Archive for School Visits

Whirlwind Trip to Long Island & Warwick, NY — with Photos!


I figured I’d share some snaps from my recent trip down to my old stomping grounds on Long Island.

On Wednesday night I drove to New London, CT, to take the ferry to Greenport, Long Island. That’s where my dear old mom lives, so I crashed at her place for two nights. Mom is 89 years old and, these days at least, a very happy Mets fan . . .


On Thursday, I drove out to the Sequoya Middle School in Holtsville where I was invited by Jennifer Schroeder and Sandy Bucher. Like all the best days in my life, it started with lunch! I ate with students from the Summer Reading Club.

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What a great way to start the day. With pizza . . . and a great group of young, intelligent, enthusiastic readers.

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I didn’t just eat and chat. I also signed books, gratefully.


This is Sandy and Jennifer, who made the day the possible.

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These three won prizes in a raffle, though I felt like the real winner all day long.

On the way to the assembly with an audience of 260 students, one girl asked me in a soft voice if I’d seen the poster. “Yes, it’s fantastic,” I said. And after a pause, I wondered, “Did you make it?”

She sure had. Of course, I demanded her name and a photo. Angela looks proud, doesn’t she? So much talent and a great smile, too. How is that fair?

((Photo TK, pending approval))

Later I drove home and watched the Mets with my mom. It’s how we roll.

On Friday, I visited Bellport where I presented to a large group of librarians from Suffolk County. There were about 100 in the room, my guess, and I think it went well. Librarians are my kind of people, so hopefully it was relaxed and enjoyable for all concerned. My fingers are crossed in the hope it will lead to more school visits in the area. Thank you, Gail Barraco for the invitation!

Next I took a ferry . . .

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. . . and drove to a hotel near Warwick, NY. The next morning, Saturday, I signed books at the fabulous Warwick Children’s Book Festival, thanks to Lisa Laico, Christina Ryan-Linder, and Judy Peterson. The amount of work that goes into these things — the months of planning, the degree of detail — is mind-boggling. What a great gift to the community.

As an author, I am always grateful for a chance to meet other “real, live” authors. Every time I meet someone new . . .

I loved meeting Rita Williams-Garcia. She was so warm and friendly, we got along instantly.

I loved meeting Rita Williams-Garcia. She was so warm and friendly, we got along instantly.


. . . and I also get the chance to catch up with established friends.

I've become a real fanboy when it comes to Wendell and Florence Minor. All they do is quietly make high-quality books, year after year. I have huge respect for their work and for way they conduct themselves: wise, kind, grateful, modest, and so talented!

I’ve become a real fanboy when it comes to Wendell and Florence Minor. All they do is quietly make high-quality books, year after year. I have huge respect for their work and for the way they conduct themselves: wise, kind, grateful, modest, and so talented!


After that, it was time to head home. My real job, the essential job, is for me to sit alone in a quiet room. That’s where I’m at now, trying to figure out the next book. But it’s trips like this that energize and inspire me to keep at it, even during the difficult times. Many thanks to one and all!


Great News from a Young Writer I First Met Three Years Ago


Three years ago I wrote a post titled, “I May Have Just Met the Best 6th-Grade Poet in America.

Her name was Erin, and she was in 6th grade, and I was lucky enough to meet her during a school visit outside of Chicago. You can read an excerpt from that post below, or click on the link. Anyway, since that time we’ve kept in touch. Mostly Erin letting me know what she’s doing, and me saying clever things like, “Wow!” Or, “You’re awesome!” And always always always, “Keep writing!”

This weekend I received a box in the mail . . .


And inside there was a self-published book by Erin Rosenfeld . . .


And a very kind note . . .



Let’s be clear: I did almost nothing. I read some pages, made a few incoherent comments. When it comes to the work, Erin did all of it. My role was to try to be encouraging across a few scattered emails. I wish I was one of those wise people who knew how to help writers take that next step, but I’m not very good when it comes to advice. Maybe it’s because I don’t really believe much can be done for someone else. The best work a writer can do is to write. That’s the classroom. That’s the job. It’s a solitary business.

I recognized Erin’s talent when she handed me one of her poems three years ago. But talent only gets you so far in this world. Obviously, Erin knows that. She gets her butt in the chair.

You can purchase Erin’s book, Half of Me, by clicking here. (Ha, ha, I already have my own signed copy in green ink!)

In the book, Erin gives a new twist to the classic theme of switched identities. Grace and Mia are identical twin sisters, and total opposites. But for one fateful day they make the switch . . . and things go horribly, tragically wrong. One twin dies. The other lives. In the days and weeks that follow, both sisters are forced to endure the consequences of their decisions: one on earth, and one torn between life and death.

Erin wrote Half of Me in alternating voices, employing two distinct writing styles. Mia tells her half of the story in prose, while Grace’s chapters are in spare, elegant verse.


Erin Rosenfeld, congratulations! I’m so proud of you!


I have a new book, too!



In education today, where the pendulum has swung far to the right with a misguided, misbegotten emphasis on testing and precise measurements, where the arts have been slashed and all but discarded, it’s important to remember what it can mean to invite an author into our schools — or a musician, or painter, or dancer, or even (heaven forfend) a mime! I am grateful every time I am given the opportunity to visit a school. To speak, and maybe be heard. Every time I try, in my small way, to make a difference. Thanks, Erin, for helping me believe that it’s still possible.


Originally Posted in October, 2012:

When I speak at schools, a teacher will often come up to ask if I wouldn’t mind wearing some kind of amplifier/microphone thingy around my neck for a student who is hearing impaired.

And of course I don’t mind. I put it on and forget about it. Easy.

Styles vary, but it usually looks something like this.

After a presentation last Friday at Northbrook Junior High, about 25 miles north of Chicago, a small female student approached to ask for the return of the assistive listening device that hung around my neck. She had a nice smile, a sweet presence, and I liked her immediately. We chatted for a short while. I asked how she managed when people didn’t wear the device, and about lip reading, and getting by. I told her that I suffered from hearing problems myself, a surgery with a specialist in Ohio and a second one planned. I understood, on a personal level, how terribly isolating hearing loss can be.

We said goodbye. As she left, I commented to a nearby teacher about how much I liked that girl. “She’s probably a writer,” I added. You can often tell. She was thoughtful and attentive, a watcher, an observer. In my experience, those are the types who make writers. The quiet ones. And there’s that other thing about writers: it’s something you sense in people, the way they absorb their surroundings. You can tell there’s something going on between the ears.

It’s rarely the way they talk, but more the quality of their listening.

“Yes, she’s a very good writer,” the teacher informed me.

A few minutes later, my friend, Erin, was back. She handed me a poem. A small group of teachers and I were about to have lunch in another room. But I read the poem while Erin stood by, watching. And finally, when I reached the end, I told her that it was incredible, that I was moved by it, that I admired and envied her talent. “You are such a great writer,” I told her, and I meant it. Erin smiled, a terrific smile, and told me that I could keep the poem. And I did, but not until I got her autograph. In green ink, no less.

Erin RosenfeldThe writer.

I don’t know. I do a lot of school visits, a lot of blabbering about me, me, me. But it’s always these small moments that make it worthwhile, that make me feel like there’s value in it. When out of the blue a connection is made, and I meet somebody like Erin, and maybe in some small way she’ll remember this moment, for I know I’ll remember her . . . 

<< snip >>

Click here if you wish to read Erin’s poem and the rest of my original post.

The Hilarious Way One School Librarian Achieved 100% Book Returns (Almost)



Her name is Alanna Almstead. She’s a librarian at Ichabod Crane in Valatie, NY. And at the end of each school year, Alanna faces the same vexing problem: Unreturned library books.

Because kids tend to forget. And some others, let’s hope, just fall in love with that book and can’t stand the thought of letting it go.

Alanna realized that the problem might be solved if she could only provide the proper motivation. Some sort of incentive. A carrot, so to speak.

But what could it be?

Here, I’ll let my friend Alanna explain it in her own words:

“The idea actually came about last June as my amazing aide, Lori, and I were discussing the shameful number of missing books at the end of the year. Always eager to see me make a fool of myself, I think the words “duct tape” first came out of her mouth.

Fast forward to May of this year. There I sat rambling at the end of a particularly fun library class about how important it was to return their books (we also give funny trophies to the five classes that return all of their books the fastest) when I suddenly blurted out that if the whole school brings their books back I would get taped to the wall. Yikes! Once that sort of thing gets said there is no taking it back, but no worries… It will never happen, I thought to myself.

11403263_10203095973960421_4328485250474245790_nI approached my principal, Suzanne Guntlow, after the fact. Suzanne is a wonderful supporter of the library and gave me her blessing, just in case the kids came through.

And come through they did! Although we fell short of the goal of all books returned school wide I am very happy with the results. In the end we had only 12 books still checked out in a building serving over 560 students. When the last third grader brought her book back I knew that I would have to make good on my promise.

And so, on the eve of the last day of school, I found myself making the rounds to several local stores to buy armfuls of duct tape. Variety seemed important, for some reason. When you’re nearly 6 feet tall and are faced with getting stuck to a wall you want the tape to work (and look pretty, of course!).

All of the third grade classes gathered on the last day of school to witness their reward for being so responsible. Afterwards I did hear a few students saying that it was the “best way to end the year.” (What does that say about what they really think of me, I wonder?!?).”



Final comment: I think it’s pretty obvious what they think of you, Alanna. Those kids think their school librarian is a hoot. Great job, great spirit. And a huge hat tip to that incredible aide, Lori, for hatching the idea. Note: Yes, there’s actually a brief video of the moment when they removed the foot stool from beneath Alanna’s feet and — what joy, what laughter — she stuck!

Photos from My Last Visit of the School Year


This one cracks me up and sort of terrifies me at the same time. (Somehow, I realize now, that sentence summarizes the middle school experience for every educator and parent I’ve ever met.) I have an 8th-grade daughter of my own, so I’m not completely unaware of the “selfie face” that’s been perfected in middle schools across the land. After my presentation, these excited girls asked if we could take a selfie together. But as the camera pointed in our direction, I suddenly felt quite extraneous, even wondering aloud if they actually needed me in the picture. I sort of faded into the background, standing awkwardly, while they communicated directly with the camera.


Here’s two of my friends at Algonquin Middle School, Rebecca and Colleen. This school is a fabulous place where they really do treat authors like rock stars. All the staff wore the same shirts that day. As a visiting “celebrity,” I demanded only blue M & M’s, and by golly I got them! I demanded ironed carpets, a staircase assistant, and two vases of white roses and by golly I got them, too.  (Seriously, I’m not actually into the “rock star” analogy — I certainly don’t feel like one, and I don’t wish to be treated like Mariah Carey — but it is nice to be respected and appreciated, because by transference the school-wide statement is that they value & respect books and reading. I’m just a temporary stand-in for those higher ideals.)


It’s a relief when the hands go up after I ask if there are any questions, comments, or complaints. The screen shot behind me is probably the least graphic one I use, which is an example of marginalia. I tell young people, “I read with a pen in my hand. Always have. I circle, underline, make stars, write in the margins. For me, reading and writing are physically connected. And, naturally, books are where I steal my best, most original ideas.”


Fan Mail Wednesday #210: Sometimes Even Moms Write Letters


When I was in college, back in ’81 or so, an English professor drove me and a couple of other aspiring poets to Hudson Falls, NY, where we got to visit with the poet William Bronk. It was an experience I’ll always remember. We sat in his living room and talked about poetry!

Well, life happens and tables turn. I was recently up in Hudson Falls as a visiting author, speaking at the primary school and later doing a family event that evening.

On the heels of that visit, I received an envelope that included two letters and several snapshots. Check it out:

Scan 6

Scan 3

Scan 7

I replied:

Dear Heidi, Ben, and Greta:

I remember you! I forget exactly what led to it, but I was speaking to the gathered group at the evening event and a hand shot up. It was Greta’s and she confessed, a little slyly, “My mother once swallowed a fly!”

So it’s a pleasure to hear from you all again.

Heidi, thank you so much for taking the time and care to write that long letter. It’s always nice to hear from parents, and a true gift to get the sense that maybe, in some small way, I made a difference.

Big Ben, dude, great letter. Thanks for reading my books. And thanks, too, to your teacher for having them in a book bin in your classroom. My Jigsaw Jones books are getting hard to find these days, so I really appreciate the teachers who have kept them alive and current in classrooms.  

I’m very glad to hear that you and your friends are writing stories of your own. (I personally don’t believe that alien farts could cause volcanic eruptions, but I’ve been wrong before!)

Have a great summer, and keep those ideas flowing!

My best, your friend,

James Preller

School Visit: Messages on the Wall



When I visit schools — which is often, and always gratefully — if time allows we’ll arrange for me to enjoy lunch with an intimate group of students. It’s always relaxed and informal, just talking, hanging out together, trading desserts. In some groups the conversation turns to literary concerns, but more often we just sort of chat, talk about ourselves, and try to crack each other up. I like it because, finally, it’s not strictly about me, me, me. My power point, my dumb books. These visits become more about them, and the truth is that I’m probably more comfortable that way. I’m surely more entertained.

Anyway, there was a white board in the room earlier in the week. Toward the end, as the principal was trying to pry the students away, a few of them wandered over to the board to write brief messages. I snapped a photo of these two, just to share with you, My Mighty Nation of Readers!

Sweet, huh?



Sophie, you are welcome, the pleasure was all mine.

And Elizabeth, I’m not offended at all. There’s so many great books out there, I’m just glad you picked one of mine.


School Visits: Thank You, Virginia!


“It was such a great day for us

that I wish he could go to every single middle school!”


I received a kind note in the mail yesterday regarding a few school visits I made to Virginia back in October. It included the article below, where my new shirt (that I’m still not sure about) figured prominently.

Of course, I’ve done many school visits over the past 20 years. By the end of most visits, I feel like I’ve become friends with that librarian or PTA organizer — and later, of course, there’s rarely any more contact. Gone but not forgotten. The librarian who sent this note, Chris, made such a huge effort to make this trip happen for me, and for the students in her school. She simply would not be denied. I owe her so much. In the headline I wrote “Thank you, Virginia!” But what I really mean is: Thank you, Chris!

School visits are an important part of my career. They help pay the bills, most certainly. They also get me out into the world, where I meet teachers and students and, hopefully, help make a small difference in every school I visit. It’s an honor and I don’t take the privilege lightly.

Here’s the note:


Here is the article about your visit to Poquoson Middle School.  It was published in the VAASL Voice, our state librarians’ magazine, and was distributed to about 1300 librarians across the state.

Your author visit has been a real highlight of our school year!

Thanks again,


And now, the article:






PREACHING TO THE CHOIR ABOUT SCHOOL LIBRARIANS: So We Can All Sing Together, One Voice, Loud & Strong


PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.


I’m primarily writing to pass on a link about school libraries. Maybe the article states the obvious. Essential stuff we already know, or certainly sense.  I realize that I’m preaching to the choir here. But what I’ve come to believe in life, and politics, is that it’s important to preach to the choir. That’s how we can all open the hymnal to the same page, how we all sing out together, loud and clear. Not a bunch of scattered voices, but a powerful choir.


Here’s the link to a terrific article by Carol Heinsdorf and Debra Kachel, “School Libraries Are Essential to Learning,” along with a copy of the first few paragraphs. Their immediate focus is on Philadelphia public schools, but this represents a national trend:

In 1991, there were 176 certified librarians in Philadelphia public schools. This year there are 11 and only five are known to be actually doing what they were trained to do. Five librarians for the nation’s eighth-largest school district.

Leaving Philadelphia’s public school libraries without professional staffing is a grave mistake. It will have consequences for the students for the rest of their lives. Study after study shows a clear link between school libraries staffed by certified librarians and student achievement.

In 2012, research showed that students who had school library programs and certified librarians were more likely to have advanced reading and writing scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. And they were less likely to have “below basic” scores.

The same study found that school library programs have their greatest impact on students who are economically disadvantaged, black, Hispanic, or have disabilities. African American students in schools with certified librarians are twice as likely to earn advanced writing scores as those in schools without librarians.

A Mansfield University paper that looked at studies done in 23 states verified that schools with a trained librarian – someone who teaches students and works with teachers to develop information and research skills – have a consistent positive effect on student achievement regardless of demographic and economic differences among students.

In my professional life, I’ve been fortunate to walk into hundred of schools around the country as a guest author.  Increasingly, I see libraries that are understaffed, and I meet librarians who are tasked to provide full-time services on part-time pay (and hours). On many days, these librarians are simply not in the building. In many schools, the library is increasingly marginalized and treated as non-essential — though, of course, no one on a school board ever admits to that out loud. “We may have cut the job in half,” they will tell anyone who’ll listen, “but it will not effect our children.”

Sorry, folks, but I’m calling bull***t.

This trend is true even in my own supposedly “quality” Bethlehem school district, in a relatively affluent suburb of Albany, NY. Former full-time librarians are now commuting between schools, splitting time and services. It’s a huge problem in New York, since the contract does not mandate a full-time librarian position (as opposed to, say, a P.E. instructor). A library should be the heartbeat of an elementary school. And in great schools, it clearly
serves that central, essential function. The librarian, or Media Specialist (if you prefer),
interacts with every child, in every grade, often across six years of learning. Consider that for a moment, the broad impact of that one person. A librarian works with and supports 640classroom teachers. And in response to this reality, the political leaders in our educational system can only think to fire those people, or force them to split schools, while they increasingly focus on standardized tests, purchasing more technology, saving pennies and wasting dollars.

It’s so maddening, and so wrong-minded, I could scream. And that’s why we preach to the choir. Because maybe if we all scream together, somebody will hear our cry.

Sign in a School Hallway

This photo was snapped by my friend, author Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, on a recent school visit.

Stephanie is a great talent and an even better person. As S. A. Bodeen, she’s written The Compound, The Raft, and several other “The” titles. These days the book-loving world is buzzed about her new adventure series, Shipwreck Island.

But enough about Stephanie. Today I want you feast your eyes on this lovely sign in a school somewhere. I know that many schools post signs like this, messages of intent, statements of mission, but this one in particular gets all the notes exactly right.

I like it.




How to Tip the Chambermaid

Over the past five years, I’ve traveled a lot to visit schools in far-flung places: Oklahoma, California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts, etc. Mostly I stay in the NY/NJ area. But regardless, the basic fact remains: I’m not at home. I’m often alone, away from my family, unwrapping a plastic cup from inside a plastic wrapper. Sigh.

51LvdCXV+dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One of life’s little puzzles is how to properly tip the chambermaid. For the longest time, I was never quite sure. So I faked it, without much rhyme or reason. Last year I met author Kate Klise in a hotel in Rye, NY. We share the same tour administrator, the awesome Kerri Kunkel McPhail, who organizes and coordinates our school visits in the greater Westchester area and beyond. It’s a rare treat to meet real, live authors, especially since we spend most of our working lives alone, tapping out words on a keyboard. I quickly learned Kate is a hugely talented author, dedicated and wise to the ways of the world, and a kind person, too. I liked her a lot.

Sitting in the lobby, we hit upon the topic of hotel living. I must have said something about tipping the chambermaid, because Kate gave me a suggestion that I’ve used in every hotel stay since.

I leave $5 each morning. In the past, I’d often waited for the end of my stay, but I realized that it might cause an unfair distribution. A different hotel maid might be working that day. Better to leave a smaller amount daily. Five seems like the right number to me, though I didn’t arrive at that figure scientifically. Here’s where Kate told me her approach. She said, “I always leave a little thank you note.”

2698349-1“You do?”

“Yes. It’s such a tough job — think about it. I feel like the least I can do is just write a short note of appreciation.”

Nice, right?

It immediately made sense to me. After all, that’s all anybody ever wants in this life. Some basic recognition, a note of appreciation. The tip is one thing, certainly, but taking one minute for a quick note brings it to a higher level.

Now every morning in a hotel before I’m rushing out for a day’s work, I quickly grab a piece of paper, write “THANK YOU!” or some variation, and leave a tip.

And every time, I feel good about leaving behind a little extra kindness.

And last week, for the first time, I got a response . . . with three exclamation marks.