Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

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.

A Conversation with Judy Bradbury — former Classroom Teacher, Reading Specialist, and Author of the New “Cayuga Island Kids” Series

“I was deep in the trenches with kids
who struggled with learning.
We all rolled our sleeves up
and dug in
to make sense of what they had trouble grasping.
I’ve spent years around learners of all ages
and it’s the joy
of seeing someone’s eyes light up
when they achieve a goal
or nail a concept
that wins the day for a teacher.”
— Judy Bradbury

 

I love it when a classroom teacher steps out and decides to write for kids. I mean, teachers know, right? All the research that I do to try to get things right, these teachers experience on a daily basis. Judy Bradbury began her professional life as a classroom teacher. Since that time, Judy’s rich and varied career has centered around reaching and teaching learners of all ages (from adults all the way up to preschool). Today we’re celebrating the launch of Judy’s new chapter book series for young readers, “The Cayuga Island Kids.”

 

 

Welcome, Judy! We met at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival some years ago. At the time, I thought of you as primarily a professional books writer. An educator more than, say, a fiction writer. Forgive me if I got that wrong. 

I am actually both (and I make a mean mushroom risotto, too). 

Risotto? Wait, did you say . . . mushroom risotto? Cancel the interview! I’m hungry NOW!

Sorry, Judy, I kind of lost my head there. So, um, what were you saying?

As long as I can remember, I wanted to teach. I had an entire classroom set-up in our basement, from a chalkboard, to a plan book, to a row of those wooden desks with ink bottle holes that my father snagged when the school down the road was remodeling. I’d get all the neighborhood kids to play school, and they knew going in that I was going to be the teacher. I also wrote throughout my childhood—a letter to convince my dad to let me take more dance classes (that was probably my first persuasive essay), a “book” for my younger sister about the twin dolls she received for Christmas, letters to the editor, and more. I began my teaching career as an elementary teacher at the age of 20 and eventually became a reading teacher. I taught struggling readers in high school for many years. I also have taught at the college graduate level. My first books for children were picture books in a series that featured math in each story. I’d say that project perfectly blended my love of teaching with my desire to write for children.  

I’m always interested when a children’s writer has an academic background. You have a real sense of how children learn and what they need to succeed.

I like to think that’s true, though I don’t see myself as an academic. I was deep in the trenches with kids who struggled with learning. We all put our sleeves up and dug in to make sense of what they had trouble grasping. I’ve spent years around learners of all ages and it’s the joy of seeing someone’s eyes light up when they achieve a goal or nail a concept that wins the day for a teacher. For authors, it’s when readers connect with characters, are tickled by text, or find another solution to a problem they’re facing—one they might not have thought of had they not read that book. In many ways, books and teachers can be game changers and maybe life savers for kids.  

Though I’m eager to discuss your new chapter book series, first I’d like to learn more about your background with professional books. 

I have always had a passion for reading and reading aloud to kids. Even as a high school teacher I read to my students every day. These kids, who wouldn’t have opened a book if you promised them there was gum inside, would beseech me to continue reading when I stopped. Gradually, they’d start asking me to read stories with certain themes. I’d notice them perusing the magazines and books in my classroom library. (I had a couch in the room and I used a big portion of my yearly budget on trade books and an array of magazines that teens would be interested in reading.) As a mom, reading together with my daughter was a treasured time. We still talk about books with one another. It’s a lifelong bond we formed before she could talk that has carried on through her life. So it is sort of natural that the professional resources for educators I have written center on reading aloud to kids. They offer methods, materials, activities, book recommendations, poetry connections, and ways to connect kids with books and develop a love of reading. 

How can a parent encourage “the reader” in their child?

My advice is simple: read to your kids. Read widely. Enjoy the experience with them daily. 15-20 minutes is all you need. Have reading materials available everywhere—from bedrooms to bathrooms, to seat pockets in your car. Visit the library. Buy books as gifts. Encourage your children to explore books on their interests, and also widen their horizons by choosing books they might not have thought to pick up, but that you feel certain they will enjoy. Oh, and I tell parents this. Reading with your children goes beyond just reading picture books when they’re young. Your books for older readers, for example, would be ideal. They are excellent conversation starters. So, I say to educators and parents alike, read to kids, even when they’re in college. 

I’m curious about your work as a former “character education columnist.” You wrote about issues that centered on emotional learning? 

I did. Before it was known as social-emotional learning, this realm of interpersonal skills was called character education. Each month I wrote a column focusing on trade books that related to the month’s theme and also had a strong SEL component. I absolutely loved writing for LibrarySparks. Those articles were very satisfying to pull together. My Children’s Book Corner blog is an outgrowth of that experience. Each month I interview an author and/or illustrator of a new release and offer resources for using the book with kids. I choose books with strong SEL themes that also connect in some way to curriculum.

It seems like kids are going through so much right now that it’s almost impossible to measure the impact of their Covid experience.

I think that’s true, and it’s why I am buoyed by the reports that sales of books—especially children’s books—have risen during this unprecedented time. As readers we know that books can transport us to other places, offer us fresh perspectives, and lighten our spirits.  

Anxiety appears to be at an all-time high.

It does, and I like to think that books have helped, as have all the authors and illustrators who reached out to offer readings, virtual visits, activities, and more to schools and home-schooling parents scrambling with the new normal this past year. The kidlit community—including publishers—came to the aid of educators and families in a big way; it was heartwarming to witness such a meaningful and well-executed expression of support. It demonstrated solidarity and a willingness to assist. Uplifting moments such as these help us breathe. I hope as 2021 moves forward we are able to move away from such high anxiety and that with distance we are able to look back and find solace and takeaways in some of the silver linings in the Covid cloud. I hope we can focus on how positive expressions are an option even in distressing times: they lift us all up—those who give as well as those who receive.

So now you’ve made this exciting shift. You are the author of a new mystery series. Would it be fair to say that this series is a dream come true for you?

It is indeed a dream come true. I was always writing for children, working on my craft while I was deep into creating resource books for educators. But in reality, I didn’t have enough time to do both. I decided a few years ago to put all my energies solely into writing for children. I turned down a few requests to write another educational resource, and that was hard to do, but I had spent some time assessing my priorities. My heart was in writing for children. That gives me the most joy. So I committed to that fully. 

That’s impressive. And a great lesson in persistence and following your bliss. Please tell our readers about the books.

I’m very excited for this series! The seed of the idea for The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship resulted from a feature article published in the Niagara Gazette in 2015. It detailed the discovery of a cannonball in the backyard of a resident of Griffon Avenue on Cayuga Island. He was installing a fence when he unearthed it. Cayuga Island is a small residential island a few miles upstream from Niagara Falls. Griffon Avenue is named for the Griffon—a treasure ship built in the 1600’s by Niagara Frontier explorers in the area where the cannonball was discovered. It is at the center of one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Great Lakes. The ship sank in 1679 and was never recovered. Well over a million dollars has been spent trying to locate its remains. With the backyard find, the question was, Could the unearthed cannonball be from the Griffon?

My cousin sent the Gazette article to me because I grew up on Griffon Avenue on Cayuga Island. (So did she. I guess you could say we are Cayuga Island Kids). She figured the article would interest me, and she was right! I found myself thinking about whether there was a story there for kids. Finally, I contacted the owner of the cannonball—a high school teacher in Niagara Falls with five kids. He was gracious enough to meet with me, show me the cannonball, and detail the discovery. I began to think about writing a story for kids centering on the discovery of a cannonball. I wanted it to be realistic fiction: part mystery, part adventure. The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship is the result. It is set in present time on Cayuga Island and features five diverse, resourceful, likeable, and lively friends who love a good mystery and are always up for adventure. 

These kids are kind to each other. They are bright and interested in the world. How important was that to you?

You nailed it, Jimmy. It was everything to me that the overarching common quality in these diverse kids would be kindness. I am so pleased when readers get this. Yes, these kids have different interests and skills, attention spans and insights, but above all and in spite of their differences, they care about each other, support each other, have fun together, and work to solve problems together. They are friends. And they care about their world—which continues to be evident in Book 2, The Adventure of the Big Fish by the Small Creek, in which they organize a community event, and in Book 3 The Case of the Messy Message and the Missing Facts when they tackle misinformation, jumping to conclusions, glitter pens, and chocolate chip cookie recipes.

I think the illustrations capture that feeling. 

I absolutely adore the illustrator of the Cayuga Island Kids series! Gabriella Vagnoli is amazing; she “got” these kids from the first sketches she submitted when being considered by our publisher to work on the Cayuga Island Kids series. She is intuitive, fun to work with, and smart. She brings life to my characters and overall warmth to the series. I am grateful to be working with her.

You didn’t go into this thinking “series,” did you?

No, the idea to make this story book 1 in a series (The Cayuga Island Kids) grew from conversations I had with my terrific publisher Marti Gorman of City of Light Publishing. After she acquired it, she asked me to consider making it into a series. Of course I said yes. The second book, The Adventure of the Big Fish by the Small Creek, will be out in September 2021, and the third book, The Case of the Messy Message and the Missing Facts, follows in Spring 2022.

Well, Judy, thank you for stopping by. I wish you good fortune with this lovely series. Thank you, too, for all the work you’ve done supporting teachers and children in the classroom. 

Thank you, Jimmy, for inviting me to talk with you about reading and writing, The Cayuga Island Kids, and my mushroom risotto!

 

James Preller is the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series and many other books, including Bee the Change (from the “Big Idea Gang” series), All Welcome Here (a picture book of connected haiku), and Blood Mountain (wilderness thriller for middle-grade readers). Look for Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, coming this May.  And then buy it. Cheers!

Revisiting THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS — A Chinese American Perspective with Phoebe Yeh, VP and Publisher at Crown Books

We recently witnessed the kerfuffle regarding Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to no longer publish six titles that it deemed offensive. It brought to mind an experience I had back in the late 1980s when I worked at Scholastic. So I reached out to my old friend, Phoebe Yeh, to ask her about it. Like me, Phoebe was young at the time, an editorial assistant for our beloved friend, Craig Walker. These days Phoebe is kind of a big deal, a widely respected VP/Publisher of Books for Young Readers at Crown, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books.

Honestly, I’m just grateful she answered my email. 

Jimmy? Jimmy who?”

 

 

Phoebe, thanks for taking some time out for this topic. I know that it’s close to your heart. We met in 1986, back when I was a junior copywriter at Scholastic and you were hired as Craig Walker’s editorial assistant. We were both earning salaries in the (barely) five figures. I remember talking with you about the 1938 book, The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop. It was your mission in life, it seemed, to produce a new, authentic retelling of that ancient Chinese folktale. You were deeply offended by Kurt Weise’s illustrations. Can you remember what your feelings were at the time?

Yes, indeed.  And even though more thirty years have passed, my opinion about The Five Chinese Brothers hasn’t changed. Full disclosure: I grew up reading this book. As a child, I took the illustrations for granted, the slanty eyes, the yellow skin tone.

Fast forward. I’m basically in my first real job after college. I think I must have had a lot of nerve. I marched myself into my boss’ office even though I knew I was going to complain about a book that sold like crazy for See Saw Book Club (kindergarten/first grade readers).

I shared my reservations with Craig Walker — also sharing that it wasn’t like the author, Claire Bishop, had even come up with the premise. I had read Chinese versions of the story about the brothers with the super powers but Bishop had added whipped cream or some such to her version. And everyone knows, many Chinese people are lactose intolerant so adding this detail made no sense.

 

Craig was incredibly supportive and felt that we should bring up the idea of publishing a new version with our editor-in-chief, Jean Feiwel.  The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jean and Mou-sien Tseng, became my first acquisition as an editorial assistant (still virtually unheard of -– usually you don’t start acquiring until you are, at least, an assistant editor).  And prideful though it sounds, this version is still in print.

What was challenging for me was that I LOVED that book as a kid. It was such a great story. One brother drinking the whole ocean! Another brother with the unbreakable iron neck! I read it over and over again. And I wasn’t the least bit offended by any of it! So talking to you, on one level, I could intellectually understand where you were coming from . . . but I didn’t feel you, if you know what I mean. It was a long time ago, I had a lot to learn (still do!), and I wondered at first if perhaps you might be over-reacting. What was I missing?

Jimmy, you weren’t missing anything.  How would you know?  How could you know? I didn’t know either, when I was reading the book as a kid.  But by the time I was at my first job, I had read Maxine Hong Kingston and Zora Neale Hurston, other women writers who weren’t “taught” in high school, poetry and novels about the European exploitation in African and Caribbean nations.  I subscribed to a weekly newspaper, Asian Week that enumerated crimes and other discriminatory incidents against Asian Americans.  My second encounter with The Five Chinese Brothers was informed by this context.

I knew that there was a way to retain the humor, the absurdity without ridicule.  And since I don’t have slanty eyes, there should be a way to show the brothers more authentically. To be fair, an educator colleague who was raised in Taiwan, doesn’t have the same issue with The Five Chinese Brothers.  But she also recognizes that Chinese Americans have a problematic history: we are the only immigrant group who had not one but two exclusion acts forbidding entry; the trauma of building the Transcontinental Railroad, etc etc so in the mid 80’s,  I was interpreting the Bishop book from a vastly different lens.

I’m curious. Do you think your version of Seven Brothers could be criticized by today’s standards for going with a white author from New Zealand? In today’s world, would you have worked harder to find an “authentic” retelling by a Chinese American author?

We signed up Margaret Mahy, a non-Chinese American author after a fruitless search to find a Chinese American who was interested in writing a children’s book. I tried everyone — Maxine, Bette Bao Lord, Nien Cheng, etc and I think this was before Amy Tan. I didn’t approach Larry Yep because I erroneously thought he only wrote MG. So I found an author who could do justice to the humor. To her credit, Mahy was worried about authenticity/sensitivity but I knew I could walk her thru it because of my background. I didn’t speak a word of English until I was 3. I took Chinese (language) classes in college and lived in Taiwan for a year after college. And I felt confident that I had context and resources if questions arose. So besides being a gifted writer, Mahy knew what she didn’t know, a key, I believe, to writing about a protagonist who isn’t from your background. The illustrators had enormous context and experience. This also made me feel that we could do justice to this new version.

I remember your great pride and deep satisfaction when you signed up a new, updated retelling. That was a book you fought for. And I can still see the pleasure on your face on the day when the Tsengs’ art came into the office. As a Chinese American, can you express what it meant to you then — and what it means to you today — to make that kind of difference in a children’s book?

 

I was thrilled (and relieved) when The Seven Chinese Brothers received critical attention. And that it sold, proving my point that a new version would resonate. I loved seeing it in bookstores. But even better, finding it in libraries and school classrooms.

Fast forward to a midpoint in my publishing career, when I signed up Ellen Oh to write her first children’s book, Prophecy (Ellen  later became a co-founder of WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS). But guess what book was the first time she saw Asian characters: The Seven Chinese Brothers.

 

Recently I had a similar moment with another Asian American who was creating children’s books for MOMA.  Unlike Ellen, who grew up in Brooklyn, this gentleman was raised in New England.  He told me the same thing.  Until The Seven Chinese Brothers, he hadn’t seen a children’s book with Asians depicted without mockery.  Who knew that one book could have this kind of impact?

Things are so much better now but in the mid-80’s when I started in children’s publishing, there was a dearth.  I’m profoundly grateful to Craig and Jean for giving me a chance, one that has pretty much informed the rest of my children’s book career.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Phoebe — and for the  meaningful, important work you continue to do. Proud of you!

 

FUN FACT: The food at Phoebe’s wedding, somewhere in Chinatown, was amazing. On long winter nights, I still think about that meal thirty years later. But also: Jigsaw Jones has a best friend and a partner named Mila Yeh. So, yeah, that’s where I borrowed that name. A direct lift from Phoebe — because I was seeking something that evoked for me the qualities of tough, smart, loyal, fierce, kind.

A Conversation with Alexandria Giardino, Author of “Tree + Me”

“Telling stories is a way to bond, to share
and connect emotionally,
even across great differences and divides
of time and space.
When I write, I am asking the reader
to really see something with me —
to share our imaginations.”

— Alexandria Giardino

 

I’m happy to say that I made a new friend recently. Yeah, true fact! It’s not always easy in these Covid times. Her name is Alexandria Giardino, and she’s the author of a new picture book, Tree + Me, gorgeously illustrated by Elena and Anna Balbusso. In a starred review of the book, Kirkus concluded, “Lovely—a perfect segue into discussions about loneliness, empathy, refugees, and more.” So I reached out to Alexandria because I was eager to talk about this book and learn more about its author. It turns out that we shared a lot in common — trees, dogs, nature, poetry, art, music — and found it remarkably easy to talk about our interests and passions. So, yeah, we’re pals now. Five bucks says you’ll like her, too.



You mentioned elsewhere that this book was, in part, a reaction to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

This is definitely my reply to Silverstein’s work. I hadn’t read The Giving Tree since I was a child, and I had really fond memories of it. When I read the story to my son, I was completely conflicted. Old feelings of being touched by the bond between the boy and the tree were mixed up with new feelings of despair that the book’s true message is about taking, not about giving. Like, it could be called The Taking Boy.

But you did something refreshing, in that you brought it to a positive place.

I know there are important feminist readings of the story and also environmental ones. I wanted my own reply to be about mutual giving. To me, that is a basis for a true bond.

And so you got the idea that this lonely young girl would tell her story to the tree.

Telling stories is a way to bond, to share and connect emotionally, even across great differences and divides of time and space. When I write, I am asking the reader to really see something with me — to share our imaginations. I imagined a girl who was sensitive enough to know that a tree has a story to tell too, and that her story and its story might be deeply bonding.

I think talking to trees is a good thing to do, anyway.

I confess that I’ve always loved trees, too. It’s probably what drew me to your book. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, was a powerful, illuminating text that explored the science behind tree-to-tree communication. And in fantasy literature, we have a great tradition of “magical” trees — Tolkien’s Treebeard at Isengard! — and so on. It’s nice to see those notions supported by hard science.

Science is always challenging the word fantasy. Like, what once seemed fantastical is actually quite explicable! Oh, science, I love you. I admire Wohlleben’s book, and I still need to read The Overstory.

Yes! The Overstory was one of my favorite books of the past decade. Loved it.

This year there are four other tree-related picture books coming out, and I reached out to those authors/ illustrators, saying, hey, let’s be forest friends. And being awesome and generous kidlit people, they said, yes, let’s! So we have some fun things brewing to share our love of trees, including a bundled give-away for teachers and librarians that we are doing in March-April. Stay tuned for that.

While looking at your website, it strikes me that the act of “a creative response” is important to you. Your book Ode to an Onion was inspired by one of Pablo Neruda’s poems. And on March 13, you are presenting an online craft workshop, “Countering the Classics,” encouraging participants to seek way to counter classics by using their own voices. It becomes a living, and inclusive, conversation.

I love talking. Some of my happiest memories are times when I took a long walk with someone, and we got into a deep talk. So, that passion is definitely part of my creative life. I also believe we have every right to claim a literary heritage and have conversations in it, with our ancestors and our descendants too. Neruda is part of my heritage, and so is Silverstein. Who ever thought they’d be in the same family tree?

For a picture book writer, there’s always that –- gulp – moment when the art comes in. I guess that was a good day?

Ok, so there is a twist to my “gulp” moment because it is not as simple as seeing artwork and being happily surprised, or possibly disappointed. When I saw the early artwork that the Balbusso sisters sent in, I was shocked. I felt like they “saw” something in me, or sensed something about me, that led them to create art that just truly blew me away.

Specifically, what I mean is that I am a major Santana fan. And their earliest drawings looked like the Abraxas album cover. Even the book’s opening page — with the colorful tree rings — looks like a vinyl record. And the palette they chose had a very late Sixties vibe. My editor, who does know how much I love Santana, called me and said, “Alex, you are NOT going to believe your eyes when you see this artwork.”

Honestly, that gulp moment was like, well, we are in tune.

The art is stunning. And mind-blowing in that they are not only sisters, but twins. Talk about communication! Those two must have some serious telepathy going.

I’m a deep believer in some abilities that we can’t yet fully understand yet. But, you know, science will eventually show us. Also, I so look forward to the day I can meet them. I bet they are fascinating women. We’ve been emailing back and forth, dreaming of the day when I get to Milan, so we can go out for a meal together.

Is there anything of you in our heroine’s story?

Loneliness and longing for deep connection and true friendship. I have lived in a lot of different places, and I have often been an outsider, even unable to speak the local language. I have often taken refuge in nature because of that. I would have totally talked to a tree stump as a lonely kid.

I love that crucial moment when she whispers, “I see you.” To be honest, I have a similar moment, in a very different context, in my upcoming novel, Upstander. A mother says it to her daughter. Honestly, I think that’s all anyone really wants. Just to be recognized, seen, valued.

Thank you for telling me about your book. As I mentioned earlier, I think most of us long for that deep sense of being understood and loved. That is, to be seen. That actual line came late in revisions. But where this story started in my imagination is with the image of the final moment. I always saw the sprout breaking through. I felt that moment in my heart.

Actually, that is how I seem to write. I am one of those writers who sees the last scene first, and then has to write back from it to the beginning — that green shoot at the end of the book is everything. It is life coming back after such loss and despair.

I’d love to learn a little more about you, Alexandria. Where did you grow up?

As a kid, I moved around a lot, but my heart belongs to my first home, Oakland. As an adult, I continued to move quite a bit, including living for a long time in Mexico and Chile, and even a little time in Italy.

How did you come to children’s books?

I wrote my very first children’s books while living in Mexico City in the late 1990s. I am so glad I found my way to picture books because I love the marriage of story and art so much. And now I am also writing verse novels. I feel I have found my even truer voice there.

Can you tell us more about that verse-novel project? 

Oh yes! I am having the most profound experience writing this new novel. I have always felt like a poet, but I was just too shy to say so. This story is pouring out in verse, so I am going with it. It’s supernatural historical fiction, based on a woman whose story has never been fairly told. She deserves better.

Lastly, you are a “major” Santana fan. Does that mean you have Carlos Santana’s head tattooed on your back?

I saw him once live. I was able to get right up to the stage. He expressed so many emotions! At one point, he turned away from the crowd, lost in the music, channeling something divine. Now, I have tickets to see him in a concert with Earth Wind & Fire. The show was scheduled for last June, then COVID hit, and now it is rescheduled for some future date. I can think of no better place to be with people outdoors again, dancing while Santana and Earth Wind & Fire play. Please, lord, let that concert happen one day.

Thank you, Alex, we share many interests. I feel like we could talk for days. Before we go back to the real world, should I cue up “Soul Sacrifice” — or do you have a different suggestion?

Ah, I love that song. But you know which one is really great too? “The Calling.” I get chills. The guitar talks straight from his heart. Thank you for this conversation. I feel so grateful for the ways we have connected here and for your willingness to connect.

 

 

Alexandria keeps up a clean, neat, tidy, informative website.

Also, you can learn more about her by using this amazing resource called Google. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me, James Preller, I’m the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Coming this Spring, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander, which is a stand alone, prequel/sequel to Bystander. Both are Junior Library Guild Selections (along with Blood Mountain, below). Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!

 

     

A Conversation with Jordan Sonnenblick, Author of the New Memoir, “The Boy Who Failed Show and Tell”

Whew! I’ve been cleaning all day in anticipation of a visit from Jordan Sonnenblick, one of the most beloved middle-grade authors writing today. And by “cleaning all day” I mean to say, I just picked up an old yogurt container from the floor. It was kind of scuzzy. And by “picked up” I mean to say, pushed it into a corner with the side of my foot. Look — here comes Jordan now! 

Jordan, welcome. Sorry about the mess. Normally I have a whole fancier setup –- kind of a spa vibe with cool lighting — but, Covid, you know. Anyway! Yeah, that’s right, just shove that stuff aside. You can sit on that milk crate.

Thanks, man. But I’m a little bit picky. Do you happen to have a low-fat oatmilk crate?

Um . . . 

No? Okay, I will make do.

In the past, you’ve often used your own life as a basis, or at least a springboard, for your novels. What made this book, a true memoir, different for you?

The biggest difference was how easy the writing felt. When I’m writing a novel, I am constantly worrying — 24/7 — about the plot: What will happen next? Are the characters and the conflict developing well? Creating a memoir was awesome, because every morning when I woke up, all I had to do was sit down at the computer, see what actual event from my 4th-grade year was next on the timeline I’d made, and start writing down what had happened. Getting rid of all that uncertainty about the plot really allowed me to hone in on things like humor and getting my 4th-grade voice right.

 

 

Yes, the voice! I think you nailed that. How the heck do you do that? I mean, is it instinct? A natural feel for channeling your inner 4th-grader? Or are there specific things that you look for in the revision process? Vocabulary, sentence structure, or general worldview stuff?

I don’t know. But I can tell you that when I got my first book advance (for two first-person young adult novels), my wife said, “Hey, you’re finally getting paid to be immature!” So I’m thinking that when my instincts take over, a kid voice is what comes out.

I’d bet twenty bucks –- if I had it – that you really enjoyed writing this book. It comes through. It’s funny, closely observed — smooth and affectionate and true. For example, I liked your description of classmate Robert Falcone with his brand-new pack of 256 Crayola crayons.

But Robert’s coloring equipment is on a different level. His crayons come in a cardboard briefcase. With a plastic handle on the side.

Robert is like a professional fourth grader in a roomful of amateurs.

Robert was so incredibly cool! But yes, writing about all these real people and experiences was incredibly fun. That year of my life was quite bittersweet as I was living it, but reflecting back from where I am now was a pure pleasure.

I have a recurring thought about memoir writing. We hear Lucy Calkins and other highly-qualified educators give students this terrific advice, “Write about your own life, even the little moments that happen.” But I am sure that a lot of boys think, “Yeah, that’s totally boring. I wouldn’t even want to read that book.” If nothing explodes, what’s the point? You know what I mean? We grow up with the sense that our everyday lives aren’t interesting enough.

Yes, absolutely. Fortunately for me, my teacher at the beginning of fourth grade, Mrs. Fisher, was basically a villain out of Charles Dickens, and my health situation was pretty Dickensian, too — so I had lots of real adversity to play with. Everything is more exciting when the main character might suddenly stop breathing any second!

 

Vonnegut has a great writing rule that I sometimes share on school visits: “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them –- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Vonnegut is my all-time hero!

Yes, he’s up there for me, too. 

I have never seen a bad piece of writing advice from him. And the beauty of writing these memoirs is that, in focusing on just one short period of my childhood for each one, I could pick only the times when truly atrocious things were happening to me. I could have written an excruciatingly-boring book about my happy, charmed 1st-grade year, for example.

So you actually had a teacher who told your mother, “Jordan will never amount to anything.”

Yup. Not one of my proudest parent-teacher night experiences.

Because as a vulnerable kid, you thought that comment said something bad about you –- rather than something unforgivable about her.

YES! I mean, I knew my teacher was mean. But that didn’t necessarily transfer to knowing that she was wrong.

As a former teacher yourself, and as an ex-kid, I’m sure you have thoughts on this: What do you think makes a good teacher?

Well, that’s very interesting. Believe it or not, I originally sat down and wrote an entire memoir for adults about my own career as a teacher, and how the good and bad educational experiences of my childhood shaped my interactions with my students. But when I was done writing that book, I realized the real gold mine was in the childhood parts, so I pitched a two-volume childhood memoir to my editor at Scholastic, David Levithan. In this first volume, I think it’s pretty clear that, for me, a good teacher is the opposite of Mrs. Fisher. I was so very lucky that my second 4th-grade teacher, Miss Tuff, was the opposite of Mrs. Fisher, in every conceivable way. Where Mrs. Fisher had been cold, played favorites, and shown nothing to me but contempt, Miss Tuff was warm, loved every student equally (or at least, gave us all that feeling), and made each of us feel special, at a time in my life when I very much needed to feel special.

 

When I first coached Little League, I came into it with all this amazing knowledge to impart. Tips and techniques and entire life philosophies! But after a few seasons, I narrowed it down to simply this: I’m the guy who believes in you. That was my job. The booster of confidence. Even when a kid doubts him or herself, I was there saying, You can do it. And hopefully along the way giving them the tools to succeed.

Absolutely. I always say in teacher trainings that the most important thing a middle-grade teacher has to do, before anything else can even be possible, is keep the kids safe, reasonably happy, and interested in learning. Once that flame of interest (in school, in baseball, in anything) burns out, it’s incredibly hard to rekindle. Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to bruise a piece of fruit, but impossible to un-bruise one.

You really struggled as a ten-year-old in all sorts of ways. Asthma, feeling different, not fitting in. How do you feel about that kid now? Do you want to kick him in the butt? Do you want to hug him? Bring him to a Yankee game?

How ‘bout all of the above? Looking back at nine-year-old me, that kid was equal parts irritation, stubbornness, and nobility. I was a gigantic pain to several of the adults in my life (and a couple of the kids, too), but my strongest desire was to be good.

Oh, hey, I meant to ask you: What’s it like to be illustrated?

So, so cool! When my editor forwarded me the initial sketches by Marta Kissi, I was so excited I yelled for my wife and kids to come see. Without ever once talking to me, Marta absolutely nailed the feel of that electric year in my life.

I loved the last triumphant lines of the book: I have books. I have music. I am ready for anything. Is that still pretty much true? Or would you now include, say, a good pair of compression socks?

At this point, I would definitely throw my beloved wife and kids in there at the very top of that heap. But I will say this: without books and music, I never would have ended up with the wife or the kids, because those things completely turned my life around. Every good thing I have basically flows out of my love for books and music.

We see music become a big part of your life in the book. So I have to ask: Favorite Beatles album?

It has changed at different points in my life. But I will tell you that when we brought my first-born son home from the hospital, on the very first morning he woke up in his crib, I took him downstairs to our family room, laid him across my chest so we were both right between the speakers of my stereo, and put on side two of Abbey Road. I wanted that to be the very first music he ever heard. “Here Comes the Sun” –- what a perfect overture for life. Amirite?

Wow, what a coincidence. I tried something similar with my first born. Except I used Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica.” Maybe, upon reflection, it was the wrong album. That kid is so messed up. 

[awkward pause]

Anyway! Last question: This goofy kid in the story, the one with glasses and asthma, any idea what ever happens to him? Is he gonna be okay?

 I might not go all the way to “okay,” but he does survive — and he stays goofy. I know this because the sequel, which comes out next year, takes place when that same goofball gets to middle school. The working title is The Boy Who Failed Dodgeball.

Ouch, that’s gotta hurt.

You’re not kidding! I always joke that the highlight of my Little League career was the 1980 season, when I led the league in concussions. But middle-school dodgeball was worse.

Thanks for coming by, Jordan. Good luck with the book. I’m not a teacher, but I imagine it could serve as a mentor text for any teacher trying to encourage her students to see the story in their own lives.

My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me, James!

Oh, please, Jordan, we’re pals now. You can call me “Mr. Preller.”

 

       

Readers can learn more about Jordan Sonnenblick, and all the books he writes, and his entire family, by hiding in the bushes near his house. Infra-red cameras are amazing these days. There are also ways to tap phone lines. Failing that, just Google the guy. He keeps a website and everything. 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me, I’m a writer, too. I’ve authored the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, along with many middle-grade books, including Six Innings, The Courage Test, The Fall, Better Off Undead and Blood Mountain. My upcoming book, Upstander (Macmillan, May 2021), is a prequel/sequel to Bystander. It was recently named a 2021 Junior Library Guild Selection. Clearly, you should buy it. 

And by “buy it” I mean: Yes, actual money!

Was that too subtle?

 

AS ALWAYS, THANKS FOR STOPPING BY!