Thoughts on Books: Please Disturb

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“The writer whose words are going to be read by children 

has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact

that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough 

than many people realize, and they have an openness

and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts

which many adults have lost.”

– Madeleine L’Engle

 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of disturbing readers.

Shaking them up.

In fact, I believe that many readers, consciously or unconsciously, crave the experience.

When I think about personal growth — perhaps in viewing my own three children — I imagine that it can be characterized by periods of equilibrium, followed by passages of disequilibrium, followed (hopefully) by a new, higher level of equilibrium.

Comfort, discomfort, growth.

 

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I came to understand some of this through my experience writing my first “horror” series, Scary Tales, for young readers. I placed horror in quotes because, well, it’s not that scary; nobody gets hurt, everything turns out okay in the end. Every time. But, sure, there are some clammy palpitations along the way.

I often visit schools and the response to “scary” in grades 3-5, particularly, is wildly enthusiastic. Kids love this creepy stuff with its twisting plots, and they have long before I ever entered the scene. But I’ve also learned that there is a lot of fear out there — from adults. The redoubtable gatekeepers. A question I’ll hear at Book Festivals: “Will this book give my child nightmares?”

Of course, I don’t know the answer to that. How should I respond?

SWAMP_MONSTER_Esec02_ES_loresOkay, I’m a parent. I get it, mostly. We don’t want our kids to wake up screaming, scared out of their minds. And to that end, we don’t want to irresponsibly expose them to content that might be developmentally inappropriate. Well, a caveat there: Most people have no problem, bizarrely, with “inappropriate” content if it’s on TV or a movie. Even something as cherished as the Harry Potter books and movies — where characters are murdered, and the stories get continually darker as agents of pure evil plot death and destruction. Everybody is fine with that! But a story about a kid trapped in a cave with bats? Or unfriendly snowmen guarding a castle? Or a swamp monster?

Those things might prove . . . upsetting.

And here’s the thing: Maybe we like scary stories exactly because of that disturbance. On some deep level, maybe even unconsciously, we want to be disturbed. Because we know that it is necessary to our growth.

What does the reader learn, after losing her balance, when she discovers, Whew, I’m actually okay. I survived this.

Might there be value in that discovery?

I recently got a letter from an 8th-grade reader who was disturbed by a scene in my middle-grade novel, Bystander, where a boy, Eric, gets beaten up. It upset his sense of fairness. In the letter-writer’s mind, “Eric was being very friendly,” and he “didn’t deserve to get beat up.”

The scene bothered this reader. It shook him up a little. A part of him preferred that it didn’t exist at all.

And I think, well, good. It was supposed to do that. It was designed to make you feel something. These are the troubling scenes we remember our entire lives.

Speaking of scary, how about the Teletubbies in black and white?

Speaking of scary, how about the Teletubbies in black and white?

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Now I’m not talking about pure shock, artlessly rendered. The head lopped off and bouncing, boing-boing-boing, down the carpeted staircase. Though, I guess, that might have value too. I’m talking about the fiendish clown in Stephen King’s It. Or the heartbreaking moment of when Travis is forced to shoot his rabid dog in Old Yeller. The moments that give us dis-ease.

I think that’s one of the things that good books can do for us. They disturb our tranquility a little bit. Which is also why, an aside, this entire notion of eliminating “trigger books” in the college curriculum is so misguided. The notion is that some people might be upset if they encounter certain kinds of things, or triggers, in assigned books: a mother with cancer, a rape, social prejudice, world hunger, whatever their personal trigger might be. Some believe that students should be warned about these triggers, in the hope of avoiding them.

We wouldn’t want anyone to be upset.

And I think: Good luck with that.

And also: Isn’t that kind of the point?

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno, from Scary Tales: One-eyed Doll.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno, from Scary Tales: One-eyed Doll.

When I’m not writing Scary Tales, which is most of the time, I tend to write realistic fiction. My books have included childhood cancer, fistfights, bullying, suicide, lost pets, and car accidents. Scary stuff, life.

A book, of course, is a safe way for a child or adult to address different fears. A book can be mastered. A book can be closed. It can, simply, not be read at all. Or put aside to be read another day when the reader feels prepared. And then, on that day, guess what? The reader miraculously survives. Calm is restored.

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“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.”

– Neil Gaiman

Fan Mail Wednesday #208: “Hmmm, Must Be From a Giant!”

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This one arrived in a rather thick envelope, since the letter inside it had to be folded several times in order to fit. Just look at the size of it:

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I replied:

 

Dear Mrs. Fairchild and Mrs. Hatton’s Fabulous First Graders,

I have received many letters from readers who claimed to have been my biggest fans. But yours was definitely the BIGGEST LETTER I ever received.

I fact, you had me scared. I thought that it might have been from a GIANT. Who else could have written a letter that large?

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum!

You really don’t have to beg me to write more books. I think that I’ll always be writing – even when I’m an old, old man without any teeth! Of course, by then I’ll probably write books about how much I miss eating apples. You know, sitting in my rocking chair, eating Jell-O, remembering how nice it was to have my own teeth.

I am trying to write new stories for readers your age. But I have a rule: Never talk about a book until it is finished. I don’t want to jinx anything. When you get a little older -– and braver -– you can try some of my “Scary Tales” books.

In the meantime, thank you for that super-sized letter. I loved it! Keep reading books, any books at all, even mine.

My best, 

James Preller

Meanwhile, a Surprising Development in the World of Children’s Literature

 

I did not see this coming . . . but I’m happy for the guy.

Namaste, Waldo.

 

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NEWSFLASH: Notoriously Tough Book Critic Praises THE FALL!

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NEWS ITEM: The notoriously cantankerous critic, 89-year-old Ann Preller, recently declared that THE FALL (September, 2015) was James Preller’s “best book yet.” She went on to say that she feels sure it will be a national bestseller, and that the author looks nice in that green sweater, but should really call more often.

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #207: “Thank you for reading this, if you do.”

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Donovan, an 8th-grader, writes of Bystander:

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I replied:

Dear Donovan,

Thanks for your thoughtful, perceptive reading of the book. It’s all any writer can ever hope for: an insightful reader.

While many have asked me about a sequel, no one has ever suggested a prequel. So congratulations on your original mind. I blogged about the origins of Eric’s father a while back, so I’m including that link here; you might find it interesting.

In life, we have an inner default setting that returns to “fairness.” We want things to work out. It’s why the idea of karma is popular with so many people. And I recognize that this book doesn’t satisfy that longing. The world remains unsettled and off-balance. Griffin doesn’t seem to learn anything. For a variety of reasons, he remains on the wrong path. Such is life!

9780312547967I am not a Disney-type writer, where everything works out beautifully in the end, wrapped in golden paper, tied with a bow. It wasn’t in me to write a book where Griffin learns valuable lessons and at the end everybody is friends. Sure, sometimes that happens. But sometimes, and quite often, it doesn’t. We all encounter various Griffins in our lives. I think, at best, we learn how to minimize their impact; we avoid them, protect ourselves and others. We don’t give them power over us. That was part of David’s mistake. His well-intentioned but ill-advised yearning for acceptance gave Griffin too much power.

Likewise, I agree, it would have been nice if David accepted Eric and Mary’s offer of friendship. They tried. But at that moment, David wasn’t ready. I have theories on why that is, but I’ll let you puzzle that out for yourself. I think there’s still hope for David, but perhaps he’ll be best-served if he finds a new friend who was not involved in this episode of his life. Who knows? Not me!

While I did not write a sequel to Bystander, I just wrote a book that returns to many of the themes and ideas of that book from a completely different perspective. It’s called The Fall and comes out late this summer, or early September. It’s written in the first-person, all told from the journal of one boy who was directly involved in bullying with tragic results. I think you’d like it, and I think you’d like him – even though he makes some awful mistakes.

My best,

James Preller

P.S. Of course I read your letter, I was glad to get it!

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #206: Going Back to Kally

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Kally is the wind in my sails today:

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I replied:

Dear Kally,

You had me “incredible.”

Thank you for that gushing letter. I don’t know that I quite deserve that kind of praise but, hey, I’ll take it.

You know, I love my job. I’m grateful and appreciative of the opportunities I’ve been given by my publishers over the years. I get to write books. Me, of all people. I hope I never take the privilege (and responsibility) for granted.

At the same time, it can be a tough business. Many people mistakenly believe that authors are wealthy, but that’s generally not the case. Paying the bills comes with a lot of stress for me, even after all these years; nobody gets into this line of work for the money. That’s why a letter like yours can mean so much to an author. Like wind in my sails. So seriously, sincerely, authentically: thank you.

President Nixon's dog, Checkers, was truly buried across from my high school in Wantagh, Long Island, New York, Earth. We were awfully proud.

President Nixon’s dog, Checkers, was truly buried across from my high school in Wantagh, Long Island, New York, Earth. We were awfully proud.

David is one of the most complex characters in the book. His desire to belong, to be accepted as part of Griffin’s circle – a world into which he does not rightly fit – really creates conflicts for him. I think that was the deep background behind the cemetery scene. Also, research shows that people who are bullied often turn around to bully someone else: the vicious circle, where helplessness and anger and humiliation seek some sort of outlet, somewhere/anywhere.

To my mind, those factors informed that scene. Yes, Eric didn’t deserve it. But life is full of many injustices, both small and large. Sometimes as readers, the scenes we don’t “like,” or that disturb us in some way, are the ones that leave the biggest impression on our minds.

My best,

James Preller

P.S. Funny thing about your name. I recently rediscovered this old Hip-Hop song and it’s been in rotation around my house for weeks. So, in your honor, Mr. LL Cool J . . .

 

 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #205: The Girl Who Named Her Cat After Toilet Paper

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I have been away on school visits, so it’s time to catch up on actual work — you know, writing stuff! — and responding to mail from readers, some of which I feature here on my good old, trusty old blog-o-rama.

This one is from a girl who named her cat after toilet paper. (I think.)

So I’m a-gonna proceed with caution:

 

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I replied:

Dear Catherine,

Thanks for your letter. I often wonder about cats. I wonder, specifically, at what number does a person cross from being a “cat lover” to becoming “a little teensy bit crazy.”

For example:

  • 1 cat: “Oh, that’s nice.”
  • 2 cats: “Great, they can keep each other company.”
  • 3 cats: “I guess you really love cats!”
  • 4 cats: “Four? That’s a lot of cats!”
  • 5 cats: [I am starting to worry at this point.]
  • 6 cats: [Yikes.]
  • 19 cats: [Time to alert the authorities.]

Anyway, I see that you’ve named your cats Lily, Jack, and Charmin.

Wait, Charmin?

Like the “ultra soft” toilet tissue?

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Okaaaaaay.

While I joke about cats, what I’ve found is that people who have a lot of cats tend to be extremely compassionate people, true animal-lovers. They can’t bear the thought of a single creature being without a home or, worse, sent to the shelter. I can’t knock them for having kind hearts. At the same time, you don’t necessarily want to be known in your neighborhood as “the nutty cat lady down the block.”

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I’m happy you liked The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur. I like it, too! This one features Danika Starling and her fabulous magic show. In this book, number 17 in the series, I tried something different. There’s actually two mysteries in one book. I’ve never been sure if it was completely successful — I usually stick to one per story — so I’m glad to hear that it worked for you.

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezI would love to write more Jigsaw Jones books, but I haven’t been able to find a publisher who wants one. After all, I wrote 40; maybe that’s enough. Lately I’ve been writing a new series called “Scary Tales.” You might like them. They are not very hard to read, but they are on the creepy side. I’m sorry to inform you, however, that nobody gets murdered in my stories. Everybody is safe in the end. But hopefully you’ll experience a few thrills and chills along the way. The most recent book in the series is titled Scary Tales #5: One-Eyed Doll. Every book is different and you don’t have to read them in order (or at all!). Check ‘em out . . . if you dare!

About your questions: I’ve met many authors over the years. We are all different, coming from different parts of the world, with different backgrounds and beliefs. But we are the same in one way: we are all readers. I think that’s how I became an author — I loved books so much, I just wanted to have a part of the action. I enjoy many different genres and don’t really have a favorite. I like fiction, biography, mystery, horror, science fiction, etc. As a writer, I want to try them all!

My best,

James Preller

 

Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster

Sharing the cover to Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster.

There’s some confusion about exactly when this book will see the light of day, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a really fun story. The best “scary tales” yet.

There’s a swamp, some toxic sludge, and an egg.

Twin brothers, Lance and Chance. And their friend, Rosalee Serena Ruiz.

Oh, and one more thing: a very, very annoyed mama.

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Cover Reveal (Not Final): THE FALL by James Preller

 

 

 

 

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This is the image that will appear on the Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) that goes out for review. In the words of my long-suffering editor, “It’s the most up to date. Not final, but fine to use now for your school visits.”

It’s a process, and I don’t steer the ship. In the simplest terms possible, I think that the author is responsible for the inside of the book, but that the cover is in the domain of the publisher. I have input, but mine is only one of many voices. They have a lot more experience at this sort of thing.

9780312547967So: trust, hope, collaboration, respect.

The book is for middle school readers. It falls somewhere in that Grades 5-9 category, probably best for 6-8. A good companion book for readers who enjoyed Bystander.

In an interview with Kirkus, I said this about the book to the charming Julie Danielson:

I have an ambitious hardcover coming out next year, titled The Fall (Macmillan, August 2015), in which I return to some of the themes first explored in Bystander. We’ve seen “the bully” become this vilified subcreature, and in most cases I don’t think that’s fair or accurate. Bullying is a verb, a behavior, not a label we can stick on people to define them—especially when we are talking about children. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”The book is told in a journal format from the perspective of a boy who has participated in bullying—with tragic results—and now he’s got to own it. A good kid, I think, who failed to be his best self. To my surprise, the book ended up as almost a meditation on forgiveness, that most difficult of things. The opening sentence reads:

“Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have sent a message to her social media page that read, ‘Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway! (I’m just saying: It could have been me.)”

I was guided throughout my writing by a powerful quote from the great lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #204: Brooklyn’s In the House with a Big Package of Original Stories!

 

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I’m on the road for the next two weeks — visiting schools in CT, NJ, and PA — so wanted to get this one out before I hit the gas . . .

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I replied:

Dear Ms. Betances & the TMK Leaders:

Wow, what an amazing package! Thank you so much for the gift of this collection of original mysteries – and that means you: Kate, Anthony, Nicole, Alexia, Ulysses, Jeremy, Manaal, and Frederik!

And, oh yes, thank you for that awesome opening sentence. You sure got my attention with that one.

Obviously, there’s a lot of great things going on in your creative classroom. You guys are far beyond where I was back in 3rd grade. At that age, I didn’t even dream of becoming a writer. I mostly enjoying rolling around in the mud, practicing my burps and belches. My parents were quite worried about my future.

Your entire collection of stories was really impressive. I loved how each one was different, expressing the uniqueness of each writer. JEREMY included terrific photos in his story; it was amazing to see his family dressed up in bright colors for a traditional Hindu ceremony. I guess we’ll never know how the shirt got under the bed. I loved how MANAAL’S story slowly built the suspense, sentence by sentence. I’ve got to tell you, that doll freaked me out. Great cover and interior illustrations, too. 

From MOLLY'S CREEPY DOLL by Manaal.

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FREDERIK – you are a nut! Just a funny, lively, happy mystery with a terrific ending. I never thought of fish as witnesses before (though they weren’t very helpful, glub-glub). Great photo of your dad, too! Perhaps the nut does not fall far from the tree?

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ULYSSES: I got hungry reading your story, The Case of the Missing Sandwich. You really thought like a true detective on the case. I can’t believe the cat did it – that feline fiend! NICOLE – an author’s worst fear, a missing book! I liked how you and Alexia worked together to solve the mystery: “Oh no, look. I found your book!”

From THE MISSING BOOK by Nicole.

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Speaking of ALEXIA, you were the only one who created a horizontal cover. It really made it stand apart from the others. I’m sure your dog was thrilled with the dedication. Woof! ANTHONY, your story, The Case of the Missing Remote Control, could have come out of my own life. These days, the first place I look is the refrigerator. Yes, I might be losing my mind.

From THE CASE OF THE MISSING REMOTE CONTROL, by Anthony.

From THE CASE OF THE MISSING REMOTE CONTROL, by Anthony.

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And lastly, there’s KATE’S sweet story about Sprinkle the Bunny. You are lucky to have a good friend, Emma, to team up with. Clue by clue, step by step, I felt confident that you two detectives would solve the mystery. I like how you followed the white, furry clues.

I am quite sure that I don’t have any advice that could top what your fabulous teacher, Ms. Betances, has already given you. Most of all, at this point, I wish for you to enjoy reading and writing. Have fun with it, play with it, find pleasure in it, let books make you happy. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, from every cultural and ethnic background. But we are alike in that all of us love books. So read, read widely, read eagerly -– and write, write, write!

Thank you so much for sharing your stories with me. Today, I’m feeling like a lucky guy! My best,

James Preller

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezP.S. Sorry that I couldn’t fit artwork from every book into this blog post. I did my best.

And by the way, I’m really, really glad you are liking my “Scary Tales” series!

And almost forgot: I’m actually 54. (Deep sigh.)