Eight years ago, I published an upper midde-grade/YA titled The Fall. It was inspired on the day I read about the suicide of a 12-year-old girl, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, who was “terrorized on social media.”
My book is written from the point of view of a boy, Sam, who had participated in some of that online bullying. Across time, he writes in his journal: remembering, recounting, reflecting, and ultimately owning it.
The book begins: “Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have typed a message on her social medial page that said, “Just die! Die! Die! No one cares about you anyway!”
It’s a story that has generated a lot of powerful letters from students, usually in 8th grade; if you are interested in investigating a few of those letters, just click on “The Fall” under categories on the right sidebar and scroll.
I re-share this post because nearly a week has passed since we learned about yet another horrific teen suicide, a 14-year-old girl named Adriana Kuch.
The reasons for suicide are complex and ultimately unknowable. But so much comes back to how we treat each other. Our sense of compassion and empathy, which is a social skill that can be cultivated. Reading helps. Literature helps.
I see much of the world’s cruelty as a direct result of a failure of the imagination. A failure to recognize the humanity in others.
We must do better.
This morning in February 2023 I am conflicted about sharing this blog post. But I do know that my book has helped some readers in the past. Perhaps it can help someone again. This all makes me so sorry and so sad.
Previously Posted . . .
It began almost twenty-five years ago when I first started writing the Jigsaw Jones Mystery Series. I’d drop quick references to actual books that my characters were reading. Bunnicula, Shiloh, Nate the Great, and so on. Sometimes I’d do more with it, as in The Great Sled Race, where Jigsaw’s class is reading Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner. In another example, The Case of the Buried Treasure, the students in room 201 had to do a “story maps” assignment based on Wolf in the Snow, the 2018 Caldecott Medal Winner by Matthew Cordell. This strategy was a nod of appreciation and a way to connect the real world with Jigsaw’s fictional world. Maybe a reader would think, Hey, I read that book, too!
I carried on that tradition over to longer works for middle-grade readers and beyond. It wasn’t a plan, exactly, it just sort of happened. In some ways, it poses a good question for a writer to ask of any character: What book would this person love? In Blood Mountain, there’s a former marine with PTSD. He’s living off the grid in the mountains. The dog-eared book he carries around is Lau Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. The fact of that book served as an entrance point into the struggles and mindset of the character.
For The Fall, I used Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. There was a time in our world when seemingly everyone read that book — I remember grabbing it off an older sister’s bookshelf. I decided to make The Bell Jar an important book for Morgan Mallen. It was fascinating for me to read it again through the eyes of that character. After Morgan’s death, by suicide, the book finds its way to The Fall’s narrator, Sam.
Here’s one passage where Plath’s book comes into play:
Morgan had marked up The Bell Jar here and there, little checkmarks and passages underlined.
I never found my name in it. There was no secret message. Believe me, I looked.
“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead” was underlined in red.
There was a loopy star next to “I wanted to be where nobody I knew could ever come.”
Another star: “I had nothing to look forward to.”
It was that kind of book, and I guess Morgan was that kind of girl. There was a sadness inside her, a darkness I couldn’t touch. Strange as it seems, all the while I imagined her reading those words, dragging her pen under important sentences, drawing stars in the margins.
Reading is the most alone thing in the world.
But she was with me the whole time.
Weirdness. The book brought us closer, across time and impossible distance. We shared this.
ABOUT THE FALL . . .
“Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).” — Booklist.
“Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse.” — School Library Journal.
“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” (Fiction. 10-16) — Kirkus.
“It was 2:55 am as I finally gave up on the notion of sleep. Having started reading THE FALL by James Preller earlier in the day, I knew sleep would not come until I had finished Sam’s story. Now, having turned the last page, it still haunts me and will for quite some time.” — Guys Lit Wire.
“I didn’t realize the emotional impact this book had on me until the very last sentence when it brought tears to my eyes. This was a heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship, bullying, and the aftermath of all of it.” — Expresso Reads.
NOMINATED FOR THE SAKURA MEDAL IN JAPAN!
YALSA “QUICK PICK” FOR RELUCTANT YOUNG ADULT READERS!