Archive for Bystander

UPSTANDER Cover Reveal, PDF Now Available on NetGalley

I’m happy to announce that my new middle-grade novel, Upstander (Macmillan, May 2021), is now available on NetGalley. The book is a stand-alone companion to Bystander, exploring themes of internet bullying and substance use disorder. 

Readers can request it through this link: Stomp here!

Thanks for your interest and support.

 

The Depiction of Police in My Books: A Reflection

I realized the other day that police officers played supporting roles in my two most recent middle-grade novels. In Blood Mountain, Makayla is a Ranger with the Division of Forest Protection, a young Black woman, Brooklyn raised; she is fierce and compassionate and awesome in every way, and she searches tirelessly for the two lost hikers in the story (I wanted that idea in this book, that if you’re lost in the wilderness, we won’t stop looking for you). In Upstander (Coming in Spring, 2021), Officer Goldsworthy, a Black man, returns from Bystander and again plays a small but crucial role. He’s a local cop with two bad knees working at the middle school. A strong but quiet presence in the lives of those students. There’s a beautiful scene, a conversation between him and Mary, the book’s main protagonist. I love what he tells her, his compassion for her brother’s struggles with addiction. Anyway, no agenda, it just happened: two cops, both decent and kind and capable, doing good work. That’s what I put out into the world in those books.
Below, “Chapter 13 [Mayakla]” from Blood Mountain. The chapters in this book are very short, and this one is no exception. It’s our initial introduction to this character. By the way, it’s a truism in children’s literature that young people don’t want to read about adult characters. Yet I’ve resisted that idea, while recognizing the problems (and cliches) when adults enter these stories and fix problems. So while I maintain that it is important and acceptable to include complete, fully-formed adult characters in these books, it’s important that the young characters have agency and ownership of their actions. I’m just saying that some folks might not think you can get away with a chapter, however short, that strictly about an adult. But I give readers more credit than that. 
13
[Makayla]
Makayla Devaroix awakens in the dark of her modest cabin to the sound of the alarm. Rise and blur. But first, coffee. A strong pot. Her mind is cobwebs. Even the sun doesn’t want to get up. Makayla is twenty-seven years old, with smooth brown skin and wavy black hair. Her brows are thick and striking above gray eyes. Fit and strong, she moves with an athlete’s economy and grace. She cleans the filter, pours the water, spoons the coffee grounds without thought; she could do this in her sleep and practically does. She sits on a low stool by the coffee machine, watching as it fills. She lives alone, does not own a television. The laptop is enough for podcasts, Spotify, and the occasional romantic comedy.
Yesterday had been a long, hard day, and today looked like it would be worse. She had gotten the call sometime around 2:00 A.M. from dispatch: a kayaker had gone missing out by a string of ponds off Paradise Lake. Makayla double-checked the map. It would take an hour in her patrol vehicle just to get close. She’d meet up with another ranger at the pull-off. They’d split up and begin a basic type 1 search. There were tributaries to cover, plus the kayaker might have carried his boat, or portaged, a short distance between navigable waters. The kayaker had been alone, an experienced backpacker, but had failed to return home as expected. Probably it was nothing. Or maybe he ran into real trouble out there. No matter what, it could take a full day to find the answer. 
If the body was discovered at the bottom of the lake, which is a thing that sometimes happens to bodies out here in parkland, it would require state police scuba divers and more gear and a whole lot more coffee to close this sad chapter. Makayla never got used to the sight of hauling a body out of the water, the skin gone gray, the eyes and lips eaten away by fish. With staff cuts and slashed budgets, Makayla spends most of her week chasing emergencies: lost hikers, injured adventurers, drowned teenagers, and wildfires. It’s simple math. The park is getting more crowded than ever before, particularly in the popular parts, with fewer rangers to cover the more remote territory. More and more people come in, knowing less and less. Impossible to do the job right. She’d seen flip-flops on mountaintops, hikers shivering from frostbite wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, clueless as to how to read a simple compass. Dumb as a box of nails. Most egregious to Makayla, they failed to respect the mountains. She finished her cup with a long gulp, poured the remainder of the pot into a travel mug, laced up her boots, and headed out.
This was her dream job. The city girl who majors in environmental science and forestry in college — discovers she loves it, needs it — and decides to become a ranger. Still true, though harder, and lonelier, than she ever imagined. 

 

Sisters Love Their Big Brothers: Where Ideas Come From

Authors who visit schools get asked it a lot: 

Where do ideas come from

We get asked it so often, in fact, that most of us come up with pat little answers, neat and tidy, that allow us to move on to another question. Any other question, please. 

It’s not that we’re jerks.

The problem with the question is that, well, yeah, there are a lot of problems. To truly answer would take all day and would likely entail far more excruciating detail than any listener would care to endure. You’d lose everybody in the room. When I think of young readers and delve into what they really want to know when they ask that question, I conclude in a few different ways: 1) They don’t super care, it’s just an easy question to ask; 2) They somehow believe there’s one magical idea — a eureka moment! — rather than a slow accumulation of thoughts, impressions, insights, moments; or 3) The inquirers suspect that maybe there’s a secret they don’t know about: they look at their own lives, they look at the amazing books they love, and they just don’t see how one thing could possibly add up to the other. How does the fabric of my ordinary life become something quite as marvelous as a published book? And if that’s the puzzle, I’m not sure I can conjure a decent answer.

Where do ideas come from, anyway

Well, I’m currently proofreading the “first pass” of the typeset version of my next book, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, titled Upstander. To be clear, I’m looking at the words as they will appear in the final, printed book. It’s pretty much my last, best chance to make corrections and changes that won’t represent a giant hassle or extra expense to the publisher. In other words, if I change “swigged” to “gulped” nobody will get mad at me. 

So I’m reading the book again. Very carefully. It is about Mary, a middle school girl who played a small but crucial role in Bystander. Everyone has a story and I kept wondering about Mary’s. So I made something up. Her older brother suffers from a substance use problem. It’s about the challenges Mary faces in her crumbling home and at school with her friends and fellow students (the beginning of her friendship with Griffin, what really went on with bullying Chantel, and of course Eric, etc). But where’d that core idea come from? For starters, there’s the opioid crisis that’s been going on all around us, destroying lives and ruining families, sometimes devastating entire communities. For the moment, we’ve been preoccupied with more immediate horrors, but that doesn’t mean other problems have gone away. Ideas are all around us, as my pat answer goes. Not only that, but I think I have something to contribute to this particular conversation. The thing that every writer needs, something to say.

But I also have a specific experience in mind. I am driving my teenage daughter and two of her female friends somewhere. I listen to them talk (for some reason, they aren’t glued to their phones in this memory; lo, there’s an actual conversation!). It turns out that each of these three young woman, all fierce athletes, have something in common. They each have an older brother close in age. And without realizing it, they take turns swapping stories about these brothers — how one is on the spectrum, how another plays guitar and sings, how another is just super fun and a great friend. They laugh about the stupid things these brothers do. During that drive, one simple observation beamed into my skull: These girls absolutely and profoundly loved their older brothers. 

They looked up to them, too — with admiration, affection, pride, even a kind of awe. Maybe that’s youth, maybe that’s just the way some girls are, maybe life will get in the way over time. No matter. Because at that moment, I came away with something certain in my heart. Brothers are important and beloved.

Years passed. In a completely unrelated manner, I began to think about, for the first time, writing a sequel to Bystander, a notion I’d rejected for almost a decade. Suddenly, the time felt right. The idea was there.

I’d focus on Mary and her brother.

At least a shard of it can be traced back to that day in the car, zipping along, listening to three girls chatter about how freaking much they loved their brothers. Then I added some elements that would make that love more difficult, more painful, almost impossible.

So that’s where that idea came from. You don’t always have to travel to exotic places to find ’em.

 

 

NOTE: I have recently very much enjoyed doing book-specific Zoom visits with a Q & A format. Could be Jigsaw Jones, All Welcome Here, Blood Mountain, The Courage Test, Scary Tales, The Fall, Bystander, whatever feels right for your classroom. Contact me at jamespreller@aol.com and we can discuss it.

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #299: In Which I Answer 10 Questions About BYSTANDER

I was glad to receive this email from a teacher dedicated to the idea of online learning. I’d been invited to her middle school in Beacon, NY; it was on the calendar; and then the world hit “pause.”

As a bonus, there’s news in here about my upcoming book, Upstander.

She wrote . . . 

   

Dear James Preller,
Due to circumstances, the students were so disappointed that they missed an opportunity to hear from you.
We just finished your story about a week ago. We all really enjoyed it! Attached below are some questions the 6th grade students came up with. 
We would love to hear from you, if you have  a chance.
Hope all is well. Stay Safe.
Best Regards,
Rachel V & the 6th Grade Class

 

I replied . . .

1. Is this story based on prior experiences that you had?

Not directly, no. Of course, real people and true experiences are often the starting points for any work of fiction. But the story is made up.

2. What was your inspiration to create Bystander?

At the time, I’d been writing a lot of Jigsaw Jones books, gearing my work for younger readers. My three children were getting older, moving beyond elementary school. I wanted to try writing something that was longer, deeper, for an older audience. After casting about for ideas, and doing a variety of research, the theme of bullying presented itself. Most importantly, I felt that I had something of value to contribute to that conversation.

3. Are you currently writing any books?

Always! That is, there’s always something in the works. Right now I’m at the very early (and often utterly miserable) stage of beginning a book. I have the kernel of an idea, a middle-school athlete who suffers a severe concussion, but that’s about it. The characters are barely breathing, the details are fuzzy. In more exciting news, I’ve completed a prequel/sequel to Bystander, titled Upstander. It’s a stand-alone story about Mary that begins before the Bystander timeline, overlaps a few key scenes, and extends a bit beyond it. Mary has her own story to tell, her own family struggles to overcome. We also learn more about Griffin, and Chantel, and Eric, and the rest. Right now, I’m waiting to see what my publisher, Macmillan, comes up with for a cover. Got any bright ideas? My most recent published book is Blood Mountain, a wilderness survival story involving two siblings lost in the mountains. I love that book, exciting and suspenseful!

4. Is the main character, Eric, based on you?

Not really, no. His role is primarily that of witness. He’s new to the school and meets all these characters for the first time. And just like the reader, Eric has to decide what he thinks about these people and how they act toward each other. I did loosely base Eric’s father on my brother, John, who also suffered from mental illness.

5. How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be an author?

Not until college. I’ve met authors who knew from a very early age that this is what they wanted to do. They loved the smell of books and visiting the library and all of that. I just wanted to stomp in puddles and play baseball for the New York Mets. I will say this: you start by being a writer. Author is a result of being successful, and accomplished, at that. Focus on being a writer. Buy a journal, a cheap composition book, and fill it up with words. Rinse and repeat. It’s available to anyone who wants it.

6. How long did it take you to write this story?

I took a few months researching the topic, visiting schools, speaking with experts, reading books, etc. During this phase, I brainstorm ideas in a notebook. Eventually, one day, I’ll start to write. It might be a snatch of dialogue, the beginning of a scene, random ideas that get more fleshed out. All in all, I think the book took me about six months before I sent it to my editor. Then I receive her comments and suggestions, then line edits from copyediting; it’s a whole extended process.

7. What inspired you to write this book?

At the time, I think there were a lot of weak ideas about bullying being presented in books and television and movies. The stories didn’t seem grounded in reality. And, yeah, I pretty much hate it when everybody just hugs at the end, “Let’s all be friends!” That’s not my understanding of how the world works. When you write a book, for me at least, there’s a process in the beginning when I don’t know if it will actually become a book or not. I might get bored, I might become overwhelmed, I might have nothing to say that hasn’t been said already. But after reading and thinking about bullying for a few weeks, I knew there was a story here that I wanted to tell. And one thing was sure: they weren’t all going to hug it out at the end.

8. What is your favorite part about the book?

I love the opening two chapters. It feels very cinematic to me, especially chapter one -– I can see it, and I hope the reader can see it -– and I think it’s a strong, captivating beginning. I don’t need books I read (or write) to be nonstop action. But it is a plus when you can grab the reader from the get-go. Also, I have a clear memory of writing the fight scene that takes place by Checker’s gravesite (which is a real spot, btw, in my hometown of Wantagh on Long Island at the Bide-a-Wee Pet Cemetery). I loved writing that scene. At the time, I’d written a lot of Jigsaw Jones mysteries. In those books, everybody is nice! Kind, thoughtful, compassionate, friendly. It was refreshing to finally let the dark side come into my writing. My main character down on the ground, spitting blood. Yes, that was a good day!

9. Was the story based on experience or was it something you made up?

I made it up, informed and inspired by a lot of research. Again: made up, but grounded in the real world.

10. What inspired you to start writing books?

After college, I got a job as a junior copywriter for Scholastic, a leading children’s book publisher. That was my first experience with the world of children’s books. The first time I read Where the Wild Things Are, George and Martha, Owl Moon, Frog and Toad, Doctor DeSoto, all those classic books. I thought to myself, I want to do that. And while I’ve never quite reached those heights, here I am, still standing, after having published my first book in 1986. A survivor. It’s not nothing.

 

THANKS FOR READING MY BOOK! HAVE A GREAT SUMMER, GOOD TIMES ARE COMING OUR WAY. WE’RE DUE!

UPSTANDER: Six Books That Helped Me Write a Prequel/Sequel to BYSTANDER

Writing a novel usually begins for me with reading. Here are six books that I’ve read, in addition to other research, to help me write my current work-in-progress.

     

               

Again, it’s like falling down a well. I could keep reading endlessly, blow deadlines year after year; the more I learn, the more there is to know. For this topic, it is truly a deep, dark well. A heartbreaking place I found hard to climb out of.

Then as a writers, at a certain point, we need to push that aside — take what we need for the story, for the characters, and start writing.

When I wrote Bystander, I came away with the feeling that I could tell a hundred different bully-themed stories. Each one different, with countless variations and permutations. You can’t say everything there is to be said; you have to make choices. Decide that this is the story I’m going to tell, and every word in it must serve that particular story. But I am always haunted by the fear of getting something wrong, or missing a critical insight, a layer of perception. I want to do a good job. 

For this book, I have a seventh-grade character whose older brother is dealing with substance use problems. He’s not the main character, but his struggles have a profound impact on the middle school-age girl, Mary, who is the featured character of the book. 

Mary O’Malley first appeared in my book Bystander. This is a prequel/sequel to that story in that it takes place along a similar time-frame — before, during, and after the events first explored in Bystander. There’s some overlap, a few of the same scenes are revisited from a new perspective, but on the whole this story stands on its own.

Working title: Upstander.

You heard it here first.

Everyone has a story. 

Any luck, look for it in 2021.