Archive for The Courage Test

Courage Keeps Walking

A friend alerted me to a recent post on Twitter from a Texas librarian. I’m not on Twitter yet, but I’ve been seriously considering it for more than a year. Slothlike in my cogitations.

Anyway!

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This comes from a passage from THE COURAGE TEST. Maybe I had forgotten about it. The moment here reminds me of the initial concept behind the book, which I kind of buried during the writing of it. The iceberg theory of writing, I guess, that 90% is under the water. Still important, just unseen from the surface.

Reading from THE COURAGE TEST on a school visit.

Reading from THE COURAGE TEST on a school visit.

My idea was that Will’s journey, which parallels that of Lewis & Clark, gives him experiences — i.e., lessons — that he will carry home, which he can put to use when he encounters the true test of his strength and character.

In this moment, Will learns about the explorers’ courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. They could have given up. Maybe it was almost reasonable to do so. But no. Courage keeps walking.

It’s interesting. We’re in a sometimes-awkward corrective phase in children’s literature. The diversity movement is making important inroads in our schools and libraries and publishing houses. My sense is that this is not really the moment for old white guys like Lewis & Clark. Heads are turned in other directions. And I get that, I do. And yet! Their story is still worth knowing, still an essential, defining aspect of the American experience, for good and for bad, and very much worth examining through a modern, “enlightened” perspective.

Thank you, Karen, for that sweet tweet!

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Research and Exploration

Once upon a time, I might have believed that research was a matter of dusty old books and card catalogs. But the world has changed and I’ve learned that research is an exploration — and truly one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a writer. 

When I wrote The Courage Test, the expedition of Lewis & Clark became a parallel storyline that ran alongside the main adventures in that book. And somewhere along the line it dawned on me that writing itself is an act of discovery, a seeking and an exploration. So in my own way, in my quiet room, I identified with the intrepid explorers who ventured into “parts unknown” to bring back news from beyond. That’s what writers do. Or what we try to do. 

Below is a photo sent by a beekeeping friend. It’s a scrap of research, a hint about the book I just finished writing, the 3rd in a new series. It launches in January, 2019. I’m not quite ready to talk about it just yet, but, again: I have three books written and finished and ready to go.

More details another day.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the journey.

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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #272: Meet Isaiah

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I recently spent a week in Hudson, Ohio. I don’t like to brag, but there it is — what a great community, and so many good places to eat. One night I did a signing at a bookstore, The Learned Owl, right there on North Main Street. That’s when I first met Isaiah, a boy who seemed particularly excited to meet a “real, live” author.

Two days later I spoke at Isaiah’s school. When my presentation was over, the students heading out, Isaiah came up and handed me this letter. I don’t think I can adequately describe the look in his eyes, other than to say he seemed to think he was in the presence of someone special. Or maybe that’s transference, because that’s exactly how I felt about him. 

I hope you can read Isaiah’s faint writing, because it’s an especially kind letter, and because he thanks me for being amazing. Hey, it’s about time somebody noticed!

 

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I replied . . .

Dear Isaiah,

First of all, did you see how I spelled your name? Not bad, right?

I remember when you came into the store to have your book signed. We talked for a while. Then I distinctly remember seeing you again, two or three days later, after I spoke at your school.

You had written a letter and you delivered it personally. Although we didn’t get a photograph –- I kind of wish we did that –- I can easily recall your face.

Thank you so much for that letter. I’m grateful you took the time to say those very kind words. You know, Isaiah, it’s not about me, James Preller. What I am most happy about is that you feel inspired to read, excited about books, any books, and that hopefully you’ll continue down that (amazing) road for the rest of your life. Who knows, maybe soon you’ll be writing your stories –- the ones only you can tell –- about your family, your experiences, your thoughts and feelings.

Thanks for being so nice to me. An author is lucky to meet a reader like you.

Keep reading, keep being . . . Isaiah!

Yes, your new friend,

James Preller

NOTE ABOUT THIS PHOTO: I sent my reply to Isaiah to his (wonderful) librarian, since I didn't have another way of reaching him. I didn't expect to see his reaction documented -- I never see that moment -- and it's awfully nice to see his happy grin. He's holding an old NY Mets baseball card, since I often include them in my responses. It's just a thing I do.

NOTE ABOUT THIS PHOTO: I sent my reply to Isaiah’s (terrific) librarian, since I didn’t have another way of reaching him. I didn’t expect to see his reaction documented — I never see that moment — and it’s awfully nice to see his happy grin. He’s holding an old NY Mets baseball card, since I often include one in my responses. It’s just a thing I do. Propaganda!

 

 

THE COURAGE TEST: Now Available on Scholastic Arrow Book Club (Only $5.00, Cheap!)

During a school visit earlier this week, a teacher showed me a copy of the March Arrow Book Club. 

This is a book I truly love, and I’m very glad to see it get out there a little bit. Hopefully it find some readers — or vice versa!

 

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My Nephew, Dan the River Man, in THE COURAGE TEST

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I didn’t set out for a research trip. We were simply looking to have a family adventure whitewater rafting. We’re lucky, because my nephew, Dan Rice, works as a guide for the Adirondack Rafting Company. That’s Dan in a steel-gray helmet in the photos, steering us through the waters.

As I said, I didn’t intend to write a fictionalized account of that experience. But, absolutely, experience is a great foundation for any future writing. Once I had it in back pocket, it was something I knew I could use at a later date.

The opportunity presented itself when I began writing The Courage Test, which came out in paperback a few months ago ($7.99, cheap). I decided to have Will and his father go rafting on the Lochsa River. It made sense, since the Lewis & Clark Expedition navigated those same dangerous waters, and the book was conceived as a parallel journey. When it came time for me to describe the river guide, I didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

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Finally, we gather around our boisterous river guide, who introduces himself as “Dan the River Man.” He’s a muscular, shaggy-haired, bearding outdoorsman, probably in his early thirties. He assures us that this is not his first rodeo. Our group includes six other adults in addition to my father and me, and we’re assigned a big orange inflatable raft. It looks bouncy and safe. We’re all dressed in rented wet suits and wear life vests and plastic helmets.

Before we even get into the water, Dan makes a few jokes to show us he’s a cool guy, and then shifts into a no-nonsense talk about river safety. We go over a list of dos and don’t — mostly don’t. Dan steps up and with a firm yank tightens each individual life vest. Next Dan drills us on paddle techniques. Some of it I already know, thanks to Ollie. We’re going to have to work hard and listen to his instructions, when to “dig in” and put our backs into it, when to shift our weight, and when to lie back. “We can’t possibly avoid every obstacle on the river. Let’s say, oh, we’re going to roll over a rock. I’ll shout out, ‘Bump!’ When that happens, you’ve all got to lean into the center of the boat. It’s critically important. We don’t want anybody falling over the side.” Dan scans the group, and his gaze lingers longest on me, maybe because I’m the youngest. “Mistakes can cost lives,” Dan reminds us. And he says to my father, “Make sure you two sit near me.”

Dan gives us a final inspection, and we put in at a quiet bend of the river. Soon the water carries us away. It doesn’t stay quiet for long.

The first hour is probably the most exciting sixty minutes I’ve had in my entire life. And then with a lurch the boat suddenly tips down, and there’s a bounce and a jostle, and Dan cries out, “Big bump! Lean in!” Before I can react, I’m popped backward into the air like a rag doll. My feet kick at the clouds. The paddle flies from my hands. 

I cry out something like, “Aaargggh!” or “Whaaaaazit!” But mostly it all unreels like a movie, a rapid-fire succession of flickering images across a screen. The only sound is the river’s unremitting roar.

I hit the water, and I’m instantly thrown into a frenzied, swirling liquid mass of pure force. I have no control over my body; I’m just tumbling and rolling in the helter-skelter of rapids. It’s like getting hit by a locomotive, then another one, then another one. I’m buried under for a horrifying ten seconds, gulping water in a panic, and then I’m thrown up into the light, lungs screaming for air. From the corner of my eye I see the raft ahead of me, shocked faces staring back, my father shouting wordlessly, arms waving, pointing. There’s Dan in his silver Ray-Bans, ever cool, standing at the back of the boat. He looks back at me over his shoulder, assessing the situation, while still navigating the course ahead. 

I am a bullet, shooting the rapids. 

I don’t want to spoil anything for future readers, so I’ll cut the scene here. I’m grateful to my nephew, the real Dan the River Man, who expertly took care of us on our happy, laugh-filled journey with the Adirondack Rafting Company. Good times, good times.

The lesson here? Hang out with writers at your peril. You just may find yourself in a book one day. 

SOME REVIEWS . . .

“Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip.”Booklist, starred review.

“There is plenty of action . . . A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama.”School Library Journal.

“Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here.”Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.