their personal choices. Some of these boys pick up a comic book to read — TO READ! — and the message they get is, “That choice is stupid and you’re a dummy.”

We must trust in the process.

When I was working on my belly-up blog, Fathers Read, I received written contributions from several children’s book authors, including Matthew Cordell, Lewis Buzbee, Michael Northrop, Eric Velasquez, and Jordan Sonnenblick. One recurring strain in their reflections on their lives as young readers was the love and appreciation they felt toward comic books and, I should add, books that in general would not be considered literary. Yet somehow, despite reading what they liked, these boys became avid readers and skilled writers. Hmmm, go figure.

Here’s an excerpt from one such author/illustrator, my pal Matthew Cordell:

Five Things About Me as a Young Reader

1. Picture books I most remember liking were Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry. And, sad to say, crappy series books like Berenstain bears. Hoo-boy.

2. I remember liking superhero comics very early on. Maybe even before I could actually read. It lasted til around middle school then tapered off. Quite significant here, being comics that made me want to be an artist.

3. I also was obsessed with Archie comics. They were easy to get because the Archie digests were at the grocery store checkout. These I liked for the gags and the weird 50’s vibe. Not so much for the cool factor. But I loved hanging out with these funny, upbeat, wholesome characters.

4. I loved Beverly Cleary books. The Ramona stuff, but especially the Henry books. I remember liking that it wasn’t over in just one book. Like you could still hang out in that world with these characters for the follow-up and so on. I guess like I did with my pals back in Riverdale.

5. There was this book, The Fledgling by Jane Langton, that was burned into my memory for years. I didn’t finish this book (it was required reading in 5th grade, which never really worked for me as a reader… I even fudged a book report on the thing). But I actually liked it and had always regretted never finishing it. Years went on and I eventually forgot the title and wanted more and more to go back and finish it. Last year, I finally sleuthed it out and remembered the name and re-read it. It was very surreal.

Matthew Cordell is a Chicago-based illustrator (and sometimes author, too!) of many terrific books, including: Justin Case (Rachel Vail), Toby and the Snowflakes (Julie Halpern) . . .

Mighty Casey (James Preller), Trouble Gum . . .


Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (Julie Sternberg), and more.

Mighty Casey: Editorial Letter Excerpts

I’ve been doing a lot of school visits, book signings, and book fairs over the past two months. It’s been a lot of fun, distracting, joyful, happy, hard, and humbly rewarding. One of the highlights of my act — between juggling chain saws and wrestling live bears — has been reading Mighty Casey, illustrated by Matthew Cordell, to audiences up to 200 (squirming, wriggling) children. The book really goes over well (if I don’t say so myself), especially when I stop and go into great uproarious detail about Ronald the Runt, who has to pee, “and decided left field would do.” Kids love that part, and it’s absolutely true to my coaching experience. Happens every year. Some of those little boys just want to play and play until the lastpossiblesecond, not missing a thing, and they don’t always make it all the way to the bathroom.

When Ernest Thayer wrote the original “Casey at the Bat,” published in a San Francisco newspaper in 1880, he considered it a mere doggeral. He even used a pen name, to disassociate himself from the poem that would later (ironically) define his career.

I never really thought of Mighty Casey as a poem, per say. It rhymes and bounces along well enough, but it’s not, to me, poetry. Like most published books, it went through various drafts and revisions. And it was definitely made better through the help of my editor at Feiwel and Friends, Liz Szabla. As a rule, anybody with two z’s in their name has to be awesome. Name your child Buzzy and you are guaranteed a terrific kid. Anyway, here I am digressing once again, suggesting names for your children, which, let’s face it, is probably a personal decision and none of my business. But: Buzzy. Think about it.

I just came across an editorial letter from Liz, with comments and suggestions in response to the first draft of Casey (that is, the first  draft that Liz saw; not the first draft I wrote). The way this works for Liz is like this: We’ll talk on the phone, go through things in a general manner, and she’ll follow that up with a more detailed “formal” letter. Most editors seem to work this way. Below you’ll find the bulk of that letter, with only a few passages removed to save the author from further embarrassment. I should also note, for those interested in the publishing process, that I didn’t see that first draft as a finished piece. It needed work and I knew that. But I had reached the point where I needed another eye, another point-of-view. I needed, that is, HELP! And Liz was there to catch me.

MIGHTY CASEY is mighty charming and we’ve enjoyed the time we’ve spent with it. I’m delighted now to be sending you our thoughts as well as a line-edited manuscript. You and I haven’t worked together before – please know that all my suggestions are open to further discussion if anything doesn’t feel quite right.

First and foremost, the Delmar Dogs are hilarious! Casey, as the unlikely hero, is wonderful. And the echoes of “Casey at the Bat” make Casey’s final triumph all the more satisfying, of course.

Let me break in here to comment that all editorial letters begin with a compliment. It’s a trick they teach you early on in Editorial School. The editor opens your ears by saying something positive. I tell this to kids who do peer writing in school: Always begin by saying something nice. Find a part in the story that you like and praise it. That way, you increase the chances of the writer hearing any critical suggestions you might later make. I’m saying: Liz didn’t fool me; I knew there was a big “but” in there somewhere.

You’ll see that I’ve make some suggestions and tweaks on the manuscript to fine-tune the rhythm or syntax in places. I won’t detail those suggestions here, but do let me know if I’ve fouled anywhere (heh, heh). Now onto a few issues to keep in mind as you consider the line-edit….

Note: the “line-edit” is the marked up manuscript, with more detailed comments and suggested changes in the dreaded red pencil. The general editorial letter comes along with a marked-up manuscript, which can be a cold thing, almost painful. Thus, the editorial letter serves as fabric softener to the line-edit’s starch. (Oh dear me, a laundry metaphor? Move on, people, there’s nothing to see here, nothing at all . . . .)

4th stanza
Although the “enjoyed…destroyed” rhyme is marvelous and unexpected, I can’t help but wonder if, in the fourth stanza, the parents’ feelings about the game are at odds with the Dogs’ pride at trying their best. To say that the adults don’t “enjoy” the games is a bit of a disconnect with the spirit of the Dogs. Still, I certainly see how it might be tough for the parents to see their kids trounced, and if this is what you intend, then let’s leave it. But if you want to work on another layer of subtlety – that is, the kids’ pride being stoked by their parents’ empathy, then I believe it’s worth exploring.

This is an example of an editor forcing the writer to think. I had to go back and look at what I was attempting to achieve in that stanza. I suspect Liz’s motherly instinct was to keep the parents cheerful and positive, whereas I wanted the recognition of how tough it can be to sit in those stands sometimes. In the end, I pretty much kept this stanza as is, but Liz made me to think about it and justify those words in my mind.

13th stanza
I’m a bit confused about why so few spectators notice or cheer when Jinn Lee bloops a double and later scores a run. Here’s where I see the Dogs and the parents on their feet, pumping their arms in the air!

Liz was right — and she was right in many places — so I changed it. The revision now reads: “When Jinn Lee clubbed a homer/The crowd stood and cheered.”

18th stanza
As Casey steps up to bat, there are a few things readers should know: How many outs are there? That is, is he the team’s last hope? If he strikes out, do they lose? If the situation is clarified, then you’ll really ratchet up the suspense in this last section.

Again, just some essential details that I completely neglected to add. Or perhaps assumed. The facts were there, but I didn’t make them clear, clear, clear. This is a common kind of editorial suggestion — to “pause a beat” — forcing the writer to slow down, to really set the scene for the reader. Sometimes we’re in such a rush to get to the next thing, we don’t always properly build up to that Big Moment. It’s a Hitchcock trick. Once you’ve built up suspense, it’s time to slow things down. Think of those movie shots when we see close-ups of the killer climbing the steps, footfall by footfall. The doorknob slowly, slowly turns . . . or Casey taps his cleats.

The finale
I suspect the ending could have more zing to it…. The mother crying and the father’s heart bursting with pride seem stereotypical amid all the other fresh action and description. The fact that they’re stereotypical does fit the tone and conclusion of “Casey at the Bat,” but I believe descriptions that are as fresh as the rest of the story will complement the tone and mood you’ve established and make for a stronger ending. Also, the “bursts with pride” description echoes the language of the 3rd stanza (“bursting pride”). Would you consider echoing some of the language in the ending for “Casey at the Bat” instead? “[H]earts are light…men are laughing…little children shout…”?

The very last line is also in need of some zing. “Three cheers” feels predictable and “our side” seems too general and not exciting or punchy enough for a conclusion. Perhaps you can work “Delmar Dogs” into the final line, so that it appears in the opening and conclusion, just as “Mudville” does in “Casey at the Bat.” What do you think?

Hey, I knew the ending wasn’t right (to put it kindly). I probably even said so when I handed in that first draft to Liz. I was struggling with it. I remember interviewing James Marshall, tape recorder rolling, back in the early 90’s. He said something that always stuck in my head, simple and profound: “It’s always the ending that gives me the most trouble. The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles in 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. So it’s a puzzle that has to be solved. I remember with one of the Miss Nelson books, it took us [the author Harry Allard and I] two years to come up with an ending we liked.

Liz concluded her letter:

This is already so much fun – I believe that with some fine-tuning, it will be an even more dramatic and satisfying experience. Jean and I look forward to seeing what you come up with, Jimmy.

Please call or email me if you have any questions, or want to discuss any of these issues further.

Aren’t I fortunate to have such a warm, insightful, supportive editor? Liz made me think. She offered ideas and suggestions, but always made it clear that it was my book, my decisions. She got me to get back to work, keep hauling those rocks — but without feeling bad about myself, or my book. Instead I was energized, enthusiastic, ready to roll up my sleeves. Now you can see why so many authors dedicate books to their editors. We know we couldn’t have done it quite so well without a lot of help from the unseen hand of a talented editor.

Every time I read Mighty Casey out loud to a group of kids — when they laugh in the right parts, when they lean in to learn what happens next, when they burst into applause at the end — I always think of Liz and my publisher Jean Feiwel, and wish that they could be with me to share in the moment. The applause is also for them.

James Preller Interviews . . . The Happy Nappy Bookseller

I first encountered Doret Canton and her singular blog when I read this post back in May, 2008. She was saying nice things about my book, Six Innings, so, naturally, I fell madly in love. In today’s world, that means: We read each other’s blogs. I recently asked if she’d be willing to be interviewed. And, hey, look, here she comes now . . .

Note: Not really Doret.

Doret, though we’ve corresponded sporadically over the past year, I really don’t know much about you. So let’s start with some basic facts: Who are you?

Well, you know my first and last name and I’ll throw in my middle initial for free: Doret A. Canton. I am from the Bronx, N.Y.

Though for some reason I never got an accent. I’ve been in Atlanta since 1996 and I still don’t have an accent. I am pretty sure I am immune to them. I didn’t learn about children’s literature in an air-conditioned classroom or office but rather on the unforgiving retail floor. Now I can pretty much hold my own in a conversation about children’’s literature, and if need be I’ll fake the funk.

Doret, I’ve been faking the funk all my life. In the “kidlitosphere,” you represent an under-served population and offer, I think, a valuable perspective on children’s literature. You are a bookseller. And an African-American. And definitely not “inner circle,” whatever that may be.

As a minority, I know how it is not to be represented or to find your stuff in the back corner. So on my blog and the displays I do at work I always strive for balance. About a year ago, I looked at the YA table and I noticed it was all girl-centered titles except for Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz.  My first thought was OMG, how did I let that happen?  What does that say to the teenage boys who pass this table? Now the table its about 50/50, and I feel much better showing it to teenage boys and mothers who have sons.  When the holidays roll around I check the calendar so I know when Hanukkah begins so I can get the books out on time. I may not always achieve balance . . .

. . . but I always strive for it.  It’s the same with my blog.  I just want people to come and discover authors they may not find elsewhere.

What motivated you to blog?

Before I started my blog, I was a bloghopper, leaving one or two comments. I finally wanted to start my own after finishing a YA book by an African-American author because I knew there was nowhere to talk about it. I noticed there didn’t seem to be many African-Americans blogging about children’s and YA lit. So I said, Why not?  When I was thinking on blog names I knew I wanted something that reflected my melanin. So people who visited would know which box I checked in the last census.

When I started a little over a year ago, I didn’t know where I was going to go with it but I knew I wasn’t going to review only African-American authors.  I enjoy reading many authors, styles, and genre. I wanted that reflected on my blog.  (No one puts this bookblogger in a reading corner!)  It was really slow going in the beginning.  I was like, “Hello, is anyone reading?”  I started to feel like that always-falling-down tree in the forest that no one hears. Early on I was lucky enough to get some nice links from Kelly Herold over at Big A Little A and Jen Robinson.  Those links felt like welcomes and encouragement.  So thank you, ladies!

I know what you mean. Those few people who reach out, provide links, and write comments are so important. Validation, you know; it’s not all navel gazing.

So what have you learned along the way? Any surprises?

I’ve learned to always be willing to stand by what I say and never blog angry. Site meter checking is the blogger equivalent to authors checking their Amazon ranking.  For a while I was obsessed with checking my site meter to see who stopped by. I still get a kick out of seeing when someone from another country has visited.  I love it when authors take the time to leave a comment.  It means a lot.

I had been thinking about trying to get to know you better for a while -– I’m curious about you, and you’ve always been nice to me -– but one of your recent blog posts sealed the deal. As you wrote in the poem: “I don’t like to play the Card/But this time I am licking the back/smacking it on my forehead and calling/B.S./And that’s what this rant is about.” Have you gotten any response from that self-proclaimed rant?

I’ve only gotten positive responses for the rant. It would be easy for me to go on about authors of color being under-represented online but I don’t want to come across as the angry Black girl — besides, do it too much no one will listen. I decided I was better off exposing the few people (and I am not being humble, I have site meter, remember) who visit my blog to diverse reviews.

I love how you inject your personality into your book reviews. These aren’t “official” reviews from some kind of anonymous, official, sanitized source of wisdom: It’s Doret Canton talking books. For example, this quick review of Pure by Terra McVoy. You began it this way: “I thought this was very good. I liked it so much I’ll forgive the pink cover and just pretend I don’t see that cherry.”

I try to have fun with my reviews. I just hope my love or enjoyment of the books comes through. If you want something more professional, go to Kirkus or SLJ or someone with a degree. I simply do me and that makes it fun. To do anything else seems like work. One time I did up my review game for Zetta Elliott‘s YA novel, A Wish After Midnight. For two reasons: 1) It was a self-published book, and I wanted to give people a reason to take a chance on it; and 2) I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a slightly more professional review.  But I did stay true to me. Towards the end of the post I have, “Don’t roll your eyes” in parenthesis. I like to think of that as my Duckie prom moment. Remember, Duckie got dressed up for prom but still wore his crazy shoes?

Um . . . nope. I have no memory of a Duckie. In crazy shoes or otherwise. But don’t let that stop you.

I won’t. Whenever I can fit in an 80’s movie reference like “Pretty In Pink,” I’ll do it. I think a good review is honest with a little heart in it.  That statement probably doesn’t include New York Times reviews, but since I have yet to understand one from beginning to end, I am not entirely sure.

Well, I loved Lisa Von Drasek’s review of Six Innings in The New York Times Book Review. But I do think that’s what’s great about your blog, specifically, and great about blogging, generally. No one needs authorization to blog (read: speak your mind); you just do it. Now more voices can be heard. The dialogue has become more open and inclusive.

One of the great things about blogging is freedom, to share. There is no order to my blog but that’s my choice. One of the beautiful things about blogs is individuality.

It’s like what you said before, about not knowing where it might lead. You start a blog and then, gee, you wonder, What is this, exactly? What have you gotten yourself into, you know? So you make it up as you go along, and gradually it becomes perfectly itself. But please, Doret, let’s turn the conversation back to me. You’ve said that you enjoy my recurring “Fan Mail Wednesday” feature. What about it do you like?

I love Fan Mail Wednesday, wish more authors did it. I like the way you take the time to interact with your fans. Your responses are fun, honest, witty and show much respect and appreciate for your fans. Can you bring back the dog who was speaking to President Obama?

Thanks for that. A funny thing about those two “letters to the president”  my dog wrote: They were by far the two most popular posts on my blog. You can imagine how much I resent Daisy for that. Now I feel like Daisy, my Goldendoodle, should have her own blog. But the problem is I  have this job that gets in the way –- and a career to relentlessly, shamelessly self-promote.

Speaking of which: Look everybody, more pictures

of me, Me, ME! Look: I’m SQUINTING!!!

You know, Doret, I get a kick out of it when you complain about customers, little things that happen in the store. It’s like we’re co-workers, there’s a confidential/conspiratorial tone to it, and I can imagine you rolling your eyes as you type, shaking your head, muttering, “Oh Lord.”

Earlier when I said I learned about children’s literature on the unforgiving retail floor, I wasn’t kidding. Some customers don’t play — you had better know what you’re talking about. Don’t try and fool them, they’ll catch you and call you out on it. Some costumers are just crazy. Some are just plain mean. (Emily Post, where are you?  Please tell these people to get off their phones while receiving help.)  Complaining about customers on my blog is a good way to get it out of my system. Plus they add a little more bite to the bookseller in my blogger name. If there was a musical for the book industry, I’d be singing and dancing (off-key and off-beat), “It’s a Hard Knock Life” (with the Jay Z beat), while picking up book reshelves and giving customers the evil eye.  Every once in a while screaming, “Books are not coasters!”

No, not coasters – but they do make great furniture. Every house should be filled with them.  Doret, you are obviously crazy about baseball. What are the baseball books you are recommending this season?

I love talking about sports books because they can turn non-readers into readers. Here are eight new baseball books that I’ve read and reviewed:

The Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott. I loved this one.  So far this is my favorite baseball book of the year.

Babe Ruth and the Baseball Curse by David A. Kelly, illustrated by Tim Jessell. This was a great early chapter baseball book. I’d highly recommend it for baseball fan parents who are looking for something a little longer to read to their child.

Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta. I loved the way the main characters were developed.

Mighty Casey by James Preller,  illustrated by Matthew Cordell. As always I really enjoy your text J.P., but it’s Cordell’s light and easy illustrations that make it okay for me to add it to this list (don’t want people to think I am playing favorites). And that really did look like pee!

Baseball Crazy edited by Nancy E. Mercado. Great collection of baseball short stories, from authors such as Jerry Spinelli, John H. Ritter, Sue Corbett, and more.

Top of the Order by John Coy.
If a parent came to me and said my son hates reading but loves baseball, I would show them this book. Coy took the time to create four characters and situations boys could relate to.  This book could show many reluctant readers that reading isn’t so bad.

The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane. It’s about a girl who pitches on her eighth grade baseball team, with a wicked knuckle ball.

Change-Up Baseball Poems by Gene Fehler,  illustrated by Donald Wu. I loved everything about this collection of poems.  The text and the illustrations are a beautiful match.

These next four I haven’t read yet, but I’m looking forward to them:

The Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz. I know this is a great baseball book when non-baseball fans are giving it great reviews.

Ray and Me by Dan Gutman. I take Gutman’s baseball card adventure series for granted because its always so good.  I do plan on reading this one. It’s about Ray Chapman, the only major league baseball player to get hit by a pitch and die in a game.

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Andre Winter. I saw this reviewed  over at Fuse #8.  My first thought was, That’s a beautiful baseball book I must read.

The Baseball Talmud by Howard Megdal.
This is the history of Jewish players in major league baseball.

In a recent email, you asked me about, “your Mets.” It used to be “our Mets.” What happened? You haven’t crossed over the to Dark Side (read: Yankees), have you?

I could never cheer for the Yankees.

I agree, it’s like rooting for a Swiss watch. Roger Angell, who is one of the great pure writers of the past fifty years, says that people have more “Mets” in them than “Yankees” — that we’re more shaggy dog than exalted champion.

That quote couldn’t be more perfect, and I will always root for the Mets.

Okay, Lightning Round:

Five favorite books you love pressing into customers hands?

1. Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
2. Marcelo In the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
3. Flygirl by Sherri Smith
4. Carter Finally Gets it by Brent Crawford
5. A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban
6.  Fairy School Dropout by Meredith Badger

(Six is the new five!)

Favorite music?

Neo-Soul, Pop, Rock and Jazz.

Favorite movies?

Anything with a good story line that doesn’t rely on special effects.

What other sites can you recommend that celebrate diversity in children’s literature?

* The Brown Bookshelf
* Color Online
* Crazy Quilts
* Mitali’s Fire Escape
* Paper Tigers
* A Wrung Sponge

To be fair, I do run across a few other reviews of authors of color at other blogs — but its not nearly enough. I am not going to do the percentages, that’s too much math for me. If I was to take a guess, even including the blogs I’ve mentioned, reviews of authors of color wouldn’t make up 5% of the kidlitosphere.  That’s simply not right and there’s no excuse. It’s 2009, we have our first Black president; this should not be an issue. I don’t want anyone to stop reading and talking about the books they enjoy, but be more open and inclusive. Everyone should check out Diversity Rocks Challenge. It was started by Ali from Worducopia.  This is a pressure-free challenge that encourages bloggers to add more color to their reading list I don’t do challenges — I am too lazy — but the Diversity Rocks Challenge requires no effort. After reviewing an author of color you simply link it to the site. That’s it, you come and go as you please.  Also check out Crazy Colored Summer Reads over at Crazy Quilts. Edi has compiled a great list of titles featuring teens of color.

Thanks for that info, Doret. Lastly: Ali or Frazier?


Doret, my friend, thanks so much for stopping by. I really enjoy you and love that you are out there, shouting loud, staying proud. Keep up the great work.

Shouting loud, staying proud —  with those four words I am almost tempted to put up a Black power fist.  Instead I’ll say thank you, James, for finding me interesting enough to want to interview. And please bring back Daisy, her fans are waiting.


Check Out My Interview

Over at Feiwel and Friends, they are celebrating the publication of Mighty Casey like it’s 1999. They are even blogging about it. Please click the link because Matthew Cordell just interviewed . . . me! Their blog is pretty great even without us (imagine that!) because other F & F  authors and illustrators contribute often, most recently John Coy and Maria von Lieshout.

Here’s two brief excerpts from that longer piece.


MC: I can assume that many writers, like many illustrators, are particular about how they work and where they work. Where do you like to do your writing? And what are your tools? The pen, the old-timey typewriter, word processor, or personal computer?

JP: Matt! Let me begin by saying — and since this is your first interview, no one would expect you to know this, but — you don’t actually have to sit on my lap during an interview. It’s not like a Santa thing.

MC: Whoops!


MC: What do you see are the major differences in crafting picture books vs. novels? With the novel format, you generally have the space to open up and write more at length. Less confined, I’d imagine, than picture books, where you really have to choose words wisely. Do you prefer writing one over another?

JP: Well, there are two things at play here: picture books are dependent upon illustrations, so the writer is already in a strange position. With novels, you have more control over the finished product. Secondly, novels probably better suit my sensibilities. I find that I can’t force a picture book, which tends to be concept-driven and needs to perfectly distill an experience to its essence. With a novel, you have more opportunity to wander in and out of different rooms, and I think that better reflects how my mind natively operates.

A Few Links, etc.

Been away on a school visit to Bailey Elementary in Dublin, Ohio, with Karen and Bill of Literate Lives. Since they’ve already threatened to blog about it, I’ll refrain from much comment. Especially as I’m a little fuzzy in the Brain Department this glorious morn. The students were great, happy and well-prepared, and the overall team effort — from principal to PTO parent — made it all feel like a cohesive, coordinated success. Beyond the whole “content delivering” aspect, we all enjoyed some laughs along the way and made new friendships. A happy time; I’m grateful for the experience.

And I ate like a king (thanks, Amy and Keyburn).

* My brother from another mother, Matthew Cordell, blogs about the beginnings of our new picture book, Mighty Casey. Very interesting to get an illustrator’s perspective on the process, including early (rejected) sketches.

* The Reading Zone recently reviewed Along Came Spider, and even (insanely!) used the M-word. That’s overstating it for sure, but I appreciate the enthusiasm. The money quote:

This is a great book and one I can’t wait to share with my students.  I think it will resonate with boys and girls alike.  James Preller has crafted yet another masterpiece for middle grade readers!

* Bill Prosser did his first-ever interview over at Literate Lives, sitting down with author N.D. Wilson. A very nice job, especially for someone who went twenty minutes before realizing he forgot to turn on the tape recorder! Check it out and encourage Bill to do more.

* Lastly, I recently directed a teacher friend to visit The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, which is on my fabulous blogroll on the right sidebar, under Random Pleasures. For anyone who enjoys language, and grammar, and unintended humor, this is a fun, quick site and worth seeing.  I can’t imagine a language arts teacher/person not enjoying it. I love when a blog gets very specific like this, mining that one vein.

* Lastly, Fan Mail Wednesday has been moved to Friday!

Reviews for Mighty Casey

I’ve got a plane to catch today, hoping to meet up with Bill and Karen at Literate Lives for a two-day school visit. I’m really looking forward to it. When my kids were younger, I really didn’t want to leave the area. But now that they’ve more or less stabilized, I hope to make longer trips, conquer new frontiers. For those interested in author visits, the key for me is that I need at least 2-3-4 days of work to make traveling worthwhile and affordable for all concerned; I can’t go to Texas for a day.

As for today, it’s snowing lightly, but steadily, and the travel plans  are up in the air. Or exactly the opposite — not up in the air. Fingers and toes are crossed.

In the meantime, Matthew Cordell and I just received two nice reviews for our new picture book, Mighty Casey (Feiwel and Friends, March,  2009). Here’s a tasty excerpt from Publishers Weekly:

Set against ample white space, Cordell’s endearingly geeky kids take center stage (mid-game distractions include tree-climbing, a bee sting and a bathroom break on the left field fence). It’s hard to envision a reader who won’t take to these underdogs. Ages 4–8.

And here’s a yummy excerpt from an upcoming School Library Journal review:

When the score is tied, and bases are loaded, Casey comes up to bat. Does this sound familiar? The ink and watercolor drawings vary in size and are full of energy and movement as the players engage in different activities. The faces are expressive and fun to look at. This is a great baseball book for all those T-ball and Little League players out there.

Writing Mighty Casey

Everybody is familiar with the classic poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, “Casey at the Bat,” first published in 1888 in the San Francisco Examiner. That’s 120 years ago. According to Wikipedia, Thayer was “so embarrassed by what he considered to be a doggeral that he kept his identity secret for years.” It was originally published under a pen name.

As a reminder, the poem begins:

“The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that–
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

The poem has certainly endured. Each spring, like mushrooms after a rain, new picture book versions of Thayer’s classic poem seem to arrive in our libraries, each more fabulously illustrated than the next. And no offense to these talented illustrators, but Casey grows increasingly steroidal. For example:

Yet as much as I liked the original poem, it never seemed to hold a lot of kid appeal. So the idea struck me that I could do my own version of the poem, keeping the baseball flavor and dramatic setup, but transposing it to a Little League field at the youngest, most inept, most playful level.

Thus, Mighty Casey (Feiwel & Friends, March, 2009), a decidedly different take.

I got the idea for this translocation directly from my years of Little League coaching. I’ve spent a lot of time with those kids. Here’s a recent snap from last September. That’s my Maggie, at age seven. Maggie’s state of readiness is impressive, particularly when compared to her teammate in centerfield.

I wrestled with the text for several months, going down various dead ends. In fact, the poem was saved when my editor, Liz Szabla, performed an intervention. Really, some of those early drafts were awful; a textbook case of a book being salvaged by a few, select, insightful comments from an editor. Fortunately, all anyone reads is the final result. In the end, my re-imagined version retained Thayer’s basic rhyme scheme, but broke the long lines in half. It begins:

“The outlook wasn’t brilliant

for the Delmar Dogs that day.

All summer long, the Dogs

lost every game they played.

Yes, it’s true, the Dogs had guts,

and the Dogs had heart;

but catching the baseball, well,

that was the hardest part.”

Once approved by Jean and Liz at Feiwel & Friends, it was time for the artwork. The name they came up with was a new one to me, some fellow named Matthew Cordell. I looked him up and immediately liked his style. I saw that his illustrative approach was light and accessible. I thought that he could really bring out the humor in the piece. But I was wrong about that. Matthew made it funnier, better. I’ve been lucky. While Matthew’s artwork may not be the most technically rendered, he has a feeling for children’s books, a warmth, and his work connects with young readers. Whatever it is, that special quality, Matthew has it. Here’s one sample of his artwork from the book:

Ashanti fell fast asleep;

Tommy Maney climbed a tree.

And, okay, twist my arm, here’s another few lines from the book:

Bloopers, flubs, drops, and blunders –

the Dogs could do nothing right.

Still Casey declared, “We won’t

surrender without a fight!”


When Jinn Lee clubbed a homer,

the fans stood and cheered.

The Dogs scored at last.

Said Lee, “That’s, like, sooo weird.”

Don’t you love that rhyme, cheered and weird? Thank you, thank you very much. Anyway, it’s freezing outside. Eight degrees, last I looked. But pitchers and Molinas report to Spring Training in less than a month. Breathe deep. Can’t you feel it? Baseball is around the corner. And Mighty Casey is due to arrive in bookstores March 3rd. Play ball. We’re swinging for the fences!

Around the Horn: The “Me, Me, Me!” Edition

Weird confluence of things in a 24-hour period, with five books colliding. Let’s recap:

* In the mail yesterday, the first hot-off-the-presses copy of Mighty Casey!

I love this book, it’s beautifully published, and I’m so happy that it brought Matthew Cordell into my world. That said, it’s always oddly deflating to receive the finished book. It’s over, done, finished. After all that build-up, years in the making. It’s like that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller song from the tailend of the Brill Building era: “Is That All There Is?” If you don’t know this 1968 tune, here’s how it opens, as spoken and sung by Peggy Lee:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement. I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire?”

* In the mail today, the first-pass galleys to Bystander (Fall, ’09), my “bully book” set in a middle school. To me, this is more exciting, because we’re in the thick of it. Here’s my first chance to see this book set in type. I’ll see the typeface, the way they handled chapter openings, the leading, margin width, the feel and heft of the whole thing. I’ll find out how it pages out, the length. And I’ll read it through again, pen in hand, for the 50th time (approximation). This pass represents my last chance to make corrections before it goes to bound galleys, otherwise known as “uncorrected” review copies. Even so, there will be more opportunities to overthink the whole thing.

* I got word last night from Shannon Penney that Along Came Spider was reviewed by Booklist (see below). For some reason, this book has been deadly quiet, met with a collective yawn. Not reviewed at all in PW, SLJ, Horn Book, any of the traditional venues. So I’m grateful to John Peters at Booklist for reading it, and for the review:

The lifelong friendship between two fifth graders—one with a mild spectrum disorder—hits the rocks but emerges intact in this perceptive tale from the author of Six Innings (2008). Feeling conflicted but wanting to fit in better with his classmates at Spiro T. Agnew Elementary, Robert (nicknamed Spider) uncomfortably tries to put some distance between himself and his buddy Trey, whose obsessions, lack of sensitivity to social cues, and general clumsiness have resulted in a reputation for being “out there.” Acting on Spider’s suggestion that he make other friends, Trey beats the odds and finds two: the school’s young librarian and a genial new classmate named Ava. Spider also makes another friend, and by the end discovers that there’s still room in his life for Trey. By regularly switching points of view, Preller gives readers a chance to see the situation from each boy’s angle and to consider the central insight that differences aren’t always as important as they seem.

* I posted yesterday about Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Secret Skeleton. Scholastic is in the process of making the cover. And since I’m working with a new editor on this one, I need to check in and make sure I’ll get another chance to make corrections in galleys. Because — get this — it’s not perfect.

* Amidst all this background noise, I’m supposed to be writing a new book. I’m in the early stages of Joker (a working title I’m not loving), which mostly means jotting down notes, reading things, daydreaming, hoping to sort out in my mind some kind of shape and scope of this thing before jumping in with both feet. I want it to be funny, and that’s so much easier to describe than actually pull off. I don’t have the voice yet. Now I just kind of write and think, “This so blows.” I guess you could say we’re in the Self-Loathing Stage. Always fun.

Okay, here’s the immortal Peggy Lee:

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James Preller Interviews . . . Matthew Cordell

In the past, I’ve had the opportunity to interview many children’s book authors and illustrators. In the clumsily named The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators (the title was soooo not my idea), there are profiles of 75 different, urm, authors and illustrators, including Barbara Cooney, Donald Crews, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, James Marshall, Barbara Park, Brian Pinkney, Jon Scieszka, Peter Sis, Mark Teague, Charlotte Zolotow — and more.

But I haven’t done that in a while. Until – oh, what the hey! — I decided to try it here. For, like, free. Beats the price of gas, and better mileage, too. I might even make this a recurring feature. So if, Dear Reader, you enjoy reading this kind of thing, encourage me with a friendly comment in the “Friendly Comments” section.

My first guest is Matthew Cordell. Primarily an illustrator — Toby and the Snowflakes by Julie Halpern, Righty and Lefty by Rachel Vail, The Moon Is La Luna by Jay M. Harris — Matthew has recently completed his first self-penned title, Trouble Gum (Feiwel & Friends, Fall ’09). And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the book we worked on together, Mighty Casey, which you must purchase right now (Feiwel & Friends, Spring, ’09).

Hey, Matt. What have you been doing today?

Hi, JP. Um. Woke up and did my cholesterol-lowering daily jaunt on the treadmill. Then answered email — some business with an editor, an art director, an agent. Then had breakfast. Now here we are.

Wow, I’m impressed. I used that same time to stare vacantly out the window, mumbling and gripping a cup of coffee.

I’m mumbling in my coffee too. We are so self-employed.

It must feel like a big accomplishment to write your first picture book, Trouble Gum. I didn’t even realize that you artists could spell. Tell me about that. Does it take a different part of your brain to write? Was it words first, then pictures? How does that happen?

Spelling aside, writing for me is very, very hard. Trouble Gum is big for me. This will be my first published picture book as both author and illustrator, but not my first picture book idea. I’ve had many. And they always start the same way — visually. With a single image in my head. Then I try to wrap a story around that. It usually bombs hard, but this one
stuck. One of my downfalls as a “writer” is that I can’t stop editing. I write one story about ten different ways and can’t decide on one. Which is how this story happened too, but I had two willing and excellent editors on this who helped keep me calm and focused, Liz Szabla and Rebecca Davis.

How does it work for books you don’t write? I’d guess that different editors send you manuscripts from time to time. How do you decide which ones to accept?

At this point, I’m really aligning nicely, publishing my author-illustrated work with Feiwel and Friends. And regarding my illustrator-only stuff, I used to pound the pavement solo and try to find work that way. But last year, I got picked up by my rock ‘n roll agent, Rosemary Stimola, and she’s been keeping me well stocked with work. Honestly, I haven’t met a manuscript I didn’t like yet. I have turned down projects due to time constraints — if I have a job that conflicts with a proposed project and due dates can’t be moved.

So you’re basically saying you’ll do anything for money.

Wasn’t it one Ludwig Bemelmans who said, “It’s all about the Benjamins.”

I love your blog, by the way. It’s so informal, loose, and friendly. You seem really willing to share your work — even the crummy stuff. Oh, you know what I mean: rough sketches, incomplete ideas, doodlings. It feels like you are open and really enjoy the process.

I love the crummies — a real accident aficionado. It seems to work well as blog fodder. I think everyone, doing whatever they do, finds a different groove to do the thing she/he does so it works for her/him. These differences are what make decent blog news. And for people who know very little about art-making, it’ s all news.

Kids often ask me about “Writer’s Block”. They seem fascinated by the idea. For me, Writer’s Block is just another way of saying that I’m bored — that I’m boring myself. It’s a sign to change things up. Is that true for you? Do you ever get stuck as an artist? And if so, how do you deal with it?

I don’t think I’ve ever been completely “blocked”. I, too, have been somewhat bored at times, with myself, my approach. But it’s so easy to get re-inspired. There’s so much incredible work out there — in both writing and illustration. Inspiration gets me going
again. I like what I’m doing in illustration, but I don’t want to churn the exact same thing out over and over. I like to change a bit here and there — add to and develop in subtle ways. With style and with the tools I use.

At this point, we’re both sitting around, twiddling our thumbs, waiting for Mighty Casey to hit the stores and rock the free world. We’ve both been finished with our part of the work for a long while. How does it feel when you finally get that finished book in your hands? Is it exciting, anti-climatic, disappointing? Will you do the Dance of Joy?

Let me start by saying that, as an illustrator, my single greatest feeling is at the moment of completion. The moment that the art is finished and fresh, successful, and alive and about to go into a sturdy package to FedEx. Now, as for the book itself, man, I’m so self-critical. It’s hard for me to let loose and fully celebrate my own accomplishments. So, honestly, I often look at books hot off the press and immediately think of things I could have done differently. I know. It’s not healthy. Possibly because the publishing process takes years from start to finish. Long after I wrap a book, and it’s published, my new work might have taken a new direction. I probably haven’t seen that art for a long while, either. But then I look at it again, and again, and again (cause that’s what I do), and remember and love it again. And I DO get excited and I do NOT dance. One thing that is, without fail, cool: throughout the process I see my books in various oversized, untrimmed, unfinished ways — single drawings on larger pieces of paper, untrimmed print proofs, or even floppy old F & G’s. To see the final book the first time, professionally designed and trimmed and jacketed — it’s always a unique thrill. Mighty Casey is gonna look great. Thanks to our uber-talented art director, Rich Deas!

What about school visits? Have you visited classrooms? One writer I spoke with, Tedd Arnold, said that it helped him “keep track of their squirmy little reality.” How do you make sure your work connects with young readers?

Aw, man. Public speaking is a minor terror to me. As mainly the book’s illustrator, I’ve not yet felt the pressure to aggressively promote. I kind of felt that each book belongs more to the author — the artist is support player. Which is, I understand, not entirely accurate with the picture book genre, but I’ve used that sweeping conclusion to my own benefit. Having
said it, I haven’t done a ton of stuff with schools. I have done some stuff when I first fell into this biz, with my first picture book, Toby and the Snowflakes. Cause that was written by my main squeeze, author and wife-to-me Julie Halpern. We promo’d together at a few schools and bookstores. It was easier for me to go in as a team. But it’s really something I have to overcome. Can’t hide in the studio forever!

How’s that working out for you, living with a writer? I hear they can be insufferable.

Truthfully, I think my writer might have more to say about living with her illustrator.

Okay, now for the Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Mouse Tales, Martin Pebble, Leon and Bob, The Lorax, Olivia, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!, The Monster at the End of this Book.

Favorite musicians?

Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, The Who, Woody Guthrie, George/Ira Gershwin, Toots and the Maytals, Vinicius de Moraes, Hank Williams, Fugazi.


It’s a Wonderful Life, The Big Lebowski, Rushmore, The Matrix, Rear Window, American Splendor, Breaking Away, Vertigo, The Aviator, Sideways, Raising Arizona, Singin’ in the Rain.


William Steig, Saul Steinberg, Francesco Clemente, Art Spiegelman, Michel Rabagliati, Chester Brown, Martin Kippenberger, Jean-Jacques Sempe, Cy Twombly.

Dessert? (And for some reason, I just know you are going to say, pie. Maybe it’s the Southern-roots thing.)

Even though I do enjoy many varieties of pie, I must disappoint you by answering cake.


How’d you know?

Is there another kind? Anyway, Matthew, I see that our time is up. Thanks. You’ve got a great spirit. I know your career is just beginning to take off — great things ahead. I hope we can actually meet-meet one day, outside of Cyberspace. But until then, we’ll remain Brothers in Blog!