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Good News from “The Wall Street Journal”

I returned from a wonderful camping trip at Forked Lake — four families, three campsites, seventeen folks in all — and found this great review for A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade in The Wall Street Journal.

This book has been on an amazing ride, so well received in many different places.  I’m grateful. But I have to say, because the WSJ is just one of those hallowed papers, it’s especially nice to be in there, legitimized. It would have turned my father’s head, the type of random thing he might have clipped out of the paper and mailed to me. Remember when people used to do that?

Remember Dad with the scissors in his hand, slurping coffee at the kitchen counter, pulling open drawers, searching for stamps? Not long ago, but a world and a lifetime away.

Click here to read the review in full.

Thank you, Meghan Cox Gurdon, for the kind review. The opening quote:

Young children who love pirates—and parents who might relish reading aloud with swashbuckling gusto—are going to find “A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade” just their cup of grog.

A Comment from Geoffrey Hayes: Books for Boys

I don’t usually highlight a reader’s comment in this way, but comments to old posts tend to get lost in the slipstream. I recently heard from author/illustrator Geoffrey Hayes, recent Geisel Award winner, in response to something I’d written a while back.

Commented Mr. Hayes:

Dear James,

I just happened upon your site and was surprised to find my book “PATRICK AND TED” mentioned so warmly. It seems like I wrote this story so long ago, but you reminded me that I’ve always written from feelings and emotions first. I never thought of this as specifically a “Boys Book”, maybe because it doesn’t focus on those things that one traditionally finds in books for boys. In my opinion there is a narrow view in today’s publishing world about just what boys will and won’t read — stories with a female protagonist for one. For every generality you can apply to boys (and girls) we tend to forget that each child is an individual and therefore multifaceted. Thanks again for your kind words and fond memories.

Geoffrey Hayes

I agree with every word, and it’s a message I’d like to shout from the mountaintop.

But mountains are so darn high, and so awfully hard on the tootsies, let’s save our strength and just blog about it. Besides, if I’m up on a mountaintop, I can shout ’till my lungs burst and nobody’ll ever hear me. Why? Because I’m up on a mountaintop! That’s the last place you’d go to spread a message. Who makes up these ridiculous expressions anyway?

Thank you, Mr. Hayes — and congratulations on the well-earned award.

That First Sentence: Ramona Quimby, Age 8

A while back, I had the genius idea of posting about Great Opening Sentences. It struck me as a neat platform from which discuss writing in general. You can find that entry here and, as a brief follow-up, here.

A couple of nights ago, I thought of it again when Maggie and I started reading a new book together. On her own, Maggie has been blowing through the Spiderwick Chronicles. But we still love our read-aloud time together, warm and close under the covers. Lisa and Mags had already selected Beverly Cleary’s, Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

First of all, how awesome is that cover illustration? Maggie and I stared at it for a full minute. Just perfect: the expression of Ramona’s impish mouth, the choppy homemade haircut, the slender neck poking out of the sweater, the bug-eyed gaze. (I always wanted a Jigsaw Jones cover like that, btw, the character up-close and central, instead of all those middle-distance, detailed scenes.) When looking for art for this post, I kept pulling up the wrong (ever-updated) covers:

No offense, but those depress me. None of them touch the Dell Yearling cover. The interior art of that book is by Alan Tiegreen, but there’s no mention of the cover artist. It doesn’t seem to be by the same hand. The signature under Ramona’s hair reads, “Scribner.” For what it’s worth, here is (I think) the original, William Morrow cover:

Anyway, I loved the first sentence:

Ramona Quimby hoped her parents would forget to give her a little talking-to.

To me, who didn’t take notice of children’s literature until 1985, it felt like these books had always existed. It surprised me to find a 1981 copyright on this one (Ramona first appeared in the early 50’s, first earning a title shot in Beezus and Ramona, 1955). An argument could be made that Ramona Quimby has been the most influential children’s book character in the past 60 years. Junie B. Jones, Clementine, Amber Brown, and many others seem like Ramona’s direct descendants. Sometimes vivid in their own right, sometimes pale imitations, but always somewhat familiar.

For what it’s worth, the second sentence was equally strong:

She did not want anything to spoil this exciting day.

Like all great beginnings, there was only one response: Keep Reading! We had a main character who already seemed to be in hot water — that great phrase, “a little talking-to” — and was now on the verge of something momentous. Also, Cleary slyly introduces the fear that something — surely something — will indeed “spoil” this day. We’re already worried about things going wrong, great calamities. But what? Well, we’ll have to read to find out.

For Writers Only (Okay, Relax, Illustrators, Too)

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Thanks to Richard Spaulding, an old friend, who passed this along.

The man behind this video, Dennis Cass, has a pretty cool blogsite, Dennis Cass Wants You To Be More Awesome. He really does!

Jigsaw Jones: What’s In a Book Cover?

One of the central themes of this blog is that whatever touches my life as a writer is valid content. Or as my pal Matthew Cordell might say, “blog fodder.” So, thus: I recently got this note from my editor at Scholastic, Matt Ringler:

TITLE: Jigsaw Jones Electronic Mystery: The Case of the Secret Skeleton
AUTHOR: James Preller

Jigsaw Jones is sneaking into the janitor’s storage closet. We see him standing in the doorway. It’s dark but Jigsaw has a flashlight. In a back corner, lit up by the beam of light is a plaster human skeleton, hanging from a stand by its head. The skeleton should be the size of a normal person, like the ones used in science class to study anatomy. Jigsaw looks frightened. We can also see the normal paraphernalia that would be in the storage closet (i.e. mops, brooms, buckets, etc.). Visibly crumpled in the skeleton’s hand is a piece of paper (a clue).

And that’s it, one of the early steps toward designing a book cover. The manuscript, you should know, is not yet finished. In paperback publishing, it often isn’t. The book won’t be out for a year — but covers need to be placed in catalogs and brochures; the marketing guys need ’em in well advance. And you don’t want to mess with the marketing guys.

Matt and I discussed the “cover concept” over the phone. Then he had to present it at a meeting to get approval before taking the next step. Which is, I’m pretty sure, speaking with the art director who will contact the cover artist, R.W. Alley.

NOTE: At this point, I decided to do a quick Q & A with Matt Ringler.

Hey, Matt, thanks for helping me out. So what’s involved with getting this particular cover concept approved? Is it anything like, for example, meeting with the Spanish Inquisition?

I’d say it’s more like the “History of the World” version of the Spanish Inquisition, you know, with Mel Brooks singing and fully choreographed synchronized swimmers.

See, that’s where we part ways, my friend. I prefer the Monty Python version, with soft cushions and comfy chairs. [See clip below.]

The trickiest part is making sure everybody is happy. In this case everybody means: the author, the editor (me), the editorial director, the art designer, the manager of the Book Club this title is going on, and a creative director. After all those people sign off on it, the illustrator gets to add another important opinion. I don’t know how many times you’ve ever been around seven people who fully agree on anything. Personally, I have never seen it happen.

The Seven Dwarfs seemed pretty high on Snow White. [That’s the Disney spelling, btw.]

Well, you know what Randy Newman would say about that.

The Dwarfs would have hated the song “Short People” — with unanimous agreement, I’d bet. Too bad they didn’t design book covers.

It’s rare to get full agreement on anything, and that’s a positive thing. Different perspectives often work to improve a book cover. From most conversations I’ve had, many people are under the impression that an editor only corrects spelling and grammar mistakes. While that helps with the job description, I think the most important quality needed in an editor at this stage in the process is diplomacy. I’m happy when all of those people are satisfied and the cover concept arrives on my desk with all of the necessary signatures.

Once the concept is approved, what next?

The next step is to discuss it with the art designer. The designer will then discuss the cover ideas with the artist. A time line will be set. A rough sketch will then come in to the designer, who will place that art into the template of the book cover. At that stage, everybody will look at it again to make sure it works.

I have to say, I love this process stuff — how crayons are made, or Hershey’s Kisses, or whatever — I find it so interesting how many small steps are taken to make a book happen. When do you think the rough sketch will come in?

Most people aren’t aware of the hundreds of minor decisions that are made before each book is published. The time it takes to get a sketch depends on several factors: how fast the artist works, how busy they may be at that time, the book’s schedule, when the final art is due, etc. The standard time is about three weeks to a month. It is important to leave enough time for the illustrator to make any changes that may be needed.

Thanks, Matt. I intend to keep my loyal blog readers — who, clearly, and I don’t think this is saying too much, are willing to lay down their lives for me — posted on this whole process. We’ll be talking soon (and not just about the New York Mets, and our shared pain, but about actual work, too!).

Thank you, Jimmy. I always look forward to our conversations, and I know we will one day have one about a championship Mets team — even if we are old and retired by then!

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NOTE: Here’s some links to the follow-up posts in this seven-part series: One, Two, Three, FourFive, and Six, and Seven. Read them all and experience the awe and wonder of the creative, collaborative process!