Archive for July 20, 2010

Starred Review from SLJ!

This Just In: The first mainstream review for my new picture book, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, illustrated by Greg Ruth. The review appears in the August issue of School Library Journal, and was written by Jasmine L. Precopio.

What does this mean for you, personally? Jeepers, do I really have to spell it out? Okay, since you asked: It means, good people, that it’s now officially safe for you to buy this book as soon as possible. Now in stock! Think of your future grandchildren!

Told entirely in pirate lingo, this story follows a boy and his entourage of ethereal salty dogs through the first day of school. “Me great scurvy dog slurped me kisser when I was tryin’ t’ get me winks!” The protagonist’s fruitful imagination turns ordinary routine into a high-seas adventure complete with a small, skirted buccaneer walking the plank during recess. In the end, where does X mark the spot? Treasure abounds in the library, with the chance to experience the adventure of the written word. The illustrations have a vintage feel, complete with boisterous grog-drinking, scabbard-waving, and bubble-pipe-smoking pirates. The combination of the muted tones of the pirates with the bold colors of the real world adds to the visual appeal. Despite the glossary, the text may prove a little challenging for the intended audience. However, it can serve as a tremendous read-aloud, especially on Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Fan Mail Wednesday #92 (Monday Edition: Writing Tips!)

I’ve been bad with the fan mail lately. Here’s one from a young writer:

Hi Mr. Preller,
I hope you remember me. You wrote a message in one of my jigsaw Jones books saying that I have talent and that I should keep writing.  Well I have been writing a lot since you taught me “show, don’t tell” in fifth grade at Hamagrael. Can you please give me some advice on how to  be a better writer? I am writing a novella, an anthology, and I am not  sure if I am ready to start a novel draft. How can I make a plot more interesting? What can you tell me about the editing and revising process?


To my surprise, I replied at some length:


It’s nice to hear from you again. Yes, I remember.

The only difference between a novella and a novel is length — and length is largely determined by story. Some stories take more time to tell. At some point, either in writing this novella or another story, you’ll find that the telling of it requires more words. The story will naturally grow longer, because there’s simply more to be said.

It’s a funny about plots, I always come back to a very simple idea:

Make something up!

Really, in some ways, it’s that simple. If you find the story drags, or if you sense that you are getting bored, it might be time to insert some new element into the story. A new conflict, a new obstacle, something. Or it might be the opposite — time to take something out, to cut the fat, eliminate (cautionary note: don’t worry too much about cutting early in the process; first you build, later you can trim). As a writer, I worry an awful lot about pacing, the speed of the story, how quickly the plot moves along. I learned some of those lessons while writing the Jigsaw Jones series, where I balanced the elements of the traditional mystery (problem, clue, clue, clue, solution: fence-post scenes that gave me a powerful through-line for the narrative), with all the little asides and explorations I like to include to provide depth.

Am I confusing you? I don’t mean to, but I remember you as being pretty smart, so I’m keeping my answer at a high level, writer to writer.

Sticking with Jigsaw, you can look at those stories as containing two separate strands: 1) The mystery, the propelling force that pushes plot forward to its conclusion, like an arrow shooting through the pages of the book; and 2) All the other stuff — the character development, small moments at the dinner table, or the classroom — that tend to deepen the story without particularly driving it forward.

So “story” usually runs in two basic directions: Forward or Down. Of course, the two can work together, and a specific comment about, say, a character’s fear of snakes will later have huge implications on plot. It’s not either/or. Remember Indiana Jones: “I hate snakes.” He says it early in the movie, almost as a throwaway line; later on, the seed planted, it grows into a pivotal scene in the film.

(And if you haven’t seen that movie yet, it’s time you did. Fabulous storytelling.)

As a writer, you should always try to be aware of what’s happening in your story. Ask yourself, What is the purpose of this scene? What is its function? What am I trying to do here? And then you write with that intention very much in mind; you have to know what you are trying to accomplish with each sentence. It could be that two people are great friends, it could be that Aunt Rosie has a cruel streak, or that Rachel is really lonely. But with each scene you write, you need to understand what you are doing and how it pushes along or deepens plot.

I’m not a great one for advice. I don’t like giving it, to be honest. Writers have to discover these things for themselves. But here’s a link to two recent blog posts by Lois Lowry that I found instructive. She’s a smart writer, highly aware of her craft.

Lois Lowry: thinking in scenes, etc.

Lois Lowry on character description: some details, but not too much.

Likewise, if you look at my blog, you’ll find a sidebar to the right. Under the heading CATEGORIES, you’ll find “The Writing Process.” It brings together dozens of blog entries that concern my experience as a writer. I don’t have the answers for you; every writer has to go down that road alone. But I do try to share my own experiences, the things I’ve learned about writing over the years. You might wish to randomly explore the links at your leisure.

Advice? Keep on writing, keep on reading — and pay attention to the world and the people around you. Value your individuality, the things inside you that no one else in the world can offer. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. There’s a lot of subtle forces in the world, peer pressure and societal expectations (and writing teachers included!), that will try to mold and shape you into something that conforms with everyone else. Resist that, especially with your writing. When you write, that’s where you should be most free, most truly Peggy.

Have a great summer and stay in touch.


Cue the Inspiration: Hey Jude

Two days ago I handed in the first draft for my next book, an untitled Young Adult novel. Actually, the working title has been Jude, Adrift, but I wonder about the commercial appeal of that title. Does it sound like a drag? Another possible title I’ve been thinking about, inspired by a character’s text message: Hey u.

The main character is named Jude Fox. And while it centers around an eventful car crash, I guess it’s a love story from a male point of view, a perspective largely missing in contemporary YA literature. Now that the book is settled, so to speak, I can go back to the lyric of Lennon & McCartney’s song, “Hey Jude,” and recognize how amazingly close it fits, as if I unconsciously wrote an entire book in response to the song.

Do you think that’s possible? Is that what I did, without even knowing it?

Or perhaps the themes of the song are so universal that it could fit almost any book, from Mudville to Go, Dog! Go!

Final point: I remember being a seven-year-old kid and watching this film on television with my brothers and sisters. It was a huge deal at the time, broadcast in 1968 on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which used to be must-watch TV in my house.

So, first, the introductory clip from the show:

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Wasn’t that cool? The sense of high seriousness of that introduction, of importance. And it’s a nice coincidence that I own the same jacket as Tommy!

Now the song in its entirety:

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Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

Hey Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

And anytime you feel the pain
Hey Jude refrain
don’t carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it’s a fool
who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
Na na na na na
na na na na

Hey Jude don’t let me down
You have found her, now go and get her
Remember to let her into your heart
then you can start to make it better

So let it out and let it in
Hey Jude begin
You’re waiting for someone to perform with
And don’t you know that it’s just you
Hey Jude, you’ll do
The movement you need is on your shoulder
Na na na na na
na na na na yeah

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better
Better, better, better, better, better, oh

Na, na na na na na na . . .


Click below if you want to hear Elvis Presley’s take on the song. I pretty much love it:

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Absent Parents in Children’s Literature

A friend of mine, author David Klein — whose debut novel, Stash, is due out later this month — alerted me to a recent interweb discussion about absentee parents in children’s literature.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford summarized the debate here, while making some solid, sensible points. Here’s one quick snip:

Another major factor in YA and MG literature is allowing the characters to fight their own battles. It’s a very common theme in YA for parents to be absent, abusive, oblivious, or otherwise useless. There’s actually a reason for this, other than the obvious ready-made angst factor. You see, for a story to truly be centered around an underage MC, they have to do everything themselves. Parents, guardians, and other adults can’t do it for them.

Of course, this is an old narrative device, wildly popularized (and trivially conventionalized) by the folks at Disney (Bambi, Simba, I’m looking at you). Seriously, the list of dead or missing parents in Disney films is long and almost comical in its predictability.

Note: This screen shot was filed under the caption,

“Awesome Moms,” so of course she had to go.

The role of parents is often a thorny issue in children’s books, for some of the reasons explained above. But as a devoted parent, I have mixed feelings. I understand the narrative expediency of eliminating parents, or making them appear incompetent, but at the same time I kind of hate it in books when every adult is a complete, useless waste of oxygen. I guess I’m much more offended by one-dimensional characters than the idea of absentee parents.

Personally, I tend to write sympathetically about parents in my books. The trick is to keep the story child-centered. Because, likewise, I also loathe it when a perfect adult prances into the story and solves the problem for the child.

In Bystander, my recent book about middle school bullying, I created an absent father and it served as an important fact in my main character’s life. A source of vulnerability, the limp in his walk. At the same time, Eric’s mother is outstanding. She does a lot of things right as a parent of a child who is bullied. For example, even though her role in the book is limited, Ms. Hayes has thoughtful family policies about computer and cell phone use, she advocates aggressively for her child with the school once she perceives a problem, she makes an effort to spent alone time with him and, basically, she tunes in. I like her and wanted to model how a good, caring mother might act under those circumstances, since I think that’s the most likely scenario. The adults in the school are also shown in a positive light.

Even so, the conflict and the drama remain with the boy, Eric Hayes, in his own world (mostly) away from home. Mom isn’t the answer, but she does provide a foundation of support.

In Six Innings, I’m pretty sure all the adults portrayed are sympathetic and realistic, though Mike Tyree’s parents are distracted by his sister’s athletic success. They don’t quite give Mike the attention he needs. When I started the book, a few people asked me, essentially, “Are you going to write about how the Little League parents and coaches are so awful and over-the-top?”

My answer, “No, not this time.”

In my experience, the coaches — while flawed and sometimes too focused on their own child — are good, decent parents who volunteer an incredible amount of time and energy to the benefit of many children in the community. These aren’t horrible people. And overwhelmingly, the parents in the stands are good folks, too. Hopelessly biased, a little irrational at times, emotionally invested, caring. What I respect most is they are . . . there. They show up, and if you ask me, that’s 95% of parenting: showing up, day after day.

Quantity time, not quality time.

Art: rough cover sketch by R.W. Alley,

where Jigsaw literally finds a skeleton

in the closet.

Lastly, since I’m on this topic, I’ve written almost 40 Jigsaw Jones mystery books. His parents are amazing, loving, funny, intelligent, present in every way. It’s a great family. Mila Yeh has a stepmother — and guess what? She loves Mila just as much as a birth mother. Part of that was inspired as a reaction against the negative cliches that are prevalent about stepmothers, but also by my own wife, Lisa, who is an incredible mother and stepmother.

Still: The stories are about Jigsaw, his adventures and struggles in his boyhood world, and that’s where the conflict takes place. So from my point of view, I think you can represent strong, capable, caring parents in children’s literature and still keep the story kid-centered and child-resolved.

This Feels Like an Amazing Clue from a Supernatural Mystery

I love this. Not only the creative inspiration — that someone saw those birds on the wire and made the imaginative leap to note them as musical symbols — but also that he, Jarbas Agnelli, had the energy and enthusiasm and talent to put all that work into it, culminating in a remarkable little video that lasts less than ninety seconds.

It’s got a Spielbergian, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” feeling to it, don’t you think? The idea of nature sending us a secret message, a cipher.

If only we can open our eyes to see it, the secret that’s been right in front of us all along.

Again: Strikes me as a scene from a possible book.

The photo is reportedly by Paul Pinto. A skeptical person might wonder if it’s all a hoax, thanks to skilled photo manipulation, but I don’t think it matters one way or another.

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