Tag Archive for James Preller

DIGGING UP THE LOST WORDS: Inspired by Haiku & Candice Ransom

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I’m blogging today to share an insightful article by children’s author Candice Ransom. I found myself nodding all the way through it, making connections to my own recent experience with haiku and, for lack of a better word, my effort, simply, to attend to things, to see the thing-specific, while desiring to learn the elusive words.

Ms. Ransom began her article, titled “Poetry from Stones” in Bookology magazine, this way: 

Outside my window right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Outside my window, the leafless sweetgum shows a condo of squirrels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the horizon indicates wind moving in, and a white-crowned sparrow scritches under the feeders. Better. Even in winter, especially in winter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating.

In November, I taught writing workshops at a school in a largely rural county. I was shocked to discover most students couldn’t name objects in their bedrooms, much less the surrounding countryside. Without specific details, writing is lifeless. More important, if children can’t call up words, can’t distinguish between things, they will remain locked in wintry indifference. Some blame falls on us.

Oxford Junior DictionaryA recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary swapped nature words for modern terms. Out went acorn, wren, dandelion, nectar, and otter. In went blog, bullet-point, attachment, chatroom, and voicemail. Updating dictionaries isn’t new. And maybe cygnet isn’t as relevant as database, but it’s certainly more musical.  If we treat language like paper towels, it’s no wonder many kids can’t name common backyard birds.

When I was nine, my stepfather taught me the names of the trees in our woods, particularly the oaks. I learned to identify red, white, black, pin, post, and chestnut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. Labeling trees, birds, and wildflowers didn’t give me a sense of ownership. Instead, I felt connected to the planet. I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept quiet.

< snip >

I’m sorry, but I can’t resist quoting Ransom’s great piece at some length. She goes on to discuss a new book, recently discovered . . .

The Lost Words: a Spell BookSo imagine my delight when I found a new book for children, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. British nature-writer Robert MacFarlane paired with artist Jackie Morris to rescue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words like newt and kingfisher are showcased as “spells,” rather than straight definitions. MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the creature sink deep, while Morris’s watercolors create their own magic.

On their joint book tour throughout England, MacFarlane and Morris introduced children to words—and animals. On her blog Morris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year-olds when the booksellers stopped me. ‘Ask the children if they know what a wren is, first, Jackie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had never seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so perhaps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”

The Lost Words makes me want to take children by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illustrate our winter landscape. By giving kids specific names, they can then spin a thread from themselves to the planet.


Ah. Long, slow clap.

6792381Sometime in December, wary of time wasted on social media, the allure of Facebook, and my own (possibly connected) struggles as a writer, I decided to make a change. I felt empty, scattered, and discouraged. You know, the writer thing. I promised myself to begin each day by reading and writing haiku. It became my daily practice. Ten minutes, half an hour, even longer, however it worked for that day. Sometimes I’d go to my haiku before I made the morning coffee, and absolutely — this was a rule — before turning on my computer. On some miraculous mornings, I’d think of a haiku before my head left the pillow. 

UrP4fwuq1G3L+lCQHXVjJ4WD9n1O4!fHVzU32t1zotb2XltGqt5NH08Zg1lv!rMx0rUDeeqoUwC9Vrx87vEQ1D!qv90OwVUiNQfyiA+baMM=I’ve been reading Richard Wright’s marvelous late-period haiku poems, written at a time he was deathly ill, as if clinging to the world; rereading Basho’s A Haiku Journey; slowly leafing through various collections. I don’t read too many poems at a time; it’s not something to take at a headlong rush, another box to tick off. What I love about reading and writing haiku is that the practice forces me to slow down, to be present, to (try to) see the pear in the sunbeam, so to speak. People have asked what I’m going to “do” with the poems, and I explain that for me this has been
about the process, not the product. The poems are secondary. Possibly irrelevant. Most of them are “bad,” if you need to measure them that way. I try to avoid thinking about result. In this sense, for me, it’s like yoga. It’s something I am doing for myself, tuning to a different frequency. I’m not trying to “beat” your downward dog.
411ouV3CMiL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_Haiku traditionally places a primary focus on nature. Seeing the moment, hearing the rain. This relates, of course, to William Carlos Williams’ 20th century directive, “No ideas but in things.” Or earlier, Tolstoy’s “God is in the details.” The necessity for the writer to move away from abstraction, the world of ideas, to see the particular thing itself. At least, to begin there. To be present in a world of multi-tasking and lost words. This of course spills over into relationships, parenting, conversations in coffee shops. It is . . . a way.

41CT8T98W7L._SX255_BO1,204,203,200_During this time, even before I found Candice’s article, I’d been troubled with an old failing of mine. I’m not terribly good at knowing the names of things. My brain is fuzzy. I love nature and the great outdoors, but I’m not a trained naturalist. I need to do better. So as part of my haiku journey, living this new enthusiasm, I’ve been reading about trees and nature. Watching videos. Buying field guides. Studying up. Trying to dig up the lost words.

Because I believe the words connect us to seeing deeply, the words enrich our perception of reality. The words connect us to some vital spark in this world: to nature, to our planet, to each other. I often suspect that our temporary president has never once sat on a mountaintop and appreciated the wonder and awe of nature. Just listen to him speak. Look at his policies. Read about how he eats. This temporary man has never gazed at a sunset without wondering how he might monetize it. Turn a profit. I believe he’s empty in that regard, like any non-reader, full only of avarice and self — nature as a thing to be used. It shows in his incurious mind, his disregard for the care and well-being of our planet.

He doesn’t know the words.

écologie mains

 


FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #260: Multiple Missives!

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Here’s a teacher who combined several short notes from Jaycie, Gracie, Jaxson, and Daynan in one email, so I took the all-in-one approach, too.

 

Hello Mr. Preller,

My students recently read Jigsaw Jones and The Case of the Christmas Snowman. As part of their assignment, they decided to email you a letter. I have attached their letters below. Thanks so much for writing such fun and engaging books for 2nd graders!
 
Andrea
 
Dear Mr. Preller,
 
I read the book the case of the christmas snowman. my favorite chapter is chapter three the christmas snowman. it is very funny. do you have some more books i can read like this one?  my favorite character is bigs melony. I like Bigs because he is funny.  How many Jigsaw books have you written?
 
Jaycie
 
Dear Mr. Preller,
 
I really like your book. i really like how you made a lot of interest in the book.my favorite character is jigsaw jones. i really like how its inspiring.my favorite part is when they dig in the in the snowman.i like the book because its really interesting . my favorite chapter is ten cause they tried to solve the problem. my question is can you make more jigsaw jones books,how did you become a writer. i like how they solve the book . but i really like how they solve the problem,and how they found the penny. how many books have you wrote.
 
Gracie
 
Hello Mr:James,
 

make more books please.I want some investigation. My favorite chapter was death of a snowman.Make a Halloween book and a christmas book.My favorite character was JigSaw and Bigs.My favorite part was when Jigsaw came to Bigs house. Why i liked the book because it has mystery’s.

 
Sincerely,
 
Jaxson
 
Dear Mr. Preller,
 
I really enjoyed your jigsaw jones books they’r really cool.your books are the best books can you please make more.can you do a holoween themed jigsaw jones book?did you know we use your jigsaw books for our class?my favorite jigsaw book is the case of the christmas snowman.is bigs maloney lieing or telling the truth? what are bigs maloney’s brother or brothers name?when are you gonna make a new jigsaw book ?
scinserely, Daynan.
 –
I replied . . .

Andrea,

Thank you for your patience. It’s been a hectic couple of weeks with trips to Rochester, Buffalo, and Clearwater. Thanks, too, for sharing The Case of the Christmas Snowman with your students. As you may know, the Jigsaw Jones books went out of print some time ago. The happy news is that 8 “classroom classics” are now back in print through Macmillan, revised and updated. In addition, I wrote an all-new book, The Case from Outer Space, which was published in August. I’m really proud of it. Good things are happening!
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 –
Your students wrote terrific letters.
 
Jaycie: I have written 41 Jigsaw Jones books. Some are hard to find. I love Bigs Maloney. On the outside, he’s rough and tough. But deep down, I think he’s a nice guy. I’m especially proud of how Jigsaw stands up for himself even though Bigs is a lot bigger. I try to be a little funny in all my books. Thanks for noticing.
 
Gracie: I’ve lost track of all the books I’ve written, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 books. I enjoyed writing this book in particular because I learned about coin collecting. I even visited a dusty, cramped store for collectors that helped inspire the scene in the book where Jigsaw goes into the store. I started writing my own stories when I was little. Then I stopped for a long time, only to get back into it in high school and college. The key to becoming a writer? Write, write, write and read, read, read. The more you do it, the better you get. You learn by doing.
 
Jaxson: Yes! I like that scene too. As a kid I used to love wrestling with my bigger, older brothers. On Mondays, my mother would go out bowling and my father was in charge. Which meant that I could pretty much run around like a wild man. I tied a towel around my shoulders like a cape and jumped on the sofa cushions, imagining epic battles with various bad guys. I think that memory played a part in this book.
 
Daynan: I am very grateful to your teacher for using Jigsaw Jones in the classroom, and I’m glad you think the stories are cool. I wrote about Bigs in a number of other Jigsaw Jones books. His family appears in The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur, which will be available in stores on November 21.  His father is a florist!
 –
Thanks, everybody, for the kind letters.
 
Keep reading, keep solving those mysteries!
 
And thanks again, Ms. L. Clearly you are the best teacher ever!
 –
James Preller
 –

Better Off Undead: It’s Available at Last!

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Today is publication day for my middle-grade novel, BETTER OFF UNDEAD (grades 4-7). The reviews have been kind: “Hilarious . . . splendidly lurid,” Booklist, starred review. “This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message,” School LIbrary Journal. “Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale . . . Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers,” Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books. “A message of empowerment and acceptance,” Publishers Weekly.

Ask for it at your local independent bookstore, your library, or wherever you prefer to buy books. In today’s cluttered world, the best thing you can do is to share the good news. If you like the book, please tell a friend, write a review on Amazon, say something nice on GoodReads, shout it from the mountain tops. Thank you for your support. This is a hard business and books so easily get lost in the wilderness.

Click here to read an excerpt.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #259: A Fabulous Father-Daughter Follow-Up!

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Loyal readers of James Preller Dot Com may remember a terrific letter I shared back in early September. In it, Kayla, age 19, wrote with a special request. Her father’s birthday was coming up and she wanted to surprise him with a signed Jigsaw Jones book. It seems they shared the books during her childhood, had some nice memories, and Kayla thought it would be cool to get one of them autographed. Of course, I was only too happy to send her the new book as a gift — the least I could do. But I also asked, “Can I get a picture?”

Well, we couldn’t spoil the surprise so I had to wait. And wait. And eat chocolate. And wait some more. At long last, two photos arrived with a brief note.

Thank you, Kayla. 

And thank you, most especially, Dad. You look terrific for 86. Must be the clean living.

Happy birthday! I’m so glad I could be a small part of it.

 

Hi Mr. Preller!
It’s me, Kayla again

I just gave my dad your book this weekend for his birthday, and he absolutely LOVED it!

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Thank you a million times over for this wonderful gift, my whole family had a great time reading the books together😊

The first photo is my dad and I after I gave him his book, and the second happens to be a picture we have of my room way back in 2007. Outlined in the picture is my prized Jigsaw Jones collection!

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Thank you again!
– Kayla

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #256: Favorite Characters

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Here’s one from Jake in Iowa . . .
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     dear mr. Preller,

my favrite charecter is bigs malony. And if your wondring i read your book The case of christmas snowman. Also your books are relley good i have read some of your other books. what is it like to be a author? how much time does it take to write chapter books? Because you are good at it. Right now my favorite book out of all yours right now is the case of christmas snowman. How much books have you written?
 
Jake 
2nd Grader 

Cedar Rapids, Iowa 

I replied:

     Dear Jake,

I love writing about Bigs Maloney. Every class seems to have that one boy who is the biggest and toughest. That’s Bigs. He might seem scary on the outside, but deep down he’s a really sweet boy. He’s one of my favorite characters in Ms. Gleason’s classroom. I think Joey Pignattano is the funniest. He’ll eat anything!
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.

I love being an author, especially when I receive kind letters like yours. I can write a Jigsaw Jones book in two months. It takes a while to figure out the mystery — to really think about it: the crime, the suspects, the solution — and then I can start writing. Good writing often begins with good thinking.
 
My brand-new Jigsaw Jones book is titled The Case from Outer Space and I am super proud of it. The books in the series had been hard to find the past few years, but now I’m a very happy to say that a bunch of them are back in stores and on Amazon. There will be 9 out in all by November. Unfortunately, The Case of the Christmas Snowman is still out of print. Good thing you have a terrific teacher who has an old copy. Give her a big hug for me.
Thanks for reading my books. Keep it up!
 –
My best,
 
James Preller