Archive for Upstander

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #332: Carli Didn’t Dig the Ending

I received two quick emails from Carli . . . 

Hi James prellee I read your book bystander and I don’t really like how you ended it you should have ended it with more conflict but over all I really liked it and is there a second book

And what I really did like about the book I like that there was a lot of conflict and I like how Mary was a good friend to Eric and was introduced herself to Eric when he first arrived 

I replied . . . 
Sorry it’s taken me a couple of weeks to get back to you. I blame the turkey!
You sent two brief emails and I’ll try to answer them both here, toggling back and forth.
Let’s see: the ending.
Ah, the ending.
I know, I know. It doesn’t wrap things up in a tidy bow and it doesn’t conclude with a dramatic flourish. In many respects, you are not wrong to wish for those things. I usually do, too. But in this story, I wanted it to be as true to life as I could make it. So I sort of sidestepped “drama” in favor of “truth.” For better and for worse! I actually did write a more dramatic and “satisfying” ending w/ Eric helping to get Griffin caught for stealing bicycles, but it felt false (and forced) to me, so I ditched it.
I think in real life we kind of endure these things. We move past them over time. That annoying kid in 7th grade moves on, time passes, and we realize it’s behind us at a certain point. There’s no tidy resolution. In terms of artifice, of a fictional story, maybe that’s not the most satisfying way to go. But, hey, to be honest, I like the open-ended nature of the book. That these characters live on in our imagination, and that it’s up to individual readers to speculate about where things will go after that. I do leave a number of hints along the way.
Yes, I love Mary, too. She’s a minor but crucial character in Bystander. And one that was, I think, underwritten. My primary focus was on Eric’s experience. But Mary has guts, stands up to her friends, suffers the consequences of that decision, and undergoes the greatest change in the novel. I liked her so much, in fact, I made her the main character in my recent book, Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander. The book follows Mary closely, some time before the timeline of Bystander begins. We see her meet and become friends with Griffin. We learn about her troubled home life. We learn more about her uneasy friendship with Chantel. And halfway through the book, we pick up on meeting Eric on that basketball court (chapter one of Bystander) — this time told from Mary’s point of view. We also see that horrendous, painful moment with David and the ketchup.
Everyone has a story. And if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s to withhold our judgment on other people. We just don’t know what’s going on in their lives. For Upstander, I wanted to pull back the curtain and get to know Mary much, much better.
I hope you read it. There’s also an excellent audiobook available, if you prefer to read with your ears. 
My best,
James Preller

Booking Zoom Visits, Too!

I just booked another Zoom visit — 30 minutes, Q & A — with a class of 6th graders who all read Bystander over the summer. Books come and go, faster than ever these days, so I am especially grateful to the teachers who still find it valuable to share this book with students. I think of this one as a “talking book,” a springboard for conversations that are very probably more meaningful than any of the printed words that came from me. Anyway: feeling thankful for that. 
The prequel/sequel, stand-alone companion book, Upstander, is now available in paperback. Mary’s older brother suffers from a substance use disorder (SUD), and for some that might make this title for a slightly more mature audience. I believe it’s such an important issue — lives are being lost every day — I wanted to find a way to address it in a thoughtful, compassionate way.
Contact me directly at and I’ll be happy to respond to your query to create a visit that works for your specific needs. My fees are very affordable. 
Please note that I’ve done book-centered visits for a range of titles: Jigsaw Jones, Exit 13, The Big Idea Gang, The Courage Test, and more. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

Droopy snickered. 

The boys got off their bikes. Mary, too. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, he is not,” Droopy stated.

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

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

The smile on David’s face slowly faded.

He tried laughing it off.

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

“Griff,” Mary said. 

He ignored her.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not cool, Griff,” Mary said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Think of those fifty dollars!”

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

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

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

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

David started jogging again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Droop, apologize to Hallenback.”

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

“Are you hurt?” Griff asked.

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

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

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

“What a chimp,” Droopy said.

“You’re an idiot,” Mary replied.

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




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

“Let’s follow him,” Griff said.

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

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

Droopy snickered. He took pleasure in their hostilities.

Mary swallowed. “I’m still here.” 

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

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

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

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

< snip >


Now from the beginning of BYSTANDER . . . 




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

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

Scared witless.

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

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

He doesn’t see me, Eric thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On your shirt,” Eric pointed out.

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

Hot, dark hatred.

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

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

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

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

But the ketchup boy was long gone.


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

UPSTANDER: Listening to the Audiobook

Here’s something I’ve studiously avoided until now — I’m actually listening to one of my own books on audio, borrowed from the library via Libby (though you can buy a copy if you prefer). Normally the idea of that gives me hives. But Upstander is read by a talented voice actor named Caitlin Davies and, to my relief, she does an incredible job conveying tone, pace, meaning, all the while somehow managing to “voice” a wide array of characters.

That’s a curious sidenote, btw: how many characters have spoken dialogue in this book? I’d never considered that before, never added them all up, but it must be more than 20.

Let’s see . . . I’m curious. There’s Mary, Jonny, Chrissie, Alexis, Chantel, Griffin, Cody, Hakeem, Mrs. O’Malley, Mrs. Williams, Ernesto, Mrs. Brown, Drew, David, Eric, Dez, Vivvy, Officer Goldsworthy, Sinjay, Tamara, Beatrice, Azra, Jamilah, Football Player #1.

I was wrong. Caitlin was required to give voice to 24 different characters.  And she does it far, far more masterfully than anything I could have stumblingly mustered.

This listening experience once again underscores the basic truth of publishing: it takes so many people to make a book & put it out into the world. These folks are dedicated, serious, and talented. Art directors and copyeditors, administrative assistants and production managers and, yes, even professional voice actors who can take a text on the page and make it come alive. Thank you, most especially, Caitlin; you are very good at what you do and I’m grateful for that. I’ve actually enjoyed the book so far. What a relief. But I’m only halfway through, so — NO SPOILERS PLEASE!

NOTE: Upstander is a prequel/sequel to Bystander. It begins before the Bystander timeline and then overlaps it in the second half of the book, offering a different perspective on a few “tentpole” scenes while also wandering down new avenues as well. It is not required that you read Bystander in order to enjoy Upstander. There’s no preferred order. However, I think that reading both would be pretty cool. As I have come to think of it, not a longer story, but a larger one. Thanks, as always, for stopping by!

Thankful for a Thousand Different Reasons

I’m lucky in a thousand different ways. I realize that. And one of those ways is that I get invited to participate in children’s book festivals. Rochester, Chappaqua, Hudson, Princeton, Morristown, Thousand Islands, Warwick, all over. Best of all, sometimes I even get invited back.

The continuity becomes part of the experience for organizers, authors, and attendees. I used to think that people would get tired of seeing the same authors and illustrators sitting behind tables — it’s important to bring in fresh faces, diverse talent — but there’s a particular beauty to the familiarity. The kid who you saw last year, or two years ago, coming back for another book, another conversation. But this time reaching for a title that’s a little longer, a little older. Or maybe just completing a series, finding that last book for the autographed collection.

Last time in Chappaqua, a familiar face strode up to the table. A good-looking kid, clear-eyed, sturdy & athletic, still wearing soccer gear, still smiling. He knew me and I knew him. “You’re back!” I said. He grinned. There had been a few meetings over the years, now stretching out across the wide pandemic. I was grayer, he was taller. His mother asked, once again, for a photograph. And in turn I wondered if she had kept any of the old ones.

A week later, she sent these along with a brief note: “Below are the photos from the Chappaqua book fair that you requested. It was amazing to see you again, and I loved talking to you as always.”


Like I said, I’m a lucky guy.

P.S. Hey, my friend, if you ever do start that soccer blog, please let me know. I’d love to read your work for a change!