Tag Archive for James Preller Fan Mail

PC Culture or Fair Criticism? A Reader Complains, A Writer Replies

I recently received a letter that made me think. And without disclosing my own conclusions, I thought I’d share that letter here, then pass along my reply, as well as provide an excerpt of the offending scene.

If you’d like, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. 

I almost titled this, in part, “a writer listens.” But that sounded far too pretentious and self-satisfied. Yet it is what I hoped to convey to Cathy in Nova Scotia. That her thoughts are worth hearing — these are good conversations to have — that Cathy’s feelings are valid and valued. I’m happiest with the talking and the listening. We need more of that in our world, less about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” fewer assignations of blame. 

It’s worth noting, too, that Cathy wrote to me with a question rather than an accusation. More than anything, that’s what started us off on the right foot. 

 

Hi James,
 
I am a literacy coach working in Nova Scotia. I have been putting several of your books from the Scary Tales series in the hands of students. They are really enjoying them. I have the task of compiling a list of books to be purchased for schools. In preparation, I am reading and completing a bias evaluation tool on each book. I am currently, “Scary Tales: One-Eyed Doll”. On page 59, I encountered the sentence, “No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams.” This was in response to the custodian saying Malik may take his job one day. I question how this line could be interpreted by the reader and does it imply that a custodial job is less than?
I thought I would bring this to your attention as I was enjoying your book but this sentence made me stop as it makes me feel uncomfortable. 
Kind regards,
Cathy
I replied . . .

Cathy,

Thank you for this note, and for sharing my books with struggling readers. It was always in the back of my mind with this series, that older readers — thanks to the sophisticated look of the artwork — would embrace and succeed with these high-interest, easy-to-read stories.
Yes, I believe that I did intend for Malik’s thought to be exactly that: He had bigger plans.
But I can see where the phrasing of that might have given you pause. If I had the chance of a do-over today, I’d make a simple change: He had other plans.
That would remove the unfortunate (embedded) value judgment.
It is complicated. Because if we are honest, not many people “dream” of becoming custodians, service workers. This doesn’t mean that they are “less” than anyone else or unworthy of our respect. It’s just not where Malick hopes to end up; he’s dreaming big. Writers put thoughts into the minds, hearts, perceptions of invented characters — but at the same time have to be vigilant about what we (they/I) put out into the world. I wish I found a different way to express Malik’s ambitions without making the comparison. Still, there’s “truth” in his thoughts and he treats the custodian with kindness and respect.
I am grateful for the sensitivity of your reading. I’m glad you pointed that out to me. I’ll try to do better in the future.
James Preller
HERE’S AN EXCERPT FROM THE SCENE IN QUESTION (Chapter 9, One-Eyed Doll)
It was a quick bike ride to the nursing home — if you pedaled like your hair was on fire.
Malik made it in six minutes flat.
His mother had worked in the kitchen since he was a baby. Malik was a familiar face to the nurses on staff. When he was little, before he could fend for himself, Malik spent a lot of time in the back rooms. Drawing pictures, building with Legos, eating snacks, looking at picture books. It was cheaper than hiring a babysitter.
The home was a curious world, full of odd smells and old people. Most folks were frail, like glass figurines on a shelf you shouldn’t touch for fear they might break. Some still had sharp minds. They played cards, watched tv, and carried on conversations. Then there were the folks who seemed . . . finished. Like burnt-down candles. When Malik walked the halls, he would sometimes glimpse them sitting in their rooms. Alone and silent, waiting for a bus that would never come.
It was sad, and Malik tried not to think about it.
“Say, Malik! What are you doing here today?” Curtis the custodian chirped. He stopped pushing a mop around the floor and, instead, leaned on it with both hands. Happy to pause and chat. 
“Just thought I’d stop by,” Malik said.
“Getting big!” Curtis observed. “If I don’t watch out, you’ll be taking my job.”
No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams. But he said with a grin, “I just might.”
He started to walk away, then thought twice. “You’ve been here a long time, right?”
Curtis looked up, as if the answer was written on the ceiling. “Twenty years, next September.”
Malik whistled. He decided to take a shot. “You remember the old place on my block. Right? The one nobody lives in.”
The brightness left the custodian’s eyes. “I know it,” he said. “That place is bad business. Bad voodoo over there.”
“Do you know anything about . . .” Malik said, stepping forward. “I mean, can you tell me about it?”
“It’s not my place to say,” Curtis said.
“It’s important,” Malik said. “It means a lot to me. Please.”
Maybe the old man was in a talkative mood that day. Maybe there was something in the way Malik asked. The look in his eyes.
“There’s a patient here,” Curtis said. “Miss Delgado. She was the last person who lived there — but that was, oh, thirty-something years ago. She used to be in the mental hospital, you know, the asylum. But she’s no trouble anymore.”
“She’s here?” Malik asked.
“Room 17, just down the hall,” Curtis said. “I don’t think she can help you, Malik. She hasn’t said ten words in all the time she’s been here.”
“Can I see her?” Malik asked.
Curtis looked up and down the empty hall. “She been through enough. Leave an old woman alone.”
“Please, I’ll be respectful,” Malik said. “Just for a minute?”
“If you get caught,” Curtis said with a sigh, “I don’t know anything about it. Understand?”
He turned in the opposite direction from Room 17 and pushed the mop down the hall. The conversation was over. Malik was on his own.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL, captured by iPhone (so forgive the poor quality).

THERE ARE 6 TITLES IN THE SCARY TALES SERIES, MOST POPULAR IN GRADES 3-5 . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #306: A Reader “OBSESSED”

There’s something about readers who enjoy scary stories. They bring a unique level of enthusiasm — of passion — to their reading. They don’t just like a book, they almost seem to take up residence, they dwell inside it. While I’ve written many types of books over the years, across various genre, there’s nothing that works better in front of a large audience than reading a carefully-selected passage (not too scary!) from one of my “Scary Tales” books. 

Which is to say, here’s a card from Gracyn in Texas . . . 

I replied . . .

Dear Gracyn,

Thank you so much for your wonderful card. My wife had saved it but mistakenly tossed the envelope. So, yeah, I had to do the deep dive into the garbage bin to retrieve your return address.

(Old coffee grounds are gross, btw.)

Texas, hey. I’ve been fortunate to visit your state several times for book conventions, author visits, and even to play in a men’s baseball tournament. Always a good time.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from “I Scream, You Scream!” AKA, “Dr. Z’s Adventure Park.”

You aren’t too shabby a writer, yourself. “I could not stop telling my friends all about it in grave detail.” Wow, that’s a great choice of words. It’s an ordinary sentence until the end there, when you added in grave detail. Perfect! Keep that up and I’ll be reading your books someday.

Be sure to thank your teacher for having my book in your classroom library. I appreciate that. There are six “Scary Tales” books in the series. I find that everything I write helps me become a better writer. My most recent novel, Blood Mountain, is a realistic story about two siblings who are lost in the wilderness. It’s a scary, suspenseful, survival thriller. The lessons I learned writing “Scary Tales” helped me write that book. In this case, the frightening things were “real” compared to the ghosts and zombies and swamp monsters in the series. But the writing is very similar. Still building suspense, setting up situations, trying to make the reader lean in.

And if a girl named Gracyn can become OBSESSED, well, that’s the best I can possibly hope for.

Thanks for that.

Um, and now . . . I better go wash my hands.

My best,

 

James Preller

 


P.S. This is the cover of Blood Mountain. Because one good book leads to another!

 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #302: Hard Beginnings, Saggy Middles, and Fizzled Endings

 

Here’s a short one from Helin — who thinks I am James Preller! — along with my saggy reply.

 

Hello! My name is Helin. I think you are James Preller. I read “The Case Of The Disappearing Dinosaur” book for my English project. I understood it very well and I liked it. I got the beginning, middle and end very well. I think it was fun and enjoyable. I am glad to read this book. 

 

My response . . .  

Helin!

Thank you for your kind note. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur
Beginnings are hard: that blank page staring back at me, waiting, as if to say, “Yeah, so what?”
Middles tend to sag. I work hard at middles, because nobody wants a saggy middle. I try to keep the plot/mystery zipping along, cutting away the lazy bits. 
And endings, well, a book has to have a satisfying ending. That’s the part everyone remembers, the last pages they read. If the ending fizzles, the whole thing is a fizzled book. 
Nobody wants to read a fizzled book.
I’ve written all types of books over my long career. I published my first book in 1986, at age 25: that makes me something like 136 years old! Go ahead, do the math. The trick with mysteries is that you pretty much have to know the ending before you can begin! Other books you can sort of meander there like a stream and gradually work your way to the ending, a discovery. For mysteries, I start with “the crime” and figure out what happened, who did what. Until I know that, I can’t begin.
That’s a pro tip right there, free of charge.
Thanks so much for writing to me.
I hope this letter wasn’t too very weird.
Did it sag in the middle?
James Preller




FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #297: Includes a Free Pro Tip on Becoming a Writer!

 

Fan Mail Wednesday actually falls on a Wednesday this time around, because eventually that’s bound to happen. The law of averages! This letter comes from Max, a Jigsaw Jones fan in Kentucky, which I understand is a state somewhere near Ohio. Never been there, though my rescue dog, Echo, hails from those parts. I’d love to do school visits in Kentucky someday.

Don’t make me beg, people. Zing me a text at Jamespreller@aol.com and we’ll work it out. Of course, we can wait for this virus to settle down. Weird, right?

BTW, I love it when a FREE BONUS DRAWING is included. Thanks for that, Max. Anyway, the letter: 

I replied:

Dear Max,

Thank you for your kind letter. I’m so happy you read The Case from Outer Space. It is one of my favorites. Were you surprised by the ending?

Illustration by R.W. Alley.

One of the first inspirations for that book came from my love for “Little Free Libraries.” I’d seen them popping up all over the place and they appealed to me enormously. I’ve even seen schools that have them. Leave a book, take a book. I love that!

So I began to ask myself a writer’s two most important words: WHAT IF? Those are the magic words that get the imagination wandering. I thought, What if someone finds a mysterious note tucked inside a book in a Little Free Library?

Could such a thing be possible? I talked to librarians. They told me they find items inside books all the time. Photos, grocery lists, baseball cards -– even a banana peel.

Another part of the book came from a long interest in NASA and space exploration. I’ve often gazed at the stars and wondered if anyone else might be out there, somewhere in the twinkling beyond, far past our solar system of eight planets and into the outer reaches of the expanding universe. Wow. I smile just thinking about it.

If you truly wish to become a good author, there’s good news. You are already on the right path! Keep reading, keep feeding your brain with words and ideas. Just about every writer I know started out by being a reader. But you don’t have to sit around reading all day. Live! Do things! Play sports, run around, make friends, build stuff, look at clouds and trees, cook yummy desserts, enjoy yourself and everything there is in this amazing world of ours –- and, okay, also read.

And, you know, Max, maybe one day you’ll pick up a pencil and draw a picture. You’ll write down some words. Maybe start a story of your own.

Keep thinking, keep reading, keep being good old Max.

Thank you, my new friend in Kentucky, I’m so glad to receive your letter.

James Preller

 

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #296: This Detective Means Business!

 

I spent the last six weeks engrossed in the stretch run of a manuscript that was due on March 1st. During that phase of the process, the big finish, I’m focused and absorbed. I don’t want to eat, or shower, or change my clothes. I’m locked in on writing the book, therefore neglecting some of the other administrative duties that come with being a professional writer: school visits, book festivals, fan mail, etc. In the middle of February, I received a brief email from “Detective Andrew K.”

It read . . .

 

Hi Mr. Preller,

My name is Andrew, and I am a huge fan of your books. They really inspired me. Specifically, I enjoyed the Jigsaw Jones series.

Now, I am a detective. I hope you’ll make some new books soon.

From, 

Andrew

I wrote back . . . 

Andrew,

Wait a minute. What do you mean, you’re a detective?
You solve mysteries? You work for the FBI? Are you an old guy leaning back in a chair, feet on the desk, smoking a cigar? Or a kid, inspired by Jigsaw Jones, who solves mysteries?
Please tell me more.
(And thanks for reading my books.)
My best,
James Preller
Andrew replied, again briefly (a busy detective, I assume), to clarify the situation. Here is the entirety of that response  . . .
First of all, I’m a kid. Who is 8 years old. And your last answer was correct.
I zinged back a response . . .
Andrew,
Good to hear back from you. Thanks for reading my books. I’m glad they inspired you.
Best of luck, detective!
James Preller

I figured that was it. Now I’d have to go back to work on my manuscript. But the best (by far) was yet to come. This time, Andrew’s email arrived with an attachment . . .

Hi Mr. Preller,
I wanted to write more but I can’t type well. Please check the picture.
From Andrew
So, yeah, that was awesome and deserved a more detailed reply . . . 
Dear Andrew,
I’ve been traveling, sorry for the delay in my reply.
I loved your letter. Thank you for taking the time to write it.
Do your seven chickens have names?
I was visiting with a group of school children just yesterday and one asked me, “Are you Jigsaw Jones?”
I explained that it rarely works that way, where a writer and a character are the same exact person, so I could never say, “That’s me!”
I’m not as smart as Jigsaw, or as focused and determined, but we do share a lot of similarities. Same sense of humor, I think, and similar world view.
I am the youngest of seven children, and my grandmother lived with us late in her life. When I began writing Jigsaw Jones, I made him the youngest in a large family. I had his brothers call him “worm,” just as my brothers did to me. And, yes, I gave him a grandmother who lived in the same house.
So I guess, in some ways, I’m a Jigsaw Jones “clone” just like you. That means we’d probably be friends if we ever met — or, who knows, maybe fierce RIVALS!
Stay safe, Detective!
James Preller