Counting Down . . . to EXIT 13

I’m going to put this here.

Publication day: February 7, 2023. 

I hope young readers find EXIT 13 and love the books.

I hope there’s a 3rd book to write. So much story still to tell.

 

 

5 Questions with Alicia D. Williams, Author of the 2023 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, “THE TALK”

 

When I first read The Talk, I instantly knew that I wanted to highlight that book here. And I definitely wanted to learn more about (and from) author Alicia D. Williams. When Alicia began this process with me, she was already the author of a Newbery Honor Book (Genesis Begins Again). Then on Monday, less than a week after we’d finished swapping emails, The Talk was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Pretty good.

 

But before we get to the actual interview, allow me to break format and share this email exchange that I had with Alicia.

I wrote:

I have an adventurous old friend, a woman, who recently made a video describing the safety measures she routinely takes. The fist-sized pepper spray canister concealed tightly in her hand, the other kind of spray that shoots farther, the new stun gun she now carries in her pocketbook. I came away informed but also saddened by it all. As a man, I’ve rarely had those fears that so many women experience on a regular basis. Am I safe? Am I going to be okay? Can I protect myself from attack? It’s a world I can only try to imagine.
I felt some of that while reading your book. This is not my world, not my experience. It’s devastating that “the talk” is necessary. And in all honesty, I also had to work through some of my feelings about the depiction of white people in your book. They all look so angry and hateful. I wondered about the messaging of that to young readers. It gave me pause and I guess I’m still a little uneasy about it. But when it comes to art, I believe that a degree of discomfort and dis/ease can be an essential part of the process. Your book should disturb my universe. And, of course, The Talk is so more than that: a celebration and a message of love.
Alicia replied:

Thank you for showing me the grace of time. Yes, the talk is very uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable and heartbreaking to give as a parent. And the conversation isn’t a one and done conversation either. It happens every time a situation occurs that needs to be addressed, a new event that needs to be talked about, when traveling or sending your child out with friends. And I get being uncomfortable with the illustrations as a white representing person. I wanted the average white reader to question themselves, their biases, and stereotypes that they subscribe to. I want them to be aware of the “look” so when someone around them is giving the look, then they can tune into the uncomfortable feeling and hopefully be an ally. I’ve gotten that look way too many times and even just recently when my car was stopped in a mall shopping center because I “looked like I needed help.” As part of the work of making our world more equitable, we all need to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable, as diverse leaders say.

1) Hey, Alicia. I wonder if you could please tell us something about your childhood?

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. We moved around a lot, so it was always a challenge to make friends, especially since I was a quiet, shy kid. And chubby. Fat shamed too. So, these things made me go inward. I would rather be curled up in a corner reading a Judy Blume book. Or spinning records on my record player while pretending to be a radio deejay. Back then, children played outside all day until the streetlights came on. Sometimes I would try to tag behind my brother as we sped through the neighborhood on our bikes, but I couldn’t keep up with him or his friends. Many times I’d be at my grandparent’s house which provided stability, so I had friends to look forward to. We’d go to the corner laundromat and play the pinball machines or my favorite video games, Centipede and Galaga. 

I wish I discovered my voice or was given permission to speak my mind as a kid. If so, when presented a chocolate bunny award for our third-grade egg decorating contest, I would’ve asked for the coloring book and crayons instead. In fourth grade, I would’ve tried out for the school play, The Wizard of Oz. In fifth grade, I would’ve asked the teacher why she only let boys color the banners that hung in the hallway and never girls, and that I was an amazing colorer. 

But no, I was a decent, quiet student. Well behaved. There was nothing special about me, but I always knew I wanted to be special. As a little girl I used to pray, I want to do something that will reach the masses. I had no clue what that would be. Probably didn’t understand the prayer in itself. But I knew, deep down, that I wanted to do something great in life.


2) My goodness, The Talk. What a powerful, empowering, profound and yet incredibly sad book. I’m aware that “the talk” is a real thing, quite outside my own childhood (and parenting) experience. When and why did you decide to try to make it into a picture book for young readers? 

Thank you.

The subject of “the talk” has been in my mind for several years. Yet, I didn’t think I should write the story because of potential blind spots as a woman. I held no experience living as a Black male nor had I raised one. But I raised a girl and knew my worries were almost the same. I gave my own daughter the talk when shopping, when she got her driver’s license, and when staying at AirBnB’s. Still, I tried to give the story away to male peers. Even tried to enlist a male poet to co-write it specifically as a picture book because I envisioned it to be a poetic conversation like poet Dudley Randall’s poem Ballad of Birmingham.  Eventually, I let it go figuring the story will ride the wind and land at the hands of the right writer. 

In 2020, I, along with so many others, was deeply impacted by George Floyd’s and Ahmaud Aubrey’s murder, as well as the last words of Elijah McCain. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus. But one night when I did manage to rest, a little chatty voice woke me and wouldn’t let me rest until I grabbed a pen and paper. The boy, the character Jay, introduced me to his friends, family, and everything he was proud of. Those same moments of pride came with a warning or a talk. The story literally unfolded that night. 

3) A lifetime to experience, years to ponder, and a night to write. Sounds about right. As a writer, you are a believer in the bad first draft. Or, at least, the imperfect one. How does that self-permission help you move forward with the work? 

It is easy to talk about the idea of writing a bad draft, of just letting go and write. But it is so so much more difficult to actually practice it. For me, it takes many starts to let go and finally give myself that permission. But once I do, I keep pushing myself to just keep going. Mentally, I have to repeat a mantra very similar to Dora from Finding Nemo . . . just keep swimming, just keep swimming. And even then I may struggle. I am still learning my process. And each book requires a different process in how it wants to reveal itself to me. I think the biggest thing is learning to be gentle with myself. That’s just as important as coming to terms with imperfection.

4) Your Newbery Honor Book, the novel Genesis Begins Again, took years for you to write and rewrite and rewrite. It was especially interesting to me, because I think it’s such a primary lesson for all writers, in that you started with a story that was closely autobiographical. But over time, you were able to pull back and fictionalize the story. Could you tell us more about how that process developed for you, and what that distance gave you as a writer? 

The story began in graduate school. And yes, the whole “write what you know” came into play. I knew about a girl who had been bullied and who didn’t believe she was lovable because of the way she looked. And yes, I borrowed a lot from my life, initially. Then I realized that my ego controlled the story as I retold scenes as they occurred. This made the story feel forced, and well, dated. 

The only solution was to divorce myself from the story; give Genesis her own voice. Once I did this, the story became much more interesting. Genesis took risks that I would never have. She said things that I would have never said aloud. I was able to put Genesis in trouble and not rescue her. As one of my teachers said, “No trouble, no story.” Once I did this, I let Genesis figure out solutions on her own—even if she made a mess of things. With each revision, I discovered more layers for Genesis and the other characters. With each revision, the characters began to speak to me and dictate how they would react and act in different scenes and events. If I didn’t listen, my editor would catch it and make a small note that read “authorial.” And I knew that it was me who was speaking and not the characters themselves.

           

 

5) You recently wrote poignantly on social media about your father, who is no longer alive, and imagining him saying all the things he never got a chance to say to you. Looking at you now, and considering the beautiful & important things you’ve already accomplished, what do you think he’d be most proud of today?

Alicia with her proud father and mother.

Oh, wow. I have never really thought of what he’d say. But now as I think about this—okay, I’m about to be vulnerable in this moment—I think my father would be proud that I love and parent my daughter in a way that he wasn’t able to (show) love and parent me. And I truly believe he would be proud, that with all I’ve gone through in my childhood, I am honoring myself and the prayer that I whispered as a child to “reach the masses.”

You’ve done good, Alicia. It’s been a pleasure to have you visit here. My hope is that educators will use The Talk with learners of all ages to initiate conversations that are open, honest, thoughtful — and yes, even uncomfortable — in classrooms across our great and troubled land. Thank you for that. I’m sure that somebody’d be awfully proud.

JAMES PRELLER is the author of the “Scary Tales” books and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. He has also written middle-grade novels, including: Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, Six Innings, The Fall, and Courage Test. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines, available in stores in February 7th, 2023. The sequel, EXIT 13: The Spaces In Between, comes out in August!

Rules for Roadrunner: A Lesson for Series Writers from Chuck Jones

 

Anyone who walks into a bookstore can see that series publishing dominates the children’s book marketplace. More and more, publishers seek out characters or situations that can appear again and again in books. From Harry Potter to the Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson to Merci Suarez, Goosebumps to The Hunger Games, Dog Man to Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, it is series, series, everywhere. 

In fact, it’s probably never been harder to publish a “stand alone” novel.

And while that is disappointing in many ways — the compensations of commerce elbowing idealism in the gut — to quote a phrase that I’ve come to loathe: It is what it is.

The thought process is obvious. If readers enjoy one book, why not sell them another just like it. Different, of course, but also the same. Delivering the same promise, the same essence. Over and over again. Ca-ching!

And it’s not all ugly. Young readers genuinely like visiting with familiar characters and dependable storylines. There’s a comfort to it. Pleasure and satisfaction. When that reluctant reader (finally!) finds a book that he enjoys, it is wonderful for a librarian or parent to say, “Look, there’s more where that came from!”

It’s how some kids become lifelong readers.  A good thing!

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tif

I happen to be a writer with some experience in series publishing. Most notably, there’s Jigsaw Jones, solving mysteries across 42 books. I’ve also embarked on three other series: “Scary Tales” (6 in all), “The Big Idea Gang” (3 total), and — coming soon! — “Exit 13” (just 2 so far, fingers & toes crossed for more). Each of those series are quite different, operating under specific guidelines.

Jigsaw Jones, for example, has an out-of-time quality. No one gets older. Nothing accumulates. Each book is entirely self-contained and complete. Whereas for “Scary Tales,” I followed “The Twilight Zone” model. Each story had new characters and unique settings. However, I borrowed TZ’s classic intro and outro format (building some familiarity into every different story). In the “Twilight Zone” television show, even the genre vacillates from episode to episode. While the stories diverged wildly, the promise of the series was consistent. Each story would deliver the essence of the “Twilight Zone” experience: strange, creepy, intellectual, clever, well-written and constructed. Currently, “Exit 13” presents new challenges. These stories build upon each other. What happens in Book 1 informs Book 2, and so on. And while each book should stand alone in satisfying a reader, nobody suggests that you start with Book 7 (fingers crossed).

         

I’ve recently been in (top secret!) discussions with an editor and my agent about how to extend a manuscript into a series. Which is curious in that I had originally thought I was writing one simple story; the push for series came from the editor.

So what’s the thought process like?

For me, I start with the book itself. What is it that is repeatable? What is the essence? What is the heart of its appeal? In this case, there’s a character. What happens to the character? What qualities does that character possess? And once I decide on what might be consistent from story to story — I also have to decide what can be (or maybe, must be) changed. The setting? Can I introduce new characters? Can the nature of the main character develop, grow, shift? Does each story have to hit on the same emotions (tenderness, silliness, excitement, fear)?

For Jigsaw Jones, for example, there is of course always a mystery, a case to be solved. He writes in his journal. There is at least one secret code to be solved. Mila often sings a familiar song with made-up lyrics. He almost always references a real or imagined book. Jigsaw usually provides the energy, the forward motion; Mila, the smarts and steadiness. Each book tends to go deeper on a different classmate from room 201. And so on.

I’ve been thinking about Chuck Jones, the brilliant creator of the “Roadrunner” cartoons. Famously, Jones and his writing team developed a list of 9 rules (elsewhere expanded to 11) that would help guide (and more importantly, limit) the creative thinking for each and every Roadrunner episode.

The two rules added at a later date:

10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.

11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.

I’ve found this list to be extremely helpful to me as I cast about for answers for this Next Series Idea. A distillation of essences. And a way to avoid distractions, misguided meanderings, dead ends. The first book is easy in that respect. The playing field is wide open. But by the second book, you’ve made some decisions that you are going to have live with for as long as the series continues. 

Maybe the thought process behind Chuck Jones’s list will be helpful to you, too. It sure hasn’t hurt the Roadrunner. 

 

Beep

Beep!

 

 

James Preller Reads from EXIT 13 — Share with Your Students!

 

Publication day: February 7th, 2023.

That’s soon!

And Cheap, too!

Only $7.99!

The Next Book, THE SPACE IN BETWEEN, comes out August, 2023!

5 Questions with Ann Braden, Author of “The Benefits of Being an Octopus”

I first met Ann Braden the same way as so many others, primarily through her debut novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. An important book that gives face, and heart, and soul, to economically-disadvantaged children who have long been under-represented in children’s books. Ann is a former middle-school teacher and she clearly, deeply, knows that world and those young people. But there’s something else. Something even more significant. Ann has, I believe, a quality that we find in some of our best children’s writers: a generosity of spirit. Read her books and you’ll see what I mean. And so, Ann and I connected on Facebook. I wrote to see if she might possibly want to answer “5 Questions” for us. Happily, Ann said yes and so here we are. As always, keeping our interview down to only 5 questions was the real battle. Every night I kick myself and mutter, “Why didn’t I call it 6 questions??!! Arggggh! Dumb, dumb, dumb!”

 

 

 

1. There are two kinds of teachers in the world: those who “get” middle schoolers, and those who would rather not, thank you very much. You are a former middle school teacher, therefore I assume you have some insight into, and affection for, middle school children. What do you like about ‘em? 

I love that middle schoolers are just waking up to the world around them, and that when they recognize that something isn’t fair they want to DO something about it. I also love that they think they are opaque, but actually are usually transparent goldfish bowls of the basic human emotions of wanting to belong and doubting yourself.

2. Human goldfish bowls, I like that. As for me, I enjoy their plasticity, how they haven’t yet hardened into shape quite yet. Changeable, flexible, open. There’s still hope! Not many authors experience the great success that you enjoyed with your debut novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. An overnight sensation! But hold on, it didn’t really happen overnight, did it? How much time — in dreams and effort — went into that first novel? Or was it really that easy? 

Yes, it was really that easy. 

JUST KIDDING!

So, the first manuscript I wrote got completely rejected by agents. So, I wrote a second one, which got lots of full requests, but then all ended up as rejections. So, I wrote a completely different manuscript (my first MG) and that was got me an agent! YAY!! And then, it was rejected by editors. And then I wrote two new manuscripts that I was really excited about (#4 and #5) and they went out on submission. Soon I was working on my SIXTH manuscript, convinced that at least ONE of the other manuscripts would sell by the time I was done with it, and so this time, I figured, I wouldn’t have to “sell” this manuscript. I’d already have an editor. This time I could just be honest.

And then both the 4th and 5th manuscripts were rejected, which meant the 6th manuscript was a lost cause, and I decided I never was going to get published and that there were probably better things I could do for this world than spending seven years writing things that no one else was ever going to read. So I quit writing.

And then after about 8 months, I started getting really grumpy, And I finally realized that even if no one was ever going to read what I wrote, even if I didn’t like the new story I was working on, even if it meant getting up at 5am…I still needed to write. Just for myself. Just to be able to start my days with the creative part of my brain churning.

And a few days later, I found out that a publisher had made an offer on that sixth manuscript. It’s jaw dropping, really, the way the universe can work. 

So, you’d think that would be the happy ending, right? 

Well…

Five months before the book, which now had an official title of THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS was supposed to be published, I got a call from my agent. She told me to sit down. Naively, I thought it would be good news. But no. It turned out that my publisher had just fired their entire children’s division – my editor, my publicist, anyone who knew anything about children’s books – and it wasn’t clear if they were even going to still publish the book. 

That was a rough day.

But then, we thankfully found out that yes they would still publish it (it had just gone to ARCS), so that was a relief. But it was also clear that no one at my publishing house was going to do ANYTHING to get the word out about this book. I thought: maybe 100 people will read it – that would still be better than nothing. 

But then, when I got those ARCS into the hands of educators, magic started happening. I think it was partly that there are kids like Zoey in every school and partly that there just weren’t that many books yet that showed them as the heroes that they are, but the buzz started building over the next many months – entirely based on word-of-mouth among fabulous educators – and it just took off in amazing ways.

So, yes, basically an overnight success, if that one night is nine years (full of rejections and setbacks) long.

I lead an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books,” and I will be sure to share that story with the group. It will depress them all! So much work. Your new novel comes out in May, Opinions and Opossums. Are you only going to use “O” animals as major metaphors? Is there an Oxen in the book after this? An Ocelot? (My theory conveniently ignores  Flight of the Puffin. Anyway, none of this is a real question. I’ve only got 5 and I want to make them count.)

 

3. I mean to ask: Could you tell us about the point when Opinions and Opposums clicked for you? When all those loose ideas come together and you realized, wow, this is actually going to be a book.

No, it’s a pattern, see? Octopus, Puffin, Opossum, then Pangolin, Ostrich… No, actually I think of these books almost like a trilogy that will conclude with the Opossum, exploring the economic divide, political divides, and then religion -– but more importantly spelling out a secret hidden code of O, P, OP – which conveniently aligns with one of the themes of the Opossum book: OPOPinions, AKA Other People’s Opinions, and if you say that three times at midnight, while at a secret meeting with your neighborhood opossum, you’ll be able to unlock the…. 

Ahem, I mean, let me answer your real question. 

Oh rats, I thought we were going to get into some deep Wicca enchantments there for a minute. 

I was doing lots of school visits in the spring of 2019, and I also had a book under contract with my dream editor, Nancy Paulsen, but it was a book that did not exist yet. So, I tried not to panic (and instead bask in this dream come true!) and I took my notebook and set up four pages with the headings THEME, CHARACTERS, SETTING, and PLOT. And I decided that for two months I would try to write down one thing a day in any of those categories. For me, plot is always the hardest, but theme (which to me basically means: stuff I’m angry about that I want to explore) usually comes first. And I remember being at a gas station in Kentucky when I realized that three big themes (which I had thought would have to all go into different stories) could actually play off one another in the same story, and be far more authentic that way then they would have been on their own. That was when the story really started coming to life for me. The themes were: 1) questioning some of the patriarchal assumptions that have been baked into Christianity — while still finding a way towards faith, 2) how the death of my father when I was a baby shaped me in ways that were different than simply missing a parent, and 3) how quirky friendships (especially cross-gender ones) have the power to push back against all sorts of misguided social norms. That was when the story really started coming to life for me.

Contrary to published rumors, Ann Braden has no plans to feature an ocelot in her next book. We’ve tried begging, but nope. 

 

4. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a suburban town in Connecticut, Fairfield. Opinions and Opossums is loosely based on a fictionalized version of it actually. There were some wonderful things about it as a place to grow up (there were so many places I could bike to!) but I was also very ready to leave the conformity and the outsized emphasis placed on Other People’s Opinions (those OPOPinions!) as I got older. And of course, all of that worked its way into this book.

5. Now that you are a published author — a dream come true — and you are already kind of a big deal — what’s the best thing about actually being a published author? The paparazzi? Getting all the best tables in the fancy restaurants? The private charter flights to exotic destinations? Um, no? Then what’s so good about?

The two things that are totally a dream come true are:

1. Getting to work with my editor Nancy Paulsen. Getting to create something alongside a pure genius is one of the greatest joys life can offer.

2. Being able to connect with kids at a deep level of understanding without even having to say a word. As a teacher, you work so hard to convince students that you love them for who they are, but it’s always a complicated process and you never quite know if it’s getting across the way you want. But when you write a book, it’s like writing a love letter to kids (taking all the time it needs to make sure you’re communicating that love exactly how you want), and then you get to send it not just to the kids in your town, but to thousands and thousands of kids all over the country! If I was wishing for a superpower, that’s what I’d wish for. I’m still dumbstruck that this is what I get to do.

JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, the “Scary Tales” books and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines, available in stores in February 7th, 2023. The sequel comes out in August!