Archive for the writing process

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:


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. 


“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.

DIGGING UP THE LOST WORDS: Inspired by Haiku & Candice Ransom


I’m blogging today to share an insightful article by children’s author Candice Ransom. I found myself nodding all the way through it, making connections to my own recent experience with haiku and, for lack of a better word, my effort, simply, to attend to things, to see the thing-specific, while desiring to learn the elusive words.

Ms. Ransom began her article, titled “Poetry from Stones” in Bookology magazine, this way: 

Outside my window right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Outside my window, the leafless sweetgum shows a condo of squirrels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the horizon indicates wind moving in, and a white-crowned sparrow scritches under the feeders. Better. Even in winter, especially in winter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating.

In November, I taught writing workshops at a school in a largely rural county. I was shocked to discover most students couldn’t name objects in their bedrooms, much less the surrounding countryside. Without specific details, writing is lifeless. More important, if children can’t call up words, can’t distinguish between things, they will remain locked in wintry indifference. Some blame falls on us.

Oxford Junior DictionaryA recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary swapped nature words for modern terms. Out went acorn, wren, dandelion, nectar, and otter. In went blog, bullet-point, attachment, chatroom, and voicemail. Updating dictionaries isn’t new. And maybe cygnet isn’t as relevant as database, but it’s certainly more musical.  If we treat language like paper towels, it’s no wonder many kids can’t name common backyard birds.

When I was nine, my stepfather taught me the names of the trees in our woods, particularly the oaks. I learned to identify red, white, black, pin, post, and chestnut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. Labeling trees, birds, and wildflowers didn’t give me a sense of ownership. Instead, I felt connected to the planet. I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept quiet.

< snip >

I’m sorry, but I can’t resist quoting Ransom’s great piece at some length. She goes on to discuss a new book, recently discovered . . .

The Lost Words: a Spell BookSo imagine my delight when I found a new book for children, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. British nature-writer Robert MacFarlane paired with artist Jackie Morris to rescue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words like newt and kingfisher are showcased as “spells,” rather than straight definitions. MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the creature sink deep, while Morris’s watercolors create their own magic.

On their joint book tour throughout England, MacFarlane and Morris introduced children to words—and animals. On her blog Morris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year-olds when the booksellers stopped me. ‘Ask the children if they know what a wren is, first, Jackie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had never seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so perhaps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”

The Lost Words makes me want to take children by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illustrate our winter landscape. By giving kids specific names, they can then spin a thread from themselves to the planet.

Ah. Long, slow clap.

6792381Sometime in December, wary of time wasted on social media, the allure of Facebook, and my own (possibly connected) struggles as a writer, I decided to make a change. I felt empty, scattered, and discouraged. You know, the writer thing. I promised myself to begin each day by reading and writing haiku. It became my daily practice. Ten minutes, half an hour, even longer, however it worked for that day. Sometimes I’d go to my haiku before I made the morning coffee, and absolutely — this was a rule — before turning on my computer. On some miraculous mornings, I’d think of a haiku before my head left the pillow. 

UrP4fwuq1G3L+lCQHXVjJ4WD9n1O4!fHVzU32t1zotb2XltGqt5NH08Zg1lv!rMx0rUDeeqoUwC9Vrx87vEQ1D!qv90OwVUiNQfyiA+baMM=I’ve been reading Richard Wright’s marvelous late-period haiku poems, written at a time he was deathly ill, as if clinging to the world; rereading Basho’s A Haiku Journey; slowly leafing through various collections. I don’t read too many poems at a time; it’s not something to take at a headlong rush, another box to tick off. What I love about reading and writing haiku is that the practice forces me to slow down, to be present, to (try to) see the pear in the sunbeam, so to speak. People have asked what I’m going to “do” with the poems, and I explain that for me this has been
about the process, not the product. The poems are secondary. Possibly irrelevant. Most of them are “bad,” if you need to measure them that way. I try to avoid thinking about result. In this sense, for me, it’s like yoga. It’s something I am doing for myself, tuning to a different frequency. I’m not trying to “beat” your downward dog.
411ouV3CMiL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_Haiku traditionally places a primary focus on nature. Seeing the moment, hearing the rain. This relates, of course, to William Carlos Williams’ 20th century directive, “No ideas but in things.” Or earlier, Tolstoy’s “God is in the details.” The necessity for the writer to move away from abstraction, the world of ideas, to see the particular thing itself. At least, to begin there. To be present in a world of multi-tasking and lost words. This of course spills over into relationships, parenting, conversations in coffee shops. It is . . . a way.

41CT8T98W7L._SX255_BO1,204,203,200_During this time, even before I found Candice’s article, I’d been troubled with an old failing of mine. I’m not terribly good at knowing the names of things. My brain is fuzzy. I love nature and the great outdoors, but I’m not a trained naturalist. I need to do better. So as part of my haiku journey, living this new enthusiasm, I’ve been reading about trees and nature. Watching videos. Buying field guides. Studying up. Trying to dig up the lost words.

Because I believe the words connect us to seeing deeply, the words enrich our perception of reality. The words connect us to some vital spark in this world: to nature, to our planet, to each other. I often suspect that our temporary president has never once sat on a mountaintop and appreciated the wonder and awe of nature. Just listen to him speak. Look at his policies. Read about how he eats. This temporary man has never gazed at a sunset without wondering how he might monetize it. Turn a profit. I believe he’s empty in that regard, like any non-reader, full only of avarice and self — nature as a thing to be used. It shows in his incurious mind, his disregard for the care and well-being of our planet.

He doesn’t know the words.

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RoboCop, Ronald Reagan, and How a 1984 Campaign Commercial Gets Reimagined in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

“This uproarious middle grade call to action
has considerable kid appeal
and a timely message.
A strong addition to school and public library collections.”
— School Library Journal.

One of the most enjoyable aspects about writing Better Off Undead was that it was set in the not-so-distant future. That was a first for me, and a revelation. A simple fact that turned everything in the book into social commentary. And at the same time, I felt inspired to include everything but the kitchen sink into my creative blender: climate change, makeover shows, train bombs, pollution, GMOs, school testing, zombies and bats and bees and whatever else hit my radar.

RoboCop-1987-PosterI was also inspired by the faux-commercials and sly asides throughout the original 1987 “RoboCop” movie directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Peter Weller. It was a movie that satirized popular culture in all sorts of astute and clever ways. To cite one example: Instead of Battleship, the popular family game is called Nuke ‘Em! Ha-ha. The movie does a terrific job skewering corporate greed and immorality. The corporate machine just wants to be a machine; it doesn’t care about sunsets or art or, you know, us. (It might serve us, but it won’t ever care.)

This is one of the powerful aspects of science fiction. The moment we begin to describe a future society, we automatically comment on the values and efficiencies of our current one. When characters sit on a bench and watch the evening sky for hologram advertisements (page 120, “Under a Hologram Sky,”) I’m saying something about the monetizing impulses of our world. And when I have young Dane watch a commercial on page 82 for “EarthFirst Gas Masks” — “Sleek and stylish and eighty percent more effective than ordinary surgical masks for protection against air pollution and other contagion!” — I’m taking articles I’ve read about pollution in China’s cities, with ordinary citizens walking around wearing surgical gas masks, and extending it into the future, broken world of my book. “That’s right, Vanna,” a gray-haired man chimes in. “These masks will keep you safe from airborne diseases like dengue fever and superflu and –“

And so on.

ScanThis sort of thing goes on throughout Better Off Undead. It’s a world gone wrong. How else explain a zombie, Adrian Lazarus, walking around in Nixon Middle School? (By the way, I did not realize until today that “RoboCop” included a reference to Lee Iacocca Elementary School. Nice, right? In the future our heroes will be corporate CEOs; “greed is good,” Gordon Gekko, and all that. What could possibly go wrong?)

When I created the evil corporation, K & K Corp, central to Adrian’s adventure, I naturally drew inspiration from the despicable Koch brothers. I tried to imagine how they might attempt to manipulate public opinion for personal profit and remembered a famous television commercial from the 1984 Presidential Election (I was fresh out of college and definitely paying attention). It was Ronald Reagan’s classic “It’s Morning Again in America” commercial that proved so effective for his campaign. Could have been titled, “It’s all good!”




Anyway, here’s the scene at the end of Chapter 21, “Talal Clues Me In”:

Dane was taking a bath when I got home. My mother was on the computer. I clicked on the television. A commercial came on. I’d probably seen it a hundred times before, but this time I noticed the names at the end of it.

The commercial flashed a series of short film clips, each more beautiful than the next. A fishing boat leaves a harbor, a man in a business suit gets into a cab, a rugged farmer drives a big-wheeled tractor, a cowboy saddles up, a car and a moving van pull into the driveway of a huge home, a teary-eyed grandmother watches a wedding scene in church, various citizens hoist American flags up flagpoles, rows of smiling children look up in wonder, a proud eagle soars across the sky. Final image: a logo on the side of a huge glass-and-steel building for K & K Corp.

NOTE: I have to interrupt here to point out that the paragraph above and immediately below is a fairly accurate description of the 1984 commercial. I watched it and wrote. And also, yes, of course, flags and jobs and weddings and boats and farmers and grandmothers are all good things. It’s just, you know, exponentially manipulative. And super white, by the way. Anway, back to our excerpt:

While all those images floated past, a man’s voice spoke in soothing tones. The words scrolled across the screen in block letters as he spoke:








{FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400In smaller print, it read: THIS HAD BEEN A PAID ADVERTISEMENT BY K & K CORP.

“That’s some frown, Adrian,” my mother said. She had joined me in the kitchen and was poking around in the refrigerator. “What’s bothering you?”

“Huh? What?” I replied. “Nothing. I’m fine. I was watching that commercial and –“

“Don’t you love it?” my mother said while slicing into a giant, perfectly pink, wonderfully round, genetically engineered grapefruit. “I see that commercial every day, and every day it makes me smile.”

I made an effort to smile right along with her.

“Be happy. Relax. Smile,” my mother repeated. “Those are words to live by!”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I wondered why K & K Corporation was spending millions of dollars on commercials to brainwash us all.

They didn’t want us to worry.

Because of course they didn’t.

Everything was fine.

Be happy. Relax. Smile.


For reference, here is the full text of the original commercial, which I encourage you to watch by clicking here:

“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you check out the book. 

Here’s the full review from Booklist . . .

star-512“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc. Having inexplicably survived a fatal hit-and-run accident over the summer, aptly named Adrian Lazarus is off to seventh grade, sporting a hoodie to hide his increasing facial disfigurement and lunching on formaldehyde smoothies to keep himself together. Simultaneously resenting and yet understanding the varied reactions of his schoolmates—which range from shunning to all-too-close attention from a particularly persistent bully—Adrian is also surprised and pleased to discover that he has allies, notably Gia Demeter, a new girl with a peculiar ability to foretell certain events. Preller might have played this as a light comedy (and there are some hilarious bits), but he goes instead for darker inflections. Even as Adrian sees himself becoming ominously aggressive (while developing tastes for roadkill and raw meat), his discovery that fabulously powerful data miners Kalvin and Kristoff Bork are ruthlessly scheming to put him under the knife in search of the secret to his longevity cranks the suspense up another notch. Nonetheless, in a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — Booklist, Starred Review


How There’s a Touch of “M.A.S.H.” in My Book, BETTER OFF UNDEAD


My parents rarely took the whole family to movies. In fact, they rarely took themselves. Money was tight and with seven children covering a twelve-year span, a night at the movies was an expensive, unrealistic outing. However, I do recall a few family outings to the theater and can still name each movie: “The Immigrants” with Liv Ullman (I was too young and bored out of my mind), “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman (politically incorrect but I love it to this day), “The Godfather,” “Frenzy” (Hitchcock!), and “M.A.S.H.” And that’s it, the sum total of all the films I saw with my parents in the theater.

In particular, Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H.” stuck with me — it felt wild and irreverant — and then the popular television series further reinforced its influence on me. Without consciously thinking of the source, I borrowed a technique from the movie for my middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead.


I am thinking of the absurdist, omniscient P.A. announcements sprinkled throughout the film and, later, the series. What a brilliant device for satire and social comment. And not only that idea, but visually the way Altman fixed the camera on speaker. No reaction shots from beloved characters. We don’t even know the source of the voice who gives the announcements; it’s as if the words had fallen from the skies.


And on and on it goes. Here’s a great source for announcements from the television series. Please check it out, I’m sure you’ll find some favorites.


For my part, I believe young people experience this absurdity in a unique way each school day. Suddenly the voice blares on, interrupting whatever might be happening at any time during the day. I decided to feature the school principal in this manner. For example, the “Morning Announcements” chapter that begins on page 104:

On top of everything else, our principal was losing his mind. Maybe it was the job, I don’t know. There were days when our school felt like a madhouse — and the students weren’t the loony ones. Take today’s morning announcements for example, which began as usual with an ear-splitting buzz:

Kkccchh. “Is this on?” Kkccchh. Tap-tap, TAP-TAP. “Miss Shen? Is this thing” — whirr — “hey-ho, ouch! — What the . . . ? Good mooooorningggg, Nixon Middle School! This is your principal, Mr. Rouster!”

pa-speakersFrom my seat in the back corner of my homeroom class, I watched as everyone turned to the loudspeaker in listless silence.

The substitute teacher, Mrs. Perez, never looked up from her smartphone. Principal Rouster crowed. “All righty, then! I’ve got some good news, some bad news, and some really bad news. First, the good news! Our school recently received a large federal grant involving enormous sums of taxpayers’ money. I’m please to announce that there will be construction going on throughout the school. You may be inconvenienced by the occasional disruption.”

On cue, a series of loud noises — banging, chiseling, and the vibrating cacophony of a jackhammer — erupted out in the hallway. Next came a calamitous crash, a thud, and a muffled “Oops.”

Principal Rouster chattered on in a nasal voice, unruffled. “The bad news is that the construction will cause changes to our normal schedule. Until further notice, the cafeteria will be moved to the gymnasium. But P.E. will go on as scheduled. Just don’t confuse the meatballs with the dodgeballs! Heh-heh. The Choir Club will share a room with the Chess Club; they will both meet in the science lab. On Tuesday we’ll follow the Wednesday schedule, except for band members, who will adhere to their Thursday schedules — but only on Mondays. Lastly, the literacy center will be closed because of the asbestos problem recently brought to our attention by Janitor McConnell’s alarming rash. Get better soon, Mike!”

The girl next to me, Desiree Reynolds, muttered, “I wonder what the really bad news is.”

Principal Rouster continued, “The really bad news is that all bathroom privileges have been temporarily suspended. This should last only a few hours. In case of emergency, a temporary porta-potty has been set up in the mail hallway. I don’t have to tell you that with seven hundred students in the school, we’ll require a high level of cooperation and an almost Zen-like self-control of your bodily functions. Please avoid all liquids, and I strongly suggest that you tread lightly on today’s lunch special, the New Orleans gumbo. That stuff runs right through you.

“Thank you and happy learning!” 

I had originally intended to do more of this kind of thing throughout the book, but over time I felt it interrupted the pace of the story. I decided that a little bit would go a long way. That was my hope anyway! Here’s another quick bit, later in the book:

On Friday, the day of the “Halloween Fandango” — don’t look at me, I don’t name these things — Principal Rouster made another major announcement:

Kkkccchh. Kkkccchh. Tap-tap. TAP-TAP — SQUAAAWWWKKK. “Good afternoon, Nixon Middle School! Due to the recent discovery of toxic mold in various locations around the school, the Department of Health has temporarily shut down gymnasium B, our proposed setting for tonight’s Halloween Fandango! < snip > Not to worry! We’ve moved the dance to . . . THE PIT!”

Churlish screams, anguished cries, and wails of despair filled the room. “Not the pit, anything but the pit!” Desiree Reynolds moaned. 

“It smells like stale cheese!” groaned Arnie Chang.

“I got sick in the pit last year,” little Jessica Timmons confessed in her tiny voice, “and they still haven’t mopped it up.”



Oh, one final note of appreciation. At the end of the film, in a truly meta moment, the PA announcement is used to break through the fourth wall. It closes with this message:

“Tonight’s movie has been M*A*S*H.”


Making Connections (and Friends) with a Little Free Library!


Here’s a quick story:

It was love at first sight. I first heard about Little Free Libraries five or six years ago. There are so many things to like: the community building, the celebration of literacy, the connectivity, and the creativity & craftsmanship of the objects themselves.

When I started writing a new Jigsaw Jones book — my first in ten years, my 41st overall — I knew I wanted to celebrate this small but powerful idea. Take a book, leave a book. So I centered the mystery in The Case from Outer Space around a note left inside a book found in a Little Free Library.

This one of the illustrations from my book, drawn by R.W. Alley:


I had to create the character who put up this particular Little Free Library. What should he or she be like? Well, wonderful, right? Giving, kind, literate, fun-loving, happy. I decided to model this character — a key witness in our story — after my friend, author Robin Pulver. (She writes the “Language Arts Library” series and the classic “Mrs. Toggle” books, which were also illustrated by R.W. Alley, so there was a nice symmetry to it: you can learn more about Robin here.)

urlI didn’t ask Robin’s permission, I decided to surprise her. Fingers crossed, sensing she’d get a kick out of it.

I enjoyed writing that scene when my imaginary detective, Jigsaw Jones, interviews the fictional “Mrs. Pulver.” It was very meta. Here’s the essence of it, from Chapter 4:

I did push-ups on the Pulvers’ doorbell. A smiling woman with short hair answered the door.

I told her that I was a detective.

“How thrilling,” she said.

“I am working on a case,” I explained. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

I showed her my card:


Call Jigsaw Jones or Mila Yeh, Private Eyes!

Mrs. Pulver whistled. “Wowee zowee.”

“It’s a living,” I said.

She told me about the library. She said that she read about Little Free Libraries on the Internet. “I thought it was a wonderful idea,” she said. “So I asked Harold to build one.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Harold?”

“My husband,” she replied. “He’s retired. I like to give him little jobs.”

I asked, “Have you noticed anything . . . strange?”

“Oh, Harold has been strange for years,” she said, laughing.

“No, I mean about the library,” I said.

She clasped her hands. “Lots of folks come and go. Friends, neighbors, even people I’ve never seen before. It’s lovely, actually. The books connect us.”

Here’s a sadly dark photo of Robin and me from last week’s Rochester Children’s Book Festival.


But wait, I have to tell you about one more cool connection.

Yesterday I received this beautiful book in the mail. A gift from the author herself. A stranger to me, but now a friend.



Margret Aldrich had discovered the Little Free Library reference in my book and was moved to send along a copy.

Once again I ask myself, How lucky am I?

Books really do connect us.

Margret included a kind inscription: