Thank You, Arizona Library Association!

Good News! I received an email from Kerrlita Westrick and Shirley Berow, co-chairs of the Grand Canyon Reader Award, organized by the Arizona Library Association. Instead of telling you about it, you can read the important bits for yourself:

Dear Mr. Preller,

It is out pleasure to inform you that your book, Justin Fisher Declares War, has been nominated for the Intermediate Book category of the 2015 Grand Canyon Reader Award! Congratulations!

The Grand Canyon Reader Award is a children’s choice award with approximately 45,000 Arizona students voting each year. Your book, along with nine other tiles, will be read by teachers, librarians, and students all over Arizona and voted upon by April 1, 2015.

Well, that felt good.

Justin FisherAs a writer, all I’ve ever wanted was to be read and, hopefully, acclaimed to some extent. Approved of. Valued. Appreciated. I dream that at least some fraction of the reading public will say, in essence, “Hey, you did good.”

Making it on these state lists is so important to keep a book in circulation. So, absolutely, a heartfelt thanks from me. Much appreciated. When I look at the other titles on the list, well, it’s just crazy. Not expecting to win, that’s for sure.

Though it’s been well-reviewed, and sometimes even praised, Justin Fisher has been pretty much ignored by the purchasing public (not to mention my own publisher). A paperback edition has never been made available in stores.

Justin Fisher was conceived as part of a series of school-based stories, including Along Came Spider, which was honored by the NYPL back in 2008. Both books share characters and the same setting, Spiro Agnew Elementary.

UnknownHere’s a nice review of Justin from a 5th-grade teacher, Franki Sibberson, who called it “One of my go-to funny books for boys.”

From the first  moment I saw these covers, I thought: “Uh-oh.” I expressed my worries to my editor, that they didn’t at all convey the stories were school based, but was told that the decision had already been made. End of discussion. Oh well. Everybody does their best, I guess.

To help the humor come out, I had really, really wanted the books to be illustrated, ala “Wimpy Kid,” but that was not in the cards either. But most wonderfully, a group of students from Pennsylvania sent me their own illustrations a couple of years back. I love student artwork. Here’s some highlights:

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Now I can only hope for an invitation to visit school in Arizona.

February is wide open! Brrrrr.

Writing Process, from “Notes” to Final, plus a Brief Excerpt from NIGHTMARELAND

images-2I didn’t want to get an iPhone, but now I’m fighting an addiction. One feature that I use, in the absence of pen and paper, is the “Notes” function. Perhaps because of the inherent limitations of typing into a phone, any notes I input tend to be condensed, telegraphic, coded, and therefore borderline poetic. At least, sharing some of the qualities of poetry.

In the example below, I was thinking of a scene I had to write in Scary Tales #4: Nightmareland and I came up with a plot idea: He would write a message in the snow.

nightmareland_cvr_lorezMore background: The main character, Aaron, is trapped inside a video game. He is outside in the snow, hunted by a pack of wolves. It is very cold, a very dangerous situation. At the same time, his sister has just discovered his frozen body on the living room couch. She turns to the television screen and lo, there he is, inside the game.

Here are the exact notes I wrote to myself, followed by the scene I actually got around to writing and publishing.

 

< notes >

Moon falling into snow

Branches stars hands curled

Tight the cold air solid

In his chest winter

Pressing into his skull

Clouds form

From his mouth

He thought of Carrie

His sister his only

Hope

But how but how

And he knew

To reach her

He wrote in the snow

I’ve always liked that technique in poetry, by the way, the line rolling over into the next one, for example: “Branches stars hands curled/Tight . . .” Or, say, “His sister his only/Hope.”

I don’t think I was consciously “writing” at that point. Closer to scribbling. There were images, concepts I needed to get down so that later on I could recall them, write them out properly. So in that sense, the outline, if you will, was really just a bunch of trigger words. Seeds. Starting points. It was sort of interesting, though, how upon re-discovering these notes today I couldn’t help but appreciate the poetry in them, those jotted words clumsily & hastily thumbed.

Here’s how it went in the book, where really the only idea that survived in this section — outside of some of the mood I needed to capture, “moon falling into snow,” — was that he would write a message in the snow, drag his boot through it, to reach that someone who (he somehow sensed) was watching on the television set.

The rest is all iceberg theory. That 90% of what we write remains unseen, hidden beneath the surface.

Got it?

From pp. 43-44, “Nightmareland”:

Aaron inspected the torch. It was burning down, dropping gray ash. The flame wouldn’t last much longer. The wolves were patient. They sat on their haunches, biding time. The biggest wolf — the black one with the scar — lay down in the snow. The others in the pack followed suit.

The wolves were willing to wait for their next meal. 

Aaron was surrounded on all sides. Behind him loomed the great, iron fence.

He was trapped.

The flame began to sputter, like a candle in the wind.

Again he felt it, a presence.

Someone was watching him. He felt like a character in a movie. And he sensed something else: Whoever was watching Aaron, he or she was rooting for him.

He was not alone after all.

It gave him an idea. Acting quickly, Aaron dragged a heel across the snow. Up, across, down. Up, across, across, across . . . 

Scan

Fan Mail Wednesday #182: A Jigsaw Jones Fan from Canada

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A tough time of year for fan mail, since I’m trying to respond before the school year ends. Oh well, I can only do my best. Here’s one that came from Canada — and included original art.

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Fan 182

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fan 182 letter

 

I replied:

Dear Shane:

Thank you for your kind letter. I’m glad that you enjoyed the first book in the “Jigsaw Jones” series. I wrote 40 of them. (Crazy, I know.) But don’t worry, you don’t have to read them in order. Or any of them, for that matter.

When I searched "marshmallow monster" on my computer, I found this. Yipes! It has nothing to do with my book. I don't think I'll ever eat a marshmallow again.

When I searched “marshmallow monster” on my computer, I found this. Yipes! It has nothing to do with my book. I don’t think I’ll ever eat a marshmallow again.

The books are getting hard to find these days –- they like to hide in dark places, like hamsters -– but it sounds to me like your teacher has several in your classroom. Be sure to thank her for me.

Also, libraries are great places, don’t you think? I recommend that you go to the library often this summer. All those beautiful books and fabulous air conditioning!

I love that you included an illustration with your letter. What a nice bonus!

Have a terrific, fun-filled, book-filled summer.

My best,

James Preller

 

P.S. If you like scary stories, you might want to check out my “Scary Tales” series. There are four books out so far. You might want to wait a year or two, it depends on how you feel about spooky things. Maybe you should only read them during the day?

SCARY TALES #4: “Nightmareland” — Now Available Where Fine Books Are Sold!

Happy to remind you that this book was published on Tuesday and is now available. This is a story that came directly from suggestions from students on class visits — a basic idea I heard over and over again. Welcome to Nightmareland. Where you’ll meet Aaron, Addy, and Freddy the pizza guy.

 

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I published my first book almost 30 years ago, in 1986. By now, most of them have gone out of print. That’s the way it goes, I guess. Especially with my old publisher, Scholastic, where they recently let every book I’ve done with them go out of print, including beloved titles that sold more than a million copies each, such as WAKE ME IN SPRING, HICCUPS FOR ELEPHANT, and the entire “Jigsaw Jones” series.

Just, poof, gone.

(Note: You can still find the books, for now, but it’s not easy.)

So much for immortality. It’s a tough business, not for the meek or, I’ve learned, the idealistic. It’s hard not to feel discouraged by it all, as I do.

But you keep writing, because that’s all you know, and you keep trying to do the best work possible. Let that be the best revenge. And you hope that maybe it adds up to something the end.

Fortunately, my books with Macmillan are almost all still available (except for Mighty Casey, which never sold).

In addition, I have regained the rights to many of those out-of-print titles, including the entire 40-book Jigsaw Jones series, so I’m holding out the faint hope that another publisher might wish to revive ‘em. I would love to write a new Jigsaw Jones book someday.

Though there are days when I feel like guy . . .

hamster

Fan Mail Wednesday #181: “I Hate Reading”

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Here’s a snippet of a much longer letter from Anabel in NY:

Fan Mail 181

I replied:

 

Dear Anabel:

I’m sorry to see that your long, lovely letter was postmarked March 12th. Since it was sent directly to my publisher, I can only surmise that it languished there for many weeks before finally reaching my home in upstate, NY.

So, please forgive the delay.

You do remember writing to me, don’t you?

It’s so interesting to learn that you “love writing” but “hate reading.” Usually the two things go hand in glove. I wonder if you’ve been reading the wrong books? In any event, I’m glad that you enjoyed Bystander. Books have given me so much pleasure in my life, I’d hate to think you’d miss out on the fun.

Don’t give up on books!!!

9780312547967To answer your questions: I have three children, now ages 21, 14, and 13. When I wrote Bystander, about 5 years ago, I guess I was beginning to project my own youngest two children in that middle grade environment. In conversations with my editor, Liz Szabla, we often got around to the topic of bullying and what we felt were unsatisfactory, unrealistic attitudes about it. Together we felt that it would be a good topic for me, because I’m sort of an anti-Disney type writer. It’s not all cupcakes, rainbows, home runs and unicorns with me.

I set the book on Long Island because I grew up there. It was a familiar environment and, for some reason, I placed this particular book there. At the same time, I’m currently writing one of my SCARY TALES books and it’s set in a swamp in southeast Texas –- and I’ve never spent a minute in that area. I had to learn and research as I wrote, which can also be fun.

I was never bullied in my life, nor was I a bully. I was a bystander, like so many of us, and that’s partly why I wrote the book from that perspective.

My best,

James Preller

This Makes Me a Gnome, I Think

I’m trying to say that, quite unexpectedly, I made a brief sidebar appearance in this month’s Better Homes & Gardens magazine. Thank you, Elizabeth Lombardo, whoever you are!

What, you don’t believe me?

Look, proof!

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Coming In 7 Days — SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND!

I’m looking forward to the fourth book in my Scary Tales series, Nightmareland, available on June 10th where horrifying books are sold. (Note: Books do not need to be read in order; each story stands alone, different setting, different characters.)

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This book always gets a huge response when I talk about it on school visits, but I always have to end with the same comment: “Yeah, no, you can’t buy it yet and this is my only copy.”

In a nutshell: Sister takes brother, Aaron, shopping. He purchases video game from discount rack, “Nightmareland.” Mom is out of town on business, expected home late. Dad’s not around. Boy starts playing video game and it slowly pulls him in . . . and he enters the world of Nightmareland, a game filled with images from his own secret fears. Snowstorms in cemeteries, hungry wolves, fierce snowmen.

The hooded character in the game looks strangely familiar to Aaron.

The hooded character in the game looks strangely familiar to Aaron.

Sister discovers Aaron in near-frozen state, realizes he’s trapped inside the game. How does she save him? She’s never much cared for video games. Maybe the pizza guy can help. The clock is ticking. Together, they must beat the game.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales: Nightmareland.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales: Nightmareland.

Fan Mail Wednesday #180: Sorry, But Accidents Happen

 

 

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Okay, you guys know how to do this by now:

Hi, James – My students are loving your Scary Tales #1: Home Sweet Horror, but were astute enough to point out that your description of the basement stairs did not match the illustrations.  The stairs, according to the writing, have “no railing, nothing to grip,” yet both illustrations of the stairs clearly show a handrail/railing.  Pretty bright kids! (And, to think that I thought they weren’t paying attention!)

Have a great weekend!

Colleen 

I replied:

Colleen,

Thanks for sharing the book with them. Yes, your students are correct. Sometimes those kinds of miscommunications happen — I don’t get to see the illustrations until the art is finished and in place. Almost always too late for a correction. Sometimes it’s easier, if the mistake is caught in-house, to adjust the text. In which case I could have rewritten the description to include the railing, or just not mention it one way or another.

Sorry for the poor quality of my scan from pages 18-19. It cannot be denied: That sure looks like a hand rail to me. Art by Iacopo Bruno.

Sorry for the poor quality of my scan from pages 18-19. It cannot be denied: That sure looks like a hand rail to me. Art by Iacopo Bruno.

Because your students have been such great, attentive readers & listeners, they definitely should not have any homework tonight.

My best,

JP

 

Girl from the North Country

 

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I want to tell you a little bit about Annika, the pink-laced lass pictured above, whom I met on a recent visit to northern New York, or where locals refer to as “the North Country.”

During a period of downtime in the school library, Annika came to have her book signed. I had remembered her face from an earlier presentation. She had that kind of presence, the way she leaned in and listened. When I talk to a group, it’s natural to scan the gathered faces. The bored ones, the curious ones. I’m grateful when I find a student who is fully there, like a friend, smiling, enjoying it.

So now here she stood, still smiling, asking for me to sign her book. Of course, I was honored to do so. We got to talking. About movies and books and stuff. Neither of us in a particular hurry.

I later learned that Annika happened to be the daughter of the school librarian. “Ah,” I said, the pieces falling together. I was also informed that Annika was not merely an avid reader. She was a trapper, too. Like her daddy. “She earned $500 last winter,” her mother told me. “Skins ‘em herself, too.”

Really?

Oh, yes, really.

“She’s a real North Country girl,” her mother said. “Here, let me show you a photo . . .”

And so she did.

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That’s one of the reasons why I love to do school visits. They get me out of the house, out of my small world. I see new places, try to look around if I have some time, open my eyes a bit wider. Some days I get to meet seven-grade wonders like Annika, and I am always glad for it.

Meeting Annika reminded me of a favorite song by Bob Dylan, “Girl from the North County,” off the Freewheelin‘ LP.

The lyrics:

If you’re traveling the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
For she once was a true love of mine.

If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds.

Please see if her hair hangs long
If it rolls and flows all down her breast
Please see for me if her hair’s hanging long
For that’s the way I remember her best.

I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all
Many times I’ve often prayed
In the darkness of my night
In the brightness of my day.

So if you’re travelin’ the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was the true love of mine.

Dylan wrote this song in 1962, soon after spending time with folksinger Martin Carthy, who introduced Dylan to a great many traditional English ballads. You can hear in the syntax of the lyrics, the entire setup of the song (the instructions to the listener, “If you’re traveling,”), and even in the song’s closing lines, borrowed verbatim from an old ballad, “Scarborough Fair,” later popularized by Simon & Garfunkel. Importantly, while the traditional lyrics of “Scarborough” call on the lost love to perform a series of impossible tasks, in Dylan’s tune he wishes only for her warmth and remembrance.

I love the understatement of this lyric, the quiet poetry, the things not said. Remember me to one who lives there. He wants to know, simply, that she has a coat to keep warm from the snow and howlin’ winds. He wants, only, for her to remember him, as he remembers her after all these years. Through time and absence and cold winds. Just beautiful.

 

Kids, Don’t Let This Happen To You: 3 Photographs

JP & Mom, '73

This would be yours truly, guessing age 12-13, circa 1973, and that’s my dear old Mom. In background, the Lincoln Memorial.

Yes, lots of hair. I know.

More recently, here I am on a school visit.

Time waits for no man.

I suppose I should be happy that I still have hair — some hair — any hair at all.

It is always a great sign when a school puts in the time and effort to decorate the halls in anticipation of an author visit. When I see stuff like that, I know they will be excited and prepared.

 

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Oh, and this is my daughter, Maggie, age 13, at the Bronx Zoo, riding a camel. But you knew that already, didn’t you? Not that it was Maggie, but I hope that you recognize a camel when you see one. For most of my life, the only camels I ever saw were on the cigarette packs that my parents smoked.

Hump Day came on Thursday this week.

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