Tag Archive for James Preller Interviews

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!

A Conversation with Alexandria Giardino, Author of “Tree + Me”

“Telling stories is a way to bond, to share
and connect emotionally,
even across great differences and divides
of time and space.
When I write, I am asking the reader
to really see something with me —
to share our imaginations.”

— Alexandria Giardino

 

I’m happy to say that I made a new friend recently. Yeah, true fact! It’s not always easy in these Covid times. Her name is Alexandria Giardino, and she’s the author of a new picture book, Tree + Me, gorgeously illustrated by Elena and Anna Balbusso. In a starred review of the book, Kirkus concluded, “Lovely—a perfect segue into discussions about loneliness, empathy, refugees, and more.” So I reached out to Alexandria because I was eager to talk about this book and learn more about its author. It turns out that we shared a lot in common — trees, dogs, nature, poetry, art, music — and found it remarkably easy to talk about our interests and passions. So, yeah, we’re pals now. Five bucks says you’ll like her, too.



You mentioned elsewhere that this book was, in part, a reaction to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

This is definitely my reply to Silverstein’s work. I hadn’t read The Giving Tree since I was a child, and I had really fond memories of it. When I read the story to my son, I was completely conflicted. Old feelings of being touched by the bond between the boy and the tree were mixed up with new feelings of despair that the book’s true message is about taking, not about giving. Like, it could be called The Taking Boy.

But you did something refreshing, in that you brought it to a positive place.

I know there are important feminist readings of the story and also environmental ones. I wanted my own reply to be about mutual giving. To me, that is a basis for a true bond.

And so you got the idea that this lonely young girl would tell her story to the tree.

Telling stories is a way to bond, to share and connect emotionally, even across great differences and divides of time and space. When I write, I am asking the reader to really see something with me — to share our imaginations. I imagined a girl who was sensitive enough to know that a tree has a story to tell too, and that her story and its story might be deeply bonding.

I think talking to trees is a good thing to do, anyway.

I confess that I’ve always loved trees, too. It’s probably what drew me to your book. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, was a powerful, illuminating text that explored the science behind tree-to-tree communication. And in fantasy literature, we have a great tradition of “magical” trees — Tolkien’s Treebeard at Isengard! — and so on. It’s nice to see those notions supported by hard science.

Science is always challenging the word fantasy. Like, what once seemed fantastical is actually quite explicable! Oh, science, I love you. I admire Wohlleben’s book, and I still need to read The Overstory.

Yes! The Overstory was one of my favorite books of the past decade. Loved it.

This year there are four other tree-related picture books coming out, and I reached out to those authors/ illustrators, saying, hey, let’s be forest friends. And being awesome and generous kidlit people, they said, yes, let’s! So we have some fun things brewing to share our love of trees, including a bundled give-away for teachers and librarians that we are doing in March-April. Stay tuned for that.

While looking at your website, it strikes me that the act of “a creative response” is important to you. Your book Ode to an Onion was inspired by one of Pablo Neruda’s poems. And on March 13, you are presenting an online craft workshop, “Countering the Classics,” encouraging participants to seek way to counter classics by using their own voices. It becomes a living, and inclusive, conversation.

I love talking. Some of my happiest memories are times when I took a long walk with someone, and we got into a deep talk. So, that passion is definitely part of my creative life. I also believe we have every right to claim a literary heritage and have conversations in it, with our ancestors and our descendants too. Neruda is part of my heritage, and so is Silverstein. Who ever thought they’d be in the same family tree?

For a picture book writer, there’s always that –- gulp – moment when the art comes in. I guess that was a good day?

Ok, so there is a twist to my “gulp” moment because it is not as simple as seeing artwork and being happily surprised, or possibly disappointed. When I saw the early artwork that the Balbusso sisters sent in, I was shocked. I felt like they “saw” something in me, or sensed something about me, that led them to create art that just truly blew me away.

Specifically, what I mean is that I am a major Santana fan. And their earliest drawings looked like the Abraxas album cover. Even the book’s opening page — with the colorful tree rings — looks like a vinyl record. And the palette they chose had a very late Sixties vibe. My editor, who does know how much I love Santana, called me and said, “Alex, you are NOT going to believe your eyes when you see this artwork.”

Honestly, that gulp moment was like, well, we are in tune.

The art is stunning. And mind-blowing in that they are not only sisters, but twins. Talk about communication! Those two must have some serious telepathy going.

I’m a deep believer in some abilities that we can’t yet fully understand yet. But, you know, science will eventually show us. Also, I so look forward to the day I can meet them. I bet they are fascinating women. We’ve been emailing back and forth, dreaming of the day when I get to Milan, so we can go out for a meal together.

Is there anything of you in our heroine’s story?

Loneliness and longing for deep connection and true friendship. I have lived in a lot of different places, and I have often been an outsider, even unable to speak the local language. I have often taken refuge in nature because of that. I would have totally talked to a tree stump as a lonely kid.

I love that crucial moment when she whispers, “I see you.” To be honest, I have a similar moment, in a very different context, in my upcoming novel, Upstander. A mother says it to her daughter. Honestly, I think that’s all anyone really wants. Just to be recognized, seen, valued.

Thank you for telling me about your book. As I mentioned earlier, I think most of us long for that deep sense of being understood and loved. That is, to be seen. That actual line came late in revisions. But where this story started in my imagination is with the image of the final moment. I always saw the sprout breaking through. I felt that moment in my heart.

Actually, that is how I seem to write. I am one of those writers who sees the last scene first, and then has to write back from it to the beginning — that green shoot at the end of the book is everything. It is life coming back after such loss and despair.

I’d love to learn a little more about you, Alexandria. Where did you grow up?

As a kid, I moved around a lot, but my heart belongs to my first home, Oakland. As an adult, I continued to move quite a bit, including living for a long time in Mexico and Chile, and even a little time in Italy.

How did you come to children’s books?

I wrote my very first children’s books while living in Mexico City in the late 1990s. I am so glad I found my way to picture books because I love the marriage of story and art so much. And now I am also writing verse novels. I feel I have found my even truer voice there.

Can you tell us more about that verse-novel project? 

Oh yes! I am having the most profound experience writing this new novel. I have always felt like a poet, but I was just too shy to say so. This story is pouring out in verse, so I am going with it. It’s supernatural historical fiction, based on a woman whose story has never been fairly told. She deserves better.

Lastly, you are a “major” Santana fan. Does that mean you have Carlos Santana’s head tattooed on your back?

I saw him once live. I was able to get right up to the stage. He expressed so many emotions! At one point, he turned away from the crowd, lost in the music, channeling something divine. Now, I have tickets to see him in a concert with Earth Wind & Fire. The show was scheduled for last June, then COVID hit, and now it is rescheduled for some future date. I can think of no better place to be with people outdoors again, dancing while Santana and Earth Wind & Fire play. Please, lord, let that concert happen one day.

Thank you, Alex, we share many interests. I feel like we could talk for days. Before we go back to the real world, should I cue up “Soul Sacrifice” — or do you have a different suggestion?

Ah, I love that song. But you know which one is really great too? “The Calling.” I get chills. The guitar talks straight from his heart. Thank you for this conversation. I feel so grateful for the ways we have connected here and for your willingness to connect.

 

 

Alexandria keeps up a clean, neat, tidy, informative website.

Also, you can learn more about her by using this amazing resource called Google. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me, James Preller, I’m the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Coming this Spring, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander, which is a stand alone, prequel/sequel to Bystander. Both are Junior Library Guild Selections (along with Blood Mountain, below). Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!

 

     

A Conversation with Jordan Sonnenblick, Author of the New Memoir, “The Boy Who Failed Show and Tell”

Whew! I’ve been cleaning all day in anticipation of a visit from Jordan Sonnenblick, one of the most beloved middle-grade authors writing today. And by “cleaning all day” I mean to say, I just picked up an old yogurt container from the floor. It was kind of scuzzy. And by “picked up” I mean to say, pushed it into a corner with the side of my foot. Look — here comes Jordan now! 

Jordan, welcome. Sorry about the mess. Normally I have a whole fancier setup –- kind of a spa vibe with cool lighting — but, Covid, you know. Anyway! Yeah, that’s right, just shove that stuff aside. You can sit on that milk crate.

Thanks, man. But I’m a little bit picky. Do you happen to have a low-fat oatmilk crate?

Um . . . 

No? Okay, I will make do.

In the past, you’ve often used your own life as a basis, or at least a springboard, for your novels. What made this book, a true memoir, different for you?

The biggest difference was how easy the writing felt. When I’m writing a novel, I am constantly worrying — 24/7 — about the plot: What will happen next? Are the characters and the conflict developing well? Creating a memoir was awesome, because every morning when I woke up, all I had to do was sit down at the computer, see what actual event from my 4th-grade year was next on the timeline I’d made, and start writing down what had happened. Getting rid of all that uncertainty about the plot really allowed me to hone in on things like humor and getting my 4th-grade voice right.

 

 

Yes, the voice! I think you nailed that. How the heck do you do that? I mean, is it instinct? A natural feel for channeling your inner 4th-grader? Or are there specific things that you look for in the revision process? Vocabulary, sentence structure, or general worldview stuff?

I don’t know. But I can tell you that when I got my first book advance (for two first-person young adult novels), my wife said, “Hey, you’re finally getting paid to be immature!” So I’m thinking that when my instincts take over, a kid voice is what comes out.

I’d bet twenty bucks –- if I had it – that you really enjoyed writing this book. It comes through. It’s funny, closely observed — smooth and affectionate and true. For example, I liked your description of classmate Robert Falcone with his brand-new pack of 256 Crayola crayons.

But Robert’s coloring equipment is on a different level. His crayons come in a cardboard briefcase. With a plastic handle on the side.

Robert is like a professional fourth grader in a roomful of amateurs.

Robert was so incredibly cool! But yes, writing about all these real people and experiences was incredibly fun. That year of my life was quite bittersweet as I was living it, but reflecting back from where I am now was a pure pleasure.

I have a recurring thought about memoir writing. We hear Lucy Calkins and other highly-qualified educators give students this terrific advice, “Write about your own life, even the little moments that happen.” But I am sure that a lot of boys think, “Yeah, that’s totally boring. I wouldn’t even want to read that book.” If nothing explodes, what’s the point? You know what I mean? We grow up with the sense that our everyday lives aren’t interesting enough.

Yes, absolutely. Fortunately for me, my teacher at the beginning of fourth grade, Mrs. Fisher, was basically a villain out of Charles Dickens, and my health situation was pretty Dickensian, too — so I had lots of real adversity to play with. Everything is more exciting when the main character might suddenly stop breathing any second!

 

Vonnegut has a great writing rule that I sometimes share on school visits: “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them –- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Vonnegut is my all-time hero!

Yes, he’s up there for me, too. 

I have never seen a bad piece of writing advice from him. And the beauty of writing these memoirs is that, in focusing on just one short period of my childhood for each one, I could pick only the times when truly atrocious things were happening to me. I could have written an excruciatingly-boring book about my happy, charmed 1st-grade year, for example.

So you actually had a teacher who told your mother, “Jordan will never amount to anything.”

Yup. Not one of my proudest parent-teacher night experiences.

Because as a vulnerable kid, you thought that comment said something bad about you –- rather than something unforgivable about her.

YES! I mean, I knew my teacher was mean. But that didn’t necessarily transfer to knowing that she was wrong.

As a former teacher yourself, and as an ex-kid, I’m sure you have thoughts on this: What do you think makes a good teacher?

Well, that’s very interesting. Believe it or not, I originally sat down and wrote an entire memoir for adults about my own career as a teacher, and how the good and bad educational experiences of my childhood shaped my interactions with my students. But when I was done writing that book, I realized the real gold mine was in the childhood parts, so I pitched a two-volume childhood memoir to my editor at Scholastic, David Levithan. In this first volume, I think it’s pretty clear that, for me, a good teacher is the opposite of Mrs. Fisher. I was so very lucky that my second 4th-grade teacher, Miss Tuff, was the opposite of Mrs. Fisher, in every conceivable way. Where Mrs. Fisher had been cold, played favorites, and shown nothing to me but contempt, Miss Tuff was warm, loved every student equally (or at least, gave us all that feeling), and made each of us feel special, at a time in my life when I very much needed to feel special.

 

When I first coached Little League, I came into it with all this amazing knowledge to impart. Tips and techniques and entire life philosophies! But after a few seasons, I narrowed it down to simply this: I’m the guy who believes in you. That was my job. The booster of confidence. Even when a kid doubts him or herself, I was there saying, You can do it. And hopefully along the way giving them the tools to succeed.

Absolutely. I always say in teacher trainings that the most important thing a middle-grade teacher has to do, before anything else can even be possible, is keep the kids safe, reasonably happy, and interested in learning. Once that flame of interest (in school, in baseball, in anything) burns out, it’s incredibly hard to rekindle. Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to bruise a piece of fruit, but impossible to un-bruise one.

You really struggled as a ten-year-old in all sorts of ways. Asthma, feeling different, not fitting in. How do you feel about that kid now? Do you want to kick him in the butt? Do you want to hug him? Bring him to a Yankee game?

How ‘bout all of the above? Looking back at nine-year-old me, that kid was equal parts irritation, stubbornness, and nobility. I was a gigantic pain to several of the adults in my life (and a couple of the kids, too), but my strongest desire was to be good.

Oh, hey, I meant to ask you: What’s it like to be illustrated?

So, so cool! When my editor forwarded me the initial sketches by Marta Kissi, I was so excited I yelled for my wife and kids to come see. Without ever once talking to me, Marta absolutely nailed the feel of that electric year in my life.

I loved the last triumphant lines of the book: I have books. I have music. I am ready for anything. Is that still pretty much true? Or would you now include, say, a good pair of compression socks?

At this point, I would definitely throw my beloved wife and kids in there at the very top of that heap. But I will say this: without books and music, I never would have ended up with the wife or the kids, because those things completely turned my life around. Every good thing I have basically flows out of my love for books and music.

We see music become a big part of your life in the book. So I have to ask: Favorite Beatles album?

It has changed at different points in my life. But I will tell you that when we brought my first-born son home from the hospital, on the very first morning he woke up in his crib, I took him downstairs to our family room, laid him across my chest so we were both right between the speakers of my stereo, and put on side two of Abbey Road. I wanted that to be the very first music he ever heard. “Here Comes the Sun” –- what a perfect overture for life. Amirite?

Wow, what a coincidence. I tried something similar with my first born. Except I used Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica.” Maybe, upon reflection, it was the wrong album. That kid is so messed up. 

[awkward pause]

Anyway! Last question: This goofy kid in the story, the one with glasses and asthma, any idea what ever happens to him? Is he gonna be okay?

 I might not go all the way to “okay,” but he does survive — and he stays goofy. I know this because the sequel, which comes out next year, takes place when that same goofball gets to middle school. The working title is The Boy Who Failed Dodgeball.

Ouch, that’s gotta hurt.

You’re not kidding! I always joke that the highlight of my Little League career was the 1980 season, when I led the league in concussions. But middle-school dodgeball was worse.

Thanks for coming by, Jordan. Good luck with the book. I’m not a teacher, but I imagine it could serve as a mentor text for any teacher trying to encourage her students to see the story in their own lives.

My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me, James!

Oh, please, Jordan, we’re pals now. You can call me “Mr. Preller.”

 

       

Readers can learn more about Jordan Sonnenblick, and all the books he writes, and his entire family, by hiding in the bushes near his house. Infra-red cameras are amazing these days. There are also ways to tap phone lines. Failing that, just Google the guy. He keeps a website and everything. 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me, I’m a writer, too. I’ve authored the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, along with many middle-grade books, including Six Innings, The Courage Test, The Fall, Better Off Undead and Blood Mountain. My upcoming book, Upstander (Macmillan, May 2021), is a prequel/sequel to Bystander. It was recently named a 2021 Junior Library Guild Selection. Clearly, you should buy it. 

And by “buy it” I mean: Yes, actual money!

Was that too subtle?

 

AS ALWAYS, THANKS FOR STOPPING BY! 

 

 

 

 

A Conversation With Charise Harper: On Embarrassment, Creativity, and Being a Bad, Bad Sister

“I think of it as a kind of
sketch comedy show,
in comic form,
devoted to the topic of
embarrassment.”
— Charise Harper

 

 

Sound the timbrels! Roll out the tasty morsels! It’s a great day here in the musty, dusty offices of James Preller Dot Com. We’ve got a special guest, one of the great creative spirits in all of children’s books, the original Crafty Cat, and a personal favorite of mine, Charise Mericle Harper. And here she is now.

Wait a sec, hold on . . . don’t be shy, Charise. Ah, here we go.

 

Welcome, Charise. You know, I’m embarrassed to say this –- but I’m fuzzy on how we first met. Wasn’t it at the old Sunnyside Book Festival (which later morphed into the Chappaqua Book Festival)? I think you were new to the rough and tumble, bunny-eat-bunny business of children’s publishing.

That sounds about right. I loved that festival, all the bunnies were very friendly.

I read somewhere that the biggest fear for a middle-grade student is public embarrassment. Do you think that’s true?

Well, I’m not sure if it’s the biggest one – but I bet it’s up there. This is an age where everyone is trying to balance the “who am I at home” vs “who am I at school” and also decipher the unwritten social norms of behavior so they can fit in. That’s a lot. There is a lot of trial and error, and it’s all in front of a crowd. And, it’s a crowd who can’t wait to share their opinions. Yikes! That sounds like a nightmare

Do you have a favorite embarrassment story that happened to you or someone else?

I’m not good at favorites. It’s hard to choose just one –- I get embarrassed a lot.

Your book is breezy, charmingly illustrated, full of insight and compassion, there’s something funny on every page -– and yet! It reads almost like a survival handbook. So Embarrassing is something of a hybrid.

It’s a “Hey, this happens to everyone” book –- you might feel better about stuff after reading it –- but no promises. It’s story and fact mixed together. That’s probably going to bug some people –- especially people who like their food to be in separate areas on a plate.

I loved those plates and always wanted one. It was probably the best thing about TV dinners. Build that wall (!) between the peas and mashed potatoes!

I have to admit I wanted those plates too!

I loved the orderliness of it. Every food group in its place. “Hey, String Beans, huddle up! Creamed Corn, I’m looking at you!”

I guess I made more of a stew. But, aren’t we living in a stew-type environment? Don’t we have to slog through the muck to find the facts –- each and every day. I think kids can do this. They can enjoy the story and maybe learn at the same time, and sometimes the story itself is the thing that’s important. I’m hoping it’s a book that generates some after-thought. Maybe a reader will re-imagine one of the scenarios, when they’re bored, because their phone is dead.


I like that idea, the after-thought. I’ve thought of a couple of my books as good “talking books.” That is, the book serves as springboard for lively conversations, to the point where the discussion is likely more valuable than the book itself.

Absolutely. We don’t get to see that happen with our books, but wouldn’t it be great. Maybe something like, after looking through this book Grandma told everyone an embarrassment story that we had never heard before and we all laughed and laughed.

A fear of embarrassment can really limit us from experiencing new things, it can close us off at a time we should be open.

That’s deep, but true!

It’s why I’ve never gone off the high dive at the town pool, and why, I suspect, I never tried out for school plays. The fear of the Worst Possible Scenario — which always involves public humiliation — keeps many of us from putting ourselves out there.

Good thinking on the high dive.

Terrifying. What if everyone laughed at me?

No one wants to make mistakes. I know it’s not easy, but I wish we embraced mistakes a little more. Mistakes means you are trying something new, taking a chance, pushing yourself. No one expects the first draft of a book to be perfect, you have to work at it, edit it. That pretty much goes for everything in life, yet we are not always allowed editing time. Very often, we are judged on our first draft.

As a writer, I sometimes think of books as these giant, perfect eggs. How do you get inside? How do you tell the story? Where to start? You might have an idea -– embarrassment -– but you can’t write it until you slip in through a secret door. Then there’s a moment when you’re inside and you know how to proceed. How did this book come about for you?

I started with a vast personal knowledge of embarrassment, then I did some research and finally, I worked with my editor to develop a list of topics to discuss. Having chapters devoted to each topic was helpful. It provided the framework to keep me in check. I can ramble and easily get sidetracked. There isn’t one big linear story in this book. We have consistent narrators, but the characters jump in and out of different stories. I think of it as a kind of sketch comedy show, in comic form, devoted to the topic of embarrassment.


I think of you as one of the purest creative spirits I’ve ever met. It’s one of the reasons why I admire you so much, Charise. You are constantly making things: doodling, cutting paper designs, embroidering clothes, creating videos or imaginary creatures, writing stories, whatever zany thing you come up with next. Every day, you bring a sense of playfulness to your world. Is this something you consciously try to do?


First off – WOW! And thank you. I really think it’s something I have to do. I don’t know why, but the process of making things keeps me calm and grounded. I’m jumpy and nervous, and my brain is always zipping around with me trying to catch up. In my old age, I’ll be the elderly woman on the side of the road trying to sell her hand-painted sticks.

Okay, I love that image of you. Could you please do that now, please??!!

Who knows where things are going in this crazy world. It’s good that I have a solid back-up plan, isn’t it? I should probably start collecting sticks before someone else takes my brilliant idea.

Professional question: Some people in our business are extremely aware of the marketplace, the news from Publishers Weekly, what’s hot and what’s not. Are you someone who pays attention to all of that?

I know it’s there, but I don’t even have my pinky finger on the pulse of what’s new and cool.

Ah, that explains the clogs.

I wish I were a little more market savvy, but it doesn’t seem to hold my interest. I post pictures on Instagram, but other than that, I’m not very social on any media.

Hey, before we go, I’m very excited to read your upcoming book, a graphic novel/memoir about you being a horrible sister. It sounds like a special project. Could you tell us about it?

YES! I’m super excited about it. I haven’t written a true story about myself before, so it was a little strange to have to type my own name in the manuscript and then talk about myself, in the third person, to my editor.

And in this case, you didn’t do the illustrations. How did that feel? Was it hard to give up control?

It felt FANTASTIC! Rory Lucey did a great job and I’ll never be able to thank him enough.

Anything else you can tell us about it?

The book is called Bad Sister. I put my brother through a lot during his formative years. The most obvious damage was knocking out his front tooth. It wasn’t on purpose, but still it could have, and should have, not happened. It was my fault!

Because: Bad, bad, bad Sister.

That was a turning point for me, but just because you suddenly want to be good, doesn’t make it so. You have to change your behavior and the opinions of those around you, this is an interesting part of the story as well. Knowing about my own past behavior, I was very watchful of my own daughter, and I can say, she was not like me. She was and continues to be a marvelous big sister to her little brother. So I’ll take that as progress!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Charise. Good luck with the books! It’s always a pleasure to connect with you. 

Thank you, Jimmy.  Fingers crossed we can meet again soon, and in person!  I would like that.

Charise Harper can be found on the interwebs. Or, failing that, on a highway near you . . . hawking hand-painted sticks. And as for me, I’m the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. All Welcome Here is my most recent picture book, illustrated by Mary GrandPre. And coming in Spring of 2021, my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!