Tag Archive for School Library Journal

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Jigsaw Jones is back! Highly recommended.”

As far as I’m aware — and I think I’ve been paying attention — no book from my Jigsaw Jones series has ever been reviewed. Until now. With the 41st title in the series.
Up in the treehouse with Danika, Mila, Jigsaw, and Joey. Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Up in the treehouse with Danika, Mila, Jigsaw, and Joey. Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

 –
Thank you, School Library Journal and Gina Petrie, for recognizing the happy news surrounding the revival of this popular series (more than 10 million books sold, and counting). 
 
But most of all, my heartfelt thanks goes out to classroom teachers for keeping these books alive in the minds of young readers. I still receive a steady flow of fan mail, and I know that it’s because of teachers and librarians who have kept this series on the shelves and in the bins: tattered, mangled, well-used. Don’t despair. Eight “classic” titles will be reissued this year by Macmillan, revised and updated and available in paperback (cheap!), plus the brand new one, The Case from Outer Space. It’s out of this world.
 
But don’t take my word for it . . . read the official review from SLJ!
 
 
THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE
Jigsaw Jones Series

Author: James Preller 

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Pages: 96
Price (Hardcover): $15.99
Publication Date: August 2017
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250110183

– 
Jigsaw Jones is back! Preller’s puzzle-solving second grader returns for his first mystery in 10 years, coinciding with the republication of four original “Jigsaw Jones” mysteries. Fans of the 32-book series will be happy to once more see Jigsaw, fellow detective Mila Yeh, teacher Mrs. Gleason, and other familiar friends. Here, classmates Joey and Danika find a mysterious note in a book they borrowed from a neighbor’s Little Free Library. They are convinced it means that aliens are coming. Jigsaw and his friends spend afternoons investigating the mystery, while during the school day, they learn about the solar system. Then they catch the bus home, where they are involved in stakeouts, neighborhood canvasses, and code-breaking. As usual, Preller brings the threads together in the end. He references other real-world titles (Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s “Nate the Great”; David A. Kelly’s “Ballpark Mysteries”; Richard and Florence Atwater’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins), includes a secret code (a “Substitution Code” this time), and incorporates deductive reasoning, allusions, and similes. Jigsaw has the same droll sense of humor longtime fans will remember (“As a cook, I’m pretty good with a toaster.”). VERDICT Those who enjoy Preller’s works for younger readers will welcome the return of Jigsaw Jones. Highly recommended, especially for devotees of series such as David A. Adler’s “Cam Jansen,” Ron Roy’s “A to Z Mysteries” and “Calendar Mysteries,” and, of course, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s “Nate the Great.”–Gina Petrie, Catawba College Library, NC 

SLJ Calls THE COURAGE TEST “A Middle Grade Winner!” See Full Review & Minor Correction.

 

More good news for my upcoming book, now just one measly month away from hitting the shelves. The Courage Test has already earned a starred review from Booklist and been named a 2016 Junior Library Guild Selection. Below, please find the full review from School Library Journal. While I am grateful for any positive attention, and impressed with the amount of information this reviewer conveys in a difficult, condensed format, I should clarify two points:

1) Will and his father live in Minneapolis and travel in a long, dull drive to Fort Mandan, North Dakota, where they pick up the old Lewis & Clark Trail. From that point on, they loosely follow the trail all the way to Seaside, Oregon.

Sacagawea on the trail with her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pompy.

Sacagawea on the trail with her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pompy.

2) The character of Maria Rosa is 15 and pregnant, not coincidentally in the same condition as that of Sacagawea when the explorers first encountered her in Fort Mandan. Sacagawea grew up with the Shoshones and had been kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe at around age ten. A few years later she was sold to a fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. It is not clear in The Courage Test that Maria is exactly a “runaway,” but it is strongly intimated that she came into the United States illegally from Mexico, seeking a new life. The title of Chapter Three is “An Illegal Girl,” for example.

 

THE COURAGE TEST 

Author: James Preller 

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 224
Price (Hardcover): $16.99
Publication Date: September 2016 
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250093912

 
Gr 4-7–William Meriwether Miller—named after Lewis and Clark—is not happy about embarking on a wilderness adventure with the father who walked out on him and his mother. It’s not what he had in mind for his summer (he’s missing the chance to play on the All-Stars baseball team), but his mother insists. So he and his father, a history professor working on a book about the famous explorers, set off from Minnesota to North Dakota, driving, camping, rafting, and hiking along the Lewis and Clark Trail. As they work together to overcome obstacles and help a pregnant 15-year-old runaway, Will slowly gains a better understanding of his father. When he finally learns the reason behind the trip—his mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is starting treatment—he comes to appreciate his family as they are and not as he wishes they could be. The lively narrative is interspersed with Will’s entries for a school writing assignment, which contain lots of facts about the original journey, as well as postcards to his mother. Despite the emotional heft, there is plenty of action, including white-water rafting and a close encounter with a bear. VERDICT A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama.–Laurie Slagenwhite Walters, Brighton District Library, Brighton, MI <<

School Library Journal reviews SCARY TALES: “The Thrills and Chills Are Delightfully Spine-tingling.”

The folks at School Library Journal reviewed the first book in my new SCARY TALES series, Home Sweet Horror.

Did they like it?

Would I be posting this if they didn’t?

Um, no.

Money quote:

“The thrills and chills are delightfully spine-tingling in this truly terrifying tale. A great choice for reluctant readers.” School Library Journal.

Note: All books in the series are available in Hardcover, Paperback, e-book, and carrier pigeon.

Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.

Here’s the full deal, with thanks to reviewer Carol Hirsche for the kind words:

PRELLER, James. Home Sweet Horror. Bk. 1. illus. by Iacopo Bruno. 112p. (Scary Tales Series). Feiwel & Friends. 2013. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-1-250-01886-1; pap. $5.99. ISBN 978-1-250-01887-8.

Gr 3-5–Liam and Kelly  move with their father into a new home after their mother passes away. Eight-year-old Liam is immediately bothered by the creepy old house. He hears sounds and feels like he is being watched. No one else in his family senses anything until Kelly’s friend, Mitali, comes for a visit. The scariness escalates when Mitali tricks them into repeatedly saying “Bloody Mary” in front of the bathroom mirror. An evil spirit is summoned, and no one can deny that something is wrong in the house. Frightening events follow, their dog disappears, and a mysterious message appears on their refrigerator: “Get out now. Love, Mom.”  The scratchy black-and-white illustrations enhance the mood of the story. The thrills and chills are delightfully spine-tingling in this truly terrifying tale. A great choice for reluctant readers.–Carol Hirsche, Provo City Library, UT

James Preller Interviews . . . Travis, of 100 Scope Notes!

I’ve enjoyed doing this semi-organized, possibly-ongoing series of interviews, especially when it comes to meeting important voices in the kidlitosphere. I hope you agree that it’s nice to get to know the people behind some of our more frequently-visited blogs. One such destination is the oft-entertaining, 100 Scope Notes. Travis has a lively mind, he’s young and insightful, and — to be perfectly honest — it seemed like it would be cool to hang out with him. I mean to say: If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. I’m like a Roman Emperor that way, sort of a cross between Tiberius, Caligula, and Herod Agrippa, but with typing skills. But let’s move along, folks . . . because here comes Travis, hauling around a pile of books.

Greetings, Travis. It’s nice to finally meet you. Thanks for stopping by.

Well, it’s an honor. Sorry I’m late — I was away for a week visiting family.

How’d that go?

Great, but very filling. You ever have it happen where a trip back home all of a sudden becomes an eating tour? It’s like all decisions were based around food. I found myself saying things like, “Well, we can’t go to the ‘60s-style drive-in tonight, because I really wanted to get to the Italian restaurant with the moose head on the wall. And let’s not forget about the homemade cookie shop for dessert.” You can see how things can get out of hand pretty quickly.

Oh, I get it. You’re here for the cheese log.

You have one of those? If you’ve got a box of Toasteds crackers, it’s on.

You’ll be putting it on the Ritz, my friend. As the  1950’s ad campaign so truly proclaimed: “Nothing tastes as good as Ritz . . . but Ritz!”

So, tell me. You became a librarian in 2005, and started blogging back in the halcyon days of late 2007. That officially makes you a grizzled veteran of the blogosphere. Did you have a plan when you started?

Let me begin by saying I have played a lot of soccer in my day, and have thus taken many, many soccer balls to the head. I’ve always had a hard time remembering which books I’ve read and why I liked them or didn’t like them. My memory not what it should be, I began 100 Scope Notes mainly to record my thoughts and feelings about books I was reading. I also like the idea of making book reviews entertaining in their own right, so I’m always trying to accomplish that.

So it really began as a classic “web log” without any great ambitions. Did you think anyone would read it?

Hmm. Yes, I suppose I figured I could dupe a few shut-ins into reading my opinions, but I didn’t expect much more than that.

It’s very impressive what you’ve accomplished. (Listen to me, I sound like Yoda: “Lost a planet, Obi Wan has.”) Congratulations.

Thanks. Fun, it has been.

Grow up, where did you?

Northern Michigan. Are you familiar with the Mackinaw Bridge? Close to that.

A great place to grow up and very picturesque. I love it. Pretty far up there, however. Let’s just say that there were times in elementary school where I was slightly embarrassed to admit that I didn’t snowmobile for fear of getting shunned by my peers.

I find your blog very inspiring. I mean, authors tend to blog out of necessity, some sense of self-promotion. Other folks blog because it’s part of their job. But your blog, and others like yours, either by teachers or librarians or enthusiastic parents, comes from what appears to be a purer place, an abiding love of children’s books.

I definitely want the focus to be on books. Self-promotion isn’t really my bag. I have this completely unreasonable desire to Google my name and have it say “I’m sorry, that person must not exist, for we can find no evidence saying so”. I’ve been doing pretty well at that so far, although I guess this interview may hurt the pursuit of that goal. I’m a school librarian, so the blog is mostly for others in my profession. I use blogs I trust for finding great books, so I want to do the same for others.

So why children’s books? How did you get here?

That direction was not always clear. Roald Dahl was the first author I loved back in elementary school. In middle school I was huge into comics and then I went through a serious periodicals phase in high school . . .

Travis, hey, it’s perfectly natural for boys of a certain age. Bodies mature, maybe you discover your father’s (cough, cough) “periodicals,” as you prefer to call them, and . . .

Wow, I really walked right into that one.

I guess you did.

I had an agreement with the high school library aide where I could go behind the counter and grab the latest magazine issues before they went on the shelves. Thus I have perused more issues of Entertainment Weekly than I care to mention. When I went to college, I knew I wanted to work with the elementary school crowd. Getting back into children’s books stemmed from that. There are so many great books for kids that it was easy to get sucked back in. After I picked up my elementary teaching certification, I went back to school for library/media. Now I work in a school district with four elementary schools that I split time between.

You have an eye for book covers. I enjoy it when you highlight “Unfortunate Book Covers.” It pains you when a good book has a bad cover. Tell us a little bit about that. Do you think there are common mistakes?

I think folks who work in the book world can identify with this. You love a particular book and put it face out on the shelf, assuming that it will get snatched up right away. Most do, but occasionally there is one that seems to have been coated with child repellent. I’m glad that my hurt comes through, because it’s truly painful to see a great book sit just because its cover has seen better days.

Two of the books I’ve featured, Boy and Danny the Champion of the World, were especially difficult to call out, because I really, really love those books. I think sticking with a cover for too long is the most common mistake. I understand that there are lots of reasons why every book can’t get a makeover every ten years, but there are plenty of books that get passed over because they don’t look current. Really, there is an endless supply of these, so I see that feature popping up for quite a while.

I wonder if Jigsaw Jones falls into that category. He’s about that age.

Naw, I don’t find that that’s the case in the schools where I work. Actually, it’s pretty rare for series books to fall into the Unfortunate Covers territory. Readers get familiar with the characters and continue checking out books in the series, so a bad cover doesn’t have as much of a negative effect.

I enjoy your “cover controversy” posts, where you highlight look-alike covers. Do you have a larger point about imitation, or are you simply pointing out coincidences and trends just for the fun of it?

My whole motivation for pointing out similar covers boils down to something along the lines of, “Hey, look at that!” I would imagine that creating appealing covers is a difficult job, so I don’t get too frustrated that popular trends emerge. Although there are two cover types that I think have to go:

1. Girls in Victorian-era costumes.

2. Socks.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that we appreciate your courageous vow to keep us “updated with any new sock-related cover art developments.” You strike me as a talented writer. Intelligent, inquisitive, and funny. Do you write fiction? And I’m really hoping that your answer is, “Yes.”

Do nonsensical ramblings count as fiction? If so, then yes, I write fiction almost daily. If that description doesn’t cut it, then the answer is no.

You’re in –- “nonsensical ramblings” definitely qualifies. It’s probably how most writers get started.

While I once toyed with the idea of writing a collection of “inspired by real life” short stories, all I have to show for it is a list of chapter titles that I lost a few years back. I have been getting some encouragements lately, however (and I’m counting this question as one), including some from an author/illustrator whom I really respect. So a commitment of pen to paper may be in the cards at some point.

What have you gotten out of the blogging experience? I’m sure a lot of people look at it and think, “Oh dear, that seems like a lot of work.” What’s the payback?

I like the fact that the work I do on 100 Scope Notes makes me better at my job. I’m able to make better decisions in terms of book purchasing and recommending because I’m reading and writing about these things all the time. I also like the creative aspect of it, coming up with different ways of talking about children’s lit.

What makes a good blog?

I have a prepared statement for this. Here goes. Ahem:

1. Authority. How well do you know your stuff? Can you explain why you liked/didn’t like a book? (Note: Writing in all caps is not a good way to show authority).
2. Voice. Do I feel like I can connect and identify with you? Do you like Frisbee? Me too – we can hang out.
3. Opinions. Dude, you gotta take a stand. Did you like a book or not? Don’t be shy. Do you seem like a reasonable person who makes sound judgments? Did you like the song, “We Built This City”? If so, then your opinions are suspect.
4. Updates. There are exceptions, but as a general rule, if you only post once a month, I’m going to lose interest.

Well said. And for the record, I can say with 100% conviction that I hate the song, “We Built This City.”

What about author blogs. What do you like about them? And what don’t you like?

I like the behind the scenes stuff. It’s also a plus if they have an opinion of some of the book-related topics of the day. Also, it helps when they don’t do that “click here to read more!” thing, which really cramps the style of anyone checking out the site from Google Reader.

I find some of them fall into the trap of being too relentlessly self-promotional. Like, I know you are a big success and everything, but I’m kind of getting turned off here.

You’ve gotta have a good balance — talk about your books, but talk about not your books too.

You seem really exited about going to ALA in Chicago. Why is that? Don’t get out much?

The short answer is no. Here’s the long response: I’m excited because it sounds like cool things happen there. I’ve always wanted to attend the ALA conferences, but could never swing it. This time there is no excuse, as the conference site is just a couple hours away. I’m going to write some posts for 100 Scope Notes and the ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children) blog while I’m there, so that should be fun. I’m expecting a good time. I got a little too excited and made up some business cards. Currently, I’m busy planning out my food schedule for the trip. So far I’ve got Ann Sather for breakfast, Shaw’s Crab House for dinner, and — wait, this is sounding familiar.

I hear that Matthew Cordell likes cupcakes. You should try to meet him.

Say no more. I just added a chance meeting with Mr. Cordell to my itinerary.

Keep a cupcake in your pocket just in case. Why did you pick the name, “100 Scope Notes”?

It wasn’t a moniker that I’ve always had in my back pocket. When I knew I was going to start a blog, I wanted the title to be a library term. I cracked open my Dewey decimal classification guide and started looking around for something. In true librarian form, I always have Dewey nearby –- even in the car, where I keep a travel-sized reference in the glove compartment. Just kidding, but that would probably be a big hit if someone published that. Anyway, when I came to the term “scope note” I figured that would be a good choice. A scope note helps to clarify or define, which I thought was appropriate. I added the 100 because I thought it would be easier for people to remember and find if they were doing a search for it.

With today’s changing delivery systems, this age of New Media, are you concerned about the future of “the book”?

You know that section in Popular Science where they look back at an article that appeared in the magazine 60 years ago that says something like, “In 1996, civilization will rely on invisible, fudge-powered trains for travel,” and we all say. “ha-ha, look how silly we were”? I think making a prediction about where books are heading might come off a bit like that. But if I had to make one it would be this: In the year 2012 we will have invisible books that will somehow be fudge-powered.

You also review books for the School Library Journal. Lately there’s been some blog chatter about blog reviews, the quality or lack of quality, etcetera. Is there a difference when you post a review on your blog compared to the reviews you do for SLJ?

I have been keeping up on that blog vs. journal discussion and it makes for some interesting reading. There is definitely a difference between my reviews for SLJ and 100 Scope Notes. In SLJ I do my best to stick to a more professional format. The length guidelines really force you to make every word count. Writing this type of review has definitely made me more conscious of getting to the point and has made me a better writer overall.   Then I write a blog review and it’s like, “Hey, I can do anything I want here!” I like having the opportunity to do both styles. While some of my blog reviews are nontraditional, I still hold myself responsible for giving my honest opinion with information to back it up. I would like to think that the quality, while delivered in a different way, remains the same.

What do you think of negative reviews?

They’re essential. I don’t delight in writing negative reviews, but people need to know the truth.

But what if they CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH? (Um, sorry. That was my Jack Nicholson impression. Pretty intimidating, right?)

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

I have yet to upgrade my VHS version of “A Few Good Men”, but I would say that’s pretty accurate. The rub is that I’m always looking to read books that I think I’ll enjoy, thus you’re likely to find more positive reviews on 100 Scope Notes. This fact makes professional journal reviews so vital as they review everything: good, bad, ugly, unreadable, and ridiculous.

If you could meet any author, who would that be? I mean, besides me.

Well, my other number one would have to be Jon Scieszka. Although now that he’s the Children’s Lit Ambassador, a meeting might be tough to pull off. Security detail, helicopters, body doubles, armored cars, you know how it goes. I also have some mixed feelings when it comes to meeting authors. I never really know how to chat them up. Do I steer down the “undying affection” road and just talk about the author’s books, or should I go with the more difficult to pull off, “You’re famous but I’m cool so I’m going to talk to you about other things” approach? It’s a tough choice so I usually just hedge my bets and remain uncomfortably silent. Any suggestions?

I think you treat them the way you treat anybody else, from the waitress at TGI Fridays to your neighbor to the high-powered executive. As equals, you know. At the same time, if he or she has written something that has touched you in some way, that means something to you, that’s always a nice thing to hear.

Ah, the old, “Imagine you’re at T.G.I. Fridays” approach. Very crafty, Preller. I will attempt this technique.

Oh, please, Travis. You can call me, “Mr. Preller, Sir.” Lightning round: Five websites you can’t live without?

Pitchfork Media
Yes, yes this music site has sort of gotten a bad rap lately due to large doses of hipster backlash, but I’ve been reading it for years and when they like an album, I often like it too. I also completely borrowed some of their ideas for my site.

A Fuse #8 Production
A great childrens lit blog: informative, funny, thought-provoking. This one was starting back when I was beginning my library career, and it’s been fun to follow ever since.

BuzzFeed
While I probably read every Entertainment Weekly from 1996-2004, I no longer have easy access to that magazine. BuzzFeed fills some of the gap. Slightly gossipy for my tastes, but they seem to have a thing for kid’s books, which I appreciate.

Facebook
No description needed

Question: I’m 48, so I know what I’m doing on Facebook, i.e., misguided nostalgia, reconnecting with people who didn’t like me the first time around. But a young fellow like yourself, what are you doing? Connecting with old preschool buddies?

No, no, of course not. Elementary school buddies.

Titlewave
Working at four elementary schools, I place a lot of book orders. Follett’s Titlewave site is the best in the biz as far as I’m concerned. Wow, I really sound like a pitchman right now, don’t I? Moving right along…

20×200
This site is cool. Artists create works and they sell different sized prints beginning at 20 bucks.

What music are you listening to these days?

Music is a big thing for me dating back to my saxophone virtuosity in middle school band. I was the second to last chair, but then the last chair guy moved to another school, so I was demoted for the rest of my days. I also was a DJ for my college radio station where I did theme nights. As you can imagine, themes such as “Depressing Songs” and “Songs I Can’t Stand” made for uplifting listening.

Oh, you are one of those “mixed tape” guys. Confession: I make a new playlist on my iPod every month of the year. And Travis, I just have to say: Are you feeling this, too? Because I think we’re starting to bond.

I’m a bit obsessive with the iTunes –- I rate all the songs and make ridiculous smart playlists, like, “Please list songs that I have skipped less than 10 times, but have played more than 20. Move songs with artist names that contain the word ‘Cougar’ off the list.” Between iTunes, GoodReads.com, and 100 Scope Notes, I occasionally feel like I just rate things all day long.

What are your five most played songs on iTunes? No cheating.

“This Must Be the Place,” Talking Heads. “No One Does It Like You,” Department of Eagles. “Karma Police (Live on David Letterman),” Radiohead. “Trains to Brazil,” Guillemots. “Soul to Squeeze,” Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Any recent favorites, discoveries?

I really could go on for awhile on this question, so I’ll just list a few things:

Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala
The song “A Postcard to Nina” is one of my all time favorites

Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
I’ve talked about them a little on 100 Scope Notes. I would hazard to guess that this band may have more librarian fans than any other. This album should come wrapped in a cardigan.

Pete and the Pirates, Little Death
This is sort of a pop rock group. Great songs, but I still have trouble telling each song apart – I guess that means they’re consistent?

Fanfarlo, Reservoir
I just got this after hearing them on NPR’s All Songs Considered. I’m glad I did. Fans of Arcade Fire would likely get into this.

Would you burn me a CD, some kind of Travis hipster pop-geek mix?

I’m already mulling over some picks. I’ll just need your mailing address.

Five favorite movies?

Pulp Fiction
This seemed completely original when it came out. Memorable characters with dialogue that immediately draws you in.

Ratatouille
Every year Pixar comes out with a new movie some critic declares that it’s their best yet. Don’t believe them –- this movie is the best they’ve ever done. Successful on so many levels and entertaining the whole way through.

2001: A Space Odyssey
This one is sort of the classic “attention everyone, I have good taste” pick, but I loved it, and I really think it changed the way people think about movies. I’m still fairly shocked that this was actually in movie theaters in 1968. Things move slowly, but the tension that builds is crazy.

Cool Hand Luke
This one started a whole older movie craze for me. I didn’t think that watching a chain gang build roads and engage in egg-eating contests would be entertaining, but I was wrong.

Classic quote: “What we got here . . .  is a failure to communicate.”

School of Rock
There may have never been a role more tailor made for an actor than Dewey Finn for Jack Black. Hilarious.

“I pledge allegiance . . . to the band . . . of Mr. Schneebly.” I put that quote in my upcoming book, Bystander, partly because I love that movie so much.

Five favorite children’s books?

Holes
This book was like my reintroduction to children’s lit. In college I wasn’t reading many kids books. I picked this one up right as I was beginning my student teaching. Amazing. The storyline fits together so well. I thought, “Dang, this is what books for kids should be.” I’m actually kinda getting chills just thinking about how great that story is.

Where the Wild Things Are
Aught Nine is the year of the Wild Things. With the movie coming out, everyone is getting nostalgic for this classic. I have to say that of all the books I read as a kid, this one stuck with me the most.

What you said about Holes is true for me with Wild Things. I found that book soon after college and it totally changed my thinking about children’s books. Everything was suddenly possible. These books could have real emotional and psychological depth. Which is why, of course, I wrote Hiccups for Elephant.

The City of Ember
Sci-fi masterpiece. There is such a great buildup in this book. A serious page-turner.

Arnie the Doughnut
This picture book should be in every library. Funny, with a delightfully absurd ending that never fails to make kids smile. One of my all-time favorite read-alouds.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
As a kid, I was on a mission to hunt down every Roald Dahl book ever written (The Vicar of Nibbleswick was the most difficult to find back in those pre-internet days, by the way). “Charlie” was the one that sent me down that path.

Well, Travis, it looks like our time is up. Thanks for hanging out and eating my entire cheese log. I admire your alert, open, engaged mind — and for a skinny guy you’ve got quite an appetite. Enjoy ALA! Blog like there’s no tomorrow! And eat like a Roman Emperor!

I’m off to start fasting . . .

James Preller Interviews . . . Betsy Bird, of Fuse #8

It doesn’t take long for a book-loving blog-hopper to discover Betsy Bird’s A Fuse #8 Production. It is so consistently good — full of personality and life and enthusiasm for children’s books — that many of us return on a regular basis. Heck, she’s practically a Cult Figure, though without the flowing robes or talk of alien spaceships riding behind Comet Hale-Bopp.

I thought it might be fun to hang out with Betsy for a little bit. Hopefully you’ll think so, too. Hey, here she comes now . . .

Betsy, thanks for stopping by. Can I get you anything? A drink, some Ritz crackers, a cheese log?

A cheese log? Seriously? Man, I haven’t seen a good cheese log since the Blizzard of ’08. I will have some M & M’s if you have them, though.

Sorry, I’ve only got the brown M & M’s, which I save for emergencies. My cheese log memories are not blizzard-related like yours. Mine are associated with my mother’s famous Monday Bowling Nights. With seven kids, she deserved one night out, and that’s all she got. She’d return home with her bowling partner and neighbor, Mrs. Kleinberg, and they’d drink Gallo wine, smoke cigarettes, and chat. I’d crawl under the coffee table, eavesdrop, and ponder the mysterious appeal of a nutty port wine cheese log.

For me, cheese logs are entirely mythical. The kinds of things that “other people’s families” ate.  A log o’ cheese seemed so weird to me as a kid.  But enough about cylindrical cow by-products!  Let’s get this interview ah-goin’.

Betsy, you are a librarian, blogger, bon vivant, and soon-to-be-published author. So let’s start with that last part first. I understand that you recently sold two manuscripts. Congratulations, that’s really exciting. Have you been dreaming of this for a long time?

Many, many thanks! I have indeed been dreaming of this, but sort of in a lazy “that’s something I should do when I’m a grown-up” way. Then this illustrator comes along, asks if I’ll write a book if he illustrates it, and voila!  I become the luckiest librarian in the Western Hemisphere. I cannot account for the Eastern Hemisphere at this time.

I loved your “happy dance.” Understated, dignified, professional.

I try. You should see my slightly more complicated “Dance of Joy”. It involves ferrets.

The mind reels. So, tell us a little bit about the stories.

Ah.  Well, when said illustrator (I’m waiting for his name to be officially released before I “out him”, so to speak) contacted me he only had one idea.  To wit: “Giants leaping.” Awesome. So book #1 is Giant Dance Party. A small girl teaches a troop of gigantic, gangly, clumsy giants to dance. Hilarity ensues. Book #2 is still in the works, but it involves giants in New York. I can say that much.

Come on, don’t make me beg. Tell us the name of the illustrator. Or at least give us a hint. Does it rhyme with “Maurice Sendak?”

You got me. It’s Four Piece Svensack, the great Swedish performance artist of 33rd and Broadway. Okay, here’s a real hint though. My illustrator is blond.  Ha! Didn’t see that coming, did you?

That narrows it down, thanks. So that was the trigger for you, just two words, giants leaping? Did s/he show you an illustration? Did you talk about it? Or did the ideas just instantly flow?

The illustrator did send a sketch or two, now that you mention it. But only after I said something equivalent to, “That’s a frickin’ AWESOME idea!” Then I wept. We talked a lot about it, sometimes over email and sometimes over the phone. It was nice.  I hear that in most cases an author doesn’t get to interact with their illustrator like this, but it’s much more fun if it’s a joint effort, I think.

That’s correct, writers and illustrators rarely have much contact. And I suspect something may be lost in that great divide. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many great books come from one person, the multi-talented writer/illustrator. At least in those cases, there’s back-and-forth (even if it’s only inside one mind), rather than the publishing standard of writer finishes, illustrator takes over, and never the twain shall meet. Anyway, I can’t wait to see your book. When should I start camping out in front of my local independent bookstore?

No idea. I mean, some idea. It’s won’t be 2010, I’m pretty sure.  Being a cynical sally I assume 2013.  My illustrator is a happy, sweet, wonderfully optimistic sort and says 2010. Probably 2011 or 2012.

Soon you’ll be joining the fraternal organization of children’s authors and illustrators. We’re a semi-secret society, loosely modeled after the Freemasons. I’m sorry, but I can’t show you the secret handshake until the first book hits stores. Homeland security, you understand.

Understood. We librarians have our own super secret handshake anyway. It involves being double jointed (which all real librarians are anyway). And now I can be a part of the super secret children’s-librarians-turned-authors club. As it happens, my children’s room here at NYPL has had two authors before me. Marcia Brown wrote Stone Soup while working in my room, and Claire Huchet Bishop wrote The Five Chinese Brothers. So, y’know. There’s a precedent.

It makes sense that a dedicated children’s librarian would become a talented author. What’s next, “Dancing with the Stars?”

Absolutely! I mean, the first book’s all about dancing giants, right? I’m envisioning a Giant Dance Party song, a dance craze (that would involve a lot of galumphing), a music video, the works.

Where did you grow up? What brought you to the Big Apple?

I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the tourist board’s slogan is “Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!”

There is, really? I thought it was like a gag.

Nuh-uh. No gag. I’ve since made friends from Eureka and Kokomo. If I can get a pal from Walla Walla I have it made. Anywho, I was raised there, went to college in Richmond, Indiana (“Fight, fight, inner light, kill, Quakers, kill!”), lived in Portland, Oregon for a time, moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and then my husband got into Columbia University’s screenwriting program.  We’ve been here ever since, but we’re probably headed for L.A. next.

You seem to have one of the busiest, most popular blogs in the kidlitosphere. How did that all begin for you?

Ironically, with a School Library Journal article (ironic, I mean, since they now host my blog). I can’t remember what it was called, but the piece discussed children’s literary blogs, and it sounded fun. I’d already been writing reviews on Amazon.com for a lark. It wasn’t much more of a step to just start writing them on my blog as well. Then I added news. Then I started reporting on publisher events here in NYC. And then SLJ decided to buy me up so I sold out to the man and have been very happy ever since.

It’s clear from Fuse #8 that you a voracious reader, print and new media. What makes a good blog, do you think?

Personality, for one.

Personality?! Oh, rats!

Regular updates for another. If a blog can give me something I’ll find nowhere else, that’s a lure. Plus, I’m a sucker for a catchy name.

Like, um, James Preller’s Blog? How’s that for catchy?

It’s got a beat and I can dance to it. Gold, kid! Authorial blogs are sort of exempt from the whole “Catchy Name” requirement, y’know. If you start calling your site “Tin Can Phone” or something, how’s anyone going to know it’s you?

You recently published the results of a reader’s poll, asking folks to name their top ten picture books of all time. You compiled those lists to create a master list of “Top 100 Picture Books.” In what way did the results surprise you?

Ooh. Excellent question. I think I was very surprised that people didn’t send in the books they solely loved when they themselves were small children. It was a nice mix of books from the canon, books people liked now (and that their kids like right now), and books from their youth. And who could have predicted two top slots for Mo Willems? Surprising to say the least. I was also surprised that Dr. Seuss didn’t do better than he did. The man was clearly too prolific. His books split the vote over and over again.

Split the vote? You are bringing up bad memories of Ralph Nader and the 2000 election. For me, when Go, Dog. Go! wasn’t included, that pretty much made the whole list meaningless in my eyes. But still fun!

Go, Dog. Go! will have it’s day. I didn’t allow Easy Readers on my Picture Book Poll. At some point I’ll do an Easy Reader poll as well. Then you can see how the book stacks up against the likes of Frog and Toad and The Cat in the Hat.

I don’t really get the need for that distinction — but it’s your poll! Reading the results, I was happy to be reminded of old classics (never expected Millions of Cats to rank so high), or discover recent titles that I’d missed. Were you disappointed that any specific titles that didn’t make it?

Oh sure. The list is totally lacking in diversity. I think we figured out that only two of the creators were people of color. A little weird, actually. And there were certainly titles I would have considered shoo-ins. The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss for one.The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein for another. There’s no predicting what showed up.  Except for the Top 10, of course. Those were a little easier to predict.

There’s also that critical difference between “favorite” books and “important” books. Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll was a landmark book, I think, as was, in a different way, something like Emily Arnold McCully’s Mirette on the High Wire. Top 100? No idea. But among the Top 100 most influential books, I’d think so. These lists get complicated.

Well, there will always be beloved books that are considered “important”, and titles that are “important” but people don’t gravitate naturally towards.  As a reader poll, my list is limited to the individual preferences of my readers. It’s completely subjective. Which is fine, but it’s not the be all and end all of lists.

You did a lot of research on each book. I think that’s a big part of Fuse #8’s success –- you put a ton of effort into it. How many hours a week do you put into the blog?

Hours a week? Oo-de-lally. Hmm. Well, we’re going to pretend that the poll was the exception rather than the rule. On average, though, I’d say I spend a good 14 hours a week on the blog. Two hours a night or so. That’s just a rough estimate.

You’ve met a lot of authors over the years. What have been some of the highlights?

Having tea with Ursula LeGuin was quite the thrill. And getting to speak at The Eric Carle Museum where I later had dinner with Jane Yolen, Jeanne Birdsall, and others. My contact with Mo Willems and Jon Scieszka is flattering. And getting to sit at the Newbery Award winning table two years in a row (first for Susan Patron who mentioned me in her speech, and the second time for Laura Amy Schlitz). Those are some of them, certainly.

Is it true that one of the items on your Bucket List is to sing Karaoke with Ed Young?

Absolutely. If by “Bucket List” you mean “Thing That Will Never Occur in This or Any Other Lifetime”.

Who are you still dying to meet?

The Golden Fleece is, and shall evermore be the aforementioned Sendak. Of course if I met him I’d just flap my gums for a while and be destroyed by his single withering glance. But it might still be worth it.

Blogs are a growing force in children’s literature: influential, timely, free. Is that a good thing –- and why?

I see it as a good thing on the whole. With the decline of newspaper book review sections and the shift to online resources, blogs are becoming a new voice in the marketplace. They will never replace professional reviews, of course, but if a purchasing librarian or parent trusts a blogger’s voice and title selection then they’re going to be more inclined to get their book suggestions from that source. And as long as the bloggers keep their opinions sharp and their heads on straight, the relationship will be beneficial for all.

Your answer suggests there might be a downside.

Well, there’s always the danger of getting too darn cozy with the publishing types. Or reviewing stuff just to make people happy, and not because it’s actually any good. Like I say, you have to trust your blogger. If you suspect they might be compromised (I suddenly have a flash from a movie where someone yells over a phone, “The librarian blogger is compromised! I repeat…!”) then find another. There are plenty of fish in the sea.

With great power comes great responsibility. How do you choose what to review?

It’s tough. I receive boxes of books from publishers, titles from individual authors and illustrators, and additional books from people who want Amazon.com reviews (that’s a whole different market right there). What I tend to do is to put them on my bookshelves in the order of publication date.  January books first, February second, etc. I organize them within each month in the order I would like to read them. Then I read through them in this pattern: current month title, past months’ titles, future month title.  These I put on the old To Be Reviewed shelf where they wait. Now my reviewing is a different pattern. I prefer to review a picture book, then a novel, then a graphic novel or poetry book or non-fiction title.  Because of the sheer amount of non-fiction out there, however, I usually will alternate between a non-fiction book and a graphic novel, then another non-fiction book and a book of poetry. Deciding which book to review next usually depends on how well a book has stayed with me. If I read your book two months ago but can’t remember the plot or the characters, it’s not going to get reviewed. But if it really gripped me in some way (or was memorably awful) it’s getting a review at some point.

If kids like it, is it a good book?

Sometimes. Kids also like eating snot and watching Barney television shows, so I dunno if you should necessarily consider them to be the number one arbitrators of taste. But taking a kid’s opinion on any book is important. Just so long as you remember that there are different kinds of kids with different tastes out there.

Okay, Lightning Round: Five favorite movies?

Jump Tomorrow
Happy-Go-Lucky
The Brave Little Toaster
Memento
Young Frankenstein

I have “Happy-Go-Lucky” on my Netflix cue. Love Mike Leigh. Okay: Five favorite places in New York City?

Bank Street Bookstore
Central Park
Books of Wonder
The Jefferson Market Library branch
My library (whoop!)

Five favorite children’s books?

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
Ultra-Violet Catastrophe by Margaret Mahy
Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge
The Mysterious Tadpole by Steven Kellogg

The Mysterious Tadpole? I’m surprised. Why that title?

Well, I’ve a weakness for it.  And I should clarify that I’m talking about the original.  Not the subsequent reillustrated monstrosity they’ve started selling recently.  The original had everything. Mystery. A friendship between a magical creature and an everyday child. A satisfying conclusion. Plus it has a moment (in the original) when you get to see an American Indian single-handedly taking down an evil pirate ship. Where else are you going to see that in a picture book, I ask you?

You are on a rooftop in the city, peaceful under the stars. There’s a song playing and a drink in your hand. What’s the song? What’s the drink?

Ah. That would be a glass of Pims (the mysterious British summer drink that never lists its ingredients on the bottle) and the song would be “This Is the Life” by Amy MacDonald.

Here’s two girls sweetly covering Amy MacDonald’s tune . . . just for Betsy.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Almost forgot: Where’d you get the name, A Fuse #8 Production?

Fuse #8? Hasn’t a thing in the entire world to do with children’s literature.  Here’s the scoop. When I graduated from college I was given my grandmother’s dilapidated 1989 Buick Century. The paint job had long since peeled away thanks to a permanent parking in the lot next to her nursing home, but I didn’t care. It was my first wheels. So I park on the street one day in good old Richmond, Indiana and after I take the key out of the car the automatic locks start leaping up and down and up and down. Convinced that my car is possessed (she was christened Linda Blair from there on in) I eventually discovered that the lock situation was killing my battery.

So I’ve just graduated, I’m broke, and I take it into the shop for repairs. The repair guy takes one look at it, opens the glove compartment, and removes Fuse #8. I am told that if I just take that fuse out, it won’t kill itself and he doesn’t charge me a cent. Mind you, Fuse #8 controls the horn, the radio, and the automatic windows, but it’s not like I care. That man was a saint.  Fast forward a couple of years and my husband’s looking for a good name for his new film production company. He really wants to call it A Widow Be Damned Production since he’s having rights-related difficulties with Erskine Caldwell’s widow. I counter with A Fuse #8 Production. It’s got everything!  A number. A weird word. My suggestion is summarily rejected but I vowed from there on in that I would name SOMETHING A Fuse #8 Production someday. And so I did. Since then I’ve wanted to name something Tin Can Phone, but nothing appropriate has presented itself yet.

Thanks, Betsy. You’ve been wonderful. Good luck with your writing. And thanks, especially, for the great job you do at Fuse #8 — it’s always an entertaining, informative read. As a parting gift, please accept this John Deere “Select Series X300 Tractor,” featuring Edge Xtra Deck, Twin Touch Pedals, V-Twin Engines, and Cast-Iron Front Axles. It comes with a four-year warranty, or 300 hours, whichever comes first.

Awesome! I’ve had this John Deere Striping Kit  that fits 48″ & 54″ Decks for the X300 and X500 kicking around my tiny New York apartment for about a year or so. Finally some way to make use of it! Cheers and thanks so much for having me here on your blog.  It’s been a hoot.

—–

If you enjoyed this interview with Betsy, you might like interviews with other stars of the kidlitosphere, the bloggers behind Literate Lives (Bill and Karen) and The Happy Nappy Bookseller (Doret).

For author/illustrator interviews:

There’s Matthew Cordell, Karen Roosa, Ellen Miles, Daniel Mahoney, Jack Rightmyer, and R.W. Alley.

And if you want to read an interview where I’m the interviewee, go here. It’s non-stop fun and wall-to-wall action.

For appreciations:

There’s William Steig, Arnold Lobel, Raymond Chander, Bernard Waber, and James Marshall.

Thanks, and come again!