Archive for Scary Tales

Setting, Character, Plot: A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse into SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER

 

One mission of this blog is to pull back the curtain to share, cough-cough, some insight into my writing process. So I thought I’d gather up some images and talk about the making of my upcoming book in the “Scary Tales” series, Swamp Monster (Macmillan, July 7, 2015).

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Curiously, any description of “how” a book is written is as much “story” as the book itself. And by that I mean, of dubious veracity. Who can accurately recount where ideas come from? And in what order? Like writing the book itself, any description of origins mostly feels like I’m making it up as I go along.

But anyway!

Swamp Monster is the 6th book in the series. Each story is different, a new setting with new characters, yet each one promises a “Scary Tales” experience. What attracted me to this over-arching structure, inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” TV series, was the width of possibility. The stories could be quite different, not at all narrow or typical. After writing a few that were quite conceptual — I Scream, You Scream and Nightmareland, in particular — I settled on simpler, more traditional thrills in the most recent stories: The One-Eyed Doll and Swamp Monster.

That is, I began by thinking about the scary thing.

Somehow the idea of a Swamp Monster appealed to me. In no small part because of the setting. A swamp! As I was largely unfamiliar with swamp life in particular, I had to do some research. I read about the fauna and flora of typical swamps, and soon settled in my mind that this story could take place somewhere in Southeast Texas. I found and saved random images that fed my imagination, such as these:

lrg_bald_cypress_swampSpanish Moss

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Okay, so that felt pretty creepy to me. To up the ick factor, and to help explain the mutant monster, I opted for the toxic swamp gambit. The book begins:

The Dirge Chemical Plant had been dumping toxic sludge into the swamp for the past twenty-five years.

A few paragraphs down:

DRIP, DROP, SLURK. It leaked into the streams and waterways, into ponds and lakes. Poison soaked into the ground.

What about the creatures of that environment? The fish and birds and snakes and gators? The animals that drank the water daily? That swam amidst the burbling toxins? Well, most died off. But some adapted. Mutated. Learned how to feed off the toxic waste. Those creatures grew stronger, bigger, tougher.

More dangerous, too.

The pollution was the worst out on the Dead River, which ebbed into Dismal Swamp like a last, dying gasp. Hardly anybody lived out there. Nobody important. Some poor folks, mostly. And that’s where our story begins — with two boys, Lance and Chance LaRue. On this day, they were knee-deep in the foul, nasty water, swiping at mosquitoes, searching for frogs.

That was their first mistake.

Before the plot kicks into full gear, I introduce readers to the twins. Describe them and swiftly set them on the path to danger.

Character meets Setting:

The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches — no jelly to be found at home — the boys felt strong and adventurous. They went deeper into the woods than usual. The trees thickened around them, with names like black willow and water hickory. Long limbs hung low. Spanish moss dangled from the branches like exotic drapes. Snakes slithered. Water rats lay still and watched though small, red eyes. Once in a while, a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.

STAY AWAY, GAWK, STAY AWAY!

My original idea was basic. I was particularly intent for this story to create a strong plot-line running through the book. A direct plot like an engine on a track, no meanderings. So the boys find an egg and bring it home. Plot begins in earnest.  I soon realized that the egg would not be enough. Sure, it would hatch and Lance and Chance would discover that they were soon proud parents of a little monster.

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But where was the horror in that?

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watchful in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.

That night, the boys are awakened to sound of tap-tap-tapping from inside the egg. They watch in awe as the creature hatches.

“That ain’t no turtle,” Chance said.

“Nope,” Lance agreed. “Look at those claws, those teeth. I’ve never seen nothing like it before. What do you think it is, Chance?”

“I sure don’t know,” the oldest boy replied. “But I’ll tell you what. I don’t ever want to meet the chicken that laid that egg.”

At that moment, the newborn raised itself to full height, about six inches. With an angry hiss, the creature opened its mouth wide like a boa. A blood-red neck frill rattled open. SPLAT, SPLATTER! The creature spat black gobs of goo against the side of the pail.

“Whoa, it’s a monster,” Lance whispered in a soft, appreciative voice. “Our very own swamp monster.”

And with those words, the two boys stared at each other . . . and high-fived.

At this point, I introduce a new character to thicken the broth, and we meet the spectacular Rosalee Serena Ruiz.

If someone had to discover their secret, Rosalee was the best person for it. She could spit farther, burp louder, run faster, and snap thick branches across her knee. Rosalee was a girl all right, but the boys didn’t mind. In fact, they barely noticed.

I had decided by this point, actually before this point, that my little monster was not enough. Cool, but not quite terrifying.

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I needed something more. An angry mother. So Rosalee prods the boys back into the deep swamp — she wants an egg of her own — and that’s how the mother catches their scent. She hides in the water.

To my surprise, I wrote scenes from her perspective.

With a subtle movement, she glides through the black water like a hawk riding the currents of the wind.

A thought troubled her mind.

Others were out there . . . Others had come to her home, her alone-place. She had sensed them, smelled them.

So she hid, as she always did.

She moved in the safe dark, the cool dark, and she grieved again for the egg that was gone. The child she never knew. That was her loss. And then, slowly, painfully — like a cloud that gathers itself in the stormy sky — a new question formed in her skull.

Was the egg stolen?

Had it been taken . . . by the Others?

Those faces in the woods?

She had glimpsed them.

Their ugly, round eyes.

Their skin like smooth stones.

Little monsters.

New feelings began to stir inside the heart of the swamp creature.

Feelings of anger, of rage and revenge.

Her eyes opened, yellow in the black water.

Squilch, squilch, squilch.

Under cover of darkness, she follows them home.

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An image came to me. The monster, wet and awkward on land, arriving at the LaRue’s house on the edge of Dismal Swamp.

Of the door opening, of her entering.

“Upstairs, quick!” Chance ordered. He grabbed the knife off the table.

The boys bounded up the stairs in threes. By the time they reached the landing — BOOM! CRUNCH! — the front door flew open, knocked off its hinges.

The swamp monster stepped into the house.

I can’t give away any more story here. You’ll have to read the book to find out the rest.

Illustrations by Iacopo Bruno, taken from the book SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER, due in stores on July 7th.

 

The Best Part of Being an Author

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I am doing this primarily for myself, just for the satisfaction of seeing all 6 book covers in one place. More in the future? That’s not up to me. Swamp Monster comes out in June, I’m pretty sure. Just saw the interior art today for the first time. Love it! Students ask me about the best part of being an author, an impossible question, but I think the answer speaks to the sense of accomplishment that comes with any creative act.

You step back and say, “Wow, I did that!” It’s the best feeling.

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homesweethorror_cvr_highrez  iscreamyouscream_cvr_highrez-198x300  9781250018915_p0_v1_s260x420   nightmareland_cvr_lorez  OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorez SWAMP_MONSTER_Esec02_ES_lores

Fan Mail Wednesday #205: The Girl Who Named Her Cat After Toilet Paper

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I have been away on school visits, so it’s time to catch up on actual work — you know, writing stuff! — and responding to mail from readers, some of which I feature here on my good old, trusty old blog-o-rama.

This one is from a girl who named her cat after toilet paper. (I think.)

So I’m a-gonna proceed with caution:

 

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I replied:

Dear Catherine,

Thanks for your letter. I often wonder about cats. I wonder, specifically, at what number does a person cross from being a “cat lover” to becoming “a little teensy bit crazy.”

For example:

  • 1 cat: “Oh, that’s nice.”
  • 2 cats: “Great, they can keep each other company.”
  • 3 cats: “I guess you really love cats!”
  • 4 cats: “Four? That’s a lot of cats!”
  • 5 cats: [I am starting to worry at this point.]
  • 6 cats: [Yikes.]
  • 19 cats: [Time to alert the authorities.]

Anyway, I see that you’ve named your cats Lily, Jack, and Charmin.

Wait, Charmin?

Like the “ultra soft” toilet tissue?

charmin-ultra-original-bathroom-design-tissue-unscented

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okaaaaaay.

While I joke about cats, what I’ve found is that people who have a lot of cats tend to be extremely compassionate people, true animal-lovers. They can’t bear the thought of a single creature being without a home or, worse, sent to the shelter. I can’t knock them for having kind hearts. At the same time, you don’t necessarily want to be known in your neighborhood as “the nutty cat lady down the block.”

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I’m happy you liked The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur. I like it, too! This one features Danika Starling and her fabulous magic show. In this book, number 17 in the series, I tried something different. There’s actually two mysteries in one book. I’ve never been sure if it was completely successful — I usually stick to one per story — so I’m glad to hear that it worked for you.

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezI would love to write more Jigsaw Jones books, but I haven’t been able to find a publisher who wants one. After all, I wrote 40; maybe that’s enough. Lately I’ve been writing a new series called “Scary Tales.” You might like them. They are not very hard to read, but they are on the creepy side. I’m sorry to inform you, however, that nobody gets murdered in my stories. Everybody is safe in the end. But hopefully you’ll experience a few thrills and chills along the way. The most recent book in the series is titled Scary Tales #5: One-Eyed Doll. Every book is different and you don’t have to read them in order (or at all!). Check ‘em out . . . if you dare!

About your questions: I’ve met many authors over the years. We are all different, coming from different parts of the world, with different backgrounds and beliefs. But we are the same in one way: we are all readers. I think that’s how I became an author — I loved books so much, I just wanted to have a part of the action. I enjoy many different genres and don’t really have a favorite. I like fiction, biography, mystery, horror, science fiction, etc. As a writer, I want to try them all!

My best,

James Preller

 

Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster

Sharing the cover to Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster.

There’s some confusion about exactly when this book will see the light of day, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a really fun story. The best “scary tales” yet.

There’s a swamp, some toxic sludge, and an egg.

Twin brothers, Lance and Chance. And their friend, Rosalee Serena Ruiz.

Oh, and one more thing: a very, very annoyed mama.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #201 — Plus a FREE Bonus Drawing!

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Before I answer Kallen’s letter below, I wanted to share a cool drawing that was sent to me by a boy named Ethan, who lives in Ontario, Canada. Ethan is a fan my “Scary Tales” series, and I believe this is his version of Bloody Mary from the book, HOME SWEET HORROR.

Drawing by Ethan.

Drawing by Ethan.

 

Isn’t that great. I love the body; very creepy somehow.

Now here’s a letter from Wisconsin:

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I replied:

Dear Kallen, 

Thank you so much for your super kind letter. I realize that it took you a lot of time and effort to write to me, and I want you to know that I appreciate it.

I’ve been busy working on new books –- I just finished one that took me nearly four years! — but I am happy to take a few minutes out of my (freezing!) Sunday to respond to your request.

Please find my lousy signature below. I say “lousy” because I have terrible handwriting; I blame it on the fact that I’m a lefty.

A great writer? Did you really say that?

I go back to your letter, reread it, then reread it again. Yes, Kallen really said it: “You are a great writer.”

I think I’ll just float around on white, fluffy clouds for the rest of the day!

Your friend,

James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #200 (Seth from Irving Pertzsch Elementary — Who? — in Wisconsin)

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Are you ready? Because here we go . . . the 200th letter to young readers I’ve shared here on James Preller Dot Com Incorporated & Associates!

Hold on a second. That seems to deserve some kind of elaborate, expensive celebration.

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Too much?

Think I went overboard with it?

Moving right along, a 3rd-grader with burning inquisitiveness writes:

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I replied:

Dear Seth,

Okay, you asked a lot of questions, let’s see if I’ve got any answers.

I’ll look under the couch cushions first, there’s usually something under there. Hmmmm: a half-eaten Pop Tart (delicious), 37 cents, and my car keys! But no answers. 

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezI’ve written so many books that I’ve lost count. More than 80. I don’t have a single favorite, but I really enjoy the books in my SCARY TALES series, since they are recent and were so much fun to write. A little creepy, so maybe not for everybody, but I love them.

Ideas come from being alive in the world, open and receptive to the things around me. I often look back on my life, and my family, and find ideas that way.

You know what, let me turn that around a little. I don’t look for “ideas” so much as I look for “feelings.” I can’t write very well unless I feel something: I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m excited, scared, proud, etc. Those things that make me feel –- that touch my heart -– are often the best source of ideas.

Pets? Two black cats, one dog, two teenagers. 

Wait, what?

My best,

James Preller

 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #199: “I Know You Don’t Know Me and I Don’t Know You Either.”

Art by Xavier.

Art by Xavier.

 

Dear Nation of Readers, it’s that time again: Fan Mail Wednesday! Sound the timbrels, start the fire, tonight we roast a wildebeest! Find an apple to stick in its snout!

Where’s my lute? Honey, have you seen my lute?

This letter comes from Xavier, the artist featured above, a young man who puts great labor into his letters. (Awesome job, Xavier!) Unfortunately, I’m having trouble with the gizmos and whirligigs on my trusty, old computer; I can’t seem to flip the image for easy reading. It usually works; today it doesn’t. Oh well. For those of you who don’t want a crick in the neck, I’ll transcribe Xavier’s letter below:

Dear James Preller,

I love your books. I know Mrs. Nancy too. Merry Christmas and a happy new year. Right now I am reading Scary Tales Home Sweet Horror. I know you don’t know me and I don’t know you either.

Sincerely, Xavier

12/19/14 P.S. I’ve read Scary Tales Goodnight Zombie.

BLOODY MARY 

BLOODY MARY 

BLOODY MARY

Here’s the sideways original:

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I replied:

Dear Xavier,

Thanks for your terrific letter. It’s very cool that we have a friend in common, “Mrs. Nancy.”

Don’t you just love librarians?

You did make me laugh when you wrote, “I know you don’t know me and I don’t know you either.”

But I’m not sure that’s entirely correct. Sure, we’ve never stood next to each other in the same place. But you sat down and read a book that I wrote. Then, amazingly, you read another book of mine. In a real and meaningful way, Xavier, I think that CONNECTS us for sure. We sort of do know each other.

9781250018915_p0_v1_s260x420That’s why I’m going to think of you as my friend for now on. And do you know what that is all about, Xavier? It’s the wonder of books. The mystery, the magic, the miracle, and the pure joy of reading (and writing) that brought us together. Books gave me you; I’m grateful for that.

As readers, we sit by ourselves, alone in a silent room, and by doing that solitary thing we connect with other people — across time and space! It’s amazing when you think about it.

I loved (loved, loved) that you included a one-page story on the back of your letter, “Attack of the Mutant Devil Dudes from Mars.” Sounds like a creepy one to me. Great drawings, too. I hope you keep going with that one.

Guess what? I never met “Mrs. Nancy” either. We connected because she read (and liked) something I wrote. Next time you visit the library, please give her a fierce hug for me. Tell her James Preller sent you!

My best,

James Preller 

Fan Mail Wednesday #195: Ashley Wants Scary Books for Older Readers

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Here’s an email that resulted from a recent presentation I gave to grades 6-8 while down in Virginia:

Hello, Mr. Preller,

I go to Norfolk Collegiate and you visited my school just a few weeks ago. I never got to really ask you any questions, but yet I gave you book ideas. I’m the Freddy Krueger Girl and the Bloody Mary Girl, remember? I just wanted to ask you if you ever plan to write higher level Scary Tales Books. I remember you telling me about them and I wish you wrote some for beginning high school level or a bit higher since I’m in middle school, I still have a high reading level which narrows my selections from any interesting books like yours. Also I can’t wait for your Bystander sequel to come out and i’m looking forward to any new books in the works.

The Freddy Krueger Girl,

Ashley

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I replied,

Ashley! 

Thanks for your note. I very much enjoyed my brief visit to Norfolk Collegiate. That was grades 6-8, I believe.  Of course I remember you.  How many “Freddy Krueger Girls” do you think I meet? 
 
scooby_doo_1_110562I think writing a scary story for older readers would be great fun. In my current series, as you know, I try to be responsible to younger readers. I want to scare them, but I am not looking to traumatize anybody. I’m not seeking to drive 9-year-old readers into the sanitarium, locked up in a rubber room. So I mostly focus on entertainment, building suspense — the knot that twists and twists. I make sure that each story is safely resolved, and nobody gets hurt. At the same time, it’s not Scooby Doo — where the ghost is usually just a portly janitor dressed in a sheet — but it’s not truly horrifying, either. I try to straddle that middle zone of scary . . . but not too scary.
 
I sometimes joke on visits with elementary school students, “I’m sorry, but no one gets murdered in these stories. And I’m sad to inform you that there are no gory scenes with blood gushing out all over the place.”
They politely try to hide their disappointment.
 
All of which makes me think that it would be liberating to write a story for older readers like you where there were no rules. Where I could say, “Well, in fact, teenagers get murdered and there’s blood all over the place! It’s delightfully gory!”
 
Wouldn’t that be swell?
 
Thanks for your letter.
 
JP
 
P.S. Thanks for your interest in the quasi-companion book to Bystander, titled The Fall. It’s due out in August, 2015 — I think! As I said before, it’s not truly a sequel, but it does address many of the same themes from a different, slightly darker perspective. 

Fan Mail Wednesday #192: Kaiya from Illinois Begs a Little Bit (and I Like It)

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We’re going to do this on Wednesday today, just to keep readers guessing. This letter involves a little bit of groveling . . .

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I replied:

Dear Kaiya:

How did you know I like it when readers beg? It makes me feel fabulous and powerful, like a king sitting on a throne. Please, please, please beg some more.

Ho-ho, I kid. Thanks for your letter. I’m glad you liked the first book in my “Scary Tales” series, and it was awfully nice of you to say so. I liked your bonus picture too. Good artist!

homesweethorror_cvr_highrezThe way this series works is that each book is completely different. New characters, new setting. I’ve written six so far (five are currently available). I’m sorry to say that I don’t have plans to revisit the characters in Home Sweet Horror. My wish is for Mr. Finn, Liam, Kelly (and their dog, Doolin!) to find a new home close to where they used to live in Hopeville. That said, perhaps you’d like to write something about their further adventures. Maybe Bloody Mary finds a way to tag along?

Anyway, please please please forgive me!

Your friend,

JP

P.S. I got the dog’s name from my old dog, Doolin, who passed away years ago. Doolin, named after a wicked cool town in Ireland, was the best dog I ever had (sorry, Daisy).

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

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

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

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

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

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