Tag Archive for Long Island in children’s literature

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #257: Kylie’s Happy-Sad Feeling


It’s an incredible feeling to get receive a letter like this one that Kylie from Elsewhere sent to me . . .

Hey, I recently read your book called “Before You Go.” This book really touched me, and I just wanted to say how great of a book it is that you wrote. When I finished reading it, I had an emotion I rarely have. A bittersweet type emotion. Where I am happy and sad at the same time. I was sad because I loved the characters that you created. They were all fit perfectly together to create this amazing book. I wish that these characters were real, and I were able to hear more from them. I honestly wish there was a “Before You Go” book two as I really just am interested in knowing how their lives went on? Maybe you can tell me how you visioned Jude’s and Becka’s lives like during Senior Year, and college. I just really want to know what their future had in store. I was happy because Jude and Becka ended up together, and I’m not sure, the ending just put a smile on my face. Anyways, I’ve never contacted the author of a book before. So this just proves how much I LOVE your book. I may actually read again!
-Best Wishes, thanks for your time reading this, Kylie. 😊
I replied:
Thank you for this extremely kind letter. I’m honored to have you as a reader. I mean that. You should see some of the creeps who pick up my books!
51VCNQbfPKLI’m kidding, Kylie. Everyone who reads my books is amazing. But you’re the amazing-est.
Yes, I love that happy-sad moment, too. As a reader, and as a music and movie lover, I find that I am drawn to that experience of it hurts so good. A touch of melancholy. I’ve always written it off as a result of my Irish soul. Gray skies, staring out into the tumultuous sea. I like sad things. Or maybe it’s not exactly that — the sadness — but I want to feel stirred, my heart moved — by song, by books, by life.
You’ve asked an impossible question, of course. What happens next? I think of movies where they’ve done that successfully, or humorously. “Animal House” has a classic ending, where we learn that John Blutarsky has became a U.S. Senator, etc. On the other hand, I thought it was a misstep with Harry Potter, that flash forward. To me it’s not how they end up that’s interesting, it’s the getting there. And to tell that story, you’d have to write an entire book.
What happened to Jude and Becka?
They both died in a nuclear attack from North Korea?
Let’s hope not. I know that I like both of them, that both are strong and independent with a world of possibilities before them. I think they will make a nice couple, able to bring out the best in each other. For a while, at least.
One motivation for writing this book was that I’d go into bookstores and look in dismay at the YA section. A lot of romance with pink covers, almost always told from the female point of view. And of course tons of fantasy and paranormal. So I wanted to write a realistic relationship book from the boy’s perspective, Jude’s gentle soul. A book that I’d want to read. Before You Go more or less bombed in the marketplace, predictably in retrospect. There are times when you have to write the book you have to write — you can’t worry about the consequences or sales figures. But I’ve always been proud of it, felt it accurately reflected me (as much as anything I’ve written), and trusted that certain types of readers would enjoy it. Not with mass appeal, but maybe a quiet story for a sensitive, thoughtful reader. Thank you for being that good soul. May every writer be so lucky.
I remember working very hard on those last sentences, trying to make each word perfect, trying to write simply and with clarity, direct from the heart:
>> He didn’t know what would happen with Becka. Maybe that’s why he needed to be alone on the beach, to watch the sunrise, to be okay with himself, despite everything. Sometimes life seemed impossibly hard, full of car wrecks and souls that shined like stars in yellow dresses. So much heartbreak and undertow. Jude bent down, picked up a smooth white stone, measured its heft in his hand. And he reached back to cast that rock as far as he could.
Just to see the splash. <<
Thank you, Kylie. I’ll treasure your letter.
My best,
James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #121 (re: Teaching “Bystander,” and Some Thoughts on Bullying)

I’ve been in summer mode, the quiet season for teachers and librarians, and taking a break from my weekly Fan Mail Wednesday posts. But here’s a happy letter that might be useful to some of you out there, edited ever-so-slightly for privacy . . .

Hello, Mr. Preller.  I am a Library Media Specialist in Virginia.  Your book is on the Virginia Reader’s Choice Awards list and is a Battle of the Books selection. Because of that, I read it last spring.  I loved it so much I convinced my principal to buy 1200 copies for a One School, One Book unit.  She just authorized the purchase of books and has put me in charge of writing a unit for the whole school.  As a former English teacher I have written many novel study units, but this time it is for the WHOLE school.  To say I am overwhelmed is an understatement.  Any suggestions from you will be greatly appreciated.
Again, thanks for writing this wonderful novel which accurately portrays middle schoolers and the seriousness of bullying.

I replied . . .

Dear P,

I am always floored when I hear something like this, it’s such an honor. I appreciate your support for the book and, I’m sure, your commitment to the greater causes of bullying and social responsibility in your school community.

I confess that while it is great news to learn that my book will find its way into the hands of readers, there’s a nagging part of me that worries about assigned reading. I know, I know. Even if you believe in the importance of self-selected reading, as I do, there’s no getting around the value of assigned books and shared reading experiences. Still, it’s disconcerting to see that I’ve become what I once hated most — homework.

That said, let me see if I can help you a little bit. Be warned, I’m not a teacher and I don’t play one on television.

One of the most important ideas embedded in this book — an idea I learned along the way, and came to understand better only upon reflection — also happens to be nearly-impossible to convey to middle school students. It might even be advisable to not even try. But it’s worth saying to you, here. Research shows that bullying peaks at middle school. Why is that?

Well, for starters, let’s agree that one of the most difficult achievements in life is to become, simply, yourself. It seems easy, but it is not. To be content in your own skin. To not look at others for all your cues. To accept and trust who you are, following your own inner compass. And at no time in life is this tougher than in middle school, when peers begin to replace parents as prime influencers. How to dress, what to talk about, what to listen to or watch on television, how to act, where to sit, who to speak with, who to avoid. This is how we forge an identity, an awareness of self — and all of these details are determined, to varying degrees, by the pack.

These kids care so much about what their peers think, and yet part of becoming a true individual is casting off those concerns. It’s a challenge for ANYBODY to stand up against the crowd. For a middle schooler, it’s nearly impossible. On a deep level, in terms of self-identity, they are the crowd. Generally speaking, the individual is almost indistinct from the amorphous mob, as if swallowed by a great whale. They are only gradually becoming aware of, at ages 12-14, who they are. The group, the social context, provides the first hints toward that great journey to self-discovery. You see where you fit, where you don’t. You watch others to learn about yourself. And at a time when they define themselves only as part of the larger group, we ask these children to not worry about what anybody else thinks. “Who cares what anybody thinks!”

Well, they care. A lot.

So in my heart of hearts, I think the lasting answer to bullying is to become a genuine, authentic, free-thinking, responsible individual. People are good, I believe that, and the closer people are to their true selves, the better and more moral they become (see, for reference: The Bystander Effect). Be yourself, and in doing so you are far more likely to give others the freedom to be themselves. Responsibility is the ability to respond, to act according to the courage of your convictions.

I realize that none of this helps in your task. It’s all background.

There are many pieces of me in this book, and I’ve often blogged about “inside” aspects of Bystander on this site. Here’s a few that might be useful . . .

* The story of one boy who helped inspire this book, “When I Stood By and Did Nothing.

* Here’s a note about the inspiration for the ketchup in Chapter One. I’ve found that kids today don’t generally know about Columbine,  but for me it was an event — and an awareness — that changed everything. The stakes were raised forever.

* The Bystander Effect — this strikes me as such a crucial idea, really the key to overcoming the bystander, do-nothing mentality. There’s a bunch of videos on the web about this, touching upon “the diffusion of responsibility.”

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* Martin Luther King, Jr and bullying. One quote in particular had to make it into the book.

* Dr. Milgram’s experiments and how they connect to bullying and the larger, more profound issues of individuality in the face of seeming consensus, the “authority” of the clan.

* Eric’s father, who struggled with schizophrenia, was modeled after my late brother, John.

* Creating the character of Griffin Connelly, the bad guy with a killer smile.

* How my hometown, Wantagh, Long Island, informed the book — and made it necessary to include Nixon’s dog.

* A rare interview with the author!

* A few possible talking points about Bystander.

* How one teacher’s offhand comment made it into the book.

Okay, well, sigh, I’m afraid that I didn’t help you very much. Too much philosophy, not enough practical info. But that’s your department. If you have any specific questions, please let me know and I’ll answer them. If you want to include a brief Q & A with the author in the Teaching Guide, let’s do it!

In the end, I’m an author and this is a story, a work of fiction. And as an author, I strive to “show, don’t tell.” I want to take readers on a journey, open up their minds, and hopefully inspire them to think about things for themselves. I don’t have the answers. I’m more like the Great Oz behind the curtain, a phony, a faker, but with enough wisdom to say to any reader, “There’s nothing I can give you. The answers are already inside you. They’ve been inside you all along.”

Thank you, again, for your kind note. I’ve felt from the beginning that this book, in the hands of a good parent or educator, could serve as a starting point for conversations. A talking book. I think the success of what you do will depend upon the interaction of students, their feedback and personal observations. As educators, it’s not what we pour into these kids, as if they were empty vessels, but how we help each child make connections to the outside world and draw that information out of themselves.

Good luck!


Checkers, President Nixon’s Dog . . . in BYSTANDER

My new book, Bystander, hits the shelves on Tuesday, September 29th, 2009. And that’s a strange thing for an author, because it’s an anticipated date but also anti-climactic. A smile followed by a shrug: Okay, so? What now?

Allow me to dwell on the book a little bit before rushing off to the next thing. Consider it the blog equivalent to chilling the champagne before the cork is popped and the hangover drops.

One of the pleasures that came with writing this book was the setting, my hometown roots of Long Island, New York. I grew up in Wantagh, “The Gateway to Jones Beach,” lived there all through high school, the same address, the same phone number.

For Bystander, while thinking of Wantagh, I called the fictionalized town Bellport, combining the names of two nearby towns, Freeport and Bellmore. In the book, Eric drives with his mother along Wantagh Parkway, visits Jones Beach, walks the boardwalk, and even references a restaurant where I used to wash dishes. I’ll save those memories for another day, perhaps. Because today I want to talk about President Richard Milhous Nixon’s black-and-white dog, Checkers.

I attended Wantagh High School, 1976-79. Immediately across from the front parking lot was the Bide-A-Wee animal shelter and  pet cemetery. Famous, in its way, because according to legend it was the third largest pet cemetery in the United States. Nothing to sneeze at, that. Sure, it wasn’t one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but it represented our thin slice of fame nonetheless. And the slice grew even thicker, thanks to the fact that President Nixon’s famous dog, Checkers, was buried there.

This dog was no mere pet, for it managed to play a key role in winning sympathy for Nixon in the hearts and minds of American voters. I am referring, of course, to the famous “Checkers Speech” of September 23, 1952 (see clip, below). A speech that any American history buff well knows, for it helped save Nixon’s political career.

For a while, at least.

The speech was also significant, I should add, because, to quote Michael Kramer’s Communication Nation blog, it “changed forever how politicians used television in public persuasion.”

By high school, I was aware of the circumstances of Nixon’s speech, its historical significance, and so thought it was pretty cool — in a total goof kind of way — that the aforementioned dog was buried nearby. From time to time, on breaks from the drudgery of classes, my friends and I might wander into the cemetery . . .

pass deep into the vast grounds . . .

and finally reach our destination, toward the way back. This:

I remembered the grave usually had small American flags at each side, which my research confirmed, lending the site an odd sort of patriotic gravity. We remained suitably morose, lazing on the grass, killing time.

I set a pivotal scene at this exact location, this specific and somewhat bizarre place from my youth. To set up the excerpt, let me explain that Eric is being led into the cemetery by David Hallenback, who wishes to show him something both private and important.


They hopped a short fence and entered the grounds.

“Where are we going, exactly?”

“It’s back here. You’ll see.”

Despite its proximity to the school, this was actually Eric’s first time inside the cemetery grounds. It wasn’t that creepy, the way a real cemetery –- a human cemetery –- could sometimes be. Eric couldn’t get too worked up about a dead Siamese cat. Still, he marveled at the size of some of the headstones. There were a few that were really huge. Most of the gravestones were modest in height, about thigh-high, but they were thick and looked heavy. They were light brown or gray, with a few shiny black ones sprinkled in. Each had the dog’s name engraved into it, complete with year of birth and death, and the last name of the owner.

Eric thought it was kind of comical. It was a cemetery, and that’s serious stuff, but the names on the tombstones were, like, Sparky and Mugsy and Luther and Bubbles.

A few had pictures of the (dead, buried, rotting) pet, and there were even little statues of dogs and cats at some of the grave sites. Eric noticed fresh flowers at a couple of sites and that gave him a chill, the thought of some lady weeping at a grave site over poor old Mr. Chuckles, the world’s perkiest Yorkshire Terrier.

He thought of Mrs. Rosen, the noon aide whose dog died over the summer. When she had talked to Griffin that day, she seemed really heartbroken over it. Maybe her dog was buried in here somewhere. What was its name? Daisy. He remembered something his father said, back a years ago when Eric was lobbying hard for a pet. Eric’s dad replied, “Dogs are built-in heartbreak. Ten good years, two bad years, some giant vet bills, then they die and break your heart. It’s not worth it, believe me.”

That was sooo his father. Mr. Half Empty.

“I wish I had a dog,” Eric said.

Hallenback remained quiet, distant. He hadn’t said a word since they entered the cemetery. Something on his mind, Eric surmised.

When they neared the far corner, Hallenback steered them to a low, granite tombstone. Several small American flags –- the type that kids wave at Fourth of July parades –- were planted in the ground at each side of the site. The tombstone read: CHECKERS, 1951-62, NIXON.

“Is this it? This is what you wanted to show me? Where President Nixon’s dog is buried?”

Hallenback appeared distracted, not listening. He was looking off in the other direction. A group of five boys emerged from the far side of the cemetery.

Eric knew each one of them. They were led by Griffin, with Cody at his side. By the look on their faces, Eric could see they meant trouble.

Hallenback was going to get creamed.


Here’s a brief excerpt from the televised Checkers Speech, featuring most of the best lines in a classic of American rhetoric, including:

One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election.

A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?

It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers.

And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.

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