Wow, Read This Spectacular Review for THE COURAGE TEST!


In this photo, I'm showing off the fabulous wrap-around cover for THE COURAGE TEST . . . as well as my daughter Maggie's lovely forehead.

The fabulous wrap-around cover for THE COURAGE TEST.


Confession: About eight years ago, early in this blog’s existence, I was a much more enthusiastic reader of the children’s blogosphere. Over time, I’ve lost most of that energy; there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. I sense that I should be doing other things (like: writing!). And, well, there’s the other thing: I’m not great at networking. I’ve never been comfortable with the sense of “ulterior motive” that comes with those professional relationships. So while it makes good sense for me to make friends with bloggers and reviewers, it really hasn’t happened too often.

(Read: They hate me!)

And then there’s good old Karen Terlecky. I first “met” Karen when she wrote a beautiful, perceptive, generous review for my book, Along Came Spider. I’ve been stalking Karen ever since. No, I don’t drive past her house at night; I just randomly click on her lovely Literate Lives blog, co-written with Bill Prosser (also a friend). Even fuller disclosure: click here and be amazed.

A few weeks back, after Karen expressed an eagerness to read it, I sent Karen an Advance Reader’s Copy of The Courage Test. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I didn’t hope that she’d review it, but in all honestly my primary reason was that I wanted her to read it. I was proud of my book and I wanted Karen to have a copy. 

For Karen’s full post, you know what to do. Or failing that, simply read below and you’ll get all the juicy bits. Thank you so much, Karen, not only for this, but for the important work you do for teachers, writers, and readers everywhere.


The Courage Test by James Preller is a great read that starts with the front cover. I have an ARC, so I’m not sure what the final cover art will look like, but what a great opportunity for a reader to look at the illustrations on the front cover, and begin thinking about what the story might be. So many clues live there – in some ways, it reminds me of the clues on the cover of another favorite, When You Reach Me. It’s a cover you would come back to time and time again as the story unfolds.

I say “the” story, but truly this is a book with multiple story lines contained within the adventure the main character, Will, goes on with his father.

There is the story of Will and his father, somewhat strangers to each other after Will’s dad left him and his mom for a “shiny new life” complete with a new girlfriend. In the story, Will’s dad takes him on a trip to replicate the adventures of Lewis and Clark. Will’s dad is a college professor, a fan of American history, and is trying to write a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Will would rather stay home and play baseball than go on a trip with a dad that he feels is no longer a real part of his life. The main story line follows them and their rocky relationship as they try to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

There is the summer assignment writing Will has – writing about something interesting that happened to him that summer. (To help the reader discern the different story lines, the summer assignment is the part written in italics.) I found myself mesmerized by all the historical detail Will puts into his writing assignment. So many, many facts about Lewis and Clark about which I had no idea! And having those facts written from Will’s perspective was brilliant on James Preller’s part – it makes reading history so interesting, and in some cases, quite surprising. I think student readers would enjoy the perils they faced as much as I did! This would be a perfect read for a student interested in history, adventure, and survival.

There is the relationship between Will and his mom. They became quite a team once Will’s dad left, and now she is practically pushing him out the door to take this summer trip with his dad. Will feels a bit hurt by that, but we learn even more history in the postcards Will continually sends his mom, with great details about places on the Lewis and Clark trail they’ve seen. In addition, we hear the voice of a boy who just wants contact with his mom.

In addition to these story lines, there are additional supporting character story lines that help move the story along:

  • A friend of Will’s dad, Ollie, shows up at one point on the trail, and stays with them awhile.
  • Will and his dad find an “illegal girl” – in fact, that is the name of the chapter where they first encounter her.
I tend gravitate toward reading books where relationships are explored, and that could not be truer with this book than its examination of the relationship between Will and his dad. James Preller had each new situation, each new adventure, each new moment of survival share just a bit more about that relationship. It was like slowly peeling back layers of an onion to get at what’s really inside. I thought it was masterfully done, especially when, by the end of the book, Will and his dad grow to know and understand each other, but everything is still not perfect. That felt incredibly real to me, and I appreciated it as a reader.
All these stories, slowly but surely, wrapped themselves around my heart and tugged at my heartstrings. I found myself caring a great deal about Lewis and Clark, Will’s mom, Will’s dad, and most definitely, Will. But, I also have to say, there were some breath-taking, scary moments as well — think bears and white water rafting. I have experiences with both, so I found my heart pounding at these intense moments.
Finally, I’m a sucker for a circular story, so I loved that this story began and ended in the same place, with the same words.
Be on the lookout for this gem — it is due out next Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. If you’re a teacher, I guarantee there will be readers in your room that will be very thankful you added this book to their reading choices!


Writing Process: How a Photo on Facebook Influenced JIGSAW JONES: THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE

Illustration by R.W. Alley, from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Illustration by R.W. Alley, from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. That’s Jigsaw with his father and grandmother.


When writers are fully engaged in their work — not just writing, but actively (or unconsciously) thinking about the writing — it tends to create a state of unique receptivity. Everything we see, hear, read, or smell becomes fodder for the work. A face we see in a coffee shop becomes exactly the face we need for a minor character. Someone’s small gesture — the way a girl crosses her arms and squeezes the skin of her elbows when she’s nervous — soon worms its way into our writing.

We have our antennas up. We’re sticky like flypaper, catching the signals in the atmosphere. I’ve heard it described as a time of being particularly “spongey,” a state where writers are especially absorbent, like quality paper towels. The song in the elevator becomes the key song in the book, and so on. The whole world feeds into the writing in unexpected ways.

I suppose I was in that sticky/spongey condition when I began casting about for ideas for a new Jigsaw Jones book. After a while, I figured out that it would revolve around a note stuck inside a book, found at a Little Free Library (because I love them). Without disclosing too many spoilers, the found note would lead some to believe that aliens were coming from outer space. Spoiler #1: They are not. Coincidentally (or not), Jigsaw and Mila’s teacher, Ms. Gleason, has been talking about the planets in class. Spoiler #2: She was even planning a surprise Skype visit from a real, live astronaut.

I was eight years old on July 20, 1969, sitting before my television watching grainy, black-and-white images of Neal Armstrong walking on the moon. At the same time, “Star Trek” was the most popular show with my older brothers. “Lost In Space” was also on television, feeding that fascination. The idea of space, the final frontier, has always loomed large in my imagination.

Below is a photo of the only twelve people who have ever walked on the moon. This is what the astronauts looked like:


Notice anything about them? Go ahead, study hard; this might take some time. Hit the buzzer when you are ready.


Yes, correct, they are all white men! Good work. I don’t recall questioning it at the time. But times do change, and many things do get better, even though it doesn’t always feel that way. Even so, this concept of what an astronaut looks like had been planted deep inside my brain. It just . . . was. Then one day the internet coughed up this image on my Facebook feed:


Beautiful, perfect. This was just what I needed. One of the tricks with plotting mysteries is to run counter to assumptions, gender or racial or otherwise. The reader leans one way, you go the other. Also, politically and personally, I want to celebrate the diversity in our world. I want to jar readers a little bit, perhaps. Remind them to rethink those assumptions. Or, maybe, help them see themselves reflected from a new distance . . . under a new light . . . maybe even a world away.

From the book:

A gasp filled the room.

We were meeting a real live astronaut.

“Hello, boys and girls!” the astronaut said.

I heard Lucy whisper, “Major Starmann is a woman.”

“And she looks like my mom,” Danika said.


Rough sketch from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE (Macmillan, August 2017).

Rough sketch from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE (Macmillan, August 2017).


NOTE: One of the primary missions of this blog is to provide readers with a glimpse behind the scenes into the writing process and a writer’s working life. If you go to the Jigsaw Jones page and scroll through, you’ll find links to many other “Stories Behind the Story” posts. This new book will come out in the summer of 2017, along with the repackaging of four more titles that are currently out of print. I’m happy about that.


DEAR EDUCATORS: Now Seeking School Visits for Fall, Spring 2016




An important and rewarding aspect of my career in children’s books is when I  get out from behind my desk to visit schools. I very much enjoy meeting teachers and speaking with students, sharing my love of books. It’s also an important source of revenue for me as a writer. In truth, school visits allow me to keep doing what I love — writing books for young readers.

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tifAfter answering a series of individual emails on this topic over the past decade or so, I finally decided to get around to providing a general description of a typical visit. Hopefully it will help to answer questions in advance and give you some idea if I’m the right guy for your school.

I am relaxed and experienced speaking with students at any grade level, though, of course, the content of those talks varies according to age level. I’ve written a range of books that are appropriate for kindergarten up to middle school, and many of them available in paperback at affordable prices.

Typically, I’ll do three 45-50 minutes presentations during a full-day visit. In addition, schools sometimes like to set up lunches with a small group of students, and I’ve always enjoyed that. I am also very happy to sign books. It is understood that the sponsoring organization will handle all book sales.


IMG_1059 (1)


For the best results, I’ve found that it makes a huge difference when students are familiar with my work and have thought about questions in advance. Like just about everything else in life, what you get out of it is in direct proportion to the energy that’s put into it. If the school leaders are excited and enthusiastic, that energy transfers to the students –- and we all have a terrific, rewarding experience.

CourageTestFrontCvrI don’t juggle, blow bubbles, or stand on my head. I’m an author talking about what I do for a living, reading a bit, answering questions, all (hopefully) in an authentic and entertaining fashion.

Fees are available upon request. I do try to be flexible to the specific needs of each individual school. For schools that require serious travel, it works best for me if 2-5 days worth of visits can be arranged with different schools in your district. Sponsors should plan on paying for travel expenses, which can be shared with other area schools. I can’t tell you how often I am asked to visit a school in, say, Montana. For one day. And sadly, that just never works; there has to be more of a coherent, cohesive plan to get me from here to you, way out there. That said, I’ve been to SC, FLA, CT, MA, NJ, PA, IL, MI, OH, OK, NY, and more. But my real dream is a week in San Francisco. So come on, folks, let’s make that happen!


Please Note, A Word About “Scary Tales” Series

61ZJfCfXgSL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_July, 2013, saw the launch of a new series of books for me, called SCARY TALES. I am very proud of these books, and I’m confident the books will reach even reluctant readers. They are best for grades 3-5, but these things are hard to pin down. As a visiting author, I fully recognize and respect that distinction between, say, a parent-purchased book in a store compared to a guest author in a school, where children do not have choice. Therefore, in a grade 2-3 presentation, I will talk about the series in terms of using the imagination, asking “what if?” questions, story-building and characterization. I do not dwell on anything particularly scary. At the same time, I will likely read a carefully-selected passage that gives readers a sense of the, um, literate creepiness of the books. I’m trying to say, I can work with you on this, not looking to scare young readers. I’m looking to inspire and motivate them. October makes for an especially fun time of year to highlight these stories (there are six in the series in all).

Middle Schools, Bystander, Anti-Bullying

The popularity of the book, Bystander, opened up new worlds to me, specifically middle schools. In many schools around the country, Bystander has been widely read and shared, sometimes with an entire grade or school, cover_final_bystander_lo-203x300featured in a “One Book, One School” context. The idea is that it can serve as a positive, educational springboard for conversations and activities about the dynamics of bullying, and the various roles we all play in those situations. But I stress: it’s a story, a work of fiction, and I have been a published writer of children’s books since 1986. (You remember ’86, don’t you?) So while I am thrilled and honored to speak to large and small groups about this book, and the issues within it, I am not an anti-bullying presenter. I don’t offer ten easy steps for bully-proofing your school. I don’t climb on the soapbox. I love to visit middle schools, I am fascinated and inspired by this age group (today, 2012, I share my home with a 6th-grader and an 8th-grader), and I care about this issue very deeply. But I approach it as a writer, if that makes sense.





The Courage Test comes out in September, for grades 4-7. For more information on that book, a work of fiction which closely connects to the history of the Lewis and Clark Trail, this is a good place to start. 

TheFall-1The Fall, which serves as a strong companion to Bystander, will be available in paperback this September.

If you wish, please feel free to write to me and we can chat about it in more detail.

For more on a James Preller-styled school visit, plus some advice of running a successful author visit, you should click here. Really, that will tell you all you need to know. But if you really dig research, go to the “School Visits” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” and click madly, deeply.

Here’s one particular post you might find instructive.

So, there it is in a clamshell. I look forward to hearing from you!



A Thought for Back to School


I came across this quote in my recent reading, jotted it down so I’d remember it, and this morning searched out a meme to share with my Nation of Readers.


SLJ Calls THE COURAGE TEST “A Middle Grade Winner!” See Full Review & Minor Correction.


More good news for my upcoming book, now just one measly month away from hitting the shelves. The Courage Test has already earned a starred review from Booklist and been named a 2016 Junior Library Guild Selection. Below, please find the full review from School Library Journal. While I am grateful for any positive attention, and impressed with the amount of information this reviewer conveys in a difficult, condensed format, I should clarify two points:

1) Will and his father live in Minneapolis and travel in a long, dull drive to Fort Mandan, North Dakota, where they pick up the old Lewis & Clark Trail. From that point on, they loosely follow the trail all the way to Seaside, Oregon.

Sacagawea on the trail with her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pompy.

Sacagawea on the trail with her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pompy.

2) The character of Maria Rosa is 15 and pregnant, not coincidentally in the same condition as that of Sacagawea when the explorers first encountered her in Fort Mandan. Sacagawea grew up with the Shoshones and had been kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe at around age ten. A few years later she was sold to a fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. It is not clear in The Courage Test that Maria is exactly a “runaway,” but it is strongly intimated that she came into the United States illegally from Mexico, seeking a new life. The title of Chapter Three is “An Illegal Girl,” for example.



Author: James Preller 

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 224
Price (Hardcover): $16.99
Publication Date: September 2016 
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250093912

Gr 4-7–William Meriwether Miller—named after Lewis and Clark—is not happy about embarking on a wilderness adventure with the father who walked out on him and his mother. It’s not what he had in mind for his summer (he’s missing the chance to play on the All-Stars baseball team), but his mother insists. So he and his father, a history professor working on a book about the famous explorers, set off from Minnesota to North Dakota, driving, camping, rafting, and hiking along the Lewis and Clark Trail. As they work together to overcome obstacles and help a pregnant 15-year-old runaway, Will slowly gains a better understanding of his father. When he finally learns the reason behind the trip—his mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is starting treatment—he comes to appreciate his family as they are and not as he wishes they could be. The lively narrative is interspersed with Will’s entries for a school writing assignment, which contain lots of facts about the original journey, as well as postcards to his mother. Despite the emotional heft, there is plenty of action, including white-water rafting and a close encounter with a bear. VERDICT A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama.–Laurie Slagenwhite Walters, Brighton District Library, Brighton, MI <<

Thinking about Fear, Featuring a Very Short Excerpt from “Scary Tales”


It’s a classic “horror” setup: the kid alone in bed in a dark room. Common to all. We’ve felt it, we remember that zipper of fear along our spines, that feeling of something else — something other — also in our childhood rooms.

Innocence meets experience.

Or was it just the strange pleasure of jarring ourselves to full wakefulness? A feeling we craved because, weirdly, we liked it? We sought it, that roller coaster of the mind. And so we invented it?

Writing the “Scary Tales” series (grades 2-5) I’ve had been able to try my hand at some of those moments — writing comfortably within the tradition, as well as attempting to conjure new chills of my own.

Here’s a paragraph from Swamp Monster, the 6th and last book in the series.

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watching in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.

Be sure to read them all, folks. A strong addition to any classroom library, illustrated by the great Iacopo Bruno.

61ytjNMBIZL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_     61ZJfCfXgSL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_     51mlHMN-snL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_     61H4ONFM9wL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_     51XqCcFjPAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_     61jAVm+Fg0L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Fan Mail Wednesday #232: Bears In Backyards



I received this note from Ethan, who likes my style. But before I get to that, I should note that 98% of my fan mail comes during the school year, and many arrive with the aroma of “assignment.” That’s not a bad thing, mind you, just reality. In today’s case, this is a letter I received in late July, along with a stamped and self-addressed envelope (love that!). I can’t help but sense a  parent’s helping hand making this all possible.

“Would you like to write to the author?”

I don’t know where I’m going with that observation. Except to say that behind every enthusiastic reader, there’s usually a loving adult helping to cultivate & nurture that experience. Thank you for that, and for this:




I replied:


Dear Ethan,

Thank you for your letter. I am pleased to learn that you like my style. Yes, style points!

You know, it seems like every Spring there’s an incident in Upstate, New York (where we both live), when a bear wanders out of the woods and into a town, or near stores, or into someone’s backyard. It’s a worrying thing, because bears are big, strong,  wild animals. Often, animal control has to get involved for everyone’s safety. I read articles like this in the newspaper every year.

I wondered why this happens, so I found an animal expert. He told me that bears are “territorial,” they like to have their own area –- a territory is like the property of your house –- and that sometimes a big male bear will make a smaller male go find his own territory. They don’t like to share. So the young male goes looking for somewhere to live, and sometimes he gets confused, make a few wrong turns, and ends up at Crossgates Shopping Mall. Yikes! What’s a bear doing at Banana Republic? The poor bear is lost. Bears don’t want to hurt people –- bears are usually shy; they don’t look for trouble -– but bears can be dangerous. It’s a sad and scary situation for everybody.

Writers often start with “what if?” questions. And that’s how I began The Case of the Bear Scare. I’m so glad you read it. Thank you.

This is a rough sketch for an illustration in my upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE, illustrated by my pal R.W. Alley. The character depicted here is Joey Pignattano on a stake-out.

This is a rough sketch for an illustration in my upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE, illustrated by my pal R.W. Alley. The character depicted here is Joey Pignattano on a stake-out.

I just finished a new Jigsaw Jones book titled The Case from Outer Space. It will be out in the summer of 2017 and it’s pretty funny. I hope you check it out. My newest book is called The Courage Test (grades 4-7) and comes out in September. And guess what? There’s a mama bear in it, and a boy hiking in the woods of Idaho . . .

Stay cool and have a great summer!

Your friend,

James Preller

Booklist Gives Starred Review to THE COURAGE TEST!




I am thrilled to share the terrific news that the good folks at Booklist, particularly long-time reviewer John Peters, just gave The Courage Test a killer review — and a great big star. Note: I will backtrack to provide a link as soon as one becomes available. In the meantime, you’re just going to have to trust me. I am not making this up.

A great review is a fine thing, of course. But outside of what it means to me as an author (validation! affirmation!), or for my book (massive sales! yachts! librarians! ice cream sundaes!), it’s simply an impressive writing feat, a true literary skill. In limited space, Peters concisely, cogently manages to articulate so much of the book’s content. No easy task. A tip of the hat to Mister Peters. I’m really glad you liked the book.



Author: James Preller 

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 224
Price (Hardcover): $16.99
Publication Date: September 2016 
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250093912

Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip that does traditional double-duty as plot device and coming-of-age metaphor. Will is initially baffled and furious at being abruptly forced to accompany his divorced father, a history professor, on a long journey retracing much of the trail of Lewis and Clark. The trip soon becomes an adventure, though, because as the wonders of the great outdoors work their old magic on Will’s disposition, his father and a Nez Perce friend (who turns out to be a Brooklyn banker) fill him in on the Corps of Discovery’s encounters with nature and native peoples. Also, along with helping a young runaway find a new home, Will survives a meeting with a bear and a spill into dangerous rapids—tests of courage that will help him weather the bad news that awaits him at home. Despite the many plot threads, the story never seems overstuffed or weighed down by agendas. Leading a cast of appealing characters Will and his father are both vulnerable sorts who share a damaged, uneasy bond that firms up with realistic slowness and occasional backsliding. Additionally, not only does the author slip cogent historical facts and insights into his simply told narrative without disturbing its flow, he offers more detail, plus sources of information, in an afterword. 

— John Peters


First Official Review of THE COURAGE TEST, from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

Things just got real.

The first review is in for The Courage Test, and the word is good.


Money quote:

“Preller traverses both domestic drama and adventure story with equally sure footing, delivering the thrills of a whitewater rafting accident and a mama bear encounter, and shifting effortlessly to the revelation of Mom’s illness and the now urgent rapprochement between Dad and Will. Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here. — Elizabeth Bush, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

You can click here to read the review in its entirety.

A photo from a few years back, rafting the rapids on the Hudson River, guided by my dauntless nephew, Dan Rice. In that boat, that's Lisa's with mouth agape, and I'm in the back right. Also in the boat, my three kids: Nick (behind Lisa), Gavin (front), and Maggie, smiling. Good times.

A photo from a few years back, rafting the rapids on the Hudson River, guided by my dauntless nephew & river guide, Dan Rice. In the boat, that’s Lisa with mouth agape, and I’m in the back right. Also in the boat, my three kids: Nick (behind Lisa), Gavin (front), and Maggie, smiling. Good times.

Thank you, Elizabeth Bush, whoever you are!

In other news, The Courage Test was recently named as a Junior Library Guild Selection. I consider that a high honor, and very good tidings. Bystander was my last book to each that acclaim.

Ask for The Courage Test in your local independent book store. Publishing date: September 13, 2016.

Write Your Elsewhere

On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: "As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end." In my book THE COURAGE TEST, I needed my characters to travel through that same place.

On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: “As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end.” In my book THE COURAGE TEST, I needed my characters to travel through that same place.


Write your elsewhere.

That’s a great phrase, isn’t it? I wish I could take credit for it, but it was written by Colum McCann, one of the great writers of our time. I love his work.

McCann issued that phrase in a brief blog post titled “Don’t Write What You Know,”  words that had me nodding my head in emphatic agreement. It felt like a post that I could have written, though not nearly as well, for I’ve shared those same thoughts. The way I’ve often put it in the past was: Write what you don’t know. That is, the inverse of the time-tested trope: Write what you know (which is also good advice — sometimes!).

Here’s McCann:

Don’t write about what you know, write towards what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Adventure in the elsewhere. This opens up the world. Go to another place. Investigate what lies beyond your curtains, beyond the wall, beyond the street corner, beyond your town, beyond your country even. A young writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t even know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is there to be created. In the process of creating it we find out how varied and complex we are. The world is so much more than one story. Don’t sit around thinking about yourself. That’s boring. Don’t be boring, please please please don’t be boring! In the end your navel contains only lint. The only true way to expand your world is to think about others. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. But once you go there you can be changed. The cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their limited nostalgia. Leave them be. Step into an otherness instead. Believe that your story is bigger than yourself. In the end we only write what we know, but if we write towards what we don’t know we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet aware of. Rage on. Write your elsewhere.

As writers, people who are basically just wanderers with words in white space, it’s important not to be limited in our imaginings. Sure, it’s fine to tell young writers, “Hey, you’ve been to Cape Cod? You can write about that!” or, say, “You play soccer? Great, center a story around a soccer game!” But it’s not necessary that we end there, limited to only the things we’ve experienced. To write only what we know. For what is writing, if not some bold new experience? Or some new exciting way of knowing?

Step into an otherness instead. 

Believe that your story is bigger than yourself.

CourageTestFrontCvrIn my upcoming middle-grade book, The Courage Test (September, 2016), a father and son travel from Minneapolis, MN, to Seaside, OR, linking their trip to the trail originally followed by the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. However, I had a problem. I hadn’t been to most of those places, and I didn’t have the time or the budget to engage in that kind of direct research. Fortunately in today’s world there are incredible resources available to the (resourceful!) writer.

You don’t have to write what you know, as long as you make the effort to find out. To learn. To explore. To discover.

McCann again:

Adventure in your elsewhere.

A young writer is an explorer.

To site one example from my book, I knew that I wanted to get my characters on the water. Because, of course, that’s predominantly how Lewis & Clark traveled, and, hey, water. Ever since reading Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Homer’s “Odyssey,” I’ve been wise to the metaphoric possibilities of water: the passage of time, the collective unconscious, our watery beginnings in amniotic fluid, and so on. Water in literature is always a good thing. So after poking around in books and websites, looking at photos and blogs, I decided they would travel on the Missouri River from Fort Benton to Judith’s Landing, backtracking east with the current.

To that end, I ordered a Boaters’ Guide to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The 64-page booklet was perfect for my intentions, rich in detail, and covered the exact passage that my fictional characters would travel. I imagined, appropriately, that they would possess a copy of their own. The booklet came with great maps and information about landmarks and hikes — places where my characters would walk, visit, see, and feel.

Young Will and Ollie made this hike in my book.

Young Will and Ollie made this hike in my book.


From The Courage Test, page 85:

That night, we camp where the Corps of Discovery camped more than two hundred years ago. Meriwether Lewis and his men. Under the same starry skies, staring into the same fire, beside the same chalky cliffs.

I want to tell my father about the bald eagle Ollie and I saw. And the pronghorn. And about the hard, dangerous hike to the top of the Hole in the Wall trail. How it looked so tiny from the river, but was twice my size when we finally got up to it after some dicey scrambling. How Ollie had pointed out ponderosa pines and cottonwoods. Instead, I ate and yawned and climbed into my sleeping bag. Dog tired. My heart confused.

This is the spot where Ollie, Will, and his father camped.

Scan 7


That’s one message I sometimes share with young writers when I visit schools. A faint echo of McCann. Write what you know, surely. But don’t feel constrained by that. Break those chains. Travel that blank white space, pen in hand. Dare to write what you don’t know.

A young writer is an explorer.

Go, seek, find out.

And by all means, yes, bring back news of your adventures.