Archive for June 13, 2021

Until We Positively Value Each Other . . .

I love this quote from Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek. He hits on such an important thing. Tolerance — mere tolerance — feels so shallow, so cheap. We tolerate each other as if it were a grim business.

No, he says. We must aspire to something higher. Especially in these days when so many are calling for diversity, compassion, kindness, empathy. To get where we hope to go as people on this planet, tolerance is just the baseline. The two-penny ante that gets you a chair at the table. We have to value each other — every single one. 

Dick Robinson, Chairman, President, and CEO of Scholastic (1937-2021): A Few Memories from the Wayback

I felt a pang when I learned of the passing of Dick Robinson, chairman, president, and CEO of Scholastic. Part of that was nostalgia for a long ago time in my life, but also that I had interacted with him, saw him in the halls and elevators, and respected him.

After a hazy period of cutting lawns and waiting tables, I got my first real job after college in 1985 at Scholastic, Inc., on 730 Broadway, two blocks east from Washington Square Park. I was hired as a junior copywriter to write the SeeSaw Book Club. I was also assigned the role of copywriter for the Text Division, run by Eleanor Angeles and Loretta Marion. I wrote the bulk of their catalog copy, plus ads and direct mail packages.

As it happened, it was a tradition for Dick Robinson to write an intro letter on the inside cover of the main catalogs. Only he didn’t write the letters. He rewrote them.

I was elected to be the guy — a young whelp earning a cool $11,500 a year — who would write Dick Robinson’s letters. I’d navigate the long hallway to his office on the 10th floor for a brief discussion. Just the two of us. I wasn’t nervous; curiously, he seemed more nervous than me. Dick Robinson wasn’t an easy conversationalist, nor did he possess a breezy charm. But he was always kind, authentic, never intimidating. There was nothing to be nervous about. We’d talk a bit — he had a deep love for the Magazines Division, and Scope texts, which his father pioneered, and the company’s overarching mission — and I’d go off and try to write something that wasn’t too terrible.

The next day I’d drop a couple of not-altogether-awful, double-spaced pages into his mailbox.

Then he’d rewrite the crap out it.

But he was decent about it, always with a smile, his pen moving across the pages, crossing out sentences, tweaking phrases, inserting a new introduction, gently cutting my work to ribbons. 

For my first few years with Scholastic — and this became a regular joke with my pals Holly Kowitt and Craig Walker — whenever I’d see him in the elevator he’d turn to me and say, “Hello, Jim. Writing lots of copy?”

I always assured him that I was.

Reams of it.

Out the wazoo.

So I got to know the man in that peculiar fashion. Not as the decision-maker at the head of the table. I wasn’t privy to that side of his business acumen. I only met the gentle, halting, vaguely ill-at-ease man who walked the halls like an avuncular school principal. He knew everyone’s name and, mnemonically, I believe, remembered what we did.

In my case, I imagine that his interior Rolodex read: Jimmy Preller, writes copy.

I remember overseeing a poster that showed a map of the world. It was another project for the Text Division. There was some copy in a sidebar and the poster was used as a promotional giveaway for a new Social Studies textbook. Unfortunately there was a typo in it and Dick was the one — of all people! — who found it. Turns out we spelled hungry wrong. The country. Ugh. (It’s Hungary, grrrr.) So that sucked. Dick wasn’t mean about it, he never raised his voice, but I felt bad and he wanted me to feel bad, too. I still do feel embarrassed by it, that dopey mistake.

I let the old man down.

Not long before I arrived at Scholastic, in 1985, there had been a tough profile on Dick in The New York Times Business Section. Scholastic struggled in the early 80s. There were missteps and miscalculations and significant losses. The company went all-in on computing a little too soon, and ineffectually. The Times article, as I recall, brutally summed it up as: He took over his father’s company and flushed it down the drain.

It was rough stuff.

I think about how that article must have devastated him. A knife to the heart. Public humiliation from the old Gray Lady, the voice of record, The New York Times. And what did Dick Robinson do? He quietly persevered. He made some great hires. He brought in Dick Krinsley, who in turn hired Barbara Marcus (my first boss), and Jean Feiwel, a dynamic combination, to take over Book Group. He leaned more heavily on Ed Monagle and Dick Spaulding. I’m sure there were other people that I’ve failed to mention who played instrumental roles. Together, that small, tight, smart group helped turn the company’s fortunes around.

Dick Robinson, justly protective of his family’s legacy, built a business that would have made any father proud.

He did good.

 

 

 

Fan Mail #311: A Class in Queens, NY, Reads BYSTANDER

 

As the school year winds down, I received a bunch of letters from a classroom in Forest Hills, Queens, NY. They all read Bystander. I don’t think it makes sense for me to share them all here, but I did write a group response that you can find below. But to give you a taste — and hopefully a laugh — I’ve included Daniella’s very kind note here. You can tell that she’s a writer, too. It’s pretty terrific . . . 

 

  Dear James Preller,

    Bystander is such an interesting book! Everything leading up to certain points, that was amazing! Some things were expected, and that’s okay because everything else was completely unexpected, and that is one of the amazing things about your book!
Everything happening in the book was completely necessary to the plot, and I just love that. It wasn’t all ‘He ate dinner and then went to his room and studied’. No, there was actual detail. And you only included things like that (of course, filled with detail) when it really mattered!
So if you get letters from people saying that they don’t like your books, just ignore them. They don’t know what they’re saying. Their opinions make as much sense as a thriving Penguin in the desert.
-Daniela B

 

I replied . . . 

Dear Mr. Lynn, Alex, Cameron, Leanna, Jason W, Abril, Sophia, Daniella, Raiya, and, whew (!), Cassandra:

Well, that was an entertaining bunch of letters, thank you all for sending them. And also for reading my book, Bystander. I appreciate that more than I can express.

I hope you don’t mind that my reply comes in the form of a group letter, rather than individual responses. I’m on a tight deadline right now for my next book —- getting slightly anxious about it, honestly —- so I thought this would be the most efficient approach. 

But first, hey, Forest Hills! My parents grew up in Queens and my favorite baseball team plays in Flushing. Rhymes with pets. 

Fun fact: Out on Hillside Avenue, there’s a number of Little League fields named after my grandfather, Fred Preller, who was a NY State Assemblyman for 22 years. The complex used to be called Preller Fields, but recently another politician glommed onto it, so now it’s called Padavan-Preller Fields in Bellerose (right off the Cross Island Parkway).

Anyway! 

Alex liked the suspense of the scene where Eric sneaks into Griffin’s house. There’s an expression, “Bad decisions make good stories.” I think that’s part of what’s going on in this scene. I’ve heard from some adults who were critical of Eric’s actions. And I’m like, “Hey, don’t blame me, he’s the one who did it!”

That’s too glib, of course. But when you write books, and invent hundreds of characters, you can’t possibly have them all do and say the “right” things all the time. That would be booooring and unrealistic. Also, yes, I sensed that it would be a pleasure to write —- a suspenseful scene that would get the reader leaning in. Nobody wants to read about perfect people who always do the right thing all the time. That’s a pro tip: Invent a character and have them make a poor decision. What happens next?

Sophia, Cassandra, Abril and Daniella all commented on my writing. For sure, that’s an ego thing for me, I confess, but I do love hearing that. I try very hard to write my best, with rich images and vibrant language. For Bystander, I was also intensely focused on delivering a fast-paced plot to keep readers turning the pages.

These days, I think my book Blood Mountain might be the best written one of all. A brother and sister (and their dog!) become lost in a mountain wilderness. It’s creepy in parts, suspenseful and tense —- a survival thriller! You might like it.

Jason dug the book’s “different vibes” —- I like that!

Daniella made my favorite comment of all: “So if you get letters from people saying that they don’t like your books, just ignore them. They don’t know what they’re saying.

Ha, ha, ha. Love that, Daniella!

Some of you, Raiya, and others, commented about possible sequels. It’s interesting to speculate on what happens to the characters after we close the book. I consider that a compliment, that somehow the character remains alive in (some) readers’ minds. The good news is that we just published Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander that revisits many of that book’s characters in a new story focusing on Mary. It was named a 2021 Junior Library Guild Selection and I’m very excited about it. The book is so new (about 2 weeks) that I haven’t yet heard from one student who has read it. If you do read it, let me hear from you. Just zing me an email!

But please understand that I’ll be following Daniella’s advice. If you don’t like it, I’ll just think, “Well, they don’t know what they’re saying!”

More Preller Trivia: My son, Gavin, 21, just came out with a record. You can listen to it on Spotify, iTunes, Pandora, all those places. He records under his own name, Gavin Preller, and the album is called “There Is Wonder.”

My thanks to your teacher, Mr. Lynn, for sharing my book in his classroom.

Have a great summer. After this year, I think we all deserve it.

My best,

James Preller

A Guided Tour of Delmar’s Little Free Libraries

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if somebody could make a map of my town’s Little Free Libraries?

After all, we love ’em, right?

I see them here and there in a random, disorganized way. Where are they exactly? And how many are there?

So I did a little crowdsourcing — and internet sleuthing — and came up with a starter list. I doubt that it’s complete. And one could certainly make the argument that such a list should include other nearby, closely connected neighborhoods of Bethlehem proper.

But I’m happy to just start the ball rolling. If you know of another neighborhood LFL that I’ve missed, please let me know and I’ll include it here in what could ultimately become a Master List.

As for that nifty map? Sorry, I don’t have those cartography skills. Truth is, I hardly have any skills at all!

HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED

For the tour, I grabbed a bunch of books that were around the house, since the concept of a LFL is to “Take a Book, Leave a Book.” Because we recently had a “bear scare” in our little town, I figured that young readers might be primed for Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Bear Scare. Besides, I had a pile of ’em doing nothing in a closet.

14 PARTRIDGE ROAD

         

A lovely beginning. This LFL contained almost exclusively adult titles. Neat and tidy. As our tour proceeds, I’ll refrain from rating individual libraries. I imagine that the quality of the books ebb and flow, according to usage, though I am convinced that the best LFLs are actively curated. Some old titles are better tossed in the trash, especially if no one grabs one after a period of time.

9 CATHERINE STREET

         

Gorgeous — I wish my house looked this good. And during my visit, this fine libary featured almost exclusively children’s books! Perfection.

101 ADAMS PLACE

         

There’s a fun hit-and-miss quality to visiting a LFL, not unlike stopping at a garage sale or thrift shop. Sometimes you hit gold, other times you decide to check back another day. Regardless, I’m always happy to leave a book — and grateful to the owners for sharing these libraries with our community.

160 ADAMS PLACE

         

A surprisingly high percentage of these people are my friends. Maybe not that surprising, since I’m drawn to book people and, of course, these LFLs are in my purview. Here’s an example of the odd kind of book you can find. Nothing I’d ever search for, or even think I’d like, but interesting. I didn’t take it home — but I almost did.

107 ELSMERE AVENUE

This is on the corner of Elsmere and Norge. I drive past it all the time. The trick is to turn on Norge, climb out of the automobile, and take a look. Or, better yet, walk or take a bike. Worth a stop.

25 LINDA COURT

         

We don’t play favorites here at James Preller Dot Com. But this is the sweetest LFL I came across on the tour. Good vibes abound, you can sense a child’s touch. Also, a different approach in the construction. It looks . . . portable!

18 WOODRIDGE ROAD

         

Beautifully constructed and curated with a nice balance of children’s and adult’s, literary and popular. Big bonus for the tasteful peace sign attached to the side. Just the right touch. Book people are the best people.

24 TIERNEY DRIVE

         

Must have been my lucky day, because I coveted quite a few titles in this LFL. Excellent balance of children’s books on the top shelf, literary fiction for adults in the main section. I was tempted to saw it off at the base and carry it home. But that would have been wrong. Right?

1 JUNIPER DRIVE

.       

An interesting location, in front of Adams Station Apartments. The books here were, on this day, very much the type that are consumed by avid readers. My money says this is a much-frequented LFL.

RAIL TRAIL, ADAMS STREET. & HUDSON AVENUE

         

I don’t know who takes care of this LFL — but what an awesome location. Next time you go for a walk on the Rail Trail, or a jog, bring a gently used (and enjoyed) book that’s sitting around your home. Trade it in for something new.

311 KENWOOD AVENUE

Fancy lighting, don’t you think? This one is super close to the middle school, sure to get a lot of readers passing by. If you’ve good books for grades 6-8 readers, this is the place where you could donate a few.

51 FAIRWAY AVENUE

This is the last stop on our tour, 12 Little Free Libraries in all. This one has no window, no sign — but don’t let that fool you. It’s yet another LFL, sharing books with anyone who stops by, complete with a nearby bench where weary travelers can read, rest, and reflect. The owners will even let you jump in their pool. Well, maybe you ought to ask first.

 

THUS ENDS THE TOUR . . . 12 LITTLE FREE LIBRARIES IN ALL . . .

BUT MOSTLY, ALL I REALLY WANT TO SAY IS . . . 

THANK YOU!

 

OWNERS, CARETAKERS, NEIGHBORS, READERS,

FOR PROMOTING LITERACY IN OUR COMMUNITY,

FOR BRINGING BOOKS FRONT AND CENTER,

FOR SHARING THE LOVE OF READING,

FOR DOING ONE SMALL THING 

TO MAKE OUR TOWN A LITTLE BIT BETTER. 

 

 

POSTSCRIPT I

 

 

Here’s the result of my haul that day. I guess I have some reading to do. And when I’m done, I’ll pass the books along to a LFL near you.

 

POSTSCRIPT II

         

 

Our neighborhood had a black bear (or two!) visit the area recently. The above photo was posted by a resident. Yes, bears love birdseed and compost heaps. Events like that inspired my book, Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Bear Scare, which is the title I stuck in every neighborhood Little Free Library. Watch out for those clues! The bear scat is highly suspicious . . . 

An Author’s Guide to Simultaneously Reading BYSTANDER and UPSTANDER

After writing Upstander, a stand-alone prequel/sequel to Bystander, I had a vision. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if my publisher printed them up as one book? Kind of shuffled them together into one big fat novel.

Would it even work?

I thought to myself, yeah, it just might. Both are in 3rd person, and the shifting perspectives should be familiar to any experienced reader.

But why wait on the vagaries of publishing? They’ll never do it anyway. But we can. Here’s one method for reading the books simultaneously (not that you have to). There’s some scene overlap, from different perspectives, which might be interesting or redundant, I don’t know.

.       

 

So if you are nutty enough to do this — and I hope that some of you are — here’s how I think it could work. Please let me know, Dear Nutty Reader, if you do it. Both books are also available on Audible, for you reading-with-my-ears people.

 

THE SIMULTANEOUS APPROACH

To Reading These Two Books Together

Upstander: Chapters 1-20

Bystander: Chapters 1-2

Upstander: 21

Bystander: 3-4

Upstander: 22-24

Bystander: 5-6

Upstander: 25

Bystander: 7-11

Upstander: 26-27

Bystander: 12-15

Upstander: 29-30

Bystander: 16

Upstander: 31

Bystander: 17-20

Upstander: 32

Bystander: 21

Upstander: 33

Bystander: 22

Upstander: 34

Bystander: 23-24

Upstander: 35-36

Bystander: 25-32

Upstander: 37

Bystander: 33-34

Upstander: 38

 

THE END!

 

Do you think there should be a 3rd book that focuses on Griffin? I guess that depends on if anyone reads Upstander. I promise it won’t take me 10 more years to write. 

Visual learners might be impressed by my fancy chart. I paid a design company 500 balloons for this bad boy. Worth it, right?