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.)

Open Letter to AJ Preller, GM of the San Diego Padres

 

The name AJ Preller been in the news quite a bit lately, ever since he was named General Manager of the San Diego Padres. I’ve gotten a kick out of that, since A.J. Preller was also my father’s name. Doing a bit of research, I learned that both of our families lived in Long Island. I thought about it and decided, why not? So I sent him this letter:

 

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Dear AJ Preller,

I’m writing because I think we may have a connection. Don’t worry, I’m not seeking anything (I’m a diehard Mets fan). We both love baseball and we might be related.

Fred W. Preller

Fred W. Preller

My family, like yours, came from Long Island. My father’s name was Alan Jay Preller. His father was Fred W. Preller, from Queens Village, NY, where he was a NY State Assemblyman for 22 years. He briefly ascended to Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. I think if there’s a gossamer-thread connection between us, it might be there, since it’s my understanding that Fred was part of a large family. In later life, Grandpa had a summer place in Smithtown, Long Island. I don’t know; I’m not a student of family ancestry. The first time I saw a color television was in Grandpa’s Queens Village home. He was watching the Yankees and the grass was sooo green.

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Through his political work, Grandpa even had a baseball field named after him –- Preller Fields (later named the “Padavan-Preller Complex” sometime after Grandpa passed away) -– which is on Hillside Avenue in Jamaica, NY. Photo, above.

paperback-cover-six-innings-203x300Anyway, I’m a children’s book author and my deep love for the game led me to write this book, SIX INNINGS, an ALA Notable, which I now send along to you.

As you know, Preller is not a common name here in the United States – though it pops up in Argentina and South Africa, curiously. I always get a kick out of reading my father’s name -– your name -– in the sports pages. AJ Preller! My long-lost cuz!

Carry on and good luck with your Padres. I think you’ve done a great job so far, similar to what Omar Minaya accomplished in his first year with the Mets, seeking to make a moribund franchise newly relevant.

Good luck, my best, and play ball!

James Preller

Discovering Chris Raschka’s brilliant picture book, THE COSMO-BIOGRAPHY OF SUN RA

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I was wandering around my local library, picking my way through the biographies in the children’s section, when I came upon a surprising picture book about the great jazz musician, Sun Ra.

You could have knocked me down with a feather. I love Sun Ra, but I never expected to find a picture book about him.

Though Sun Ra’s music has a small but loyal following, he’s always been on the fringe. A little “out there,” so to speak. Not of the mainstream. In fact, Sun Ra himself contended that he was not from this planet. He claimed that he was from Saturn.

Clearly, this was a work of love for Chris Raschka.

Here’s the book trailer — check it out — and I’ll continue below.

 

 

One nice thing about Chris Raschka is that he’s already won two Caldecott Medals. And the terrific thing is that after you win awards like the Caldecott Medal — the highest award for illustration in children’s literature — then people kind of let you do what you want.

So the smart people at Caldlewick Press didn’t tell Chris Raschka that doing a picture book about Sun Ra was crazy. They didn’t say that 99.8% of picture book readers had never even heard of Sun Ra. And that the parents probably hadn’t either. No, they said, “Great, let’s do it.”

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The artwork is vibrant, colorful, free, spontaneous, wildly alive. In other words, it magnifiently matches its subject matter.

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But the truly brilliant stroke to this biography comes in the first few sentences, as follows:

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Sun Ra always said that he came from Saturn.

Now, you know and I know that this is silly. No one comes from Saturn.

And yet.

If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much.

Let’s say he did come from Saturn.

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Well, on My 22, 1914, Sun Ra landed on Earth.

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And so the story goes.

I love a book when it clearly comes from a personal space, not from a cold, SunRa71calculated look at the marketplace. Raschka created the book that was in his heart; I know this is true without ever having met the man. It is a celebration of the true artist, brave enough to go his own way. Two men, in fact, Sun Ra and Chris Raschka, who followed the beat of a different drummer. Because that’s what real artists do. They create the work and let the rest of us sort it our for ourselves.

I’m here to say, thank you, Chris Raschka, for this incredible gift.

Your brilliant book.

Here’s a quote from Chris Raschka taken from an interview with Smithsonian magazine:

“I wanted to write about Sun Ra because he steps outside the boundaries of traditional jazz more than anyone. I was aware of him in high school because he was so far out there, even rock ‘n’ roll teens like myself knew about him. When his selection of singles came out I was even more struck by the breadth of his interest in all kinds of music. It was my experience with Sun Ra’s own openness to things that made me more open to him. Openness is something any teacher strives to instill in his or her students. I think all of my jazz books about the four musicians I’ve written about so far, are about people that most ten year olds have never heard of. My hope is to let kids hear these names early, so that when they are teens or adults the door is already just a little bit open.”

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I’ll close with a clip from Sun Ra himself, created during his time here on Earth. Open your ears, your heart, your spirit.

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Quick snap from our recent visit to Mass Moca in North Adams, MA. It’s always good to get to a museum just to let it fill you up.

This here is Maggie, 14, proudly wearing her new “Kale” sweatshirt. To the right, that’s Gavin, 15, who basically does not approve of photographs. I’m nearly six feet tall, but Gavin is quickly closing the gap.

My oldest son, Nicholas, is not in this photo because he’s a senior in college at Geneseo, NY.

Fan Mail Wednesday #203: In Which Kate Is Late . . . for My Birthday!

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Here comes Fan Mail Wednesday and a letter from Kate, who was late for a very important date.

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I replied:

Dear Kate,

Thank you for your kind and very well-written letter.

Before we get into the meat of your missive, let me assure you that it is never too late to wish me a happy birthday. Or, for that matter, to send an expensive birthday present. In fact, here at jamespreller.com, it is our policy to accept birthday presents up to 120 days after the deadline. If you go beyond that date, not to fear, your gift will be considered a pre-birthday gift in advance of the real one.

Just wanted to make that clear: STILL ACCEPTING GIFTS!

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Okay, back to business:

It’s hard to understand the motivations behind bullying. In general, I view people as basically “good,” and that most school-age bullying is a result of poor choices made for a variety of reasons: insecurity, anger, a desire for popularity, whatever. I don’t like to label anyone as a “bully.” Bullying is a verb, a behavior; not a noun, or a person. I have a gut reaction against labeling in general, putting complex people into little boxes. We play many roles in our daily lives: teammate, daughter, friend, students, baby-sitter, etc. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” For that reason, I don’t like to say that anyone is just a bully, because they are so much more than that, usually simultaneously.

One of the things I discovered in my research was counter-intuitive (which means, btw, “the opposite of what we might expect”). I learned that people who are bullied will often turn around to bully someone else. At first, I thought that was strange. Wouldn’t they know how it felt? Wouldn’t they be the last ones to inflict that same harm on someone else? But it turns out that the “target-bully” is fairly common dynamic. You are bullied here, so over there you turn around and bully someone else. In one area, you don’t have control over the situation — a horrible, helpless feeling — but in the next, you do gain that upper hand. Also, what does anyone do with all that anger and resentment bottled up inside? Where does it go? So the target returns home and picks on the kid down the street. Or the boy who has a rough time at home goes into school and turns the tables on someone else. Life is so complicated, we simply don’t know what others are going through. That’s why I’m reluctant to judge.

I’m glad you seem to have “gotten” the ending. I didn’t attempt to answer every question. The story is a slice of life, a moment in time. What happens next? That’s up to you to think about and debate, if you wish.

My best,

James Preller

10991132_10205999019274119_6618454603022716888_nP.S. It’s really, really cold outside. I just came back from walking my dog — and I was wearing snow shoes!

 

 

Finally, Writing Advice I Can Get Behind!

I get asked for writing advice from time to time. And every once in a great while I try to tackle it sincerely — here, and here, and here, and here, for a quartet of random samples. If you are really interested in my collected blather on the topic, just use the nifty “SEARCH” function to this blog and type in “writing advice” or “writing tips” or “aardvarks in bathing suits” and swim through the murky wisdom. Under “CATEGORIES” in the right sidebar there’s one titled “the writing process” which loosely gathers that kind of material too.

But for today, we’ll let this suffice. Carry on!

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One of My Favorite Moments in the “Jigsaw Jones” Series . . . A Small Tribute to My Late Brother

Illustration by Jamie Smith from Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter. This is one of my favorite illustrations from the entire series for reasons explained below. Jamie gave me the original artwork -- for free, here, take it -- and now I hang it on my office wall, and it always makes me think of my brother. Every day.

Illustration by Jamie Smith from Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter. This is one of my favorite illustrations from the entire series for reasons explained below. Jamie gave me the original artwork — for free, here, take it — and now I hang it on my office wall, and it always makes me think of my brother. Every day.

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In what I hope will be a recurring feature on an irregular schedule, I thought I’d try to convey some of the background to each of my Jigsaw Jones titles.

And in no particular order.

The Case of the Ghostwriter has a lot of cool little things in it that most readers might miss.

I dedicated this book to Frank Hodge, a near-celebrity local bookseller on Lark Street in Albany, who is known and beloved by many area teachers and librarians. He’s one of Albany’s living treasures. When I moved to the area from Brooklyn, in 1990, Frank’s store, Hodge-Podge Books, was right around the corner. Of course, I stopped in and we became friends. I actually put Frank in this story: a guy named Frank owns a store called Hedgehog Books. I even included his cat, Crisis. Jigsaw and Mila visit Frank’s store in the hopes of tracking down a mysterious author.

Chapter Eight begins:

Hedgehog Books was a cozy little store. Our parents had been taking Mila and me since we were little. My mom said that Frank’s favorite thing was to bring books and kids together.

In the story, there’s a series of popular books — The Creep Show series — loosely modeled on R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps.” Mila has been eating them up, reading titles such as Green Wet Slime and Teenage Zombie from Mars. The author’s name on the cover, a pen name, is R.V. King. (Ho-ho.) There’s a rumor that he’s coming to visit room 201 for the “Author’s Tea.” Who can the Mystery Author be? I bet you can guess.

For me, the part I’m proudest of in this book is Chapter Seven, “My Middle Name,” a tribute to my oldest brother, Neal, who passed away in 1993, a few months after my first son, Nicholas, was born.

Ms. Gleason has the students reading family stories in class, Abuela by Arthur Dorros and The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Pollaco. The students, including Jigsaw and Mila, are asked to write their own family stories.

To research his family stories, Jigsaw interrupts his parents while they are playing chess. “Now’s not a good time,” his father replies. “I’m trying to destroy your dear mother.” (I always liked that line.)

At bed that night, Jigsaw and his father have a heart to heart. Mr. Jones tells Jigsaw about his middle name, Andrew, who was Jigsaw’s uncle. Now this part is totally true, because my son’s middle name is Neal, after his uncle.

“And he died,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Andrew died.” I heard the air leave my father’s lips. The sound of a deep sigh.

I put my head on his shoulder. “Why did you name me after him?”

They talk some more:

That’s when I noticed it. The water in his eyes. A single tear, then another, slid down his cheek. My father was crying. I’d never seen him cry before. It made me nervous.

“Don’t be sad, Dad.” I hugged him with both arms, tight.

He wiped the tears away with the back of his sleeve.

He sniffed hard and smiled.

“I’m not sad, Jigsaw,” he said. “It’s just that I remember little things that happened. Little things Andrew said or did. And I’ll always miss him.”

“Can you tell me?” I asked. “About the little things?”

My father checked his watch. “Not tonight, son. It’s late already. But I will tomorrow, promise.”

“Good night, Dad,” I said. “I’m sorry you’re sad.”

“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “That’s life, I guess. Sometimes we lose the good ones. Good night, Theodore Andrew Jones. Sleep tight.”

Then he shut the door.

I’d never attempt to read that chapter aloud to a group. I can never read it  without remembering, without crying. I guess in that scene, I’m Jigsaw’s dad — and my son, Nicholas Neal Preller, stands in for Jigsaw, trying to learn about an uncle, my brother, whom he never had the chance to meet.

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NOTE: I originally posted this in 2009.

School Visits: Thank You, Virginia!

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“It was such a great day for us

that I wish he could go to every single middle school!”

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I received a kind note in the mail yesterday regarding a few school visits I made to Virginia back in October. It included the article below, where my new shirt (that I’m still not sure about) figured prominently.

Of course, I’ve done many school visits over the past 20 years. By the end of most visits, I feel like I’ve become friends with that librarian or PTA organizer — and later, of course, there’s rarely any more contact. Gone but not forgotten. The librarian who sent this note, Chris, made such a huge effort to make this trip happen for me, and for the students in her school. She simply would not be denied. I owe her so much. In the headline I wrote “Thank you, Virginia!” But what I really mean is: Thank you, Chris!

School visits are an important part of my career. They help pay the bills, most certainly. They also get me out into the world, where I meet teachers and students and, hopefully, help make a small difference in every school I visit. It’s an honor and I don’t take the privilege lightly.

Here’s the note:

Jimmy,

Here is the article about your visit to Poquoson Middle School.  It was published in the VAASL Voice, our state librarians’ magazine, and was distributed to about 1300 librarians across the state.

Your author visit has been a real highlight of our school year!

Thanks again,

Chris

And now, the article:

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Galleys: And an Excerpt from THE FALL (Summer, 2015)

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The package arrives in a big, padded yellow envelope. That manuscript I handed in more than a year ago? Well, it’s not a book yet — but it’s getting there. These are the galleys to THE FALL (Macmillan, 2015), representing my first opportunity to see the interior book design and typeface. And, yes, yet another round of proofreading, second-guessing, and fine-tuning (none of which will be reflected in the Advanced Reader’s Copies that will be made available for review).

The book is told in the first-person, ostensibly from the journal of a male student. He has made some mistakes along the way. His journal is comprised of short entries, a couple of pages in length. There’s a few poems, snippets mostly, alongside more extended narrative passages. Page by page, his story unfolds. Sam has promised himself that he’d write in this journal every day for a minimum of 15 minutes. Some days, the words come freely. Other times, he struggles and sputters as he tries to process things still unsaid & unresolved.

I like the way this book looks, feels; it’s open, clean, easy to read. Should be able to reveal the cover soon. It’s still in the “tweaking” stage.

Here’s two samples from the interiors (pp. 55-56, and p. 94):

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Fan Mail Wednesday #202: More Questions About the Ending of “Bystander”

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This one comes via a terrific teacher I met on a school visit a year or two ago . . .

Hello, 

I am sitting with a student right now who just told me that “Bystander” is the first book that he has ever enjoyed reading. He finished it up and asked for another book by “that author.” Just wanted to give you the positive feedback! 
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Also, my students are wondering:
1) Is “Bystander” is based on a true story. 
2) Did you consider writing a different ending? 
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Cheers,
Rachel 
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I replied:
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Rachel,
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Sorry it took me a while to get back to you — and I’m even more sorry that I seem to begin every missive these days with an apology. 
 
Questions:
 
1) No, not a true story, but always elements of truth — and my real life — seem to seep into every story I write. The characters are completely made up, composites of things I’ve read and seen and imagined. For me the heart of story is always about character, character, character.
 
97803125479672) Yes, I did conceive of a different ending. To backtrack, I fully understand that the ending in the book — the one I picked — is anti-climactic. It also offends our human sense of fairness; in books & movies & in real life, we tend to prefer for the bad guy to learn his lesson or, even better, to get taken down by some form of justice. Eaten by a dragon, preferably. That kind of ending is (almost) always the most satisfying. It’s a time when, in movie theaters, we stand up and cheer. A story is, of course, artifice. A construct, a false thing conceived in pursuit of “truth,” if you will. But in this case, I really strived to stay true to life as I knew it, thus: the ending of the book. I rejected the phony ending, even when I knew that many readers might prefer it.
 
That said, sure, I played around with a different idea. The seeds of it are still in the book. Griffin has been stealing from parked cars; the police strongly suspect him; and Eric has discussed this — in the vaguest of terms — with a police officer. The ending I conjured was for Eric to somehow be involved in setting up Griffin’s fall. Griffin gets snagged by the cops and justice is served. Everybody stand up and cheer!
 
As you know, I did not write that ending, mostly because I didn’t believe it. Though, again, the seeds are there. I ultimately rejected Eric’s role in that kind of setup, but the story does suggest that Griffin is clearly on the wrong path. Trouble waits ahead unless Griffin turns things around. There’s also the possibility that I still have a degree of sympathy for Griffin, despite everything. I just didn’t have the heart to see him walk off in handcuffs. If that’s the come, it will happen later in his life.
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I should also add that I never considered the standard bully ending, where he learns his lesson and everybody hugs at the end.
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Thanks for your positive feedback and for keeping my book in your classroom library.
 
JP
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