Archive for October 29, 2009

BYSTANDER: A Shout Out to Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”

Eric Hayes, the main character in Bystander, plays guitar. He’s also missing an absent father, who occasionally sends CDs in the mail. Here’s a brief excerpt from Chapter 4, the first time that subplot is explored. To set up the scene: Eric’s father calls the family at their new home, five hundred miles away. The conversation does not go well; 13-year-old Eric is uncommunicative. The phone call ends.

Click, and he was gone, again. Call over.

Eric looked at the phone in his hand, shot daggers at his mom, snapped it shut. He went into the kitchen, looked for something to eat. A bowl of Rice Krispies, some pretzels, anything.

His mother barked something about dinner being almost ready, and not to spoil his appetite. Rag, rag, rag. So he grabbed his iPod instead,  slid open the back door, and parked himself in a lawn chair. Eric turned the music up, let it pour into him, fill him up. He had downloaded the songs from his dad’s CDs. Eric did not curse, or cry, or seem to feel much of anything. It was all just a swirling mass, a crazy mess inside his numb skull. He closed his eyes and heard Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page pick out the first notes of “Communication Breakdown,” rapid-fire like a machine gun on the open E string, before hitting three big chords, D-A-D. Then singer Robert Plant’s siren wail: “Hey, girl, stop what you’re doin’!”

It had rained and some worms crawled from their holes out onto the brick patio. Eric grabbed a stick and idly poked at one, turning it over. That’s how he felt, he decided. Just like that worm. Pushed around, prodded by a stick. After a while he’d crawl back into his hole. And then, in a few days, off to school. A new hole with red bricks and homework.

It would be a fresh start. A new beginning. Isn’t that what his mom said? New and improved. Guaranteed or your money back.

I hit on that particular song, “Communication Breakdown,” for maybe too obvious of reasons. But ignoring the song’s title for a minute, it’s on the first Led Zeppelin LP. I remember listening to that album as a young kid, staring at that cover — which depicted, I later learned, the 1937 burning of the Hindenburg airship. This was probably around 1971 or so, when as the youngest of seven I reveled in my siblings’ record collections. It wasn’t classic rock back then; it was brand spanking new.

Though I’m not a musician, my character, Eric, played guitar — so I knew he’d hear it differently than I did. Eric would understand the notes, what Jimmy Page was doing. I figured I’d have to look up the tabs, maybe describe it through Eric’s ears, the way a musician might hear it.

That’s when I learned that part about the open E string. Then those three fat chords: D-A-D.


Perfect, right? It could have been G-F-G, or whatever, and that’s what I would have typed. I’m glad it worked out way better. A happy accident.

Note: If you want to rock, stick around for the solo, at 0:49. Can’t wait for my Gavin, age 10, to learn how to play this all the way through, and believe me, it’s gonna happen. The kid’s got talent.

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By the way, came across this review today. I’m always glad when they spell my name correctly:

“Preller displays a keen awareness of the complicated and often-conflicting instincts to fit in, find friends, and do the right thing. Although there are no pat answers, the message (that a bystander is hardly better than an instigator) is clear, and Preller’s well-shaped characters, strong writing, and realistic treatment of middle-school life deliver it cleanly.”Booklist.

A Bad Break: Some Photos

It’s basketball season. We’ve got two kids on travel teams, Gavin (5th grade), and Maggie (3rd grade). Plus, there’s the rec league for Nick (11th) and Gavin. My wife, Lisa, played hoops in college — team captain! — and coached AAU and high school teams for many years. She’s over 6-1, has sharp elbows, and loves the game. So in addition to her demanding job as a midwife, and her vocation as a Super Mom, Lisa is coaching two teams: Gavin’s rec team and Maggie’s travel team. She’s so busy we have to call a “time out” in order to have a conversation.

When in passing we glance at our family calendar in the wild hope of finding some Jimmy & Lisa Time, it looks like this:

I’m not complaining. I often remind myself they grow up fast, we’ll miss these days when they are gone. And also: I don’t want to be the guy who complains through the best years of his life.

Anyway, Maggie just experienced a minor setback (we were playing soccer in the front yard).

That’s all right. Maggie practiced last night with the cast — didn’t shoot too well, but she was out there — and it comes off in a couple of weeks. Frankly, I’m more concerned about losing Maggie’s help with the leaves. She loves driving the John Deere and helping her dad. Right now, in addition to everything else, we’ve got leaves out the wazoo.

No plans yet to write a basketball book — I hear the title Travel Team has already been taken — but I guess it’s just a matter of time. It would be nice to focus on the girls, don’t you think?

Fan Mail Wednesday #66

Let’s get to it. I’ll plunge my hand into the giant barrel I keep beside my desk . . .  let’s see what we have here . . . a fish? Oops, wrong barrel. I use that one for target practice. Okay, next barrel. It’s a letter from a mother and a daughter in New Hampshire. And sadly, they are quarreling. Stand back, folks. Put on your protective goggles. This is a job for a trained professional — disputes of this nature can tear a family apart.

Dear Mr. Preller,

My 9 year old daughter, Sarah,  has to do a school project and design a small pumpkin to look like the main character in her book report, Jigsaw Jones! This could be quite interesting! However, the problem is we’re having difficulty finding out what color hair he actually has. We’re torn between brown and orange in our house. We were hoping you might be able to answer this for us. Thanks…we love reading your books!

Sharon & Sarah

I replied:


Jigsaw has brown hair. At times it does look a little light, but I’ve never thought of him as red- or orange-haired.

I’d love to see a photo of the final pumpkin!


And thus, domestic serenity is restored. Thank you, thank you very much. Mom soon wrote back — typing with a damaged digit — and included photos!

Hi Mr. Preller,

I’ve attached pictures of Sarah’s final project. Her fourth grade class had to read a book with a mystery and then create this project. On each index card are various topics: information about the book itself, setting, characters, main character and the mystery.  The cards had to be attached to the pumpkin which was to be created any way the kids wanted to look like the main character in the story.  Although I told you my children do their own projects, I lied…I did end up having to help Sarah with this one as the blue cap was a bit tricky with the glue gun! Plus, after letting her use the glue gun and her applying hot glue to my thumb instead of her project I sort of took back control to the weapon!

Anyhow, thanks for taking the time to respond . . . . my children, ages 10, 9, 7 and 4, all thought it was “SO COOL” that we received an email from you!

Sharon & Sarah

As I later wrote to Sharon: “I love this!” I mean, okay, it’s a little bizarre, I’ll admit it, but I’m honored nonetheless. It took me a minute to realize that Jigsaw had a magnifying glass, which came as a relief, since at first I wondered why Jigsaw was smoking a Cuban cigar.

Arrrrr: Greg Ruth’s “52 Weeks Project” Revisited

One of life’s little pleasures is the email I receive each week from illustrator Greg Ruth, as part of his second annual “52 Weeks Project.” Each weekly missive includes a brief note from Greg — who has a writing style, and a way of thinking, all his own — and a new, original illustration.

If you wish to get in on the fun, just go to his site (links below), email Greg directly, and ask to be added to the mailing list. In addition, you can view the entirety of last year’s “52 Weeks Project” . . . or visit Greg’s storefront to purchase one of the originals. Last year, I bought this baby, cheap. And if you’d like to join Greg’s freakish cult message board community, sign in here.

Here’s today’s note and picture:

One of the things about old 18th century portraiture that I truly love is the weird and oftentimes dangerous allegory within them. The clearly staged scenes always have this sense that we’ve caught our subject either returning from some deed or about to embark on one. Picking up on that, this dubious young lad seems clearly at the ready to storm any breach, open window or galleon’s starboard. Sullied from a recent scuffle or self-damage flowered from boredom in the suburbs… I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Perhaps Greg still has pirates on the mind, since he’s fresh off illustrating our upcoming picture book, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade (Feiwel and Friends, July, 2010). Perhaps he’s feeling untethered, unbound by the restrictions of the picture book audience. There’s no dripping blood in our little book, of that you can be assured!

This has been a public service announcement.

What Is a Book for Boys? One Suggestion: “Patrick and Ted” by Geoffrey Hayes

I’ve been dwelling lately on the concept of “books for boys.” It’s a huge topic, one that I can’t possibly address in a single blog entry. I mean, yes, we’re all aware of the gender gap in reading, that many teachers and parents struggle to inspire in their boys a love for reading. There’s been progress made, an awareness that boys are different from girls, and that their tastes in books often reflect those differences. Enlightened teachers are allowing boys to self-select more of their own reading material; graphic novels are gaining popularity and respect; and so on.

Bu when I encounter lists of “books for boys,” I’m often left deeply dissatisfied — even troubled. Because these well-intentioned lists are often guided by limited stereotypes: boys like action, boys like trucks, bodily humor, adventure, violence, etc. Okay, true enough. But these lists led us to an extremely narrow view of what a boy is, and what a boy could be. What about friendship stories? What about sensitivity to others? Gentleness? Don’t boys love their mothers, don’t they struggle with relationships, don’t they ever feel lonely or afraid?

I’ve been thinking about an old favorite book, Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes. It is out of print. I first encountered this quiet little picture book back in the 80’s, when I wrote copy for the SeeSaw Book Club, edited by Craig Walker. Yet it has lingered in my memory ever since. I think it’s a perfect story, one of the few books I wish I’d written. So I finally got around to purchasing a used copy. Let’s take a look at it:

Whoops. Because the image is not available on the internet for screen capture, we’ll have to go to my cheap scanner. My apologies to Mr. Hayes — and to you, Dear Reader — for the darkness, the low resolution. The actual book looks a lot better.

It is the story of two boys, best friends. They did everything together, even quarrel sometimes. But those brief spats did not matter . . . “because Ted was Patrick’s best friend, and Patrick was Ted’s.”

Then, one summer things changed . . .

A quick aside: This is such a classic story format, and a great model for new (and veteran!) writers. So many stories begin by establishing a timeless permanence. The well-ordered past, where time is frozen and things are always true. We meet the character, or the place, find out what he or she or it is like. And somewhere along the line we turn the page to find a phrase like this: “And then one day . . .” The story leaps into the present moment (if not literally the present tense). Now the real story begins. I think of these as “and then one day” stories. You’ll find that  structure everywhere.

Back to those best friends, Patrick and Ted. One summer, Ted goes to stay with his aunt and uncle at their farm. He even advises Patrick, “Don’t let anyone else use our hideout.

Patrick is sad and lonely.

But as the days pass, he makes new friends, has new experiences. He joins in with others, he goes to the movies with Mama Bear, he plays alone.

A hideout of his own. Patrick is learning something valuable here, something vitally important.

Then, happy day, Ted returns — with two pet geese!

I love that sentence: “They were loud and quick, and Patrick did not like them.”

The boys argue, get angry with each other — Patrick pushes Ted against their hideout! — but they resolve the conflict to play happily together once again.

And yet there’s been a fundamental shift. Their world has changed . . . inside and out.

“. . . because Ted was still Patrick’s best friend, and Patrick was Ted’s.”

End of story. And by the way, isn’t that great, when you look back at the book, those two illustrations of the swing? First we see Patrick in solitude, seated on the swing, motionless. On the last page of the book we see the swing again: Patrick is smiling, swinging high, pushed by his friend. Again: just right.

Is this not a book for boys? My guess is you won’t find it on many lists. So when we try to serve boy readers, let’s not be so quick to put them in a box labeled, “What Boys Like.” Let’s remember that they have feelings, and struggle with friendships — that they experience confusing emotions — just like everybody else.

One of my favorite comments about my book, Along Came Spider, came in a blog review by Karen at Literate Lives. It was the first time anyone had reviewed the book:

I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendships and themselves, so it was a delightful surprise to find and read an advance review copy of a book that deals with boys trying to find where they belong in Along Came Spider, by James Preller (due out September 2008).

Interesting, isn’t it? It came as a surprise to the reviewer, a fifth-grade teacher, to find a book that dealt with content typically found in a book for girls. Things like friendship, discovery of self, fitting in. Does that mean Spider, like Patrick and Ted, is destined for obscurity, the furnace where “out-of-print” books go to die? Perhaps so. Perhaps it’s not a book that most boys will naturally pick up. I mean: I realize that it isn’t. Just as I know that a book titled “Patrick and Ted” isn’t going to bring boys clamoring. But I can’t believe that when they read it, they won’t see themselves reflected in those pages.

It is, after all, a book for children.


To learn more about Geoffrey Hayes, click here to read an interview.

He is also featured at everyone’s favorite blog, the always great Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, just click like crazy right here.

And thank you, Geoffrey Hayes, for writing and illustrating that wonderful book.