Archive for June 21, 2017
NOTE: I first posted this on my blog back in 2011. Figured it was worth bringing back today, as we warm up for the weekend ahead.
Dad was the father of seven children, a veteran of World War II who served in the Pacific. After the war, he graduated from Boston University in two and half years, because why in the world would anybody want to waste another minute in school. There was a life to be lived, a brass ring to grab, things to do. Let’s get on with it.
It was a different time, a different generation.
Dad settled with my mother on Long Island, became an insurance man, started having kids rapid fire in the Catholic fashion, built a business. I was the youngest in the family, the baby. On rare weekend days I’d tag along when my father needed to pop into his rented office on Wantagh Avenue for an hour or two. We never specialized in father-and-son type stuff, whatever that was, and I’m sure the word bonding did not apply to relationships back in those days, only glue, but I do recall those trips to his office. Dad’s place of business offered that most wondrous of commodities, office supplies — electric typewriters, staplers, a copier, boxes of paper clips and, best of all, tracing paper.
I marveled at its magical properties. Dad didn’t part with his supply easily, that stuff cost money, so I was thrilled and grateful whenever he brought a stack home. Those are nice memories for me, a lifetime away. I sometimes wonder: Whatever happened to that kid? That boy with the tracing paper? Where’d he go?
From around that time, somewhere in the mid 60’s, another day presses forward for attention. One spring morning we set off together — in the hazy gauze of remembrance, just me and dad — to a farm somewhere. Because dad knew a guy, a customer who had a stable and a few horses. He possessed, in others words, shit to spare. And the price was right.
I must have been about five or six years old at the time, no older. We got to the farm, out east on Long Island probably, and I stood around while my father chatted with the owner of the place. Maybe I looked into the stable, fearfully eyed the horses. Did I want to feed one of them an apple? No, I did not. I was shy, watchful and quiet. Eventually my dad keyed open the car truck, borrowed a shovel, and filled it to the brim with horse manure. I stood by, mystified, awestruck. Trunk full, steam rising, we headed back home, where I watched my father spread the still semi-moist shit around the front lawn. It was good for the grass, he explained. Nature’s fertilizer.
My older brothers and sisters recall those times with profound mortification. Imagine the embarrassment they felt, the acute stabbing horror, especially those of a certain age, when the opinion of one’s peers meant only everything. I can’t say this plainly enough: My brothers hated it when dad spread horse shit on the front lawn — even worse, on hot days it smelled like holy hell, the stink filling your nostrils — and yet my father performed the same ritual every year.
And here’s the thing about my dad, really the essential memory of him. He didn’t care. Alan J. Preller simply did not give a hoot what anybody thought. He never did. He embarrassed us, he ticked off people, annoyed relatives, said what he thought and did what he did. Dad lived on his own terms, remarkably indifferent to opinion. And if that made him impossible at times, well, so be it. He wasn’t trying to please anybody.
My father passed away a few years back, coincidentally enough while spreading fertilizer out on the front lawn in Southampton, where he retired. He had moved beyond horse manure by then, thank God, nowadays they’d hang you in Southampton for that, but there was still no way he was going to push around one of those crummy lawn spreaders. No, dad preferred a Maxwell House coffee can, dipping it into a big bag of fertilizer, sprinkling it imprecisely across the yard with a grand sweep of his arm. And to be honest, it’s more fun that way. Believe me, I know.
There he was out on the lawn, doing what he always did, and that’s when his heart gave out, when he fell, when my father left us.
These days, when I’m particularly infuriating — insensitive, implacable, impossible — my exasperated wife, Lisa, will proclaim that I’m becoming just like my father. I won’t listen to anyone, I’ll just do whatever I want. And as I age, it only gets worse. That’s her complaint. The funny thing is, I always hear it as a compliment.
Happy Father’s Day, folks. A good day to pull some weeds, mow the lawn, tend the garden and then, like my father often did, wander into the kitchen, reach into the bottom cabinet where he kept the bottle of Dewar’s, and announce, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”
Here’s to you, old man. Cheers and memories.
I think Hannah Barnaby can write anything. I first read her remarkable young adult debut, Wonder Show, and Hannah then followed that up with Some of the Parts. But now she’s pivoted with the bang-bang publication of two new picture books. Today we’ll focus on Bad Guy, illustrated by Mike Yamada. You’ll like Hannah. She’s thoughtful, perceptive, articulate and inspiring — even if I kind of hate her. What can I say? Jealousy is an ugly thing. I’ll try to be a better person next week.
Hey, Hannah. Thanks for coming by. I immediately noticed that your new book, Bad Guy, is a lot shorter than your previous works. And it comes with pictures. What’s going on?
Well, the thing about novels is that they take so long to read, and I know people are busy these days, and . . .
Actually, the truth is slightly more self-serving that that. While my second novel (Some of the Parts) was out with my editor, I went on a writing retreat. I knew I was supposed to be working on whatever novel would come next, but I had all of these picture book ideas jotted down in my notebook and in a fit of rebellion (or possibly laziness), I decided to work on a few of those instead. It was such a relief to think about story structure on that smaller, more concentrated scale! By the end of the retreat, I had three different stories that were in good enough shape to send to my agent. One was Bad Guy, another was Garcia & Colette Go Exploring (which comes out on June 6th). And the third . . . never sold. But two out of three ain’t bad!
Two out of three is fabulous. I think I’m 0-17 this year with a sac fly. When you write a picture book, do you page it out?
Not at first. I like my first drafts to be more open than that, so I can take few wrong turns and get a little messy. That’s usually how I find the less predictable path. But once I have a draft that works, I will often storyboard it to make sure that the pacing is steady and that I haven’t gone on too long with one particular part of the story. I think of picture books like stand-up routines—they have to be well-balanced and very structured, you have to leave room for the audience to laugh, and you have to know when to get off the stage.
Stand-up routines, huh? I think of my attempts at picture books as tragedies. There’s a lot of sobbing and snapped pencils. Anyway, did you interact with the illustrator, Mike Yamada? Or do you include art suggestions in your manuscript?
Mike and I didn’t have any direct contact at all. People are often surprised to hear that—I think they like to picture authors and illustrators having coffee together, collaborating like Lennon and McCartney. But it’s pretty typical for all of the work and communication to go through the editor and the art director, and that’s a good thing. It protects the illustrator from being penned in by the author’s vision of the story, and allows him or her to construct the visual narrative without being unduly influenced. That’s where the magic is in picture books, for me: that alchemy between words and pictures that are created independently and produce an entirely new experience.
I did include a few illustration notes in the manuscript, but only so that Mike would be clued into the staging or the jokes that weren’t spelled out in the text. When Bad Guy describes his library books, for instance, and then says, “I had big plans,” I wanted to make sure it was clear what I meant.
Did your manuscript change a lot from earlier versions?
Looking back at earlier versions of the manuscript, you’d see that the text barely changed at all from submission to publication—maybe because it’s so spare (only 215 words), there weren’t a lot of editorial changes along the way. Well, except for one. Originally, Bad Guy’s woodworking project was a guillotine. My editor, Christian Trimmer, has a great sense of humor, but at some point he said, “There’s some concern around the office that a guillotine might be . . . too much.” I pointed out that Pepito builds a guillotine in Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline and the Bad Hat, but it was a non-starter. So we changed the woodworking book to a magic book, and Bad Guy builds a box to saw his sister in half instead. Still pretty edgy. But not as sharp.
So the art finally comes in and you did . . . what?
Squealed, jumped up and down, et cetera. Art delivery days were always my favorite part of working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin—we would spread everything out on the conference table and walk around it, oohing and aahing. So I did that in my kitchen. And I made my kids do that, too.
There were a few rounds of email and a phone call or two with my editor, between sketches and finished art, to make sure all the details were right and to cut out a few extraneous words. Paring down a picture book text any further always seems impossible, but once the illustrations are in place, there are almost always a few spots where the editorial scalpel can be applied.
People have always been fascinated with “bad guys” – and these days with shows like “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos,” we’ve even come to root for the bad guys. They are our favorite characters. Why do we like bad guys so much?
Because they’re complicated. Because they get to do things we never would. Because they break rules and embrace their id and make things interesting. Ever since Milton wrote Paradise Lost, the devil’s been the character that throws complications and color and energy into the story. But the trick is making sure your villain is complex—just as every superhero has a vice, every bad guy must have something they love. Even something as simple as orange Popsicles.
This book turns on a joke -– spoiler alert: a gender assumption –- was that element there from the beginning?
The twist was always there, but it took me a while to figure out the phrasing. Because the story has so few words, I knew that whatever the “punchline” was going to be, it would have to be snappy. What I’ve loved most about sharing the book with groups of kids is their reaction to that moment—when I first hold up the book, all the boys hoot and holler, but when I read that final bit of text, the girls go wild.
So you knew how it would end?
I did. I never want to moralize in my books, but I’m very aware of the responsibility of writing for kids and the power of stories to shape their worldview. So even though I set out to portray this little boy who fully embraces playing the villain, I knew all along that he would have to face the consequences. And I wanted them to come from Alice, his sister, rather than from his mother (who is up to a few tricks of her own).
I’m usually good with writing the first 2-3 pages of a picture book, the opening. But the middle, oh boy. That’s rough. What was hardest for you?
Oh, middles are the worst. Beginnings are fun and endings are thrilling, but middles . . .
The good news is that most picture books are built on reliable structures, with reliable patterns. I have done classroom workshops on story-building and it’s amazing how many different scenarios you can construct out of a character or two, a problem, and three (increasing) attempts at a solution. Once you get comfortable with that formula, you can mess around with it a little and twist it in different directions to get that unexpected angle editors are so often looking for.
Could you expand on that? I mean, the formula part. And I wonder: Did you take creative writing in college?
Sure—so, most picture books that tell a real story (versus the “character portrait” books like Olivia and the conceptual/emotional books like Goodnight Moon and Love You Forever) are built on a pretty simple structural progression: a character has a problem and attempts to solve it in a series of escalating actions. The first try doesn’t work but informs the second; the second doesn’t work but informs the third; and the third does work, though perhaps not in the way the character intended. Along the way, the character grows and develops through these efforts, and maybe there are some other characters who help or hinder, and it helps a lot if there’s something funny like a banana or a sloth.
Or a sloth eating a banana! (Just brainstorming here, Hannah. Please continue.)
I only did one semester of creative writing in college, and it was an independent study with a children’s literature professor who also happened to be a picture book author. He was a storyteller, really, and working with him allowed me to dip a toe into the writing pool but still take an academic approach, which kept me in my comfort zone. (What I wrote was a pretty terrible first draft of a middle-grade novel about a boy whose voice is stolen by a witch. A silent main character is . . . not the best.)
Ha, yes, wrote yourself into a corner with that one. So what else is in the works? And try, Hannah, while answering this, to not make the rest of us feel too much like slugs on a couch. We feel bad enough about ourselves already.
Well, my second picture book—Garcia & Colette Go Exploring, illustrated by Andrew Joyner—releases on June 6th from Putnam. Two picture books coming out within a month of each other was a total fluke. I swear.
The tricky thing about this publishing business is that there are always things in the works that we’re not allowed to talk about, right? But I can say that I have a third picture book under contract with Houghton Mifflin—it’s called There’s Something About Sam, and it’s the story of a boy named Max who is convinced that there’s something odd about the new kid at school. (And he is right!) That will be illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf and published in 2019.
Novel-wise, I have shifted my focus from YA to middle grade and I have plans to work on a new manuscript this summer. For the record, this is a story that I’ve drafted twice before, but I still haven’t found the right path into the project. I have faith that it will reveal itself, but I also know the importance of showing up for the work. I invoke the spirit of Jane Yolen, who says, “BIC. Butt in chair. There is no other single thing that will help you more to become a writer.”
Jane is so right about that. And what I like about that famous bit of advice is the demystification of the process. For example, on school visits kids often ask about “writer’s block.” I tell them that my father was an insurance man from Long Island with seven children. He never had insurance block. He just went to work.
Well, he might have had insurance block if he’d tried to make selling insurance feel more like being a rodeo clown. I tell kids that the thing we call writer’s block happens when we try and make a story or a character fit into the hamster tunnel that we think they should take, instead of letting them run all over the place and explore the whole Habitrail set-up. Forcing the story rarely works, and it definitely robs you of the unexpected surprises that make writing actually fun. But you only get those surprises if you’re in the chair, because they only happen at a certain velocity.
I find that I get my best ideas in the shower. Standing up. Often while shampooing. Also, I have discovered that I experience that thing called “writer’s block” when I am bored. I am writing something and I have bored myself. Not a good place to be. So then I have to figure out why that happened and move the story in a different direction. Sometimes that direction is the garbage can, unfortunately. One sure-fire solution — my first step — is to eat ice cream. It always makes life better, don’t you agree? I see that you also teach workshops. Do you enjoy teaching writing? I don’t even like giving advice.
There are two things that I really do love about teaching: the first is that I almost always find that I know more than I think I do, and the second is that I always learn something new. I don’t go into a classroom thinking of myself as an expert—more like a hobbyist who’s been doing this for a while and has some stuff to say—and I’m always determined to keep my mind open to what the students have to say.
Oh, and there’s a third thing, which is that I sometimes get to teach with other writers who are really, really good at what they do. I’m slated to teach a class with Nicole Griffin at The Writing Barn in Austin next October, which I’m tremendously excited about. It’s called “Boys and Girls, Beasts and Ghouls,” and it’s all about how to create fully-realized, memorable characters.
Teaching helps me avoid getting too deep into my own head while I’m writing, and to externalize/vocalize the process to keep the mental pipes from getting clogged. It’s invaluable to me.
Plus, I love a captive audience!
Thanks, Hannah. And good luck with your work.
Authors and illustrators previously interviewed here: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, John Coy, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, Susan Verde, Elizabeth Zunan, Robin Pulver, Susan Wood, and Florence Minor. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function.
A week ago, last Monday, I received this note from author/illustrator Geoffrey Hayes:
Dear James, I just came across your wonderful review of my book PATRICK AND TED while going through my files. So nice to read your kind words again. I think it may be time to bring this one back!
It’s such a great book. I’m glad my appreciation gave you some pleasure.
Five days later, I learned that Geoffrey Hayes had suddenly passed away on June 2, 2017 He was 69 years old.
I never met the man. And only recently did we connect via Facebook. Now he’s gone; may his fine work and gentle spirit remain in our hearts for years to come.
Geoffrey Hayes was given the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award some years back. Today it seems only fitting to share again the tribute I wrote in late 2009 about the small, quiet, tender book I so deeply admire.
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.
POSTSCRIPT: The above piece first posted in October 26, 2009. In February of 2010 Geoffrey Hayes found it and wrote this to me.
I just happened upon your site and was surprised to find my book “PATRICK AND TED” mentioned so warmly. It seems like I wrote this story so long ago, but you reminded me that I’ve always written from feelings and emotions first. I never thought of this as specifically a “Boys Book”, maybe because it doesn’t focus on those things that one traditionally finds in books for boys. In my opinion there is a narrow view in today’s publishing world about just what boys will and won’t read — stories with a female protagonist for one. For every generality you can apply to boys (and girls) we tend to forget that each child is an individual and therefore multifaceted. Thanks again for your kind words and fond memories.