Archive for School Visits

Fan Mail Wednesday #184: Highlights & Thank You’s & Student Art

postalletter-150x150

Often after a school visit I’ll receive a large package of thank you letters. Usually I’ll respond with one “thank-you-for-the-thank-you letters” letter, but not always. Especially this time of year, or when I get overwhelmed with work and letters, time slips away and schools closes.

I realize how lucky I am, how fortunate, and I hope that readers understand how much I appreciate all of this great stuff that comes my way. Feeling blessed.

Anyway, I wanted to share a few highlights from a wonderful package sent from Minisink Valley. At the risk of sounding my own horn, here’s the (classy, handwritten) note from Trinke O’Connor that I found on top of the pile:

Minisink 8
This one from Sierra really caught my eye . . .

Minisink 1

Here, take a closer look at that joyous self portrait . . .

Minisink 1a

 

She’s a writer, just like me. And while I realize that she was drawing a pair of glasses, they made her look like a superhero. And in case you missed this detail, Sierra had a suggestion . . .

Minisink 1b

I loved this one from Kelsi for the energetic artwork . . . Jigsaw Jones and Mila Yeh!

Minisink 5

And I have to say, this simple mistake by a very kind lad named Kevin made me smile . . .

Minisink 4

“You are my biggest fan.”

Yes I am, Kevin. Yes, I am!

Here’s one from Skylar, who appears to be hooked on my “Scary Tales” books . . .

 

Minisink 2

 

And another “Scary Tales” fan in Elizabeth . . .

 

Minisink 3

Here’s a sweet illustration from Alyse, who likes Jigsaw Jones and Scary Tales. Note the smart thing she did, copying the style of the “Scary Tales” covers by drawing in black-and-white and then adding just a splash of color. Smart and perceptive, Alyse! To answer your question, yes, I just finished writing Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster! Guess what? It’s in a swamp! And there’s a monster!

Scan 2

Check out this killer, blown-up detail of the one-eyed doll . . .

Scan 1

I don’t think it’s practical for me to share every letter — and I do feel badly by highlighting only a few — but the internet only has so much space. I’ll wrap this up with a cool illustration from Holden . . .

Minisink 7

 

Thank You, Arizona Library Association!

Good News! I received an email from Kerrlita Westrick and Shirley Berow, co-chairs of the Grand Canyon Reader Award, organized by the Arizona Library Association. Instead of telling you about it, you can read the important bits for yourself:

Dear Mr. Preller,

It is out pleasure to inform you that your book, Justin Fisher Declares War, has been nominated for the Intermediate Book category of the 2015 Grand Canyon Reader Award! Congratulations!

The Grand Canyon Reader Award is a children’s choice award with approximately 45,000 Arizona students voting each year. Your book, along with nine other tiles, will be read by teachers, librarians, and students all over Arizona and voted upon by April 1, 2015.

Well, that felt good.

Justin FisherAs a writer, all I’ve ever wanted was to be read and, hopefully, acclaimed to some extent. Approved of. Valued. Appreciated. I dream that at least some fraction of the reading public will say, in essence, “Hey, you did good.”

Making it on these state lists is so important to keep a book in circulation. So, absolutely, a heartfelt thanks from me. Much appreciated. When I look at the other titles on the list, well, it’s just crazy. Not expecting to win, that’s for sure.

Though it’s been well-reviewed, and sometimes even praised, Justin Fisher has been pretty much ignored by the purchasing public (not to mention my own publisher). A paperback edition has never been made available in stores.

Justin Fisher was conceived as part of a series of school-based stories, including Along Came Spider, which was honored by the NYPL back in 2008. Both books share characters and the same setting, Spiro Agnew Elementary.

UnknownHere’s a nice review of Justin from a 5th-grade teacher, Franki Sibberson, who called it “One of my go-to funny books for boys.”

From the first  moment I saw these covers, I thought: “Uh-oh.” I expressed my worries to my editor, that they didn’t at all convey the stories were school based, but was told that the decision had already been made. End of discussion. Oh well. Everybody does their best, I guess.

To help the humor come out, I had really, really wanted the books to be illustrated, ala “Wimpy Kid,” but that was not in the cards either. But most wonderfully, a group of students from Pennsylvania sent me their own illustrations a couple of years back. I love student artwork. Here’s some highlights:

justin-1

justin-1a

justin-5

Now I can only hope for an invitation to visit school in Arizona.

February is wide open! Brrrrr.

Girl from the North Country

 

001

 

I want to tell you a little bit about Annika, the pink-laced lass pictured above, whom I met on a recent visit to northern New York, or where locals refer to as “the North Country.”

During a period of downtime in the school library, Annika came to have her book signed. I had remembered her face from an earlier presentation. She had that kind of presence, the way she leaned in and listened. When I talk to a group, it’s natural to scan the gathered faces. The bored ones, the curious ones. I’m grateful when I find a student who is fully there, like a friend, smiling, enjoying it.

So now here she stood, still smiling, asking for me to sign her book. Of course, I was honored to do so. We got to talking. About movies and books and stuff. Neither of us in a particular hurry.

I later learned that Annika happened to be the daughter of the school librarian. “Ah,” I said, the pieces falling together. I was also informed that Annika was not merely an avid reader. She was a trapper, too. Like her daddy. “She earned $500 last winter,” her mother told me. “Skins ‘em herself, too.”

Really?

Oh, yes, really.

“She’s a real North Country girl,” her mother said. “Here, let me show you a photo . . .”

And so she did.

photo-10

That’s one of the reasons why I love to do school visits. They get me out of the house, out of my small world. I see new places, try to look around if I have some time, open my eyes a bit wider. Some days I get to meet seven-grade wonders like Annika, and I am always glad for it.

Meeting Annika reminded me of a favorite song by Bob Dylan, “Girl from the North County,” off the Freewheelin‘ LP.

The lyrics:

If you’re traveling the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
For she once was a true love of mine.

If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds.

Please see if her hair hangs long
If it rolls and flows all down her breast
Please see for me if her hair’s hanging long
For that’s the way I remember her best.

I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all
Many times I’ve often prayed
In the darkness of my night
In the brightness of my day.

So if you’re travelin’ the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was the true love of mine.

Dylan wrote this song in 1962, soon after spending time with folksinger Martin Carthy, who introduced Dylan to a great many traditional English ballads. You can hear in the syntax of the lyrics, the entire setup of the song (the instructions to the listener, “If you’re traveling,”), and even in the song’s closing lines, borrowed verbatim from an old ballad, “Scarborough Fair,” later popularized by Simon & Garfunkel. Importantly, while the traditional lyrics of “Scarborough” call on the lost love to perform a series of impossible tasks, in Dylan’s tune he wishes only for her warmth and remembrance.

I love the understatement of this lyric, the quiet poetry, the things not said. Remember me to one who lives there. He wants to know, simply, that she has a coat to keep warm from the snow and howlin’ winds. He wants, only, for her to remember him, as he remembers her after all these years. Through time and absence and cold winds. Just beautiful.

 

Kids, Don’t Let This Happen To You: 3 Photographs

JP & Mom, '73

This would be yours truly, guessing age 12-13, circa 1973, and that’s my dear old Mom. In background, the Lincoln Memorial.

Yes, lots of hair. I know.

More recently, here I am on a school visit.

Time waits for no man.

I suppose I should be happy that I still have hair — some hair — any hair at all.

It is always a great sign when a school puts in the time and effort to decorate the halls in anticipation of an author visit. When I see stuff like that, I know they will be excited and prepared.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Oh, and this is my daughter, Maggie, age 13, at the Bronx Zoo, riding a camel. But you knew that already, didn’t you? Not that it was Maggie, but I hope that you recognize a camel when you see one. For most of my life, the only camels I ever saw were on the cigarette packs that my parents smoked.

Hump Day came on Thursday this week.

IMG_3507-1

 

 

Student Artwork: A Riot of Zombies to Celebrate an Author Visit

If I’ve said it a hundred times . . .

Authors don’t do school visits.

Schools do author visits.

I arrived home last night after a brief trip to New York State’s magnificient North Country — Chaumont and Clayton specifically — where I enjoyed visits to two wonderful schools.

I’m on deadline, late with a manuscript, so don’t have much time to dilly-dally today. Or not as much as usual. However, I am free to dither. Mostly I want to share some student artwork with you.

I have no idea what might have inspired students to create their own zombie art.

I have no idea what might have inspired students to create their own zombie art.

The art comes from the Lyme Central School in Chaumont, one of those cozy K-12 schools you sometimes see in less populated areas. My visit was organized by the incredible Linda Lepper, who assured me that this was not her first rodeo. In fact, I was the 28th author that Linda had invited to visit the school. Or maybe I was the 27th, not sure.

In any event, Linda finally worked her way down, down, down the list and got to me.

This is a school where they really embrace an author visit. There are activities all week, posters, art, themes, games, quizzes, and on and on. By the time I arrived, the students were prepared and enthusiastic. For my part, I spoke to four distinct groups: Grades 1-2, Grades 6-8, PreK-K (mini version), and Grades 3-5. Quite a range, which helped keep things fresh and fun for me. It’s a different show every time, folks.

To prepare for my visit,  many students created artwork, which was displayed throughout the school. A lot of them focused on zombies:

photo-13

photo-12

 

photo-14

photo-11

photo-10

And from the younger grades, a brilliant spin on my “Pirate’s Guide” series. In this case, those rapscallions are concerned with water safety.

photo-15

Caption reads: Never dive in shallow water.

Caption reads: Never dive in shallow water.

Thank you, students at Lyme Central. I’m sorry I couldn’t share all your work, but there’s only so much space available on the internet. And thank you most of all, Linda Lepper and all the teachers and staff at your warm, clean, well-lighted school.

Hudson Children’s Book Festival: May 3, 2014

Like the song goes . . .

“It’s the most, happiest time of the year!”

Truly a wonderful event, with just a staggering list of talented authors and illustrators, new faces and old faces and — best of all — young faces.

Eager faces. Kids who are excited about books, stoked to meet “real, live” authors, to have a book signed, to have that great literary moment.

If you’ve never gone, it’s time to straighten that out. Come to Hudson. Bring the children, from picture book readers to your outwardly cynical, eye-rolling YA book-lovers.

Celebrate what you value. Reading, books, education, fun.

Then go hang around in Hudson a little bit, eat dinner, chill. You’ll have a great day, promise.

Here’s the link, go experience the awe.

And then come. Stop with the excuses. Everybody is busy. There’s a million reasons why not to go. But this is “make a statement” day. This is “put your house in order” day. This is” show ‘em what you think is important” day. This is “go have a great time, together, as a family” day, centered around books and a lifelong passion for reading.

It’s a beautiful thing. I’m blessed to be a small part of it. You can be, too. Come.

Okay, here’s a partial list: Ellen Jensen Abbott, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Jennifer Berne, Ann E. Burg, Bryan Collier, Bruce Coville, Debbie Dadey, Bruce Degan, Diane deGroat, Chris Grabenstein, Ellen Hopkins, Ty Allan Jackson, Sylvie Kantorovitz, David A. Kelly, David Kirk, Ann Haywood Leal, Jeff Mack, Wendell & Florence Minor, Jane O’Connor, JAMES PRELLER (!), April Jones Prince, Hudson Talbott, Mark Teague, Jane Yolen, Michelle Zink, and many more! And by that I mean, lots more. Seriously, lots.

A Very Busy, Happy Week: Albany, Demarest, Parsippany, and San Antonio

I’m in the middle of a hectic stretch that has me running around.

On Saturday, I was invited to visit Giffen Memorial Elementary in downtown Albany for their 2nd Annual “Author/Illustrator Day.” It turned out to be a beautifully organized and attended event, sponsored by the good, kind folks at the First Presbyterian Church who have sort of adopted Giffen as their community school, as they try to positively impact its children and parents on many fronts.

It was an honor for me to be a part of it, along with Rose Kent, Myles & Sandra Pinkney (those Pinkneys pop up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rain storm), and Joseph Bruchac.

Probably not wise to play favorites, but Joe Bruchac — wow, wow, wow. He is a master storyteller and such a dignified gentleman and artist. Big respect.

I signed a lot of books, many of them purchased for the students by the folks at the First Presbyterian Church. In this case, the children came with their names written on Post-It Notes. By the end of the day, I had a stack of them and shoved it into my book bag. Look at these beautiful names!

On Sunday night, I drove to Tenefly, NJ, in preparation for a busy Monday.

I spoke with students in grade 6-8 at Demarest Middle School early in the day — great kids, terrific staff, beautiful area of NJ — then drove west on 80 to Parsippany Public Library for a truly lovely memorial event, the fifth so far, hosted by the family of Elaine Galliker, a former 2nd grade teacher who, by all reports, loved bringing books and readers together.

It was touching to be a part of something so heartfelt and community-focused. I gave a presentation to a group of adults and a few dozen young readers, and later, once again, signed a bunch of books. Special thanks to Roberta Abel for managing all the emails and small tasks that make these visits possible.

One cool thing about this library — they have a little door leading to the children’s section. Sure, there’s an ordinary big door for us taller, wide-bodied types. But there’s also a magical door for the wee folk. From what I saw and heard, the kids love it.

Tomorrow morning, I am taking a 6:00 AM flight to San Antonio, Texas for the TLA Conference. I have a late dinner date with a gaggle of teachers and librarians — as well as a few fellow authors and publishing types. Should be fun, not to mention filling. On Thursday, I’m participating in an afternoon panel discussion: “The Graveyard Shift: Programming Around Mysterious and Scary Books.” When that’s done, I’ll be racing off to the airport again.

Should be home by midnight, Thursday, tired and grateful and inspired to write.

Whew.

New Slide for School Visits

Came across this today and thought it would make a good slide for my Middle School presentations. It basically expresses where I come out on all the tips and strategies for so-called “Bully Proofing” a school. It’s why these students don’t need to be preached to. They already know. They just need to be encouraged to listen, and supported when they do.

When my presentation is over — which is decidedly not about bully-proofing a school, it’s about writing books — I like to keep up a final slide while the students filter out. Most of my slides are just images, not words. But at the end, I think that last slide can have words. This one just might make the cut.

Thank you, Shel Silverstein!

The Story Behind This Illustration: Art Inspiring Art

When I first saw this illustration, I thought to myself, “Yes! That’s exactly what I hoped for — but better.”

Drawn by Iacopo Bruno, the image will appear in SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND (June, 2014).

For years, on school visits, I heard the same request from students — always boys. “Write a story about a kid who gets sucked into the television while playing video games.”

I’d always reply, “Yeah, nice idea, but, no. I write realistic fiction. So, um, I just don’t see that happening.”

Then I started writing the SCARY TALES books, inspired by South American magic realism and “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” and Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, etc. And in doing so, I began to say “yes” to impossible things.

I accepted, rather than rejected, the notion of ghosts, zombies, androids, witches, aliens . . . and a video game-playing boy getting sucked into a television set.

But how would that work, exactly?

He’s playing a game. On the tv screen, a hooded figure moves in the woods. The boy, Aaron Wheeler, safe and warm in his living room, begins to identify strongly with this character in the video game.

Would his entire body get sucked into the game?

I decided, no. The husk of his body would remain — to be discovered by his sister.

What should he look like? How would his image transform, now that his “spirit” or mental energy was inside the game?

I thought of “The Shining,” the final image of Jack Torrance out in the snow, frozen in the maze. I even studied a still of the movie image when I described the boy.

A section from the manuscript, upon the discovery of Aaron:

His eyes were rolled up, showing mostly white. He did not blink. He did not stir. His lips were parted and his mouth was frozen into an awful frown. Only his bottom row of teeth showed through. Bizarrely, there was a dusting of snow on the boy’s shoulders.

I sent along a jpeg to my editor, not knowing if the suggestion would reach Iacopo Bruno in Italy, or how he’d respond if it did. I believed then, as I do now, that even if it did, that it would be within Iacopo’s right to reject my idea and go with a vision of his own.

Anyway, I’m not sure how it all worked out. But you might notice a resemblance, especially in the mouth. Our sly tribute to a great author, a fantastic book, and a terrific movie. Thank you, Stephen King.

RE-POST: Imaging the Character of Griffin Connelly in BYSTANDER

I just enjoyed a terrific visit to Virginia, three nights, visiting Matoaca Middle School and Davis Middle School. I stayed in Richmond, was treated like a conquering hero, and all I can do is express my heartfelt gratitude one more time. Thank you to three librarians, Mrs. Masters, Mrs. Green, and Miss Warshen (I hope that’s how you spell it). Most singularly: The trip would not have been possible without the near-heroic efforts of Amanda Brata — and all the teachers/administrators who decided to make Bystander a school-wide read for their students. That’s an amazing honor I don’t take lightly.

SIDENOTE: I know I’m forgetting the name of someone who took me around to classrooms on Monday, and it’s killing me. It’ll come to me, promise!

Over three days, I gave eight (fabulous) large-group presentations. I was also offered the opportunity to enjoy several brief classroom visits. One perceptive student asked about how my intentions when it came to creating the character of Griffin Connelly. It was thoughtful question that I tried to answer as best I could. The truth is, I suspect that I write better — clearer — than I talk. So while I was fumbling for an answer, I referenced this blog post about Griffin’s two-faced quality.

Here’s an excerpt of that old post.

——-

Let’s talk about smiles . . .

I began my work on the book that would become Bystander by hanging out in the local library with a composition notebook. At the top of the first page of that notebook I see that I copied a line from Michael Connelly’s  Echo Park: “What is the bad guy up to?” I was excited. After writing 30-plus Jigsaw Jones mysteries for younger readers, I finally had a bad guy. It wasn’t going to be all benign misunderstandings and well-intentioned foul-ups; here, I had a character with potential for real darkness.

I see that I was reading Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children, by Jonathan Kellerman. A powerful, disturbing book that looks at antisocial youth, from aggressive bullies to cold-hearted killers.

And right there on that first notebook page I started a list of potential “bully” characteristics. I wrote:

Smart, charismatic, charming, popular, superior, tortures animal?, trouble with police?, lights fires, COLD, raised by grandmother?, non-compliant, poor grades, not affected by discipline, causes fear, lucid, psychopathic?, free of angst, free of insecurities, (later, when caught, self-pity), preternaturally CALM.

I was in the first stages of character development — and for me, I’m at my best when character evolves into story, as opposed to plugging character into plot. That is: character first. With my focus exclusively on this “bad guy,” I even came up with a potential book title: Predator.

It became important to me that my main antagonist, Griffin Connelly, was divorced from the bully stereotypes we often see in books and movies. You know, the bully as gross coward, unlikeable lug, dim-witted brute, dirty, ugly, unpopular. It simply wasn’t realistic, and by turning bullies into  one-dimensional characters, we surrendered much of the complexity (and difficulty) of the topic (and story).

A quick plea: There’s a tendency to slot any topical book, such as this, into the bibliotherapy shelf. But Bystander is a story, a page-turner with thriller elements that a biased Jean Feiwel called, “Unputdownable.” It’s not a thesis paper. It’s a good, fast read. I hope boys find it.

Whew. I see that I’m letting this post get away from me, because I’m trying to talk about too much. So I’ll get specific:

I wanted Griffin Connelly to be  a great-looking kid, with charm and verbal dexterity and a great smile. He would be, in every sense of the word, attractive. All the surfaces would shine. The ugliness concealed.

His smile was one of the keys to his character. But what is  a smile if not a baring of teeth? The smile beams beatifically, but also represents a flashing of fangs. A threat. The wolfish grin. There’s menace under the surface.

Griffin Connelly was the kind of person who would smile at you while he stuck a knife in your back. And maybe, for pleasure, gave the blade a twist. The toothy smile was the mask he wore, this master of the mixed message.

Page 7, when Eric first meets Griffin:

The shaggy-haired boy in the lead pulled up right in the middle of the court, halfway between the foul line and the basket. He stayed on his bicycle seat, balanced on one leg, cool as a breeze. The boy looked at Eric. And Eric watched him look.

His hair fell around his eyes and below his ears, wavy and uncombed. He had soft features with thick lips and long eyelashes. The boy appeared to be around Eric’s age, maybe a year older, and looked, well, pretty. It was the word that leaped into Eric’s mind, and for no other reason than because it was true.

Some random examples now . . .

Page 11:

Words came easily to Griffin, his smile was bright and winning.

Page 18:

Griffin flashed a smile, that hundred-dollar smile he could turn on in an instant. He reached out his fist. “Are we cool, buddy

Page 50:

“Mrs. Chavez!” Griffin exclaimed, smiling cheerfully. “Please let me help you with that . . .”

Page 68:

There was no way Eric could tell Griffin Connelly that story. So he told bits and pieces and white lies. Eric wondered if Griffin sensed it, the whole truth, if somehow Griffin already knew, saw into Eric’s secret heart and smiled.

Page 78:

“You want to hang out, don’t you?” Griffin asked. He smiled, put an arm around Hallenback’s shoulder.

Page 130:

Griffin winked at Eric. Then gave that big Hollywood smile, and swept the hair from his eyes.

Page 130:

“What are you going to do? Punch me?” Griffin taunted, grinning.

Page 131:

“I’ll be seeing you around, Eric,” Griffin said. His smile was like a pure beam of distilled sunlight. His long lashes blinked, his cheeks pinkened. He wore a perfect mask of kindness and light.

Page 165:

Griffin smiled wide, folded his hands together, and said in a soft voice, “We’ll see about that.”

Page 186:

Griffin grinned through the insults.

——-

Presented in this way, it may seem a little much. But  in the context of the story, I suspect it’s unnoticed. The accumulated effect, I hope, is creepiness. Here’s a guy you can’t trust. Every threat comes with a smile. White teeth gleaming in the sunlight, fangs bared.

“My Grandma, what big teeth you’ve got?”

Don’t let that smile fool you.