Tag Archive for James Preller

DEEP SURVIVAL: Researching “Blood Mountain”

When I speak at schools to an audience of grades 4-up, I’ll sometimes talk about my wilderness survival novel, Blood Mountain

There’s a scary moment in the process that many writers face. After the initial idea for the book — two kids and a dog lost in the mountains! — that happy burst of boing! eureka! — I realized that I didn’t know nearly enough to write it.

It was time to hit the books and talk to experts. Which I did. 

The other day, a few years after the fact, I reread for pleasure one of the books that informed my thinking: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, by Laurence Gonzales. It’s an amazing book, profound in many respects, and a great read. It’s very much the kind of thing I love. 

When you think about it, just about every story comes down to what a character is made of, the content of that character’s character, and survival stories are so powerful because they bring this question to the forefront. Does this character have the right stuff?

And what is the right stuff?

Rereading Gonzales’ book, I kept coming across ideas that I first encountered there, busily jotting concepts in my notebook, underlining passages, discovering ideas that I would try to incorporate into Blood Mountain. I came to his book wanting to know more about why people got lost, what mistakes they commonly made. And moreso, what attitudes best served “the lost,” and which attitudes might get a lost person into serious trouble. 

Here’s something from page 154: “Psychologists who study the behavior of people who get lost report that very few ever backtrack.”

There’s a deep urge, particularly in goal-oriented people, to keep moving forward. Our eyes look forward, after all. So I made sure to write Grace (13) and Carter (11) that way, a dogged determination to keep going (even when the expert advice is to stay calm, stay put, stay warm, stay dry).

Another bit of wisdom that true survivors arrive at fairly quickly is the ability to make peace with their environment, a clear-eyed acceptance of the new reality. This becomes Grace’s path. While both characters ultimately need to be rescued, only Carter really needs to be saved. 

Earlier, Grace and Carter, on Day 2, form a plan to climb to a summit for a better view. That’s how they will see the clear path home, as if looking down on a giant map. The mentality, described by Gonzales, is fairly sound but not without risk (p. 160): “Maybe if he just got up high . . . if he could just see the whole area, then everything would snap back into focus and he could calm down.

Unfortunately, when people are without food and water, depleted already and possibly not thinking clearly, the expenditure of that effort can exhaust or injure them, possibly leading to outright panic. 

So, yes, in Blood Mountain we see exactly that, leading to Grace’s fall (from grace). Psychologically, it has to do with a person’s intense desire to map the self, map the environment — to create a mental picture. So that the interior mind and the exterior environment sync up.

Losing that inner map is the essence of being lost. 

Also from Gonzales: “Part of the terror of being lost stems from the idea of never being seen again.

I loved that one, because that’s all any of us want in this world, isn’t it? To be seen. To be valued. Without being seen, do we just fade out of existence, vanish into nothingness? 

Again, Gonzales: “Being lost, then, is not a location; it is a transformation. It is a failure of the mind.”

To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won’t matter where you are.

The rule is simple: Be here now

In Blood Mountain, I separate Grace and Carter and give them different experiences and, more importantly, different ways of responding to those circumstances. 

Grace, though injured and alone (with her dog, Sitka, thankfully), comes to a state of acceptance. Even appreciation of the beauty around her. She begins to set small goals for herself, simple tasks: get water, make a more comfortable bed, ration the supplies, etc. 

A holocaust survivor (p. 169) described the process this way: “Rescue will come as a welcome interruption of . . . the survival voyage.”

I share all this — just a fraction of the insights (borrowed, stolen) that went into writing Blood Mountain. (I’m not an expert, but I played in the writing of this book!)

There’s an intellectual reason for everything that happens on every page. Each scene, each moment, is intentional. Again, it is Grace’s sense of wonder about the natural world around her. The trees and plants and animal life. From Gonzales (p. 240): “It is a decision not to be lost wherever you happen to find yourself. It’s simply saying, “I’m not lost, I’m right here.

All this is to say: THANK YOU, LAURENCE GONZALES. I couldn’t have written my book without you!

BLOOD MOUNTAIN is now available in paperback for only $8.99.

COMING SOON: Two Birds and a Moose!

SNEAK PEEK: It’s nice to have something coming out for the youngest readers that promotes violence. Ha-ha. I mean, a Looney Tunes-inspired brand of violence. And not much of that, actually. But, yes, here comes a new book.
Thirty years ago I wrote two very successful easy-to-read titles, Wake Me In Spring and Hiccups for Elephant. I still meet people who remember those books fondly. Both sold about 1.5 million copies. Long out of print. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a third one published and eventually gave up, moved in a different direction.
So, yeah, it’s time.
I’m very much looking forward to the arrival this fall of Two Birds and a Moose (Simon & Schuster). It’s part of S & S’s “Ready-to-Read” line, level 1. 
Rough sketch by the talented Abigail Burch.
By the way, I also have a new middle-grade novel coming out at around the same time, Shaken (Macmillan, Fall, 2024). It centers around a 7th-grade girl, Kristy Barrett, who is a soccer player with Division 1 dreams. Early in the book, Kristy suffers a severe concussion with lasting effects. Forced to give up the game she loves, Kristy experiences stress, anxiety, self-doubt, panic attacks  — and eventually goes on to spend time in the care of a therapist. Two therapists, actually. And a couple of new friends. The book is about how Kristy navigates this challenging time in her life. More on that, another day. 
Thanks for stopping by.

This Saturday, 11/6, You Can Zoom Into the Rochester Children’s Book Festival — from Anywhere — and It’s Free!

A FREE VIRTUAL EVENT

The Rochester Children’s Book Festival goes VIRTUAL this Saturday, November 6th for a full day of FREE panel discussions and readings with a diverse assortment of children’s book writers and illustrators.

I’ll be staggering around in Room 2 at 2:00pm, moderating a (hopefully!) lively and (hopefully!) entertaining conversation about chapter books and series writing with Michelle Knudsen, Laurie Calkhoven, and Judy Bradbury. See below for a full list of participating authors and events.


         

         

You can also order signed book from all participating authors through the festival website.

REGISTER NOW by clicking this link and following the instructions.

Here’s the schedule for the day:

 

10:00 AM

ROOM 1

Read To Me Corner – Picture Book Stories Read By The Author

Annette Dunn

Susannah Buhrman-Deever

Unseld Robinson

ROOM 2 

Picture Books: How Are You Feeling? Coping With Emotions

Heidi Stemple

Jane Yolen

Susan Verde

James Howe

 11:00 AM

 ROOM 1 

Graphic Fiction: Drawing Demonstration  (Interactive – Pencil And Paper Required)

Frank Cammuso

Steve Ellis

Brian Yanish

ROOM 2 

For Our Younger Book Lovers: Stories and Songs (Interactive)

Iza Trapani

Tiffany Polino

Margaret Pence

12:00 PM

ROOM 1

Fantastical Fantasy for Middle Grade Readers

Vivian Vande Velde

Sheela Chari

Bruce Coville

ROOM 2

Historical Fiction – Fact and Fiction Storytelling

Keely Hutton

Elizabeth Falk

Susan Williams Beckhorn

Marsha Hayles

1:00 PM

ROOM 1

Diverse Themes in Middle Grade Literature​

Alex Sanchez

MJ and Herm Auch

Leslie C. Youngblood

ROOM 2

How Authors Use Poetry and Verse To Tell A Story

Linda Sue Park

Joseph Bruchac

Nikki Grimes

2:00 PM

ROOM 1

Picture Books: Fiction and Non-Fiction

Susannah Buhrman-Deever

Kevin Kurtz

Mylisa Larsen

ROOM 2

Get Hooked on Chapter Books: Mysteries, Non-Fiction, and Humor

James Preller

Laurie Calkhoven

Michelle Knudsen

Judy Bradbury

3:00 PM

ROOM 1

Doing It All: Writing and Illustrating Your Books

Jeff Mack

Frank Cammuso

ROOM 2

How Picture Book Authors and Illustrators Work Together​

Peggy Thomas

Kathleen Blasi

London Ladd

Yuko Jones

4:00 PM

ROOM 1

How To Write Non- Fiction That Middle Graders Want To Read​

Ronny Frishman

Rose O’Keefe

Andrea Page

Sally Valentine

ROOM 2

Read To Me Corner – Picture Book Stories Read by the Author

Mylisa Larsen

Yuko Jones

Kathy Blasi

THANK YOU

FOR SUPPORTING THE ARTS

IN THESE CHALLENGING TIMES!

 

One Question, Five Authors: “How do you feel about messages in children’s books?”

“A good place to start

is by continuing to make art

which begs questions,

sparks conversations,

explains stuff,

and provides catharsis.”

— Lizzy Rockwell

I remember being at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival a few years back. Jeff Mack turned to me and asked, only half-jokingly, “Do you remember when it used to a bad thing for children’s books to be didactic?” We laughed about that one. Ho, ho, ho. I was reminded of that moment while reading a timely, interesting article by Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt in Horn Book’s “Calling Caldecott” series, titled, ” What the Hell Is Didactic Intent Anyway?”

The time seemed right to bring back my ever-quasi-popular, “One Question, Five Authors” series, beginning with possibly the thorniest question I’ve ever asked: “How do you feel about messages in children’s books?It’s not a simple topic, and definitions vary — it’s not always clear we are talking about the same thing — which is likely why some responders gave longer, deeper answers than usual. Another reason for that: I made sure to ask this particular question to some of the more intellectual, thoughtful, experienced writers I could find. Today I’m honored to share this space with Lizzy Rockwell, Lois Lowry, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Liz Garton Scanlon, and Tony Abbott. Please feel free to add a comment or voice a complaint. The more voices, the better.

 

LIZZY ROCKWELL

Thanks Jimmy.  What a good question.  Having raised two grown sons, I know that there were plenty of messages my husband and I consciously or unconsciously delivered as they were growing up: Be nice. Be responsible for your actions. Pay attention to your emotions, and other people’s emotions. Use words to work out conflict. Take care of your body. Learn about the world.  Respect all living things (including ecosystems). Be creative. Be generous. Be honest. Know that you are loved. Books helped. Frederick and Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, Moon Man, by Tomi Ungerer, Medieval Feast, by Aliki, The Awful Mess, by Anne Rockwell, Donkey Donkey, by Roger Duvoisin, and Spinky Sulks by William Steig were some of our favorites.

Ours is not a religious home, but our ethics are in keeping with those of most religions.  Children’s books can support a society’s effort to help children grow into healthy, collaborative, expressive adults who distinguish between right and wrong, fair and unfair. But books are not just about molding successful and virtuous future adults, they are about providing art specifically crafted for children. A child’s need for art is every bit as great as an adult’s. Art is cathartic; it lets us identify and talk about our emotions.  Art is philosophical; it’s the best way to explore the big existential and ethical questions. But good art is never didactic. It is sensory and emotionally charged, so it gives us pleasure, scares us, makes us wonder, makes us laugh, connects us with others. Art is open-ended so it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. And art is subversive. It challenges the confines of social norms, and requires us to ask questions.

We are in a fascinating moment, where some very long-in-the-making problems are finally being pulled from the back of the closet and brought into the light. This moment is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. The legacy of slavery,  the genocide of indigenous Americans, the oppression of LGBT people, the subjugation of women and girls, economic inequality, European imperialism, gun violence,  drug addiction, and environmental devastation, are on the short list of problems we can no longer ignore. Solving many of these problems requires disrupting systems (patriotism, capitalism, transportation, policing, Religious orthodoxy, industry) which also are the armature of American society.  So how do we rebuild and improve, without completely tearing down?

A good place to start is by continuing to make art which begs questions, sparks conversations, explains stuff, and provides catharsis.

But let’s be honest, making art for children is not the same as making art for adults.  We have a responsibility to not overwhelm them with fear or guilt. Any story or work of non-fiction created for children, no matter how disturbing the problem, or open-ended the solution, should contain a message of hope. And I don’t have a problem with that message at all.

 

LESA CLINE-RANSOME

I write each of my books with a measure of intention and purpose.  For me, there is a need to accurately represent my culture and heritage and provide a counter narrative to the misrepresentations that have pervaded literature for too long.  I write stories that provide one depiction of black life that reflects its resilience, sacrifice, joy, enduring traditions and loving families.  Is it a message?  Perhaps.  But in a time of erasure and exclusion, I feel a message celebrating the fullness of black life, community and family is a much needed one.

 

LOIS LOWRY

I can’t comment on any trends because I simply don’t keep up with what’s being published (isn’t it ironic that Spellcheck wants “published” to be “punished”?). But my personal opinion about books with messages has not changed. A book with a blatant message…a book whose author has set out to instruct young readers and guide them to a higher morality…is a bad book. A book with intriguing characters who face complex problems and weigh difficult choices is a book from which a message will arise but it will not have been placed there by the author. It will evolve from the reader: from the reader’s circumstances and introspection and emerging beliefs.  When a student emails me and asks: “What is the message of (insert title)?” I always reply: “Whatever you want it to be.”  When a parent or grandparent hands me a book to sign and asks me to write: “For xxxx, in hopes that this book will teach you…blah blah” I always conceal a deep sigh and write: “I hope that you’ll love this book.”

As an old person myself I do sympathize with…and share…the yearning to be able to impart wisdom to the young. But if I’ve learned anything in my 83 years, it’s that wisdom is acquired through experience and through feeling one’s mind and heart opened…occasionally by a good book. Not a book with a message.

 

LIZ GARTON SCANLON

For me, the question isn’t so much whether books contain messages. I honestly think that’s a given. Characters learn and grow and have ah-ha moments. They navigate tricky times and grapple with moral choices. Metaphors telegraph meaning or theme. Beginnings pose questions that endings then satisfy with deep realizations. Books are full of messages.

I think the question is a more subtle one –- one of prepositions. I think messages in children’s books need to be of or from children rather than to or for or at them. I like to see them emerge with each page turn, from the small, wide-eyed perspective of a kid, rather than come down like an explicit, instructive hammer.

What if messages were more like discoveries than lessons? What if they were sometimes nonlinear or digressive or funny or wholly surprising – just the way they are for kids in the world outside of books? What if young characters and young readers alike got their messages in deeply felt and experiential ways? I think that’s how we give them the most important message of all – that we respect them, that we’re paying attention, that they matter.

 

TONY ABBOTT

While I’ve given this question a bit of thought over the last couple of years, it’s not been with any sense of tying it off with an eloquent flourish, so forgive clumsy lapses in logic. But, yes, I think we are seeing more and more books for children with simpler and simpler messages that try to appeal to the reader by defining, quickly, and in terms that reader will understand, what those books are about and why they should be read.

Part of this trend might stem from increased competition in the marketplace. The need for books for younger readers to be published with an engaging tagline — “would you be brave enough to . . . x y z?” is an attempt to land the besieged reader with a simple emotional hook. This is one response to a glut of shiny things to attract one’s attention. (Another might be a flashy cover.)

That’s all very fine, but I think this nailing-down-the-point notion might have worked its way down to the writer — it’s not difficult to see why it shouldn’t have. The writer wants to be read, so, sure, let’s lead with that phrase, however it simplifies my 300 pages. After time, we forget that taglines are something to be applied after the fact, and not during the composition of a piece. We have all seen how particularly “meaningful” lines or phrases from a book make their way into memes that are then used for corporate or personal promotion of the book. That a writer might write toward one of those simplifying lines is also easy to imagine. We would never admit so, but even unconsciously it’s easy to see how that would happen. And then we have the message book — the one that, more often than not, is a story of some kind of empowerment and hope. These themes follow obvious trends in the political, cultural, and emotional marketverse.

You can see, however, how after a time, this might be what the literature becomes: a sequence of very acutely directed essays aligning with (or scandalously denying) the current cultural touchstone. I’m certain I’ve been guilty of doing this, just as I’m certain it’s a bad thing. I’d hope other kinds of publishing aren’t like this, but my sense is that they are. [Let me also add that I don’t particularly see one’s editors as at the front of this trend; it’s a cultural current.]

This is one part of the cartooning of America, the shallowing of culture you can see just about everywhere — necessitated, in a way, because we as audience are also getting thinner and less able to work in complexities. No doubt social media has played a big part here.

Talking about this issue is, for me, likely one more aspect of sour grapes, so it can easily be dismissed. My last books have gone precisely nowhere, so I’m moving on. If you write a book, you have to allow yourself at least two years to get to a decent shape, often longer. To push through to completion is a bigger and bigger deal when you get older and other projects have been laid aside for too long. So you leave. Is there hope? I don’t think so. It’s a downward trend we’re seeing played out in every sphere of American life, starting at what we used to call the top. Yes, you know what I mean. Maybe it’s the same in every country. Another reason to build a big personal library and lock the door.

James Preller — that’s me! — is the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent picture book, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre, is titled All Welcome Here. And coming in Spring 2021, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!

       

 

Sneak Peak: Final Art & Sketch from ALL WELCOME HERE, Coming in June!

Sneak peak at a spread from our upcoming picture book, ALL WELCOME HERE, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre. Coming in June (we think!), from Macmillan. It’s a first day of school story, told in connected haiku. Do yourself a favor, click on the image to see it larger and appreciate the colors and details in Mary’s artwork. She is best known, of course, for doing the art in the U.S. editions of the Harry Potter books. So talented — and kind, too!

 

Just for comparison, here’s the rough sketch Mary submitted to the publisher. Here’s where much of the most important work takes place: the thinking, the plotting, the visual organization. Here Mary takes two separate haiku and unifies them in one “moment” that captures several distinct realities, if you will. As much as I admire Mary’s palette and technique, I might most respect her intellectual rigor. The way she thinks about her work before dipping a single brush into paint.

Sometimes in this business you just get lucky. That’s how I feel about Mary doing the artwork for this book. Lucky me.