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RE-POST: Give Student Writers the Freedom to Embrace Their Inner Zombie

1621704_667566729951571_1638043617_nNote: A variation of this essay first appeared a while back over at the fabulous Nerdy Book Club, founded by Donalyn “The Book Whisperer” Miller, Colby Sharp (the man, not the cheese), and possibly several other folks. The history is not entirely clear to me. Nonetheless! You can follow all their nerdy, book-loving, classroom-centered hijinks on Facebook, Twitter, and various other social platforms, I’m sure. 



These days, young people are crazy about zombies. That’s just a plain fact. Not every kid, of course, but a lot of them.

And I’m here to say: Use that as an advantage in your classroom. Seize the day zombie! Particularly when it comes to student writing. Some girls want to team up to conjure a story about a zombie apocalypse? Here’s a pen and paper. Go for it, ladies.


Many students, as young as third grade and on up into high school, are watching THE WALKING DEAD. The secret that quite of few of them don’t realize is that the hit television show is not about zombies at all. It’s about people surviving zombies. The zombies themselves are boring, without personality, almost irrelevant. They could be switched out for deadly fog, or World War II, a forest fire, or a tsunami. The zombies are simply a device to propel forward a character-driven story. It’s the engine that drives plot — all those pistons churning — and gives each moment heightened meaning.

That’s my point here. Any zombie story is almost entirely about character.

zombie-3-comingWhat we need to recognize is that, counter-intuitively, the zombie plot device perfectly lends itself to character-centered story. In the case of THE WALKING DEAD, it could even be argued that it’s about family, blended, modern, unconventional, or traditional.

With, okay, some (really) gross parts thrown in. Warning: Some characters in this story may get eaten. Hold the hot sauce. Ha! And why not, if that’s what it takes? If a little bit of the old blood and guts is the hook you need to lure in those writers, embrace it.

You can’t write a good zombie story without creating an assortment of interesting characters. Then you place those diverse characters in danger, you bring them into conflict with each other, you get them screaming, and talking, and caring about each other.

As, okay, they are chased by a bunch of zombies.

There’s no drama unless the writer makes us care about his or her characters. Your student writers will be challenged to make those characters come alive, become vivid and real. We have to care that they live or, perhaps, really kind of hope they get eaten alive in the most hideous way possible by a crazed zombie mob. Screaming, hopefully.

Don’t be turned off by that. Remember, it’s really all about character development, keep your focus to that. Dear teacher, I am saying this: embrace your inner zombie –- and turn those students loose. We can’t all write about dinner parties and visits from Aunt Gweneth.

What they will be writing will be no different than your typical Jane Austin novel. Except for, you know, all those bloody entrails.


There are currently six books available in my “Scary Tales” series. Not pictured: Swamp Monster.

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorez     nightmareland_cvr_lorez     9781250018915_p0_v1_s260x420     iscreamyouscream_cvr_highrez-198x300



“Xpresso Reads” Offers a Great Review of THE FALL


I was recently directed to a very impressive blog named Xpresso Reads, and happily discovered a positive review by Amy of my upcoming book, The Fall (September).


The money quote:

“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.”

I encourage you to click madly right here to grok the review in fullness.

Thanks, Amy!


Footnote: In the comments section, I came across a number of readers who mentioned the plethora of books these days about suicide and bullying. I felt compelled to add my thoughts to that discussion, and I might as well share them here.

So, um, here goes:

Hi, Amy. Thank you for the thoughtful review of my book, THE FALL. Just a little background here. When I wrote BYSTANDER in 2009, it was the right book at the right time — just before the issue blew up on the national media and the politicians got involved. Funding in schools, educators forced to address the issue, etc. To my surprise, I had stumbled upon an “it” topic.

In my visits to schools around the country, I was often asked about a sequel. I had no plans for one, not wired that way. But a few things started to happen in my mind. One, I saw the vilification of “the bully” and it didn’t easily jive with my perceptions. In most cases, I don’t actually believe in “the bully” per say; I understand “bullying” as a verb, a behavior, rather than as a label to stick on young person. So I began to think that if I ever approached the topic again, that’s where I wanted to go — from the perspective of a so-called bully. I wanted to write about it with sympathy and compassion, rather than finger-pointing and easy admonition. At the same time, I read some heartbreaking news reports about suicides, children who had been abused on social media, and so on. That’s how I came to write this book.

It is uncomfortable for me to feel like this book is part of a tidal wave of books on the topic. That’s never been how I’ve operated my career. My hope is that the first-person journal format brings something fresh and vital to the conversation.

Again, thank you for reading the book.

My best,

James Preller

While you’re here, some other recent review quotes 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.




Fan Mail Wednesday #193: Stinky Science & Secret Codes



Today’s letter comes from the International School in Palo Alto, CA, and it’s written by Chih-Hsuan. But that’s not the best part. The best part is that it includes a brand new code — and I cracked it!

Here’s the letter:

Scan 1

Scan 3

I replied:

Dear Chih-Hsuan:

It’s always amazing to receive fan mail. When you think of the world today, how many people on the planet receive actual letters? What’s more, you wrote to me about a book that I wrote 15 years ago. That’s before you were born!

I’m glad that I’m still alive to read it.

And I mean, I’m very glad. The old ticker is still working!

I love your code, which is a variation of the List Code that Mila created in the book. At first it looks like a shopping list: 4 peanuts, 3 lobsters, 26 tomatos, etc.

The number, of course, is the key which directs me, the reader, to the proper letter. 3 lobsters means: “b.” What stumped me, briefly, was 26 tomatos. Hmmm? The letter “z”? Then I separated the number into its parts, a “2” and a “6.” Oooooooh. Double ooooooh!

Your secret message: FUN BOOK!

Thanks for that.

I should also thank you for getting me to pull that book off the shelf. I was actually charmed by the first page — a good beginning, I thought, in which I introduce a new character:

Illustration by John Speirs.

Illustration by John Speirs.

The pink bows didn’t fool me. I ignored the matching lace socks and the little red plastic pocketbook. I knew that Sally-Ann Simms was one tough cookie.

So what if she was only four and a half years old.

Sally-Ann stood in my backyard, hands on her hips. She shouted up to my tree house, “Jigsaw Jones! You up there?”

I was up there — and I told her so. “Take the ladder,” I called down. “The elevator’s broken.”

It’s a relief for me to read something I wrote long ago to discover that I still like it. Not bad, I think. And “not bad” is “pretty good.”

You asked why Joey didn’t simply throw his egg sandwich away in the trash. Good question. I think he felt bad about wasting food, so he wanted to get rid of the sandwich without anyone noticing. Of course, as a storyteller, I needed Joey to hide it in the volcano to help keep my plot moving forward. I have to confess that the smell of hard-boiled eggs makes me flee the room. It’s just one of those odors that I can’t tolerate. Yuck. Super yuck. 

Thanks for writing to me, Chih-Hsuan. And thank you, also, to the good folks at Scholastic for still sending along those letters, long after the book’s been published.

My best,


Quick Comic for Teachers: Math Problems, Charles Schulz

This one has been flying around the internet for years, but it always makes me laugh.

Maybe it will have the same satisfying effect on you.

It’s interesting, I think, that Sally uses the word “hell” here. In the context of Peanuts, it’s almost shocking. And therefore more powerful. And, I think, a little funnier.

Thank you, as always, Charles Schulz.


A Comic by Mark Tatulli, for Book Lovers





Due to time constraints, I kind of slopped this comic up here without adding further comment. And I think that’s valid, you know. Let the work stand on its own, without me trying to influence how you experience it.

And also, hey, I was busy.

But I love this comic, which was originally shared by my friend (and poet), Mary Lee Hahn. I think it’s deep and poignant, chilling even. It delivers far more than a quick diversion or momentary chuckle.

Think of this world. Think of the messages children hear. Or what we all hear, every day. We are defined and judged and far too often found wanting by this anonymous media monster that surrounds us, like a many-tentacled sea monster pulling down another ship.

We’re too fat, too poor, not good enough.

And then, silence.

And books. That deep, wide-open space we give ourselves when we open a book, and another, and another. Reading is such a gift, and it’s been central to my life for many, many years. Today, I just feel grateful for the reading life.

The interior life.

Thank you, Mark Tatulli, for expressing it so simply, so eloquently.



Fan Mail Wednesday #178: Crayola’s Dumb Mistake

Yes, we’re gonna do this again . . .

This sweet letter came from Ohio!

I replied:

Dear Alexis:

Ah, you read one of my favorite books.

Quick, sad story: That book came out in 2008, was named one of the top 100 books of the year by the awesome folks at The New York Public Libraries . . . and it went out of print three years later. Just like that, poof, gone.

Hard to find these days, especially in paperback.

Can you imagine how that feels for me?

Anyway, ah, pish and tosh. I like ALONG CAME SPIDER for the same reasons that you did, for the mixed feelings it gave you. Friendship is a complicated thing, and it’s not always clear what’s the right thing to do. I do believe, personally, that we know the answers in our hearts, or in our stomachs, if you prefer. Unfortunately, the right thing to do is often not the easiest.

Anyway, favorite books? That’s tough. I’m liking BYSTANDER a lot, and feel that might work for you, too. Lately I’ve been having a blast writing the “Scary Tales” series. So much fun. Right now I’m trying to create a toxic swamp creature.

Could anything be more fun than that? I don’t think so!

Of course, I’ll always love my favorite character, Jigsaw Jones.

I wrote a new book, THE FALL, due out in 2015. It’s a tough, sad book set in a middle school and I’m really excited about.

Be well, take care. Sorry, I don’t have any photos that I can send out – consider yourself lucky!

James Preller

P.S. As a reader of the book, you might enjoy this recent photo I discovered. I guess the folks at Crayola finally wised up. Good for them.

For readers of this blog who don’t know the book, Trey is a boy on the spectrum. He enjoys drawing, especially with his crayons. At one point, Trey muses, accurately:

There used to be a color called Flesh, but in 1962 — the same year that Wilt Chamberlain scored one hundred points — the name got changed to Peach. Trey had read about that once. It made perfect sense to him. People were different. They came in all colors and shapes. You couldn’t say that one color was Flesh, and Trey thought it was really dumb of the Crayola people to make that mistake.

Sneak Peak: Cover for SCARY TALES #5, “The One-Eyed Doll”

When I think of the five books I’ve written so far for the “Scary Tales” Series — currently working on #6 now — I sometimes consider their relative “fear factor.”

I have been open about my debt to Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” Many people mistakenly think of TZ as a horror series. It was not, almost never. The stories were strange and always came with a twist. I’d call them intellectually ticklish. What I’ve tried to do with ST is capture some of that strangeness while still delivering the goosebumps.

This upcoming one, The One-Eyed Doll (September 2014), might be the scariest, creepiest of all. I’d put Home Sweet Horror in second place in terms of traditionally “scary,” Good Night, Zombie in third, with Nightmareland fourth. The least scary, but possibly most surprising, more in the thriller mode, is I Scream, You Scream. Of course, we all react differently. Some folks are afraid of spiders, others jump on chairs at the sight of mice.

When I started this series, I had big ambitions. I imagined — this is true — a painter working on a large canvas. I told my editor, “I don’t know if people will really see what I have in mind until I’ve done 20 titles, a color here, a splash there, because I want this to cross genre, move the “Horror” into Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller, Realistic and even Historical Fiction. I am most eager to do some Sci-Fi with this series, because in space they can’t hear you scream. But that’ll have to wait for now.

Here’s the new cover. I am so grateful for the opportunity given to me by Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla to write these books. Don’t they look great? Aren’t I lucky? And what do you think of Iacopo Bruno’s latest cover? I love it!

“Home Sweet Horror” Wins 2013 Cybil Award in Early Chapter Books Category

Okay, you might be asking: “What’s a Cybil Award?”

The Cybils are awarded by bloggers for the year’s best children’s and young adult titles. The Cybils have been in existence since, oddly enough, the year 1843. No, wait. Check that: Since 2006. According to the website, their primary purpose is to:

“Reward the children’s and young adult authors (and illustrators, let’s not forget them) whose books combine the highest literary merit and ‘kid appeal.’ What’s that mean? If some la-di-dah awards can be compared to brussel sprouts, and other, more populist ones to gummy bears, we’re thinking more like organic chicken nuggets. We’re yummy and nutritious.”

I did not expect to win this award, in part because I did not even realize that my book, the first in a series of “Scary Tales,” had been among the finalists. In truth, “winning” anything like this is always dubious. But it is an honor to be listed among other finalists, to be part of that conversation of some of the better books of that year. I’m quite sure that my book is no better than the others listed in this category. So here they are, readers take note:

Dragonbreath #9: The Case of the Toxic Mutants, by Ursula Vernon

Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, by Claudia Mills

Lulu and the Dog from the Sea, by Hilary McKay

The Life of Ty: Penguin Problems, by Lauren Myracle

Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat, by Anna Branford

Home Sweet Horror (Scary Tales #1), by James Preller

The Cybils website described my book this way:

Liam Finn and his sister just moved into the old Cropsey house. Their father has transplanted his family from Hopeville to Upstate New York. Liam and Kelley are both opposed to the move, but since the death of their mother eighteen months earlier, the family is struggling to survive. Upon moving into the house, Liam begins to hear strange noises and even receives a threatening message in a mirror.  When Kelley’s friend, Mitali, comes for a visit and summons “Bloody Mary”, the tale quickly escalates to a spine-tingling conclusion.

Preller takes an urban myth and creates an enjoyable tale of horror that will appeal to the lower grade students. Bruno’s illustrations insert an appropriate amount of creepiness that adds to the ambiance of the tale. Younger readers will appreciate this scary tale without the graphic and gory details of older horror reads. This little page turner could become a campfire classic!


My thanks have already gone out to the judges, panelists, bloggers, volunteers, and organizers for this nice honor. I’m grateful and, yes, I especially like that “kid appeal” is seen in a positive light.

In addition, any positive acclaim for this series grows out of the fact that it has been well-published by my friends at Feiwel & Friends, particularly Liz Szabla and Jean Feiwel.  The illustrations by Iacopo Bruno are amazing.

And last, a special thank you to Jennifer Wharton, whoever you are!, for nominating my book. My appreciation. Jennifer, if somehow you find this, can I send you a signed copy by way of thanks? You can write to me with your address at

That’s right, AOL, because an elephant’s loyal one-hundred percent.

There are three other titles (so far) in the Scary Tales Series:


Fan Mail Wednesday #174: My Busted Baseball Career, The Next Book, and “Bullying” the Verb

Here’s one from Stephen with a “ph!”

Dear Mr.Preller,

My 7 grade English class is reading your hit book Bystander, and I love it. There are allot of cliff hangers for sure, and that is why i love it so much. I would like to read some more of your books like 6 Innings and more. I would like to ask you some questions about your life. Why didn’t you follow your dream to play for the Mets like you wanted to? I am sure you would have been as good playing as you are a writer. I would also like to know if you are publishing any books soon? If you are, I am sure they will be very interesting?

I replied:

Hey, Stephen. I would have loved to follow my dream as a baseball player, but I wasn’t any good! It was a little boy dream, really, nothing that concrete.

I’ve been putting out a series of books lately, SCARY TALES. There are three out so far: Home Sweet Horror; I Scream, You Scream; and Goodnight, Zombie.

I have another Young Adult novel, titled BEFORE YOU GO.

In addition, I just finished the first draft of a new hardcover book that can be seen as a companion to BYSTANDER, in that it explores many of the same themes and ideas, but is told in the first-person from the bully’s point of view. The characters and setting are different, so it’s not a sequel, strictly speaking. My working title is KINDER, TOMORROW, but we’ll see how that goes.

Actually, I have to say that I don’t like using the word “bully,” because it labels (and limits) a person. I think of bullying — the verb — as a behavior. Something that somebody does, rather than as a noun, “the bully.” In a lot of ways, that basic distinction was one of the primary inspirations behind this new book.

Peace out,


Remain Calm, Dress Warm, and Keep Reading