Archive for The Courage Test

Fan Mail Wednesday #276: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

 

I’ll transcribe this letter from Annabel in Massachusetts. The original was lightly written in pencil and my scanner wasn’t up to the task:

Dear James Preller,

My name is Annabel. I read The Courage Test. William is awesome.

One of the things I like is the adventure. The bear and the water rapids parts have a lot of adventure. In the book it said, “If she is making this display to terrify me, it’s working.” It shows William is scared and has encountered something dangerous. There will be a lot of action in that part of the story that’s interesting to read.

How long have you been an author and what’s your favorite type of book?

Sincerely,

Annabel

 

I replied:

 

Dear Annabel,

I’m so happy to receive a letter from a reader of The Courage Test. With a new book, I’m never sure if anyone will find it. So: yes, thank you and hooray.

I like the exciting parts, too. It’s those moments when you can almost feel, as a writer, the reader leaning in. One of these days I should try to write a book composed entirely of exciting parts, like those movies that are two-hour car chases. Actually, the thought of that exhausts me.

Ideally, I think we want our stories to have shape and pace, quiet moments, important conversations, laughter, insightful description –- and, sure, somebody almost drowning in the rapids. I think when my writing is at its best, all those elements are woven together.

Yesterday I wrote a dramatic scene for an upcoming book, Blood Mountain, that centers on a brother and sister who are lost in the wilderness for six suspenseful days. A lot happens in this book, so if you like exciting parts, you’ll have to check it out. In the scene I wrote yesterday, the boy, Carter, is alone, exhausted, near hypothermia, desperately hiking through a bog. Oscar Wilde has a great quote: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

And also, it’s helpful to try to come up with characters that readers care about –- and then do awful things to them. That’s an idea put forth by author Kurt Vonnegut in his famous “8 Rules for Writers.” You might like my newest book, Better Off Undead. It’s about a 7th-grade zombie, Adrian, who meets a girl who can see into the future, along with a beekeeper and a detective, and there’s evil billionaires, and, I promise you, exciting parts.

I published my first book in 1986. The last time the New York Mets made the World Series. And truthfully, I like all kinds of books –- even some of mine!

My best,

James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #275: Free Skype Redux

Can you feel it? Summer’s last gasps. Here on the East Coast, we’re making the big turn and heading into the school year. From the point of view of this blog, that means we’re coming to life again after a quiet summer sojourn.

Nice to see you, welcome back!

A while back, I enjoyed a lovely Skype with a class in Miami. A beautiful, diverse group of students read The Courage Test and I answered questions about the book for about half an hour. No fee.

It’s something I’m trying to be open to in the future — the free Skype — for a variety of reasons. But first this: I’ve managed to survive as a children’s book writer over the past 20 years by actively visiting schools and presenting to young people. It’s been an essential source of revenue for me; the paid visits keep the ship afloat. And I love doing them. I’m immensely grateful for every invitation. So I’ve always been conflicted about “giving it away.” But it can’t be denied: in many situations, Skype is the only way to connect with these teachers and students, for geographic or economic reasons. It’s also rewarding to speak deeply about a book that everyone has read, rather than doing the typical one-sided overview of, ahem, the writer’s life. Also, yes, I believe in my books and I’m trying to get them out there, into the hands of young readers. That’s what it’s all about.

Today I’m sharing the follow-up to one of those Skypes. File this under: some people are raised right.

Nice, right? The handwritten “thank you” note. A rare sighting!

The package arrived with teal t-shirt and a bevy of beautifully illustrated cards from students, each containing a thoughtful comment about our Skype together. 

Look:

 

I don’t need or expect that kind of response, but it’s awfully nice to receive. The satisfaction of coming full circle. Thank you, Denise, thank you, Miami!

For more information about my school visits, please click here

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!