The fabulous wrap-around cover for THE COURAGE TEST.
Confession: About eight years ago, early in this blog’s existence, I was a much more enthusiastic reader of the children’s blogosphere. Over time, I’ve lost most of that energy; there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. I sense that I should be doing other things (like: writing!). And, well, there’s the other thing: I’m not great at networking. I’ve never been comfortable with the sense of “ulterior motive” that comes with those professional relationships. So while it makes good sense for me to make friends with bloggers and reviewers, it really hasn’t happened too often.
(Read: They hate me!)
And then there’s good old Karen Terlecky. I first “met” Karen when she wrote a beautiful, perceptive, generous review for my book, Along Came Spider. I’ve been stalking Karen ever since. No, I don’t drive past her house at night; I just randomly click on her lovely Literate Lives blog, co-written with Bill Prosser (also a friend). Even fuller disclosure: click here and be amazed.
A few weeks back, after Karen expressed an eagerness to read it, I sent Karen an Advance Reader’s Copy of The Courage Test. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I didn’t hope that she’d review it, but in all honestly my primary reason was that I wanted her to read it. I was proud of my book and I wanted Karen to have a copy.
For Karen’s full post, you know what to do. Or failing that, simply read below and you’ll get all the juicy bits. Thank you so much, Karen, not only for this, but for the important work you do for teachers, writers, and readers everywhere.
The Courage Test by James Preller is a great read that starts with the front cover. I have an ARC, so I’m not sure what the final cover art will look like, but what a great opportunity for a reader to look at the illustrations on the front cover, and begin thinking about what the story might be. So many clues live there – in some ways, it reminds me of the clues on the cover of another favorite, When You Reach Me. It’s a cover you would come back to time and time again as the story unfolds.
I say “the” story, but truly this is a book with multiple story lines contained within the adventure the main character, Will, goes on with his father.
There is the story of Will and his father, somewhat strangers to each other after Will’s dad left him and his mom for a “shiny new life” complete with a new girlfriend. In the story, Will’s dad takes him on a trip to replicate the adventures of Lewis and Clark. Will’s dad is a college professor, a fan of American history, and is trying to write a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Will would rather stay home and play baseball than go on a trip with a dad that he feels is no longer a real part of his life. The main story line follows them and their rocky relationship as they try to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.
There is the summer assignment writing Will has – writing about something interesting that happened to him that summer. (To help the reader discern the different story lines, the summer assignment is the part written in italics.) I found myself mesmerized by all the historical detail Will puts into his writing assignment. So many, many facts about Lewis and Clark about which I had no idea! And having those facts written from Will’s perspective was brilliant on James Preller’s part – it makes reading history so interesting, and in some cases, quite surprising. I think student readers would enjoy the perils they faced as much as I did! This would be a perfect read for a student interested in history, adventure, and survival.
There is the relationship between Will and his mom. They became quite a team once Will’s dad left, and now she is practically pushing him out the door to take this summer trip with his dad. Will feels a bit hurt by that, but we learn even more history in the postcards Will continually sends his mom, with great details about places on the Lewis and Clark trail they’ve seen. In addition, we hear the voice of a boy who just wants contact with his mom.
In addition to these story lines, there are additional supporting character story lines that help move the story along:
A friend of Will’s dad, Ollie, shows up at one point on the trail, and stays with them awhile.
Will and his dad find an “illegal girl” – in fact, that is the name of the chapter where they first encounter her.
I tend gravitate toward reading books where relationships are explored, and that could not be truer with this book than its examination of the relationship between Will and his dad. James Preller had each new situation, each new adventure, each new moment of survival share just a bit more about that relationship. It was like slowly peeling back layers of an onion to get at what’s really inside. I thought it was masterfully done, especially when, by the end of the book, Will and his dad grow to know and understand each other, but everything is still not perfect. That felt incredibly real to me, and I appreciated it as a reader.
All these stories, slowly but surely, wrapped themselves around my heart and tugged at my heartstrings. I found myself caring a great deal about Lewis and Clark, Will’s mom, Will’s dad, and most definitely, Will. But, I also have to say, there were some breath-taking, scary moments as well — think bears and white water rafting. I have experiences with both, so I found my heart pounding at these intense moments.
Finally, I’m a sucker for a circular story, so I loved that this story began and ended in the same place, with the same words.
Be on the lookout for this gem — it is due out next Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. If you’re a teacher, I guarantee there will be readers in your room that will be very thankful you added this book to their reading choices!
You can’t talk to either Franki or Mary Lee for long before you are promising to read a book or two that they absolutely loved. These are the ones that sounded most interesting to me . . .
Wonder, by R. J. Palacio
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.
I also heard a morning keynote speech from Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer. She was terrific and inspiring, and an expert on building a classroom community of voracious readers. Boys, girls, whoever walks into the room. Many teachers told me that Donalyn’s professional book was excellent — fast, accessible, illuminating, and motivating.
So that was cool, meeting her. Riding in a car with Donalyn in the back seat. We didn’t get much of a chance to talk, pulled in different directions, always seated at different tables, but it was a pleasure to become aware of her, sit in the auditorium and hear Donalyn’s thoughts, humor, and classroom-earned wisdom. The pedagogical stuff was solid, but she really won me over when she talked about specific students in her classroom, these small laser-like observations, like the boy who informed her that he did not read any books the previous year, except this: “I think I might have read Hatchet.” He wasn’t sure. At those points in her talk, I recognized that Donalyn knew these kids, stone-cold knew 6th-graders, and that she loved them. I was sold.
At lunch, Sharon Draper was the keynote speaker. Sharon is a force of nature, strong and lively and confident and outspoken, a woman to be reckoned with. My daughter has already read Out of Mind, so I brought home a copy of this book for my 7th grade son, and he’s reading it now.
Oh yeah, she also had the line of the weekend, quoting from (I think) an African proverb, but addressing all the changes in education these days, today’s sad and misguided emphasis on testing:
My most unexpected pleasure came from a young woman I met. We got to talking, she was there to make a presentation, and I slowly realized that this was, holy wow, Ruth Ayres from the fabulous Two Writing Teachers blog.
Me: “I love your blog. You do such a great job. I think I’ve even commented a few times.”
Ruth: “I know!”
I guess I didn’t figure she’d know me, or care, but she did. Anyway, anyway. Ruth and Staci (the other writing teacher) do a “Slice of Life” Challenge through their blog. This is their fifth year, so it’s a slick presentation, there’s even a button thingy you can download or whatever, way beyond the capabilities of this bargain basement blog. Essentially, they invite teachers (and readers in general) to put their money where their mouths are. If you are going to teach writing, then write. And share it. And enjoy it.
By the way, Donalyn was on a parallel mission, calling on teachers . . . to read. It’s obvious, but there you go. A lot of teachers, for valid reasons, feel too busy to read. But even so: Read. No excuses.
To me, I’ve always maintained that teaching = enthusiasm transferred. You want them to catch the reading fever? It helps if you’ve already got the bug.
Next week I’ll share one slice of life from my visit, because I had a great encounter in a hot tub.
This is Sreelakshmi. I met her at the Dublin Literacy Conference in late February. I was cooling my heels in the hallway of a cavernous high school, chatting with librarian Bill Prosser, waiting for the attendees to filter into the room before my session, cleverly titled “Meet Author James Preller.” A group of three high school girls who were working as volunteers stopped outside the room. One ducked her head inside, curious.
Bill asked if they needed help. Sreelakshmi told him that she was looking for James Preller. Bill jerked a thumb in my direction as if to say, “Sorry to disappoint you, but this is James Preller standing right here.”
Sreelakshmi turned to me, flustered and speechless. Disbelieving, even — her breath short and shallow. Tears began to roll down her cheeks. Finally, in fits and spurts, she told me how she still remembers reading those books, how much they meant to her, how she had no idea that I would be at the conference.
How this was now officially the best day in her life.
I almost cried myself. As an author, I don’t normally (read: ever!) get that kind of reaction. A reader so moved. We hugged, took a picture, and talked for a few minutes. Later we were able to visit some more. A kind teacher, George the Humorous, bought a book for her — I stupidly didn’t think of it — and I signed it. I am sure that her reaction says more about Sreelakshmi than it does about me or my books. She was touched by literature, moved by books, and it will always be that way for her. She is, you see, a reader. The genuine article. I’m glad about that, glad that I somehow played a role in that awakening, glad to be blessed so.
Later that day, I received an email that included the photo above.
It’s me again, the girl from Dublin who cried tears of joy to meet the author of a book series she loved as kid. It was amazing meeting you at the Literacy Conference today. Who’d have thought a day of volunteering for NHS would become the best day of my life thus far? I certainly did not.
I want to thank you, again, for writing those books. Honestly, it was books like yours that made me love reading so much. I clearly remember readingThe Case of the Rainy Day Mysteryin third grade. It was such a good book that I went to the library for more, and every time I’d go to a new library (unfortunately, I’ve moved around a lot.), the Jigsaw Jones books were among the first books I’d look for. Your books made me smile and think about the mysteries — I always had a hard time figuring them out 🙂 . I still have a bit of a soft spot for mystery novels because of Jigsaw.
You know, I opened up The Case of the Double Trouble Detectivesagain, and I still found myself reading it through cover to cover. It’s been nearly ten years since I first read one of your books, but I still love them. Thank you for writing stories that I will love for the rest of my life. Jigsaw has been as real to me as my classmates in elementary school.
Thanks again for inspiring me to read,
No, thank you, Sreelakshmi. I will always remember you and your incredible reaction, I’m so happy we got the chance to meet.
If you missed Part One of the Alan Silberberg Interview, it’s absurd for you to be here. I mean, really. Please follow the link to catch up.
Don’t worry, we’ll wait . . .
Late in the book, Milo gathers together a number of objects that remind him of his mother, that press the memory of her into his consciousness. Where’d you get the idea for that?
I think that comes from the fact that I really don’t have anything from my mother. Things did get thrown away or given away and it really was like she died and then she was erased. When I was writing the book I started to think hard about my mom and tried remembering objects that evoked her to me. That became a cartoon called “Memories Lost” which were all real objects from my childhood that connected me to her. After making that cartoon, it struck me that Milo would want to go out and replace those objects somehow and that’s why he and his friends hit up the yard sales.
There is a scene toward the end in one of my books, Six Innings (a book that similarly includes a biographical element of cancer), that I can’t read aloud to a group because I know I’ll start to slobber. It’s just too raw, too personal for me. And I suspect that might be true of you with certain parts of this book. I’m asking: Are there any moments that get to you every time?
I think there are two specific parts of the book that choke me up, though lots of little places make me reach for tissues. The chapter where Milo goes to the yard sale and finds a blanket that reminds him of the one his mom had will always get to me. My mom had that blanket, the “pea patch blanket” in the book — so as Milo wraps himself in it and remembers her getting sick — I am always transported to the image of my mom and her blanket. The second place in the book happens in cartoon form, when Milo remembers the last time he saw his mother, which was when she was already under anesthesia being prepped for surgery and she has had her head shaved and he can see the lines for the surgery drawn on her head like a tic tac toe board. That image is directly from my memory of my last time seeing my mother. It’s pretty heavy stuff.
And so powerfully authentic. Milo describes that period after his mother died as “the fog.” Was that your memory of it?
I think trauma at any age creates a disconnect inside us. I think the fog settled in for me slowly. As the initial shock of my mom’s death wore off a sort of numbness rolled in over me. It was a survival technique to cover all that hurt stuff with an emotional buffer and I think that’s what I mean about “the fog”. It’s like I knew there was a pain in me but I didn’t want to touch it or think about. It was just always there as a dull feeling deep inside. The Fog.
Speaking of fog, you watched a lot of TV as a kid.
Ha! My two sisters called me “the walking, talking TV guide” because I always knew what was on and what channel. I’d never be able to do that today with all the satellite and cable channels — but back then, I was an authority on the network TV schedule!
We never got it at my house, but I remember being jealous of families who had subscriptions to TV Guide.
Absolutely! We didn’t have a subscription either but I would read the one at my friend’s house up the street and just soak it all up so I could be the authority for the upcoming week back home! Even before my mom’s death I loved TV — but after she died it really became a safe place to get absorbed into the fiction of other people’s lives. I loved cartoons and comedies the most back then.
You’ve written for television in the past. In what way do you think that helped when it came time for you attempt a novel?
The best thing about being a reformed TV writer is I already knew how to structure a story and more importantly, thanks to my animation writing especially, I was already really good at setting the scene and making sure to also describe the action. Scripts rely on good dialogue so that was a skill I’d already started to hone. When I started Pond Scum (my first book) I thought of it as a long episode of a great TV show and I let the chapters drive the story as if it was a script.
When I talk to students on school visits, I’ll sometimes do a quickie “show, don’t tell” lesson, and I’ll describe it as creating a movie in the reader’s mind — in part because my skin crawls when I hear it described by authors as “painting pictures with words.”
Yeah, the writer as painter image doesn’t quite skew in my head either. And I bet the kids really relate to your idea of imagining a movie in their mind. That’s nice.
I wonder, what did the novel format allow you to do that, perhaps, you couldn’t achieve while writing for television?
TV is dictated by the time of each episode, whether it’s 30 minutes or 60 minutes the writer is being told how many pages to write and where the commercial act breaks appear. There are producer notes and network notes and it really is a bit of writing by committee. I am really thankful for my TV writing experience — but I so appreciate the freedom of writing a novel where I can do whatever I want and am not restricted by time issues or rules of what my characters can and can’t do. I am so much happier being in control of the world I create when I write a novel. Of course there are notes that must be worked with from the editor at the publishing house — but I have always found that to be a collaborative experience to make the book better. In TV — notes were usually a headache and lots of times they never even made sense! My book editors, Donna Bray on Pond Scum and Liesa Abrams on Milo — have made me a better writer and I am so thankful to them for that.
Can you think of anything specifically that they taught you?
I think one of the best lessons I’ve gotten was to stay true to the kid voice of the story. Sometimes I let my characters talk the way I’m thinking and the situation is all kid, but the language comes out too adult. Maintaining the kid POV is always in the back of my head thanks to my editors.
Yeah, I have that struggle, too. Once I created a second-grade character with rheumatoid arthritis who had a fondness for lemon cakes, Jay Leno, and bargain-priced resort wear. I had to rethink it. Question: How do you know when something’s funny?
That’s the million dollar question! I wish I knew that answer. I think I have a good sense of humor so if something strikes me as being funny — it usually is at least amusing. I’m not too big on dissecting jokes or looking for rules of comedy (with the exception of “the rule of three” and “words with a “k” sound”).
Yes, the classic scene from Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” with George Burns and Walter Matthau. I can’t find the exact quote, but the basic idea: Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber’s funny. Cab is funny. Taxi, not so much.
I saw the play version on Broadway and wish I could remember the cast but my mind is a blank. But it was funny. Very funny. As far as knowing when something is funny or not — I also like to run things by my wife and son — if they don’t at least crack a smile I know I am way off base!
I have this memory from college. This guy Dave used to introduce me to people, saying, “This is Jimmy. He’s really funny.” And I hated that. I finally had to say, like, Dave, dude, you’re killing me here. First, the pressure was ridiculous, and secondly, I didn’t want to play the clown. I can be funny at times, but it has to come in naturally. That’s how I feel about writing, too. I think I’m in trouble when I try to be funny.
Yeah, I was that guy at times but thankfully I can’t tell jokes so no one puts me on the spot anymore. I’m more of the guy who stands in the back of a group listening and then I add a zinger to the conversation — I’m a punch line guy who then shrinks back into the shadows!
Well, then feel free to say something funny, Alan. I’ve been waiting pretty patiently. Zing away. I sense that my Goofball Devotees are becoming restless.
No, really. This is when I bomb. The pressure to be funny will always result in the most un-funny thing possible, which I think I just proved with this last sentence.
No, that was hysterical, I laughed just watching the sweat pore off your head as you tried to think of something funny. Like the great scene with Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”
There’s a great line by one of the camera crew in that scene: “Nixon didn’t sweat this much.”
Back to Milo, did you worry that maybe you’d be blowing the appeal of your funny story by including the grief aspect. I mean, did some voice whisper in your ear, “Man, this is not the way to sell books to boys.”
Yes! As I mentioned, the initial goal was to just write a “funny book.” But once I realized what Milo’s story was — that he was the boy whose mom had died — it became a challenge to tell the story in a way that was both touching and funny. I stopped thinking about whether it would sell or not and concentrated on telling the story from a true place inside me. I had some deep seated confidence that this book would find its place and it was meant to find its way to Liesa Abrams at Aladdin. She embraced Milo immediately from her heart. I think that trying to write a “commercial” book is the worst way to go about it anyway.
So you think I should scrap the Geek Supernatural Romance I’ve been trying to write?
What? No vampires or zombies in it?
NOTE TO SELF: More vampires, jump on zombie craze.
Now, where were we? Oh yes, Alan Silberberg! Haven’t you gone home yet? How important are the illustrations to the book’s appeal?
I think it was important for me to add my cartoons to this story, in other words, be able to write and illustrate a book. Though I think the story could stand just fine as a text-only book, it’s clear that cartoons help get the book into certain young hands. But apart from that, I really felt the cartoons could add a dimension of story-telling to the book (not just funny eye candy).
You’ve said elsewhere that the words usually come first, that you are truly illustrating the story. But how does it affect you as a writer, knowing that you’ll have those illustrations? I’d think it would help with, say, a joke or funny moment. You’d be delivering the punch-line two different ways.
Exactly. I find that when I know there can be a cartoon anytime I feel like it — the writer part of my brain and the cartooning part kind of team up. I get a voice inside my head telling me, “Hey, you could punctuate that joke with a great doodle!” Certainly I found with Milo that there are parts of the book where I was having a hard time writing until I imagined how a cartoon would help the chapter be lighter or in some cases the opposite, where a cartoon could tell the sadness of the story in a visual way. I guess the writing was a little easier because I always had my cartoons to fallback on if I got stuck.
Any new books from you on the horizon? Or have you gotten up the courage to finally pursue that career as a catwalk model?
My legs are my best asset! Actually, I am almost done with the first draft of a new book for Aladdin. It’s another book that will include my cartoons but it is much more of a silly book than Milo. It’s a buddy story about two friends who want to be the school cartoonists and get more than they bargained for when their wishes come true.
Lightning round: Adam Sandler or Chris Farley?
Gonna have to go with Sandler.
Ouch. Okay, chin up: Ali or Frazier?
I’ll go with the Kelsey Grammer guy. Never liked Ali McBeal.
Separated at birth?
I think that’s Ally but . . . let’s move right along. The Halloween treat that makes you go back to the house a second time?
Has to be Nestles Crunch!
Top of your head, five favorite books?
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy, Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend(any and all), Half Magic by Edward Eager and N.M. Bodecker(it was the first book I remember loving as a kid), The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.
Five favorite movies?
The Big Lebowski, Memento, Back To The Future, Monsters Inc, Defending Your Life.
First album you ever bought as a kid?
The Who’s Quadraphenia.
Five most played songs on iTunes? No cheating.
“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” Talking Heads, “I’ve Had It” Aimee Mann, “New York City Serenade” Bruce Springsteen, “Generator (Second Floor)” Freelance Whales, “Into The Woods” Soundtrack.
Nice list. It’s often a surprise what floats up to the top. Full disclosure, my five most played includes four Dylan tunes (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”) and Van Morrison’s, “And It Stoned Me.” So: you live in Montreal, which surprisingly is still in Canada. Five favorite places in the city?
1) Schwartz’s has the best smoked meat sandwiches on the planet. 2) Westmount Library lets me fall asleep in their cozy chairs. 3) The Old Port of Montreal for the relaxed tourist ambiance of Europe with a Canadian twist 4) Shaika Café, where I like to write and watch the other people write while they watch me 5) This chair in my house. Love it!
Alan, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad we got a chance to meet. I’ll be watching your career and rooting for your success. Please accept this set of bamboo flatware as a parting gift. You’ll love giving your meals a tropical twist with real bamboo-like handles! The complete set serves one (and might be missing a fork). Shipping not included.
Some links to more interviews conducted by yours truly:
* I have to say it: Maggie with her summer freckles is a hoot in her new hat.
* Maria is a teacher I met on a school visit to Ohio. With more than 20 years of teaching as her guide, she recently took the plunge and started a new blog, Teaching in the 21st Century. Be sure to bookmark it. She’s everything a veteran teacher should be — still learning, still open, still eager to meet new challenges.
* Speaking of fathers and their children, congratulations to Kurtis Scaletta, proud papa. This is a writer who should be on everybody’s radar. The author of Mudville and Mamba Point, he’s just beginning to let his freak flag fly. I can’t wait for what’s next.
* A short discussion guide for Bystander is now available as a FREE PDF DOWNLOAD. Scroll down and you’ll find it.
* Can’t explain exactly why, but I got choked up by this “Pink Glove Dance” video — a joyful dance to promote breast cancer awareness. Seriously, just tears rolling down my face. I think maybe it’s accumulation — all those talented, caring people dedicated to saving lives, making a difference, showing such zest for life, for making the broken whole again.