Fan Mail Wednesday #201 — Plus a FREE Bonus Drawing!

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Before I answer Kallen’s letter below, I wanted to share a cool drawing that was sent to me by a boy named Ethan, who lives in Ontario, Canada. Ethan is a fan my “Scary Tales” series, and I believe this is his version of Bloody Mary from the book, HOME SWEET HORROR.

Drawing by Ethan.

Drawing by Ethan.

 

Isn’t that great. I love the body; very creepy somehow.

Now here’s a letter from Wisconsin:

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I replied:

Dear Kallen, 

Thank you so much for your super kind letter. I realize that it took you a lot of time and effort to write to me, and I want you to know that I appreciate it.

I’ve been busy working on new books –- I just finished one that took me nearly four years! — but I am happy to take a few minutes out of my (freezing!) Sunday to respond to your request.

Please find my lousy signature below. I say “lousy” because I have terrible handwriting; I blame it on the fact that I’m a lefty.

A great writer? Did you really say that?

I go back to your letter, reread it, then reread it again. Yes, Kallen really said it: “You are a great writer.”

I think I’ll just float around on white, fluffy clouds for the rest of the day!

Your friend,

James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #200 (Seth from Irving Pertzsch Elementary — Who? — in Wisconsin)

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Are you ready? Because here we go . . . the 200th letter to young readers I’ve shared here on James Preller Dot Com Incorporated & Associates!

Hold on a second. That seems to deserve some kind of elaborate, expensive celebration.

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Too much?

Think I went overboard with it?

Moving right along, a 3rd-grader with burning inquisitiveness writes:

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I replied:

Dear Seth,

Okay, you asked a lot of questions, let’s see if I’ve got any answers.

I’ll look under the couch cushions first, there’s usually something under there. Hmmmm: a half-eaten Pop Tart (delicious), 37 cents, and my car keys! But no answers. 

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorezI’ve written so many books that I’ve lost count. More than 80. I don’t have a single favorite, but I really enjoy the books in my SCARY TALES series, since they are recent and were so much fun to write. A little creepy, so maybe not for everybody, but I love them.

Ideas come from being alive in the world, open and receptive to the things around me. I often look back on my life, and my family, and find ideas that way.

You know what, let me turn that around a little. I don’t look for “ideas” so much as I look for “feelings.” I can’t write very well unless I feel something: I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m excited, scared, proud, etc. Those things that make me feel –- that touch my heart -– are often the best source of ideas.

Pets? Two black cats, one dog, two teenagers. 

Wait, what?

My best,

James Preller

 

 

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Tyranny of Silence

When I was working on Bystander (Fall, 2009), a book that centers on bullying, I kept running across different quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. He would often express the same idea in subtle variations. In essence, Dr. King issued an indictment against the tyranny of silence, reminding us all of our responsibility to speak up. King believed in the common good. He had an abiding faith in his fellow man. If only we would all stand up and be heard, then justice and democracy and human kindness would surely prevail over cruelty and prejudice.

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That’s partly why I named the book, Bystander. Not bully. Not victim. I wanted the focus to be on the overwhelming majority of us who stand by as mute witness; and how we are, therefore, complicit in acts of cruelty, our silence a form of tacit agreement. For responsibility is nothing if not an “ability” to “respond.” That’s where we find hope for real change. In our voices.

Here’s a few relevant quotes from Dr. King:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.”

This brief, one-minute clip is from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech. He knew what was coming, he knew.

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Fathers, Sons, and Baseball

I originally posted this back on July 10, 2008 — before I knew how to insert photos.

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Fathers and sons and baseball. You can almost hear the violins, the sap rising from the roots. It’s a tired cliche, of course, but that doesn’t render the dynamic meaningless.

My father, ten years before I came along, with Neal or Billy.

My father wasn’t a sports guy; I can’t remember him ever turning on the television to watch a game of any sort. Hey, I can’t remember having catch with him. But I had four older brothers, and my baseball-loving mom, and a dozen kids on the block for that. Dad was Old School. I think of him as more CEO/CFO in Charge of Household as opposed to today’s helicopter-style parent, forever hovering, eager to bond and share and become best buddies. That wasn’t my father’s way.

So, basically, I played Little League and my father did other things. And I want to make this clear: It was perfectly okay. But one year, when I was ten years old and playing for the Cardinals — astonishingly vivid memories of those games — somehow my father got roped in as a coach. He didn’t know a blessed thing about baseball. Didn’t care to know. The manager, hard-nosed Larry Bassett, taught my father how to keep the scorebook and I’m fairly certain that was the full extent of his usefulness.

I found it embarrassing. Not horribly so, but it felt odd to see my father on the ballfield, clueless and unathletic. What did the other boys think? It was 1971 and my dad was painfully uncool. I loved baseball deeply, passionately. In that sense, we lived on separate planets. Of course now, years later, I see it from a different perspective. And it boils down to this: He was there. As a parent, isn’t that 98% of the job? Just showing up, day after day. Being there. My father is gone now, died almost two years ago, fell on the front lawn and never got back up. Maybe that makes you (me) appreciate those times, those presences, all the more. For he will never “be there” again.

He never read Six Innings, either. If he did, I would have told my father that I loosely modeled a character after him, Mr. Lionni, Alex’s dad, right down to the thick-framed glasses and questionable attire, the black socks, brown loafers and shorts. There’s a scene when Mr. Lionni takes his baseball-loving son, Alex, for extra batting practice. That scene sprang directly from my childhood; I remember the one and only time my father pitched batting practice to me — awkwardly, poorly, like he was hurling foreign objects. But I was struggling with the bat, the same as Alex in my book, and that man, the father, tried to help the best he could.

In Six Innings, it’s a minor scene (pp. 56-58), just a little backstory about one of the boys on the team. But for me, it resonates across the years, like an echo across a vast canyon. My dad and baseball. Our moments together on the diamond, a burnished memory, glowing like hot coals almost forty years hence. He was there. I didn’t appreciate it then, though I certainly recognized the uniqueness of the event; I was just a boy. But that’s what writing gives us, the opportunity to revisit, revalue, remember in the root meaning of the word — to re-member, to make whole again, to bring those disparate things together. Me and Dad and baseball.

Postscript: Oh, yeah, about the name Lionni. That’s another tribute to a great children’s book author by the name of Leo. Someday I should put together a full roster. I see James Marshall manning the Hot Corner, nimble and loose; Maurice Sendak on the hill, strong-armed and determined; maybe sure-handed Bernard Waber over at second base . . .

Addendum II: Today is 1/16/2015, and I came across this post while hunting for other prey. It’s been a week consumed with writing — I’m trying to finish a book today that I started four years ago — and I’ve neglected the blog. Not that anybody cares. Anyway, here’s something. Also: a curiosity. My father was named Alan J. Preller, and grew up on Long Island. The new GM of the San Diego Padres, A.J. Preller, also grew up on Long Island. It’s not a common name. I’ve talked it over with my brother, Al, and we’ve decided he’s probably a second-cousin or something, connected to my late Grandfather, Fred Preller, 22-year assemblyman from Queens, NY. Ah, baseball.

My New Poster, My New Book

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I purchased this poster online the other day from the Syracuse Cultural Workers website. I found them by tracking down the poster, as I’d seen the image before. SCW is a “Publisher of Peace and Justice Products” since 1982.

What can I say? The poster spoke to me. Now I’m waiting for it to arrive in the mail, and wishing that I could afford to frame it properly. (Oh discretionary funds, where have you gone?)

But: Isn’t it beautiful? I really do believe the world needs changing.

As a writer, I’ve taken that big leap with the book I’m currently finishing up (DEAD, BUT CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC, Macmillan, 2016), allowing political thought to enter the story. The real world, pressing in around us. I feel badly about the world these young people have inherited. Their work is cut out for them.

At the same time, I’m excited to feel my voice rise up in my throat, to hear it enter the discussion — maybe touch a few hearts and minds, a chance to say something meaningful about the real world.

Fan Mail Wednesday #199: “I Know You Don’t Know Me and I Don’t Know You Either.”

Art by Xavier.

Art by Xavier.

 

Dear Nation of Readers, it’s that time again: Fan Mail Wednesday! Sound the timbrels, start the fire, tonight we roast a wildebeest! Find an apple to stick in its snout!

Where’s my lute? Honey, have you seen my lute?

This letter comes from Xavier, the artist featured above, a young man who puts great labor into his letters. (Awesome job, Xavier!) Unfortunately, I’m having trouble with the gizmos and whirligigs on my trusty, old computer; I can’t seem to flip the image for easy reading. It usually works; today it doesn’t. Oh well. For those of you who don’t want a crick in the neck, I’ll transcribe Xavier’s letter below:

Dear James Preller,

I love your books. I know Mrs. Nancy too. Merry Christmas and a happy new year. Right now I am reading Scary Tales Home Sweet Horror. I know you don’t know me and I don’t know you either.

Sincerely, Xavier

12/19/14 P.S. I’ve read Scary Tales Goodnight Zombie.

BLOODY MARY 

BLOODY MARY 

BLOODY MARY

Here’s the sideways original:

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I replied:

Dear Xavier,

Thanks for your terrific letter. It’s very cool that we have a friend in common, “Mrs. Nancy.”

Don’t you just love librarians?

You did make me laugh when you wrote, “I know you don’t know me and I don’t know you either.”

But I’m not sure that’s entirely correct. Sure, we’ve never stood next to each other in the same place. But you sat down and read a book that I wrote. Then, amazingly, you read another book of mine. In a real and meaningful way, Xavier, I think that CONNECTS us for sure. We sort of do know each other.

9781250018915_p0_v1_s260x420That’s why I’m going to think of you as my friend for now on. And do you know what that is all about, Xavier? It’s the wonder of books. The mystery, the magic, the miracle, and the pure joy of reading (and writing) that brought us together. Books gave me you; I’m grateful for that.

As readers, we sit by ourselves, alone in a silent room, and by doing that solitary thing we connect with other people — across time and space! It’s amazing when you think about it.

I loved (loved, loved) that you included a one-page story on the back of your letter, “Attack of the Mutant Devil Dudes from Mars.” Sounds like a creepy one to me. Great drawings, too. I hope you keep going with that one.

Guess what? I never met “Mrs. Nancy” either. We connected because she read (and liked) something I wrote. Next time you visit the library, please give her a fierce hug for me. Tell her James Preller sent you!

My best,

James Preller 

This Week’s Best Thing Ever: What Happens When Boys Are Asked to Slap a Girl

Filed under: “So Good I Had to Share.”

I cry easily, it’s a running joke in my house, I’ve got faulty eye ducts. Or something. This video did that for me. It’s all there, just watch it, trust me on this.

Who Needs a Librarian Anyway?

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NOTE: I wrote this post in January, 2009, six years ago, and it troubles me to realize that everything I cautioned about is now more dire than ever. We are failing our school libraries — undervaluing our librarians — and failing our children. Over the past six years, things have only gotten worse. It is certainly true in my town of Delmar, NY, where full-time, elementary school librarians are a thing of the (not-too-distant) past. It’s a shame, a pennywise educational policy that undermines the core mission of our schools. In other words: Idiocy!

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My local community is in a minor state of upset over a recent School Board decision to NOT replace a retiring elementary school librarian, who stepped down on January 30, 2009.

On a personal note, the retiring librarian in question, Nancy Smith, was the first school librarian in my community to reach out to me as an author. She was always supportive and enthusiastic. But not just to me. Nancy was (and still is) beloved by many students at Elsmere Elementary in Delmar, New York. Her daily presence has been a huge asset to that school, and she’s enriched the lives of countless students.

But times are hard. And budget cuts are necessary. So with Nancy’s impending retirement, the Board quietly decided that Elsmere could do without an everyday librarian. Instead, a revolving door of visiting librarians — or media specialists, if you prefer — from district schools have been told to fill in the gaps as best they can.

This issue goes beyond my little patch of earth here in Delmar, New York. It touches the core of the kinds of budgetary decisions that are going to be made in schools across the country. Many difficult cuts are ahead for all of us, with communities forced to make painful decisions. All of us will be asked to make sacrifices. Every school is going to wonder: Who needs a librarian anyway?

In dealing with this issue, Nancy helped steer a group of parents to a valuable resource: The AASL Crisis Toolkit. I recommend that you give it a look-see. It begins:

If you are looking at the AASL Crisis Toolkit, chances are your program is danger of being reduced or eliminated. This kit is designed to assist you as you build meaningful and effective support for saving your program. That means educating and rallying stakeholders to speak out on behalf of school libraries.

If cuts are not imminent, visit AASL’s School Library Program Health and Wellness page for prevention strategies. The ideal time to start advocacy efforts is before there is a crisis.

The kit is remarkably comprehensive, and includes topics such as “Crisis Planning,” “Crafting Messages,” “Getting People Involved,” “Research,” “Advocacy,” and more. There are also handy links to studies that have found correlations between library programs, media specialists, and test results.

In any event, none of this is easy, and none of it is clear. Except that this is only the tip of the iceberg. In an article by Jarrett Carroll, published in the January 28, 2009 issue of The Spotlight (our small, local paper), titled “Elsmere Won’t Hire Librarian,” there are many salient quotes (sorry, I can’t provide a link at this time):

A group of residents protested a move by the school district to not replace the elementary school librarian when the current one has retired — a move that district officials said is necessary as the school tries to rein in spending in the face of state aid cuts.

Commented Superintendent Michael Tebbano, in language that is going to become all too familiar:

“This is going to be a big crisis we’re trying to manage, and it’s going to get worse. Realistically, the $30,000 or so we save will not solve the fiscal crisis, but I do have a fiduciary responsibility to the district.”

The article continued:

Board of Education President James Lytle called the current economic crisis “the real deal,” and echoed Tebbano’s sentiments on the situation.

“I hope the parents and children of Elsmere give this a fair chance,” he said of the librarian situation. “I’m afraid, like what Mike said, this could be the first taste of what’s to come.”

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Buckle in, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Attend meetings, get informed. And if you believe in the value of school librarians, get prepared to answer the question: Who needs a librarian anyway? Answer it with facts. Answer it with passion. And most of all, get organized, and answer it with a chorus of voices. Tough times ahead.

WHO

NEEDS

A LIBRARIAN

ANYWAY?

Ten Amazing Tips on Being an Artist, from Sculptor Teresita Fernandez

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“Being an artist is not just about what happens

when you are in the studio. 

The way you live, the people you choose to love

and the way you love them, the way you vote,

the words that come out of your mouth…

will also become the raw material

for the art you make.” — Teresita Fernandez.

 

 

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A friend passed along a terrific interview with a sculptor whose name I didn’t recognize, Teresita Fernandez. It turns out that she currently has a show at nearby Mass Moca (see video at bottom), so I’m hoping to experience it. (Road trip, anyone?) Credit for the interview goes to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings; just follow the link, like Dorothy’s yellow brick road, and you’ll get there to read it in full: a wise and thoughtful piece.

At the conclusion of the article, Teresita offers a brief list of practical tips for emerging artists. I think the general wisdom — and moreso, the warm humanity expressed here — makes it worth reading for absolutely anybody. I love that she does not separate her art from her life, or from any life. It is of a piece, a life’s work entire.

Here’s some examples of Teresita’s truly awesome work, sprinkled throughout.

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1) Art requires time — there’s a reason it’s called a studiopractice. Contrary to popular belief, moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn, this summer does not make you an artist. If in order to do this you have to share a space with five roommates and wait on tables, you will probably not make much art. What worked for me was spending five years building a body of work in a city where it was cheapest for me to live, and that allowed me the precious time and space I needed after grad school.

2) Learn to write well and get into the habit of systematically applying for every grant you can find. If you don’t get it, keep applying. I lived from grant money for four years when I first graduated.

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3) Nobody reads artist’s statements. Learn to tell an interesting story about your work that people can relate to on a personal level.

4) Not every project will survive. Purge regularly, destroying is intimately connected to creating. This will save you time.

5) Edit privately. As much as I believe in stumbling, I also think nobody else needs to watch you do it.

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6) When people say your work is good do two things. First, don’t believe them. Second, ask them, “Why”? If they can convince you of why they think your work is good, accept the compliment. If they can’t convince you (and most people can’t) dismiss it as superficial and recognize that most bad consensus is made by people simply repeating that they “like” something.

7) Don’t ever feel like you have to give anything up in order to be an artist. I had babies and made art and traveled and still have a million things I’d like to do.

8) You don’t need a lot of friends or curators or patrons or a huge following, just a few that really believe in you.

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9) Remind yourself to be gracious to everyone, whether they can help you or not. It will draw people to you over and over again and help build trust in professional relationships.

10) And lastly, when other things in life get tough, when you’re going through family troubles, when you’re heartbroken, when you’re frustrated with money problems, focus on your work. It has saved me through every single difficult thing I have ever had to do, like a scaffolding that goes far beyond any traditional notions of a career.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #198: Jessica from Istanbul

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There’s something deeply satisfying, and sort of crazy, about sitting down on a cold day in my basement office and clicking on an email from a young reader in Istanbul, Turkey.

How could that be so?

The answer is easy, and it’s not at all about me. Somehow we got swept along in this great river of books that connect us all. The power of books to touch our lives — to make us feel — and to cause vast distances & differences to disappear. It’s beautiful when you think about it.

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Here, meet Jessica . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,

My name is Jessica. I go to ______ School in Istanbul, Turkey. I am a 5th grade student. I am so excited to send you this mail. I read your book Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Christmas Snowman. I had so much fun when I was reading. I like the book because it 6430030was an exciting book and it was so nice. Of course it has morals, too. I liked the story because it was so mysterious and you don’t know what will going to be next. Whether they are going to find the coin or not, and if they can’t find the coin what will Lucy go and say to her dad. That’s why it was so mysterious. I liked that. I looked into the internet for your other books as well and I think I am going to order your other books. When I read the last part of the book I was really surprised because I was really thinking that the coin was in the snowman, but it came out that Mr. Copabianco found it inside the trash, when he swept the floors. I was so surprised. When I heard that we were going to read this book, I hesitated because I didn’t hear your books, but when I read the book I loved it. That’s why I searched for your books. I am thinking that I will read your books. The idea in your book was amazing, I loved it. I had a big experience from your book, that’s why I thank you so much. 

Jessica

 

I replied:

Dear Jessica,

Please accept my apology for being a tad slow in replying to your lovely note.
 
I have excuses!
 
Do you want to hear them?
 
Probably not. But the truth is that I’m on deadline. I’m desperately trying to finish a middle grade book that I started years ago. (Yes, years.) It’s titled: DEAD, BUT CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC. Usually when I write, the work is awfully slow in the beginning. I struggle and bang my head against the wall. It’s a sad time. But at the end, when it all comes together, the story is all I can think about. I wake up with ideas, I have ideas in the shower and when I’m walking the dog. During those times, I try to push away the distractions and put all my focus on writing the book.
 
Anyway, sorry. I didn’t mean to call you a “distraction” but, well. You kind of are, though a happy sort of distraction for sure.
A favorite moment from the series, when Jigsaw goes toe-to-toe with Bigs Maloney. Illustration drawn by R.W. Alley.

A favorite moment from the series, when Jigsaw goes toe-to-toe with Bigs Maloney. Illustration drawn by R.W. Alley.

 
Istanbul, Turkey! Wow, that’s such a different world than mine, I can barely imagine it. I live in upstate New York. It’s cold out today, freezing actually, and the skies are slate-gray. Tomorrow I’m going to a party to celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends. Good times!
 
Thanks for reading my “Jigsaw Jones” series. I love those books and really enjoyed writing them. I recently wrote a series called “Scary Tales” that you might also enjoy. The stories are not that hard to read, a notch tougher than Jigsaw, but I should warn you: they can be a little bit frightening at times. No one gets hurt and every story has a safe conclusion, but if you don’t like being scared, I’d stay away! It’s for readers who like that kind of creepy feeling.
 
Thanks for your note, Jessica.
 
And thanks, also, to your teacher for sharing my books with students like you. I’m honored, truly, and grateful, too.
 
My best,
 
James Preller
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"Give me the right word, and I will move the world." -- Joseph Conrad.

“Give me the right word, and I will move the world.” — Joseph Conrad.