Archive for School Visits

Blue Creek Elementary, Revisited: Remembering Ben

“Ben was gentle, he smiled often,
there was softness in his eyes:
a sweet boy.
And all the while, Ben looked at me
as if I was the one who was special.
As a writer, sometimes by some miracle
you touch someone. But with Ben it was different.
He was the one
who left a lasting mark.”

 

I recently enjoyed two days visiting Blue Creek Elementary. It was my first time back in schools as a guest author since the pandemic. It was a great pleasure and, always, a privilege. I loved seeing the children and the teachers, hanging out with Abby the librarian, signing books, all of it. 

As it happens, I visited Blue Creek 13 years previously, back in 2009. 

(Who says I never get invited back to the same place twice?!)

On that day, 13 years ago, I met a boy who I will never forget.

This is that story . . . 

 

—–

 

His name was Ben and he was waiting for me when I arrived at Blue Creek Elementary. Ben was holding my book, Six Innings, in his hands.

Could you . . . ?” a teacher asked.

Yes, yes, of course.

So we ducked into the empty library, where Ben and I could have a few moments together. I was told that Ben had osteosarcoma, the same illness contracted by a character, Sam Reiser, in my book.

We talked quietly. I told Ben about my oldest boy, Nicholas, a sixteen-year-old who had gone through five years of chemotherapy. “He’s doing great now,” I said. “Healthy, strong.” Both boys shared the same oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Pearce. I explained that Dr. Pearce helped me with Six Innings, and showed him where I thanked her in the acknowledgments. We agreed that she was very kind.

Ben was gentle, he smiled often, there was softness in his eyes: a sweet boy. And all the while, Ben looked at me as if I was the one who was special. As a writer, sometimes by some miracle you touch someone. But with Ben it was different. He was the one who left a lasting mark — on me and so many others.

I learned last week that Ben passed away, October 12th, 2009. He was nine years old.

I did not attend Ben’s wake. I was told by one of his teachers that among the objects displayed was a signed copy of my book. The story meant something to Ben. He may have related to Sam’s experience. “It’s been so hard,” Sam confided in the book’s last pages. But Ben probably most enjoyed the baseball, the humor, the fun of boys at play.

Ben was probably similar to my Nick. At least that’s what I saw, as I blinked back tears, when I looked into Ben’s eyes. Back when we first gathered to explain to Nick, at age nine, that he had relapsed with leukemia — that the cancer was back — Nick sat and listened quietly. Dr. Pearce laid out the protocol, the path Nick’s life would take over the next two years. This will happen, then this will happen, and then this will happen. Like a story unfolding, though no one could say with certainty how it would end. Dr. Pearce asked if Nick had any questions. Nick did. “Can I go to my friend’s house now?” he asked. That seemed to me, then and now, the perfect reaction.

I saw Ben only twice that day, once alone in a library, once as part of a larger group. But I’m looking at him now.

I’ll always remember the few minutes I spent with Ben Stowell.

Ben’s family has established The Ben Fund to assist other families dealing with childhood cancers, c/o HSBC, Latham Branch, 494 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, NY 12110. Ben leaves behind a twin brother, James, and his parents, Stacey and Tim. My heart goes out to them.

 


POSTSCRIPT, April, 2022: Ben’s father, Tim, contacted me recently. Time has passed and he’s now in a relationship with a woman who’s child, Charlotte, attends Blue Creek. Charlotte, a 2nd grader, said hello and told me about her connection to Ben. She never had the chance to meet him, but Charlotte knows James, though, Ben’s twin. He’s now in college and thriving. I’m not crying, you’re crying. 

Brochures Get Old . . . School Visits Never Do!

 

Here’s the “book side” of a two-page brochure I made for school visits — not too long before the pandemic shut us down. 

Missing here is Upstander, a sequel to Bystander, published in 2021. 

And coming soon . . . 

Fairy House in May, 2022, in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format. 

And a new series, EXIT 13, coming in Fall, from Scholastic. Can’t wait to share more about this one. Think: “Schitt’s Creek” meets “Stranger Things” with a touch of Pet Sematary. It’s a middle-grade novel/graphic novel hybrid. Mostly a novel that occasionally breaks out into GN format. Super cool, fast-paced, creepy and mysterious. 

PLEASE CONTACT ME W/ ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT SCHEDULING A SCHOOL VISIT AT YOUR SCHOOL. I AM UNIQUELY ABLE TO SPEAK TO A WIDE RANGE OF READERS, K-8, WITH BOOKS THAT ARE AGE-APPROPRIATE FOR EACH LEVEL. 

Fan Mail Wednesday #309: It’s Easy (and cheap!) to Arrange a Virtual Visit with Your Class

“That was amazing!
The students are beaming and can’t wait
to talk about you!
They also can’t wait to write!”
— Rachel M, 2nd-grade teacher

 

Here’s a correspondence that I enjoyed with a classroom teacher from Queens, NY. I wish I had more visits with classrooms or entire grade levels. They feel so positive, and cozy, and joyful. I especially believe in book-specific visits, where the class knows my work and we can engage in a lively Q-and-A conversation. I can do this with any title or series. 

Is it terribly expensive? No, nope, not really, no. 

Read on . . .

 

Hello there!

I work at a school in Queens, NY.  Currently, I am the teacher of 30 second graders…was previously the drama teacher:)

My students are fully remote, meaning that they are all home and we learn virtually during the day.

I have been reading your books to them as our read aloud, and they are LOVING them! We have created a class detective notebook, where along with Jigsaw, they write their guesses, clues, thoughts, and suspects.

They have just started their writing unit on realistic fiction.

I was wondering what your pricing was, and if you are still doing virtual visits?

I thought a virtual visit from you, where they can ask you Jigsaw questions, and get some creative writing tips would make them smile from ear to ear!

Please let me know, thank you!

Rachel 

 

I replied . . .

 

Rachel,

Thank you for this lovely note.

I would love to visit with your class.

I like to get $150 for a virtual visit — but if your budget is limited, I’d work with whatever you’ve got that seems fair and reasonable to you.

I appreciate that you share my books with your class.

James Preller

 

And shortly after our visit, Rachel wrote back . . .

 

That was amazing!

The students are beaming and can’t wait to talk about you! They also can’t wait to write!!! 

I may have to give them a whole afternoon of writing time because they are so excited!!

Again, thank you so much. Everything that you said was beyond perfect for them to hear.

Of course their first question was, when can they talk to you again…

So, you may hear from me again and next year and so on and so forth 🙂

I will of course share your information with other teachers and the parent coordinator at my school, who usually shares things with all other schools in the area.

Thank you again for everything, that was a wonderful experience:)

Rachel

 

    .                    .   

Spread from “ALL WELCOME HERE”

Here’s a spread from my picture book, All Welcome Here, a series of connected haiku, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre. I wrote this back in 2016, took a long while to become a book. I guess June of Covid 2020 wasn’t exactly a great time to launch a back-to-school title. Oh, rats. And I was so looking forward to sharing this book with young readers. Talking poetry, and community, and connection.

Still here for virtual visits. Look me up!

“Caldecott Honoree GrandPre captures the day’s variable moods in pictures of absorbed, interacting kids of various skin tones and abilities . . . a cheery take on the joy of camaraderie.” Publishers Weekly.

“Lively haiku pairs with vibrant art to showcase various facets of the first day of school . . . Expressive, mixed-media illustrations are an eye-catching blend of bright colors, patterns, and perspectives: the multicultural kids and adults further the sense of inclusiveness. With it’s reassuring and upbeat elements, this may also help alleviate first-day fers as it highlights the many positive opportunities that await.”Booklist.

A Letter to Educators, Summer Hours, & Zoom Thoughts

In the best of times, my creativity ebbs and flows. This past month, I’ve found it difficult to put a post together. Part of that is my own distracted, short-circuited mind; another aspect is a nagging sense that few people care anyway. I guess a lot of writers feel that way from time to time, though my case has been acute of late. Strangely, I’ve still been actively writing manuscripts. Good ones, too, I think. But I am a little disheartened about my place the industry; I’m just not confident that my recent stories will see the light of day. What’s a writer to do? A strange place to find myself after spending the past 35 years in the children’s book world. On the positive side, I completed a prequel/sequel to my middle grade novel Bystander, titled Upstander, which should come out sometime next year. No cover yet, still waiting to see what that will look like.

So if you are here now, reading this — thanks for that. I hope to never take you for granted. 

SUMMER HOURS

I generally cut back on ye olde blog posts in the summer, since a lot of my traffic seems to revolve around the school year. I’ll still post when I’m moved to do so, or if something spectacular comes up, though for the most time it’ll be quiet. But before we all pitch tents in our backyards, I wanted to share with you a publicity letter I wrote to “select” educators who expressed interest in my new book, All Welcome Here, illustrated by the legendary Mary GrandPre. 

ALL WELCOME HERE: A LETTER TO EDUCATORS

Dear Educator,

As an author who has worked in children’s books for more than half my life, I’ve visited hundreds of schools across the country. I always come away with a good feeling in my heart, not only because of the students, who are amazing, but also because of the vibrancy and intimacy of the classroom. I’m moved by the good work that people like you are doing, day after day, year after year, sometimes under extremely challenging circumstances. Online learning anyone?

Teachers can be counted on to open their hearts and their classrooms to every child who comes through that door. All those values we hold close to our core -– empathy, inclusion, kindness, community –- become a living reality in your classroom. This is the great promise of the American Experiment played out before our eyes. It truly works, you’ve seen it, and it’s beautiful.

I was inspired to write All Welcome Here early in 2016. The world as I knew it felt fractured and divided. Today, four years later, it seems all but shattered. But together we’re picking up the pieces, working to cobble together a better, brighter, more loving and ethical land of the free.

Please think of this book as my thank you for that great effort. I know you work hard to foster those values in your school community. Hopefully this book, so gorgeously illustrated by Mary GrandPre, will serve as a springboard for positive conversations between you and your students. Also, I hope that you find it to be entertaining, and funny, and joyful. Jon-Kim spilling his crayons, Chloe’s laughter, and the way a shy girl tentatively makes a new friend. Even the shaving cream behind Principal K’s ear. This book is my tribute to those everyday moments that happen in your school lives, day after day, year after year. Thank you for your valuable work.

Be safe, stay healthy, and good luck!

James Preller

 

ZOOM VISITS

I’ve enjoyed several Zoom and Google Meets Visits over the past few weeks. Some have been particularly meaningful, I think, making me a true convert to the value and impact of a properly structured Zoom Visit.

To me, the key figure in an online visit is the teacher. It is the teacher who inspires, who prepares, who builds anticipation, and who actively moderates (thank you, “mute button!”) an online visit. A Zoom Visit with one class can be a profoundly (and surprisingly) intimate experience. It is very much like stepping into a classroom for a loose, easy-going conversation between students and author.

And guess what? In normal times, that never happens. There’s no time for a visiting author to move from classroom to classroom; instead, we present to entire grades or multiple grades: hundreds of students at one time. That’s awesome and powerful, too. But a Zoom Visit can be inspirational in its own unique way. A standard in-person presentation is a broadcast with a short Q & A tagged on at the end; a Zoom Visit is more interactive, featuring more of a direct one-on-one connection.

I recently heard from an enthusiastic teacher on Long Island who wrote to me after a visit with her class. She said:

“I had to share some more feedback I have received from parents . . . you truly have influenced many of my students. I realize the technology was a bit of a pain, but the outcomes are so worth it! I cannot thank you enough for your time and inspiring words!!”

She included some follow-up emails from parents:  

“Danny was so jazzed up after this he wants our whole family to write a book. He has assigned us all jobs to do and he is the author. I never would’ve thought that he’d be so into this. Thank you again. I haven’t seen him this excited about something in a while.”

Here’s another:

“Super inspirational!!! And so so patient. Like when they asked the author similar questions he just patiently answered! It’s inspiring us (at home) to maybe build a mini library!”

Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Note: I believe I talked about my love of Little Free Libraries, which I featured in Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space. Pretty cool if a family reads my book and turns around to build one of their own. That’s the literacy connection, how books bring us together and help build communities.

My point here is not to toot my own horn (though, obviously, I’m doing that), but to express again that I AM SOLD ON ZOOM VISITS.

I think we’ve still got to figure out the money — it has to be very affordable, but at the same time “more than free.” We can individualize visits, or even create recurring visits, around concrete themes. For example: haiku poems. We could talk about them, share them, learn together. Or writing mysteries. Last week I enjoyed a visit with a Texas librarian that centered around dialogue. 

In short, I think it’s more productive to think of a Zoom Visit not as “the James Preller show” but more of a unique way to bring an author into your classroom to directly connect with and inspire your students. 

Feel free to write to me at jamespreller@aol.com to discuss it. I’m open and flexible and eager to meet your students.

THANKS AGAIN FOR STOPPING BY!

 

-Z