Tag Archive for James Preller on writing

Three New Picture Books That I Loved: A Kitten, A Plant, and Everything In the World

I go to the library fairly often. My job is one of solitude, of aloneness, and there are times when I just want to be among people. Watch them walk, listen to them talk, see what they are up to. 

And the other thing about libraries is: that’s where the books are.

While I usually try to stay current, there are times when — well — it’s nice not to know. Not get hung up on what’s happening out there. The buzz, the trends, the hype, the books that make me think: Why, why, why? The work for any writer begins, primarily, with what’s happening in here. The rumblings of the head & the heart.

I am newly resolved to take ten picture books out of the library every time I visit. Read them, think about them. Be inspired or annoyed. 

Here’s three from a recent batch that I particularly enjoyed . . . 


The great Kevin Henkes does it again. Can he do no wrong? It occurs to me that he’s probably helped by a wise agent and discerning editors who help bring out the best in him . . . while maybe holding off the crummy ideas. Because even Kevin Henkes must have crummy ideas, right? Right?

Oh, God, I hope so.

The book begins:

There are big things and little things in the world.

The text is spare and the illustrations are simple and yet resonant. He’s so good. He has a full page illustration of pebbles and it could break your heart. It’s a small miracle in a book full of them. Somehow Henkes embues heart and soul into everything he does, that’s what I love about him.

But for this book, it’s the Voice that I so admire. He simply strikes a tone — kind, knowing (without being a know-it-all), gentle and wise.

This is a beautiful, lovely book.

Confession: I love Audrey Vernick. She’s my pal and she’s the greatest. If you don’t like Audrey, then you are dead to me. It’s that simple. But: Confession II: I don’t love everything she’s ever done. 

Besides writing solo, Audrey has successfully teamed up with Liz Garton Scanlon, who is such a fine craftsperson with the soul of a poet. A writer’s writer. They made this book together. 

And for me, this might be their best book yet. It’s expertly crafted and takes place in a world that will be instantly familiar to young readers.

It begins:

Room 107 has a cockatiel. Room 108 has a chinchilla. Even the Art Room has a bearded dragon!

[Writers: Not the rule of three, the comfortable pattern that readers enjoy.]

But in Room 109, Arlo’s classroom, there is a plant. A mostly green, hardly growing, never moving plant. 

Again: the Voice here is unerring and the story unfolds with (mostly) realism and calm and great affection for Jerry (that’s the name of the plant). 

Question: Is Voice the single most important aspect of a children’s book? Maybe yes. 

Warmly illustrated by Lynnor Bontigao. 

I’ll be honest. I am sick to death of overt message books. So obvious and pedantic. So adult-centered. And yet, of course, there’s nothing wrong with signals. Every story sends signals, embedded with values. So it becomes a matter of craft. Of art. How do you send the message without, you know, hammering someone over the head with it? So that maybe when it comes, you didn’t completely see it coming?

But wait. 

First: The illustrations in this are tremendous. The colors rich — not cartoony — and not too vibrant. Carson Ellis is very, very good. You know instantly that you are in good hands.

There’s so much art and skill in how this book is put together. It begins with a single-page illustration of a window, a sky, some trees, two birds. The next page is a double spread: a few homes, more trees, and small (but centered) a mother and child about to take a dog for a walk. No words yet.

(I guess it really isn’t about a kitten!)

And then, whoa, the title page. Cool.

It begins:

This story is not about a kitten.

Turn the page, close up of a kitten cowering under a parked car:

A kitten, hungry and dirty, scared and alone, meowing sadly, needing a home. 

The story builds cumulatively as the different members of the community step forward and come together in compassion, and affection, and common decency.

So, yeah, the message does come and it is pretty straight-forward. But how we get there, Dear Reader, that’s the difference.

This story is about the 


and listening,

the holding

and bringing,

the offering

and asking

and the working together

it takes, sometimes, to get there. 

An absolute marvel of a book. 

Writing Tips #1: A Look at One Scene from THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai

For the past two years, I’ve taught several online classes for Gotham Writers. It’s for adults and via Zoom, usually titled “Writing children’s books” in a workshop format. I’ve taught four ten-week classes so far. Three hours a session on a weeknight. It’s demanding and the pay is horrendous but I love the students and what we learn together. And every dollar helps. 

But first, an aside: I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a teacher, since I see myself more as conductor than instructor. As the expression goes: Not the sage on stage, but the guide on the side

Anyway, I find that I miss it when there’s no class, no fellow writers to discuss these things with — the writing that moves us or falls flat or annoys us and why. A lot of the class is about developing our critical taste. Lately I’ve been casting about for an outlet for these thoughts. Since, yeah, in my real life just about no one cares what I think about writing.

And it feels a little pretentious, talking about writing as if I know. But, okay, I accept I must know some things. I’ve gotten this far. I’ve been publishing all sorts of books since 1986. 

So: I just read The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and I have  thoughts about it. When I first picked it up, upon a friend’s recommendation, I didn’t realize that much of it was set in Chicago, 1985-1990, centered around a gay community amidst the AIDS crisis. As it happens, my oldest brother, Neal, lived in Chelsea in NYC (15th between 7th & 8th) and was sick at that time. He finally succumbed in 1993. But back in ’85, I was 24 and living in Brooklyn, working in  Manhattan (Broadway & Waverly, across from NYU). I spent much time in Neal’s apartment during my early teenage years, the late 70s, visiting from my home on Long Island, learning the village’s streets via its used record stores. I met his friends, his partner, spent time in his world. This book powerfully brought all of that back. Brought my brother back. So much loss. That disease hit so hard.

Here’s one moment from the novel — and a few brief writing observations after. In this scene, Yale is visiting Charlie, who is very near the end of his life, at the hospital:

He sat on the chair by the bed.

The nurse came in, and she showed Yale a small pink sponge on the end of a stick, showed him how he could hold it to Charlie’s lips to give him water.

He did it for a while, and he ran his thumb over Charlie’s wrist, listening to the thrumming of the walls.

He fed him water, drop by drop.

He could feel it, all around him, how down the corridor, and down the other hallways of other hospitals around Chicago and the other godforsaken cities of the globe, a thousand other men did the same. 


A few folks who have been in class with me might not be surprised when I express deep admiration for that first sentence:

He sat on the chair by the bed.

A full paragraph.

He sat on the chair by the bed

Clear, unadorned, lean, concrete, specific. He sat on the chair by the bed. It’s perfect. It looks easy. And it is so hard for many of us to write. The temptation to pretty it up is so strong (in me, at least). 

To write with restraint — without ego. The writer getting out of the way. An absolute absence of cleverness.

He sat on the chair by the bed.

Anybody could write do it!

The next paragraphs are equally clear and concrete and beautifully rendered. We get that one word, thrumming, but mostly it is simple language, directly told.

He fed him water, drop by drop

A mood sets in. The seconds ticking by, the end of a life’s last seconds. To be in that lonely, sad hospital room. Watching a young man die. He fed him water, drop by drop.

And then we get that long sentence, the poetry and the liftoff. As writers, we have to be careful about when and how we attempt this. Too much of this kind of thing would make a book exhausting to read, too purple, too annoying. The writer always reaching for a distant star. The batter always swinging for the fences. 

But here, in context with the paragraphs before it, we are ready and eager for that elevation — for this one long sentence. The ground has been prepared for the poetry.

Thirty-six words, four commas, and a period. 

He could feel it, all around him, how down the corridor, and down the other hallways of other hospitals around Chicago and the other godforsaken cities of the globe, a thousand other men did the same. 

That’s good writing. 

WRITING PROCESS: About that Epigraph


An epigraph — neither an epigram nor an epitaph — is that short quote  many authors use at the beginning of a book. It can be most anything: a song lyric, a line from a poem or novel, a familiar adage, whatever we want it to be.

It can be seen as a book’s North Star, both inspiration and aspiration. A source or a destination, a map or a summation. It can be a joke, a statement of theme, or an obtuse and too-erudite dud.

An epigraph is one of those small parts of a novel that many readers (and some writers) ignore. No problem. Like the spleen, an epigraph can be removed without any real loss of function.

Yet it can serve as a signal in the night, like an orange flare screaming parabollically across the sky. An indicator of intention.

It can be a thread to pull, a riddle to unravel, or a key to solving the book’s enigma.

Personally, I’m a fan. Epigraphs have played a larger role in my books as my career has crabbed sideways.

That said, I don’t believe I hit a home run with the epigraph in my book Six Innings. It misses the mark. So we won’t talk about it. And I’m not sure that the epigraph for Bystander was particularly successful:



Where you been is good and gone

All you keep is the gettin’ there.

— Townes Van Zandt,

“To Live Is to Fly”


I love that song by Van Zandt and it lingered in my mind during the writing of that book. To me, those two lines represented the plasticity of the middle school years, that intense period of becoming, and of life in general. “The journey itself is home,” as Basho wrote. I think that’s especially true when we are young, trying to figure things out. Anyway, it’s a good quote, but perhaps not especially germane to the book. It doesn’t shine a ton of light.

Moving right along . . .



For The Fall, I employed the dangerous double epigraph. Maybe it’s a matter being unable to decide, but I liked the way these two worked together. These quotes speak directly to the book’s main ideas: responsibility and identity.

As an aside, I’ve been catching up with Westworld recently — so much fun — and was pleased when Bernard asked Dolores to read the same passage from Alice in Wonderland.

“Who in the world am I?” Good question.


In a eureeka moment, I found what I believed was the perfect epigraph for The Courage Test. The book was basically done — written, revised, and nearly out the door when I rediscovered this long forgotten quote while at a museum:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

My book was about just such a journey. The main character, couragetestfrontcvr-199x300William Meriwether Millier, was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, who figured large in the story. And at the end of the book, Will returns home to the place where he started with new insight. The epigraph fit like a glove. The only problem might be, is it too pretentious? T.S. Eliot? The Four Quartets? In a book for middle graders? What can say, it spoke so eloquently to the story that I had to include it.

I also feel good about the epigraphs to my upcoming book, Better Off Undead, (Fall, 2017). It’s a book that’s set in the not-too-distant future and features a seventh-grade zombie as the main character. It’s a wild plot that touches upon climate change, spy drones, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, forest fires, privacy rights, airborne diseases, beekeeping, crude oil transportation, meddling billionaires, bullying, makeovers, and the kitchen sink. There’s also a plot device that links back to “The Wizard of Oz,” the movie.

I don’t have a cover to share at this point, these are the two epigraphs:


What a world, what a world.

— The Wicked Witch of the West,

“The Wizard of Oz”


and . . .


There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

— Leonard Cohen,



For this book, I’m also tempted to tell you about the dedication — which is also concerned with the future of the world. But let’s save that for another post.

Do you have a favorite epigraph/book pairing you’d like to share? Make a comment below. Please note that new comments need a moderator’s approval before the comment appears. This helps limit the whackjobs and crackpots to a manageable few, seating for everyone, sort of like Thanksgiving dinner at the relatives’ house. Cheers!

Advice for Young Writers

“All the work necessary to learn how to write

boils down to reading and writing.” Scott Raab

I’ve been paying my bills with writing since the mid 80’s. I went freelance in 1990 and, at this point, have pretty much zero skills to bring to the job market. I’m unemployable — because, you see, I’m a writer. People buy my books, offer me contracts for work not yet written, and often schools pay for me to speak to their students. I actually get on planes, stay in hotels, so I can talk to students about my books and, more or less, my life as a writer. So it’s natural for folks to ask me, “What advice do you have for young writers?

And one of these days I might come up with an answer, instead of doing my usual stammering thing. I mean, I must know something. Right? So for me the problem is that temperamentally I don’t like acting like I’ve got all the answers, especially when most days I feel like this . . .

And it’s also because the answer is just sooo dull. The words come out of my mouth and thud to the floor. They don’t sound wise or insightful. There’s no penetrating insight, no secrets to reveal. I’ve got nothing. Nada. Or, at least, nothing that gets anybody sitting upright, shouting, “Eureka!”

The good news: I recently came across a short piece by Scott Raab titled “Writing” where he tackles the same question. And I loved the tone he set, his directness and utter lack of bull, the way he nailed it to the wall, a nice guy sincerely trying to tell it straight:

I get asked for advice by young writers and never know what to offer beyond a few things that sound absurdly simple. I don’t want to be discouraging. I don’t want to be overly encouraging, either. Print may or may not be dying, but writing isn’t. People still want to become writers, hope to make a career of it, think of it as something special — all that jazz.

I think the fundamental force behind writing is passion. The writers I know are insane. They don’t know how NOT to write about stuff. It’s like pro athletes often say about their sport: They’d play for free. Writers love to write — and not because it’s easy. Getting it right isn’t easy at all, and that challenge is a big part of why writers love to write. It’s a high, working on your game, a way of being in the world that feels absolutely honest and true.

Raab continues for a few paragraphs more, and you really ought to tap the link for it. Ultimately, Raab doesn’t offer shortcuts. I’d say he “refuses” to offer shortcuts, but that would be wrong. I’m sure he’d give you a shortcut if he knew a faster way to get out of the woods — but there is no shortcut, that’s the deal in a clam shell. And the dirty truth is, that’s exactly the opposite of what most people want to hear. “How did you get published? How did you become a writer?”

As if I could scribble a phone number on a slip of paper and whisper, “Ask for Lori, mention my name, she’ll take care of you.”

And by the way, you don’t become a writer. You are one, or you aren’t. You write, or you don’t. And that’s perfectly okay. Quick story: I’ve been reading a biography on Kurt Vonnegut, and old Kurt had a rough time of it for many years. It was hard to get published, a trial to make money. His books didn’t sell, quickly went out of print. There was zero acclaim. So sometimes, down in the dumps and ready to give up, he’d complain. And one time his fed-up agent (or editor) snapped back, “Nobody asked you to be a writer!”

The world didn’t owe him anything.

I quoted my favorite line from the Raab piece up at the top. You want to be a writer? You want advice?

Write, read, rinse and repeat.

Writing Process: Research to Feed Your Head

“Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas.”

— Robert McKee, Story

For the most part, I don’t talk about writing in global terms. It’s an individual process, and it’s not like I think I’m a master. I mean, sure, I’ve been writing professionally since 1986, so I’ve learned some things along the way. As time goes on, even I have to admit that I probably know something. Even so, I try to limit that to sharing my own experiences, things that have worked for me, rather than pretending to know what works for everyone. I’m more student than teacher. Nonetheless, one guideline of this blog since inception has been to be open about my work as a writer, no matter how squirmy that might make me feel.

I mean to say: A huge, huge part of me lands in the A.J. Liebling camp, who wrote: “The only way to write is well and how you do it is your own damn business.”

That’s why I don’t type status updates about my work on, say, Facebook, or begin party conversation by expounding upon my work routine. My brother, Al, sells insurance and I sure don’t want to read on Facebook about how he does it behind the scenes — just make sure I’m covered when we bend a fender, bro. However, I submit that a writer’s blog is different: You came here, I didn’t hound you down, so it’s your own damn fault if I sometimes prattle on about me, me, me. There’s an assumed interest that, again I contend, just isn’t there in most of social situations.

Back to the topic at hand, research: It’s like that last line in the Jefferson Airplane song about Alice In Wonderland, “White Rabbit,” I agree with the dormouse: It’s vital to feed your head. Ideas don’t usually appear in a vacuum. My most enthusiastic writing is fueled by new knowledge, new information. My focus is largely on building character, revealing character through events. If I only write about what I know — a rant I’ll save for a later date — then all my characters will ultimately be limited by the contents of one (not necessarily fascinating) character, me.

Fortunately, it’s never been easier to learn new things — and it’s also fun.

Two examples:

1) I’m writing something now and it struck me that a minor character might be really into tropical fish. He’s got a fish tank, reads books about fish, is just deeply into it. I have a personal connection to that, since when I was growing up my father had a fish tank and, for a while, my brother and I picked up the hobby (Billy even bred Siamese Fighting Fish — craziness, believe me!). But this was long ago. Let’s see . . . what else? As a kid, I loved the movie, The Incredible Mr. Limpet with Don Knotts. More recently, I’ve renewed contact with an old college friend who is . . . really, really into tropical fish. So he got me thinking about it again.

The reality is that I don’t know much about fish, but I want to create a character who does. So I’ll do research, see what comes up, try to write some scenes, go visit a fish store, and who knows. It might work for me, stimulate my imagination with facts and ideas, or not.

2) In Along Came Spider, I very much wanted to show that Trey, a positive, wonderful boy with autism, had his own unique talents and interests. For one, he loved animals and had a special affection for birds. He built his own bird houses and hung them in his back yard — and, in the book, one such house becomes a meaningful gift for the school librarian, Mrs. Lobel. However, I had a problem: I personally can’t build a piece of toast, much less a bird house. Time for some internet research to stimulate my brain with facts and ideas.

Here’s part of the scene that resulted, excerpted from Chapter 13, “Ava Bright.” In a meeting arranged by Trey’s oldest friend, Spider, Ava Bright visits Trey in his backyard:

They found green-haired Trey sprawled on his back patio. He was on his knees, hunched over scraps of wood and various tools — measuring tape, saw, hammer, drill, chisel, screwdrivers.

Ava’s eyes widened as she took in the entire backyard, the stand of breathtaking oaks, maples, and pines, the field of wild grass beyond. She arched her back and gazed up at the great old trees. “This is really, really nice,” she murmured.

Trey scrambled to his feet. “Oh, hi. I didn’t hear you guys.”

“What are you building?” Ava asked.

“A gift,” Trey answered. “It’s a nest box.”

“A nest box?”

“Most people call them birdhouses,” Trey said, “but most people are wrong.”

Spider grinned. He had heard Trey recite facts about birds and nest boxes many times. It was amazing and, at the same time, So Totally Out There. Trey could sit for hours in perfect silence, but when he got going on one of his favorite topics — like birds or rocks or ice cream — he would talk nonstop. And it didn’t matter if you paid attention or not. It was as if Trey had so many facts crammed into his head, he couldn’t keep them locked inside. Spider imagined a volcano spewing hot lava: Mount Trey.

“Can I help?” Ava asked. “I mean, I don’t know anything about nest boxes, but I’m pretty good with a hammer.”

Trey nodded, sure she could help. He looked at Spider with a question in his eyes.

“Sounds good to me,” Spider said.

Trey showed them what to do. And while he did, he explained things to Ava, who was either astonishingly polite or very interested — or both. “About one hundred different species of birds nest in natural cavities,” Trey said. “You know, like holes in trees, the eaves of houses, things like that.”

Ava nodded, listening as she made measurements on a length of pine board.

“But lots of trees are cut down every year,” Trey said. “That’s bad for birds. Their natural habitat is shrinking. Plus, other animals — like squirrels, which I do not like — he said with surprising hostility — “all compete for the nesting places. Lots of songbirds like nest boxes. Bluebirds, titmice, chickadees, wrens –“

“It’s nice that you build them,” Ava said. “I’m sure the birds appreciate it.”

“Well, we have to take care of them, don’t we?” Trey said matter-of-factly. “I mean, they can’t build these by themselves. And it’s so easy for us.”

Even though Spider had heard Trey say things like that many times before, this time the words struck him in a different way. We have to take care of them, don’t we? It was a simple thing to say. A clear, true thought. We have to take care of them, Spider repeated to himself. It’s so easy for us.

The clouds parted and a warm yellow sun shone down. Ava, Trey, and Spider worked together for the next couple of hours, laughing and talking. Ava asked a lot of questions — she had a curious, interested sort of mind — and Trey had all the answers. He explained how the nest box roof needed at least three inches of overhang to protect the birds from hard rain. He showed Ava how to spread a coat of petroleum jelly along the inside of the roof to keep away wasps and bees. And with a chisel, Trey patiently grooved the interior walls of the house. “It helps the baby birds climb to the opening,” he explained.

Ava was impressed. She looked around, suddenly puzzled. “But I only count two nest boxes in your yard,” she said. “I thought you built lots of them?”

“I give them away,” Trey answered. “Birds are territorial. They don’t like it if you put the boxes too close together. They don’t like crowds, and I totally agree with them,” he said. Trey finished screwing the last galvanized screw into the nest box. “There,” he said proudly, holding  up the final creation.

“You’re very talented, Trey,” Ava said with admiration. “And smart. Isn’t he, Spider?”

“He’s one of a kind,” Spider replied, grinning.

<< snip >>

The scene continues at a leisurely pace, the three kids hanging out together, building a friendship over hammers and wood. Nothing amazing ever happens in this book, frankly, a minor crisis or three, but my point in sharing this scene is to show how it grew organically out of my research for this character. He was interested in something I didn’t know anything about. As a writer, I felt in no way  limited to write about only what I knew — what I knew was that I needed to feed my imagination with facts and ideas! I wanted to learn and grow as a person, as a writer. Once I got to a point where I knew something (new), I was able to write, k/newly inspired.

That scene, and some core metaphors for the book, grew out of that research.

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When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s “off with her head!”
Remember what the dormouse said:
“Feed your head
Feed your head
Feed your head”