Tag Archive for The Courage Test Preller

WRITING PROCESS: About that Epigraph

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An epigraph — neither an epigram nor an epitaph — is that short quote  many authors use at the beginning of a book. It can be most anything: a song lyric, a line from a poem or novel, a familiar adage, whatever we want it to be.

It can be seen as a book’s North Star, both inspiration and aspiration. A source or a destination, a map or a summation. It can be a joke, a statement of theme, or an obtuse and too-erudite dud.

An epigraph is one of those small parts of a novel that many readers (and some writers) ignore. No problem. Like the spleen, an epigraph can be removed without any real loss of function.

Yet it can serve as a signal in the night, like an orange flare screaming parabollically across the sky. An indicator of intention.

It can be a thread to pull, a riddle to unravel, or a key to solving the book’s enigma.

Personally, I’m a fan. Epigraphs have played a larger role in my books as my career has crabbed sideways.

That said, I don’t believe I hit a home run with the epigraph in my book Six Innings. It misses the mark. So we won’t talk about it. And I’m not sure that the epigraph for Bystander was particularly successful:

 

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Where you been is good and gone

All you keep is the gettin’ there.

— Townes Van Zandt,

“To Live Is to Fly”

 

I love that song by Van Zandt and it lingered in my mind during the writing of that book. To me, those two lines represented the plasticity of the middle school years, that intense period of becoming, and of life in general. “The journey itself is home,” as Basho wrote. I think that’s especially true when we are young, trying to figure things out. Anyway, it’s a good quote, but perhaps not especially germane to the book. It doesn’t shine a ton of light.

Moving right along . . .

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For The Fall, I employed the dangerous double epigraph. Maybe it’s a matter being unable to decide, but I liked the way these two worked together. These quotes speak directly to the book’s main ideas: responsibility and identity.

As an aside, I’ve been catching up with Westworld recently — so much fun — and was pleased when Bernard asked Dolores to read the same passage from Alice in Wonderland.

“Who in the world am I?” Good question.

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In a eureeka moment, I found what I believed was the perfect epigraph for The Courage Test. The book was basically done — written, revised, and nearly out the door when I rediscovered this long forgotten quote while at a museum:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

My book was about just such a journey. The main character, couragetestfrontcvr-199x300William Meriwether Millier, was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, who figured large in the story. And at the end of the book, Will returns home to the place where he started with new insight. The epigraph fit like a glove. The only problem might be, is it too pretentious? T.S. Eliot? The Four Quartets? In a book for middle graders? What can say, it spoke so eloquently to the story that I had to include it.

I also feel good about the epigraphs to my upcoming book, Better Off Undead, (Fall, 2017). It’s a book that’s set in the not-too-distant future and features a seventh-grade zombie as the main character. It’s a wild plot that touches upon climate change, spy drones, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, forest fires, privacy rights, airborne diseases, beekeeping, crude oil transportation, meddling billionaires, bullying, makeovers, and the kitchen sink. There’s also a plot device that links back to “The Wizard of Oz,” the movie.

I don’t have a cover to share at this point, these are the two epigraphs:

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What a world, what a world.

— The Wicked Witch of the West,

“The Wizard of Oz”

 

and . . .

 

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

— Leonard Cohen,

“Anthem”

 

For this book, I’m also tempted to tell you about the dedication — which is also concerned with the future of the world. But let’s save that for another post.

Do you have a favorite epigraph/book pairing you’d like to share? Make a comment below. Please note that new comments need a moderator’s approval before the comment appears. This helps limit the whackjobs and crackpots to a manageable few, seating for everyone, sort of like Thanksgiving dinner at the relatives’ house. Cheers!

A Writer’s Dilemma: The Challenge w/ Cell Phones

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Let’s start by looking at this clip below. The illustrated video, created by Steve Cutts for Moby’s new song, “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” is dark and disturbing. You can even watch it with the sound off, since my interest is almost entirely with the story told by the visuals.

 

 

Wow, right? A bleak look at cell phone addiction. Or maybe it’s just a slightly exaggerated look at our world?

Contemporary cell phone culture presents unique challenges to any children’s book writer. Not the phones themselves, of course, but the way in which so much of contemporary teen life is spent on those phones. A quick Google search reveals reports that claim young adults will take more than 25,000 selfies during their lifetimes. More than 93 million selfies are taken each day; and so on and so on. You get the picture.

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In that regard, cell phones must be considered central to any telling of realistic fiction. It’s where so much of their lives are played out. But, confession: that’s not the version of life I’m personally interested in exploring. Maybe this reveals me for what I am — an old guy who grew up in a time before cell phones and personal computers. Their world is not my world. Maybe it’s beyond me. And yet I’m typing this on a laptop with an Apple phone at my side.

None of this was an issue for Mark Twain or Zora Neale Hurston.

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How do writers of children’s literature deal with phones? How do we tell contemporary stories? One way, of course, would be to embrace the phone fully. Make it a central character — that’s where the drama plays out, so dive right in. That’s a legitimate approach, but feels gimmicky. I also suspect that technique would quickly become dated.
In my books, I’ve dealt with phones in a number of ways.
Here are a few:

* I recently wrote a new Jigsaw Jones, The Case from Outer Space. The characters are in second grade, so cell phones are not an issue. Nice!

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* In my “Scary Tales” series, phones present a different sort of challenge. The phone makes the world less scary. I don’t want a kid who is trapped in a cave to be able to pick up her phone and call 911. And the inverse is especially true — any sense of isolation, of disconnectedness, raises their discomfort. In I Scream, You Scream, the phones are confiscated before a thrill ride (no photos). Other times, the Wi-Fi is mysteriously down (Good Night, Zombie). I’m often trying to get the phone out of the way.

img_1992* In The Fall, a book that deals, in part, with teenage cyber-bullying, there’s no way to pretend that phones don’t exist. My characters send and receive texts, and “cell life” is inherent in the story. Interestingly, while the phones enhance our ability to connect electronically, they can also limit our real-time connections. Here’s a moment in the story when Sam recounts his second meeting with Morgan. They are both walking their dogs off-leash behind the middle school. They talk a little bit, thanks to the dogs. And then, this:

I stared at my phone, scrolled.

Morgan pulled her cell out of a coat pocket.

We stood there in awkward proximity, alone on a field, playing games with our phones. Silence drifted over us like clouds.

I pocked the cell.

“Bye,” I said.

I don’t remember if she answered me, but Morgan called to Max, “See ya, boy!”

* For The Courage Test, a father and son go on a long camping trip together. It would have been perfectly valid for them to lose a signal at different points in the story (and they do). But I still had the problem — if you can call it that — of a kid with his phone. Rather than ignore it completely, I wrote a scene where they are driving along in Montana. William is playing a game on his phone, not, to his father’s mind, fully appreciative of the landscape. They argue about the phone. The argument escalates.

He holds out his hand, gesturing for the phone.

Now, this next part is funny.

Hilarious, almost.

And it’s also incredibly, fabulously stupid, because I can be such an idiot sometimes. My father has pushed me into a corner. We are in the middle of nowhere. Wi-Fi is spotty at best. Back home, at Puckett Field, there’s an All-Star practice tonight — a practice that I’m missing, for a team I can’t play on, because my ex-dad wants to haul me across the universe. 

My right index finger pressed the button on the armrest. The window slides noiselessly down and I immediately feel it, the wind and whoosh of summer heat.

I turn and can’t resist, so with a flick of my wrist I pitch my phone out the window. 

Problem solved.

* In Before You Go, possibly my only true YA, Jude has a phone and uses it. But at the same time, I mostly write around it — to a point that might present a picture that’s somewhat untrue to life as it is currently lived. Again, it’s hard to move a story along if people are constantly staring at Youtube videos and Snapchat. Or maybe you can? But yuck.

* Picture books, where characters can be talking pigs or pogo-sticking hyenas, offer another way for a writer to sidestep phone culture. Just create an alternative world and write for very young children. Though lately I’ve seen a few picture books where kids are dealing with parents who won’t stop looking at their phones.

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* Write Historical Fiction. Set stories in a time before cell phones. The same is true for dystopian novels and science fiction. “Electricity’s out, folks, you’re going to have to talk among yourselves!” Maybe that’s why we see so much of it these days?

I share these musings not because I have the answers, but because I think it’s an issue which confronts contemporary writers. Phones are awfully tedious, and people staring at phones — while super realistic: just look around! — is even worse.

What do you think? Can you think of books that dealt with phones in an innovative or effective way? In our efforts to be realistic, do we need to incorporate more phone-drama in our books? Thoughts?

The idea of writing that Civil War story never looked so good.

Booklist Gives Starred Review to THE COURAGE TEST!

 

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I am thrilled to share the terrific news that the good folks at Booklist, particularly long-time reviewer John Peters, just gave The Courage Test a killer review — and a great big star. Note: I will backtrack to provide a link as soon as one becomes available. In the meantime, you’re just going to have to trust me. I am not making this up.

A great review is a fine thing, of course. But outside of what it means to me as an author (validation! affirmation!), or for my book (massive sales! yachts! librarians! ice cream sundaes!), it’s simply an impressive writing feat, a true literary skill. In limited space, Peters concisely, cogently manages to articulate so much of the book’s content. No easy task. A tip of the hat to Mister Peters. I’m really glad you liked the book.

 

 THE COURAGE TEST 

Author: James Preller 

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

Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip that does traditional double-duty as plot device and coming-of-age metaphor. Will is initially baffled and furious at being abruptly forced to accompany his divorced father, a history professor, on a long journey retracing much of the trail of Lewis and Clark. The trip soon becomes an adventure, though, because as the wonders of the great outdoors work their old magic on Will’s disposition, his father and a Nez Perce friend (who turns out to be a Brooklyn banker) fill him in on the Corps of Discovery’s encounters with nature and native peoples. Also, along with helping a young runaway find a new home, Will survives a meeting with a bear and a spill into dangerous rapids—tests of courage that will help him weather the bad news that awaits him at home. Despite the many plot threads, the story never seems overstuffed or weighed down by agendas. Leading a cast of appealing characters Will and his father are both vulnerable sorts who share a damaged, uneasy bond that firms up with realistic slowness and occasional backsliding. Additionally, not only does the author slip cogent historical facts and insights into his simply told narrative without disturbing its flow, he offers more detail, plus sources of information, in an afterword. 

— John Peters

 

First Official Review of THE COURAGE TEST, from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

Things just got real.

The first review is in for The Courage Test, and the word is good.

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Money quote:

“Preller traverses both domestic drama and adventure story with equally sure footing, delivering the thrills of a whitewater rafting accident and a mama bear encounter, and shifting effortlessly to the revelation of Mom’s illness and the now urgent rapprochement between Dad and Will. Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here. — Elizabeth Bush, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

You can click here to read the review in its entirety.

A photo from a few years back, rafting the rapids on the Hudson River, guided by my dauntless nephew, Dan Rice. In that boat, that's Lisa's with mouth agape, and I'm in the back right. Also in the boat, my three kids: Nick (behind Lisa), Gavin (front), and Maggie, smiling. Good times.

A photo from a few years back, rafting the rapids on the Hudson River, guided by my dauntless nephew & river guide, Dan Rice. In the boat, that’s Lisa with mouth agape, and I’m in the back right. Also in the boat, my three kids: Nick (behind Lisa), Gavin (front), and Maggie, smiling. Good times.

Thank you, Elizabeth Bush, whoever you are!

In other news, The Courage Test was recently named as a Junior Library Guild Selection. I consider that a high honor, and very good tidings. Bystander was my last book to each that acclaim.

Ask for The Courage Test in your local independent book store. Publishing date: September 13, 2016.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #227: The New Technology Embedded in this Letter Just Made My Head Explode!

This letter from Madison in Chicago was particularly amazing because it included a video message:

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Fortunately my wife, Lisa, was home to help me with it. She downloaded a “QR Reader” app on her phone, we scanned the blobby thing, typed in the password, and instantly a video of Madison appeared on the phone. There she was, reading from my book! Incredible.

Here’s the letter in full, with my reply below:

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My answer:

Dear Madison,

Wow, that was so cool. I’ve received many letters before, but yours was the first to include a QR Code. Is that what you call it? Amazing and wonderful to see you in that video. You read very well, and I liked where you were standing with those funky planks in the background, giving your video an artistic touch. Bravo! I appreciate all the work you put into it, and my guess is that your teacher helped a great deal in bringing this new technology into the standard “letter to the author” format. Very cool.

61ZJfCfXgSL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Thanks for reading four out of the six books in my “Scary Tales” series. Good point about Malick in One-Eyed Doll. He really did show a tremendous amount of courage. I liked that aspect of the story, that he was an older brother who looked out for his younger sister, Tiana.

You asked about six billion questions, so let me get to those:

* Correction: I’m now 55 years old. Rats.

* Correction #2: Thank you, but I do look at least several days older than 30. Weeks even. Months, years. Let’s put it this way: If someone thinks I’m 53, I smile, say thank you, and explain that I’ve been eating right and exercising.

* I have given up my dream of playing for the New York Mets. They don’t need me. But just this morning I signed up with a men’s hardball baseball team. I managed a team for years, then gave it up when I decided to coach my son’s All-Star and Travel teams. He just turned 16 and doesn’t need me in the dugout anymore, so now it’s my turn. I guess the lesson there is that if you enjoy something, keep doing it . . . even if it’s not for the New York Mets.

CourageTestFrontCvr* New books? Yes, for sure, that’s my job. I have a new book coming out this October that also touches on the theme of courage. It’s called The Courage Test. It’s about a father who takes his son on an unexpected trip — the entire time, the boy, Will, wonders what’s really going on — and they travel from Fort Mandan in North Dakota west along the Lewis and Clark Trail. So there’s a lot of history built into the story, about the Corps of Discovery, the native people they encountered, Sacagawea, York, and more. They meet new people along the way and have various camping and whitewater adventures. And they do encounter a bear, both literally and metaphorically. I hope you read it! I am also writing a new Jigsaw Jones book. 

* I’ve won some awards over the years, nothing too spectacular, usually by making state lists and whatnot. Books that have won something include: Along Came Spider, Wake Me In Spring, Six Innings, and Bystander

* I can write a Jigsaw Jones book, or a Scary Tales, in two months. Longer books for older readers tend to take more time. Six months, nine months, even years. 

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales #5: ONE-EYED DOLL.

Illustration by the great Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales #5: ONE-EYED DOLL.

* My brothers are named Neal, Bill, Al, and John. My sisters are Barbara and Jean. Sadly, I have lost two brothers, Neal and John. Both are gone but not forgotten. My children are Nicholas, Gavin, and Maggie. The boys don’t like scary stories or movies, but Maggie is more like you. She loves to feel a sense of suspense, fear, and anticipation where her heart is racing, going boom, boom, boom. I think I wrote that series for readers like my Maggie.

* Cats are Midnight and Frozone. Our dog is Daisy.

Thank you for your fabulous letter. You really knocked it out of the park.

James Preller