Tag Archive for The Courage Test

Good News for “The Courage Test”

Good News: Happy to learn that The Courage Test was listed as one of “The Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2017 Edition” by the good folks at Bank Street College. A nice honor to be listed among so many great books and artists.

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2016 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION!

A father-and-son journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail — from Fort Mandan to the shining sea — offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.

“A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama..”School Library Journal.

“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.

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.”—Booklist, Starred Review

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #239: No Cash Prizes for Hashi!

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Every book gets its first piece of fan mail. Eventually! This one is from Hashi after reading The Courage Test. If we gave out automobiles or cash prizes here at Jamespreller Dot Com, Hashi would be a big winner . . . but I’d be broke.

So, oh well, tough luck, Hashi!

Ain’t life cruel?

 

hashi

I replied:

Dear Hashi,

I am glad to receive your letter. My book, The Courage Test, is fairly new to the world. As an author, I often worry about new books, freshly sent out into the world. Will anyone read them? Will anyone care?

Well, Hashi, you did. So thank you for that. I’m truly grateful.

Yes, you are right, the book featured a blend of nonfiction and fiction. There’s the made-up story of Will and his family, his road trip across the country, but there’s also the historical truth that they are traveling along the Lewis and Clark Trail.

couragetestfrontcvr-199x300When I started the book, I didn’t expect for that much of Lewis and Clark’s journey to seep into Will’s story, but as I did the research, I became more and more fascinated. I felt compelled to share what I learned and sought creative ways to push that information across. That’s when I hit on the idea of weaving those two main strands together, fact and fiction, past and present, like the braiding of long hair.

Readers often ask about what happens to characters after a book ends. I take that as a compliment. It means you are still left thinking about them, wondering. I like that about books and don’t feel that authors should attempt to answer every question. It would be like closing a door, and really it’s the opposite that we’re after. We want to open windows, knock down walls. That said, readers should see that Alejandro is a good cousin to Maria, a good man, and I believe he will help Maria and the baby in many ways. As for Will’s parents, my guess is they will stay divorced. Friendly, respectful, kind –- but no longer married.

Thanks for noticing the “good traits” in Will and the other characters. I came to like them quite a bit myself!

EDIT: Click here if you want to see 18 photos of real places featured in this fictional story. It’s pretty cool, trust me. Okay, here’s one photo, just because:

This is from around page 85-85 of THE COURAGE TEST. Same spot, more or less.

This is from around page 85-85 of THE COURAGE TEST. Same spot, more or less.

 

This summer I have a new book coming out, Better Off Undead (Macmillan, Fall, 2017), that’s set in the not-too-distant future. It is also interested in facts about the natural world . . . bees and bullies and climate change . . . and a bit of fantasy too. Okay, there’s a zombie. And a detective-thriller thread, too. And billionaire bad guys. I’m super excited about it. Weirdest book I ever wrote!

My best,

 

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!

Talking: Writing Process, Roald Dahl, Works In Progress, Lewis & Clark, and the Danger of the “Info Dump.”

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD -- a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD — a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Deborah Kalb runs a cool website where she interviews a staggering number of authors and illustrators . . . and she finally worked her way down to me.

Please check it out by stomping on this link here.

Here’s a quick sample:

Q: You wrote that you were inspired by Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World to focus on a father-son dynamic in The Courage Test. How would you describe the relationship between your character Will and his father?

A: Yes, I came late to the Dahl classic and was struck that here was a loving book about a boy’s relationship with his father — not the kind of thing I’ve seen in many middle-grade children’s books. I found it liberating, as if Dahl had given me a written note of permission.

In The Courage Test, William Meriwether Miller is a 12-year-old with recently divorced parents. His father has moved out and moved on. So there’s tension there, and awkwardness; William feels abandoned, and he also feels love, of course, because it’s natural for us to love our fathers.

I wrote about this at more length, here, back a couple of years ago. In the unlikely event you are really fascinated by my connection to the Dahl book . . .

Donald Trump and “The Courage Test”

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I owe a debt of thanks to Donald Trump. His campaign rhetoric helped inspire parts of my new middle-grade novel, The Courage Test (Macmillan).

No book is written in isolation. There is always a personal and historic context, and it’s only natural for outside influences to leak into any manuscript. For this book, Donald Trump — as the emergent Republican frontrunner for the presidency of the United States — became the inescapable buzz and background to my thoughts.

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Back in early 2015, I set out to write the story of William Meriwether Miller, a 12-year-old boy who travels with his father along parts of the Lewis & Clark Trail. They drive, hike, backpack, and paddle through some of the most beautiful parts of America. Along their trip, they experience new places, new people, and (we hope!) gain new insights into themselves and each other.

Young Will’s experience parallels that of the original quest of Lewis & Clark and the “Corps of Discovery,” explorers who sought the Northwest Passage, the hoped-for water passageway from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. The more I learned about that expedition, the more fascinated I became. I’d accidentally hit upon a rich pathway into the American soul. The scope of the book shifted under my feet. The Trail was no longer merely convenient metaphor; it became essential fact, a way into the messy heartland. So the book also became an expression of my awe at the exploration made by Lewis & Clark from 1804-06. Theirs was a military journey into uncharted territory — the old maps employed that great phrase, “Parts Unknown,” to label vast areas — the first epic and fateful push west that came to define the American pioneering impulse, for better and for worse. It was a story of discovery and nation-making, of personal bravery and perseverance, of ignorance and arrogance. Most profoundly, their exploration inevitably precipitated the cruel clash of cultures between the American government and the indigenous people who had lived on that land for centuries.

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And so I set a father and son wandering along that same path to discover parts unknown. They learn something of themselves, but also this: that we are forever remaking our nation in a thousand different ways. How we respect the land, how we treat each other. Each day, we define ourselves anew. The idea of America is not fixed in time. It is a fluid, ever-changing thing.

Lewis & Clark are guiding spirits that haunt Will’s journey. The other specter that haunted my writing journey, if you will, was Donald Trump. I was hearing his words on a daily basis. And it struck me that what he represented seemed to strike against the spirit of this nation’s core. He boasts about building a great wall, he stokes fear and distrust of immigrants, he promises deportations. On the day of his campaign announcement, June 15, 2015, Trump said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

And Trump promised:

“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me —and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

He hasn’t stopped denigrating people since. Just yesterday calling the Somali immigrants of Minnesota a “disaster” for the state. It is one thing to lead a thoughtful discussion about immigration standards and practices; it is something altogether different, and more hateful and fear-mongering, to broadly disparage a culture and a community of immigrants living in our country. It’s also counter-productive.

In The Courage Test, I weave in details throughout the book that echo and mirror the explorers’ original experiences (an incident with a bear, adventures in the rapids, encounters with the Nez Perce tribe, etc). To cite one example: protagonists in both time periods meet up with a vulnerable, pregnant 15-year-old girl. For Lewis & Clark, her name was Sacagawea. She grew up with the Shoshones and was kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe at roughly age ten. A few years later she was sold to a fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, who made her his wife. Sacagawea famously joined Lewis & Clark on their journey to the sea. Correspondingly, in the main narrative, Will and his father meet Maria Rosa, also 15 and pregnant. It is strongly intimated that Maria came into the United States illegally from Mexico, a runaway seeking a new life.

 

Painting by Edgar Samuel Paxson.

Painting by Edgar Samuel Paxson.

 

To me, it became very important how Will and his father responded to this girl. Because it would not only reveal their character, but it would say something about America, at least a vision of America in which I still believe. In that sense the book became in part my response to Donald Trump. A story about morality, and compassion, and the courage to face the coming challenges with open, generous hearts.

—–

THE COURAGE TEST is a 2016 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION.

“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.The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

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.”—Booklist, Starred Review

“A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama..”School Library Journal.