A Conversation with Jordan Sonnenblick, Author of the New Memoir, “The Boy Who Failed Show and Tell”

Whew! I’ve been cleaning all day in anticipation of a visit from Jordan Sonnenblick, one of the most beloved middle-grade authors writing today. And by “cleaning all day” I mean to say, I just picked up an old yogurt container from the floor. It was kind of scuzzy. And by “picked up” I mean to say, pushed it into a corner with the side of my foot. Look — here comes Jordan now! 

Jordan, welcome. Sorry about the mess. Normally I have a whole fancier setup –- kind of a spa vibe with cool lighting — but, Covid, you know. Anyway! Yeah, that’s right, just shove that stuff aside. You can sit on that milk crate.

Thanks, man. But I’m a little bit picky. Do you happen to have a low-fat oatmilk crate?

Um . . . 

No? Okay, I will make do.

In the past, you’ve often used your own life as a basis, or at least a springboard, for your novels. What made this book, a true memoir, different for you?

The biggest difference was how easy the writing felt. When I’m writing a novel, I am constantly worrying — 24/7 — about the plot: What will happen next? Are the characters and the conflict developing well? Creating a memoir was awesome, because every morning when I woke up, all I had to do was sit down at the computer, see what actual event from my 4th-grade year was next on the timeline I’d made, and start writing down what had happened. Getting rid of all that uncertainty about the plot really allowed me to hone in on things like humor and getting my 4th-grade voice right.

 

 

Yes, the voice! I think you nailed that. How the heck do you do that? I mean, is it instinct? A natural feel for channeling your inner 4th-grader? Or are there specific things that you look for in the revision process? Vocabulary, sentence structure, or general worldview stuff?

I don’t know. But I can tell you that when I got my first book advance (for two first-person young adult novels), my wife said, “Hey, you’re finally getting paid to be immature!” So I’m thinking that when my instincts take over, a kid voice is what comes out.

I’d bet twenty bucks –- if I had it – that you really enjoyed writing this book. It comes through. It’s funny, closely observed — smooth and affectionate and true. For example, I liked your description of classmate Robert Falcone with his brand-new pack of 256 Crayola crayons.

But Robert’s coloring equipment is on a different level. His crayons come in a cardboard briefcase. With a plastic handle on the side.

Robert is like a professional fourth grader in a roomful of amateurs.

Robert was so incredibly cool! But yes, writing about all these real people and experiences was incredibly fun. That year of my life was quite bittersweet as I was living it, but reflecting back from where I am now was a pure pleasure.

I have a recurring thought about memoir writing. We hear Lucy Calkins and other highly-qualified educators give students this terrific advice, “Write about your own life, even the little moments that happen.” But I am sure that a lot of boys think, “Yeah, that’s totally boring. I wouldn’t even want to read that book.” If nothing explodes, what’s the point? You know what I mean? We grow up with the sense that our everyday lives aren’t interesting enough.

Yes, absolutely. Fortunately for me, my teacher at the beginning of fourth grade, Mrs. Fisher, was basically a villain out of Charles Dickens, and my health situation was pretty Dickensian, too — so I had lots of real adversity to play with. Everything is more exciting when the main character might suddenly stop breathing any second!

 

Vonnegut has a great writing rule that I sometimes share on school visits: “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them –- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Vonnegut is my all-time hero!

Yes, he’s up there for me, too. 

I have never seen a bad piece of writing advice from him. And the beauty of writing these memoirs is that, in focusing on just one short period of my childhood for each one, I could pick only the times when truly atrocious things were happening to me. I could have written an excruciatingly-boring book about my happy, charmed 1st-grade year, for example.

So you actually had a teacher who told your mother, “Jordan will never amount to anything.”

Yup. Not one of my proudest parent-teacher night experiences.

Because as a vulnerable kid, you thought that comment said something bad about you –- rather than something unforgivable about her.

YES! I mean, I knew my teacher was mean. But that didn’t necessarily transfer to knowing that she was wrong.

As a former teacher yourself, and as an ex-kid, I’m sure you have thoughts on this: What do you think makes a good teacher?

Well, that’s very interesting. Believe it or not, I originally sat down and wrote an entire memoir for adults about my own career as a teacher, and how the good and bad educational experiences of my childhood shaped my interactions with my students. But when I was done writing that book, I realized the real gold mine was in the childhood parts, so I pitched a two-volume childhood memoir to my editor at Scholastic, David Levithan. In this first volume, I think it’s pretty clear that, for me, a good teacher is the opposite of Mrs. Fisher. I was so very lucky that my second 4th-grade teacher, Miss Tuff, was the opposite of Mrs. Fisher, in every conceivable way. Where Mrs. Fisher had been cold, played favorites, and shown nothing to me but contempt, Miss Tuff was warm, loved every student equally (or at least, gave us all that feeling), and made each of us feel special, at a time in my life when I very much needed to feel special.

 

When I first coached Little League, I came into it with all this amazing knowledge to impart. Tips and techniques and entire life philosophies! But after a few seasons, I narrowed it down to simply this: I’m the guy who believes in you. That was my job. The booster of confidence. Even when a kid doubts him or herself, I was there saying, You can do it. And hopefully along the way giving them the tools to succeed.

Absolutely. I always say in teacher trainings that the most important thing a middle-grade teacher has to do, before anything else can even be possible, is keep the kids safe, reasonably happy, and interested in learning. Once that flame of interest (in school, in baseball, in anything) burns out, it’s incredibly hard to rekindle. Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to bruise a piece of fruit, but impossible to un-bruise one.

You really struggled as a ten-year-old in all sorts of ways. Asthma, feeling different, not fitting in. How do you feel about that kid now? Do you want to kick him in the butt? Do you want to hug him? Bring him to a Yankee game?

How ‘bout all of the above? Looking back at nine-year-old me, that kid was equal parts irritation, stubbornness, and nobility. I was a gigantic pain to several of the adults in my life (and a couple of the kids, too), but my strongest desire was to be good.

Oh, hey, I meant to ask you: What’s it like to be illustrated?

So, so cool! When my editor forwarded me the initial sketches by Marta Kissi, I was so excited I yelled for my wife and kids to come see. Without ever once talking to me, Marta absolutely nailed the feel of that electric year in my life.

I loved the last triumphant lines of the book: I have books. I have music. I am ready for anything. Is that still pretty much true? Or would you now include, say, a good pair of compression socks?

At this point, I would definitely throw my beloved wife and kids in there at the very top of that heap. But I will say this: without books and music, I never would have ended up with the wife or the kids, because those things completely turned my life around. Every good thing I have basically flows out of my love for books and music.

We see music become a big part of your life in the book. So I have to ask: Favorite Beatles album?

It has changed at different points in my life. But I will tell you that when we brought my first-born son home from the hospital, on the very first morning he woke up in his crib, I took him downstairs to our family room, laid him across my chest so we were both right between the speakers of my stereo, and put on side two of Abbey Road. I wanted that to be the very first music he ever heard. “Here Comes the Sun” –- what a perfect overture for life. Amirite?

Wow, what a coincidence. I tried something similar with my first born. Except I used Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica.” Maybe, upon reflection, it was the wrong album. That kid is so messed up. 

[awkward pause]

Anyway! Last question: This goofy kid in the story, the one with glasses and asthma, any idea what ever happens to him? Is he gonna be okay?

 I might not go all the way to “okay,” but he does survive — and he stays goofy. I know this because the sequel, which comes out next year, takes place when that same goofball gets to middle school. The working title is The Boy Who Failed Dodgeball.

Ouch, that’s gotta hurt.

You’re not kidding! I always joke that the highlight of my Little League career was the 1980 season, when I led the league in concussions. But middle-school dodgeball was worse.

Thanks for coming by, Jordan. Good luck with the book. I’m not a teacher, but I imagine it could serve as a mentor text for any teacher trying to encourage her students to see the story in their own lives.

My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me, James!

Oh, please, Jordan, we’re pals now. You can call me “Mr. Preller.”

 

       

Readers can learn more about Jordan Sonnenblick, and all the books he writes, and his entire family, by hiding in the bushes near his house. Infra-red cameras are amazing these days. There are also ways to tap phone lines. Failing that, just Google the guy. He keeps a website and everything. 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me, I’m a writer, too. I’ve authored the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, along with many middle-grade books, including Six Innings, The Courage Test, The Fall, Better Off Undead and Blood Mountain. My upcoming book, Upstander (Macmillan, May 2021), is a prequel/sequel to Bystander. It was recently named a 2021 Junior Library Guild Selection. Clearly, you should buy it. 

And by “buy it” I mean: Yes, actual money!

Was that too subtle?

 

AS ALWAYS, THANKS FOR STOPPING BY! 

 

 

 

 

Mila Yeh, Jigsaw Jones, and a Children’s Literature Fundraiser Against Anti-AAPI Racism

 

 

Every alert reader of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series knows that Mila Yeh is the brains of the partnership. I mean, Jigsaw is no slouch, but his strength is his energy and never-say-die attitude. Jigsaw never, ever gives up. As his best friend and partner, Mila Yeh quietly keeps asking questions, coming up with clues and new ideas, keeping the investigations (and Jigsaw!) on track. I don’t know where he’d be without her. Theirs is an equal partnership; they split the profits 50-50. And I’m glad, today, that Mila Yeh stands as a bright, lively, caring, strong female character in the world of children’s books — who also happens to be Asian-American. Fun fact: Mila Yeh is named after my old friend at Scholastic, Phoebe Yeh, who is still editing books today. 

Mila Yeh arrives at the home office, singing a song, at the start of a new case in JIGSAW JONES: THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. Art by R.W. Alley.

 

It’s been upsetting and heartbreaking to read about how attacks on Asian-Americans are up in this country. I don’t fully understand it, though obviously the former president’s racist insistence on called the Coronavirus the “China Virus” has contributed to an ugly groundswell of hatred and blame.

Here’s some info from a fairly typical recent article, as reported by Alexandra E. Petri and Daniel E. Slotnik in The New York Times:

Hate crimes involving Asian-American victims soared in New York City last year. Officials are grappling with the problem even as new incidents occur.

Sam and Maggie Cheng on the street where their mother was attacked last week in Flushing, Queens.

Maggie Cheng could stand to watch the video only once.

“I’ve never cried like that before,” Ms. Cheng said, describing her reaction to security footage that showed her mother being shoved to the ground last week on a crowded street in Flushing, Queens. “To see my mother get thrown like that, she looks like a feather. She looks like a rag doll.”

The attack on Ms. Cheng’s mother, which was highlighted by celebrities and gained widespread attention on social media, was one of four against Asian-American women in New York City that day. Taken together, they stoked fears that the wave of racism and violence that has targeted Asian-Americans during the pandemic was surging again in New York. Those concerns intensified after a man of Asian descent was stabbed Thursday night near Chinatown.

The number of hate crimes with Asian-American victims reported to the New York Police Department jumped to 28 in 2020, from just three the previous year, though activists and police officials say many additional incidents were not classified as hate crimes or went unreported.

<snip>

In New York City, where Asian-Americans make up an estimated 16 percent of the population, the violence has terrified many.

“The attacks are random, and they are fast and furious,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, a nonprofit network of community groups. “It has stoked a lot of fear and paranoia. People are not leaving their homes.”

<snip>

The increase in attacks in the city mirrors a trend across the United States. Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative that tracks violence and harassment against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, recorded more than 3,000 reported incidents from the start of the pandemic, said Russell Jeung, one of the group’s leaders and chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University. Of those, at least 260 were in New York City.

These attacks have lasting effects, said Kellina Craig-Henderson, who works for the National Science Foundation and has studied the psychological impact of hate crimes. She said that people targeted because of their race and ethnicity can suffer ailments like post-traumatic stress disorder, often more acutely than victims of other crimes.

“If you’re a minority person and this happens to you, you’re going to be more fearful, you’re going to question your place in the world,” Dr. Craig-Henderson said.

I think many of us ask, “What can I do?”

It’s hard to know. We’re all different. One answer that I like is . . . to do what you’ve always done, but with more intention. You don’t have to become a new person, or a raging activist if that isn’t your comfort zone. Attend a rally, have a conversation, make a phone call, write a book, spread the kindness — find a way, even a small way, to make a difference.

One group of children’s literature professionals has put together an auction fundraiser. That’s one thing you can do. Click here — and give. I learned about it too late to contribute. But if you or your classroom does give to this cause in any many you see fit, doesn’t have to be this particular fundraiser, let me know at jamespreller@aol.com and I’ll send you a signed book (until supplies last).

Fan Mail Wednesday #308: Advice to an Adult for Publishing a Children’s Book

We all get them. Sooner or later, every published author receives the query. It’s from a person who wants to know how to get published. These letters can be touchingly sincere or — at times — presumptuous and annoying. The annoying ones are typically a dashed off, two-sentence email with the request: Explain publishing to me . . . while I sit around and drink wine.

As if we have nothing better to do. 

They want, of course, for “the published” to hand over the Secret Key that lets them inside the Golden Egg where the rich and famous authors and illustrators all sit around sipping fabulous cocktails, gazing at our royalty checks and, endlessly, complaining about our publishers who don’t do enough marketing. 

(Publishers never do enough marketing.)

Alas, there is no Secret Key.

Anyway, I always answer and try to provide some helpful information. Or at least, basic human recognition — I see you — and hopefully a few encouraging words. 

Because it is really hard to feel like an outsider, that sense of how do I get seen? What do I do? Is there a trick? A short-cut? Anyway, I’m sympathetic to that feeling, even though there’s really nothing new or insightful I can possibly say.

See that rock: Start pushing it up the hill.

This email came with the subject heading: ADVICE FOR PUBLISHING A CHILDREN’S BOOK. For some reason, I gave a longer answer than usual, so share it here.

 

Hello Mr. Preller,

I hope this email finds you well. My name is _____, and I’m a general surgery resident at ______ hospital. I’m writing to you for advice on publishing my first book. A woman [edit: name omitted] at the Medical Library encouraged me to contact you.

Late one night last fall, on call as the senior trauma surgery resident, I wrote a children’s book. The children I had spent the night examining in the pediatric ED were afraid and bewildered, and their parents were afraid and bewildered as well. I realized that a good picture book could comfort the kids and their parents, and could explain the unfamiliar hospital environment.

I cold-emailed a literary agent this week and sent her a query letter looking for representation, but haven’t heard back. I’ve read a few blog posts about publishing a book, but I still don’t know very much about the process.

Do you have any advice on how to get from a finished manuscript sitting on my computer to the next step in the publication process?

Thank you very much!

Best,

Tyler

 

I replied . . .

 

Tyler,

How dare you disturb the GREAT OZ!

 

No, not really.

 

I actually replied . . . 

 

Tyler, 

Well done on recognizing a need and writing a manuscript.

That’s a big part of the job. But you still have work to do (often this work is what separates the published authors from the writers and the dabblers).

The standard and correct advice is that most publishers will only look at manuscripts represented by an agent. The old “slush pile” days, when an assistant editor or hired “reader” might comb through a pile of unsolicited manuscripts are pretty much over. Harry Potter killed it; suddenly everyone figured out a new, easy way to become millionaires.

Write a children’s book! How hard could it be?

Ha, ha, ha.

Publishers got overwhelmed. Some still try to sift through unsolicited manuscripts; others do not. These days, agents tend to be the most reliable gatekeepers, helping to weed out the manuscripts that don’t meet publishing standards or the ever-shifting demands of the marketplace.

So, yeah: Do some internet searching and find children’s book agents. Read the descriptions. Send them queries. Know that it might take months to receive an answer.

Note that an agent will only represent you if s/he thinks that your book has a chance of selling. She will not waste her time if she suspects it has no shot. An agent agrees to represent your work in the hope of earning 15% of the profits. Also, an agent’s credibility is at stake. If that agent passes along too many “bad” manuscripts, editors will no longer trust in that agent’s ability or sense of the marketplace. No one wants their time wasted. So, yeah, in a lot of ways finding an agent is a critical step in the process.

Your book falls under what we used to call “bibliotherapy.” Books designed for specific needs, a narrow audience, often to help young children face social or physical problems. Most of the big publishers you know off the top of your head likely won’t be interested in a niche book like yours. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a deserving or publishable book — it’s just not going to be a bestseller. However, there ARE small publishers who specialize in exactly this kind of thing.

Again, more homework for you –- some of which might have to wait until things open up a bit, Covid-wise. Go to the library. Talk to the children’s librarian. Look at books that fit in your category (“My First Visit to the Doctor,” “When Mommy Is Sick,” and so on, usually shelved in a separate section). Note the names of the publishers. Do more research. See if you can find the name of a specific editor and write a short query letter. It’s a long shot, but it’s possible. Such a letter would demonstrate a lot of good things about your level of interest and dedication.

Anyone can dash off a quick email to an author. But will you do the necessary work?

Also, please note the books that you admire. Their length. The word count. And so on. For example, just about all picture books are 32 pages, total. You know that, right? You have to give them something that fits into the publishing world as it exists. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t get that part, so they are eliminated right out of the box. No one is going to reinvent publishing for your book.

Good luck.

And lastly, thank you for the important work you do, especially during this most difficult year.

 

James Preller

P.S. Don’t quit your day job!

P.P.S. Funny coincidence. You wrote a children’s book while working as a surgeon in a hospital. Just yesterday, while working on a children’s book, I found a few spare moments to remove an elderly gentleman’s gall bladder! At least, I think it was his gall bladder.

My next book, Upstander, comes out on May 11th. How did I pull that off? Well, I have the Golden Key. (You didn’t think I was going to share it with Tyler, did you?)

 

 

 

 

 

Guerrilla Art: Bust of York Mysteriously Appears in Portland, OR, Park

I’m loving the story of a statue that mysteriously appeared in a Portland, Oregon, pubic park — reportedly without the knowledge of city leaders. The statue is of York, an enslaved man who participated in the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The only Black man to make the two-and-a-half-year journey. 

From the 2/22 New York Times, written by Alan Yuhas:

Over two years, York trekked some 8,000 miles from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest and back, hunting, tracking, foraging and, at least once, voting as a Black man held in bondage by another, more famous member of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Last weekend, almost 215 years after the group made it back to Missouri, a large bust of York was raised in a Portland, Ore., park without fanfare or explanation, on the spot where a statue of a prominent conservative had been toppled last year. City leaders, acknowledging that they had no idea who put the monument to York there, said it looked great.

“This is what we’re calling guerrilla public art, but it was a pleasant surprise,” said Adena Long, the director of Portland’s parks bureau. York, she said in an interview, is “a figure that in my mind that we need to do a better job of proactively and thoughtfully celebrating.”

Ms. Long said that she was not aware of any message about the bust from those responsible, but that it would be allowed to stand so long as it does not pose any safety risks, in line with a bureau policy regarding tributes. “We’re hopeful the artists will make themselves known so we can have a conversation, but it will stay,” she said.

Park officials, who received word of the bust on Saturday morning, believe it was installed the night before. The bust, apparently made of hardened plastic, portrays York as bald and looking down with a somber expression, above a plaque describing him as “the first African-American to cross North America and reach the Pacific Coast.”

I made sure to include York’s role in my novel, The Courage Test (2016 Library Guild Selection), which mirrors the historical exploration of Lewis & Clark with a fictional boy’s experiences following the same trail with his estranged father. 

Late in The Courage Test: Will and his father, a historian, are hiking along the Bitterroot Range. Will passes one evening by looking through one of his father’s books (pp. 142-144). They have this conversation:

Painting by Charles M. Russell, depicting York’s first encounter with disbelieving Hidatsa tribe member at Fort Mandan, 3/9/1805.

I come across a reproduction of a painting. I call to my father, “Hey, Dad, who’s the Black guy?”

He glances over; I hold the book up to show him the picture.

“That’s York, Clark’s slave. He came along on the trip.”

I take this in for a moment. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before. They actually brought a slave across the country. And somehow that’s not totally creepy?

“They dragged him along, like you dragged me,” I say.

“Hardly,” my father scoffs. “You’re just another spoiled kid who watches too much television. York was a real slave. William Clark owned him. They grew up together.”

Chill, Dad, I was joking. I know I’m not actually a slave.

“Wherever the expedition traveled, the Native people were amazed by York, who by all reports was very large and muscular,” my father the professor can’t help but explain. “They’d never seen a Black man before. On at least one occasion, the Native people rubbed dirt on his skin to try to make it come off.”

“So did Clark let him go free after the trip?” I ask.

“No, things got even worse,” my father says. “After they returned, York argued for his freedom. He said, in essence, ‘Look, I traveled as an equal with all of you for two and a half years. We hunted, hauled, and faced many dangers together. Every man was paid money and given land. All except for me. I got nothing. So in payment, I ask you, please set me free.'”

I waited. “And?”

“He got bupkis.”

“Bupkis?” I asked.

“It’s a Yiddish word. It means ‘nothing.’ Clark wouldn’t do it. He refused to grant York his freedom. In fact, in later years Clark became quite unhappy with York, who he considered impudent.

Impudent? Dad! Speak English!

“It means, ‘not showing due respect,'” my father explains. He sighs, runs a hand across his jaw. “Times were different back then.”

“I guess so,” I say, thinking about how much changes, and how much seems to stay the same.

 

I wrote in an “Author’s Note” at the end of the book:

Painting by Michael Haynes, depicting a hunt as recorded in Meriwether Lewis’s journals.

York, a slave — a man owned as the property of William Clark — eventually did earn his freedom, though it took at least ten years after the expedition’s triumphant return before Clark freed him. The historic record is incomplete and conflicting, as if York was a man little worth noting. One legend has York returning to upper Missouri as a free man, going off to live with a tribe of Crow. However, most historians believe that York contacted cholera and died somewhere in Tennessee after working in the trade industry. The exact date and location of his death remains unknown. In many ways, York’s stunted life serves to illuminate the tragic, cruel legacy of slavery in America. 

REVIEWS FOR THE COURAGE TEST . . .

 

“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

 

2016 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION!

Spread from “ALL WELCOME HERE”

Here’s a spread from my picture book, All Welcome Here, a series of connected haiku, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre. I wrote this back in 2016, took a long while to become a book. I guess June of Covid 2020 wasn’t exactly a great time to launch a back-to-school title. Oh, rats. And I was so looking forward to sharing this book with young readers. Talking poetry, and community, and connection.

Still here for virtual visits. Look me up!

“Caldecott Honoree GrandPre captures the day’s variable moods in pictures of absorbed, interacting kids of various skin tones and abilities . . . a cheery take on the joy of camaraderie.” Publishers Weekly.

“Lively haiku pairs with vibrant art to showcase various facets of the first day of school . . . Expressive, mixed-media illustrations are an eye-catching blend of bright colors, patterns, and perspectives: the multicultural kids and adults further the sense of inclusiveness. With it’s reassuring and upbeat elements, this may also help alleviate first-day fers as it highlights the many positive opportunities that await.”Booklist.