Cookies, Carols, Movies, Santa, Jigsaw Jones, and Holiday Greetings

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Well, we’re getting to that time of year again, when I accept the challenge and attempt to prove that man can live by cookies alone.

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Also, for our family, there’s Christmas and all the good that comes with it. Yes, the songs, the songs, the songs. I’ve long collected “cool yule” tracks and dutifully compile new playlists every holiday season. This year’s favorite, among so many strong contenders, is Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family.”

Of course, I love the movies, too. Elf, the Grinch, Charlie Brown, A Christmas Story (my favorite), Rudolph, and Die Hard.

Because . . .

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Even so, a writer still has to make a living. And believe me, I’m still typing!

51poJdDWQNL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery, I gave Jigsaw the toughest case of his career — Sally Ann Simms wants proof that there’s a Santa Claus. And I gave myself a tough assignment, too. I attempted to write a truly heartfelt, entertaining Christmas story with soul, soul, soul. It’s out of print now, like all books Jigsaw, and honestly I’m not sure anyone noticed at the time, but I still like book a lot. It captures a fleeting something of holiday spirit. Who knows? Maybe it’ll come around again.

 

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Here’s a quick moment that still makes me smile, ten years later:

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Happy holidays, one and all!

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #220: “If You Don’t Like It, Write Better”

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While — sure! of course! — I always enjoy receiving a big, old, 8 1/2″ x 11″ envelope filled with student letters, I admit to mixed feelings. Yes, I’m grateful and honored. Yet I can’t help but recognize that this was the product of an assignment. Some letters can seem rote, and I get it. However, I recently received a particularly wonderful batch, 23 letters in all, filled with insights & curiosity & ridiculously kind words. Here’s the teacher’s cover letter and my response to the class . . .

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I replied at length:

Dear Ms. Becker & Students,

Thank you for that impressive package of letters. I’ve received similar packages before, but yours was particularly outstanding for the overall quality of the letters. They struck me as authentic, rather than, say, written by a bored kid going through the motions.

And, hey, if you were a bored kid going through the motions, good job, you sure fooled me!

I’m sorry to say that I simply don’t have the time to respond to your letters in the manner that you deserve. I apologize for my one-size-fits-all reply.

Several of you asked about a sequel, and I didn’t plan on one while writing the book. I was satisfied with the ending, leaving the future for these characters up to the reader. People ask what happens to them –- and that’s a nice compliment to give a writer – but the honest answer is that I don’t know. Or more to the point, I never got around to making up those stories. Books have to end somewhere, or else I’d be writing about Mary’s grandchildren.

Even so, I remained interested in the perspective of the so-called bully. That’s why I wrote THE FALL, which I see as a companion to BYSTANDER. Along the lines of, “If you liked BYSTANDER, you might also like . . .”

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Jessica asked if anyone helped me with the story: Yes, my editor, Liz Szabla, was particularly important with this book. Mostly her help was in the form of conversations. We talked about the ideas, our own experiences, things we’ve seen and felt. She didn’t really inject herself into the writing of the book -– she left that up to me – but she was a great sounding board. In life, it’s essential to have that person who says to you, “I believe in you. Go for it.” For this book, for me, that person was Liz.

Philip asked if I have “a secondary job in case book writing fall through.” That kind of made me laugh, while giving me a minor heart attack. Do you know something I don’t know? Philip even included a bonus scene, where I could glimpse a future adventure for Eric. I liked it; nice work. BTW, Philip, to answer your question: No, I don’t. And some days it scares me silly. No kidding.

Some asked about Eric’s father and how he might figure in the book’s ending, or, I should say, an alternative ending for the book. If you go to my blog and search, “My Brother John . . . in BYSTANDER,” you’ll get the background story about Eric’s father. It’s not a tale with a happy ending, I’m sorry to say.

Many of you said really, really kind things to me. I want you to know that I appreciate your kindness. In particular, Alyssa, thank you! Paige and Grace and Katelyn and Toby, you guys, too. The truth is, this can be a hard business sometimes. It’s not easy to make a living. It’s not easy to be rejected, or suffer poor sales, or watch a good book go out of print. I am often filled with doubts and uncertainties. There are times, especially recently, when I feel like a failure. Lately I’ve been thinking of myself as “moderately talented.” Nothing great, you know? Oh well. But this is what I do, what I love, and I have to keep working at it. I have a Post-It note on my computer that reads: “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, WRITE BETTER.” That’s what I’m trying to do.

My current mantra.

My current mantra.

I just wrote a book about a father and a son traveling along the Lewis & Clark trail. It’s a genre-bending blend of nonfiction and fiction, a story of family, a wilderness adventure –- whitewater rapids, an encounter with a bear –- and, I hope, a quest for the real America. The book, titled THE COURAGE TEST, should be out in 2016. After that, I wrote a pretty wild story that’s set in the not-too-distant future. And, yes, there are zombies in it –- but it’s not their fault! I’m also trying to write haikus, making a small study of them, because I’ve got the seed of an idea. They are not as easy as they look!

The next idea is always the flame that burns the brightest, that keeps creative people moving forward -– making paintings, performing in plays, practicing the guitar, telling stories. We all have to find the thing that makes us happy. And if you are lucky enough to find it, then hold on tight.

Thank you –- each one of you – but I’ve got to get to work! I’m sorry again for not writing to you individually. Thanks for understanding.

James Preller

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #219: Childhood Toys & the Next Book

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Look here, it’s a letter from Sander!

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I replied:

Dear Sander,

Thanks so much for your letter. Thanks, also, for including a Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope, otherwise known as a SASE. Since you are a detective, I wonder if you can figure out why they call it a “SASE”?

Any ideas?

I’ll wait.

Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dee.

Anyway, I am glad to hear from a detective. I’m always looking for new ideas. Have you solved many mysteries?

Growing up, I was the youngest of seven children. Check it out:

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Here's the seven Preller children in 1966. I'm the short one in the middle, surrounded by GIANTS!

Here’s the seven Preller children in 1966. I’m the short one in the middle, surrounded by GIANTS!

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While I was not a detective like you, I was a spy. I fondly remember a particular toy I had — it was a periscope that extended way out — which allowed me to peer around corners to spy on my family. I loved sneaking around in my socks (better for silent creeping). It was like being invisible! But before you try it yourself, let me warn you: It’s dangerous work. Don’t get caught.

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Hey, Sander: I gave a version of my childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. He uses it to solve a mystery in THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT. Cool, right?

I even gave a version of my childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. He uses it to solve a mystery in THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT. Cool, right?

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I like your wish. No one has ever expressed that to me before. You must be an original thinker. That means you think of things that nobody else in the world has ever thought. Amazing. I’m very impressed. You have a good mind. It must be all that reading!

I have not written a Jigsaw Jones book in the past six years. However, I have happy news. I am writing a new one right now! I mean, I’ll be writing it after I finish writing to you. I wish I could tell you more about the story, but to be honest, it’s still a mystery to me. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. The book won’t be out until the year 2017. I expect you’ll be shaving by then.

Good luck with your detective work. Life is a mystery — we sure do need more good detectives around to help us figure it out.

My best to you, and happy holidays!

James Preller 

 

 

“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

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I’m sharing this poem because it came to me at a time when I really needed it. Maybe you feel the same way. Have a great weekend.

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Remembering Vera Williams: Artist, Activist, Inspiration


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Vera Williams passed away at age 88 on October 16, 2015. I wanted to make note of it beyond a quick comment on Facebook, but her death came at an inconvenient time for me — though, I’m sure, it wasn’t the best timing for Vera, either. I can type that glib phrase because I’m confident that she would have agreed, and laughed out loud. Vera laughed a lot.

We never met in person, though of course I read and admired many of her books, most particularly “More, More, More,” Said the Baby, which I adore. It’s one of those rare things, a nearly perfect book about something as simple and profound as love. I had the pleasure of interviewing Vera over the phone, back in 1990. We chatted for an hour or so. She was lovely and warm and generous and completely genuine, just as anyone who had encountered her books would imagine.

21Williams-Obit1-SUB-blog427She was also, I learned, deeply political. No one had to scold Vera Williams about the importance of diversity or any such thing. Her politics were personal, and she recognized that the personal — as well as the creative — was always political. We are talking about values, really. The things that are important. Vera actively cared about the world and the children who inhabited it. She marched, she protested, she stood up for things. It’s on every page in every single book. For me, as someone who often looks around at this world in heartache and dismay, and who also writes for children, I find myself increasingly searching for appropriate ways to express those values in my own life and work. Vera, I think, helped show the way. You just go ahead and do it, as natural as breathing, come what may.

She will be missed.

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Below, here’s my two-page write-up as it was published in my book, the clumsily titled, The Big Book of Picture-book Authors & Illustrators. Like so many of my books, it’s long out of print, but I often spy it in tattered condition on school bookshelves during visits. I’ve been lucky enough to interview folks like Tedd Arnold, Molly Bang, Aliki Brandenberg, Norman Bridwell, Ashley Bryan, Eve Bunting, Barbara Cooney, Donald Crews, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, James Marshall, Barbara Park, Jerry Pinkney, Patricia Polacco, Faith Ringgold, Lane Smith, Peter Spier, Bernard Waber, Charlotte Zolotow, and many, many more. It’s sad to think how many of them are gone. Vera Williams was one of the best.

I will remember her with fondness and respect, forever grateful for the books she left behind.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #218: Sharing This Ridiculously Beautiful Letter from Calloway in Illinois.

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I’ve neglected the blog of late, but to quote Vito Corleone, “I don’t apologize, that’s my life!”
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“I refuse to be a fool dancing on a string!”
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Just kidding about that. I am sorry. And I do apologize, Dear Reader. I’m horrible, frankly. The letters have been piling up, but I’ve been hunkering down with a deadline. And yes, that’s right, I nailed it! Thank you, thank you very much.
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This letter came with a fabulous note from Calloway’s mother, who seems lovely and kind. She asked for my address, and I’ll give that to everyone here, even you crazy stalkers: James Preller, 12 Brookside Drive, Delmar, NY 12054.
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Now, here’ s Calloway, unedited, from Illinois:
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“Hi mr james preller. I love jigsaw Jones books. I read them all the time. Would you send me more? I drew a pictue of the ones i already have. I need the rest. I am a brownie girl scout. Did you know that i have diabetees to? i was born with it when iwas 2 years old. IT Meansxmy pancreeas doentst work. And then my brother stabbed me with a pencil last week and my mom got mad at us and made us collect food for hungry people and give away our halloeeen candy. and my mom got cancer this year snd she lets me use her new pink blankets and pillows. They are so fun to lay on. And i love the movie annie. But jigsaw Jones are my favorite books.. my teacher mrs. Garretson told me to read them. And my brother plays baseball and my dad teaches gym! He makes us do push ups and sit ups when we are bad. And i am in love with ______, a 5th grade boy. But you cant tell anyone that.
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Ok. So send me my books. Hope you have a happy day!!! Lalalalala. Oh and i was elvis Presley for Halloween. He is my favorite.
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Ok bye, love Calloway”
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I replied:
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Dear Calloway,
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My goodness, your letter just made my heart explode a little bit. Now it’s all over the floor and in my hair and yuck, gross. You have such an exciting life! I’m so sorry about the pencil stabbing, but it sounds like your good mother handled it “astutely,” which means, in this case, with wisdom and grace.
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No offense to your father, who I am sure is a great guy, but the thought of a tough gym teacher as a dad would have terrified me as a kid. “What, ten thousand more push-ups? YIKES!”
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Don’t worry about your crush. Your secret is safe with me. (See how I removed his name?)
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I am not always able to send books in the mail to every fabulous kid who writes to me. It would get expensive. But in your case — the most fabulous kid of 2015 — well, keep checking your mailbox.
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True story about cancer: My oldest son, Nick, is a two-time cancer survivor. He got sick when he was 2 years old, then again when he was 10. Hard times. But you know what? He’s 22 now and perfectly, wonderfully, terrifically healthy! I wrote about it, in a sly way, in the book SIX INNINGS, which your brother and father might like. Anyway, Mom, I’ll keep you in my thoughts.
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My best to your whole big beautiful family!
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James Preller
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P.S. Is there any chance you could send me a photo of you dressed up as Elvis Presley? Somehow my life feels incomplete without it.
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P.P.S. Tell Mrs. Garretson that I love her (but don’t tell my wife)!
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P.P.P.S. Lalalalala!
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Book Signing at the OPEN DOOR Bookstore in Schenectady, Saturday @ 1:00, November 21!

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The flyer below gives you the facts.

Now for the honesty: Bookstore signings, for me, tend to be sad, dispiriting affairs. For the most part, nobody comes. I know I’m not the only author to experience this particular form of awfulness. Sitting there at the table, waiting, expectations low. I understand completely. Your lives are busy, the world has changed, it’s always at a bad time on the wrong day — and the fact is I’m just not that big of a deal (except for in my own mind, where I’m amazing!!!!).

Once in awhile, mostly as an act of good will & optimism — along with the gratefulness that comes with simply being invited — I say yes. And occasionally a scattered few do show up. A shy, young reader awkwardly arrives. We talk for a while. I sign a book, we take a photo, shake hands. And there for a few moments we achieve one good, pure thing in this shattered world of ours; it feels worthwhile, the coming together of a writer and a reader. True fact: I love to meet young readers. Book lovers. It gives me hope, makes me happy. Maybe it makes a small difference to somebody. At the very worst, I get to sit in a bookstore for an hour and a half. There are worse places to be.

See you there?

About these two books: THE FALL can be seen as a companion to BYSTANDER, deals with the fallout from cyberbullying, and is best suited for grades 6-up. SWAMP MONSTER is the 6th book in the “Scary Tales” Series, grades 2-5, and it’s simply a fast-paced, easy-to-read entertainment that even a reluctant reader can enjoy.

 

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Shuffling Off To . . . Rochester?

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I’m headed out on Thursday, the long drive to the Buffalo area for a school visit in Newfane, NY — way out there! — then over to Rochester for the fabulous, 19th Annual, Rochester Children’s Book Festival! Come on by if you can swing it.

I love this one. We get to stay over in a not-very-fancy hotel and hang out in Applebees next door, gabbing and giggling with a merry gang of children’s authors and illustrators. It really is a profound and rare pleasure, given the solitary nature of our profession, to share stories and build friendships. What am I saying? It’s fun. It feels like a community. They understand.

During these past two months in particular, I’ve been head down, shoulders to the wheel, trying to finish a book before Thanksgiving. It’s been a great challenge — I’m so excited to talk about this next book, and will soon — but for now I’m working, working, working my way through it. Can’t jinx things by talking about them; no, no, the art is in the doing.

One small hint: It’s a journey, and (I think) an innovative blend of fact and fiction. It’s a father and a son story that takes place, more or less, along the Lewis & Clark Trail. With adventures and surprises and specials guests. But my lips are sealed. Not another word until I address an email to my editor and hit “send.”

 

My New York Mets Hat

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As a diehard New York Mets fan, I’d first like to say this . . .

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Also: I sometimes wear baseball caps. Not always, but it happens.

I might throw it on because I haven’t washed my hair in a few days. Okay, in six days. Or because I’m a Mets fan, expressing my allegiance to the team.

But this week, I’m wearing my cap as a signal. I am saying to the world: “Be gentle with me. I’m fragile right now.”

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My author photo for the book SIX INNINGS. I still own the same cap. Admittedly, both the cap and my face have experienced a little wear and tear over the years.

My author photo for the book SIX INNINGS. I still own the same cap. Admittedly, both the cap and my face have experienced a little wear and tear over the years, but we’re still hanging out together.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY 216 & 217: Happy News About Jigsaw Jones!

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It’s a combo platter today, a rock block, a twofer — two fan letters in the same blog post!

Can’t be done, you say?

Impossible, you scoff?

Just watch me now.

In letter #216, Aiden wrote:

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hmI love your jigsaw Jones book’s. Because I love detectives and I like codes, like the twist code, the missing voul code and the space code, and theirs much more. Anyways my name is Aiden I am 9 years old. It would be really cool if you made another jigsaw Jones book except Mila sends a letter to jigsaw Jones, but she didn’t write her name. So jigsaw and mila try to find out WHO wrote the letter. But they find out that mila is it!! That would be cool.
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I replied:
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Aiden,
What is a terrific idea! Can I steal it? I mean, er, “borrow” it? 
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The good news is that soon I’ll be writing a new Jigsaw Jones title. First one in a long time. Not sure about the mystery yet — all these stories begin after I figure out the crime at the core — but maybe I can incorporate your idea into the book.
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Let me think about it.
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Thanks for writing & for sharing your brilliant idea!
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James Preller
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In letter #217, I received this note from Andrea in Canada:
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Hello Mr. Preller,

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My son LOVES your series Jigsaw Jones Mysteries.  He is 10 yrs old and has a learning disability as well as ADHD.  He is an amazing boy and when he finds a book he likes he will read and read, it’s the only thing that keeps him calm. :)
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I am having a hard time finding your books.  We accidentally came across the box set 1-8 at a used book store about a year ago, he wants to continue to read them but he HAS to read them in order.  The library doesn’t have all your books.
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I have no problem paying for the books but I am wondering if you can help me out in any way.  Shipping to Canada can be very expensive, I have found your books but with shipping and handling it will cost an arm and leg to buy.  I am angry at myself, a box set became available through the Scholastic Program and I forgot to order it.  I missed the deadline.  My son cried for the rest of the day.  
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If there is anything you can do to help I would greatly appreciate it.
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I replied:
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Dear Andrea,
You are a good Mom, that’s for sure.
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I wish I had better news for you. But the series has been slowly dying on the vine for years, Scholastic allowing it to go out of print. I’ve recently retained the rights and it looks like I have interest from another publisher — fingers crossed! — so Jigsaw will be revived in some form or other. I’ll actually be writing a new one soon.
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UnknownFor your immediate needs, I think you should look at Craig’s List and eBay. Those books pop up all the time. You can contact Scholastic at a toll-free number, 1-800-724-6527. If you are persistent, you’ll find a helpful person who might go the extra yard for you.
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Good luck!
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If you give me your address, and the name of your son, I’ll be happy to send him a signed copy of #9, just because. 
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It’s my pleasure, 
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James Preller