Bystander by . . . that would be me (and for the record, I can’t wait to talk about this book, and the topic of bullying in general)
One of Jean Feiwel’s stated missions for her new publishing venture, after something like 20 years at Scholastic, was to Keep It Small. And so far, she’s stuck to that goal, despite the temptations to grow, and Grow, and GROW. But still: Feiwel AND Friends. If you are like me (read: hopelessly cynical), then you probably think, “AND Friends,” yeah, right.
But I do feel a difference. Part of that is based on my association with the merry crew that makes things happen at F & F. It’s a small staff and I think I’ve met them all, even the person who gives Liz and Jean their weekly pedicures, and I’ve even Facebooked a few. (Yes, it’s a verb now.) But there’s also, for me, a sense of community with the other authors and illustrators. We’re all on the same team, so to speak, and like a fan in the stands, suds in hand, I’m rooting for them.
Will I read all these galleys? Nope. I mostly read adult books. But I’m eyeballing that new Andrew Smith book, curious about what he’s done with it. And Julie Halpern is a fresh, original voice — so uncool that somehow she’s totally the coolest one of all. Then there’s Spellbinder, a debut novel, which on the surface seems familiar and yet strange at the same time. Who is Helen Stringer, anyway?
A confession: I’ve never had much interest in cultivating friendships with other authors. I know a few on Facebook and whenever I read their status updates on new galleys or their writer’s block or revision process or whatever — well, it just turns me away. I’m just not interested (as I sit here, blogging, semi-ironically, at this Shrine to Myself). The idea of going on, say, an “artistic retreat” with a bunch of other writers makes my skin crawl. I’m not sure why that is, exactly, but it’s real for me. Maybe I like regular people better. Or maybe I’m too competitive, or too insecure. Maybe it’s like ordering a Bud in a can when there’s some snazzy cherry-flavored micro brew available. I don’t know.
But this crowd at Feiwel and Friends? It’s hard to explain. Just a sense I guess, a feeling that’s kind of sloppy and formless, like a first wet kiss. A little creepy, but kind of nice, too. A little like . . . friendship. With benefits. Like free ARCs!
And by the way: I’m back from vacation. Hear me roar.
Every morning, after I have my cup of coffee, push the kids out the door, and delete my daily email from moveon.org, I like to gather up my accumulated fan mail, pour the letters on my bed, and roll around in them. For forty-five minutes.
Don’t look at me like that. It’s aerobic.
Sometimes, I even get around to answering a few:
Dear Mr. Preller,
I read a Jigsaw Jones book titled The Case of the Golden Key. I liked it because I liked the part where Jigsaw Jones, Mila, and Reginald were looking for the golden key. I also liked this book because I love the illustrations. I loved all the words because some were descriptive.
Thanks for that nice note. I enjoyed writing that book, partly because it’s the first time I “met” the richest kid in town, Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III. I liked writing about him so much, I kept coming up with reasons for sticking him in other books. I even gave him a featured part in The Case of the Double Trouble Detectives, when Reginald starts his own rival, high-tech detective agency. I love the cover that artist R.W. Alley came up with:
I’m glad you liked the part when they were searching the attic. There’s just something cool about attics, don’t you think? I’m glad, too, that you liked my writing. I try to stick in a “descriptive” word every now and then!
James or Mr.Preller
I love your books.
What made you want to write books?
I saw your family on your web site and your dog is soooooooooooo cute.
I am so excited you wrote!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It’s like soooooooo totally awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Okay, let me calm down. I’ll make some tea, listen to my new Elvis Perkins CD. What made me want to write books? Well, I guess it’s because I loved reading, loved books. In college, I started writing seriously — I had a great teacher, Pat Meanor, who really inspired me. I think he was the first person who gave me the feeling that maybe I had something in me that needed to come out. That maybe, just maybe, I was a writer. It’s such a great thing when you can find that person who believes in you, no matter what path you pursue in life. Even today, at age 48, I still need that faith, still need that support from an editor, or a friend. We ALL do. In fact, it’s one of the best gifts we can give someone, when we say to them, “I know you can do it.” I coach Little League baseball, and more than anything else, I see that as my primary job: I’m the guy who stands there and believes.
We are Ane G., Maddi, Leire, Sara, Sabiñe and Ane Go. We like your books, especially Jigsaw Jones books! Maddi and Leire have read them all! You must write more!
We want you to visit us but Neva, our school librarian, does not have enough money to pay you.
It took us a long time to write this, we needed some help. Write back!
Dear Ane G, Maddi,, Leire, Sara, Sabine, and Ane Go:
What a fantastic photo, thanks for sending that. And thanks, too, for reading my books.
Such interesting, beautiful names: Where do you go to school?
As an author, my job mostly keeps me at home, working in my basement office. While school visits are a lot of fun, they do keep me away from my main job — which is sitting alone in an empty room, trying to write. With deadlines to meet, a wife that works, and three busy children (ages 8, 9, and 15), it’s hard for me to do many school visits, though I do about one every week in March, April, and May.
Thank you for writing to me!
And got this answer!
Letter 38, Part2
Thanks for writing back so soon! We were very surprised but it has taken us longer to be together again than we thought.
You díd not say when you are going to write another Jigsaw Jones book. Can you recommend any other book, a special one for you?
We go to Deustuko Ikastola, it is in Bilbao, in the Basque Country, in northern Spain. We speak Basque but we also speak Spanish. Have you got any book in Basque?
Good bye. Looking forward to hearing from you! Good luck with your next book!
I hope you don’t mind that I put your photo up here on my blog. Basque Country, wow, that’s so cool. I traveled in Spain once, years ago, Madrid and Barcelona and along the western coast (where I remember seeing a lot of sun-burnt German tourists). Amazing, beautiful country.
You know, there are so many great books to read, I hesitate to recommend just one. But that would be a boring answer and I try — I really try — to not sound too awfully dull. So: My daughter Maggie (8) and I very much enjoyed reading The Doll People by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin. If you like that book, there are a couple of sequels: The Meanest Doll in the World and The Runaway Dolls. The stories are well-written, full of mystery and adventure and, oh yeah, dolls that are alive. But pretty much anything by Ann M. Martin is great.
Okay, Bilbao, I see you up there in the mountains, close to the ocean. Do you call that the Bay of Biscay? I’ve changed my mind: I do want to come for an author visit! Tell Neva the Librarian to do a bake sale or something! I’ll be waiting at the airport.
And I thought, I wonder if that’s my Karen Roosa? My Karen was an old stall buddy from Scholastic, back in the mid-to-late 1980s. We were copywriters together, working on book clubs and catalogs. Neighbors, we shared a cubicle wall, but had lost touch twenty years ago. So I contacted Julie, who kindly passed along Karen’s email, and here we are: She’s a big-shot famous author and I knew her when!
– – – – –
Karen, it’s so nice to catch up with you. You must be excited about your new picture book, Pippa at the Parade. It takes a long time, doesn’t it?
It is great catching up with you too, Jimmy. It really does take a long time to see a picture book published. I had sent a different manuscript to Boyds Mills Press in late 2006, and got a call from the editor saying that story wasn’t quite right for them, but to send others. They were looking for stories that would appeal to very young children.
Actually, I’ve heard that picture books are trending younger these days; publishers seem to be looking for titles that will appeal to the preschool crowd. We’re seeing less of the text-heavy, William Steig-type picture book.
Yes, I think that’s true — picture books for the very young child. So I sent a collection of summer poems and the Pippa manuscript, and he replied about a month later in early 2007 that they’d like to publish Pippa at the Parade. My part was essentially done right then, but an illustrator needed to be chosen, the artwork completed, and the book printed. Two years, or even longer, is fairly common.
Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the book.
I was trying to write a “musical” story, something rhythmical and fun to read aloud, but nothing seemed to work. Once I started thinking about feeling the rhythm through the sound of the instruments, the idea of a little girl at a parade came to me.
I get the sense that your first love is poetry.
I do love poetry, reading and writing it. Trying to pare language down to its essence.
Did you have any input into the illustrations? How did that relationship with artist Julie Fortenberry work? And be careful, Julie might be reading this.
I didn’t have any input, which is not unusual. My editor fortunately chose Julie Fortenberry, a fine artist and illustrator. I saw her work online and really liked her style. Then I just had to wait to see the finished illustrations.
What was it like when you finally saw the illustrations? It’s an exciting but also a frightening moment.
It was very exciting. The art director at Boyds Mills sent me a PDF last summer to check the text one last time. It was then that I could see the illustrations for the first time and I really loved them, very whimsical and playful. They fit the story perfectly. It was a thrill to receive the finished book in the mail.
I see you already got a great review from KirkusReviews. And I quote in part:
“The marching band booms by and the onomatopoeic text enlivens the rhythm, “Clapping hands! / Clappity-clap. / Band is coming! / Tippity-tap.” As each section of the parade passes by Pippa is enchanted by the many instruments, which include trumpets, trombones and drums. First the gymnasts flip past, then the ten-foot-tall man on stilts . . . Fortenberry’s rippling illustrations, at once serenely indistinct and lovingly detailed, combine misty, milky hues with thick, robust pastels, presenting a celebration of excitement and indulgence that can only be fully appreciated in childhood.”
Pretty nice, Karen — you too, Julia, and thanks for the use of your illustrations. Personally, I’m frightened by reviews.
It is a little scary. But I have to look. And by the way, congratulations on Six Innings being named an ALA Notable Book — very exciting.
Thanks. I’m sorry that I missed your first book when it came out, Beach Day, illustrated by Maggie Smith. You must have been thrilled when it was named a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year. Now it looks like you are on a roll. What’s next?
I have a couple of picture book manuscripts that I’m sending out, and I’ve always liked the idea of trying a longer story for older children. Plus maybe poetry, short stories . . .
Well, obviously, the big bucks are in poetry.
Yes, of course!
We shared a cubicle wall for at least a few years back in the way back, the late 80’s, when we both worked as copywriters for Scholastic Book Clubs. Was I good neighbor? I tried to keep the music down when I had large parties. You never called the cops.
Those were good days at Scholastic. The 80s!
Let’s pause here for a salute to the decade . . . and yes, I wore a black Members Only jacket. Their tagline: “When you put it on, something happens.”
A touching tribute, Jimmy. That job at Scholastic was one of the best ever. It was great being cubicle neighbors with you. I actually do remember a lot of parties on our floor.
As one of the few heterosexual males in the department, I used to joke with Craig Walker that I felt personally responsible for all the sexual tension in the building. It was pretty much up to me, Greg Holch, and the mail room guys. The pressure on us was enormous. I’d come home from work exhausted.
That’s funny, Jimmy, but you might be exaggerating a little.
Never! Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky Book Club back in those days. Each month, we had to read and describe more than 30 books for both teachers and young readers. It was quite an education, wasn’t it?
You’d get your box of books from Craig Walker for Seesaw Book Club, I’d get mine for Lucky Book Club, and I remember quite a few conversations about Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog.
I remember getting advice from Ed Monagle, the Chief Financial Officer for Scholastic at the time. Ed was a money guy, not necessarily a book guy. So one day he tells me, in his avuncular way, “Jimmy, you should really make up one of these popular characters. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. He’s a dog. He’s big. And he’s red. How hard can that be?”
I remember Ed and can hear him saying that. If only it were that easy!
Yeah, I told him I’d get right on it.
It was great working with Eva, and reading all of those books really was a terrific education in children’s literature.
Not to mention posters of cute kittens.
I recall many cute kitten posters in my box . . . and also glow-in-the-dark Halloween stickers.
Do you have any favorite memories from those days? I remember writing the first hardcover catalog, when Jean Feiwel launched the line back in 1986 or so. It had four books, total. Harry Mazur, Norma Fox Mazur, Julian Thompson, and I forget the other book, I think it was some kind of “stay away from strangers” type book. Anyway, we came up with an awful catalog cover that Jean absolutely (and correctly) hated. A simpler time.
I remember meeting Joanna Cole because the Magic School Bus was really big at that time, Ann M. Martin when she came in for the Babysitters Club, and a lunch with Norman Bridwell. I still have the big red plush Clifford from our table that day. It was a lot of fun just being immersed in children’s books all day with others who had the same interests. And the camaraderie was great.
There’s a long gap from after you left children’s publishing to when you published Beach Day. It’s like the missing seventeen-and-a-half minutes of the Watergate Tapes – except it’s like seventeen years. What have you been up to –- and why or how did you decide to get back into it?
I left the city in the early 90’s and moved to Pennsylvania. My children were very young and I wanted to try freelance writing. I’d send out manuscripts, but had no luck for a long time.
Many others have been defeated when faced with the same situation. What kept you going? Any advice?
I think it’s important to not give up. You never know when your story might match an editor’s tastes and needs for their list at that particular moment. I still have a huge stack of rejection letters. Occasionally a publisher would jot, “Send us more,” so I kept at it. One day I received a letter from an editor asking if I’d be willing to make a few changes in a manuscript that I’d sent; after tweaking the text a bit back and forth, Beach Day was published.
Did you celebrate?
I jumped up and down on the kitchen floor.
Okay, Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and the books of Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, and Mo Willems.
Kevin Henkes is just spectacular. I really admire his work. Such a talent, almost in an Old School tradition. Mo Willems is great, too. I met Kate a couple of times, I liked her a lot, very down-to-earth. She has a wonderful essay on her website, titled “On Writing.” You have to read it. Go on, I’ll wait.
Okay, I just finished. That is fantastic. It is all about really seeing, then doing the work of writing. Sitting down to write. Rewriting. And then somehow mysteriously having those ordinary moments undergo a magical transformation on the page.
What about favorite adult books?
Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the poetry of Mary Oliver, Basho, and William Carlos Williams.
I’m a huge fan all three poets, though moreso Basho and Williams. My favorite Basho line is, “The journey itself is home.”
Last question: Favorite movies?
The Crying Game, Pan’s Labyrinth, Once, The Graduate, The Ice Storm.
Thanks, Karen. I’m really glad to reconnect with you after all these years. I wish you all the success in the world, you deserve it. And as a parting gift, I was going to give you a plush version of Clifford the Big Red Dog, but you already have it. So I guess I just saved eight bucks. Sweet!
As a consolation prize, please enjoy this video of Mr. T’s fashion tips — “Hey, everybody got to wear clothes!” — and be glad we survived the 80’s with (most of) our dignity intact. (The link works, but it might take a double click.)
Yesterday was a big day for me, because Six Innings was reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review by Lisa Von Drasek. By the way, isn’t that a great name? Lisa Von Drasek. I immediately think of vampires and fog-enshrouded castles, the howling of wolves, the whispering of black capes in musty hallways. “Von Drasek? Surely not the daughter of . . . Count Von Drasek?”
The money quote: “It was “Six Innings” that made a baseball lover out of me.”
Thank you, Lisa. I’ll never joke about your name again!
You can read the full review by clicking here. It’s a very well-written piece — featuring two other baseball titles, Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park and The Big Field by Mike Lupica. I’m really happy about it. I’m not a guy who typically visits Cloud Nine, I tend to downplay things, but I’ll admit to treating myself to a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream last night. Good times, good times.
As my first hardcover novel, Six Innings was destined to get reviewed by the standard industry magazines such as Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist. I was excited by that prospect, and vaguely terrified. I asked my editor, the fabulous Liz Szabla, to not tell me about any of the reviews: I didn’t want to know (but of course I did, but I didn’t, and yet I did! Ack!).
You see, I had spent a large part of the previous eight years writing the “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series (along with a long list of side projects — anything to pay the mortgage). But despite writing thirty-plus chapter books in the series, those books were never reviewed. Not once, not anywhere. Absolutely, positively, critically ignored. As a series, the books were unworthy, the ugly stepsisters of the publishing world. Yes, I got a lot of fan mail. But in the world of children’s literature, and to a large extent within the halls of my own publisher, those books almost didn’t exist beyond the category of “product.”
And yet I put everything I had in them.
So now I’m faced with a strange, new experience. Today I find myself in the New York Times Book Review. Wow. In many respects, that’s the mountaintop. Finally, I wrote something that people are reading closely — people other than, I should say, the boys and girls for whom the books are intended.
Series writers are somehow slotted into a sub-category, like a sub-species, Boo Radley in a darkened room. And yet as everybody knows, series literature (if we may use the L-word) is widely read. That’s what the industry demands, it’s what editors want, it’s what kids read. I’m talking about popular series like “The Secrets of Droon” by Tony Abbott, “The Baby-Sitters Club” by Ann M. Martin, or “Animorphs” by Katherine Applegate (to name just a few). Each of those authors I’ve listed went on to later write, ta-da, Real Books that received critical attention and acclaim. As if, wow, maybe they suddenly learned how to write! But I’d bet that they are just as proud, if not prouder, of the paperback series they wrote than all the great reviews they later earned for their “more important” hardcover books. It’s too bad. I wish our reviewers gave more recognition to series publishing, the good and the bad.
Okay, I’ll step off the soapbox. Besides, I’ve got to run out to make a xerox of that Times review. My mom needs a copy (whether she knows it or not)!