Archive for Upstander

Let Us Push Pause Before Leaping to Judgment

If we’ve learned anything these past few years, let one of those things be that we pause before making judgments, criticizing, finding fault in others. Because we just don’t know what is going in the lives of other people.

And beyond merely giving pause, let us also bring a generosity of spirit to our perceptions: compassion, tolerance, hopefulness. So many of us in today’s world seem primed to leap at the worst conclusions. Sour, bitter, angry people. 

So let us hit pause & open our hearts to the native goodness in our world.

Carry on!

For me as a writer, this single idea — that we just don’t know — fueled my most recent novel, Upstander, a sequel/prequel to Bystander that can be read as a stand alone. 

In this book, I take a minor character from Bystander, Mary, and make her the main character. We enter her home, meet her family, and begin to see all the cares and concerns that fill her life. Most notably, an older brother (growing up, I had four older brothers) who struggles with Substance Use Disorder (SUD). 

Everyone has a story that most of us simply don’t know. 

UPSTANDER Excerpt: “He Keeps Asking Me, ‘Send a Pic, Send a Pic.'”

 

“She’d heard that older guys collected pics of girls
and swapped them like trading cards.
It was pretty gross.
But also a little flattering.
Like it might be nice to be asked by the right person,
even if the answer was still definitely no.
Some girls said it was no big deal,
that sharing a photo was the new first base.”

 

In this scene, early in Upstander, Mary is visiting at Chantel’s house. Readers of Bystander should recognize Chantel Williams as the name of a character who was on the receiving end of some internet bullying. In Upstander, we meet her as a fully-formed character. An athlete, an older sister to three brothers, a friend. 

Chantel’s phone buzzed. She glanced at it and shook her head. Mary sensed the message had upset Chantel, because she grew quiet and had a far-away look in her eyes. Chantel held out her phone and said, “He keeps asking me to send a picture.”

At that moment, Mrs. Williams entered the kitchen. Chantel hurriedly pocketed her phone. “It looks great, girls, thank you. Mary, you are welcome to stay if you’d like. I believe Chanti had her hopes on a horror movie. I’d be happy to drop you home if you can’t get a ride.”

Mary looked at Chantel, who smiled and nodded.

“That sounds great, Mrs. Williams. I’d love that!” Mary replied. “Thank you very much.”

Mrs. Williams pointed two index fingers toward the ceiling, reminding Mary of an old Western gunfighter. “Listen, I’ve got the three amigos up there. Jamel and Keyon are in the tub. I have no idea on God’s green earth what Darius is up to. I think he’s building a Lego space station or alien prison or some such folderol.” She waved a hand, amused by it all. “We haven’t had any drownings yet, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

“I can help—” Chantel began to offer.

“No, Chanti, you entertain our guest while I wrestle those rascals into bed.” Mrs. Williams made a loud whew sound, as if she was exhausted, but her eyes told a different story. They twinkled brightly. Maybe she didn’t mind all that mothering after all.

The girls didn’t pay close attention to the movie, except for the really good parts. They’d both seen it already. Instead, they huddled close, sharing one light blanket, and talked.

“Who is asking you for a pic?”

“Hakeem,” Chantel answered, her voice barely above a whisper. “Promise you won’t tell. It’s so stupid.”

“Of course,” Mary said. She paused a beat. “What did you do?”

Chantel craned her neck to make sure her mother wasn’t nearby. “I didn’t even understand him at first,” she admitted. “I was like, a picture of what?”

Both girls cackled.

“You didn’t, did you?” Mary asked.

“No!” Chantel answered. But after a pause, she admitted, “I didn’t say no, either. I made excuses like, ‘I’m busy’ or ‘I look bad right now.’ You know?”

Mary nodded. She didn’t know, she’d never been asked before, but it was exciting to think about. Mary wondered if Hakeem had asked Alexis or Chrissie. Some boys were like that. She’d heard that older guys collected pics of girls and swapped them like trading cards. It was pretty gross. But also a little flattering. Like it might be nice to be asked by the right person, even if the answer was still definitely no. Some girls said it was no big deal, that sharing a photo was the new first base.

“I like him,” Chantel said. “Hakeem’s nice and funny and—

“—kind of good-looking,” Mary added, exaggerating slightly.

Chantel let out an embarrassed laugh. “I guess, yes. But he keeps asking me. ‘Send a pic, send a pic. You look so good.’ All that stuff. Persistent, you know? I’m afraid if I shut him down, he’ll stop talking to me.”

They both stared at the movie for a few minutes.

Someone was getting stabbed with scissors. “Lupita Nyong’o is so beautiful,” Mary said, admiring the actress on-screen.

“I know,” Chantel agreed. “Her skin is perfect.”

“Boys can be such idiots,” Mary said.

“Are they all like that?” Chantel asked.

Mary shrugged. She didn’t know. “It seems like a lot of them are, maybe. Like it’s normal for them.”

Chantel shook her head. “He says the pictures fade away after seven seconds . . .”

“Yeah, but they can take screen captures,” Mary warned.

“Hakeem keeps saying he’s not a screenshotter,” Chantel said. “And you know what? That makes me think he is. If I sent him something, he’d have it forever.”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “And who knows what he’d do with it after that.”

 

UPSTANDER IS A 2021 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION!

 

Addendum: In order to write this scene, or even to imagine it, I had to do a lot of reading, reflecting, digging around for stories, experiences, attitudes. Most if not all of what appears in the above scene is a direct result of things I “overheard” in my research. 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #312: Follow-Up Questions After a Zoom Visit

Ye Olde Fan Mail Wednesday has been quiet of late for an assortment of reasons, including summer — all exaggerated by Covid. This past week I thoroughly enjoyed a  Zoom visit with 6th-graders who all read Bystander over the summer. The class was impressive, prepared, and focused. A pleasure all around. At the end of the visit, we still hadn’t gotten to all the questions. I agreed to answer the remaining questions via email. 

Here are the questions . . .

Good morning! I hope you had a great weekend. Here are some follow up questions from my students. Thank you again!

1. After Upstander, will you consider making a trequal?
2. Do you see yourself in any of the characters and why?

3. Is there anything you would want to change about the book? 

4. Do any of the characters/events relate to an event/thing that happened to you/others.
-aa
5. Do you get unmotivated when writing books? If so, how do you get motivated again.? 
6. When Griffin and David were talking in the book, were they able to connect because of any similar or shared experiences?
Thank you so much.
Alex

I replied . . .

I want to begin by thanking you for that Zoom visit the other day. I don’t often get the opportunity to do a deep dive on my books, and it’s a pleasure to talk thoughtfully about the art & craft & intentions that go into a work of fiction. 
We ran out of time and you still had a few questions. Let’s do this.
Would I consider writing another sequel to Bystander? Yes, if the market was there —- meaning if my publisher believed it was worth putting out, i.e., that they’d make money doing so. With Upstander, I began by thinking of it not as a “longer” story, but as a “larger” one. A bigger canvas. Everyone has stories. By focusing on Mary’s story, it gave me a glimpse into how to enlarge the canvas even further to accommodate future narratives. If there’s another book in the world of this middle school, I think it should be about Griffin. Honestly, I think Upstander has to sell enough to encourage my publisher, Macmillan, to keep going with it. I don’t control that stuff, I can only put it out into the universe and hope that readers will find my books in a crowded, cluttered world. 
Do I see myself in any of the characters? Well, yeah, sure. The writer Eudora Welty had a good line about this. She said, “In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves, we write out of ourselves, using ourselves.; what we learn from, what we are sensitive to, what we feel strongly about —- these become our characters and go to make our plots.” I really couldn’t say it better than that. There’s a part of me in every character, each one grew out of me. But as I’ve developed as a writer, across many years, I’ve learned to give those characters the space to be Not-Me, Not-Jimmy, and become their own fictional selves.
Would I like to change anything about the book? No, not really. Which is not to suggest that I think it’s flawless. Far from it. But I’ve learned to let it go, allow it to exist as it exists, and move forward. I don’t linger and look back too often. I did like how with Upstander I was able to add a new wrinkle to the ending, Eric’s wish for his father in the stands. While his exact wish doesn’t come true (at least so far, in the written record), now there is at least someone there for him, cheering. It pleases me when the two books “talk” to each other.
Do events/characters relate to specific events in my life? Yes and no. I mean, yes, of course, it all grows from my life experiences. For example: I was once mugged in NYC and when the thieves handed back my wallet —- sans money, of course —- I actually said, “Thank you.” What a well-mannered dope! I took that emotion and gave it to Eric on the basketball court, when Griffin returned his ball. But, again, this is important: readers seem to want to be able to trace these direct lines from real life to fiction. But I think when you are fully successful with a fictional story, those sources become obscured, more hidden, the lines disappear, and the characters operate fully in their own fictional world. 
Do I get unmotivated? Oh, yes, it’s a recurring problem. Sometime the problem is the idea, that I’m not ready to write it, or that my idea lacks layers, depth: something, in short, is missing. Another problem for me is audience. That nagging doubt that no one really cares whether I write another book or not. And I guess the answer to that is . . . so what. I’ll do it anyway. I’ll create something for the sake of the story, for the satisfaction of making something and putting it out into the world. Something that nobody else in the world could make. Would I love to be super popular, the worth breathless in anticipation for my next book? I think so, yeah. But in the absence of that, somehow I still have to keep going, keep writing. Write the poem, paint the picture, sing the song. There’s joy there, and happiness, and personal fulfillment —- regardless of audience or “acclaim” or awards or any outside approval. I find that to write requires a gathering of energy, enthusiasm. When that’s not there, the writing doesn’t go well. Sadly, I don’t know how to bottle it.
Regarding David and Griffin, that’s an interesting question. How were they able to connect? To be honest, I don’t think that I examined their relationship that deeply. To me, I saw it as Griffin, the manipulator, using David for his own purposes. David was a puppet on strings. As to why David allowed this to happen, I think it goes back to his desperate longing to fit in, for approval at almost any cost. That’s a dangerous place to be, the quality that made him vulnerable. And because Griffin is such a smart, perceptive guy, he recognized that vulnerability in David and used it.
Ah, I think that covers it. I just wrote almost a thousand words to you guys. You are probably sleeping already! Forgive me, I realize that I replied with a high-level of sophistication. I’d probably answer much in the same way to college freshman. I figure you are smart and should be treated that way. Have a good school year — and if any of you read Upstander, please feel free to write and let me know. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
My best, 
James Preller
For Zoom visits,
educators and reading groups
may contact me directly
at Jamespreller@aol.com.
-NOT

LISTEN NOW: Check Out My Interview on Spotify & All Your Wildest Dreams Will Come True!

Bob Nuse and Anna Van Scoyoc are librarians in the Mercer Country Library System. Which I believe is somewhere in deepest, darkest New Jersey.

I first encountered Bob in the early months of the pandemic. At the time, many of us in the children’s book world were trying to figure out how to proceed, how to connect, how to keep the book thing alive — and, yes, how to contribute something positive to this awful situation. I made a bunch of videos and created a Youtube channel. Bob began by enlisting authors to make short videos for their locked-out library patrons. That initiative eventually grew into a podcast, “Behind the Books,” which is extremely well done and  incredibly impressive.

I hope that other librarians take note of the possibilities (and contact me if you need a guinea pig).

When Bob invited me to talk about my new book, Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, I didn’t hesitate. After all, I have a face for podcasting. I hope you give it a listen. I’m on at about 14:30, so you can skip that other stuff and jump to yours truly. It’s a ten-minute conversation. We also talk a bit about my book of linked haiku, All Welcome Here

I’m usually somebody who can’t stand to look at or hear myself — I was on “The Today Show” once with Katie Couric, long ago, and I’ve never watched it. But here, thanks to Anna’s expert editing, deleting all my stammering, fumbling mutterings, I come off as sober and reasonably intelligent. I can live with that!

I assume you might need to open Spotify in order to listen. Not sure about that. Thanks again, Bob and Anna, I’m grateful for the work you do.

Writing Process: Making Up Mary

In my new book Upstander, I gave myself the opportunity to learn more about Mary, a minor (but crucial) character in Bystander.

And by “learn more,” I guess that I mean: “make up more.”

It’s all just stuff I make up, right? Characters don’t really talk to me, and heaven knows the books don’t write themselves. 

But in a way, once a character is introduced, and participates in some scenes, that character does seem to take on a life of her own. If A, B, and C are true . . . then it organically leads the writer to D and E. 

Obviously the writer is making choices all the time. Mary doesn’t exist except in my imagination. Until you read the book, and then she exists (and transforms) in your imagination, too. 

Anyway, I decided a lot of things about Mary that I didn’t need to address in Bystander. We enter her home; meet her family; see her interact with new characters; learn that she used to play softball and keeps a stash of marshmallows in her room; and so on.

She’s also creative, artistic.

Here are two moments that show that. The first is from page 93:

Mary set out her art supplies. Paper, brushes, watercolors. She painted a seated female figure, facing away, balancing a stack of rocks on her head. It was a strange, almost magical image and it pleased Mary to make it.

So here’s the deal. Once I decided that she should paint something, I had to figure out what that something would be. I looked at my college-age daughter Maggie’s artwork and selected an image:

If it was good enough for Maggie, it was good enough for Mary. Not that a reader would ever see it, or even think much about it. The iceberg effect, once again.

The other scene just shows the way Mary thinks. And I loved that image of her floating in the pool, goggles on, head in the water, starting on page 127. It was a way to get into her head, explore her liquid thoughts . . . and also, at the very end of this section, to restate another important theme of the book, the need for us all to be seen . . .

It was such a calming shade of blue-green. Soothing, peaceful. Mary drifted on an inflatable pool mattress, her head hanging facedown in the water, wearing goggles and a snorkel. She gazed deeply at the bottom of Chrissie’s pool and thought of all the names she remembered from acrylic paint tubes and other places: turquoise, olive, emerald, cadmium, mint, lime, sea foam, lagoon, teal. She settled on aquamarine, which was basically green with a bluish tint. It was the color of the pool that she was absorbing into her bloodstream through her eyes. A serenity seeping into her body. Mary had earrings that were aquamarine gemstones, a color she avoided during the gray winter months. But for August afternoons in the blistering sun? Perfection.

Chrissie and Alexis were lounging side by side, content to find themselves returned home after thirteen epic days on the Jersey Shore. Upon seeing their friend Mary again, they squeezed her tight and said all the best, gushy things—but Mary sensed the connection between the two girls was stronger than ever. They were rock-solid besties, and nothing would come between that. Their bond felt like a wall through which Mary could never pass. To her surprise, it upset Mary to feel like an outcast. It wasn’t logical, but a feeling was a feeling, not subject to notions of “right” or “wrong.” Some unspoken part of her simply wanted to belong. She’d felt sad lately and wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was just everything. So she floated on the water, letting her thoughts drift to that cruel idiot Griffin Connelly, and Chantel, and, always, Jonny.

Everyone said it was better that he was living on his own. Yet Mary’s imagination kept her mind racing at night—a nervous, stressed feeling she couldn’t push aside. She woke up in the morning and felt tired. Everywhere she turned, Mary felt disconnected, as if she were fading into the background, as if she were absorbing the colors and designs of the carpets and wallpaper. Could she become a ghost, too? How come no one saw her, really saw her, anymore?

Upstander is a 2021

Junior Library Guild Selection.

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