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As an added bonus, here’s a “never-seen-before-by-human-eyes” sample from the unpublished book: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


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: 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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Poster In the School Lobby . . . and a Quick Memory of Craig Walker

Here’s a quick snap of a poster in the lobby of our local middle school:

 

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Since the time I wrote Bystander, I’ve been invited into many middle schools. Often the funds for my visits have come out of a school’s “anti-bullying” budget, or some similar cookie jar. After a series of sensational tragedies involving bullied children became public, various government agencies got involved. Legislation was passed, and many schools attempted to address the core issues.

They felt compelled to . . . do something. Or in the most cynical reading possible, administrators at least recognized the need to protect themselves from lawsuits. A kinder and generally more accurate take is that the extra attention, the extra funds, gave the good people in those schools the opportunity to do something meaningful, to make a difference in the lives of these young people. They care. Because I’ll tell you, I’ve met the best of these folks, I’ve spent time with them, and I am awed by the goodness in their hearts — their motivations and intentions. I’m honored to play a small role in their larger mission.

Witness the flowering of hundreds of bully-prevention programs throughout the land.

At the same time, yes, I know there are teachers who roll their eyes, check the clock, and wonder when they can get back to teaching. There’s a curriculum to be covered and, ultimately, tests to be given, results to be measured.

On the whole, not perfect, it’s a multi-faceted issue, and we’re all trying to figure it out. But a good process, I think.

I’ve seen that the more progressive schools have gradually moved on from that narrow (and sometimes too negative) focus to address the larger issues covered under the umbrella of “Character.” I’m glad about that.

Best of all, I am seeing a greater emphasis on kindness.

Wedding, Walker 2My old pal, Craig Walker, used to joke that everything you ever wanted to know about love was on the Supremes “Greatest Hits” LP. And by that he meant, there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new that anybody can possibly say on the topic. There will be no new revelations forthcoming. We’ve heard it all already, and so often that it comes out like a tired cliche. No, you can’t hurry love. And you do keep me hanging on.

220px-Supremes_Greatest_HitsWhen it comes to the bad behavior associated with bullying, we can ask those involved, “How would you like it?” “How would it make you feel?” And maybe we can say something about doing unto others. Or being kind. Or a dozen other fairly obvious things that remind us how to be a good (read: caring, compassionate, thoughtful) person in this world. We can also tell them, in clear language supported by real consequences, that bullying is unacceptable.

I do believe that it’s part of every school’s mission to reinforce these messages, every day, in a thousand small ways. I’m glad that sign is in our lobby. It’s a minor thing, sure, easy to dismiss or ignore, but it’s still a signal amidst the noise. A lighthouse visible from the stormy sea.

All and all, not a terrible question to ask ourselves before we act, speak, or post:

Is it kind?

Fan Mail Wednesday #190: A Future Detective Named Vaughn Just Wants to Know

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Here we go, Fan Mail Wednesday! But first, let’s shake it out with a little zumba . . .

Just kidding, folks. You can relax.

James-Preller-cropped1Also, please note: This is the 1,001st post since I started this blog in May, 2008, back when I had dreams of RULING THE INTERNET. That’s an average of something like eight gazillion posts a year, and it’s pretty exhausting. I’ve slowed down the pace over the past few years, no longer  worrying much about this blog, or about getting “hits” or anything like that, but lately I’ve decided to step up my efforts. So don’t be surprised if the next time you stop by there’s some new throw pillows and curtains. You might even smell some incense and potpourri.

And if I haven’t said it lately, thank you, sincerely, for stopping by. The internet is deep and vast; it’s really something that you’ve managed to find yourself here, reading this. I’m grateful for that.

Here’s a note from my new main man of all men, Vaughn:

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I replied:

Hi, Vaughn,

Thanks a lot for reading my book, and thanks a really lot for writing to tell me about it.

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tifYou hope that Hermie doesn’t get eaten by a snake? Imagine how Hermie feels!

Do I like detectives? Oh, yeah, for sure. I love trying to figure out mysteries, looking for clues, solving secret codes, and encountering new characters. But one of the things that I grew to love about this series was the friendship, and the loyalty, between Jigsaw and Mila. They always look out for each other.

As a young boy, maybe even around your age, I used to spy on my brothers and sisters (I’m the youngest of seven). I’d hide in weird places, sneak around corners, crawl silently up darkened stairways. I used to own a “spy scope,” which was a long, expandable telescope that could be used to see around corners. Man, I loved that toy. Once I even watched in horror as my big brother, Billy, and his girlfriend, the beautiful & sweet-smelling Janice Snellbaker, kissed! They didn’t know I was there.

All I can say is: Yuck!

Some things, Vaughn, are hard to unsee.

I hope you keep reading books, any books at all, even mine. Good luck with your detective work. Remember this: Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.

My best,

JP

Brilliant: B.J. Novak Reads “The Book With No Pictures”

In this bunny eat bunny world, we’ve seen celebrity authors come and go. Mostly come, in droves, especially after Harry Potter put a spotlight on the profit potential of the children’s book biz. Ca-ching.

Everybody’s making millions!

For many of us non-celebrity authors and illustrators, dressed in our dreary clothes, clutching our cold coffee cups, it’s hard not to be a little, urm, disgusted at times. The crappy book by the “star” that gets a ridiculous amount of undeserved attention.

IMG_0369But that’s life, so we deal with it, and try to keep our petty thoughts to ourselves.

However, I hasten to add: not all celebrity books suck. Jamie Lee Curtis wrote some good ones, as I recall. Fred Gwynne — Herman Munster! — made a sincere  effort to create singular children’s books. By that I mean, my sense is that they actually worked on the books, actually respected the idea of a children’s book, and got into it for the “right reasons,” however we might differ in defining what those reasons are. It wasn’t just a way to cash in on something.

Anyway, this fresh, new effort by B.J. Novak is brilliant. Yes, absolutely, he came up with a clever idea. A great idea. But then he pulled it off over the course of an entire book. That’s not at all easy. And it’s beautifully published, too. Great job, all around.

Kids today, they sure do love the meta.

Enjoy this book with no pictures, folks. Go ahead, stomp on that link, surrender to the video. It makes me wish that I had a room full of kids to read this one too.

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Reading “Danny the Champion of the World”: And Wonderful It Was

I guess it’s true of most readers. We have these embarrassing gaps in our reading lives, all those books we didn’t get to, the awful holes we hope to one day fill. It’s an impossible task, a job (and a joy) that can never be completed.

To that end, I’m currently reading Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.

I haven’t finished it yet, and I’m disinclined to offer up a review. But I wanted to share a few thoughts, beginning with this incredible illustration by Quentin Blake.

 

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I keep returning to that page, staring at that picture. Just a few simple lines that capture such depth of feeling. There it all is, being a kid, looking up at a parent with love and wonder while snuggled up warm in bed. Two dots for eyes — two dots! — and yet they seem to express the essence of that relationship. The father registers only as a looming presence without detail, like a great tree in a forest. He is, simply, there. A force of nature and comfort. It’s amazing, I’m stunned by it, in awe of it. So that sums up an important part of today’s blog.

Wow: Quentin Blake.

Then there’s the storytelling of Mr. Dahl, which is a gift I’ll never have. The man tells stories. Whoppers. But here, today, I want to focus on Dahl’s writing style. I admire the clarity and directness. I’m also charmed by the Englishness — the strangeness to my American ears, the weird things they happily eat, the peculiar names of things — where every detail seems just a little other-worldly, even in a fairly straight-ahead, naturalistic novel such as this one. This is the distance of time and place. A different world, yet still familiar.

Here’s the paragraph that went before the illustration above. I keep reading it over and over again. Now I get to type it, feeling like a weekend musician at home with a guitar banging out a Beatles tune, channeling that great artistic beauty through my fingertips (I love typing out great passages from books):

I really loved living in that gypsy caravan. I loved it especially in the evenings when I was tucked up in my bunk and my father was telling stories. The kerosene lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove, and wonderful it was to be lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room. Most wonderful of all was the feeling that when I went to sleep, my father would still be there, very close to me, sitting in his chair by the fire, or lying in the bunk above my own.

That paragraph, to me, is absolutely perfect. The writing is direct, specific, concrete (not abstract), interesting (lumps of wood) and for the most part, quite plain. I really loved living in that gypsy caravan. Few would claim that as an example of great writing — except for the obvious fact that, wow, that’s great writing. The absence of flash. An arrow doing its swift work, slicing to the next sentence.

danncover3The only tricky moment in this paragraph, where the language uplifts and surprises us, giving the reader temporary pause, occurs in that more elaborate third sentence, which was perfectly set-up by the direct predicate-verb structure of the previous two sentences. I really loved, and, I loved. Which leads to this: The kerosene lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove, and wonderful it was to by lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room.

You heard that, right?

And wonderful it was.

Again, all I’ve got is wow. There’s so much there, the essence of being loved, of feeling secure, of being a child safe from harm, snug and warm. Can writing really do that? It feels like a small miracle. Is this why I love books?

And it all happens on page 7.

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!!