Tag Archive for James Preller Bystander

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #221: Free for Everyone to Ignore!

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Readers should know that I don’t post every answer I give to fan mail. That would get incredibly boring, believe me. But when the letters are funny, or somehow fresh, or if I think my reply might be of interest to a wider readership, I share it here. This way, everyone gets a chance to ignore it.

Okay, got that? Cool.

This was a daunting collection of letters — all including individual SASEs, meaning that I had to lick 20 envelopes, yuck — but I did my best to offer a good reply, while keeping the process under two hours.

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Here’s how I replied:

Dear ______________,

Today I was incredibly grateful to read through 20 letters from Mr. Frommann’s class, including one from you. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to respond to each letter individually. Since there was degree of overlap, it’s my hope that a single letter will suffice. (Hey, I’m doing my best, folks!)

Here goes nothing, in no particular order:

Evan wrote: “Your book is by far the most down to Earth book I have read in a long time.” Thanks. I tried to make BYSTANDER as realistic as possible.

9780312547967Many of you asked about a sequel, but Isabella framed it most charmingly: “With many questions to be answered, might I suggest writing a sequel?” Ha! Yes, you may suggest it, Isabella. At this point, I have no plans for a sequel, nor do I think that a novel should –- even if it could, and it can’t! –- answer every single question. I like that “fan fiction” has become popular, where readers respond to books . . . by writing. Maybe that’s the best way to find out more about these characters. Make something up. (It worked for me!)

Brittany made me happy: “You are an amazing writer with amazing details. It made me feel as if I was in the book too. You are a fantastic writer!” Well, you know the way to a writer’s heart. Thank you. Others said equally kind things. I can only say thanks. A writer is nothing without readers like you. Like Wayne and Garth say, “I am not worthy!!!”

Wayne’s-World

Madison: “It’s okay if you don’t reply, although I would like it if you did.” Fair enough!

Many of you asked about David’s family. I imagine that you discussed it in class. To me, that’s when the book I wrote years ago truly comes alive. When readers think about it, feel it, complain, debate, etc. There are no right answers. As a reader –- and I read all the time, always, every day –- I often think a book is best when I have to look away, lost in thought. That is, when it makes me stop reading . . . and start thinking. Does that ever happen to you?

Anyway, “G” had a theory on David and I want to share it. But first, I laughed when he wrote that the ending was “kind of bad.” Oh well! Later in the letter, he wondered about David’s parents: “Well, I have a theory. He doesn’t tell his parents because he thinks Griffin would be mad and not want to be ‘friends’ and in Chapter 13, ‘Pretzel,’ Hallenback says nothing to the monitor.”

Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! I did a great deal of research on the topic of bullying, and one thing that frequently came up was that many targets go to great lengths to hide the fact they were being bullied. We can all speculate on the different reasons why that might be.

Avery and several others asked if I’ve been bullied as a kid, and the answer is no. I’ve been a witness, a bystander. And yes, I guess I wrote the book to “raise awareness,” in Charlotte’s phrase. Stories have a unique power to help us feel things, to step into someone else’s shoes, and through stories we build empathy and compassion.

Surely the world can use more of that.

Lucas complimented me on the “great visualization” in the book, and that pleased me, since that’s something every good writer tries to accomplish. I want to reader to “see” what’s happening, as if watching a film in the back of his or her skull.

The upcoming paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

The upcoming paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

Guys, gals, Mr. Frommann, I’ve got to go! I’ve got three kids upstairs who are hungry. And I’ve got a new book to write. Oh, wait, about the sequel. I should say that after writing BYSTANDER, 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 . . .”

So if you are looking for something else by me, check it out. It’s in hardcover new, paperback in September. And I’m really proud of it. My book SIX INNINGS is also good for 6th graders who like baseball. It even won an ALA Notable!

Thanks for your letters. I’m sorry if I didn’t mention you by name in this missive. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy your letter. Just ran out of time!

Peace out!

James Preller

P.S. I’m bummed about David Bowie today. I have 104 of his songs on my iPod, so I think I’m just going to roll through them all today.

Fan Mail Wednesday #213: A Long, Thoughtful Letter from a Reader in the Republic of Korea

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It’s summer and I’ve put the blog into idle. Just puttering along, blowing white smoke, probably burning oil. Been neglecting everybody’s favorite feature, “Fan Mail Wednesday.” But I had to share this one from Dain, who wrote from Incheon in the Republic of Korea.

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Dain followed up with an email, worried if his letter had arrived. It did, and I’m sending my reply via snail mail next chance I can get to the post office. I would have done it sooner, except that it requires that I get out of my pajamas. In the meantime, here’s the electronic version.

First comes Dain, who writes with neat, precise handwriting, then my reply. That’s how it works here at James Preller Dot Com!

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I replied:

 

Dear Dain,

Thank you for a spectacular letter. I would give my right arm to have neat handwriting like yours. (You should know, of course, that I’m a lefty; I’m not that crazy.)

I appreciate your thoughtful reading of Bystander. I respected your admission: “I was a bully, a victim, and also a bystander.” I think that’s true for many of us, at least in brief flashes of our lives. I can certainly identify with the role of each character in the story. We are all flawed in some respects.

To answer your questions:

When it comes to Griffin’s punishment, I saw this as a closed system between the young people, so there wasn’t ever going to be a “punishment” from an authority figure. It is a story without justice. To me, that’s true to life. It doesn’t often come wrapped neatly in a bow.

By making Griffin’s father a violent person, I wanted to highlight the vicious cycle of violence. That while we must all be responsible for our own actions, research shows that there is a connection between the “target” and “bully.” Often when someone is a victim of violence in his or her life, that same person will turn around and bully someone else. At first, that infortmation didn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t a victim be the last person to bully someone else? But thinking deeper, I thought: Of course, they are powerless in one area of life. And what are they going to do with all that hurt and anger? It has to spill out somewhere. So it began to make more sense. In the book, it is not an accident that on the day after Griffin is given a black eye by his father, he acts angry and cruel toward David. “Let’s play pretzel.”

Thinking about this topic, and researching it, I quickly realized that I could write a hundred different stories that approached bullying in different ways. No single story can provide a complete picture. For this one, my focus went to the bystander, the witness, because I think that best represents the majority of us -– and that’s where the ultimate power is, and therefore the hope for positive change.

Martin Luther King’s great quote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

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You might be interested to know that my new book, The Fall, coming out in September, approaches many of these same issues from the perspective of a boy who gets involved in cyber bullying with tragic results. The thing is, he’s a good kid who makes some bad choices. For me, as I wrote I discovered that the story was leading me to the importance of this character “owning” his actions, and ultimately to the essence of forgiveness. So, yes, I was nodding in agreement when you wrote in your letter about the importance of repentance.

Listen, Dain, thanks for patiently waiting several weeks for your reply. I very much enjoyed your letter -– all the way from Korea! -– and I wish you all the best.

Your friend,

A very impressed . . .

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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Fan Mail Wednesday #194: I Actually Give This Poor Kid Writing Advice

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Here’s a letter that did not have to travel very far. However, it’s a little tough to read, but I’m sharing it anyway. So there:

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I replied:

Tyler,

Wow, thanks for the letter and thanks, too, for reading so many of my books. You inspire me to write more. Here are three titles that are coming out in the near and distant future: Scary Tales: Swamp Monster (Spring, 2015), The Fall (Fall, 2015), and Dead, But Cautiously Optimistic (Spring, 2016). 

paperback-cover-six-innings-203x300I hope that by now you’ve been able to track down a copy of Bystander. Usually I describe that book as best for grades 5-up, but I’d never stand in the way of a motivated reader. I have a deep affection for Six Innings, and I’m proud that it was named an ALA Notable Book. I poured a lifetime of baseball obsession into that single book, while also writing about my own son’s struggle with a serious illness. 

I have to confess that I always feel a shiver of uneasiness when asked about writing advice. I know many authors who give it confidently and freely. They even charge money to teach it. In my case, despite all these books, I still feel like I’m someone who should be taking advice rather than giving it. 

But, okay, fair enough: I must know something. Right? So read, read often and read widely. Read for pleasure, yes, but also read like a writer. By that I mean, pay attention to what’s happening on the page. Be aware that there’s a real person, an author, behind those scenes on the page, making choices with every word, every sentence. If you are excited, or scared, and laughing out loud — if you feel anything at all while you read — go back and try to figure out what the writer did to cause you to feel that way. We learn best by reading other writers. 

Also, of course, you’ve got to write. And by that I mean, write anything at all — notes, poems, song lyrics, snippets of dialogue, true stories, anything. Purchase your own blank journal. I love those ordinary composition notebooks you can find at CVS. It’s so important to have a place you can go with your thoughts. Remember that it’s impossible to write without deep thought, deep feeling. Writing is an act of concentration and focus. You’ll need to give yourself the greatest gift of all: time to think. Space to feel. It requires that you turn off the television, shut down the computer, put away the phone and games. Hey, I love all that stuff, but in order to write, you must go inside your own skull for entertainment.

At your age, I think it’s best to concentrate on short pieces. Little stories. Scenes. It’s very common for young writers to imagine a great, long, complicated story that would require a 100,00 words to tell properly. Problem is, 99% of the time those ambitious stories are never completed.

tools-belts-xxcge4-296x300I believe there’s value in finished work, and sometimes that’s a matter of adjusting your goals. Imagine that you were beginning to learn carpentry. You’d need to familiarize yourself with the tools of the trade. A hammer, some nails, a screwdriver, scraps of wood, a monkey wrench, etc. You’d begin, I’d hope, by attempting to build something relatively simple: a birdhouse, perhaps. You wouldn’t attempt a structure that was, say, a 2,000 square-foot log cabin for a family of five. Same thing with writing. Explore the tools. Play around with them. Write a scene with a heavy use of dialogue. Put together characters on a park bench, get them talking about something, describe someone’s room. 

Also: slow down. That’s one I have to keep learning in my own writing, over and over again. Don’t be in a hurry to get to the next scene, and the next, and the next. We all want to be done, bang out those two wonderful words: THE END! Instead, take your time with the scene you are writing. Go deeper, think harder. Find the details that are worth sharing. I’ve heard writing teachers call it “downshifting.” If you’ve captured a good moment, linger there for a beat, a few extra sentences. Throw a line into the water. See what else might be just under the surface. You might get a bite.

Anyway, Tyler. You asked for it. But do you see what I mean? It’s so hard for me to say anything that’s truly helpful. I wish I could give you the magic key, but I can’t. In the end, writing is all about you and the blank page. No one can really help all that much. I wish you the best of luck in your writing life. If somebody like me can do it, I’m sure that you can, too.

My best,

JP

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it kind?