Archive for Scary Tales

PC Culture or Fair Criticism? A Reader Complains, A Writer Replies

I recently received a letter that made me think. And without disclosing my own conclusions, I thought I’d share that letter here, then pass along my reply, as well as provide an excerpt of the offending scene.

If you’d like, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. 

I almost titled this, in part, “a writer listens.” But that sounded far too pretentious and self-satisfied. Yet it is what I hoped to convey to Cathy in Nova Scotia. That her thoughts are worth hearing — these are good conversations to have — that Cathy’s feelings are valid and valued. I’m happiest with the talking and the listening. We need more of that in our world, less about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” fewer assignations of blame. 

It’s worth noting, too, that Cathy wrote to me with a question rather than an accusation. More than anything, that’s what started us off on the right foot. 

 

Hi James,
 
I am a literacy coach working in Nova Scotia. I have been putting several of your books from the Scary Tales series in the hands of students. They are really enjoying them. I have the task of compiling a list of books to be purchased for schools. In preparation, I am reading and completing a bias evaluation tool on each book. I am currently, “Scary Tales: One-Eyed Doll”. On page 59, I encountered the sentence, “No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams.” This was in response to the custodian saying Malik may take his job one day. I question how this line could be interpreted by the reader and does it imply that a custodial job is less than?
I thought I would bring this to your attention as I was enjoying your book but this sentence made me stop as it makes me feel uncomfortable. 
Kind regards,
Cathy
I replied . . .

Cathy,

Thank you for this note, and for sharing my books with struggling readers. It was always in the back of my mind with this series, that older readers — thanks to the sophisticated look of the artwork — would embrace and succeed with these high-interest, easy-to-read stories.
Yes, I believe that I did intend for Malik’s thought to be exactly that: He had bigger plans.
But I can see where the phrasing of that might have given you pause. If I had the chance of a do-over today, I’d make a simple change: He had other plans.
That would remove the unfortunate (embedded) value judgment.
It is complicated. Because if we are honest, not many people “dream” of becoming custodians, service workers. This doesn’t mean that they are “less” than anyone else or unworthy of our respect. It’s just not where Malick hopes to end up; he’s dreaming big. Writers put thoughts into the minds, hearts, perceptions of invented characters — but at the same time have to be vigilant about what we (they/I) put out into the world. I wish I found a different way to express Malik’s ambitions without making the comparison. Still, there’s “truth” in his thoughts and he treats the custodian with kindness and respect.
I am grateful for the sensitivity of your reading. I’m glad you pointed that out to me. I’ll try to do better in the future.
James Preller
HERE’S AN EXCERPT FROM THE SCENE IN QUESTION (Chapter 9, One-Eyed Doll)
It was a quick bike ride to the nursing home — if you pedaled like your hair was on fire.
Malik made it in six minutes flat.
His mother had worked in the kitchen since he was a baby. Malik was a familiar face to the nurses on staff. When he was little, before he could fend for himself, Malik spent a lot of time in the back rooms. Drawing pictures, building with Legos, eating snacks, looking at picture books. It was cheaper than hiring a babysitter.
The home was a curious world, full of odd smells and old people. Most folks were frail, like glass figurines on a shelf you shouldn’t touch for fear they might break. Some still had sharp minds. They played cards, watched tv, and carried on conversations. Then there were the folks who seemed . . . finished. Like burnt-down candles. When Malik walked the halls, he would sometimes glimpse them sitting in their rooms. Alone and silent, waiting for a bus that would never come.
It was sad, and Malik tried not to think about it.
“Say, Malik! What are you doing here today?” Curtis the custodian chirped. He stopped pushing a mop around the floor and, instead, leaned on it with both hands. Happy to pause and chat. 
“Just thought I’d stop by,” Malik said.
“Getting big!” Curtis observed. “If I don’t watch out, you’ll be taking my job.”
No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams. But he said with a grin, “I just might.”
He started to walk away, then thought twice. “You’ve been here a long time, right?”
Curtis looked up, as if the answer was written on the ceiling. “Twenty years, next September.”
Malik whistled. He decided to take a shot. “You remember the old place on my block. Right? The one nobody lives in.”
The brightness left the custodian’s eyes. “I know it,” he said. “That place is bad business. Bad voodoo over there.”
“Do you know anything about . . .” Malik said, stepping forward. “I mean, can you tell me about it?”
“It’s not my place to say,” Curtis said.
“It’s important,” Malik said. “It means a lot to me. Please.”
Maybe the old man was in a talkative mood that day. Maybe there was something in the way Malik asked. The look in his eyes.
“There’s a patient here,” Curtis said. “Miss Delgado. She was the last person who lived there — but that was, oh, thirty-something years ago. She used to be in the mental hospital, you know, the asylum. But she’s no trouble anymore.”
“She’s here?” Malik asked.
“Room 17, just down the hall,” Curtis said. “I don’t think she can help you, Malik. She hasn’t said ten words in all the time she’s been here.”
“Can I see her?” Malik asked.
Curtis looked up and down the empty hall. “She been through enough. Leave an old woman alone.”
“Please, I’ll be respectful,” Malik said. “Just for a minute?”
“If you get caught,” Curtis said with a sigh, “I don’t know anything about it. Understand?”
He turned in the opposite direction from Room 17 and pushed the mop down the hall. The conversation was over. Malik was on his own.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL, captured by iPhone (so forgive the poor quality).

THERE ARE 6 TITLES IN THE SCARY TALES SERIES, MOST POPULAR IN GRADES 3-5 . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #306: A Reader “OBSESSED”

There’s something about readers who enjoy scary stories. They bring a unique level of enthusiasm — of passion — to their reading. They don’t just like a book, they almost seem to take up residence, they dwell inside it. While I’ve written many types of books over the years, across various genre, there’s nothing that works better in front of a large audience than reading a carefully-selected passage (not too scary!) from one of my “Scary Tales” books. 

Which is to say, here’s a card from Gracyn in Texas . . . 

I replied . . .

Dear Gracyn,

Thank you so much for your wonderful card. My wife had saved it but mistakenly tossed the envelope. So, yeah, I had to do the deep dive into the garbage bin to retrieve your return address.

(Old coffee grounds are gross, btw.)

Texas, hey. I’ve been fortunate to visit your state several times for book conventions, author visits, and even to play in a men’s baseball tournament. Always a good time.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from “I Scream, You Scream!” AKA, “Dr. Z’s Adventure Park.”

You aren’t too shabby a writer, yourself. “I could not stop telling my friends all about it in grave detail.” Wow, that’s a great choice of words. It’s an ordinary sentence until the end there, when you added in grave detail. Perfect! Keep that up and I’ll be reading your books someday.

Be sure to thank your teacher for having my book in your classroom library. I appreciate that. There are six “Scary Tales” books in the series. I find that everything I write helps me become a better writer. My most recent novel, Blood Mountain, is a realistic story about two siblings who are lost in the wilderness. It’s a scary, suspenseful, survival thriller. The lessons I learned writing “Scary Tales” helped me write that book. In this case, the frightening things were “real” compared to the ghosts and zombies and swamp monsters in the series. But the writing is very similar. Still building suspense, setting up situations, trying to make the reader lean in.

And if a girl named Gracyn can become OBSESSED, well, that’s the best I can possibly hope for.

Thanks for that.

Um, and now . . . I better go wash my hands.

My best,

 

James Preller

 


P.S. This is the cover of Blood Mountain. Because one good book leads to another!

 

 

The Pleasures of Speculative Fiction: Scary Tales and Outer Limits and the Genius of Harlan Ellison

A teacher-friend posted this image on social-media, what she calls her “custom reading pillow.” I like it!

And, yes, I love the book tucked inside it, from my “Scary Tales” series.

Writing those books was a pure pleasure. All my life up to that point, I’d honed pretty true to the Realistic Fiction genre, both as a writer and a reader. Give me a closely-observed scene of a family sitting around the dinner table and I was happy. That’s still true, but I’ve grown over the years. 

For “Scary Tales,” I was able to open up to new inspirations and wild imaginings, new channels of communication. Zombies! Swamp Monsters! Benign Robots! Creepy Dolls! Good times, good times. And I made sure the books were fast-paced and easy to read, in hopes of connecting with hard-to-reach readers (best for grades 3-5, I’ve met many middle school readers who tell me they don’t usually like books, but love that series. Alas, Macmillan never had as much success getting those books into the public’s awareness as we’d hoped, so the series stopped at six stories.

        

In format, I was hugely influenced by Rod Sterling’s “Twilight Zone” series. Each story was unique: new characters, new setting. They were unified only in that each one promised a similar experience for the reader. Creepy, twisting, full of page-turning suspense.

The book tucked inside the pillow is titled I Scream, You Scream, and it turns on a boy who might not be all that he seems to be.

Okay, spoiler alert!

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno!

I was recently reading about “The Outer Limits” television series, which I only vaguely remember from my childhood. One episode gets mentioned a lot, often topping lists of best episodes ever: “The Demon with the Glass Hand,” written by the legendary pioneer of Speculative Fiction, Harlan Ellison. It’s on Netflix now, or Amazon Prime, one of those, streaming on television. The story hinges on a “shocking” conclusion, which might not shock modern viewers, since we’ve seen it borrowed many times since (“Terminator” and “Bladerunner,” most notably). I don’t know if Ellison was the first writer to pull it off, but he certainly did it in a big way, blowing minds on national television. What the what??!! Watching it, I couldn’t help but recognize that I owed “Outer Limits” and Mr. Harlan Ellison a tip of my hat along with my lasting appreciation.

Plot Summary: Days ago, Trent awoke with no memory of his past. Since then, sinister men have pursued him constantly. He manages to stay one step ahead of them by following the advice of his hand. Made of glass and apparently capable of speech, Trent’s hand can answer many of his questions. But it cannot tell him who he is or why his enemies seek him until he finds all of its fingers. The only trouble is that they’re in the hands of his enemies.

 

AND LET’S NOT FORGET . . .

 

“The Outer Limits” had a classic opening to every episode. A disembodied voice would announce: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission . . . For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: There is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to . . . THE OUTER LIMITS.”

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #300: Shyan Loves Scary Stories

Wow, this is the 300th fan mail response I’ve shared on Fan Mail Wednesday across more than ten years of blogging. I don’t know if that’s a world’s blog record, but it’s certainly the most on my street. Here’s Shyan’s letter and my reply . . .

 

Shyan writes . . . 

I replied . . .

=

Dear Shyan,

It’s so nice to get mail, don’t you think? A real letter. Thanks, also, for including a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Much appreciated. In my work, I still receive snail mail fairly regularly, though not an overwhelming amount. But I wonder about someone your age. How many old-school letters have you received in your young life?

I’m glad you enjoyed the books in my “Scary Tales” series. I loved writing each one, particularly since I hadn’t written anything quite like it before. I love the shivery aspect, the dread and suspense. I especially loved breaking away from the demands of the realistic fiction genre, which is what I usually write. Suddenly, in the “Horror” genre, my imagination felt free, unchained. It’s hard to describe, but it was like I was exercising muscles I hadn’t used before. For each story, the impossible suddenly felt . . . possible. The trick was selecting that one impossible thing and then playing it out in a realistic context.

I believe that everything I write contributes to my future projects. The skills accumulate. I learned lessons and honed skills from those six “Scary Tales” titles that I was able to bring to future books. For example, my most recent novel, Blood Mountain, is a book a reader like you might enjoy. This story is realistic fiction — no zombies or evil dolls — where two siblings are lost in the wilderness. I wanted to generate much of the page-turning excitement and suspense that I achieved with “Scary Tales.” So, Shyan, if you feel like you’ve graduated beyond those books, but still want something similar-but-different, please give Blood Mountain a try.

I was glad to read that you wrote your own scary story. It’s interesting to ponder what scares us. Oh, there are obvious things –- ghosts and roller coasters and dark caves filled with bats – but it’s cool when you can think of some specific detail that feels fresh and new. A faucet that drip, drip, drips. A ghostly flicker on a television screen that makes you think, “Wait, what was that?” The feeling we get at the dentist’s office, when maybe something isn’t quite right.

Hmmmm. That gives me an idea . . .

Thanks for writing, Shyan.

(I love your name!)

All good things,

James Preller

Here are 6 Videos I Made for Teachers and Homeschoolers to Share with Young Readers

I posted a week ago about our collective struggle to find ways to do something meaningful, helpful, positive during this challenging time. As a children’s book author, my immediate goal has been to provide some online material that teachers and parents can share with young learners.

As of today, March 26, I’ve created six videos and posted them on my own Youtube channel (link below). I’ve also learned how to embed them here, also below. For me, that’s saying something.

Technology: ick.

But, as we’re finding in these days of physical distancing, a valuable way to connect.

Please feel free to share these videos with fellow teachers, media specialists, parents, students, children.  If you have ideas or suggestions for future videos, I’ll be happy to respond to that. Thanks for what you are doing.

Stay smart, keep safe, and enjoy the moments we are given. In my house in upstate New York, we are hunkered down with two of our three children, Gavin (20) and Maggie (19), along with my midwife-wife, Lisa (no age given). Our oldest, Nick (26), is in his NYC
apartment, working online. We miss him terribly. Each night, we’ve been enjoying lovely family dinners. We’re rotating who cooks and (purportedly) who cleans. In many respects, it’s been a beautiful experience. Trying to hold onto those positive feelings. Not worrying, for now, about all the lost income, the stress about bills, all the money stuff. There will be time to recover from that. For now, we embrace the now.

Here’s a link to my Youtube Channel.

I’ve included a brief description and target age level immediately below each video

 

THIS IS THE FIRST VIDEO I made, and the shortest, and it touches upon a theme I try to emphasize before every student I meet, regardless of age (though the delivery gets more sophisticated at middle schools): “You are unique. You have stories inside you that only you can tell.”

 

I MADE BOOKS WHEN I WAS a little kid. I sold them to my friends and neighbors. My mother saved one and I read it here. Kind of funny, I think. Hopefully this video inspires young people to make their own books. In the case above, I needed help with the words from my oldest brother, Neal. Ages 4-up.

 

FOR FANS OF JIGSAW JONES: Here I talk about what I was like as a kid — more of a spy than a true detective — and how I gave my favorite childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. I read a scene from THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT.

 

FOR GRADES 4-UP, JUST RIGHT FOR MIDDLE SCHOOLERS. THIS VIDEO LESSON centers around a writing tip first offered by Kurt Vonnegut Jr: make awful things happen to your leading characters! I discuss that idea and, to make the point, read two passages from BLOOD MOUNTAIN, my most recent middle-grade adventure novel and a 2019 Junior Library Guild Selection.

 

HERE’S ONE FOR THE YOUNGEST READERS, ages 3-up, where I read from WAKE ME IN SPRING. I also describe the creative process, the thinking, behind the story. And again, as always, I try to turn it back to the reader, to inspire their own creativity moving forward.

 

MY “SCARY TALES” BOOKS are often wildly popular on school visits. Though the books seem to hit that sweet spot of grades 3-5, I’ve met very young readers who are impervious to fear, second graders who love them, and also, by design, readers in uppers grades and middle school who have enjoyed this high-interest, low-reading level stories with the super cool artwork by Iacopo Bruno. For some, their first successful reading experience of a full-length book that is not heavily illustrated. Here I read from the first two chapters of GOODNIGHT, ZOMBIE. 

 

I’LL CONTINUE TO POST MORE VIDEOS — including a full reading of “ZOMBIE” — as time allows. Please, by all means, feel free to share these videos far and wide. Obviously, if I hear positive reports, I’ll be encouraged to do more. Thanks for stopping by.