Archive for Upstander

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. 

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.

Great News: UPSTANDER Named a Junior Library Guild Selection!

Great news! I’m pleased to share that my upcoming book, UPSTANDER (Macmillan, May 11), has been named a Junior Library Guild Selection. It is a fine distinction and, remarkably, my fourth novel to receive that “gold standard” of excellence (joining BYSTANDER, THE COURAGE TEST, and BLOOD MOUNTAIN).

Educators can request a PDF of the book via NetGalley. I’m not actually sure how that works. And by “not actually sure” I mean: I have no earthly idea!

 

Thanks. I’m eager to share more about this book, a sequel/prequel to BYSTANDER that stands alone to tell Mary’s story. 

 

FREE Pro Tip #46: About Those Chapter Titles

Horror of horrors, it dawned on me that I’ve been neglecting my obligation as a Big Deal in Children’s Publishing (cough, cough) to hand out FREE WRITING TIPS.

Please forgive the lapse. I realize that you come here for the swag.

I was thinking about chapter titles while in the shower yesterday. It’s a funny thing about showers — it’s where I get my best thinking done. I’ve heard that’s true for others, too. Maybe because it’s the one place where we turn off the social media, the relentless stream of feeds and shiny objects, and for a few minutes tune into our own watery thoughts?

Maybe we should all take more showers.

Or, I guess, sit in quietude as a regular practice.

Anyway . . .

Without really thinking about it all that much, I’ve used a variety of approaches for chapter titles in my books. Pro tip: If you want to be really cool (and who doesn’t?), don’t use titles for your chapters at all! Just number them: 1, 2, 3, etc. This says to the reader, yawn, I couldn’t be bothered. What’s cooler than indifference? I did that in my YA, Before You Go. Very sophisticated. If you want to win A Major Award, this is the recommended technique. (However, it did not work for Before You Go — not even close.)

But isn’t the untitled chapter just a big ripoff? You pay good money for a book, shouldn’t it include complimentary chapter titles for the price, like the warm, freshly baked cookies they give away in the lobby of DoubleTree hotels?

My book The Courage Test is fancy because we spell out (!) the numerals: CHAPTER TWO: THE RIVER OF TIME.

No extra charge.

There’s one device I’ve always gotten a kick out of, which was a convention in 17th- and 18th-century works: the extended title/subtitle that sums up the chapter’s main events. For example, um, let’s see: “In Which Our Hero’s Boat Capsizes — He Fights Off a Deadly Shark Attack — And Becomes Stranded on an Uninhabited Desert Island!

Bonus points if the chapter title, in italic, begins with the words, “In which . . .

While I have not gone that far (yet!), Justin Fisher Declares War! makes liberal use of longer titles. For example: CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Tied Up with Duct Tape and Stuffed into a Broom Closet.

The other thing about the titles in that book is that they all reflect actual dialogue (!) contained in the chapter. For example, CHAPTER EIGHT: Did We Just See One of the Teachers Doing the Funky Chicken?

Somebody actually says that. 

For Jigsaw Jones, my chapter titles are straight forward, falling well within accepted conventions. Easily 93% of all published books use this boring approach, the bland two or three-word summary. Randomly pulling Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space off the shelf, there’s “Room 201” and “Our Solar System” and “The Stakeout” and so on.

Of course, it’s always a Big Plus if you can title a chapter using a reference to pop culture, particularly song lyrics. That’s a pretty standard trick which signals to the reader that the author is “with it” and effortlessly cool in an insidery sort of way. YA is riddled with it. So Chapter 8 is, “A Little Help from My Friends.” Mom or Dad, blearily reading aloud, might get a kick out of that (and I often try to throw ’em a bone). 

Here’s an idea: It might be awesome if an entire book went all-in on that concept, you know what I mean? Every chapter title featuring a snippet of David Bowie lyrics:

 

Chapter 1: We Can Be Heroes

Chapter 2: Hey Babe, You’re Hair’s Alright

Chapter 3: Turn and Face the Strange

Chapter 4: Floating in a Most Peculiar Way

And so on and so forth.

Like most writers, I generally adopt the summary technique in my books. It’s quick, clear, and does the job without any fuss. A lot of times good writing just wants to get out of the way. For my “Scary Tales” books, I seem to have gone with short, dramatic, nearly breathless chapter titles: “The Hunt,” “Full Dark,” “The Chase,” “Captured,” etc.

Who knows? Surely not me!


My upcoming novel, Upstander (May, 2021), is a stand-alone story, but it is also a prequel/sequel to Bystander, featuring the same characters.

For reasons I cannot defend on grammatical grounds, for Bystander I titled every chapter using just one word, lower case, in brackets:

 

1

[ketchup]

2

[pretty]

 

and so on.

 

Upstander picks up that same strategy, subtly connecting the two books:

 

1

[gravel]

2

[triangle]

 

You get the idea.

Wait, you might ask, “Where’s my free pro tip? I’ve traveled all this distance and there’s no free tip?”

Easy there, trust me.

PRO TIP #46: Whatever strategy you employ for your chapter titles, they should be consistent within the world of that book. Each book should have its own logic, its own internal rules and strategies, and that should be reflected in the chapter titles. Or, of course, not!

CONFESSION: I took about 15 minutes with my shelves, leafing through various classic and quasi-popular children’s books. I hoped to find creative examples of chapter titles. It was a huge bust and I got bored after a while, though I did notice that funny books tended to have funny chapter titles (but not always). I did rediscover Half Magic, the 1954 classic by Edward Eager. His book has 8 chapters:

  1. How It Began
  2. What Happened to Their Mother
  3. What Happened to Mark
  4. What Happened to Katherine
  5. What Happened to Martha
  6. What Happened to Jane
  7. How It Ended
  8. How It Began Again

Pretty righteous, I think. Old Eager went the extra yard.

How about you? Can you think of any good examples? 

 

A Conversation About Book Covers with Illustrator Deborah Lee, A Rising New Voice in Children’s Books

 

Back in the halcyon days of school visits, I’d often get questions about my book covers. People tend to assume that the author sits back in a stuffed leather chair, calling the shots. That’s far from the truth — I only sit on cinder blocks! My shorthand answer is that as an author, I’m responsible for the interior of the book. Every single page. But the cover? That’s the publisher’s. They’ve invested money in the book, talked to sales representatives, editors, designers, artists, bean counters, and endured actual meetings. Seriously. They go into windowless rooms and hammer it out. They want to sell the book, too.


What I mean to say is that the process is mostly out of my purview. Take for example my upcoming book, Upstander (Macmillan, 2021). One day my editor, Liz Szabla, sent me a file and said, more or less, “Here’s the cover, hope you like it.”

And you know what? I did, a lot. I found out the name of the illustrator, Deborah Lee, and wrote to thank her. Deborah was willing to answer some of my questions. Here she is now (I know, I’m excited, too).

 

First off, who are you? Could you give us some quick background? How did you get into illustrating book covers?

Hey! I’m a Korean-American freelance illustrator who works primarily in the publishing and editorial industries. And to be honest, I’ve only started working independently this year—before, I was working at LinkedIn and Lyft as a designer and illustrator for a year and a half while juggling freelance illustration. I was a designer for a while because I didn’t pick up my current profession as a career choice until my senior year of college. (Unfortunately, the university, which is strongest in engineering, has no resources in illustration, so I was pretty much on my own for that.) It was my final semester when I had some presentable work ready to show, and the stars aligned when my current literary agent found me through social media, which began my career in publishing. The rest is history!

So this is all new. How exciting. Where do you live?

I live in Oakland, CA, which is across the bay from San Francisco. But next spring we’re moving back to Pittsburgh, where my partner and I graduated from college. We miss having seasons and cheaper rent.

So let me see if I’ve got this right. One day you get offered a book cover job for something called, Upstander? They tell you how much money you’ll make and you say, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it anyway.”

Couldn’t have said it any better.

Ha, it’s pretty much the story of my career.

HOWEVER, I do love drawing book covers! They’re some of my favorite kinds of projects—the sketch ideas come by much more easily since there’s already a clear narrative in place. A lot of my quick freelance assignments tend to look for illustrations about very abstract concepts and current events.

I understand that, as fate would have it, you were already familiar with my Jigsaw Jones books.

Yes!! It’s been a long time, but my brother and I borrowed most, if not all of the books from the library when we were growing up. I’m sure we had some of the boxed sets too!

That’s pretty cool. Obviously you were an amazing kid. Back to the cover. Do you work from a designer’s concept?

The designer, Mike Burroughs, gave me some pointers in regard to symbolism (eye and speech bubble emoji) and mood (loneliness, tension) but luckily, I still had creative freedom! Mike was also looking for something more conceptual and less narrative-based, but reading the book helped anyway so I could take notes on any key scenes that could inform the cover as well. Also it helped me understand Mary’s (the protagonist) conflict enough to depict her facial expression as appropriately as I could. There’s a lot going on in her life.

Do you try to deliver a variety of approaches?

Definitely! I remember intentionally keeping one sketch without the emoji that Mike was looking for, just in case. I also varied the amount of literal vs conceptual elements in each one. But over all, telling different stories with each concept shows the design team that I’m flexible, and not super stuck on just one idea.

 

 

Finally, the publisher selects one and says, “Perfect! This is exactly it! We just want you to change a few things . . .”

That did happen! At first I made Mary look a little too young, which wasn’t that difficult to fix. I also had the speech bubble display some indistinct text, which was replaced by the blurb that’s seen in the final deliverable. Thankfully this was a very straightforward project—Mike was really easy to work with!

“The final deliverable.” It’s that kind of insider lingo that keeps a Nation of Readers coming back to James Preller Dot Com! I have to tell you, Deborah, I’ve shared our cover on Facebook and your work has received so many compliments. People seem to really to be intrigued by the cover. There’s a sense of mystery to it that, I hope, will draw readers into the story. That is: Thank you!

And thank *you*!!! I’m so glad it resonated with everyone—especially with how little the cover reveals about the story.

So what else are you up to? Have you done other covers? Do you hope to illustrate your own books? Hang in fine museums? What’s next? 

Whew, so since 2018 I’ve been working on my debut authored/illustrated graphic memoir called In Limbo with First Second/Macmillan. It’s the most daunting and laborious project I’ve ever been took on—I treat that project alone like a day job and a half.

Oh, my goodness. That looks incredible. Just a staggering amount of work. I want it now. 

All-in-all, it’s a rewarding process and I can’t wait to see it in full by Spring 2022.

Could you tell us more about it?

In Limbo covers my time during high school as a severely depressed and abused teenager with an identity crisis as one of the only Asian-American kids in my year. It’s dark—so much so that my editor at First Second/Macmillan had to remind me constantly to put in lighter scenes in the beginning stages of the draft! While I’m not complete with the final pages yet, I can already say that this book has taught me not only the graphic novel process, but also it brought a ton of insight about myself. Basically the longest therapy session ever. I’m very grateful to have been given this chance.

Sounds like a story you had to tell. I’ll be looking for it.

And while I work through that one, I’m illustrating another graphic novel (authored by Tina Cho) for Harper Collins called The Other Side of Tomorrow, which is publishing around 2023. I’m very lucky to be working on these projects—and for now I’m most looking forward to having physical copies of both books in my hands!

Yes, that’s a beautiful moment in the life of a creator. The first time holding it in your hands, the satisfaction of, “I made this.”

As for covers, I have done one other before this for a middle-grade book called Invisible Boy. That one was tricky—it talks a whole lot about child trafficking, so I had to be careful with how I depicted that. And again, one of my favorite kinds of projects. Crossing my fingers for more of these!

 

 

Well, Deborah, it’s been a pleasure to get to meet you. Such an exciting time in your career, just as you are lifting off into the stratosphere. I’m absolutely positive that we’ll be hearing a lot more from you in the future. I’m glad all those Jigsaw Jones books did you some good. I wish you the best of luck — and thanks, again, for our book cover. It will always connect us, and for that I’m very glad.

Haha, thank you so so much!! (I’ll be needing it!)