Archive for March 28, 2021

Conversations with Myself: James Preller Interviews James Preller About His New Prequel/Sequel to BYSTANDER

Today’s a special day here at James Preller Dot Com. Over my career in children’s publishing, which began more than 35 years ago (gulp), I’ve interviewed more than a hundred children’s book writers and illustrators — many of whom were legends. My first interview came as a junior copywriter at Scholastic when I nervously sent out a carrier pigeon to author Ann McGovern (Shark Lady). I’ve since enjoyed long telephone interviews with the likes of Barbara Cooney, James Marshall, Ashley Bryan, Faith Ringgold, Karla Kushkin, Bernard Waber, Vera B. Williams, and many more. These days I post interviews on ye olde blog, including lengthy ones with James Bird, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Matthew Cordell, Ralph Fletcher, Jordan Sonnenblick, Wendell Minor, Deb Pilutti — so many. In addition, I’ve hosted contributions from Lois Lowry, Nick Bruel, Eugene Yelchin, Joseph Bruchac, Karen Hesse, Linda Sue Park, and on and on. 

You’d think maybe I’d learn a thing or two along the way.

But nope, you’d be wrong!

Not a thing. 

But then it hit me. The one person I’ve never interviewed, the one person who truly gets me . . . who completes me . . . 

I decided to interview myself.

Look! Here I come now!

 

 

James, thanks for stopping by.

You can call me Jimmy.

Same!

Or Jimbo.

Same!

That’s great. This is going really swell. When do the questions start?

Right about now. It’s been 10 years since you wrote Bystander. Many readers have asked about a sequel. But you always said no. What changed your mind?

First of all, that’s an awesome question.

Thank you.

I finally figured out that it wasn’t a longer story — it was a larger story. It wasn’t what happened next, after Bystander ended, it was simply a bigger canvas, stretched up, down, and sideways.

Genius!

I know!

But this time around, the focus is on Mary.

There were a couple of reasons for that. First of all, I always said that Mary was a minor but crucial character in Bystander. She was the character who changed the most. But also, I think, Mary’s character was a little underwritten. I had made the decision to follow Eric, and really hone in tight there. I felt there wasn’t time, in terms of pacing, to explore Mary’s world. So she was kind of left on the sidelines. This new book gave me a second chance to tell her story

The timetable for Upstander begins about six weeks before Bystander.

Yes. Working that out was a challenge. I took events that occurred in the previous book, pulled out a calendar, and worked backwards to figure out the dates. In my unedited manuscript, I wrote in the dates to help keep the narrative straight in my mind. We took that out for the final version.

It turns out that Mary has a lot going on in her home life.

She really does. And don’t you think that’s true for all us? We have these bright, shiny surfaces that people see — classmates, friends, neighbors — but beneath that, we don’t really know what’s going on with anybody. I mean, with Bystander, right in the beginning, we see Mary hanging out with Griffin and getting involved in a pretty awful situation.

Ketchup, yes, love that chapter.

Thanks.

No, you’re awesome. Seriously. I’m a big fan.

Thanks again.

No, really. I don’t know if you hear that enough, James. I feel like deep down inside you’re just a wounded bird . . . or a very sad baby seal . . . or . . .

Anyway — um, don’t grovel, Jimbo, it makes me uncomfortable — I felt that with this book I could explore that relationship. Why was Mary with those guys? That’s the prequel aspect, where we get to see Mary’s home and social life up close, including how and why she got involved with Griffin.

And about halfway through the book, you catch up with the Bystander timeline.

Yes, it was so much fun. I knew I didn’t want to just retell the events of Bystander from a different point of view. I wanted to cover new ground, painting on that bigger canvas. But at the same time, there were a couple of scenes that I had to revisit, which I think attentive readers of both books will really enjoy looking at and picking apart.

Bystander begins with Eric already covered in ketchup. In Upstander, you wrote the scene where it happened.

I know. The cruelty of that scene was unpleasant to write. Not fun, but I felt it had to be done.

Mary’s older brother, Jonny, has a substance use disorder.

Yes.

Why did you go there?

Substance abuse is a pervasive illness in our world, but it’s also a hidden disease, all too often associated with stigma and shame. We don’t like to talk about it. But people are sick and suffering and dying. I felt that with this topic, I had some things I wanted to say. I wanted to humanize the victims and also show how their experience affected the entire family.

We see it through Mary’s eyes.

Exactly. Mary doesn’t fully understand everything that her brother is going through. But she feels it, and she sees what’s happening in their home. Here’s the thing: I grew up as the youngest of seven children. Five of them were more than 7 years older than me — they might as well have lived on different planets. So I was very aware of watching these older brothers and sisters living mysterious lives that I could barely comprehend. I’d be six and watch my sister wearing lipstick run off in a car with her boyfriend. Or, disturbingly, see a brother get into a physical altercation with my father. Or hear loud music bleeding through the walls. So I guess that’s a familiar perspective for me, observing the complicated, confusing lives of my older siblings.

How did you research the topic?

I read a lot of incredible books, told from various perspectives. I also hooked up with a man, Young Do, who runs a treatment center in downtown Albany. We talked, had lunch, I visited the center, and Young read the finished manuscript. I was lucky to meet up with him. In fact, a personal experience that Young told me about — how he used to get locked out of his house, needing to wake his brother to let him in — inspired the opening scene of Upstander.

So if anything in the book is wrong, can we blame him?

Yeah, totally.

         

 

We learn a lot more about Chantel in this book.

Yes, I felt that was important. Readers needed to know more about that story and Mary’s part in the cyberbullying. I was glad to get to know Chantel better, spend time in her kitchen, meet her family, describe her tennis game.

Is that how it works for you? You put two characters together, they start talking, and the scene writes itself.

Ha! Not quite. I do all the work. But I will say that it was a blast to revisit old characters. Hakeem plays a larger role in this book. Eric, of course. And then there’s the school resource officer, Mr. Goldsworthy. He played a small role in Bystander, but I think we get a richer picture of him in this book. I’m proud there’s a positive portrayal of a compassionate police officer in this book. Just putting that out in the world feels right.

For all his flaws, Griffin becomes something of a sympathetic character by the end of Upstander.

I hope so. He’s got a lot going on in his life, too. You know, I hate putting labels on people, stuffing them into little boxes. Griffin as “the bully.” Because that’s not how the world works. Bullying is a verb, not a noun. It’s a behavior, not a person. Griffin Connelly is a lot of things — Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes” — so I really wanted to show his range and, again, his humanity. I didn’t want him to be reduced to the role of big, dumb, slobbering bully. Life is far more complicated than that. At the same time, he’s responsible for his own actions and he did some very uncool things. 

Well, it looks like we’re out of time.

Yeah, I’ve got a thing.

Me, too.

But thanks for having me over. No one ever asks to interview me.

Yes, I know, sad.

But this has been enjoyable, talking about the book. You asked great questions. Super insightful.

Really?

Oh, yeah. You were incredible.

Aw, I thought you were incredible. Can we hug?

Gee, you know, I’m still waiting on that second vaccine shot to kick in. You understand. 

Sure, pal.

Let’s just say that we’re both wonderful and leave it at that!

 

 

UPSTANDER is available now for presale where all books are sold. Educators may be able to acquire advance, unedited PDF files, for free, via NetGalley. Not exactly sure how that works. I truly appreciate your support. The book officially publishes May 11th. While it is a story that stands alone — you don’t need to read Bystander to enjoy it — I’m hoping that fans of Bystander will get a huge kick out of it.

Both books were listed as Junior Library Guild Selections.

 

The full cover art for UPSTANDER, including flap copy, etc.

Fan Mail Wednesday #309: It’s Easy (and cheap!) to Arrange a Virtual Visit with Your Class

“That was amazing!
The students are beaming and can’t wait
to talk about you!
They also can’t wait to write!”
— Rachel M, 2nd-grade teacher

 

Here’s a correspondence that I enjoyed with a classroom teacher from Queens, NY. I wish I had more visits with classrooms or entire grade levels. They feel so positive, and cozy, and joyful. I especially believe in book-specific visits, where the class knows my work and we can engage in a lively Q-and-A conversation. I can do this with any title or series. 

Is it terribly expensive? No, nope, not really, no. 

Read on . . .

 

Hello there!

I work at a school in Queens, NY.  Currently, I am the teacher of 30 second graders…was previously the drama teacher:)

My students are fully remote, meaning that they are all home and we learn virtually during the day.

I have been reading your books to them as our read aloud, and they are LOVING them! We have created a class detective notebook, where along with Jigsaw, they write their guesses, clues, thoughts, and suspects.

They have just started their writing unit on realistic fiction.

I was wondering what your pricing was, and if you are still doing virtual visits?

I thought a virtual visit from you, where they can ask you Jigsaw questions, and get some creative writing tips would make them smile from ear to ear!

Please let me know, thank you!

Rachel 

 

I replied . . .

 

Rachel,

Thank you for this lovely note.

I would love to visit with your class.

I like to get $150 for a virtual visit — but if your budget is limited, I’d work with whatever you’ve got that seems fair and reasonable to you.

I appreciate that you share my books with your class.

James Preller

 

And shortly after our visit, Rachel wrote back . . .

 

That was amazing!

The students are beaming and can’t wait to talk about you! They also can’t wait to write!!! 

I may have to give them a whole afternoon of writing time because they are so excited!!

Again, thank you so much. Everything that you said was beyond perfect for them to hear.

Of course their first question was, when can they talk to you again…

So, you may hear from me again and next year and so on and so forth 🙂

I will of course share your information with other teachers and the parent coordinator at my school, who usually shares things with all other schools in the area.

Thank you again for everything, that was a wonderful experience:)

Rachel

 

    .                    .   

A Conversation with Judy Bradbury — former Classroom Teacher, Reading Specialist, and Author of the New “Cayuga Island Kids” Series

“I was deep in the trenches with kids
who struggled with learning.
We all rolled our sleeves up
and dug in
to make sense of what they had trouble grasping.
I’ve spent years around learners of all ages
and it’s the joy
of seeing someone’s eyes light up
when they achieve a goal
or nail a concept
that wins the day for a teacher.”
— Judy Bradbury

 

I love it when a classroom teacher steps out and decides to write for kids. I mean, teachers know, right? All the research that I do to try to get things right, these teachers experience on a daily basis. Judy Bradbury began her professional life as a classroom teacher. Since that time, Judy’s rich and varied career has centered around reaching and teaching learners of all ages (from adults all the way up to preschool). Today we’re celebrating the launch of Judy’s new chapter book series for young readers, “The Cayuga Island Kids.”

 

 

Welcome, Judy! We met at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival some years ago. At the time, I thought of you as primarily a professional books writer. An educator more than, say, a fiction writer. Forgive me if I got that wrong. 

I am actually both (and I make a mean mushroom risotto, too). 

Risotto? Wait, did you say . . . mushroom risotto? Cancel the interview! I’m hungry NOW!

Sorry, Judy, I kind of lost my head there. So, um, what were you saying?

As long as I can remember, I wanted to teach. I had an entire classroom set-up in our basement, from a chalkboard, to a plan book, to a row of those wooden desks with ink bottle holes that my father snagged when the school down the road was remodeling. I’d get all the neighborhood kids to play school, and they knew going in that I was going to be the teacher. I also wrote throughout my childhood—a letter to convince my dad to let me take more dance classes (that was probably my first persuasive essay), a “book” for my younger sister about the twin dolls she received for Christmas, letters to the editor, and more. I began my teaching career as an elementary teacher at the age of 20 and eventually became a reading teacher. I taught struggling readers in high school for many years. I also have taught at the college graduate level. My first books for children were picture books in a series that featured math in each story. I’d say that project perfectly blended my love of teaching with my desire to write for children.  

I’m always interested when a children’s writer has an academic background. You have a real sense of how children learn and what they need to succeed.

I like to think that’s true, though I don’t see myself as an academic. I was deep in the trenches with kids who struggled with learning. We all put our sleeves up and dug in to make sense of what they had trouble grasping. I’ve spent years around learners of all ages and it’s the joy of seeing someone’s eyes light up when they achieve a goal or nail a concept that wins the day for a teacher. For authors, it’s when readers connect with characters, are tickled by text, or find another solution to a problem they’re facing—one they might not have thought of had they not read that book. In many ways, books and teachers can be game changers and maybe life savers for kids.  

Though I’m eager to discuss your new chapter book series, first I’d like to learn more about your background with professional books. 

I have always had a passion for reading and reading aloud to kids. Even as a high school teacher I read to my students every day. These kids, who wouldn’t have opened a book if you promised them there was gum inside, would beseech me to continue reading when I stopped. Gradually, they’d start asking me to read stories with certain themes. I’d notice them perusing the magazines and books in my classroom library. (I had a couch in the room and I used a big portion of my yearly budget on trade books and an array of magazines that teens would be interested in reading.) As a mom, reading together with my daughter was a treasured time. We still talk about books with one another. It’s a lifelong bond we formed before she could talk that has carried on through her life. So it is sort of natural that the professional resources for educators I have written center on reading aloud to kids. They offer methods, materials, activities, book recommendations, poetry connections, and ways to connect kids with books and develop a love of reading. 

How can a parent encourage “the reader” in their child?

My advice is simple: read to your kids. Read widely. Enjoy the experience with them daily. 15-20 minutes is all you need. Have reading materials available everywhere—from bedrooms to bathrooms, to seat pockets in your car. Visit the library. Buy books as gifts. Encourage your children to explore books on their interests, and also widen their horizons by choosing books they might not have thought to pick up, but that you feel certain they will enjoy. Oh, and I tell parents this. Reading with your children goes beyond just reading picture books when they’re young. Your books for older readers, for example, would be ideal. They are excellent conversation starters. So, I say to educators and parents alike, read to kids, even when they’re in college. 

I’m curious about your work as a former “character education columnist.” You wrote about issues that centered on emotional learning? 

I did. Before it was known as social-emotional learning, this realm of interpersonal skills was called character education. Each month I wrote a column focusing on trade books that related to the month’s theme and also had a strong SEL component. I absolutely loved writing for LibrarySparks. Those articles were very satisfying to pull together. My Children’s Book Corner blog is an outgrowth of that experience. Each month I interview an author and/or illustrator of a new release and offer resources for using the book with kids. I choose books with strong SEL themes that also connect in some way to curriculum.

It seems like kids are going through so much right now that it’s almost impossible to measure the impact of their Covid experience.

I think that’s true, and it’s why I am buoyed by the reports that sales of books—especially children’s books—have risen during this unprecedented time. As readers we know that books can transport us to other places, offer us fresh perspectives, and lighten our spirits.  

Anxiety appears to be at an all-time high.

It does, and I like to think that books have helped, as have all the authors and illustrators who reached out to offer readings, virtual visits, activities, and more to schools and home-schooling parents scrambling with the new normal this past year. The kidlit community—including publishers—came to the aid of educators and families in a big way; it was heartwarming to witness such a meaningful and well-executed expression of support. It demonstrated solidarity and a willingness to assist. Uplifting moments such as these help us breathe. I hope as 2021 moves forward we are able to move away from such high anxiety and that with distance we are able to look back and find solace and takeaways in some of the silver linings in the Covid cloud. I hope we can focus on how positive expressions are an option even in distressing times: they lift us all up—those who give as well as those who receive.

So now you’ve made this exciting shift. You are the author of a new mystery series. Would it be fair to say that this series is a dream come true for you?

It is indeed a dream come true. I was always writing for children, working on my craft while I was deep into creating resource books for educators. But in reality, I didn’t have enough time to do both. I decided a few years ago to put all my energies solely into writing for children. I turned down a few requests to write another educational resource, and that was hard to do, but I had spent some time assessing my priorities. My heart was in writing for children. That gives me the most joy. So I committed to that fully. 

That’s impressive. And a great lesson in persistence and following your bliss. Please tell our readers about the books.

I’m very excited for this series! The seed of the idea for The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship resulted from a feature article published in the Niagara Gazette in 2015. It detailed the discovery of a cannonball in the backyard of a resident of Griffon Avenue on Cayuga Island. He was installing a fence when he unearthed it. Cayuga Island is a small residential island a few miles upstream from Niagara Falls. Griffon Avenue is named for the Griffon—a treasure ship built in the 1600’s by Niagara Frontier explorers in the area where the cannonball was discovered. It is at the center of one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Great Lakes. The ship sank in 1679 and was never recovered. Well over a million dollars has been spent trying to locate its remains. With the backyard find, the question was, Could the unearthed cannonball be from the Griffon?

My cousin sent the Gazette article to me because I grew up on Griffon Avenue on Cayuga Island. (So did she. I guess you could say we are Cayuga Island Kids). She figured the article would interest me, and she was right! I found myself thinking about whether there was a story there for kids. Finally, I contacted the owner of the cannonball—a high school teacher in Niagara Falls with five kids. He was gracious enough to meet with me, show me the cannonball, and detail the discovery. I began to think about writing a story for kids centering on the discovery of a cannonball. I wanted it to be realistic fiction: part mystery, part adventure. The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship is the result. It is set in present time on Cayuga Island and features five diverse, resourceful, likeable, and lively friends who love a good mystery and are always up for adventure. 

These kids are kind to each other. They are bright and interested in the world. How important was that to you?

You nailed it, Jimmy. It was everything to me that the overarching common quality in these diverse kids would be kindness. I am so pleased when readers get this. Yes, these kids have different interests and skills, attention spans and insights, but above all and in spite of their differences, they care about each other, support each other, have fun together, and work to solve problems together. They are friends. And they care about their world—which continues to be evident in Book 2, The Adventure of the Big Fish by the Small Creek, in which they organize a community event, and in Book 3 The Case of the Messy Message and the Missing Facts when they tackle misinformation, jumping to conclusions, glitter pens, and chocolate chip cookie recipes.

I think the illustrations capture that feeling. 

I absolutely adore the illustrator of the Cayuga Island Kids series! Gabriella Vagnoli is amazing; she “got” these kids from the first sketches she submitted when being considered by our publisher to work on the Cayuga Island Kids series. She is intuitive, fun to work with, and smart. She brings life to my characters and overall warmth to the series. I am grateful to be working with her.

You didn’t go into this thinking “series,” did you?

No, the idea to make this story book 1 in a series (The Cayuga Island Kids) grew from conversations I had with my terrific publisher Marti Gorman of City of Light Publishing. After she acquired it, she asked me to consider making it into a series. Of course I said yes. The second book, The Adventure of the Big Fish by the Small Creek, will be out in September 2021, and the third book, The Case of the Messy Message and the Missing Facts, follows in Spring 2022.

Well, Judy, thank you for stopping by. I wish you good fortune with this lovely series. Thank you, too, for all the work you’ve done supporting teachers and children in the classroom. 

Thank you, Jimmy, for inviting me to talk with you about reading and writing, The Cayuga Island Kids, and my mushroom risotto!

 

James Preller is the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series and many other books, including Bee the Change (from the “Big Idea Gang” series), All Welcome Here (a picture book of connected haiku), and Blood Mountain (wilderness thriller for middle-grade readers). Look for Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, coming this May.  And then buy it. Cheers!

Interrupting Racism

Passing this along . . .

 

Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” as It Figures in My Book, “The Fall”

It began almost twenty-five years ago when I first started writing the Jigsaw Jones Mystery Series. I’d drop quick references to actual books that my characters were reading. Bunnicula, Shiloh, Nate the Great, and so on. Sometimes I’d do more with it, as in The Great Sled Race, where Jigsaw’s class is reading Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner. In another example, The Case of the Buried Treasure, the students in room 201 had to do a “story maps” assignment based on Wolf in the Snow, the 2018 Caldecott Medal Winner by Matthew Cordell. This strategy was a nod of appreciation and a  way to connect the real world with Jigsaw’s fictional world. Maybe a reader would think, Hey, I read that book, too

I carried on that tradition over to longer works for middle-grade readers and beyond. It wasn’t a plan, exactly, it just sort of happened. In some ways, it poses a good question for a writer to ask of any character: What book would this person love? In Blood Mountain, there’s a former marine with PTSD. He’s living off the grid in the mountains. The dog-eared book he carries around is Lau Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. The fact of that book served as an entrance point into the struggles and mindset of the character.

For The Fall, I used Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. There was a time in our world when seemingly everyone read that book — I remember grabbing it off an older sister’s bookshelf. I decided to make The Bell Jar an important book for Morgan Mallen. It was fascinating for me to read it again through the eyes of that character. After Morgan’s death, by suicide, the book finds its way to The Fall’s narrator, Sam.

Here’s one passage where Plath’s book comes into play:

Morgan had marked up The Bell Jar here and there, little checkmarks and passages underlined.

The evocative, transcendent cover of the Japanese translation of THE FALL.

I never found my name in it. There was no secret message. Believe me, I looked.

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead” was underlined in red.

There was a loopy star next to “I wanted to be where nobody I knew could ever come.”

(Oh, Morgan.)

Another star: “I had nothing to look forward to.”

It was that kind of book, and I guess Morgan was that kind of girl. There was a sadness inside her, a darkness I couldn’t touch. Strange as it seems, all the while I imagined her reading those words, dragging her pen under important sentences, drawing stars in the margins.

Reading is the most along thing in the world.

But she was with me the whole time.

Weirdness. The book brought us closer, across time and impossible distance. We shared this.

=

 

ABOUT THE FALL . . . 

 

 “Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).” — Booklist.

“Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse.” — School Library Journal.

“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” (Fiction. 10-16) — Kirkus.

 “It was 2:55 am as I finally gave up on the notion of sleep.  Having started reading THE FALL by James Preller earlier in the day, I knew sleep would not come until I had finished Sam’s story.  Now, having turned the last page, it still haunts me and will for quite some time.”Guys Lit Wire.

“I didn’t realize the emotional impact this book had on me until the very last sentence when it brought tears to my eyes. This was a heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship, bullying, and the aftermath of all of it.” — Expresso Reads.

NOMINATED FOR THE SAKURA MEDAL IN JAPAN!

YALSA “QUICK PICK” FOR RELUCTANT YOUNG ADULT READERS!