Art Therapy and Post-Concussion Syndrome in My Upcoming Novel, SHAKEN: An Excerpt

My next middle-grade book, Shaken, comes out in early September. Today’s excerpt includes two passages from Kristy’s first art therapy session. I was provided with generous help from two art therapists, Tracy Gilbert and Maria Lupo, who guided my thinking, suggested research materials, and reviewed the manuscript, offering thoughts and insights. For example, the book referenced below, by Susan Farber Straus, came directly from Tracy’s own practice. 

But first, a little background on the book:

For 7th-grader Kristy Barrett, soccer is life. It has always been at the center of Kristy’s world. Her friendships and self-worth, her dreams and daily activities, all revolve around the sport. Until she suffers from a serious concussion and has to set soccer aside for an uncertain amount of time. Kristy begins to struggle in school, experience stress, anxiety, and panic attacks which ultimately bring her to some questionable decisions . . . and the care of a therapist as she suffers from post-concussion syndrome. It’s a story about identity, therapy, new friendships, making mistakes and, finally, coming true to one’s ever-evolving self. 



Nelly Grey was a large Black woman in a flowy orange dress with a scoop neckline. She wore a big, bold gem- stone necklace and enormous hoop earrings. On both wrists she had at least twenty jangly, rattling bracelets of all types: leather, silver, gemstone, whatever. And yet somehow, despite her powerful presence, Nelly had a way of making space for everyone in the room (and right now that included Kristy and her mother, unfortunately). It was a neat trick and Kristy wasn’t quite sure how Nelly pulled it off. The woman, in her sixties probably—there were gray strands in her black hair—had a natural warmth and charisma. Kristy liked her immediately and immensely. How do people do that, she wondered.

They settled into leather chairs at one end of the office, which contained bookshelves and art and framed diplomas displayed on the wall. The room was lit by various standing lamps. On the other end of the space, to Kristy’s left, there was a large worktable with bins of art supplies on shelves along the wall. Like Nelly herself, the space looked inviting, welcoming. Kristy caught Nelly observing her. “We’ll get to mak- ing art soon, Kristy, but first I wanted to have a short sit-down with your mom included. Is that all right?”

She smiled at Kristy’s mother, who looked nervous and jittery.

“I have certain things I like to do with every new client and family. I’m sure you might have questions about art therapy.” Nelly indicated the diplomas on the wall. “Let me give you the definition. An art therapist is a licensed mental health counselor who uses images, and creativity, to help clients work on issues, feelings, and unconscious thoughts—rather than just traditional talk therapy. I am a board-certified art psycho- therapist with a doctorate in medical and health humanities.” Nelly dramatically wiped her brow, whew. “A lot of schooling and, I’m glad to say, my student loans are finally paid off.

“I’m also an artist. I’ve made things all my life. Jewelry, paintings, pottery, you name it. It’s as natural to me as breathing—and possibly just as important. I get a joy and satisfaction out of art that relaxes and soothes me. If nothing else,” Nelly said to Kristy, “I hope that we can experience some of that feeling together.”

Kristy nodded. She was eager to get started—once her mother left the room. It felt awkward with her mom hanging around, oppressive, the way the first day of summer camp never really began until the parents drove away.

Nelly reached down for a book by the side of her chair. “Over the years, I’ve found that I like to start out by sharing one of my favorite books to explain a little bit about how this works.” Nelly looked from Kristy to her mother. She held up a picture book titled Healing Days, by Susan Farber Straus. The subtitle read: A Guide for Kids Who Have Experienced Trauma. “I know this is just a picture book, but it’s absolutely wonderful. It gets right down to it. Besides, adults tend to talk too much—we’d be here until next Tuesday if I tried to share one of my college textbooks.”


<< snip: after some conversation, and conflict, mother leaves the room >>


“Let’s go over to the art table,” Nelly suggested. “This is where I keep all my best supplies. Let’s see if we can be quiet for a bit and draw something.”

Nelly brought out paper and all sorts of supplies. She asked if Kristy could try to draw what a panic attack feels like. And without thinking, Kristy reached for a black colored pencil and got to work.

Nelly sorted beads in a bin. She sketched in a note- book while Kristy drew. They sat across the same table in a communion of silence and creativity. Nelly offered Kristy some Goldfish.

“Flavor Blasted?” Kristy asked, thinking of Binny and the chickens. Wonderful, kind, hilarious Binny.

“That’s the only kind I buy,” Nelly said, handing Kristy a bowl.

And later, toward the end of the session, Nelly touched Kristy’s hand. “We don’t know each other well yet—that will come, in time—but I’d like you to start paying attention to your inner narrative. The words you use to describe yourself. What we call our self-talk.

“The stories you tell yourself about yourself. Sometimes, when we feel this kind of pain, we are cruelest to ourselves. Words are very important, Kristy. One goal that I have for us is to shift from shame, and blame, to gratitude. Instead of saying to your mom, ‘I’m sorry for being a pain,’ or ‘I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you,’ I’d love to see you try flipping that to a more positive story:

“Thank you for being supportive, thank you for giving me a safe space to vent, thank you for understanding.

“But she doesn’t understand,” Kristy said.

Nelly nodded. “And that must be very frustrating for you. But it seems to me that she tries. Don’t you think? I mean, here we are, right? Look around. You’ve seen doctors and concussion specialists and my dear colleague Marilyn Bienvenue. It looks like you might be pretty lucky to me, to have that support.”

Kristy sniffled, picked up a red pencil, and focused intently on her picture.

After five minutes or so, Kristy asked in a soft voice, “Do you really think it’s trauma? What happened to me?”

Nelly leaned back, folded her hands together. “I do,” she said, shaking her head. “I really do.”

Kristy’s lips tightened. She leaned closer to the page, hunched over it, coloring in a tiny detail. Her lips moved and a sound escaped: “Me too,” she agreed.

Coming Soon: TWO BIRDS . . . AND A MOOSE!

I love an aspirational moose, don’t you?

A dreamer, a seeker, a striver who will not give up.

He’s the star of Two Birds . . . and a Moose, coming August 27th from Simon & Schuster. 

It’s a Level 1 “Ready to Read” book, just right for emerging readers.

You can pre-order it now via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your favorite local bookstore. 

And, yes, there will be more books featuring Moose to come. 

Illustrated by Abigail Burch, written by me, James Preller.

Thank you for your support.

DEEP SURVIVAL: Researching “Blood Mountain”

When I speak at schools to an audience of grades 4-up, I’ll sometimes talk about my wilderness survival novel, Blood Mountain

There’s a scary moment in the process that many writers face. After the initial idea for the book — two kids and a dog lost in the mountains! — that happy burst of boing! eureka! — I realized that I didn’t know nearly enough to write it.

It was time to hit the books and talk to experts. Which I did. 

The other day, a few years after the fact, I reread for pleasure one of the books that informed my thinking: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, by Laurence Gonzales. It’s an amazing book, profound in many respects, and a great read. It’s very much the kind of thing I love. 

When you think about it, just about every story comes down to what a character is made of, the content of that character’s character, and survival stories are so powerful because they bring this question to the forefront. Does this character have the right stuff?

And what is the right stuff?

Rereading Gonzales’ book, I kept coming across ideas that I first encountered there, busily jotting concepts in my notebook, underlining passages, discovering ideas that I would try to incorporate into Blood Mountain. I came to his book wanting to know more about why people got lost, what mistakes they commonly made. And moreso, what attitudes best served “the lost,” and which attitudes might get a lost person into serious trouble. 

Here’s something from page 154: “Psychologists who study the behavior of people who get lost report that very few ever backtrack.”

There’s a deep urge, particularly in goal-oriented people, to keep moving forward. Our eyes look forward, after all. So I made sure to write Grace (13) and Carter (11) that way, a dogged determination to keep going (even when the expert advice is to stay calm, stay put, stay warm, stay dry).

Another bit of wisdom that true survivors arrive at fairly quickly is the ability to make peace with their environment, a clear-eyed acceptance of the new reality. This becomes Grace’s path. While both characters ultimately need to be rescued, only Carter really needs to be saved. 

Earlier, Grace and Carter, on Day 2, form a plan to climb to a summit for a better view. That’s how they will see the clear path home, as if looking down on a giant map. The mentality, described by Gonzales, is fairly sound but not without risk (p. 160): “Maybe if he just got up high . . . if he could just see the whole area, then everything would snap back into focus and he could calm down.

Unfortunately, when people are without food and water, depleted already and possibly not thinking clearly, the expenditure of that effort can exhaust or injure them, possibly leading to outright panic. 

So, yes, in Blood Mountain we see exactly that, leading to Grace’s fall (from grace). Psychologically, it has to do with a person’s intense desire to map the self, map the environment — to create a mental picture. So that the interior mind and the exterior environment sync up.

Losing that inner map is the essence of being lost. 

Also from Gonzales: “Part of the terror of being lost stems from the idea of never being seen again.

I loved that one, because that’s all any of us want in this world, isn’t it? To be seen. To be valued. Without being seen, do we just fade out of existence, vanish into nothingness? 

Again, Gonzales: “Being lost, then, is not a location; it is a transformation. It is a failure of the mind.”

To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won’t matter where you are.

The rule is simple: Be here now

In Blood Mountain, I separate Grace and Carter and give them different experiences and, more importantly, different ways of responding to those circumstances. 

Grace, though injured and alone (with her dog, Sitka, thankfully), comes to a state of acceptance. Even appreciation of the beauty around her. She begins to set small goals for herself, simple tasks: get water, make a more comfortable bed, ration the supplies, etc. 

A holocaust survivor (p. 169) described the process this way: “Rescue will come as a welcome interruption of . . . the survival voyage.”

I share all this — just a fraction of the insights (borrowed, stolen) that went into writing Blood Mountain. (I’m not an expert, but I played in the writing of this book!)

There’s an intellectual reason for everything that happens on every page. Each scene, each moment, is intentional. Again, it is Grace’s sense of wonder about the natural world around her. The trees and plants and animal life. From Gonzales (p. 240): “It is a decision not to be lost wherever you happen to find yourself. It’s simply saying, “I’m not lost, I’m right here.

All this is to say: THANK YOU, LAURENCE GONZALES. I couldn’t have written my book without you!

BLOOD MOUNTAIN is now available in paperback for only $8.99.

A Horrifying Way to Kickoff Summer Reading

Good News! Here’s a horrifying way to kick off summer reading and a great gift idea.
In about two weeks, on June 25th, Square Fish/Macmillan will be putting out a 304-page compilation that brings together three of my “Scary Tales” books in one volume: One-Eyed Doll, Nightmareland, and Swamp Monster. All for only $8.99 (cheap!).
For this series, I wanted more freedom than I had with Jigsaw Jones (42 books!), so each story features different characters and unique settings. I love that three of these stories can now be read in one big book. Best for grades 3-5, though I’ve met many middle-school readers who’ve loved the books. This larger volume will not look at all “too young” or “babyish,” removing any stigma an older reader might experience reading what looks like an “easy” book. 
I wrote these in the tradition of the great old “high-lo” concept. Fast-paced, high-interest stories, easy to read text, amazing illustrations by Iacapo Bruno, in the hopes of appealing to those hard-to-reach reluctant readers.

Last School Visit of the School Year!

I was feeling pretty drained from yesterday, my last school visit of the year. A hot one! We crammed everybody into the library — four presentations, K-5 — and we all pretty much constantly thought about how nice it would have been to have air conditioning.
I longed for a cool movie theater and a box of Junior Mints.
How on earth do teachers do it?
Drip, drip, drip.
The sound of students melting into puddles on the floor.
As always, but maybe never moreso than today, circa 2024, I am beyond grateful to still be invited into schools to encourage and (hopefully) inspire a love of reading and writing.
I am very aware that a book is nothing without a reader.
P.S.  Yes, please, I am eager to schedule more school visits for 2024-2025 school year, places near and far. Please contact me at and we can explore how I might be the best fit for your school or school district.