Letter from a Former Teacher

It’s something I don’t do enough: say thank you, say I remember you. But recently I recalled a former teacher, Mr. Mullen, whom I studied under for two art classes at the College of Oneonta. I was an English major, but the approach I took at the time was to take as many classes as possible, with an emphasis on the best teachers regardless of discipline. That’s how I found Mr. Mullen, who taught a variety of art survey and appreciation courses in addition to studio art classes for practicing artists.

Original digital drawing by James Mullen -- and the cover of the card he sent to me.

Original digital drawing by James Mullen — and the cover of the card he sent to me.

I really liked and admired this man. I’d see him around campus and he always had time for me. I’d stop by his office to talk. I can still remember the thrill I felt when he suggested we go for a cup of coffee, as if we were equals. At the time I’d been writing sporadically for the school newspaper — freelance style, where the editor basically printed whatever I gave him, without deadlines — and Mr. Mullen was always interested and thoughtful in his comments. He liked my righteous indignation, I guess. We talked about stuff. And, obviously, clearly, he cared about me. I’m still grateful for that.

I located Mr. Mullen a few years back. He’s retired now, living in Endwell, NY, of all places. We joked about that, how I supposed he had picked the perfect town for his retirement years. Let’s hope so, right? Anyway, I hadn’t written to him in a while until recently when, out of the blue, I popped a book in an envelope and included a brief note. I’m sure I told him how well I remember his kindess, and what a great teacher he was, and, well, thank you, again.

Still a practicing artist who favors working in the miniature, Mr. Mullen replied with a card of his own, a paean of sorts to Wegman’s, and to friendship.

Inside it read:

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I think that card tells you something about Jim Mullen and the graceful, dignified way he walks through life. He is a good man and, therefore, a treasure.

I don’t often do the right thing. Or at least, not often enough. But I’m trying, in my old age, to do a little bit better in terms of kindness and generosity. And what I keep learning, over and over, is that every time I give, I invariably receive more in return.

I wrote an old teacher a letter. A note of thanks. And I’m here today to suggest to you that maybe you should consider trying it yourself, if you haven’t already. Send that note. Say thank you, say I remember. I promise that you’ll be glad you did.

In his response to me, Mr. Mullen recalled a book I had sent him a few years back, a Young Adult novel titled BEFORE YOU GO. I hesitated about including a section of his handwritten response here in blogland, but in the end I think there’s value in sharing it, if only to underscore that it meant something to him.

Teachers’ hearts are made glad to be remembered. And now I have a new goal in life: to have a cup of rotisserie chicken noodle soup in Wegman’s with good, old Mr. Mullen. Wouldn’t that be something?

 

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Fan Mail Wednesday #192: Kaiya from Illinois Begs a Little Bit (and I Like It)

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We’re going to do this on Wednesday today, just to keep readers guessing. This letter involves a little bit of groveling . . .

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I replied:

Dear Kaiya:

How did you know I like it when readers beg? It makes me feel fabulous and powerful, like a king sitting on a throne. Please, please, please beg some more.

Ho-ho, I kid. Thanks for your letter. I’m glad you liked the first book in my “Scary Tales” series, and it was awfully nice of you to say so. I liked your bonus picture too. Good artist!

homesweethorror_cvr_highrezThe way this series works is that each book is completely different. New characters, new setting. I’ve written six so far (five are currently available). I’m sorry to say that I don’t have plans to revisit the characters in Home Sweet Horror. My wish is for Mr. Finn, Liam, Kelly (and their dog, Doolin!) to find a new home close to where they used to live in Hopeville. That said, perhaps you’d like to write something about their further adventures. Maybe Bloody Mary finds a way to tag along?

Anyway, please please please forgive me!

Your friend,

JP

P.S. I got the dog’s name from my old dog, Doolin, who passed away years ago. Doolin, named after a wicked cool town in Ireland, was the best dog I ever had (sorry, Daisy).

What the Hey?! Some Guy Named “James Preller” Is Featured in an Interview at Kirkus — and It’s Pretty Good!

Tomorrow is Halloween, and author James Preller wants to scare your children—the safe, exhilarating type of scare, that is, which comes from a well-constructed set of spooky stories just for the younger set. He’s been doing this not just on Halloween but all during the year with Scary Tales, his chapter book series of ghost stories, launched last year and illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.Chilling and thrilling and very often spine-tingling, the series offers up serious page-turners for students who enjoy reading frightening tales while on the edge of their seats. It’s a far cry from Preller’s Jigsaw Jones series of chapter books, which debuted in 1998, the beloved fictional detective stories for children that are still circulating in libraries. The latest and fifth book in the Scary Tales series, The One-Eyed Doll, was just released. It brings readers hidden treasures, deserted houses, and a creepy one-eyed doll, who moves and tells stories. Needless to say, it’s a good fit for Halloween—or, really, any time of year.Next year, Preller will also see the release of a middle-grade novel, one that follows 2009’s Bystander, which the Kirkusreview called “eminently discussable as a middle-school read-aloud.” The Fall, as you’ll read below, addresses bullying, but not for the sake of jumping on the bullying bandwagon. That’s to say that as soon as many schools kicked off anti-bullying crusades in recent years, we suddenly saw a flock of books about bullying in the realm of children’s literature. But Preller isn’t one for the “bully” label.Let’s find out why.
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The Scary Tales series started in 2013, yes? How much fun has it been to scare the pants off of readers?
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OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezWriting “scary” has been liberating. A blast. In the past, I’ve mostly written realistic fiction. But for these stories I’ve tapped into a different sort of imagination, what I think of as the unpossible. The trick is that once you accept that one impossible element—a zombie or a ghost in the mirror—then the story plays out in a straightforward manner.All storytelling has its backbone in realistic fiction.
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So many kids, even at a surprisingly young age, are eager to read scary stories. I tried to fill that gap. “Scary” thrills them. It makes their hearts beat faster. Yet I say to students, “I’m sorry, but nobody gets murdered in these books. There are no heads chopped off. No gore.” To me, the great sentence is: The door knob slowly, slowly turned. That delicious moment of anticipation, of danger climbing the stairs. I’ve tried to provide those chills, while still resolving each book in a safe way.
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You do a lot of school visits, as I understand it. What do you see the very best teachers and librarians doing (best practices, if you will) that really get children fired up about reading? 
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In its essence, teaching is enthusiasm transferred. The best educators seem to do that naturally—the excitement, the love of discovery. It leaks into everything they do. I think it’s about a teacher’s prevailing attitude, more than any specific activity.
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Speaking of school visits, I assume you still visit schools to discuss Bystander, especially given the subject matter. How have middle-schoolers responded to that book in school visits? 
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DOLL_Interiors_07The response to Bystander has been incredible—and humbling. Many middle schools have used it as their “One School, One Book” community reads, which is such an honor.I attempted to write a lively, unsentimental, informed, fast-paced story. I hope that I’ve given readers something to think about, while leaving them to draw their own conclusions. I didn’t write a pamphlet, 10 steps to bully-proof your school. Robert McKee, in his book Story, says that stories are “equipment for living.” I believe in the power of literature to help us experience empathy.
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What’s next for you? Am I right that there’s a new Scary Tales coming out in 2015, as well as a new novel? Working on anything else you’re allowed to discuss now? 
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I have an ambitious hardcover coming out next year, titled The Fall (Macmillan, Fall 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.”

THE ONE-EYED DOLL. Copyright © 2014 by James Preller. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Iacopo Bruno and used by permission of the publisher, Feiwel & Friends, New York. 

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.

The Amityville Horror House in “Before You Go”

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In my © 2012 Young Adult novel, Before You Go, a car full of boys drives off to Amityville to view the famous “Amityville Horror” house. It’s a minor scene, just something for my characters to do while driving around. Not coincidentally, it was a trip that my friends and I made several times when I was a teenager. Always dull and uneventful. I guess it was an aimless, Long Island-type of thing to do.

It gave us a destination, at least.

From the book:

When they reached their haunted destination at 112 Ocean Avenue in the town of Amityville, Lee killed the lights and coasted curbside. The boys stared out the windows at the old, silent house. It was three stories high with seven windows facing the street, a few tall trees and a low, neatly manicured hedge set off a few feet from the front of the house. At a casual glance, it looked about as scary as a cucumber sandwich.

byg-202x300They had all been there before, even though the drive to Amityville was more than half an hour. Thee was something magnetic about the place. The house was famous for its ghostly legends, and the second-rate Hollywood movie that was based on all the weird stuff that happened after the DeFeo murders back in 1974, scaring the living daylights out of the next family that moved in until, one night, they fled the house and never returned. No one would ever know what really happened.

Lee turned around in his seat to once again retell the tale, his voice hushed and mysterious, drawing out the words to build suspense. “So after the murders, the Lutz family moved in,” Lee began.

The boys had all heard it before, about as often as Green Eggs and Ham, but no one tried to Lee up. After all, it was his car and they were a long way from home. 

“I guess they got a bargain price,” Jude opined.

“Yeah, but after they moved in, all this sick stuff started happening,” Lee said. “Like, swarms of flies were everywhere, even in the winter. The father of the family used to wake up in a cold sweat every night at three fifteen — the exact same time of the murders. Green slime oozed from the walls. And one night they saw a demon’s face in the flames of the fireplace.”

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, BOYS & GHOULS!

How to Tip the Chambermaid

Over the past five years, I’ve traveled a lot to visit schools in far-flung places: Oklahoma, California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts, etc. Mostly I stay in the NY/NJ area. But regardless, the basic fact remains: I’m not at home. I’m often alone, away from my family, unwrapping a plastic cup from inside a plastic wrapper. Sigh.

51LvdCXV+dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One of life’s little puzzles is how to properly tip the chambermaid. For the longest time, I was never quite sure. So I faked it, without much rhyme or reason. Last year I met author Kate Klise in a hotel in Rye, NY. We share the same tour administrator, the awesome Kerri Kunkel McPhail, who organizes and coordinates our school visits in the greater Westchester area and beyond. It’s a rare treat to meet real, live authors, especially since we spend most of our working lives alone, tapping out words on a keyboard. I quickly learned Kate is a hugely talented author, dedicated and wise to the ways of the world, and a kind person, too. I liked her a lot.

Sitting in the lobby, we hit upon the topic of hotel living. I must have said something about tipping the chambermaid, because Kate gave me a suggestion that I’ve used in every hotel stay since.

I leave $5 each morning. In the past, I’d often waited for the end of my stay, but I realized that it might cause an unfair distribution. A different hotel maid might be working that day. Better to leave a smaller amount daily. Five seems like the right number to me, though I didn’t arrive at that figure scientifically. Here’s where Kate told me her approach. She said, “I always leave a little thank you note.”

2698349-1“You do?”

“Yes. It’s such a tough job — think about it. I feel like the least I can do is just write a short note of appreciation.”

Nice, right?

It immediately made sense to me. After all, that’s all anybody ever wants in this life. Some basic recognition, a note of appreciation. The tip is one thing, certainly, but taking one minute for a quick note brings it to a higher level.

Now every morning in a hotel before I’m rushing out for a day’s work, I quickly grab a piece of paper, write “THANK YOU!” or some variation, and leave a tip.

And every time, I feel good about leaving behind a little extra kindness.

And last week, for the first time, I got a response . . . with three exclamation marks.

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Writer’s Workshop Photos

 

Here’s a sweet shot from a writer’s workshop I conducted during a school visit last week in Virginia.

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After my prefatory remarks, in which I endeavor to focus & rally the troops, there’s always that uncertain moment when I say, “Okay, now it’s your turn.” They pause for a second, stare at the blank page, and plunge ahead. I am always, always amazed when they actually begin to write — and by what they have to say. It really is a revelation, every time.

I realize that it’s difficult for schools to schedule these kinds of workshops, since they can’t possibly give equal time to every student, I do think this kind of activity can make a meaningful impact on the life of a young writer. And, yes, it’s fun to watch them roll up their sleeves and get cracking. While I always say that sharing is optional — I hold to the writer’s right to keep the work to herself — my experience is that many kids are eager to share their work.

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Photo: Reading “The Little Engine That Could”

I found this photo tucked away in a file with a large group of promotional shots that were never used. Not sure what we were thinking here.

Of course, yes, The Little Engine That Could is that rarest of things: a perfect book. I should know, I read it to my kids more than a hundred times, I’m sure.

I just knew he’d make it over that mountain.

Watty Piper, forever!

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REPOST: A Hallowed Tradition . . . Falls Into the Gutter

UPDATE: I originally posted this three years ago.

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I’ve previously documented our Halloween scarecrow tradition. It’s something we enjoy, keeping it alive for at least 60 years now.

Well, this year, I don’t know what to say . . .

Here’s the view from the other side (and yes, he’s doughy) . . .

And now the backside again, the view from the street . . .

It’s either the most awesome Preller scarecrow ever, or a serious lapse in taste.

As for the old days, here’s a snap from 1953. My father built these every year . . .

This is about 20 years later, from the 70’s. It’s amazing, but most of our family photos are cropped this way. It’s hard to imagine why, or what was so difficult about keeping everybody in the frame, but there it is . . .

This is a more recent example, 35 years after that, from my own front yard, thanks to a little (and I mean, a very little) help from my kids . . .

Last year we experimented with the pillowcase head and gratuitous gore . . .

But this year, 2011, I’m afraid we’ve finally cracked. Wait, wrong word. Butt . . . you know what I mean. I guess you could say it’s a living tradition, we’re not slaves to the old ways of doing things. Or maybe, in my mother’s old expression, “We’re all going to hell in a hand basket!”

HEY, I JUST REALIZED . . . THIS IS MY 700th POST!

Fan Mail Wednesday #191: Scary Stuff & A Sneak Preview

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Hey now, it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, because “Fan Mail Wednesday” is a state of mind.

Here’s one from a student who attends one of my favorite local schools. Meet Shreya!

 

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I replied:

Dear Shreya,

Wow, thank you for your kind letter, I really appreciate it.

I’m thrilled that you are enjoying the books in my “Scary Tales” series. When I started writing them, that was my number one goal. I said to myself, “I really hope Shreya likes these. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezBut what’s up with you not reading The One-Eyed Doll? They don’t have a copy in your library? Or does it sound too creepy for you? What are you waiting for? I write these books exactly, precisely, specifically for YOU, Dearest Reader, the least you could do is read ‘em. 

The 6th book in the series will be coming out sometime in the Spring, I think, it involves a swamp and a monster and I have cleverly titled it: “Swamp Monster.” I’m kind of amazing that way.

DOLL_Interiors_07Of course, by the end, we’re not really sure exactly who the real monster is, are we? The book was especially fun to write, because it features a set of twins from Texas, Lance and Chance, and a fearless girl named Rosalee Ruiz. Right now, the manuscript is with the illustrator, Iacopo Bruno, and he’s working on it. I can’t wait to see what he does with the swampy environment, the Spanish moss dangling from trees like exotic drapes. Creepy! Also, of course, I’m eager to see how he’ll draw the swamp monster.

As an added bonus, here’s a “never-seen-before-by-human-eyes” sample from the unpublished book:

     The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches –- no jelly to be found — the boys felt strong and adventurous. They went deeper into the woods than usual. The trees thickened around them, with names like black willow and water hickory. Long limbs hung low. Spanish moss dangled from the branches like exotic drapes. Snakes slithered. Water rats lay still and watched through small red eyes. Once in a while a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.

     Stay away, gawk, stay away!

     The farther the boys traveled, the darker it got.

     Lance stopped, slapped a mosquito on the back of his neck. The bug exploded, leaving behind a splash of blood. “I don’t know, Chance,” he said doubtfully. “Getting dark, getting late.”

     Chance chewed on a small stick. He spat out a piece of bark. “Let’s keep on going.” And off he went, leading the way, content that Lance would follow.

     After another while, Chance paused and stooped low, bringing his eyes close to the ground. He pointed to a track in the mud. “What you think, Lance?”

     “Too big for a gator,” Lance said. He turned to gaze into the dark, snake-infested water as if staring into a cloudy crystal ball. “But I’d say it’s gator-ish.”

     “Real big though,” Chance noted. “Heavy, too. You can tell ‘cause the print sank way down.”

     “Guess you’re right,” Lance agreed.

     “Here’s another,” Chance said, moving two steps to his right. “Three clawed toes, webbed feet. Weird.”

     “Never seen the like of it before,” Lance said. “Looks like it was moving fast, judging by the length of the stride –-“

     “—- and headed right there,” Chance said, pointing to the swamp, “—- into the water.”

     “You reckon those tracks were made by Bigfoot?” Lance asked.

     Chance grinned at his brother. They both laughed until the swamp swallowed up the sound. They stood together in the echo of that lonely silence.

     “Maybe we should head back,” Lance suggested.

Anyway, Shreya. Hopefully that sounds intriguing to you. 

I believe I’ve visited your school, Lynnwood, a couple of times over the past 10 years or so. Everybody is always super nice. You’re lucky; it’s a great & happy place.

My best, and thanks again. Below, please find the free autograph that you requested. Cheers!

JP

Give Student Writers the Freedom to Embrace Their Inner Zombies


1621704_667566729951571_1638043617_nNote
: A variation of this essay first appeared a while back over at the fabulous Nerdy Book Club, founded by Donalyn “The Book Whisperer” Miller, Colby Sharp (the man, not the cheese), and possibly several other folks. The history is not entirely clear to me. Nonetheless! You can follow all their nerdy, book-loving, classroom-centered hijinks on Facebook, Twitter, and various other social platforms, I’m sure. 

 

 

These days, young people are crazy about zombies. That’s just a plain fact. Not every kid, of course, but a lot of them.

And I’m here to say: Use that as an advantage in your classroom. Seize the day zombie! Particularly when it comes to student writing. Some girls want to team up to conjure a story about a zombie apocalypse? Here’s a pen and paper. Go for it, ladies.

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Many students, as young as third grade and on up into high school, are watching THE WALKING DEAD. The secret that quite of few of them don’t realize is that the hit television show is not about zombies at all. It’s about people surviving zombies. The zombies themselves are boring, without personality, almost irrelevant. They could be switched out for deadly fog, or World War II, a forest fire, or a tsunami. The zombies are simply a device to propel forward a character-driven story. It’s the engine that drives plot — all those pistons churning — and gives each moment heightened meaning.

That’s my point here. Any zombie story is almost entirely about character.

zombie-3-comingWhat we need to recognize is that, counter-intuitively, the zombie plot device perfectly lends itself to character-centered story. In the case of THE WALKING DEAD, it could even be argued that it’s about family, blended, modern, unconventional, or traditional.

With, okay, some (really) gross parts thrown in. Warning: Some characters in this story may get eaten. Hold the hot sauce. Ha! And why not, if that’s what it takes? If a little bit of the old blood and guts is the hook you need to lure in those writers, embrace it.

You can’t write a good zombie story without creating an assortment of interesting characters. Then you place those diverse characters in danger, you bring them into conflict with each other, you get them screaming, and talking, and caring about each other.

As, okay, they are chased by a bunch of zombies.

There’s no drama unless the writer makes us care about his or her characters. Your student writers will be challenged to make those characters come alive, become vivid and real. We have to care that they live or, perhaps, really kind of hope they get eaten alive in the most hideous way possible by a crazed zombie mob. Screaming, hopefully.

Don’t be turned off by that. Remember, it’s really all about character development, keep your focus to that. Dear teacher, I am saying this: embrace your inner zombie –- and turn those students loose. We can’t all write about dinner parties and visits from Aunt Gweneth.

What they will be writing will be no different than your typical Jane Austin novel. Except for, you know, all those bloody entrails.

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There are currently five books available in my “Scary Tales” series.

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