Tag Archive for James Preller Interviews

5 Questions with Ann Braden, Author of “The Benefits of Being an Octopus”

I first met Ann Braden the same way as so many others, primarily through her debut novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. An important book that gives face, and heart, and soul, to economically-disadvantaged children who have long been under-represented in children’s books. Ann is a former middle-school teacher and she clearly, deeply, knows that world and those young people. But there’s something else. Something even more significant. Ann has, I believe, a quality that we find in some of our best children’s writers: a generosity of spirit. Read her books and you’ll see what I mean. And so, Ann and I connected on Facebook. I wrote to see if she might possibly want to answer “5 Questions” for us. Happily, Ann said yes and so here we are. As always, keeping our interview down to only 5 questions was the real battle. Every night I kick myself and mutter, “Why didn’t I call it 6 questions??!! Arggggh! Dumb, dumb, dumb!”

 

 

 

1. There are two kinds of teachers in the world: those who “get” middle schoolers, and those who would rather not, thank you very much. You are a former middle school teacher, therefore I assume you have some insight into, and affection for, middle school children. What do you like about ‘em? 

I love that middle schoolers are just waking up to the world around them, and that when they recognize that something isn’t fair they want to DO something about it. I also love that they think they are opaque, but actually are usually transparent goldfish bowls of the basic human emotions of wanting to belong and doubting yourself.

2. Human goldfish bowls, I like that. As for me, I enjoy their plasticity, how they haven’t yet hardened into shape quite yet. Changeable, flexible, open. There’s still hope! Not many authors experience the great success that you enjoyed with your debut novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. An overnight sensation! But hold on, it didn’t really happen overnight, did it? How much time — in dreams and effort — went into that first novel? Or was it really that easy? 

Yes, it was really that easy. 

JUST KIDDING!

So, the first manuscript I wrote got completely rejected by agents. So, I wrote a second one, which got lots of full requests, but then all ended up as rejections. So, I wrote a completely different manuscript (my first MG) and that was got me an agent! YAY!! And then, it was rejected by editors. And then I wrote two new manuscripts that I was really excited about (#4 and #5) and they went out on submission. Soon I was working on my SIXTH manuscript, convinced that at least ONE of the other manuscripts would sell by the time I was done with it, and so this time, I figured, I wouldn’t have to “sell” this manuscript. I’d already have an editor. This time I could just be honest.

And then both the 4th and 5th manuscripts were rejected, which meant the 6th manuscript was a lost cause, and I decided I never was going to get published and that there were probably better things I could do for this world than spending seven years writing things that no one else was ever going to read. So I quit writing.

And then after about 8 months, I started getting really grumpy, And I finally realized that even if no one was ever going to read what I wrote, even if I didn’t like the new story I was working on, even if it meant getting up at 5am…I still needed to write. Just for myself. Just to be able to start my days with the creative part of my brain churning.

And a few days later, I found out that a publisher had made an offer on that sixth manuscript. It’s jaw dropping, really, the way the universe can work. 

So, you’d think that would be the happy ending, right? 

Well…

Five months before the book, which now had an official title of THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS was supposed to be published, I got a call from my agent. She told me to sit down. Naively, I thought it would be good news. But no. It turned out that my publisher had just fired their entire children’s division – my editor, my publicist, anyone who knew anything about children’s books – and it wasn’t clear if they were even going to still publish the book. 

That was a rough day.

But then, we thankfully found out that yes they would still publish it (it had just gone to ARCS), so that was a relief. But it was also clear that no one at my publishing house was going to do ANYTHING to get the word out about this book. I thought: maybe 100 people will read it – that would still be better than nothing. 

But then, when I got those ARCS into the hands of educators, magic started happening. I think it was partly that there are kids like Zoey in every school and partly that there just weren’t that many books yet that showed them as the heroes that they are, but the buzz started building over the next many months – entirely based on word-of-mouth among fabulous educators – and it just took off in amazing ways.

So, yes, basically an overnight success, if that one night is nine years (full of rejections and setbacks) long.

I lead an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books,” and I will be sure to share that story with the group. It will depress them all! So much work. Your new novel comes out in May, Opinions and Opossums. Are you only going to use “O” animals as major metaphors? Is there an Oxen in the book after this? An Ocelot? (My theory conveniently ignores  Flight of the Puffin. Anyway, none of this is a real question. I’ve only got 5 and I want to make them count.)

 

3. I mean to ask: Could you tell us about the point when Opinions and Opposums clicked for you? When all those loose ideas come together and you realized, wow, this is actually going to be a book.

No, it’s a pattern, see? Octopus, Puffin, Opossum, then Pangolin, Ostrich… No, actually I think of these books almost like a trilogy that will conclude with the Opossum, exploring the economic divide, political divides, and then religion -– but more importantly spelling out a secret hidden code of O, P, OP – which conveniently aligns with one of the themes of the Opossum book: OPOPinions, AKA Other People’s Opinions, and if you say that three times at midnight, while at a secret meeting with your neighborhood opossum, you’ll be able to unlock the…. 

Ahem, I mean, let me answer your real question. 

Oh rats, I thought we were going to get into some deep Wicca enchantments there for a minute. 

I was doing lots of school visits in the spring of 2019, and I also had a book under contract with my dream editor, Nancy Paulsen, but it was a book that did not exist yet. So, I tried not to panic (and instead bask in this dream come true!) and I took my notebook and set up four pages with the headings THEME, CHARACTERS, SETTING, and PLOT. And I decided that for two months I would try to write down one thing a day in any of those categories. For me, plot is always the hardest, but theme (which to me basically means: stuff I’m angry about that I want to explore) usually comes first. And I remember being at a gas station in Kentucky when I realized that three big themes (which I had thought would have to all go into different stories) could actually play off one another in the same story, and be far more authentic that way then they would have been on their own. That was when the story really started coming to life for me. The themes were: 1) questioning some of the patriarchal assumptions that have been baked into Christianity — while still finding a way towards faith, 2) how the death of my father when I was a baby shaped me in ways that were different than simply missing a parent, and 3) how quirky friendships (especially cross-gender ones) have the power to push back against all sorts of misguided social norms. That was when the story really started coming to life for me.

Contrary to published rumors, Ann Braden has no plans to feature an ocelot in her next book. We’ve tried begging, but nope. 

 

4. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a suburban town in Connecticut, Fairfield. Opinions and Opossums is loosely based on a fictionalized version of it actually. There were some wonderful things about it as a place to grow up (there were so many places I could bike to!) but I was also very ready to leave the conformity and the outsized emphasis placed on Other People’s Opinions (those OPOPinions!) as I got older. And of course, all of that worked its way into this book.

5. Now that you are a published author — a dream come true — and you are already kind of a big deal — what’s the best thing about actually being a published author? The paparazzi? Getting all the best tables in the fancy restaurants? The private charter flights to exotic destinations? Um, no? Then what’s so good about?

The two things that are totally a dream come true are:

1. Getting to work with my editor Nancy Paulsen. Getting to create something alongside a pure genius is one of the greatest joys life can offer.

2. Being able to connect with kids at a deep level of understanding without even having to say a word. As a teacher, you work so hard to convince students that you love them for who they are, but it’s always a complicated process and you never quite know if it’s getting across the way you want. But when you write a book, it’s like writing a love letter to kids (taking all the time it needs to make sure you’re communicating that love exactly how you want), and then you get to send it not just to the kids in your town, but to thousands and thousands of kids all over the country! If I was wishing for a superpower, that’s what I’d wish for. I’m still dumbstruck that this is what I get to do.

JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, the “Scary Tales” books and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines, available in stores in February 7th, 2023. The sequel comes out in August!

5 QUESTIONS w/ London Ladd, Illustrator of “Black Gold”

Hey, we’re back again with “5 Questions 2.0” — the new & improved interview format that asks some of the best folks in children’s literature five — and this time, only five! — questions.

My guest today is London Ladd, a brilliant artist and friend. We’ll be focusing on his brand new book, Black Gold, written by Laura Obuobi. It’s already creating quite a buzz, along with two starred reviews (and counting).

1. London, I’ve been a fan for a long time, though I believe it was your amazing work on Frederick’s Journey that first really turned my head. That’s when I thought: This guy’s a rising star. And yet this is your first published book in five years. Could you tell us what you’ve been up to?

Thank you! The five-year gap started in early 2017, and I felt a little burned out and uninspired by my artwork. It was too formulaic, very basic! Don’t get me wrong, I was proud of my artwork then, but I desired something more in-depth, true to my artistic spirit, visual voice, whatever to describe it. I wanted to step away but was fearful that I may never be able to return. After experiencing multiple personal setbacks in late 2017 and early 2019, I abandoned art altogether.

Oh, no!

Still, thankfully a person I deeply respect urged me to enroll in grad school at Syracuse University. The three-year program was intense, a chance to learn and experiment with art in new ways. One of the best decisions I ever made in my life. I decided if I were going to do this grad school thing, I would fully commit myself to embrace art in ways true to my heart without fear. I was able to fall in love with art again. This is reflected in the artwork I produce now and moving forward.

2) Observing you from the outside, mostly via social media, it looks like you’ve been on a deeply personal, artistic journey. You seem to be focused on growth and free experimentation. What did you learn these past few years?

To not be afraid, to take more chances, to see what happens. The stuff I do now is more in line with my sketchbook. Personal time without criticism of others, whether positive or negative, doesn’t matter to anyone but me. I was able to develop my visual voice, my philosophy, and my reasons for what I create. There’s unfiltered freedom in it that’s hard to explain. But I love it!! 

3) I can feel your enthusiasm — your new boldness — and see it in your work. What was it about this manuscript by Laura Obuobi that made you want to illustrate it?

I was and still am amazed by the unconditional love expressed throughout her writing. The level of detail described from page to page, building to a crescendo on the last page — “I am a child of the universe, I am Black Gold.” It spoke deep within my spirit as a parent and creator of art. I doubt I’ll ever experience something like this again with another project because each project can be so different in theme, plot, lyrical tone, and color palette.

Young London’s first Christmas.

4) Here at James Preller Dot Com we love process, and appreciate any glimpses behind the scenes. It strikes me that Black Gold — a highly poetic, original creation myth — was an incredibly liberating book to illustrate because anything was possible. All that freedom. But also extremely difficult, because anything was possible. All that (scary) freedom

For example, here’s the text from six pages of the final book:

Then the universe breathed in and breathed out. Her power hovered around you.

You breathed in.
Her power flowed into you. You breathed out.

Alive!

How did you even begin tackling it?

Black Gold was such an experience for me. I drew from my journey to this moment as an illustrator and person, using symbolism and surrealism to convey Laura’s words in a spiritual way that is both honest and complementary to her beautiful words. Those pages spoke of rebirth, so what better way than to symbolize it than butterflies?

Lots of sketchbook work and research — thinking, looking at things that inspire me, journaling, drawing quick thumbnail studies, all of it builds my emotive visual library that pours onto the page.

After submitting a refined tighter sketch to the art director, I apply their ideas to another tighter sketch to share with them for any final feedback. Afterward, I put the final on the illustration board to start layering my mixed media elements — cut and ripped paper, tissue paper, acrylic paints, or whatever creates interesting textures. It’s my technique that is uniquely me and radiates throughout the spread.

5) Wow, what a stunning journey. Thank for you sharing your process so openly and honestly. Are we going to have to wait another five years for the next book?

Nope lol. This January, I have TWO books being released!! You So Black (Denene Millner Book/Simon & Schuster) is based on the titled poem of the amazing spoken word artist Theresa Tha S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D. And My Red, White and Blue, written by Alana Tyson (Philomel Books). Two vastly different books with powerful messages where Black children of all walks of life can find themselves and those around them.

Also, I’m currently working on three more picture books in various stages, along with my first authored book, so you’ll be seeing a lot more of me over the next five-plus years.

What good news — and what a happy interview with a true artist! I can’t wait to see what comes next. 

JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Six Innings, All Welcome Here, and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series, along with the Scary Tales series. Look for his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13, on Scholastic Book Fairs and Book Clubs. It will be available in stores in February, 2023. 

A Conversation with Michael Arndt, Graphic Designer and Author/Illustrator of “Snails & Monkey Tales: A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols”

“I feel creators are vessels.
We fill up with input, ideas, and inspiration
until it spills over
and we empty it out into our work
so that we may fill up again.
An endless delightful cycle.”

Michael Arndt

Every once in a while, a talent comes along who is just . . . different. A fresh perspective, offering a new way of looking at things. As you’ll see, Michael Arndt comes to books from a design background. His work conveys wit, intelligence, curiosity, joyfulness. I didn’t know him at all — and I suspect that you might not either — so I invited Michael over for a chat. As luck would have it, March 22nd, 2022, is the publication day of Michael’s singular new book, Snails & Monkey Tales:  A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols. Congratulations, Michael! I imagine that any lover of language would delight in your handsome new book. Let’s do this interview thing!

 

You first caught my attention when you started posting minimalistic portraits of celebrities on Facebook. It’s remarkable to me how you can capture the essence of these people in spare yet eloquent details. It’s all about the reduction — seeking out the signal from the noise.

Hi, James. Thank you for the kind words and interviewing me here. Yes, you put that as succinctly as I have ever heard it put. “Reduction—seeking out the signal from the noise is the essence of graphic design.

I think it’s also the essence of picture book writing — something I have not at all mastered!

It is indeed the essence. Many people think designers make things look pretty and that the beauty comes from adding to the material in the same way an interior decorator might add pillows and flower arrangements to a room or the way an artist might add paint to a canvas. Instead, any beauty we contribute comes from providing clarity, much like polishing a rough stone — and that comes from reduction, not addition.

For Black History Month . . .

Less is more.

Yes, more or less. [Insert wink.] Designers are akin to sculptors who chisel away the excess stone to reveal the form inside. My focus with those minimal portraits was on the negative shapes. I often would draw those shapes first (e.g. the faces are usually the same color as the background and therefore rely upon the surrounding shapes to define them). When you work with as few elements as possible, each element has to work impeccably and do double duty, so you have to put the negative shapes to work. For those images, I applied what I learned in my design career about scale, proportion, color, shapes, and composition to help convey the physicality, personality, genre, and historical time frame. In some cases, the color reinforced the name as in the cases of Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks whose portraits I rendered in hues of reds and pinks…a sort of visual pun.

I appreciate the wit of your work. The humor. I love your Sonny & Cher. 

Thank you. It is funny (no pun intended), but I don’t usually set out to incorporate humor in my books. My last gift book—Minimal New York City: graphic, gritty, and witty (Clarkson Potter, 2020)—did not start out with that subtitle. While the book is catalogued under humor, I was merely trying to juxtapose iconic New York phenomena, visually and sometimes verbally. I read that humor relies upon the element of surprise, the unexpected, so perhaps that is what you and others are picking up on.

Can you give us a little biographical background? Where did you grow up? What brought you to children’s books?

Sure. My own childhood was spent in Kinderhook in New York’s picturesque Hudson Valley. It is an idyllic pastoral historic setting. Our house was built in an apple orchard. I played with my dog, rode my bike, and drew…basically how I spend my days in New York City now! There really wasn’t much else to do. Like many, I wasn’t familiar with graphic design. Instead, I wanted to be an illustrator. At one point, following my year of wanting to be a dentist (much like Hermey in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), I was convinced that I wanted to do medical illustration. When college application time came around, I applied to various schools. Each had a different program…fine arts, illustration, editorial design, graphic design. In the end the only affordable option was the University of Cincinnati and they only offered Graphic Design…

“I guess I will be a Graphic Designer then.”

Ha, yes. Our grand plans turn like a dime on accident and chance. We’re in boats, we think we know where we’re going, and suddenly a wind fills the sails.

Agreed. At first, I didn’t “get” design. Hated it. Fought it. Wanted to transfer out of it. I applied elsewhere for sophomore year and got in. A professor pulled me aside and convinced me to stay arguing that graphic design was the most solid foundation for anything else I might want to do in the visual field, so I stayed. She was right. About a year later it all clicked and I fell in love with the quiet power of design and the way a few simple shapes or letters could convey entire worlds. It appealed to my yearning for simplicity and minimalism. But I never lost my love and respect for illustration and illustrators.

I hope you send that professor a copy of your new book.

I would like to but haven’t managed to locate her. In the meantime, I have sent copies of my books to my other professors.

Sorry, I interrupted your story.

No worries. I tend to ramble on otherwise. So, to fast forward, I spent twenty years after college designing branding and packaging, and art directing for the beauty and fragrance industry. A midlife crisis arrived right on schedule —

You bought a little red sports car?

I wish!…and yet I don’t, because I would not be speaking to you about books today if I had. You see, I was looking for something that had more personal meaning that would allow me more flexibility to work from home and spend time with my pets, even into my golden years some day. I came up with a series of animal designs that used the letters in the sounds each makes and called them by my own portmanteau “animalopoeia.” They were intended to be my own line of letterpress greeting cards. When I had 24 though, I thought, this is a basis of a children’s book. I put together a prototype and sent it un-agented to Chronicle Books—and to them only—as I thought they were the right publisher for it. To my delight they agreed and they published CAT SAYS MEOW: and other animalopoeia in 2014. That started my book career.

And another spread . . .

I love that book. It’s so clever and original. And obviously that’s because you come to it from a different perspective—you bring that graphic design intelligence to the work.

Oh, thank you, James; that is always nice to hear. I have to say, it will always have a special place in my heart as it was my first book and first time being called an author and illustrator. The field of picture books has a significant number of graphic designers who illustrate…and even write. This is not as strange as it may first appear. Picture books, for those who may not know, are rarely more than the standard 32 pages and the text is increasingly less than it was in books when you and I grew up. Designers are trained to pair images and words in a cohesive way that is visually enticing and communicates a lot in a little space. Often, as in my case, the style tends to be more graphic and typographic, but not always. That all said, designers and illustrators are not the same profession. We are more like siblings or cousins than twins. Illustrators draw, and draw well, very well. They illustrate an idea or story. Graphic designers solve visual communication problems and seek to clarify, inform, and/or motivate. Many wonderful graphic designers cannot draw at all. It is more about thinking critically about a design problem and using the most effective visual tools to solve it. Saul Bass defined design as “thinking made visual.”

I like that. For me, so much of the early stage of writing is about thinking. Which to an outside observer (my wife, for example) looks a lot like doing nothing!

And sometimes, in my case, it is literally doing nothing. My walks in the park with my dog Clooney are times when I ruminate the best. Those, and truly sitting in my apartment and literally doing nothing. They are my ways of clearing my body’s internal hard drive of its clutter and visual noise. Just as music or design or architecture or even nature in the form of Winter needs rest and so-called negative or white space, so do we as thinking, creating beings. Not to get too Zen, but I feel creators are vessels. We fill up with input, ideas, and inspiration until it spills over and we empty it out into our work so that we may fill up again. An endless delightful cycle.

Time out! I’m just going to roll here with a few sample spreads from Snails for my Nation of Readers to enjoy.

Stunning, right?

Michael, are you familiar with the books of Donald Crews? He came at children’s books from a similar perspective, the emphasis on graphic design (in particular, Freight Train, Truck, 10, Flying). I think his graphic vision helped us see those familiar topics in new ways.

I am familiar with his books! Michael Bierut, a partner at the international design firm Pentagram and president emeritus of the AIGA, wrote the forward in my upcoming book. In a personal note to me beforehand, he wrote, “Your books…as good as anything by Don Crews or Mr. [Paul] Rand.” Seeing familiar topics in new ways is a mission of mine—to impart the tenets of visual literacy to people of all ages, starting, but certainly not ending, with the youngest amongst us. A good number of my books are early concept board books for babies and toddlers.

That’s the essence to all art, isn’t it. To help us see or feel the familiar—or the neglected, the unseen—in a new and startling way.

It is, and that is the exciting part for me. It brings out the philosopher and rebel sides of me, but also the visionary and optimist sides. I want to encourage people to see things, their environment, world, and lives, first for what they are and then for what they can be. The first day of design school, our professor said, “the purpose of this class is to sensitize you to your visual environment,” i.e., to teach us how to see. This obviously has its pros and cons, but decidedly more pros. My signature line of early concept books—M books, published by Andrews McMeel—aims to do precisely that. Teach kids, hopefully in engaging ways, the “fun”damentals of visual literacy. We live in an Information Age and today’s generation will need to be visually fluent.

Could you tell us about your new book?

I thought you would never ask! It is called Snails and Monkey Tails: A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols. “Visual” and “Guide” are perhaps the two most important parts of that title for it is decidedly from a graphic design and typography point of view. As such, it will appeal to designers, typophiles, anyone who delights in being visually stimulated or learning visually. That said, it is equally for the word people who live among us. Students, learners of English as a foreign language, teachers, editors, grammarians…. It is simultaneously a primer that covers the basics and what I hope an intriguing journey down the rabbit hole into the origins of the names, shapes, styles, and uses of punctuation and symbols. In this era of short attention spans and “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read), I wanted to minimize the verbal explanations and maximize the visual elements. I hope I have a created something that is as stylish as it is informative. Did you know that the word glamour” is an alteration of the word “grammar?” I wanted to bring punctuation back by making it sexy.

While the book certainly coheres as a whole, each spread works independently as a sort of infographic.

Thanks. That is just one of the ways I wanted to make the book approachable and accessible. It is definitely not a stuffy or tedious grammar-type book. Conceptually, I wanted to flip the scale in an Alice in Wonderland sort of way. I blew up the usually tiny marks to gargantuan proportions while the body text is discreet and understated. The entire book is in classic, yet modern, black and red for dynamic spreads and the entire package is designed to be a joy to hold and read. Coated paper, matte varnish, and debossed hardcover that feels like holding a Zen river stone.

It’s a book that defies category, at least for me. I’m not sure how or where it fits, exactly, but I know I want it,

That is what in the beauty world we called “creating desire” or the “must-have” factor. In the book world it falls into the gift book category: compact, interesting, affordable books that have enhanced production value and therefore make attractive gifts.

Michael’s dog, Clooney, hanging on the Upper West Side of NYC.

Well, Michael, thank you for your time. I saw your work, we became friends on Facebook, and I just kept wondering, “Who is this guy?” Turns out you grew up not too far from where I live (Delmar, NY) and, maybe best of all, you are a dog lover. I am so impressed with your talent. If I were a children’s book art director, I’d be seeking out nonfiction books for you to “illustrate.” A trip to the zoo, a day at the airport, the first day of school — the possibilities are wide open. I’m excited to see what comes next.

Thank you, James. From your mouth to the ears of art directors, editors, and publishers. I love animals and I love knowledge, so projects like those sound wonderful. This has been fun. Thanks for the chat.

For readers who’d like to learn more about Michael, there’s this thing called Google . . .

As for me, James Preller: You might know my Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent book is titled Upstander, a stand-alone novel that also serves as sequel/prequel to Bystander. It follows Mary’s experiences, enters her home life, and includes a strong Substance Use Disorder (SUD) storyline. I’m proud that both books were named Junior Library Guild Selections — ten years apart. 

Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

TALKING ABOUT WRITING with Andrew Smith: Award-Winning Author, HS Teacher, Reader, Music Lover, Free Thinker

I wanted to try something a little different with today’s interview — which actually took place across weeks and several emails — and I knew that Andrew Smith was exactly the kind of writer who would be up for it. I simply wanted to talk about writing. Learn some things, maybe come away inspired. And hopefully offer up something that might be of interest to you, Oh Dear Reader. May this post lead you to check out some of Andrew’s (most excellent) work. He’s an original voice.

Andrew, your career has been marked by brave choices and a restless, out-of-the-box creativity. Recently on social media you shared some favorite Fan Fiction, where readers responded to your books with their own art. I love that.

I’ve collected so much over the years. I definitely hold onto things, and I guess in many ways we’re lucky that our careers in writing started in the Paper Age and is now in the Digital Age. But the hardest part for me here was finding where exactly I was keeping all this stuff.

Einstein had similar problems. Let’s see what you can put your hands on. 

These first two were sent to me digitally from fans of GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whoa, that’s inspiring. 

And these are on paper. The first is from a fourth-grade student in Kansas who read my middle-grade The Size of the Truth, and the second is a pen-and-watercolor from a fan of Grasshopper Jungle who mailed this to me all the way from England.

 

What a tribute — you must be blown away?

This is a difficult feeling to express. I think sometimes I feel as though I’m two people at the same time, and this other, more fortunate self is a kind of dream state that has been cleaved from me, and that guy has access to all the things I don’t believe I deserve. So when I look at these gifts, or when I read the letters I’ve received, it’s almost like I’m living vicariously through the experience of someone who is by every measure blessed.

That’s lovely. Yes, there are times in our profession when we are truly gifted, when we receive. For example, I’ll meet a six-year-old who loves my books. The purity of those eyes, that face, what those books mean to that particular child. And there are no satisfactory words for that experience, at least none that I can conjure up. 

Well, I will say that when I went out on tour for my first middle-grade novel, I visited kids from grades four through eight, and I could not believe how kind and adorable those kids are. But then, too, I once visited a high school (and—ugh!—I think it was in Minneapolis or Chicago, but I can’t remember), and my host told me that the majority of the kids in the school were non-native speakers of English. And I thought, cool, I come from California and I am totally comfortable in schools like that. But all these kids came from Poland and Lithuania! And, after reading Grasshopper Jungle, which has a lot of Polish history in it, they all wanted to teach me swear words in Polish. That’s pretty kind and adorable too.

That’s such an Andrew Smith-type story. I’ve often had the experience that a great book will make me look out the window. You know what I mean? Instead of the usual goal that a good book keeps you turning pages, turn turn turn, for me a great book actually achieves the opposite. I stop reading because it got me wandering down the rabbit hole of my own thoughts. It’s the ultimate “reader response.” Spacing out to the rumble of your own mind. These young people read your work and were inspired to create.

It is a remarkable thing; and it’s something that I never thought I would accomplish, even if I never really articulated in my mind what exactly it was I wanted to accomplish through my writing, if anything. But it does give me a kind of ache in my chest to see people of all types and ages, from all over the world, who wanted to make something of beauty and then gift it to me after reading a story I wrote. That’s the kind of stuff that raises gooseflesh on me. I get very choked up by it. And I can honestly say that although I love to draw, I have never drawn anything from reading. On the other hand, when I feel like I’m getting dragged-down in my own writing or when I want to try to give my mind a new way of seeing things, the first thing I go to is some great new book that I haven’t read yet.

You strike me, from a distance, as “prolific” to the point of “borderline obsessive.” I know you work full-time as a high school teacher. Let’s just call it productive. What are your work habits?

I’m a list-maker, for one thing. I keep lists of things I need to do and I cross them off as I go. I don’t feel bad if I don’t get through a list, but I feel really great when I do. I start every morning before school with one cappuccino and then exercise and a 3-mile run. I’m usually working on my writing every day whenever I can (even on days when I teach school). I don’t set arbitrary word goals per day because I don’t write on spec. I just want to do something GOOD every day, even if GOOD means one tight, necessary paragraph—because that’s forward progress. 

Thank you for that. I cringe whenever I read authors boosting about that day’s word count. Sometimes it’s best when there’s a negative word count. A day of cutting, dumping, ditching. We get closer to the stuff worth keeping.

Sometimes I will stop what I’m writing and just go back to the beginning and read what I’ve done, always asking myself, “If this book were in my hands, would I keep turning the pages? Would I NOT want the story to end?” Those are my objectives when writing. 

Right now, I am in the final act of a novel I’ve been writing throughout this year of the pandemic, and I keep asking myself those questions because I’ve gone back to read it from the beginning, and I kinda don’t want it to end, which may explain why I’ve spent a year now writing it.  

Do you revise as you go? The standard advice tells us not to do that — but I have to confess, I’ve never just been able to blast through with a completely horrible first draft. I reread and revise constantly, while still trying to maintain some forward motion.

Yes! I frequently claim that I do not revise, but that’s not entirely the case. What I do not do is draft spew to race to the finish line with the intention of fixing or cleaning things up. So in that regard, I don’t revise in the traditional sense. But I can spend days (or more) on a single paragraph or line until it fits properly into the thing that is assembling in front of me. So every day begins with going back over the previous day’s writing, and I will invariably change words or discover something that needs to be brought forward, illuminated more.

That’s one of the things about getting some books under your belt. You begin to learn how you work. It’s an individual thing. Even in the darkest storm, you develop the confidence that you know how to land the plane.

Yes, but the technology of the plane itself is changing and I guess you have to adapt to new flying conditions. I have definitely seen a change in my approach over the years and all the books. Like my running, or my hikes through the hills these days, I am slower than I used to be, but I also appreciate that slowness and how it gives me the ability to look around and absorb things, to take a breath once in a while. There used to be such an urgency in getting through a project and then getting on to the next one, and the next one after that. But now, it’s like what’s the rush? I know where I’m heading. How about you? Do you feel a different kind of natural stride at this point in your life as a writer?

Yeah, I’m writing a lot of haiku! My attention span — and my patience — are both shrinking. Or, less glibly, I do suppose there’s a minor tradition of older writers moving toward an increasingly spare, spartan sort of writing. Leaner, closer to the bone.

When I was younger, I never allowed myself to step away from my work, but in the past 14 months or so I have found times when I just can’t do it. Psychologist Adam Grant refers to this Sargasso Sea of the pandemic mindset as “languishing,” but to me it has been more like simply being pissed off. 

An unsettled time, for sure. The other thing is that I don’t do well unless I’m inspired. I need to build up a certain internal pressure, like a tea kettle, for the whistle to blow. I’ve never been one of those 1,000 words a day, come hell or high water, type writers. I’m not afraid of not finishing once I get started. The trouble comes with the “getting started” part.

I never focus on how many words I write in a day. I’m into key strokes, so I’ve been using a ridiculous amount of punctuation. Kidding. As a matter of fact, I have been using less punctuation in my writing. Not that it’s technically flawed, I have just always disliked certain punctuation marks—most notoriously commas and exclamation points (cringe). I think Henry James said something once about striving to get that one perfect sentence. If I can get down one perfect sentence from a day’s writing effort, then I’m satisfied. Of course, that sentence may look completely flawed the next morning, in which case I may spend three or four trips around the block trying to reorganize it.

When I was in high school and college, my girlfriend’s mother, Mrs. Loretta Flynn, was a voracious reader. I was deep into “real literature” at that time. Whereas she would usually read page-turners, just consuming books by the armload. Her biggest complaint about certain writers was always the same, “Too many words!” I didn’t understand that for a long time. Why read if you don’t like words? But now I totally get it. I also make the same complaint about some guitarists, “Too many notes!”

I have become a less confident writer as I’ve aged, but a more confident reader. I think that’s proof of what happens when you learn more, and become more aware of how much you don’t know. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have a fresh stack of unread books waiting for me to get to. That said, I’m totally with you on the TOO MANY WORDS parade, but I would qualify that with the caveat that I can’t tell if a book has too many words by feeling its thickness. For example, Chang Rae-Lee’s nearly 500-page My Year Abroad is absolutely perfect—I wish it were twice as long! But then I’ve also read some 250-page novels that could stand losing about 50 or 60 pages and still be just fine. (Not naming names there.)

Thanks for this diversion, Andrew, for taking time out just to aimlessly chat about writing rather than, you know, yammering on about the new book. But — what they hey! — would you mind yammering on about the new book? You’ve been exploring middle-grade fiction of late, after establishing yourself in the YA galaxy.

Yes, well I did write two middle-grade novels (the most recent, Bye-Bye Blue Creek came out in October 2020), but they may have been exceptions for me. I wrote them entirely for David Gale, my editor at Simon & Schuster who recently passed away. David was one of those people who could inspire me to try harder and do things I wouldn’t normally do. He completely saved my novel 100 Sideways Miles, which went on to be a National Book Award nominee. There is a great story behind that book’s evolution that I will probably never tell, and unfortunately it was overshadowed by another book I wrote that year, Grasshopper Jungle, which went on to get a Printz Honor. What was I ever thinking, putting out two books per year??? At the moment, I find myself receding back into my isolation—and only writing for myself with no real goal to place what I’ve been working on, which I hope is sufficiently vague. I’ve spent the last year during the pandemic writing a multi-perspective, multi-timeline novel for adults that somewhat rekindles where I was when I wrote The Marbury Lens, unsurprising considering the time during which I’ve been writing it. I suppose the pandemic is going to churn out a lot of horror in fiction.

 

Andrew, I see that we’ve run out column inches. Thanks so much for stopping by. It’s been a pleasure connecting with you and sharing our passions. I’ll be sending along a complimentary set of steak knives. 

It’s been terrific chatting with you, James. You always get me thinking about things: writing, music, reading. One day maybe we’ll record our thoughts on contemporary music or books. Like, what are you reading at the moment? I just finished reading a debut by a young author named Caleb Azumah Nelson—the novel, Open Water,  and it is absolutely radiant, tingling with life and music.

I love that you share your enthusiasms, Andrew — and so enthusiastically. I’ve been making my way through a few books: re-reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary for what I can steal; working my way through George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (brilliant!), slowly reading Pablo Neruda’s Residence on Earth (2-3 poems a day); and on the children’s literature front, I just finished and loved Amy Timberlake’s Skunk and Badger. For music, my 21-year-old son, Gavin Preller, was signed by Kramer at Shimmy-Disc, in partnership with Joyful Noise Recordings. His debut, “There Is Wonder,” comes out on May 21st, this Friday. I hope you check it.

 

ANDREW SMITH is the award-winning author of several Young Adult and middle-grade novels, including the critically acclaimed Grasshopper Jungle (2015 Michael L. Printz Honor, 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Carnegie Medal Longlist) and Winger. He lives in a remote area in the mountains of Southern California with his family, two horses, two dogs, and three cats. He occupies himself by writing, reading, and taking long, slow morning runs on nearby trails. You can learn more about him by using Google, because that’s all I’ve got.

As for me, James Preller (since you asked!): You might know my Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My newest book is called Upstander, a stand-alone novel that also serves as sequel/prequel to Bystander. It follows Mary’s experiences, enters her home life, and includes a strong Substance Use Disorder (SUD) storyline. I’m proud that both books were named Junior Library Guild Selections — ten years apart. You can click here for more info. 

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!