As I understand it, there’s a book signing that is free and open to the public at 4:30 this Friday. Then at 6:00, there’s a fundraiser for the Hotchkiss Library and that thing’s gonna set you back $30 — but for a good cause.
I might even wear a shirt with actual buttons. Because, you know, it’s Connecticut.
Living where I do, in the hole of the donut (read: Albany area), I don’t get to meet many children’s book authors and illustrators. So Children’s Book Day at Sunnyside presented a rare opportunity to eyeball the competition. I mean to say: hang out with my colleagues!
During the two-hour signing session, I found myself sitting next to Rebecca Stead. Who is, like, a really big deal. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to know it. She’s down-to-earth, totally unpretentious. So I kind of had to like her, even though she’s an award-winner and everything.
Whenever a kid came up to Rebecca to have a book signed, Rebecca smiled sweetly — with those straight white teeth of hers — and gestured to an array of six different-colored markers. She asked, “Which color would you like?”
This made me look pretty bad, what with my one lousy black Sharpie. I silently fumed. The audacity! I mean, did she have to wear the Newbery Medal around her neck? Really? So maybe I kicked the table a few times, right when Rebecca was signing. “Oh, gee, sorry, it looks like you ruined another book,” I’d apologize.
It felt good.
And yes, I’m lying about the Newbery Medal necklace.
Sometimes kids would slide over to me and ask for an autograph. I’d hold up my lone Sharpie, glare hatefully at Rebecca, and ask, “Which color?” I’d add in a whisper, “Say black.”
Anyway, despite the horror show of the whole marker situation, it was a decent day and a treat for me to make personal connections with some people I knew only through their books. By happenstance, my daughter, Maggie, is reading When You Reach Me right now. In fact, I read the first few chapters aloud to her, and was again reminded of Rebecca’s gift.
I think one of the most difficult things to do as a writer — something I struggle with all the time — is to create a loose, informal tone and yet still write well-crafted sentences — especially when writing in the first person. To write informally, I’ll tend to insert filler words like “just” and “kind of” and “like” or whatever. You know, the empty words people actually use. But if you aren’t careful, those sentences get flabby. Wordy. Soft around the edges. And I hate flabby sentences. So you have to work hard to find a balance between the casualness of a conversational tone and, say, the ruthlessness of the hard, clear, lean, direct writing which I value.
Rebecca’s book has been justly praised for its plotting — the remarkable puzzle-mystery she constructed — but for me, it’s the sentences. The humor. The tone. The way she writes, word by word, sentence by sentence.
Another fabulous celebrity I’ve meet is Charise Harper (she tweets!). We sat next to each other last year (I guess that’s how I meet people, they plop down next to me and if they aren’t stuffy with South London accents, we’re okay). Charise is one of those endlessly creative people — always making, drawing, folding, doing. A playful spirit and a little nutty in a good way. I think she’s a true, bone-deep artist.
You should know that children’s book impresarios Susan Brandes and Beth Vetare-Civitello have put together another spectacular lineup of authors and illustrators for this year’s (13th annual?) Children’s Book Festival.
With more than 50 authors/illustrators on hand, the list is too excruciatingly long to include everyone. So I’ll only name my favorites:
Well, it looks like we’ve run out of time. Sunnyside is a gorgeous location, with historic buildings nestled in beside the mighty Hudson . . .
What’s that? Hold on. I just got a text . . .
Tony Abbott: WTF??!!
Anyway, as I was saying . . .
Eric Velasquez: Punk!
Charise Mericle Harper: When I see you there, I will throw a CUPCAKE in your face!
Jean Craighead George: Die, die, die!
Rebecca Stead: How would you like to have a Newbery Medal shoved up your . . .
Whoa, whoa, people, CALM DOWN! Obviously, some of these “artists” — and I’m using the term loosely — have ego issues. Touchy, touchy. Seriously, I don’t even know these people. And I don’t want to know them! But, okay, here’s a few other names before I get into any more trouble (but believe me, I’m pretty confident I can handle Jean Craighead George in a tussle, if it’s a fair fight and she doesn’t carry a crude knife fashioned out of tree bark and a plastic spork; and as far as Ms. Stead’s “offer,” that may be as close as I’ll ever get):
Nora Raleigh Baskin * Judy Blundell * Katie Davis * Jules Feiffer * Susan Jeffers * Peter Lerangis * Gail Carson Levine * Wendy Mass * Wendell Minor * Jerry Pinkney * Peter Sis * Hudson Talbott * Ed Young * James Howe * Michael Rex * Nick Bruel * Bruce Degan * Diane Goode * and many, many more, including JAMES FREAKING PRELLER!
I’m also glad to see that my friend, Matthew McElligott, will be attending this year. His new book, Even Monsters Need Haircuts, looks pretty great.
Maybe I’ll offer him a ride . . . if he pays for gas.
Show time: 12:00 – 4:30.
Oh, yeah, one more thing. I’ll do something that these other children’s authors and illustrators are afraid to do. That’s right: I am personally guaranteeing a beautiful day. Blue skies, warm sun, good times. Trust me on this, people. It’s my personal promise to you.
This year, I mean it.
So come on out and bring lots of money bring the kids!
“Why do the birds go on singing? Why do the stars glow above?”
I’ve been writing my first YA novel, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the process, it’s often felt like a death match. I’m like that guy on the garage floor, bloodied and short of breath, stretching for that just-out-of-reach crowbar. If only I could grasp it to smash my opponent, that damn story, across the skull.
Anyway: that’s all preamble. We find inspiration in all sorts of places. Small details aid us in our struggle. And for many writers, music can help set the right mood. In a recent interview here, Kurtis Scaletta said that he listened to a lot of Bob Marley while writing Mamba Point, a book set in Africa. David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” reportedly listened to a lot of music from New Orleans while working on his new HBO series, “Treme.” In fact, he even wanted executives at HBO to listen to specific songs while reading the script. Which makes me wonder: Did Rebecca Stead listen to the $10,000 Pyramid theme song — over and over again — while writing When You Reach Me? I hope not, but you never know; writers can be a nutty bunch. It does amuse me to think of her pecking away at the keyboard while this song played on an endless loop:
Anyway, my current book involves sixteen-year-old characters. I’m doing a lot of remembering, soul-searching. Again, not so much the specific details of that time but the essential feelings of that age. First summer jobs, first car, first love.
Somewhere along the line I remembered “The End of the World,” an amazing 1963 Skeeter Davis tune, produced by Chet Atkins, music by Arthur Kent and lyrics by Sylvia Dee. My goodness, what lyrics. Has any song better captured the heartbreak of teenage love? Absolute perfection. A song that could not possibly be better.
“I can’t understand. No, I can’t understand/How life goes on the way it does.”
Forgive my sporadic postings of late, it’s been a hectic time, and deadlines loom. This week I’ll be away for three full days on school visits. Always a positive experience that definitely helps keep the wolf from the door, but it takes me away from my desk job.
Oh yes! Congratulations to Rebecca Stead, winner of the Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me.
This had been the consensus pick of the BlogHive for the past six months, so no surprises there. I don’t read many children’s books a year, but I read and enjoyed this one, and I’m glad to say that I have a signed hardcover copy on my bookshelves. This puts me on a hot streak, because last year the same was true of The Graveyard. So if you want to win a Newbery, you need me to read your book.
Also: I’ve been neglecting my fan mail of late. So let’s see if I can begin to rectify that.
Dear Mr. Preller,
Our names are Claire, Aiden and Julia. We go to Stratford Academy- Honeyspot House in Stratford , Connecticut. In our class, your books are our favorites. We have some ideas of stories that maybe you could write about in your Jigsaw Jones series. Here are some of our ideas:
The Case of the Living Lollipop
The Case of the Magical Mattress
The Case of the Horrible Hair Cut
The Case of the Terrible Teacher
The Case of the Moon Monkey
We have a few questions for you: How do you publish a book? How long does it take to write a book? Do you always have 12 chapters in your books?
Thank you for writing such great books. We look forward to hearing from you!
Claire, Julia and Aiden
Dear Claire, Julia, and Aiden:
Thanks for those ideas. As a matter of policy, I’d definitely want to read ANY book about a Moon Monkey — though I’m not sure exactly how to write one. However, the Living Lollipop sounds gross and sticky. I always say the same thing in these situations: I encourage you to keep these ideas for yourself. Of course, that’s the thing with ideas; they aren’t exactly to be kept, like toy chihuahuas in little purses.
Ideas are like doors: they need to be opened, and the way to do that is to think and write in a spirit of exploration. What happens when you open that door? For example, pick one of those ideas and work on it. Feel free to use Jigsaw or Mila as your characters, or make up your own. Ask yourself: How does it feel to get a horrible haircut? What would it look like? How would the kids in school react? What might a nice friend say? What about someone who wasn’t so nice? Think about it, puzzle over it, and perhaps try to write one small scene. All the while staying alert for new ideas, and new doors, you might encounter along the way.
I usually have two months to write a Jigsaw Jones book. Once I have the idea for a plot — the basic story in my mind — I can write it fairly quickly (in a matter of weeks). But coming up with that idea can often take a long, unhappy time. The Jigsaw Jones books range from 10-13 chapters, and usually come in at around 6,000 words each.
About “publishing,” I think writers your age should self-publish. I’m a big believer in DIY — Do It Yourself. Write your own stories, add illustrations if you wish, make extra copies, and sell your stories to friends, neighbors, and family (Grandma will buy one every time, guaranteed).
Make your own books. It’s fun. And it’s exactly how I started.