Archive for December 26, 2022

My 4th Annual “Year In Music” Review: Top 20 & 35 Honorable Mentions


I listened to 114 (& counting) full-length albums that were released in 2022. So: Not everything. It’s a dopey endeavor to try to select the ones that were freshest, most distinctive & original, best.

And so for the fourth year, I continued the project where I try to listen to (& keep track of) every complete album I hear, regardless of release dates.

I love the album format and recognize that most listeners no longer access music this way. We are a singles, playlist-oriented society. And even then, who has the time & inclination to listen anyway?

This year, my total diminished markedly. In 2019, flush with enthusiasm, I reached 778 full albums. Then down to 711 and 702 over the next two years. In 2022, it’s way down to 515 & counting)).

What’s happening here?

Could be that I was listening to less music overall. But there were two other contributing factors: 1) an effort to repeat listens more often, less content to listen once and move on; 2) on the flip side of that same coin, I more easily gave up on the “full album” task, more willing to ditch an album halfway through if it wasn’t working for me; I didn’t push to completion the way I had in the past, eager to check off some box. Maybe that’s a positive thing. The whole concept is Schrodinger’s cat anyway, altered simply by being observed. I think I’ve gotten better at that, not thinking about the result as much as the moment, though a pure record of what I listen to will never be possible so long as I keep track of it. 

Here goes . . . 


TOP 20 (in alphabetical order)




Big Thief: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

Binker and Moses: Feeding the Machine 

Bill Callahan: Reality 



Danger Mouse, Black Thought: Cheat Codes 

Dehd: Blue Skies 

Delines: The Sea Drift  



Alabaster DePlume: Gold 

Dry Cleaning: Stumpwork

Alex G: God Save the Animals 



Hurry for the Riff Raff: Life on Earth 

MJ Lenderman: Boat Songs 

Kevin Morby: This Is a Photograph 

Beth Orton: Weather Alive



Sadies: Colder Streams 

The Smile: A Light for Attracting Attention

Spiritualized: Everything Was Beautiful 



SZA: S.O.S. 

Kurt Vile: (watch my moves) 

Wet Leg: s/t 

Immanuel Wilkins: 7th Hand






Caterina Barbieri: Spirit Exit

Laura Cannell: Antiphony of the Trees

Caroline: s/t 

Floating World Pictures: Twenty-Three Views 

Johann Johansson: Drone Mass

Carolyn Shaw/Attaca: Evergreen

Sean Shibe: Lost & Found



Sam Gendel: Superstore 

Makaya McCraven: In These Times 

Simora Pinderhughes: Grief 

Daniel Villareal: Panama ’77



Black Country, New Road: Ants from Up 

Elk City: Above the Water

Ethel Cain: Preacher’s Daughter 

Enumclaw: Save the Baby

Father John Misty: Chloe & the Next 20th Century

Florist: s/t 

Aldous Harding: Warm 

Momma: Household Name 

Tomberlin: I Don’t Know Who

Weyes Blood: And In the Darkness . . . 



Nora Brown: Long Time to Be Gone 

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Good and Green Again

Nina Nastasia: Riderless Horse

Orville Peck: Bronco 

Plains (Waxahatchee, J. Williamson): I Walked With You a Ways

Joan Shelley: The Spur

Twain: Noon 

Wilco: Cruel Country



Yaya Bey: Remember Your North

Little Simz: NO THANK YOU

Saba: Few Good Things 

Earl Sweatshirt: SICK! 

Pusha T: It’s Almost Dry

Nilufer Yanya: Painless


After too much consideration, Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is my album of the year.


Hopefully you find something enjoyable here that you might have missed otherwise.



Old Photo, 1965, the Author as a Young Lad








I love this old photo of me and my sister Barbara — 1965, I am told — in front of the old station wagon that used to take us all on long summer vacations to Vermont & elsewhere. My father would spend the morning artlessly tying down luggage on the roof, good enough to get the job done, my mother stressed and making sandwiches for the road, anxious about forgotten toothbrushes & wayward children, seven kids climbing in, vying for the good spots. My parents smoking Camels or Chesterfields the whole ride out: 5 hours, 6 hours. It felt like 40 days in Noah’s Ark. But gaze for a moment at four-year-old Jimmy. I look like the future of America right there, standing on the green grass of the suburban dream, 1720 Adelphi Road, Wantagh, New York, bold & innocent in yet another ill-fitting jacket. Whatever happened to that kid?

5 QUESTIONS with Rachel Vail, author of “Sometimes I Grumblesquinch”

We’re back with the fourth installment of “5 Questions 2.0” — the new & improved interview format that invites some of the best folks in children’s literature to answer five — and only five! — questions. 

My guest today is Rachel Vail, a wide-ranging writer with many books to her credit. I think of Rachel as an intentional writer. Rachel knows what she is doing — and exactly why she is doing it — and who she is doing it for — with each and every book. A total pro and a very conscious writer.


1. Are you one of those people who knew she wanted to be a writer from a young age?

Absolutely not. I always loved reading, listening to stories, telling stories, and writing. A good sentence has always had the power to make my day. But what I wanted to be was never a writer. I thought all writers were at least old if not dead, neither of which I was at the time, and anyway it didn’t seem like a real job. I always knew exactly what I wanted to be. That thing changed often but I was always certain. (Not knowing seemed terrifying to me, and like proof that I wasn’t “gifted” or “a genius” or “meant” to do the thing, which made me feel like a plodder, a fake.) Also I wanted to do something hard, like be a spy or an actor or a senator. Writing, I naively believed, was easy.

2. So I’m looking at the Oxford English Dictionary — the annotated, expanded version — and  I’m not seeing the word Grumblesquinch in there anywhere. Then I realized that twenty years ago you published Sometimes I’m Bombaloo. What’s going on? Did you decide, after 20  years, “It’s obviously time for sequel!”

Was that not an obvious move?

Katie Honors, the narrator of Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, has lived in my imagination all these years, and in fact there were two sequels already (Jibberwillies at Night; Flabbersmashed About You).

Ah, my bad. Flabbersmashed? Pretty sure that happened to me last Saturday night. No regrets! I’m sorry, I interrupted. 

Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, in particular, has continued to sell and even be studied by a wide range of childhood specialists, from psychologists to educators and beyond. When my brilliant gang –- editor Liza Baker and agent Amy Berkower –- asked if there were any more Katie Honors books in my mind, I jumped at the chance to listen to her again. The illustrator of Bombaloo, the great Yumi Heo, had unfortunately died, so I’d thought that was the end of Katie’s journey. But Liza and Patti Ann Harris of Scholastic were able to engage Hyewon Yum to illustrate the new book, and oh my gosh her seemingly simple art just absolutely blows me away with its evocative emotions and hidden magic.

About those WORDS: I am writing about BIG feelings in little kids. Feelings so big they sometimes feel bigger than the kids can contain. It felt to me like feelings that big, and that complex, need new words to describe them. I want to put the parent and the child in the same position: of beginner, intuiting what the word means from the context, becoming fluent together. Also, I wanted to invent feelings-words that sound like what they mean.

3) To me, the heart of Grumblesquinch — what elevated the book — was the mother’s  response. Was that there from the beginning?

It was.

As a grumblesquincher myself, I know intimately the desire to please the people I love, to be a pleasure, to feel in my bones that it’s my job to be easy to be around. It is such a challenge to own the negative feelings, and to share them.

What I have found, as a recovering good girl, is that the world is often very accepting of us in all our chaotic, contradictory, flawed selves, if we find the courage to share them. It is a balm to discover that. I try to be that kind of mom to my kids –- open to hearing all their feelings and thoughts, even the angry, hostile, frustrated, sad, worried thoughts. There’s such a temptation to push the rough feelings away, as a parent: NO! Don’t be melancholy! Don’t be anxious! Don’t be rageful! When you see a little person for whom you are responsible in pain, you naturally want to just ERASE IT immediately. Your child’s pain is too painful for a parent to bear! So we want to solve it, or deny it, or cajole it away. That comes from love. BUT. I think it feels awful for a kid (or an adult!) to have their negative feelings erased, denied, even solved for.

Sometimes we just need to be heard. We need to know the people who love us can still love us, and can hear the full thing we are feeling. So it was important to me that, though the parents do have the impulse to keep the day light and happy, they can also eventually really be present and understanding. That there will be room for the whole Katie. I had the idea of Chuck being a frustrating buttery baby in my mind for years, and Katie holding in her feelings about him. It was only when I realized what she was really afraid of (letting down her parents, exposing who she really was and disappointing them with her imperfection) that the story clicked for me.

Also, my own mom is really, really nice, deeply accepting, and loving. So that is a constant struggle for me, as a writer.

That’s the genius of this book — and, really, any great picture book. To take something that’s complex and distill it to its essence in a way that conveys a simple, clear, authentic truth. I mean to say: You are spectacular, Rachel Vail.  I also love that you write a range of books. I have a similar affliction. You know, totally confuse any  potential “audience” that might possibly exist. (This does not count as a question! Please ignore.)

It is a problem. We suck. 

4) I remember a conversation I had with an editor at Scholastic, my old pal Craig Walker. We were  talking about the strengths and weaknesses of different writers. He said to me — this is back in the 90s — “Rachel Vail knows girls. She really, really knows that world.” Yet I think one of the  challenges with getting older (sorry), and then having your own children become adults, is  staying in touch with the world of our readers. Is there anything that you do to help keep that  connection strong?


Ah, Craig Walker! What a lovely man. Thank you for that!

Yeah, it’s deeply rude of my kids to grow up so quickly. I do like getting their input. (Though it’s not always pleasant, it is useful!)

I continue to talk with kids, and listen to them, more importantly -– friends’ kids, family, at school visits (virtual and now again in person!) and online -– to stay current with what’s going on in their minds, hearts, and language. But I also think that many of the issues facing kids are the same as when we were growing up, when our grandparents were growing up, when their grandparents… we’re trying to figure out who we are in the world and in our souls, how to be a friend, what love costs and is worth, how to choose when neither or both options seem good. The details change (having a way to contact the other person easily at any point wrecks many old plots, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy and beyond, for example) and keep changing, so that’s a lot to stay on top of, and important. I’m finding it nearly impossible to write a truly “contemporary” novel, now. The circumstances of our lives in these past 3-5 years change so quickly that by the time I get something to an editor, it’s already historical fiction. Nothing written with details of, say, May 2020 would be current now. It’s definitely easier to write contemporary fiction for younger kids in that sense –- the big dramas of their lives will continue to be a too-early bedtime or too-big feelings about how annoying their toddler brother is, regardless of whether there is an ongoing global pandemic, or whatever happens with the newest technological or world political upheaval.

And of course, we are all so distractible now, the forms may need to change, too.

5) When I first saw your book, A Is for Elizabeth, I thought: Wow, you’d think a professional writer of Rachel Vail’s caliber wouldn’t make this kind of careless error. Then I thought: Oh, hold  on a sec. Um, seriously. I love (love!) the format of this book. The size, length, content,  everything about it. I don’t think we see enough very young chapter books that contain real stories and characters with depth. Well done. You’ve given me something to aspire to. Tell us  where this book came from and what’s happening with this series.


Ahahahahaha thank you! 

I love love love these books, too. I love Elizabeth, so bold and forthright and trying so very hard. I also find her hilarious. I loved writing her so much I actually spent time scheming: how can I make the publisher need to publish tons of these; all I want to do for the next few years is write from Elizabeth’s perspective! That’s why you’ll notice the alphabetical theme of the first four books… they’d have to let me do 26, I thought!

But so far, no. JUST 4. Time will tell. I haven’t given up hope.

Elizabeth started as the younger sister in my 3 books about Justin Case. Justin is a really terrific third grader with a lot of worries. I wrote them because I wanted a book about a really terrific third grader with a lot of worries to give my son Liam, when he fit that exact description. Justin was in some ways like Liam but also a bit like my older son Zachary, and also of course like me, and also just himself. But his little sister Elizabeth (who was also like all of us but also sui generis just herself) kept stealing the scene, for me. She cracked me up. So I knew I wanted to give her center stage. I loved writing in her voice, which became so clear to me.

My favorite part of the writing process is definitely revision –- when the book is clearly a full story and you just have to cut it, hone it, improve it… and you can feel it getting there. There’s a moment in that stage, usually, where something your main character says is just so perfectly them, so not a thing anybody else would say or has said… and you feel it, you feel that thing where it’s like you’re taking dictation from this person who has until that moment existed only in your imagination but now seems to exist whole, complex and vivid, beside you. Oh, man, that’s the buzz I chase, the magic that makes the whole writing flog worth it.


JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Blood Mountain, Six Innings, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines, available in stores in February, 2023. 

FOR READERS OF “BYSTANDER”: Here’s the Scene That Happens Right *Before* the Book’s First Chapter (excerpt from UPSTANDER)

The book Bystander is one of my most popular and acclaimed (!) titles. Thank you for that. It begins with the perspective of Eric, alone shooting baskets behind the middle school, when he sees a boy shuffling past. He soon realizes that the runner, David Hallenback, is covered in ketchup.

Eric (and the readers) never witness what happened immediately before that moment: David Hallenback somehow splattered with ketchup packets. The ugliness of that scene is left to the imagination.

I decided against including it in the book. It would be cruel and awful and I just didn’t want to start the book that way. Maybe I wasn’t up to the task. It would be disturbing write and read, I think.

And yet, isn’t that what a book is supposed to do — disturb a reader’s universe? Shake ’em up a little bit, set ’em down like snow globes?

Anyway, when I wrote Upstander, I felt the bullying of David Hallenback was an essential scene that readers needed to see for a variety of reasons. This scene comes at the center of a stand-alone story that is also part prequel, part sequel. A turning point. I suspect that readers of Bystander might have wondered about Mary’s role in all this. She was clearly with those boys on bicycles. Riding with the bad guys. How did she get there? What exactly was her role? Why was she with Griffin in the first place (which is explained earlier in Upstander)?

We learn that the scene became a turning point not just in the book, but for Mary, too. So here’s Chapter 20 and a brief snippet of Chapter 21 from Upstander. I’ve also included Chapter 1 from Bystander immediately below that, just to demonstrate the timeline. Note: In Upstander, we replay Chapter 2 from Bystander, but this time from Mary’s point of view. 




Mary didn’t have a clue what was going to happen next, but she didn’t get a good feeling based on the expression on Griffin’s face. He wore a look of disgust. David Hallenback was a stumpy-legged kid who was not the type who’d be pals with Griffin Connelly. Yet when David looked up to see the four bicyclists pedaling his way, he offered up a worshipful greeting. “Griff! Hey!”

Griffin pedaled swiftly toward David, rising on the pedals, as if he was going to ram straight into him before braking hard at the last second. 

David recoiled, then laughed with relief, looking around at the group. “Funny, Griff!” Hallenback looked hot and tired. He was dressed in jeans and his shirt had huge sweat stains along the back and under his armpits. His freckled face was flushed and blotchy.

“What are doing out here, Hallenback? Are you . . . exercising?” Griff asked in a tone of disbelief.

“Yes,” David said, raising his fists in a gesture of pumping weights. “I’m in training!”

Droopy snickered. 

The boys got off their bikes. Mary, too. 

“So, explain it to me,” Griff said. “I don’t understand. You don’t strike me as the exercising type.”

David chuckled, his small dark eyes shimmering. “My Uncle Lewis said he’d give me a fifty dollar gift certificate to any store at the mall if I can run a full mile without stopping.”

Griff whistled, “Wow, no stopping, huh? How’s it going?”

David grinned impishly. Mary thought he was almost cute, in a basset hound puppy kind of way. “Today, I almost made it once around,” he said, not without pride. 

“Once!” Griff barked. “You hear that Mary? One time. What’s a mile? Four times?”

“Four times around,” Cody said. “Yep, yep, yep.”

“Oh,” David said, somehow not aware of that basic fact. He pulled at the front his wet, sticky shirt. 

“I wonder if you are sufficiently motivated to run a full mile,” Griff mused. “What do you guys think? Is Hallenback trying hard enough?”

“No, he is not,” Droopy stated.

David laughed, eagerly looking from face to face, trying to figure out the shift in tone. 

Griff grabbed the bag from Droopy’s hand. He took out a ketchup packet, tore it open with his teeth. “Here’s the new training plan, Hallenback. You start running, right? And if you stop, we squeeze ketchup on you.”

The smile on David’s face slowly faded.

He tried laughing it off.

“I’m not kidding,” Griff said. He patted David on the shoulder. “This is a proven training strategy. We’re here to help. This will work, believe me. And then, ka-ching, you get fifty bucks. Any store in the mall! You’ll be thanking us later.”

“Griff,” Mary said. 

He ignored her.

“You ready, Hallenback? You all limber and everything? Need to do some jumping jacks before you begin?”

“I’m too tired,” David said. “It’s too hot.”

Griffin Connelly reached his hand out over David’s head and squeezed out a splatter of ketchup. It dripped onto David’s hair.

“Whoa!” Droopy roared, laughing. He clapped his hands. 

David stood in shock, wiping a hand through his hair in disbelief. 

“That’s not cool, Griff,” Mary said.

Griff pulled out another ketchup packet, stared directly at Mary as he tore it open with his teeth. “What are you waiting for, David?” Griffin flashed a wolfish smile. “Do you like being a French fry?”

“He’s a French fry, he’s a French fry!” Cody sang, bouncing around in amusement. 

Droopy reached into the bag, grabbed a handful of packets. “My turn next.”

David took one look at Droopy’s thuggish face and started to run. The halting, limping, lumbering stride of a non-athlete. He didn’t stand a chance. Halfway around the first lap, David began to clutch his side, slowed by a cramp. Griffin and the boys followed him on their bikes, cheering him on.

“Come on, David! You can do it, brother!”

“Think of those fifty dollars!”

“Don’t stop, don’t you stop,” Griff warned.

But of course he did. There was no way on Earth David Hallenback could run a full mile in that late August heat. It just wasn’t in him. He stopped, bent over, head down, hands on his knees, gasping.

Droopy splattered a packet on his back. Another one on his shoulders.

“He’s a French fry!” Cody cried, laughing.

David started jogging again.

Mary grabbed Griffin by the arm. “This is gross. What are you doing? You have to stop it.”

“Relax, we’re joking around. It’s funny,” Griff said. His eyes had gone cold. He had switched over to something else, or someone else, darker than Mary had seen before. Droopy watched them argue, amused by it.

“What are you staring at, Droop?” Mary snapped. “Do you always breathe through your mouth?”

Droopy was surprised by her ferocity. Griffin turned to look at him, too, perhaps curious how he’d react to Mary’s challenge. Droopy responded by giving a fierce tug on David’s shirt, ripping it along the side seam. Forced to the brink, David fought back. He pushed against Droopy, catching the larger boy off-balance. The advantage lasted a second, maybe two. Then with an explosive two-handed shove, Droopy sent David hurling to the ground. His head hit with a thud that sounded painful.

“No!” Mary yelled. She stepped between them, standing near the fallen boy. “Stop it, or so help me . . .” She pulsed with raw anger, tensed and ready to launch herself at Droopy’s throat. 

Droopy smirked, unimpressed. “Gee, you’re fun when you’re mad. You wanna wrestle?”

“Okay, fun’s over,” Griff announced with artificial sweetener in voice. He extended a hand, helping David to his feet. The curly-haired boy, covered in ketchup and shame, stood shaken. Griff smiled. “It’s all good now, no worries. Things got a little out of hand. Just kidding around.”

David couldn’t bring himself to look at the others. He nodded his head to indicate that he heard the words, but did not, Mary hoped, necessarily agree with the message. 

“Droop, apologize to Hallenback.”

Droopy stared at Griff for a long moment. “Sorry, Hallenback,” he relented.

“Are you hurt?” Griff asked.

David cautiously probed the bump on the back of the head. Checked his fingers for blood. 

“All right, you can go home now, Hallenback. Practice is over. You got lucky today. Mary here has a soft heart. She’s your guardian angel. But you keep running, Hallenback. Don’t you stop,” Griff said. “We’ll be checking on you. Go on, get going.” 

David glanced sideways at Griff. His face remained tilted down and away, the way a weaker dog might stand before an alpha. He never looked toward Mary or the others. Only Griff. “I will,” he said, scarcely above a whisper, talking to a spot on the ground. “You’ll see. I’ll get better.” And off he went in his uneven, Hallenback-styled shamble. Bizarrely determined to do his best, as if that were the lesson of the day. To try harder. Not that these guys were cruel and to be avoided at all costs. Not that he had a right to be treated with decency and respect. But that he needed to get better –- then his problems might go away. David cut around the school and behind the back. The gang of four –- Griff, Cody, Droopy and Mary –- watched him go.

“What a chimp,” Droopy said.

“You’re an idiot,” Mary replied.

“Speaking of French fries,” Cody said. “I’m hungry.”




Now it was known, the fact laid bare: Mary had witnessed firsthand the cruelty of Griffin Connelly. There was no going back. No thought of friendship or more advanced relationships. All that was over. But Mary couldn’t leave the group this minute, not with Hallenback still out there. If she wasn’t around, things could get uglier.

“Let’s follow him,” Griff said.

“Hold on,” Mary said, stalling for time. She tried to keep the distress out of her voice, didn’t want to sound weak. “Leave him alone. He’s not worth it. We can go swimming or get a slice in town.”

Griff looked at her with scorn. “Are you still here, Mary? I thought you had to go home?”

Droopy snickered. He took pleasure in their hostilities.

Mary swallowed. “I’m still here.” 

Griff eyed her for a long pause, then said, “Because if you want to go, then go. Feel free. Nobody’s stopping you.”

“I know that,” she said, staring right back. 

Mary gripped the handlebars of the bicycle. Her knuckles went white. She hated being in this position. The way Griff took charge of everyone but somehow made it all seem like it was their choice. The way he cheered on Cody to perform that dangerous stunt — just because Griff thought it would be amusing to watch. 

The group pedaled aimlessly on the grass field behind the school. Cody and Droopy chatted and laughed, loose and relaxed; neither Mary nor Griffin spoke a word. There was no sign of Hallenback, but they spotted a boy shooting  baskets by himself on the playground court in the distance. Red shorts and a sleeveless tee. Dribble, dribble, dribble –- like the sound of a steady heartbeat –- then spin, shoot, nothing but net. He was smooth. It made Mary think of Chantel, and a pinprick of regret punctured her heart. Griffin set sail in that direction.

< snip >


Now from the beginning of BYSTANDER . . . 




THE FIRST TIME ERIC HAYES EVER SAW HIM, David Hallenback was running, if you could call it that, running in a halting, choppy-stepped, stumpy-legged shamble, slowing down to look back over his shoulder, stumbling forward, pausing to catch his breath, then lurching forward again.

He was running from, not to, and not running, but fleeing.

Scared witless.

Eric had never seen the boy before. But in this town, a place called Bellport, Long Island, it was true of most kids. Eric didn’t know anybody. He bounced the basketball, flicking it with his fingertips, not looking at the ball, or the rim, or anything else on the vast, empty grounds behind the middle school except for that curly-haired kid who couldn’t run to save his life. Which was too bad, really, because it looked to Eric like he might be doing exactly that—running for his life.

Eric took a halfhearted jumper, missed. No lift in his legs. The ball bounced to the left wing, off the asphalt court and onto the grass, where it rolled and settled, unchased. Eric had been shooting for almost an hour. Working on his game or just killing time, Eric wasn’t sure. He was tired and hot and a little bored or else he would have bounded after the ball like a pup, pounced on it after the first bounce, spun on spindly legs, and fired up a follow-up shot. Instead he let the ball roll to the grass and, hands on his hips, dripping sweat, watched the running boy as he continued across the great lawn in his direction.

He doesn’t see me, Eric thought.

Behind him there was the sprawling Final Rest Pet Cemetery. According to Eric’s mother, it was supposedly the third-largest pet cemetery in the United States. And it’s not like Eric’s mom was making that up just to make Eric feel better about “the big move” from Ohio to Long Island. Because, duh, nobody is going to get all pumped up just because there’s a big cemetery in your new hometown, stuffed with dead cats and dogs and whatever else people want to bury. Were there pet lizards, tucked into little felt-lined coffins? Vietnamese potbellied pigs? Parakeets? People were funny about pets. But burying them in a real cemetery, complete with engraved tombstones? That was a new one on Eric. A little excessive, he thought.

As the boy drew closer, Eric could see that his shirt was torn. Ripped along the side seam, so that it flapped as he ran. And . . . was that blood? There were dark red splotches on the boy’s shirt and jeans (crazy to wear those on a hot August afternoon). Maybe it was just paint. The whole scene didn’t look right, that much was sure. No one seemed to be chasing after the boy. He had come from the far side of the school and now traveled across the back of it. The boy’s eyes kept returning to the corner of the building, now one hundred yards away. Nothing there. No monsters, no goblins, no ghosts, no thing at all.

Eric walked to his basketball, picked it up, tucked it under his arm, and stood watching the boy. He still hadn’t spotted Eric, even though he was headed in Eric’s direction.

At last, Eric spoke up. “You okay?” he asked. Eric’s voice was soft, even gentle, but his words stopped the boy like a cannon shot to the chest. He came to a halt and stared at Eric. The boy’s face was pale, freckled, mushy, with small, deep-set eyes and a fat lower lip that hung like a tire tube. He looked distrustful, a dog that had been hit by too many rolled-up newspapers.

Eric stepped forward, gestured to the boy’s shirt. “Is that blood?”

The boy’s face was blank, unresponsive. He didn’t seem to understand.

“On your shirt,” Eric pointed out.

The boy looked down, and when his eyes again lifted to meet Eric’s, they seemed distant and cheerless. There was a flash of something else there, just a fleeting something in the boy’s eyes: hatred.

Hot, dark hatred.

“No, no. Not. . . bl-blood,” the boy said. There might have been a trace of a stutter in his voice, something in the way he paused over the “bl” consonant blend.

Whatever it was, the red glop was splattered all over the boy’s pants and shirt. Eric could see traces of it in the boy’s hair. Then Eric smelled it, a familiar whiff, and he knew. Ketchup. The boy was covered with ketchup.

Eric took another step. A look of panic filled the boy’s eyes. He tensed, stepped back, swiveled his head to again check the far corner of the building. Then he took off without a word. He moved past Eric, beyond the court, through a gap in the fence, and into the cemetery.

“Hey!” Eric called after him. “I’m not—”

But the ketchup boy was long gone.


Excerpted from Upstander and Bystander by James Preller. Copyright © 2009 and @ 2021 by James Preller. Published in 2009 and 2021 by Feiwel and Friends. All rights reserved. These works are protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

5 QUESTIONS with Paul Acampora, author of “Danny Constantino’s First (and Maybe Last?) Date”

We’re back with the 3rd installment of “5 Questions 2.0” — the new & improved interview format that invites some of the best folks in children’s literature to answer five — and only five! — questions. 

My guest today is Paul Acampora, a wonderful writer and all-around funny guy. We’ll be focusing on his pitch perfect for middle-grade readers, Danny Constantino’s First (and Maybe Last?) Date


1. Hey, Paul. I loved Danny. This entire novel seems like your attempt to write a perfect “rom-com” for younger readers. What are the basic story elements of a romantic comedy anyway?

Thanks, Jimmy! I’m really glad you enjoyed Danny Constantino. I’ve always loved romantic comedies. Probably because my real-life attempts at romance are generally comedic.  Either way, I had a lot of fun writing the book. As far as rom-com structure, I subscribe to the model described by screenwriter Billy Mernit in his excellent book, Writing the Romantic Comedy. For basic elements, the “meet cute” –- when the inevitable couple crosses paths in a generally clumsy and slightly adorable way –- is a classic requirement. 

Before that, however, there’s got to be a set-up that shows how a protagonist’s deepest internal desires (e.g. true love) might be at odds with their external goals (e.g. fame, money, success). From there, the meet-cute leads down a slippery slope of tests, successes, failures, and embarrassments because characters won’t choose one thing or the other until they are humiliated, beaten, broken, and generally wrecked. But it’s okay because it’s all for comedy. I mean love! 

In the end, there is a “joyful defeat,” which means that at least one character will have to give up something of real value (e.g. fame and fortune) in order to earn an even more valuable prize (e.g. true love!). Of course -– just like in “Frozen” or “My Best Friend’s Wedding” -– romance is not always a necessary or final outcome, which makes me think… NO ROM, JUST COM would be a great title!

2. If you can think back to Paul as a kid — say the 5th grade, 6th grade version of you — did you have a lot in common with Danny, the main character in your book?

You are asking about a time and a galaxy that’s long ago and far away. We’re talking about a pre-Star Wars era. I was already a huge sci-fi fan (I still am!), and I was obsessed with things like NASA and Starlog Magazine and missions to outer space (STILL AM!) In addition to my nerdy geek vibe, I played the piano several hours a day, read voraciously, enjoyed science and math, and loved hanging out with my grandparents. I remember that some of my classmates –- especially girls –- started to seem confident and knowledgeable and attractive. Like Danny, I did not think that I was any of those things. I could barely walk across a yard without tripping over myself. I did not feel like much of a catch. At the same time, I had several really great friends -– both boys and girls –- and we all just kind of accepted one other for whatever we were. In retrospect, we were kind of awesome. But, like Danny, we didn’t know it.

Oh, I loved that answer. Now this doesn’t technically count as a question, but: It must have been a good day when you decided the bus driver’s name was Shad.

Definitely yes! One of my daughter’s high school friends was a kid named Shad. His name went into my notebook the very first time I met him. I was just waiting for the right character to arrive so I could press Shad into service. Thanks, Shad!



3. You timed this book’s release just right the for world wide pandemic. Do you have any other marketing tips for us in the biz?

My biggest marketing success came with a novel I wrote a few years ago called I Kill the Mockingbird. It’s about a group of kids who sabotage their summer reading list. The story revolves around Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Not long after my book came out, Harper Lee died. My sales rocketed up the charts. Her passing was a marketing coup. Please note that the marketing department at the publishing house had nothing to do with this effort.  

4. Ha, yes. Let’s keep a close eye on that scarily ambitious intern in publicity! You have so many gifts as a writer — humor, warmth, decency, pace, a sense of family &community — plus crackling, clever, unforced dialogue. There’s a lot of chatter in your books. It reminds me of that great writing tip by Elmore Leonard, “Avoid the parts that readers tend to skip.” What do you try to keep in mind when you are writing dialogue? I mean to ask, I guess: How do you do it?!

Thanks! Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. A long time ago I wanted to be a playwright. I think I learned about dialogue from reading scripts and then hearing the words come to life in performance. And with actors, they really do come to life. The difference between Shakespeare on the page and Shakespeare on the stage is like the difference between sticking your hand into garbage versus pushing your fingers down a garbage disposal. 

Um, puke.

Okay, that might not be the best metaphor. There is garbage in Shakespeare (“What rubbish and what offal!” – Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 3; “Let it alone, thou fool. It is but trash!” – The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1), but his work is mostly painless. Mostly. 

My point is that the page is not always a friend to drama. Even if you’re Shakespeare. Which I am not. (In case anybody’s wondering.) But since novels rely on a cast that lives inside a reader’s head, I think a lot about how I can control the drama within every scene. For me, dialogue provides the best opportunity to do that. Rhythm and pacing and the sounds of words and sentences are just as important as whatever a character is talking about. I think there’s a lot to learn from pop songs (both words and music), stand-up comedy, and also the unbelievably tight writing that television (both comedy and drama) requires. 

As far as techniques and strategies, my first drafts are often nothing but dialogue. I try to write them really fast so that characters can just talk without thinking. That back and forth is where conflict and plot come from.

Oh, that’s actually a great tip.

After that, I revise about a million times so that the story can have things like settings and inhaling and clothes. (Pro tip for aspiring middle grade writers: Middle school teachers and librarians prefer characters who are clothed.) 

One day I’d love to write something like Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments in which dialogue pretty much carries the entire storytelling load –- action, conflict, characterization, pacing, plot, plus tons and tons of humor. Being Irish might be a requirement for pulling that off. See “Derry Girls” for confirmation.

An aside: Funny coincidence with the mother as a high-powered real estate agent. I gave that job to the Adrian’s mother in Better Off Undead. It’s the perfect profession for a distracted, not-always-there mom. And it struck me as funny for a kid to keep seeing photos of his absentee mother on lawn signs everywhere. Danny’s mother hands out coffee mugs with the slogan, “Everything I touch turns to SOLD!” 

But that’s not a question either, technically, so let’s move on. Forget I said anything.

My Uncle Joe was a very successful –- and very intense –- real estate agent. My soapbox derby car was a rolling billboard for his agency. I also promoted the firm by wearing a sandwich board while riding a pony in the annual Bristol Connecticut Mum Festival Parade. There is photographic evidence.

5) You’ve published 7 novels and still maintain a full-time job. Smart! What does the writing life mean to you, just in terms of being a person in this world? Why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier to, you know, not? What does it give you, do you think?

There is certainly a part of me that dreams about having “the writing life” as my primary career, but if I’m being honest I’ve always been a little afraid of walking away from the security and freedom that a regular paycheck provides. Plus, I’ve always had a good time at my different day jobs, which have been challenging and rewarding in their own unique ways. That said, a day job definitely takes great gobs of time and energy away from writing, and I am occasionally tired and cranky. 

In theory, life might be easier if I stopped writing, but life never follows my theories. I’m sure I’d fill the time with some other obsession. I already dabble in music, photography, podcasts, film making, hiking, cooking, gardening, board games, brew pubs, and, of course, tons and tons of reading. All of those exercises and activities give me a chance to look closely at the world in different ways. Writing gives me a reason to look closely at the world in all the ways. If I do it well enough, I get to share what I see and, even better, be in a conversation with other people who are curious about the world. Of course, staying committed to this one particular passion requires giving up on other things. So far, it’s been a worthwhile trade-off for me. 

In truth, every successful writer I know is in the middle of one long trade-off. Some might call it a “joyful defeat.” So basically, the writing life is a rom-com. I hope Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn will play me and my wife in a Wonderful World of Disney+ streaming version (Working title: 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT FONDUE). You’ll get Colin Firth and Charlize Theron on HBO Max when they do you (Working title: JIGSAW IN LOVE). I hope you’ll invite me to the premiere!


JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander and Blood Mountain, as well as the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series, along with the “Scary Tales” and “Big Idea Gang” series. Look for his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13, on Scholastic Book Fairs and Book Clubs. It will be available in stores in February, 2023.