Archive for jimmy

PC Culture or Fair Criticism? A Reader Complains, A Writer Replies

I recently received a letter that made me think. And without disclosing my own conclusions, I thought I’d share that letter here, then pass along my reply, as well as provide an excerpt of the offending scene.

If you’d like, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. 

I almost titled this, in part, “a writer listens.” But that sounded far too pretentious and self-satisfied. Yet it is what I hoped to convey to Cathy in Nova Scotia. That her thoughts are worth hearing — these are good conversations to have — that Cathy’s feelings are valid and valued. I’m happiest with the talking and the listening. We need more of that in our world, less about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” fewer assignations of blame. 

It’s worth noting, too, that Cathy wrote to me with a question rather than an accusation. More than anything, that’s what started us off on the right foot. 

 

Hi James,
 
I am a literacy coach working in Nova Scotia. I have been putting several of your books from the Scary Tales series in the hands of students. They are really enjoying them. I have the task of compiling a list of books to be purchased for schools. In preparation, I am reading and completing a bias evaluation tool on each book. I am currently, “Scary Tales: One-Eyed Doll”. On page 59, I encountered the sentence, “No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams.” This was in response to the custodian saying Malik may take his job one day. I question how this line could be interpreted by the reader and does it imply that a custodial job is less than?
I thought I would bring this to your attention as I was enjoying your book but this sentence made me stop as it makes me feel uncomfortable. 
Kind regards,
Cathy
I replied . . .

Cathy,

Thank you for this note, and for sharing my books with struggling readers. It was always in the back of my mind with this series, that older readers — thanks to the sophisticated look of the artwork — would embrace and succeed with these high-interest, easy-to-read stories.
Yes, I believe that I did intend for Malik’s thought to be exactly that: He had bigger plans.
But I can see where the phrasing of that might have given you pause. If I had the chance of a do-over today, I’d make a simple change: He had other plans.
That would remove the unfortunate (embedded) value judgment.
It is complicated. Because if we are honest, not many people “dream” of becoming custodians, service workers. This doesn’t mean that they are “less” than anyone else or unworthy of our respect. It’s just not where Malick hopes to end up; he’s dreaming big. Writers put thoughts into the minds, hearts, perceptions of invented characters — but at the same time have to be vigilant about what we (they/I) put out into the world. I wish I found a different way to express Malik’s ambitions without making the comparison. Still, there’s “truth” in his thoughts and he treats the custodian with kindness and respect.
I am grateful for the sensitivity of your reading. I’m glad you pointed that out to me. I’ll try to do better in the future.
James Preller
HERE’S AN EXCERPT FROM THE SCENE IN QUESTION (Chapter 9, One-Eyed Doll)
It was a quick bike ride to the nursing home — if you pedaled like your hair was on fire.
Malik made it in six minutes flat.
His mother had worked in the kitchen since he was a baby. Malik was a familiar face to the nurses on staff. When he was little, before he could fend for himself, Malik spent a lot of time in the back rooms. Drawing pictures, building with Legos, eating snacks, looking at picture books. It was cheaper than hiring a babysitter.
The home was a curious world, full of odd smells and old people. Most folks were frail, like glass figurines on a shelf you shouldn’t touch for fear they might break. Some still had sharp minds. They played cards, watched tv, and carried on conversations. Then there were the folks who seemed . . . finished. Like burnt-down candles. When Malik walked the halls, he would sometimes glimpse them sitting in their rooms. Alone and silent, waiting for a bus that would never come.
It was sad, and Malik tried not to think about it.
“Say, Malik! What are you doing here today?” Curtis the custodian chirped. He stopped pushing a mop around the floor and, instead, leaned on it with both hands. Happy to pause and chat. 
“Just thought I’d stop by,” Malik said.
“Getting big!” Curtis observed. “If I don’t watch out, you’ll be taking my job.”
No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams. But he said with a grin, “I just might.”
He started to walk away, then thought twice. “You’ve been here a long time, right?”
Curtis looked up, as if the answer was written on the ceiling. “Twenty years, next September.”
Malik whistled. He decided to take a shot. “You remember the old place on my block. Right? The one nobody lives in.”
The brightness left the custodian’s eyes. “I know it,” he said. “That place is bad business. Bad voodoo over there.”
“Do you know anything about . . .” Malik said, stepping forward. “I mean, can you tell me about it?”
“It’s not my place to say,” Curtis said.
“It’s important,” Malik said. “It means a lot to me. Please.”
Maybe the old man was in a talkative mood that day. Maybe there was something in the way Malik asked. The look in his eyes.
“There’s a patient here,” Curtis said. “Miss Delgado. She was the last person who lived there — but that was, oh, thirty-something years ago. She used to be in the mental hospital, you know, the asylum. But she’s no trouble anymore.”
“She’s here?” Malik asked.
“Room 17, just down the hall,” Curtis said. “I don’t think she can help you, Malik. She hasn’t said ten words in all the time she’s been here.”
“Can I see her?” Malik asked.
Curtis looked up and down the empty hall. “She been through enough. Leave an old woman alone.”
“Please, I’ll be respectful,” Malik said. “Just for a minute?”
“If you get caught,” Curtis said with a sigh, “I don’t know anything about it. Understand?”
He turned in the opposite direction from Room 17 and pushed the mop down the hall. The conversation was over. Malik was on his own.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL, captured by iPhone (so forgive the poor quality).

THERE ARE 6 TITLES IN THE SCARY TALES SERIES, MOST POPULAR IN GRADES 3-5 . . .

Teachers: Please Kill This Book

Teaching books, teaching stories,
is a positive thing
and we need to start doing a better job of it,
and doing it proudly.
There’s nothing wrong with teaching literature.
Don’t believe those memes
that would try to tell you otherwise.

NOTE: I APOLOGIZE

In a lapse of judgment, I included a meme on this site

that included an unfortunate curse word. I’ve never done that

before and, after hearing a complaint, I’ve moved to correct it.

The meme in question set up a Venn diagram with two slightly

overlapping circles. The first was labeled “What the author meant.”

The second, “What your English teacher thinks the author 

meant.” Below that it used an example of a teacher who insists

on a complicated, symbolic, highly improbable reading of 

blue curtains, compared to an author who claims there 

was no deeper meaning or intent whatever. The curtains

were simply blue.

 

Here’s a popular meme, at least a variation on a popular theme, that goes around from time to time. It’s often posted by highly-literate people. And — disheartening to me — by leading educators. And the overwhelming reaction on social media is always one of agreement, even angry agreement. A lot of folks clicking “like.” I’ve even seen writers chime in about how they’d fail tests on their own books!

It’s the oft-quoted idea that teachers kill books, teachers kill the joy of reading, by teaching.

And I’m here to say that I deeply, passionately hate that notion, that somehow it’s “bad” to teach students how to read and comprehend literature.

I find memes like the above to be not only insulting to teachers, but also anti-literature, anti-intellectual, anti-ART.

Can a teacher ruin a good book? Of course! A misguided teacher can kill anything, even sex education. And that’s why so many people on social media react the way they do. In their experience, being taught books wasn’t fun — and, in fact, it was often nonsensical! I remember two of my children slogging through Great Expectations in high school for more than two months. Their teacher knew and admitted that most of her students hated it. But, you know, hey. It was bloodless and cold and somehow weirdly seen as “necessary.”

But that’s not what a good, effective teacher should do with a book. Young people need to learn how to read critically, how to understand the dynamics of story, to see and grasp what is happening. The layers: the expectations and fulfillments and disappointments. The reasons why an author made certain choices. And for readers to develop the critical tools to articulate those insights, perceptions, feelings.

Teaching literature isn’t limited to teaching symbolism — in fact, that’s just a minor aspect of (most) literature. Close reading is about thoughtful questioning, reflection, discovery. What is happening in this story? And those are cognitive lessons that students carry forward to every book they read in the future. In other words, a good teacher is teaching readers how to fish. 

George Saunders, arguably the greatest living American writer, and a professor as well, describes how he teaches in his terrific new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. He begins one exercise this way:

The basic drill I’m proposing here is: read the story, then turn your mind to the experience you’ve just had. Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it’s valid. If it confounded you, that’s worth mentioning. If you were bored or pissed off: valuable information. No need to dress up your response in literary language or express it in terms of “theme” or “plot” or “character development” or any of that.

Saunders goes on to make a deeper point, with wider implications:

To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time. What we’re going to be doing here, essentially, is watching ourselves read (trying to reconstruct how we felt as we were, just now, reading). Why would we want to do this? Well, the part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality. 

 

 

Teachers, please feel free to try to kill my new book with your students! Upstander is a prequel/sequel to Bystander, a middle-grade novel that stands alone. You don’t have to start with Bystander to enjoy it. Also, teachers, feel free to contact me to set up a virtual visit if you’d like (cheap). Teaching books, teaching stories, is a positive thing and we need to start doing a better job of it, and doing it proudly. There’s nothing wrong with teaching literature. Don’t believe those memes that would tell you otherwise. Upstander is a 2021 Junior Library Guild Selection. It comes out on May 11th. So far, there are no other reviews. 

Space Travel Made Easy

Portrait of a Small Boy Sitting Still & Reading

The idea of reading — sitting quietly, isolated, passively — goes against the grain for so many children. It’s a very hard thing to do, the “doing nothing” part.

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.