Reading as a Kid: A Nod to Kurt Vonnegut in NIGHTMARELAND

 

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“A purpose of human life,

no matter who is controlling it,

is to love whoever is around to be loved.” 

― Kurt VonnegutThe Sirens of Titan

 

It’s something I started doing in the Jigsaw Jones series, so it’s nearly a 20-year-old tradition. I make small references to real books in my fictional novels. There’s no great reason for it, and as far as I know, nobody cares one way or the other. It’s just something I do to please myself. A tip of the hat.

In Scary Tales #4: Nightmareland, I throw in a reference to an old favorite, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. It happens in the first chapter. A boy, Aaron, is about to make an ill-fated purchase at a video game store.

And here we go, from page 6:

nightmareland_cvr_lorezA black-haired girl with dark eye makeup sat at the counter. She hunched forward with her feet tucked under her chair, reading from an old paperback called The Sirens of Titan.

“Is this game any good?” Aaron asked. “I never heard of it.”

The girl wore clunky bracelets and silver rings on most of her fingers. She glanced at Aaron and shrugged. “Sorry, I just work here. Those games are all the same to me.”

And that’s it. Aaron buys the video game and our plot soon thickens.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I have no childhood memory of my parents reading to me. And I mean, ever reading to me. It must have happened, surely, but just as surely, it could not have been too often. Or I’d remember.

I was the youngest of seven, my father worked a lot, all those mouths to feed, and I don’t think it was something we did. I’m not complaining. Things were different in those days, and seven kids is a handful. I got the book bug — at least those first bites that ultimately led to the more serious infection (or should I say, affliction) — simply by growing up surrounded by readers. My brothers read, my sisters read, particularly Jean, the 6th oldest and closest in age to me; Jean always, always had a book. I think of her reading Tom Robbins and Richard Brautigan, though of course she read everything, and voraciously.

illustratedmanNaturally I became accustomed to the idea that reading was a source of pleasure. It was my destiny; someday I’d get a crack at those same books. My brother Billy, whom I worshipped at that time, favored science fiction. He read the “Dune” series, and Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man and, of course, Vonnegut. I think all my brothers read Vonnegut in the 70′s.

Strangely, I never got around to Sirens until I was in college, taking a class in American Literature while I was attending school in — wait for it — Nottingham, England. Because that made no sense at all! I even wrote a paper about it. I doubt the paper was any good. If you are going to spend time abroad, the last thing you want to do is waste it by studying. There was too much to learn, too many people to meet, too much wild fun to pursue.

But I did read Sirens while I was in England. And today I’m glad to tell you that I gave that book a nod in Nightmareland.

Fan Mail Wednesday #189: Flowers from Canada!

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Here at James Preller Dot Com, we’ve never felt constrained by outmoded, tedious concepts such as, ahem, days of the week. Oh brother, please. It’s always Fan Mail Wednesday in our generous hearts!

Here’s a really kind note sent from Prince Edward Island in Canada, a land where even the bacon is Canadian!

Dear Mr. James Preller,

I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for the creation of your young adult novel Bystander.  Not only do I appreciate the sensitivity and humanity displayed within the text, but you also manage to infuse humor.  It might make you smile to know that my grade seven students honestly plead with me to share another chapter during our read aloud time.

9780312547967I was a bit apprehensive at first as I read about Eric’s life back in Ohio prior to the separation of his parents. I was nervous that students would become emotional charged or upset as Eric spoke of how is family had “fractured.” I was worried that this would trigger a sense of loss or sadness as this is such a common experience for many young people.  If anything, students connected to his disappointment and confusion during a tumultuous time.  I was pleasantly surprised to witness how students empathized with Eric and Rudy. We spoke about empathy and how we all handle stress and grief in different ways.

In closing, I just wish to say thank you once again.  You can never know how far your words may travel, but may you celebrate the fact that they have touched the hearts of students in my grade seven English class. Thank you for your time and if you ever find the time to reply, I know that my students would be positively thrilled.

Sincerely,

Stacy, Prince Edward Island, Canada

I replied:

Stacy,

My goodness, wow. The Irish have an expression, “Flowers for the living.” That you don’t have to wait for someone to die before saying something nice to him, or about him.

I really appreciate receiving that good news. It was an exceptionally kind note of you to write. (Though I’m not entirely sure those two previous sentences were shining examples of “good” English, but, hey, let’s keep things loose for now.)

photo-19Yesterday I handed in the 2nd and final revision of my next hardcover (July, 2015), titled THE FALL. It’s not a sequel to BYSTANDER, and it might be one step tougher, but it does address many of the same ideas and themes as that previous book. After some group bullying behavior, there’s a tragic result. The story is told entirely from the point of view of one of the boys who engaged in those misguided acts of cruelty. Now he has to own it, what he did & didn’t do.

My best, and again, thank you!

JP

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #188: My Small Tribute to Raymond Chandler & John Reynolds Gardiner’s “Stone Fox”

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Check it — a letter from Marcus!

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I sent Marcus a note that included my lousy, lefty autograph and this reply:

Marcus!

Thanks for your letter. I’m so glad that you like my series, and The Great Sled Race in particular. It’s one of my favorites, too.

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imagesOne of the things I try to do in each book I write, mostly just for myself, is to make a reference to a real book. It’s just a my way of connecting Jigsaw’s made-up world with the everyday world that you, the reader, live in. In this one, I decided that Ms. Gleason’s class would be reading Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner, which is a book that I greatly admire. She even introduces the idea of The Five “W” Questions essential to reading and writing: who, what, where, when, why. As Jigsaw realizes: “Reading was like detective work. Figure out the W questions . . . and you’ll catch the crook.”

jigsaw-sled-race-1By way of tribute, I lifted and transformed the setup of this story from Raymond Chandler’s great adult book, Farewell, My Lovely. The character of second-grader Bigs Maloney is partly inspired by a hulking ex-con named Moose Malloy. Remember that author’s name, Raymond Chandler, and you can catch up with his books in another 10 years or so.

Take care, be well, and keep reading books — any books at all!

James Preller

NOTE: Readers can click here to learn more background info about Jigsaw Jones #8: The Case of the Great Sled Race. I always hoped that a creative teacher might read Sled Race alongside Gardiner’s great book. They really do go together well.

 

 

Ahoy, Lubbers, It’s “Speak Like a Pirate Day!” Today’s Word Is HORNSWAGGLE, Featuring Art By Greg Ruth

“Young children who love pirates—
and parents who might relish reading aloud
with swashbuckling gusto—
are going to find “A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade”
just their cup of grog.” 
— The Wall Street Journal.

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Today’s phrase: “Sink me!”

An expression of surprise.

Today’s word: “Hornswaggle.”

To cheat.

Put ‘em together: “Sink me! I’ve been hornswaggled by scallywags!

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Below you’ll find various images from two books that I cooked up with the brilliant artist (and occasional “bilge rat”) Greg Ruth – A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade and A Pirate’s Guide to Recess. Now double quick, set your goggles here for some review snippets about the First Grade title . . . plus Greg’s great work.

9780312369286“Told entirely in pirate lingo, this story follows a boy and his entourage of ethereal salty dogs through the first day of school. ‘Me great scurvy dog slurped me kisser when I was tryin’ t’ get me winks!’ The protagonist’s fruitful imagination turns ordinary routine into a high-seas adventure complete with a small, skirted buccaneer walking the plank during recess. In the end, where does X mark the spot? Treasure abounds in the library, with the chance to experience the adventure of the written word. The illustrations have a vintage feel, complete with boisterous grog-drinking, scabbard-waving, and bubble-pipe-smoking pirates. The combination of the muted tones of the pirates with the bold colors of the real world adds to the visual appeal . . . it can serve as a tremendous read-aloud, especially on Talk Like a Pirate Day.”—School Library Journal, Starred Review.

“Preller’s buoyant pirate-inflected storytelling and Ruth’s illustrations, which have a decidedly vintage flair, form an exuberant tribute to imagination and a spirit of adventure.”Publishers Weekly, Starred Review.

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“Pirate-addled readers will dance a jig; press-ganged kids will be happy for the glossary. Good fun, me hearties.” — Kirkus Reviews.

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“Young would-be buccaneers facing their own first-day jitters will enjoy this droll title, which ends with a cheer for libraries. A great choice for sharing on September 19, International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” – Booklist.

Arrrrr!

COVER!!

 

 

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.

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And Then There Were 5 (Plus a Few Words About an Upcoming Hardcover)

The first book came out in July 2013, and #5 comes out this October, 2014. Meanwhile, the manuscript for #6 has been written, edited, revised – now it’s up to Feiwel & Friends to turn those rough pages into a real book.

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I’m proud of this accomplishment. Proud of the quality of these books. Six stories, each unique, with new (diverse) characters and varied settings. Each one designed to get kids turning the pages, reading books, hearts beating faster, and enjoying the experience.

As an author, I’ve had to learn to control the things I can, and to accept the process. So much is out of my hands. Will these books find an audience? Will they get past the gatekeepers? Will readers love them? I can only hope . . . while I move on to write the next story that moves me.

The next book will be something altogether different, a hardcover, THE FALL, due out in Fall, 2015. Currently that book’s opening sentence reads:

Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have typed a message on her social media page that said, “Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway!”

(I’m just saying: It could have been me.)

It is a book about bullying, bystanders, responsibility, friendship, and forgiveness. It is a story that opens with a powerful quote by Bryan Stevenson, taken from his 3/5/12 TED Talk: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Thank you for giving my “Scary Tales” series a chance. I love those books and I’m fairly amazed that the first one came out only 14 months ago. I haven’t (only) been sitting around! And thanks, too, to everyone at Macmillan for helping to make these books possible. I’ve been fortunate.

Oh, yeah: Great books for Halloween, or any time of year!

 

One Novel with a Perfect Ending

UnknownI finally got around to reading Sherman Alexie’s bestseller, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. There’s just times in your life when you’ve got to rectify old wrongs, and this was one of them. I had to read that book.

I’d heard that it was a great book from many sources, including some trusted friends. (A curious phrase, by the way, “trusted friends.” As opposed to all those other friends we have, with crappy taste, the friends we can’t possibly trust.)

So I took Alexie’s book out of the library and read it. Now I am a member of the club and say without hesitation: Stop wasting your life and read it already! Today I’m not looking to review a book that’s already been reviewed hundreds of times. My focus is on the book’s final two paragraphs. To me, those six sentences felt exactly right, forming a poignant, understated conclusion.

I don’t think that reproducing it here involves any spoilers, or anything that could diminish your enjoyment of the book, so here goes:

Rowdy and I played one-on-one for hours. We played until dark. We played until the streetlights lit up the court. We played until the bats swooped down at our heads. We played until the moon was huge and golden and perfect in the dark sky.

We didn’t keep score.

I love the repetition of “we played,” repeated four times, the rhythmic, accumulative power of that device, the simplicity of the word choice, the interplay between light and dark, and that great, four-word conclusion. We didn’t keep score. Perfection.

Back four years ago, I wrote a decent post titled “Best Last Lines from Books,” and I think you might enjoy it. So click away, folks. It’s absolutely free.

Cartoon for Teachers: My Dog Ate My Homework (or maybe not)

Hey, teachers, librarians, educators, and so on . . . you might enjoy this.

Carry on and have a great school year. You do such an important job, play such a vital role in the life and development of our children. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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This Is Remarkably Accurate to My Writing Process

Thanks to Algonquin Books . . . and cartoonist Tom Gauld, who nails it.

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This Is Tania, Featured in the next Scary Tales book, ONE-EYED DOLL

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Quick excerpt from ONE-EYED DOLL (October, 2014), art by Iacopo Bruno:

     “Do you like it?”

     Tiana was pleased. She stood in her pretty new dress. A real smile on her face. Another glimpse of what she used to be like.

     “I asked Mama to make it for me,” she said.    

     Malik dug his hands into his pockets. His eyes moved from his sister to the doll in her arms. Their dresses were now identical. Blue-and-white checkered. Both girl and doll wore a red ribbon in their hair.

     “What’s wrong with your eye?” he asked. “It’s half closed.”

     Tiana shrugged. “Mama says it might be pink eye. Or maybe I got a spider bite. Now I look like Selena. Don’t you think?”

     She smiled a Mona Lisa smile.

     “I guess you do. How about you leave that doll at home for once?” Malik suggested. “Come outside with me. We could shoot baskets. Play horse. Or we could pack a picnic, go fishing by the river. What do you think, Selena? I mean, Tiana!”

     Malik caught the error immediately. It was a simple mistake, calling his sister by the doll’s name. But it haunted him just the same.

     “Selena doesn’t like those things,” Tiana replied. “She says they’re dumb.”

     Malik’s mood darkened. “Suit yourself.” He wheeled and made for the front door. “I’ve got something to do, Tee. I’ll be back in one hour. Okay? One hour. You and that doll can sit around all you want. Just don’t leave the house, you hear? Daddy’s home. If you need something, just wake him. But if I was you, I’d wait unless it’s a real emergency.”

     Tiana didn’t answer.

     She was already gone.