Tag Archive for James Preller Fan Mail

Fan Mail #319: Loren Uses SOOOOOO Many O’s!

 

Here’s a nice letter from Loren in Delaware — but wait, hold up. First I want to say that this is the time of year when I usually don’t post as regularly. I have a couple of interviews in the works, and several new books coming up, but nothing feels super urgent. I don’t post all the fan mail that I receive, just the special ones. Like Loren’s. As always, I am immensely grateful to every teacher, librarian, and adult who helps put my books in the hands of young readers. Thank you. 

 

 

Dear Loren, 

Thank you for your enthusiastic letter. 

I counted 16 o’s when you wrote that you love my books “soooooooooooooooo much.”

Why not 17? Did your hand cramp up?

The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster was the first Jigsaw Jones book I wrote — and it’s still by far the most popular. Unfortunately, it’s out of print now (meaning: it’s hard to find, and never in bookstores). I’ve tried to bring it back, but publishing is a strange world. 

The good news, part 1: You’ve already read it!

The good news, part 2: There are still 14 other Jigsaw Jones titles available in stores and online. Either new books or newly revised and updated. So if you are looking to spend big money, Loren, hey, there’s your chance.

The good news, part 3: You can usually find them for FREE at your local public library.

The good news, part 4: A couple of years ago, I made a series of FIVE VIDEOS on Youtube where I read the entire book. You should check ‘em out! So even if readers can’t find Hermie, they can still HEAR it on Youtube. 

 

I’m glad you mentioned liking the scene in the pet store. To write that scene, I had to do some research. Can you guess? I found a pet store that sold snakes and other animals. I went to it, walked around, asked questions, and took lots of notes. In the back, I saw a cage full of monkeys. And guess what? They were all wearing diapers!

Ha, ha, ha. I had to put that in my book!

Silly monkeys.

Thanks again for your terrific letter,

James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #314: On Math & Writing — the Rule of Three — and Ted Lasso

 

Sometimes questions come from far afield — in this case, the field of mathematics. Natalie — who could not have been any nicer or more considerate — wrote to me with questions for a school project. 
Natalie wrote . . .
I would like to ask you a few questions. If you do not feel comfortable answering my questions please don’t feel pressured to! I’m doing a project for one of my classes about writing, and how it can relate to math. For this project I need to ask a writer questions, and I heard you reply. My questions are;
1.) Can you describe what you do for a living?
2.) How is math used in your career?  Can you provide examples?
3.) How often is problem solving used in your career?
4.) Is there anything else you would like to tell us about how math relates to your career?
I replied . . . 
Natalie,
These are interesting questions. I’ll do my best.
1. I am a children’s book author. I write a range of books, from picture books for very young readers to young adult novels.
2. I get complicated royalty statements filled with numbers that make me cry. Seriously: confusing numbers, percentages, discounts, etc. Creatively, I think that math enters into story structure, the classic three-act formula. Beginning, middle, and end. Picture books are almost always 32 pages due to folios and printing standards. At some point, you have to be very aware of how (and where) your story is landing on the page. 
3. In storytelling, there’s the “Rule of 3.” We see it in humor, particularly, i.e., his bedroom smelled of old socks, axe body spray, and stale cheese. For some reason, it’s funniest with 3 items. Four is too many; two is not enough. Another example would be, oh, let’s see, a penguin who is determined to fly. For some reason, it appeals to the mind when we show the penguin fail once, twice, three times . . . and then succeed (in some way). I think that’s because it takes three to establish a pattern, a rhythm. It’s somehow comforting to the reader. My old picture book, Hiccups for Elephant, is extremely mathematical, since it is centered around patterns and repetition. All the animals are asleep. Except for elephant. Chimp wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! Lion wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! Zebra wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! See that, Natalie? One, two, three. Now, finally, mouse wakes up, offers advice. It works! Ah-choo! The funny twist at the end. Simple mathematics. 
4. Not really, no. Ha! But, okay, as you know, math is hardwired into our brains. When I read a book — this is just me & my own idiosyncrasies — I am always doing the math. That is, I first like to locate the last page and note the number. The book I’m currently reading is 278 pages. I don’t have to look that up, it’s burned into my brain. While I read it, I am aware of when I’m 1/3 of the way through, 1/2 way through, 2/3 through, etc. It’s not just racing to the end, it helps me sense the shape and body of the story. Do you watch Ted Lasso? That was originally conceived as a three season arc. A beginning, middle, and end. Season 1 was wonderful because it set up the situation, introduced all the characters, established the problem. Season 2 suffered, in my opinion, because it was the middle. The inevitable sag. Middles are very, very difficult to write. But it will lead us to the conclusion, the end, Act 3: the satisfying resolution. Simple math, yes. It’s everywhere. 
Hope that helps.
James Preller
Natalie, again . . .
Thank you so much for the reply! I love these answers, and the examples used. I didn’t expect to get a reply from anyone until, I found a thing of you showing that you do try your best to reply to anyone, and everyone. I will be sure to put your quotes, and phrases into my presentation! Sorry for the random email. And if there was anything you felt uncomfortable with. If you have any questions as to why I asked, or maybe as to what the presentation is about don’t be scared to ask! If there is anything you wouldn’t like in the presentation let me know!

 

 



Subject: Interview questions (school project)

PC Culture or Fair Criticism? A Reader Complains, A Writer Replies

I recently received a letter that made me think. And without disclosing my own conclusions, I thought I’d share that letter here, then pass along my reply, as well as provide an excerpt of the offending scene.

If you’d like, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. 

I almost titled this, in part, “a writer listens.” But that sounded far too pretentious and self-satisfied. Yet it is what I hoped to convey to Cathy in Nova Scotia. That her thoughts are worth hearing — these are good conversations to have — that Cathy’s feelings are valid and valued. I’m happiest with the talking and the listening. We need more of that in our world, less about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” fewer assignations of blame. 

It’s worth noting, too, that Cathy wrote to me with a question rather than an accusation. More than anything, that’s what started us off on the right foot. 

 

Hi James,
 
I am a literacy coach working in Nova Scotia. I have been putting several of your books from the Scary Tales series in the hands of students. They are really enjoying them. I have the task of compiling a list of books to be purchased for schools. In preparation, I am reading and completing a bias evaluation tool on each book. I am currently, “Scary Tales: One-Eyed Doll”. On page 59, I encountered the sentence, “No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams.” This was in response to the custodian saying Malik may take his job one day. I question how this line could be interpreted by the reader and does it imply that a custodial job is less than?
I thought I would bring this to your attention as I was enjoying your book but this sentence made me stop as it makes me feel uncomfortable. 
Kind regards,
Cathy
I replied . . .

Cathy,

Thank you for this note, and for sharing my books with struggling readers. It was always in the back of my mind with this series, that older readers — thanks to the sophisticated look of the artwork — would embrace and succeed with these high-interest, easy-to-read stories.
Yes, I believe that I did intend for Malik’s thought to be exactly that: He had bigger plans.
But I can see where the phrasing of that might have given you pause. If I had the chance of a do-over today, I’d make a simple change: He had other plans.
That would remove the unfortunate (embedded) value judgment.
It is complicated. Because if we are honest, not many people “dream” of becoming custodians, service workers. This doesn’t mean that they are “less” than anyone else or unworthy of our respect. It’s just not where Malick hopes to end up; he’s dreaming big. Writers put thoughts into the minds, hearts, perceptions of invented characters — but at the same time have to be vigilant about what we (they/I) put out into the world. I wish I found a different way to express Malik’s ambitions without making the comparison. Still, there’s “truth” in his thoughts and he treats the custodian with kindness and respect.
I am grateful for the sensitivity of your reading. I’m glad you pointed that out to me. I’ll try to do better in the future.
James Preller
HERE’S AN EXCERPT FROM THE SCENE IN QUESTION (Chapter 9, One-Eyed Doll)
It was a quick bike ride to the nursing home — if you pedaled like your hair was on fire.
Malik made it in six minutes flat.
His mother had worked in the kitchen since he was a baby. Malik was a familiar face to the nurses on staff. When he was little, before he could fend for himself, Malik spent a lot of time in the back rooms. Drawing pictures, building with Legos, eating snacks, looking at picture books. It was cheaper than hiring a babysitter.
The home was a curious world, full of odd smells and old people. Most folks were frail, like glass figurines on a shelf you shouldn’t touch for fear they might break. Some still had sharp minds. They played cards, watched tv, and carried on conversations. Then there were the folks who seemed . . . finished. Like burnt-down candles. When Malik walked the halls, he would sometimes glimpse them sitting in their rooms. Alone and silent, waiting for a bus that would never come.
It was sad, and Malik tried not to think about it.
“Say, Malik! What are you doing here today?” Curtis the custodian chirped. He stopped pushing a mop around the floor and, instead, leaned on it with both hands. Happy to pause and chat. 
“Just thought I’d stop by,” Malik said.
“Getting big!” Curtis observed. “If I don’t watch out, you’ll be taking my job.”
No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams. But he said with a grin, “I just might.”
He started to walk away, then thought twice. “You’ve been here a long time, right?”
Curtis looked up, as if the answer was written on the ceiling. “Twenty years, next September.”
Malik whistled. He decided to take a shot. “You remember the old place on my block. Right? The one nobody lives in.”
The brightness left the custodian’s eyes. “I know it,” he said. “That place is bad business. Bad voodoo over there.”
“Do you know anything about . . .” Malik said, stepping forward. “I mean, can you tell me about it?”
“It’s not my place to say,” Curtis said.
“It’s important,” Malik said. “It means a lot to me. Please.”
Maybe the old man was in a talkative mood that day. Maybe there was something in the way Malik asked. The look in his eyes.
“There’s a patient here,” Curtis said. “Miss Delgado. She was the last person who lived there — but that was, oh, thirty-something years ago. She used to be in the mental hospital, you know, the asylum. But she’s no trouble anymore.”
“She’s here?” Malik asked.
“Room 17, just down the hall,” Curtis said. “I don’t think she can help you, Malik. She hasn’t said ten words in all the time she’s been here.”
“Can I see her?” Malik asked.
Curtis looked up and down the empty hall. “She been through enough. Leave an old woman alone.”
“Please, I’ll be respectful,” Malik said. “Just for a minute?”
“If you get caught,” Curtis said with a sigh, “I don’t know anything about it. Understand?”
He turned in the opposite direction from Room 17 and pushed the mop down the hall. The conversation was over. Malik was on his own.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL, captured by iPhone (so forgive the poor quality).

THERE ARE 6 TITLES IN THE SCARY TALES SERIES, MOST POPULAR IN GRADES 3-5 . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #306: A Reader “OBSESSED”

There’s something about readers who enjoy scary stories. They bring a unique level of enthusiasm — of passion — to their reading. They don’t just like a book, they almost seem to take up residence, they dwell inside it. While I’ve written many types of books over the years, across various genre, there’s nothing that works better in front of a large audience than reading a carefully-selected passage (not too scary!) from one of my “Scary Tales” books. 

Which is to say, here’s a card from Gracyn in Texas . . . 

I replied . . .

Dear Gracyn,

Thank you so much for your wonderful card. My wife had saved it but mistakenly tossed the envelope. So, yeah, I had to do the deep dive into the garbage bin to retrieve your return address.

(Old coffee grounds are gross, btw.)

Texas, hey. I’ve been fortunate to visit your state several times for book conventions, author visits, and even to play in a men’s baseball tournament. Always a good time.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from “I Scream, You Scream!” AKA, “Dr. Z’s Adventure Park.”

You aren’t too shabby a writer, yourself. “I could not stop telling my friends all about it in grave detail.” Wow, that’s a great choice of words. It’s an ordinary sentence until the end there, when you added in grave detail. Perfect! Keep that up and I’ll be reading your books someday.

Be sure to thank your teacher for having my book in your classroom library. I appreciate that. There are six “Scary Tales” books in the series. I find that everything I write helps me become a better writer. My most recent novel, Blood Mountain, is a realistic story about two siblings who are lost in the wilderness. It’s a scary, suspenseful, survival thriller. The lessons I learned writing “Scary Tales” helped me write that book. In this case, the frightening things were “real” compared to the ghosts and zombies and swamp monsters in the series. But the writing is very similar. Still building suspense, setting up situations, trying to make the reader lean in.

And if a girl named Gracyn can become OBSESSED, well, that’s the best I can possibly hope for.

Thanks for that.

Um, and now . . . I better go wash my hands.

My best,

 

James Preller

 


P.S. This is the cover of Blood Mountain. Because one good book leads to another!

 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #302: Hard Beginnings, Saggy Middles, and Fizzled Endings

 

Here’s a short one from Helin — who thinks I am James Preller! — along with my saggy reply.

 

Hello! My name is Helin. I think you are James Preller. I read “The Case Of The Disappearing Dinosaur” book for my English project. I understood it very well and I liked it. I got the beginning, middle and end very well. I think it was fun and enjoyable. I am glad to read this book. 

 

My response . . .  

Helin!

Thank you for your kind note. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur
Beginnings are hard: that blank page staring back at me, waiting, as if to say, “Yeah, so what?”
Middles tend to sag. I work hard at middles, because nobody wants a saggy middle. I try to keep the plot/mystery zipping along, cutting away the lazy bits. 
And endings, well, a book has to have a satisfying ending. That’s the part everyone remembers, the last pages they read. If the ending fizzles, the whole thing is a fizzled book. 
Nobody wants to read a fizzled book.
I’ve written all types of books over my long career. I published my first book in 1986, at age 25: that makes me something like 136 years old! Go ahead, do the math. The trick with mysteries is that you pretty much have to know the ending before you can begin! Other books you can sort of meander there like a stream and gradually work your way to the ending, a discovery. For mysteries, I start with “the crime” and figure out what happened, who did what. Until I know that, I can’t begin.
That’s a pro tip right there, free of charge.
Thanks so much for writing to me.
I hope this letter wasn’t too very weird.
Did it sag in the middle?
James Preller