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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 Jamespreller@aol.com.

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,

JP

Remain Calm, Dress Warm, and Keep Reading

Charlotte Zolotow Remembered: “Books for Boys.”

“All of my books are based on an adult emotion that connects

with a similar emotion that I had as a child. I like each of my books

for a different reason, because each comes out of a different emotion.

If a book succeeds in bringing an emotion into focus,

then I like that book very much.” – Charlotte Zolotow.

“Emeralds,’ said the rabbit.

‘Emeralds make a lovely gift.”

Charlotte Zolotow, from Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present.

And so in this sad week another one of my favorite children’s book writers has passed, the great Charlotte Zolotow, whom I’ve admired so much and for so long. I’ve written about Charlotte a few times over the course of this blog. Here’s a past entry from 3 1/2 years ago . . .

“William wanted a doll.”

And so begins Charlotte Zolotow’s classic picture book, William’s Doll, illustrated by William Pene Du Bois. Published 38 years ago, and dedicated to Billy and Nancy, it is still relevant today — and very possibly moreso.

This title has been on my mind a lot lately, and comes to mind whenever the discussion turns to “books for boys.” Somehow the collective thinking about boys and reading has become muddled, to the point where “boys” has become a code word for “reluctant readers.”

I’ve talked about this before, here and here and here and elsewhere, and I don’t wish to repeat myself endlessly. Except to paraphrase Walt Whitman: Boys are large and contain multitudes. I find it unsettling, even disturbing, when I come across lists of “books for boys” that offer all the usual standbys: bodily humor, nonstop action, cars and trucks, sports, violence, and so on. You know, the kinds of stuff all boys like.

Imagine such a list for girls. Would it offend you?

And now imagine all the great books, and important thoughts, that would be missing from such a list. Because the nature of such lists is reductionist and simplistic and full of stereotypes, a narrowing of what children are and what children can become. Girls and boys.

Yes, for sure, I am strongly on the side of a teacher or parent who longs to turn a reluctant reader onto books. I can understand the desire for something sure-fire, a book that will turn the trick, unlock the door, open up the world of reading. But once that door has been pushed open, let’s not forget that boys can be sensitive, thoughtful, dreamy, mild, frightened, lonely, tender, loving, sad, and a thousand more things. It’s not just farts and firetrucks.

When my oldest son, Nick, was sick with leukemia, we struggled as parents. It was tempting to give him things, do things for him, make the experience easier and more enjoyable. In short: spoil him. After a spinal tap, how do you not buy that kid a lollipop? And a DVD of whatever he wants. So we did. But not always. My wife Lisa once said one of the most profound things about parenting I ever heard. Talking about this subject, she reminded me: “We’re not only trying to take care of a sick boy — we’re trying to raise a healthy adult.”

I think that applies to boys and reading.

So let’s look at this book, William’s Doll. To me, the best illustration is on the first page, before even the title page. You know, the page we hurry past on our way to the story. It’s a picture, we will learn, of William and Nancy from next door. Nancy is holding a doll. But if you glance quickly at that illustration, look at it from a distance, it is a portrait of every young family in the world. Father, mother, and child.

“He wanted to hug it

and cradle it in his arms

and give it a bottle

and take it to the park

and push it in the swing

and bring it back home

and undress it

and put it to bed . . .”

His brother and the boy next door did not approve.

William’s father brought home a basketball instead.

He practiced a lot

and got good at it

but it had nothing to do

with a doll.

William still wanted one.

So his father brought home an electric train. With similar results.

One day his grandmother visited. William proudly showed her the basketball and his new train. He also expressed his desire for a doll, explaining, “My brother says it will make me a creep and the boy next door says I’m a sissy and my father brings me other things instead.”

His grandmother listened attentively.

“Nonsense,” she said.

She bought him a doll. I love the detail in this description, the clicking of the eyes. It reminds me of my mother’s Shirley Temple doll (not that I ever played with it!).

The doll had blue eyes

and when they closed

they made a clicking sound

and William loved it

right away.

William’s father was upset. “He’s a boy!” he said.

And so the grandmother must patiently explain to her son:

“He needs it,” she said,

“to hug

and to cradle

and to take to the park

so that

when he’s a father

like you,

he’ll know how to

take care of his baby

and feed him

and love him

and bring him

the things he wants,

like a doll

so that he can

practice being

a father.”

I highly doubt you’ll find this book on a list of “books for boys.” It’s probably too sissyish. No, instead we’ll give them books about trains and basketball.

ENDNOTE: A song based on the story, with lyrics by Mary Rodgers and music by Sheldon Harnick, was included in the bestselling album, “Free to Be . . . You and Me.” In 1974, it was turned into a television special. According to producer Marlo Thomas, ABC fought to have the song dropped from the show. She recalled: “They wanted William’s Doll cut, because it would turn every boy into a homosexual.”

True to her ideals, and (importantly) armed with enough marketable power to win this battle, Ms. Thomas refused to comply, and the song remained. Somehow civilization was not destroyed — by this show, at least.

Click here for more on the sources of Charlotte Zolotow’s inspiration for this story, which was based on personal experience as a mother and wife. Commented Zolotow: “I wrote it out of direct emotional sorrow.”

Fan Mail #169: Dressing Up Like James Preller!

You may have noticed that I haven’t done much here in the way of fan mail recently. It’s a combination of getting less of it during the summer and, alas, finding my own answers a little perfunctory.

But this one made me laugh, so I thought you’d enjoy it. Some poor kid out there is dressing up and pretending to be James Preller! The horror, the horror.

Too funny.

COMINGS & GOINGS: The Rochester Children’s Book Festival, November 16th

I’ve always heard great things about the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, but never got invited. I tried to weasel an invitation a few years back (clever Cynthia DeFelice reference), but that went nowhere. Finally, at last, I wore ‘em down. Good thing, too, because I’m hoping to promote my SCARY TALES series as well as, you know, meet some kindred, book-loving spirits. So if you are near the area — a teacher, a librarian, or merely a stalker — please stop by and say hello.

Some of the many authors & illustrators who’ll be there: MJ & Herm Auch, Julie Berry, Michael Buckley, Peter Catalanotto, Bruce Coville, Cynthia DeFelice, Jeff Mack, Daniel Mahoney, Matt McElligott, Linda Sue Park, Matt Phelan, Robin Pulver, Jane Yolen, Paul O. Zelinsky, and more.

Holy crap! What a list of luminaries! My knees are sweating already. I better pack a clean shirt.

I’m looking forward to it, with thanks to my publisher, the kind folks at Macmillan, for putting me up with a family of Armenian immigrants at a nearby trailer park for the weekend. I just hope they remember to roll out the red carpet. Remember, I’ll only eat the blue M & M’s.

Happily, the event places me in close proximity to my oldest son, Nick, who attends Geneseo College. And by “attends” I mean, I certainly hope so!

Over Halloween, he and some friends decided to go as “Dads.” I functioned in an advisory capacity, the content of which he politely ignored. My big idea was to get a Darth Vader helmet and cape, then pull on one of those t-shirts that reads: “WORLD’S GREATEST DAD!”

Because, you know, irony!

Anyway, check it out. Nick is the one in shorts, pulled up white socks, bad mustache, and “Lucky Dad” hat. Hysterical, right?

Lastly, hey, if you happen to be in Elmira, NY, on November 6th, or Richmond, VA, on November 13, you can catch a lively, fast-paced musical based on my book, Jigsaw Jones #12: The Case of the Class Clown.

I did get to see it a few years ago, with a knot of dread in my stomach, and came away relieved and impressed. Everyone involved did a great job and, to be honest, the story is sweet, too.

Here’s the info on Richmond, VA (where, coincidentally, I’ll be visiting middle schools in early December, mostly giving my patented “Bystander/Anti-Bullying/Author ” presentation. Anyway, the info I promised:

Families, elementary schools and preschools are encouraged to make reservations soon for performances of a children’s show.

A 55-minute performance of “Jigsaw Jones and the Case of the Class Clown” will be performed at 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at Civic Hall Performing Arts Center in Richmond.

The show is based on a children’s mystery series written by James Preller. Theodore “Jigsaw” Jones and his friend, Mila, are investigating who’s playing practical jokes. It includes music and humor.

“Jigsaw Jones” is presented by Arts Power, a professional theater company touring the nation.

Admission is $2 per student because a grant from the Stamm Koechlein Family Foundation is helping offset the cost for Civic Hall’s Proudly Presenting Series educational programming.

Teachers and chaperones are admitted free.

For Elmira, click here or call: 607-733-5639 x248 (and tell ‘em Jimmy sent ya!)

Five Days, 14 Presentations, More than 6,000 Students, and a Cowboy Steak

On Friday the 20th, I traveled to Wolcott, Connecticut, where I spoke to 650 students, grades 6-8, at Tyrrell Middle School. They had all read Bystander as part of their summer reading program and, I’m sure, as part of their school-wide anti-bullying initiative. The feeling in that school was very impressive. Thank you for all your hard work to make this happen, Sara Tedesco. I’ve been wearing the shirt!

Wait. What shirt?

This one:

That’s the design on the back of the long sleeve shirt created and sold (I think) at the school. I was presented with one as a gift.  The design, created by the librarian, Sara Tedesco, was a variation of the Bystander book cover, with a more positive, local spin. Brilliant.

Come to think of it, those students said they read Bystander. But I’ll admit it, some of those kids looked pretty tan. When I see young people under these circumstances, I often apologize, explaining that in all my hopes and wild dreams, I never intended to become somebody’s homework.

On Sunday, I flew from Albany, NY, to Chicago, and then on to Oklahoma City for four full days of visits in the Yukon school district.

Maybe you’ve heard of it.

Garth Brooks was born and raised there.

The main school I visited — it had a big auditorium, so several neighboring schools bused their students to us — was located on Garth Brooks Drive, because of course it was.

My first morning I stopped into a 7-11, still groggy & desperate for caffeine. After I completed the purchase of one cold Starbucks Mocha something, the cashier asked:

“Would you like a sack with that?”

“Excuse me?”

“Would you like a sack?”

My brain was still fuzzy. The flight had been delayed. I had slept less than four hours. “A sock?”

(Yes, in my pre-caffinated state, I silently wondered if, perhaps, in Oklahoma cashiers offered people socks. Maybe this is what they do here? “Why, yes! I’ll take argyle!”)

(Next comes helpless staring, where wonderment meets bewilderment. At last a light bulb goes on.)

“A sack!” I say. “Like a bag!”

“Yes, sack, bag. I call ‘em sacks.”

At that moment, I knew that I had fully arrived in Oklahoma. The land of sacks, not bags, far from the standard question of, “Paper or plastic?”

Across four days in the Sooner state, I gave thirteen presentations to 5,600 students, grades 2-8. And I can honestly say that they all loved me, every single one of them.

Actually, well, there was one kid . . .

The truth is, everyone treated me wonderfully throughout the visit. Respectfully, kindly. I felt blessed and fortunate. I can’t thank everyone enough, and won’t really try to here (I tried to there, in person).

Wednesday night I made it over to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

The museum was incredibly moving, artistic and powerfully effective. I was, at times, a blubbering mess, but in a good way.

If you ever get the chance, by all means, yes, get yourself over to the museum — and prepare to feel the power of that experience right down to the soles of your shoes.

Then I walked over to Bricktown and treated myself to a “cowboy steak” at Mantle’s restaurant, just across from the ballpark. It was a peaceful, reflective, delicious meal, and I was happy to be exactly where I was.

Jenah Hamilton was the force of nature who helped make my visit possible.

Thank you, Yukon, OK. It was really terrific for me to gain a first-hand experience of Sooner Pride. To meet all those kids. And try, in my own limited way, to leave each school a slightly better place where together we value reading, thinking, and basic human kindness.

Most especially, thank you Jenah Hamilton, middle school librarian, the force of nature who made my visit possible.

(I owe you, big time.)

KINDNESS: My Trip to the 2013 Youth Writing Festival at Calvin College

I just returned from a wonderful, two-night trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I was invited (by Gary Schmidt!) to participate in the 2013 Youth Writing Festival at Calvin College.

At one point it looked exactly like this:

As my Nation of Readers is well aware, I do many visits — particularly at this time of year. It’s fun, it’s beautiful to meet those children, and it’s work. Most visits are great, a few decidedly less so (oh, the stories I could tell), and every once in a while the entirety of a visit feels like a blessing.

Like I’m the luckiest guy in town.

That’s how I felt for my entire trip at Calvin. I was surrounded by caring, dedicated teachers and volunteers  who could not have possibly treated me with more kindness.

These folks did it right every step of the way, and I am grateful to all of them (Gary, Judy, Don, Kristin, Nancy, Debbie . . . far, far too many folks to name, from the President of the College who invited us into his home to the student volunteers who assisted us in countless ways).

For example, in the hotel room, I found a basket of treats and this sweet letter:

I certainly don’t need to be treated like a big deal, and it’s not anything I’ll ever actually believe, but it’s awfully nice when it happens.

As an added bonus, I had the pleasure of meeting artist E.B. Lewis, a dignified man of talent, character, and intelligence. I picked up a copy of his latest book, Each Kindness, written by the great Jacqueline Woodson.

I love this book’s focus on kindness.

And, yes, that sad ending of lost opportunity hits me dang in the heart, hard.

Illustration by E.B. Lewis.

Since I first published Bystander in 2009, I’ve all seen a massive shift in focus on the issue of bullying in the media and in our schools. To the point where it almost feels . . . not over-stated, that’s the wrong word, but somehow . . . misguided at times. Students, especially, seem wary of being talked down to, lectured at, scolded. Hit over the head with the topic, turned off. You have to find a way to bring them to the core values, I think, and I believe that A GOOD STORY is far more effective at building empathy than a list of do’s and don’ts.

I suppose my radar has been, perhaps, more finely attuned to the issue over the past few years. I don’t really believe in talking about “bullying,” per say, since I don’t think that should be the main subject. I believe it’s  more basic than that, for “bullying” is just a sub-set of more significant themes for our children to encounter, consider, and embrace. One trend that I really like (see R.J. Palacio’s Wonder as a prime example) is a renewed focus on the simple things at the heart of the matter: how we should treat each other.

Words like empathy, decency, tolerance, compassion, and kindness.

Basic human kindness. Being a good person.

Do unto others.

Or questions like: How do you think it feels? How would you like to be treated?

This book powerfully expresses those ideas (and ideals).

We learn by meeting characters, by stepping in their shoes, by imagining their feelings, the rumblings in their hearts. We learn through the power of story — that essential human art form that’s been with us since cave dwellers gathered around the fire.

I highly, highly recommend the book, Each Kindness.

I even got a signed copy for my daughter.

Thanks, E.B.

And thank you, everyone at Calvin College, for a trip I’ll long remember.