Archive for February 23, 2022

Brochures Get Old . . . School Visits Never Do!


Here’s the “book side” of a two-page brochure I made for school visits — not too long before the pandemic shut us down. 

Missing here is Upstander, a sequel to Bystander, published in 2021. 

And coming soon . . . 

Fairy House in May, 2022, in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format. 

And a new series, EXIT 13, coming in Fall, from Scholastic. Can’t wait to share more about this one. Think: “Schitt’s Creek” meets “Stranger Things” with a touch of Pet Sematary. It’s a middle-grade novel/graphic novel hybrid. Mostly a novel that occasionally breaks out into GN format. Super cool, fast-paced, creepy and mysterious. 


The Legend of Talal Mirwani: How I Spoofed Jack Reacher in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

The character Jack Reacher has been having a moment on Amazon Prime. Good for the Big Lug! Until recently, he’s been best known as the main character in Lee Child’s popular book series (and the unfortunate Tom Cruise movie). Reacher is a lone wolf, a drifter, and a former military investigator who always manages to find trouble. Or, as the cliche goes, is it Trouble that finds him?! The books are action-packed and wildly entertaining. You don’t read so much as devour them.

However, I grew tired of Reacher after 3-4 titles. He was too perfect for my taste. Confession: As the author of 42 Jigsaw Jones mysteries for young readers (ages 6-9), I have a semi-professional interest in literary detectives. One of the amusing things that Reacher does — amusing to me, serious to him — is he’s a deft profiler. You might be familiar with this sort of fuzzy technique popularized in various crime dramas, where a detective makes intuitive inferences about a criminal’s personality. In other words, after examining a crime scene, the brainy detective will announce, “We’re looking for white male in his 40s. He has mother issues and probably drives a Prius. He buys his clothes on sale at JC Penney. Favors white shirts and narrow yellow ties. He has a taste for 80s Britrock — some of the lesser-known cuts from The Smiths’ “Meat is Murder” album — and still slices the crust off his grilled cheese sandwiches . . .”

And on and on and on it goes.

This mode of detective work has roots in Sherlock Holmes. “How did you know that?” Dr. Watson asks. “Elementary,” Holmes explains. The Power of Deductive Reasoning.

Jack Reacher performs this magic act time and again in the novels and, now, in the (pretty fabulous, if I must say) television show. There’s a scene, early on, when he offhandedly does it to Police Chief Oscar Finlay and stops Finlay cold with its uncanny accuracy.

How does Reacher know? It’s elementary!

Unfortunately, what makes good television does not always make for solid investigative practices. The work of profilers has been largely debunked these days, a strategy that’s mired in fallacy and too often morphs into half-dressed guesswork. At best, a profiler like Reacher can examine the nature of the crime — using objective observation — and use inferences to provide a broad indication of a type of individual who might likely have committed the crime. At worst, it can lead the investigation wildly astray. The proverbial wild goose chase. In the annals of FBI investigations, there are a few startling successes — but they are far outnumbered by the total misses.

I spoofed this a few years back in my 2017 middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead. As a contemporary example of “climate fiction,” the novel — set in the not-so-distant-future — touches on pandemics and face masks, a super flu, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, data farming, and more. My idea: stick my characters in a world gone wrong.

LET ME SET THE SCENE: our hero Adrian Lazarus is sitting in a middle school cafeteria with his best friend, Zander Donnelly. Adrian has problems, he’s a misfit, an outcast, and, not coincidentally, a reanimated corpse, i.e., zombie. That’s when, in chapter 21, our detective enters the scene and the novel shifts toward the main mystery . . .

A slight kid walked up, wearing a fedora and a long brown raincoat. He had black hair and light brown skin. The boy placed a hand on the back of an empty chair and asked, “You gents mind?”

“It’s all yours, no one’s sitting there,” I said, expecting him to drag the chair to another table. But to my surprise, he sat down with us.

Zander stopped talking and paused to stare at our uninvited guest. The look on Zander’s face was basically: What the what?

“The name’s Talal” — he pronounced it slowly, tah-LAHL, so we got it right — “but you can call me Tal. That’s easier for most people,” he said in a soothing voice. Talal rested an elbow on the back of the chair. He folded an ankle across a knee. “And you are the zombie guy,” he added, turning to address me.

“That’s me,” I said. “The zombie guy.”

“Why are you here?” Zander asked. “We’re not bothering anybody.”

“I’m a detective,” Talal replied. “You could say that I’m working on a case.”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“I prefer the term gumshoe,” Talal continued, “except nobody knows what it means anymore. So, sure, I’m a private eye.”

I decided to play along. “How can we help you, gumshoe?”

“Call me, Tal. It’s simpler.”

“Okay, detective,” I replied.

Zander glanced in my direction. He clearly didn’t trust this new kid at our table. But as far as I could tell, Talal seemed harmless. Besides, I was curious.

Talal lifted the fedora off his head and placed it, ever so gently, on the table. He clawed his hand through his hair, as if scratching the back of an appreciative Labrador retriever.

“What makes you a detective?” Zander asked.

“What do you mean?” Talal asked.

Zander looked annoyed. His voice rose a notch in volume. “I mean, big deal, you say you’re a detective. Anybody could say that. Saying so doesn’t make it true.”

Talal stared long and patiently. He slow-blinked once, twice, with all the urgency of a three-toed sloth. Then he fished in the depths of his trench coat pocket and produced a business card. He ran his thumb across the edge of it and, flicking two fingers, sent it spinning across the table and into my lap.


Talal turned to Zander. “Believe whatever you like. I’m what the card says I am.”

Zander smiled. “And I’m a horned toad. There, I said it. Does that make it true?”

Talal was amused. “No, big guy, the saying doesn’t make it so. It’s the believing that matters. You don’t really think you’re a toad, do you?”

Zander didn’t answer.

“It’s the believing in things that counts,” Talal repeated for emphasis, “as long as you’re asking.”

“Like in Santa Claus?” Zander teased.

“Like in anything,” Talal replied. “The tooth fairy, dinosaurs, zombies, kindness, whatever floats your boat.” Talal returned the hat to the top of his head and deftly zipped a pointed index finger across the front brim. “I didn’t come here to philosophize. You have my card.”

“We don’t need it,” Zander said.

“Maybe not you, but I think he might,” Talal said, jerking a thumb in my direction. “And I bet he knows it, too.”

“I’m not going to hire a detective,” I protested.

“It’s already been handled,” Talal replied. “Your friend paid for my services.”

“My friend?” I couldn’t think of anybody.

“A tall and angular girl,” he intoned, “the angel looking over your shoulder. Cash in advance. Consider yourself lucky.”


Talal shrugged as if it didn’t matter. “She said trouble’s coming your way, and figured I might be able to steer you clear.”

I struggled to process the information. My unlife was getting weirder by the minute. It felt like Gia had some sort of plan for me, but I had no idea what it was. Still, there was something oddly reassuring about Talal. He was a character, for certain, but I guess I heard Dane’s voice in my ear: Everybody’s different and nobody’s perfect.

Who was I to say that Talal wasn’t good enough to sit at our table? There was plenty of room.

Zander, on the other hand, acted protective. “How are you going to help Adrian? All I see is a kid in a trench coat who talks tough, like you just stepped out of some old black-and-white movie. What do you know?”

[EDIT: Pay Attention, Folks! Here’s where Talal profiles Zander!]

Talal leaned back in his chair, calmly tented his fingers together. “What do I know? I’ll tell you what I know . . .”

He spoke the next part in rapid pitter-pat style: “I know you had a rough time this morning. You barely had a minute to wolf down a bowl of Rice Krispies. You missed the bus, but that’s no problem, because Mommy drives you anyway.”

“Hold on,” Zander said. “How did you know–?”

Talal explained. “There’s a trace of shampoo in your right ear, your socks don’t match, and there’s a dried Rice Krispie kernel stuck to your shirt. Judging by the mud splatter on the cuffs of your jeans, I’d bet ten balloons you tried to jump the puddle by the curb at the student drop-off. You didn’t quite make it. Don’t feel too bad, champ — it’s probably because of the extra twenty pounds of books you lug around in your backpack, because you are exactly the kind of kid who carries his books everywhere. I’d bet another ten balloons you make the honor roll every semester. You’re smart and you work hard. That’s a good thing, congratulations.” Talal flicked a finger. “I can also see the pink edge of a late pass poking out of your shirt pocket. What else do I know? You’re a little sloppy, but it doesn’t take a detective to figure that out. More importantly, you are not the kind of guy who spends time in front of a mirror. Either you don’t care how you look, or you care too much. So much that maybe it hurts. Hard for me to say, we’ve only just met, but I know this: Everybody cares, we just hide it in different ways.”

Zander didn’t need to hear any more. He squirmed in uncomfortable silence, like a living butterfly pinned to a wall. Talal turned out to be a pretty sharp detective after all.


“This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.” — School Library Journal.

Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale of a middle-schooler who craves normalcy, and environmental issues with some currency make the story even more relatable. Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers, and they’ll be glad of the hint at a follow-up. — Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books.

“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc. Having inexplicably survived a fatal hit-and-run accident over the summer, aptly named Adrian Lazarus is off to seventh grade, sporting a hoodie to hide his increasing facial disfigurement and lunching on formaldehyde smoothies to keep himself together. Simultaneously resenting and yet understanding the varied reactions of his schoolmates—which range from shunning to all-too-close attention from a particularly persistent bully—Adrian is also surprised and pleased to discover that he has allies, notably Gia Demeter, a new girl with a peculiar ability to foretell certain events. Preller might have played this as a light comedy (and there are some hilarious bits), but he goes instead for darker inflections. Even as Adrian sees himself becoming ominously aggressive (while developing tastes for roadkill and raw meat), his discovery that fabulously powerful data miners Kalvin and Kristoff Bork are ruthlessly scheming to put him under the knife in search of the secret to his longevity cranks the suspense up another notch. Nonetheless, in a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — Booklist, Starred Review

“Preller takes the physical and emotional awkwardness of middle school to grisly levels . . . [and] thoughtfully chronicles the anxieties of middle school, using a blend of comedy and horror, to send a message of empowerment and acceptance.” — Publishers Weekly.



A Conversation with Sylvie Kantorovitz: Author/Illustrator of the Dazzling New Graphic Novel Memoir, “SYLVIE”

“My picture book background did help me
a lot with pacing
and the importance of visual variety,
and I will also credit years of reading
graphic novels and comics!”

— Sylvie Kantorovitz


Sylvie Kantorovitz is a true artist from the top of her head down to the soles of her shoes. She’s just one of those rare people where creating art in some form seems as natural as breathing. Sylvie’s latest book, a memoir in graphic novel form, is a triumph in every way. It’s a book that could have been titled, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Child and Woman.” You can’t help but be charmed by Sylvie’s story — her uncanny recollections of childhood — the warmth of her illustrations — and the path of her self-discovery. After I finished admiring the book, I invited Sylvie over to the swanky corporate offices here at the 14th floor of James Preller Dot Com. Let’s meet her!


I can’t wait to talk about this terrific book, so let’s get started. As I understand it, this book was something of a happy accident. You didn’t set out to write a memoir? 

I knew I wanted to write a graphic novel. I knew I wanted to base it on my memories of growing up in France. But I was worried about not remembering enough. At first I called the main character Lisette, and labeled my work “a fictional memoir”. Then I found out I remembered plenty! And one day my agent asked this very simple question: Is it fiction or is it a memoir? And the answer jumped at me: of course it is a memoir!

There’s a minor moment early in the book, four illustrations across two pages. You are circling a favorite tree, stepping on the roots with your brother Alibert, careful not to fall off. And to me, that was absolute perfection. You captured something that felt so right, childlike and authentic. I remember that exact feeling, careful not to fall into the shark-infested waters. 

Thank you! I really love how universal these early childhood games seem to be. Pretending the floor is lava. Or the bed is in the middle of an ocean teaming with pirates and sharks. How thrilling imaginary danger is! 

I want to get at this by avoiding a couple of standard pat answers. We often hear: 1) I’m still a 7-year-old in my heart; or 2) I still have a direct line to my childhood. And while those two things might be true for you, I want to ask: Why do you think those moments still resonate for us, still linger so powerfully in our memories? 

Haha! I am definitely not a 7-year-old at heart any more, nor do I have a direct line to my childhood! For me, as I get older, I want to define who I am, what is important to me. I want to embrace that fully and also decide how I want to use the time I have left. It’s hard work, and my memories are one of the tools that help me in figuring all that out.      

It’s interesting how this creative act opened up a flood of memories for you — forgotten memories, if there’s such a thing.

I was happy to find out that memories have a way of triggering each other. In fact, more are still coming! What became a challenge was what to keep. I chose anecdotes that I thought showed an emotional moment in the story, or allowed me to expand on who a character was. Like showing what happened when my sister fell through a roof, or when my father took me to Paris, or when I messed up on an important school test.

There’s a lot of playing in your book, which I found so relatable. An experience that is at the core of us all, I’d think. Did that come back to you easily?   

Actually yes. The school where my family lived was like a giant playground! We played in the classrooms, spied on the gardener, once had a sleepover in the infirmary. I also wanted to show how similar playtime is for children in another country, including games like hopscotch or marbles.

I could personally identify with the magical visits to your father’s office, where he had a ready supply of paper clips, markers, pens, tape, paper. Heaven for a young artist. As a boy, I used to go to my father’s insurance office. He had something that trumped all that: tracing paper!  

I can’t help wondering: tracing paper in an insurance office? But how about the thrill of using a manual typewriter?  That also was such fun!  

A snapshot of Sylvie in real life, reading in bed in 1968.

Yes, it sure was, though I was dazzled with the first electric typewriter. Wowza! I especially appreciate the variety of images and artwork, the pacing. It’s as if each chapter is its own complete, self-contained picture book, where the artwork flows in different shapes and sizes. Each spread contains a new surprise. You make it look easy. 

My picture book background did help me a lot with pacing and the importance of visual variety, and I will also credit years of reading graphic novels and comics! Growing up in France when I did, I was immersed in a great comics culture which I am so glad has arrived here too.  The variety available now for kids is amazing!

Your mother was tough. She said some harsh things, too. How was it looking back on that now, so many years later? 

Haha! I didn’t wait to write a memoir in order to examine the effect of my parent’s influence on my adult mind. So pondering over my mother’s style was nothing new to me. In the book, I tried to show a balanced view of my mother, such as her also being caring and affectionate. And how confusing those mixed messages are for a child to navigate.

Are your parents still alive? And if so, how did they react to the book? 

My father died many years ago but I think he would have been pleased. He loved all forms of expression, from the classics to popular genres to comics. My mother died during the pandemic, a few months before publication. But I think she would have been oddly proud to figure so prominently in a book by her “American” daughter.  

There’s a lot of cleaning in this book! Are you as neat today? 

Haha! I really am! I love cleanliness and order. It really started with getting that skeleton key to my own little attic room.  I still sigh with pleasure when I think of the orderly little domain I created as a girl.   

Could we see a photo of your workspace (but no cheating — I don’t want you cleaning beforehand!)? 

My two tables:


That’s so cool, thanks for giving us that glimpse. Sylvie follows your life from childhood to college. A journey of self-discovery. What age reader is this book intended for? 

It is listed as a book for children 8 to 12. But I have had a lot of feedback from adults who have loved it, which is great.

I love that very last image of you sitting on a train, a zoomy blur, catapulting into the future. You are on your way! When did you know that would be the final image? 

That scene actually moved from the very beginning — Sylvie thinking back on her youth — to the very end — Sylvie on her way to her future. I think it worked out well, as the theme of the train kept cropping up: waving at trains, taking a train for the first time without parents, loving a song about a train whistling in the night. For me the train is a metaphor for the longing I felt to go places. A longing that eventually brought me to the United States.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your partner, the lovely and talented Barbara Lehman. How is she? 

Barbara is well, thank you. Her latest book came out very recently: Little Red and the Cat who Loved Cake. The Horn Book called it “Another triumph from a master of wordless picture books.” I agree!  It is also very funny.





You are also a fine painter. Is your work available for sale? 

Thank you. At this time, I do not actively try to sell my artwork. At my art table, I can do whatever I want. However, I am always happy if someone wants to own a piece. People often contact me privately and I have sold much art that way through the years.

Last question: you must have learned a lot by reflecting on your life in this way. Stories give it shape and meaning. Did anything surprise you along the way? 

I was delighted to find out my young self was not that different from who I am now. My views on people and life have evolved, of course, but my core values are essentially the same. I also realized how similar I am to my father. And I like that. It is something I hadn’t fully realized before because I didn’t have a reason to reexamine my memories and look at the bigger picture. I am glad I did!

Sylvie, I’m a little abashed by how many questions I asked you. My apologies. I truly loved your book and, of course, I’ve been a fan for many years. Thanks for giving us your life in this format, and your time in this interview.

I enjoyed this conversation, James!  And now, back to the drawing board.

To learn more about Sylvie Kantorovitz, you can find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or her website. She’s published many other picture books, including The Very Tiny Baby, Zig and the Magic Umbrella, and more. 


Gary Paulsen & Me: An Appreciation

“I owe everything I am 
and everything I will ever be
to books.”
— Gary Paulsen

Gary Paulsen passed in October, 2021, and I wanted to hang back and wait a bit before bringing up my very slight connection to the great writer. I didn’t know the man, we’ve never met. And unlike others, I’ve only read a few of his books, all as an adult.

My 2019 novel, Blood Mountain, was compared in three separate reviews to Paulsen’s Hatchet. No reviewer suggested that my book was as good as Hatchet, and certainly not as important (arriving, as it did, 30-plus years later). But they noted that I was working the same vein as Paulsen’s masterwork. Writing in that tradition of wilderness survival and, as is the nature of such an endeavor, within the tradition of wilderness respect and appreciation.

Both books are, in their way, love stories.

The quotes on Blood Mountain:

“Fans of Gary Paulsen’s books will likely be hooked from page one.” — Publishers Weekly.

“Preller combines brave characters with vivid descriptions of the perilous mountain, grasping readers’ emotions in the same way as Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series.” — Booklist.

“A thrilling purchase for middle grade collections, perfect for fans of adventure novels by Jean Craighead George, Peg Kehret, and Gary Paulsen.” — School Library Journal

What I admire most about Paulsen is his engagement with the natural world. He was an outdoorsman, comfortable and expertly capable in the wild. I don’t have 1/10th of his skills and knowledge. But in my own way, I try to see things, appreciate and name the trees, the birds, the world around me. That’s what he offered us, more than anything: his own innate sense of wonder and respect.

There’s a deceptively simple line by Roger Tory Peterson, the artist and writer known for the famous Peterson Guides. He said, “The more you look, the more you see.”

I believe Gary Paulsen was telling us the very same thing. And his message became, for me, all the more relevant as we drifted further and further from the real world into cyber-whatever. And as the natural world became more endangered — witness the great species die-off — and as we all became more entangled in our phones and apps and the algorithms of social media, I find myself holding closer to the message of writers like Gary Paulsen, Bill McKibben, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gary Snyder, Thich Nhat Hanh, Peter Wohlleben, Jane Goodall, Robert Macfarlane, and many more.

Paulsen said to us, in effect: Go outside. Look, see, love every blessed living thing.

I’m honored to enjoy the slightest, most gossamer connection to such a compassionate writer.

Here’s a very short excerpt from Blood Mountain:

Grace spends much of that day gathering anything that will soften her bed. She works doggedly, with purpose. Grace saws at the branches of a hemlock, scraping her knuckles, covering her hands with sap and dirt. Hauls the boughs up, which is not easy with her injuries. She spreads the curved branches with the ends stuck in the dirt, so there’s a slight hump in the middle. Then she adds a mattress of moss and soft boughs.

By the end, she is exhausted. Her entire body throbs.

She lies down, breathes in the piney air, satisfied. And for that brief moment, Grace doesn’t feel lost anymore. 

Blood Mountain is a Junior Library Guild Selection.