I sometimes tell this story on school visits, if I am in the right mood and have the right group before me. My oldest son, Nick, is a two-time cancer survivor. First diagnosed at age two. It was a hard time. The nurses at the pediatric oncology unit at Albany Medical Center would say to me — and let me tell you, those are truly inspiring human beings who will always have a special place in my heart — “You are an author, you should write about this.” At the time, I couldn’t conceive of it, happy to just navigate the parking garage without getting into an accident. Mentally, just gone. Nick recovered, only to relapse again in 4th grade. All he wanted to do was run with the pack, play travel soccer, be a kid. I watched him face it all withstrength and courage; and let us remember, there is no courage without fear leading the way, linked hand in hand. I watched Nick’s friendships, the way certain boys rallied around him. And to this day I can’t think about any of it without tears streaming down my face.
Nick with Lisa holding him tight.
Around that time I started writing a book called Six Innings. A book about a Little League baseball game, and moreso, about the kids who played it. A lot of characters to dream up. As a useful storytelling device, and as a faithful recording of how things worked at my local Little League, I wanted there to be a kid announcing the game. “Now batting, Cleon Jones,” that kind of thing. And I vividly remember sitting in my chair, staring at the computer, when the thought came: What’s this kid’s story? And it hit me, Oh, he’s sick. He’s very sick. And so I gave that kid cancer.
Six Innings is a baseball book, full of plays and on-field drama. But it is also about those kids, their lives and hopes and conflicts. I mean, there’s a lot of baseball in this book, so it’s not for everyone. Below I’ll share one scene that comes directly from our experience. When Nick relapsed, and we had to go through it all over again, our doctor came to our house for a family meeting. We sat together in the living room, stunned and serious and scared. She laid it all out before us, Nick included. While many details were altered, Nick’s response was the exact response I gave to the character, Sam, in the book, almost word for word.
Six Innings was named an ALA Notable, and I’m proud of that. And it’s still in print, and I’m grateful for that. And Nick is strong and healthy and living in NYC, and goodness, I don’t even have words for it.
Here’s a scene from Six Innings. Thank you for reading:
And now they gave it a name. Sam had osteosarcoma. Or, well, osteosarcoma had him. The two words — Sam and osteosarcoma — were joined now, entangled, entwined, forever linked. Buried inside the big word, he discovered the letters to his own name, s-a-m. It was there all along.
Doctor Shrivastava looked from one to the other: Sam, his father, his mother. Mostly though, and to her great credit, the raven-haired doctor with milk chocolate skin spoke directly to Sam, kept meeting his eyes, looking at him with sharp-eyed clarity and infinite kindness. She was nice. There was goodness in her. Sam felt it.
So. That was that. But what did it mean? It was as if doctors spoke only secret words no one could understand: biopsy, retinoblastoma, metastasize, limb salvage, and chemotherapy. Somehow all those words were stuck into Sam like darts, but they didn’t seem real. All Sam really knew, judging from the way his mother kept chewing on her lower lip, the way his father reached for Sam’s hand and squeezed, was this: Not good.
Sam’s mother kept scribbling on the legal pad, flipping pages, writing furiously. In Sam’s family, she was in charge of facts. For reasons no one could explain, Sam had contracted the most common type of bone cancer. It usually appeared in teen boys, often during growth spurts. A tumor grew in Sam’s leg. Doctor Shrivastava wanted to remove the bone before the cancer could spread. She said that they would replace the bone with a metal rod.
How weird was that?
This surgery, she said, would take place in about twelve weeks. During that time, and for nine months afterward, Sam would have to take some very strong medicine. The medicine, or chemotherapy treatment, would destroy the bad cancer cells in his body — but they would also make him feel very sick sometimes.
At a certain point, Sam stopped listening. He closed his eyes. It was dark, and he was swirling in an inky sea of words, drowning in the dark, mystic language. He needed to get away. Fly to some other place. He was tired of listening, tired of hushed conversations, of doctors and their white coats.
Dr. Shrivastava looked at Sam. “Most patients fully recover,” she assured him.
Sam stifled a yawn. He had been stuck in this office forever.
“Can we go now?” he asked his parents.
“I want to go to Mike’s house,” he announced. “He just got the new MLB game on PlayStation. He says it’s awesome.”
“Mike’s house?” his mother repeated. “Sam, I . . . ?”
“It should be fine,” Dr. Shrivastava intervened, checking her wristwatch. “Perhaps that’s enough for one day.” She looked at Sam, smiled warmly. “Mike is your friend?”
Thank you for your letter all the way from Haverford, PA. It’s an honor to be thought of as your favorite author.
Am I good at baseball? Ha, well, not particularly. But I do love the game, and I still love playing it. I now play in a ridiculous 55-up men’s hardball league. Imagine very old guys who can barely move attempting to play baseball — like trying to walk through a room full of Jell-O — and that’s us. But there we are under the sun, playing in the green fields of the mind, as if we were boys again. I can still steal a base, I can still break off a pretty good curveball (okay, it rolls in like a tumbleweed), I can still hit.
The other part I love is the competition. As a hitter, to come up in that big spot and try my absolute best to beat the other guy. And that feeling when the ball jumps off the sweet spot of the bat into the left-center gap? I love that. I’ll play for as long as I’m able. Why not?
Have you read my book Six Innings? I poured all my love for baseball into that book.
As the youngest in a large family, I always sought those quiet places, tucked out of the way. I did a lot of jigsaw puzzles (thus: “Jigsaw Jones”), invented games with dice, drew pictures, and read (a little bit). Reading didn’t come on strong until later. Making comics just happened naturally. I think creative people are like that. We can’t help but make things, throw ideas up into the sky just to see what falls.
This October I have a new book coming out, Better Off Undead, that’s set in the not-too-distant future. It might be right for a reader like you. To sum it up in one sentence: After becoming undead, Adrian Lazarus has to survive middle school. The book is also concerned with bees and bullies and spy drones and climate change, and there are “thriller/detective” elements and evil billionaires too. I’m excited about it. The book’s not scary, but I do hope it’s smart, timely, and wildly entertaining.
P.S. Thank you for the SASE, very considerate & much appreciated!
Just passing along an article by the very kind Sally Lodge, who phoned me a couple of weeks back. We chatted for a while and the result of that conversation was this article that appeared in a special edition of Publishers Weekly for Book Expo America (BEA).
And yes, while I was in NYC, I stood next to R.L. Stine and tried to hug him. Thanks to Kathryn Little for the snap!
He might not have loved it, hard to say. But actually, we spoke amiably in front of a video camera, so maybe a cool clip will come of it at some point down the road. But I digress!
Here’s the article:
The author of the Jigsaw Jones Mysteries ventures onto chilling turf in his latest series, Scary Tales, which premieres in July with Home Sweet Horror. James Preller calls the project, published by Feiwel and Friends, a “massive departure for me. I’ve always really adhered to realistic fiction. If someone had said that I would be writing a novel about zombies outside of a school—that happens in the third book—I would have said, ‘That’s ridiculous!’ But what’s interesting to me is how the other characters, ordinary people, respond to and interact with those zombies. With this series, I’m giving myself new freedom, and I’m really having fun with it.”
Preller’s inspiration for Scary Tales had several sources. His most recent fiction has been geared to older readers, including middle-grade novels Six Innings and Bystander, and Before You Go, his debut YA. “I hadn’t written anything for the second- and third-grade audience for a while, and I wanted to get back to that,” he says. “I hear from teachers and librarians that kids love scary books and that there isn’t much that is fresh and new in that area.”
The author’s fondness for old Twilight Zone episodes also fueled his imagination. “I love that the show spans a number of genres, from science fiction to gangster stories,” he says. “I want to do something similar with Scary Tales. I see these books existing on a broader canvas than just being scary. The series is not going to be just one ghost story after another. Each will be different, though all will have an intellectual twist at the end that will blow readers’ minds a little.”
Preller is hopeful that Scary Tales will provide kids with “a positive, fun reading experience” and will snare reluctant readers. “To attract reluctant readers who might need an easier read, a book can’t look babyish,” he observes. “But if it looks cool, they’ll pick it up. I am hoping the series will reach those readers, especially boys. That is a very important readership for me — reaching them is something I feel passionate about.”
Do you remember that classic scene in the original “Miracle on 34th Street,” when a line of uniformed postal workers comes into the courtroom to dump sacks of letters on the judge’s desk?
That’s the way it is around here every day at Jamespreller.com.
So let’s take a gander at one . . .
Dear James Preller,
My name is Dillon. I am in 7th grade and I go to _______ Middle School. Some things I like to do is ride dirt bikes and four wheelers because I have a lot of woods and fields to ride on. I also like to go hiking and find cool things like stuff in my creek and in my woods or anywhere.
I am reading the book Six Innings. I liked your book because I like baseball and books about baseball even though I’m not that good at it. When I read your book it was good. That’s coming from me and I usually don’t like to read at all.
My favorite character in the book was Dylan Van Zant. He was my favorite character in the book for a couple of reasons. One reason is he has the same first name as me. Another reason that Dylan Van Zant is my favorite character is because he is nice and not a mean kid at all.
Thank you for taking the time to read my letter to you. But before I am done I will ask you some questions and one is why did you pick Dylan Van Zant to be a nice kid and a really good baseball player. Like in real life sometimes people who are really good baseball players are mean. Another question is why did you pick the title Six Innings.
Thanks for your letter. I liked that you began by telling me a little bit about yourself. Like you, I also enjoy nature, though I’m not really a dirt bike kind of guy. Too noisy. Growing up, I had some friends, Timmy Tighe and Frank Connelly, who built their own motor bikes — basically lawn mower engines attached to regular bicycles — and we loved cruising around on them. Their hands were always filthy, covered in oil and grease. These days, you couldn’t get me on a motorcycle if you paid me. I can only imagine skidding across the cement . . . ouch, Ouch, OUCH. I guess if you’re a good rider you can’t let those negative thoughts into your head.
When I think of motorcycles, all I can imagine
is a long, sad stay in the hospital.
I’m glad you enjoyed my baseball book. It makes me happy when someone who doesn’t normally like to read writes to say that my book wasn’t as bad as he might have expected. Out of all the characters in that book — besides Sam’s father — I might have identified the most with Dylan Van Zant. As a Little Leaguer, I loved to pitch. I could never throw that hard, but I had great control and I absolutely loved standing on that mound with the ball in my hand, literally the King of the Hill.
It’s true what you said: Sometimes when people are very good at things, they can be obnoxious about it. You know, conceited, superior, like they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. (I can’t stand those types of people.) I think with Dylan, he knows he’s not a superstar; he just loves playing the game.
I titled the book Six Innings because that was my first idea for the book, to use the structure of one Little League game — across six innings — to tell the story of the players and the plays. It was a sturdy format, because it gave me a beginning, middle, and end.
Mostly though, I have vivid memories of my Little League games, they were important to me, and I know that many kids felt, and still feel, the same way. Thanks for writing. I appreciate it. I hope you continue to seek out other books you might enjoy, even if the pickings look slim. I’m sure there are books in your school library that are just right for someone with your interests and obvious intelligence. Try your school librarians — professional know-it-alls, they love bringing good kids and books together.
I wanted to connect in my own head and then in the readers’ heads with the real people behind those beloved works — to briefly see the world and their process through their eyes, and so, hopefully, to help their readers gain insight into both process and result. I am still very interested in the point of tangency between creators and their creations.
I think for me, it’s so important in interviews to stay alive to the moment. You know, to hear what’s being said and to respond. That’s why I’m disappointed by so many blog interviews, which are obviously just somebody typing out answers to a list of questions. Which is fine and good, just don’t call it an interview.
What I love about writing is that well-chosen words can retain their liveliness even centuries after they are first put down.
Oh. I guess what I love about writing is the cash money bling. But we’ve always been different that way!
I have written a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, many of which draw upon the natural world. Years back I wrote a novel called Brewster’s Courage, a co-creation with my friend, illustrator Joe Mathieu, about a black-footed ferret who rides his bicycle from South Dakota to Louisiana to pursue his love of Cajun music. I’ve always had a soft spot for that book.
Can we talk about that a little bit? I mean, here’s a fine book that you’re immensely proud of, and now it’s out of print. It can be a disappointing profession, can’t it?
That was something I had to learn to accept. It happens to all of us. But whenever I engage one-on-one with kids through that book, or any of the others, really, it’s still a huge kick. My reasons for writing it and the reaction I get to it have always been consistent, so I try to get joy from the first-hand experiences and try not to let the bigger picture cloud my thoughts.
My personal coping strategy is to I cry myself to sleep, muttering “It’s not fair, it’s not fair.” But whatever works for you! Tell us more about some of your titles.
Another book I loved writing was Noises In the Night: The Habits of Bats, for which I spent some time in the jungle in Panama with a group of amazing tropical bat researchers. I wrote several books in conjunction with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, including one about exploring the deep ocean, another about the crazy glow-in-the-dark jelly animals that look like fireworks and nightmares (that one was called Beneath Blue Waters: Meetings with Remarkable Deep-Sea Creatures, co-authored with Kate Madin), and another about what it’s like to go to sea on a research cruise.
What’s so compelling about ocean life, anyway?
So unexplored (estimates vary but it’s commonly stated that less than 10% of the ocean has been explored). Imagine that. Central to earth’s climate. The source of life on earth. The greatest untapped sources of energy. Shipwrecks. Doubloons. Those incredibly weird fish that have fishing rods growing off the ends of their noses.
Not to mention some other fantastic ones like Opisthoteuthis agassizii, also known as “Dumbo.”
And probably my all-time favorite, Vampyroteuthis infernalis (loosely translated as “Vampire Squid from Hell”).
That’s disgusting, DJ, you’re like totally grossing out my Nation of Readers. So what are you writing right now?
My two most recent books channel the brain waves of a dog who hangs out at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston (Catie Copley and Catie Copley’s Great Escape). I’ve got two other projects underway, one a memoir, one a poetry project. They may converge at some point, or the memoir may spend its energy and then make room for something else.
There’s also a novel that’s been “in development” for a very long time. I’ve got some nonfiction ideas that I’m pretty excited about as well. I’m also READING like crazy, piles (virtual: Kindle) of manuscripts and books every week. And on the “side” I’ve also been reading everything Dickens wrote. This will, of course, occupy me for the rest of my natural born days. How did he do it?
He drank a lot of Red Bull. But it’s surprising: Dickens keeps coming up around here. Lewis Buzbee mentioned him in an interview, then Carmen Deedy sang his praises, now you. Who would have figured that he’d be today’s “It” boy. What have you learned from him?
I’ve become immersed in his characterizations, both those in his novels and those in some of his earliest published work. As an exercise and perhaps eventually something more, I’m experimenting with character sketches inspired by Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, his first published book.
I understand that you are now Editorial Director of Publishing at Walden Media. What in the world does that mean? Did they give you a nice chair? Free office supplies? What?
REALLY nice chair. Office supplies. Popcorn. Filtered water. Occasional Pelligrino. Our publishing group is a small division of the film studio Walden Media, which is based in Los Angeles, though our group is based outside Boston. I am Editorial Director of the group, so am responsible for the acquisition and publishing of a small but growing list of between 6-10 books a year mostly targeted to middle-grade readers. We worked on a joint-venture basis with Penguin Books for Young Readers for four years (2004-2008). We published a lot of great books with Penguin, the highlight being Savvy, a first novel by the incomparable Ingrid Law, which racked up a slew of honors and awards, culminating with a 2009 Newbery Honor.
Our movie colleagues are currently developing Savvy as a feature film. Since late 2008, we’ve been in partnership with HarperCollins, where we’re launching a joint imprint called Walden Pond Press in January. Our first book on the list is the heee-larious Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who is also the author of Millions and Framed. It was originally published in the UK, where it was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
Last year, as I recall, you attended some kind of open panel discussion about the year’s best children’s books at ALA. I remember, because you kindly wrote to tell me all the nice things they said about my book, Six Innings. What was that like, sitting in on that process?
Any and all attendees of the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association are welcome to observe the deliberations of a group of librarians who determine the Best Books for Young Adults. They pull together a list of about 250 books, and discuss them all, then winnow down the list to their final selections. Your wonderful book was one of the titles under consideration, and it was a real thrill to hear all the great things they said about Six Innings. I figured you’d want to know what they were saying, so I took notes and sent them to you.
And I appreciated it, believe me. As you know, sometimes the universe seems indifferent to our best efforts. It’s so important to get that validation — even if, on some levels, we must proceed on faith when we don’t get it.
That’s one reason why school visits are really important. And you’ve got to admit, it’s pretty fun to be the “special visitor.”
I know that after a while those trips get old, but there’s nothing like it during the “proceeding on faith” phases.
Tedd Arnold told me that he felt it was important to keep in touch with young readers — what makes them laugh, what makes them tick — especially after his own kids got older. He said, “I don’t want to lose track of their squirmy little reality.” You must have been thrilled when Savvy was named a Newbery Honor Book.
Probably one of the best days of my life. It was such a powerful YES to all of us who believe in the book and in Ingrid Law, in her spectacular storytelling ability. I still get a lighter-than-air feeling when I remember the instant we got the news. I know that many of my friends and colleagues in the children’s book world have experienced such peak moments on more than one occasion, but I bet they would all agree with me that certain special moments are frozen in an amber glow forever. Having collaborated with you in interviewing so many living legends way back when, it has been a thrill to be part of the team bringing a brand new legend to the world.
Any favorites for this coming year?
I loved The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner and Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies by Erin Dionne. Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins is beautiful as well. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine is incredibly moving. I recently read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and just thinking of it makes the theme song from the Twilight Zone play in my head. On the non-fiction side, I loved Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman.
You haven’t changed a bit, Deborah. You still have that same infectious enthusiasm for children’s books. I talk to you and I want to go read something. Where does it come from, do you think? Were you one of those little girls with your nose constantly in a book, dreaming of how one day you’d become an author?
Yes, I was. But the impetus to see myself as a writer as well as a reader goes back to a visit that Sydney Taylor (All-of-a-Kind Family) made to my school library when I was in fourth grade. I can still see her in my mind’s eye.
Reddish hair in an old-fashioned upsweep, long skirt, sitting on a tiny elementary school library chair, bookshelves behind her, awe-struck kids in front of her. I loved the books she wrote, and THERE SHE WAS. REAL.
A nice memory, and important for us jaded, gin-soaked authors to remember. Okay, lightning round. Five favorite children’s authors (note: you don’t need to list me, it’s assumed):
The list roves and changes, but here are current faves.
1. Ingrid Law because I love the way the people in her books connect with each other.
Could you expand on that thought a little bit?
The central family, the Beaumonts, are outsiders because they have a family secret which is that at the age of 13 each Beaumont comes into a Savvy, a special supernatural power, which has to be brought under control, or scumbled. They are a fiercely loving tribe, who watch out for each other and protect each other from the unkind japes of the heartless folks who surround them. They are shy outsiders, at least at the beginning of the book. But by the end, the family members at the core story learn how to trust others and open themselves up to possibilities of friendship and love.
Thanks. But you still have to finish your list.
2. Katherine Paterson because I love her dry frankness.
3. Ann Scott-Moncrieff, whose out-of-print classic, Auntie Robbo, is a book I reread often for its crisp and delicious characterizations. (JP Note: the entire book seems to be free online, here.)
4. Madeleine L’Engle because she gives young kids the tools to imagine worlds beyond.
5. Patricia Wrightson, an Australian author not well known in this country whose Nargun and the Stars was one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.
I heard the new Palin book is pretty frightening, by the way.
Oh, did she write a book?
Don’t you watch “The Late Show” with David Letterman? He’s mentioned it a few times, including some writing tips. Five favorite songs?
You could substitute many Beatles songs for #5, and this list does change, but CURRENTLY any one of these would do at just about any time.
1. “Waterloo Sunset” by Kinks
2. “Steal My Kisses” by Ben Harper
3. “Yellow Moon” by the Neville Brothers
4. “Moondance” by Van Morrison
5. “Run for Your Life” by The Beatles
Any favorite websites you could recommend?
I enjoy reading what those in the Kidlitosphere have to say.
It’s late at night, you are sitting peacefully. There’s a drink in your hand and you are rereading a favorite book. What’s the drink? What’s the book?
The drink is Cointreau.
The book is Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.
Well, DJ, my producer is waving frantically and it looks like we’ve run out of time. I really enjoyed catching up with you. You worked at Sesame Street during the heady Don Music days, wrote a wide variety of books, chatted with the most respected authors in children’s literature, edited manuscripts, worked on movies, on and on — and at the absolute center of everything you’ve done is your love for children’s literature. If not quite fame and glory, it sure looks like a brilliant career to me.
As a parting gift, please accept this 6,000 BTU window air conditioner (with remote!) that typically cools 150-250 square feet — just in time for the holidays!