The article below came out the day before Halloween over at the Kirkus Reviews blog. It was written by the fabulous Julie Danielson, who also writes one of the best blogs in the whole dang internet: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Check it out, bookmark it, love it. Julie also has a new book out, co-written with Betsy Bird (of Fuse 8 fame) and the late, great Peter D. Sieruta.
I haven’t read this one yet, by the firm of Bird, Danielson & Sieruta, but it’s high on my reading list.
But enough about those guys. Let’s bring this conversation back to me, me, me.
Tomorrow is Halloween, and author James Preller wants to scare your children—the safe, exhilarating type of scare, that is, which comes from a well-constructed set of spooky stories just for the younger set. He’s been doing this not just on Halloween but all during the year with Scary Tales, his chapter book series of ghost stories, launched last year and illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.Chilling and thrilling and very often spine-tingling, the series offers up serious page-turners for students who enjoy reading frightening tales while on the edge of their seats. It’s a far cry from Preller’s Jigsaw Jones series of chapter books, which debuted in 1998, the beloved fictional detective stories for children that are still circulating in libraries. The latest and fifth book in the Scary Tales series, The One-Eyed Doll, was just released. It brings readers hidden treasures, deserted houses, and a creepy one-eyed doll, who moves and tells stories. Needless to say, it’s a good fit for Halloween—or, really, any time of year.Next year, Preller will also see the release of a middle-grade novel, one that follows 2009’s Bystander, which the Kirkusreview called “eminently discussable as a middle-school read-aloud.” The Fall, as you’ll read below, addresses bullying, but not for the sake of jumping on the bullying bandwagon. That’s to say that as soon as many schools kicked off anti-bullying crusades in recent years, we suddenly saw a flock of books about bullying in the realm of children’s literature. But Preller isn’t one for the “bully” label.Let’s find out why.–The Scary Tales series started in 2013, yes? How much fun has it been to scare the pants off of readers?–Writing “scary” has been liberating. A blast. In the past, I’ve mostly written realistic fiction. But for these stories I’ve tapped into a different sort of imagination, what I think of as the unpossible. The trick is that once you accept that one impossible element—a zombie or a ghost in the mirror—then the story plays out in a straightforward manner.All storytelling has its backbone in realistic fiction.–So many kids, even at a surprisingly young age, are eager to read scary stories. I tried to fill that gap. “Scary” thrills them. It makes their hearts beat faster. Yet I say to students, “I’m sorry, but nobody gets murdered in these books. There are no heads chopped off. No gore.” To me, the great sentence is: The door knob slowly, slowly turned. That delicious moment of anticipation, of danger climbing the stairs. I’ve tried to provide those chills, while still resolving each book in a safe way.–You do a lot of school visits, as I understand it. What do you see the very best teachers and librarians doing (best practices, if you will) that really get children fired up about reading? –In its essence, teaching is enthusiasm transferred. The best educators seem to do that naturally—the excitement, the love of discovery. It leaks into everything they do. I think it’s about a teacher’s prevailing attitude, more than any specific activity.–Speaking of school visits, I assume you still visit schools to discuss Bystander, especially given the subject matter. How have middle-schoolers responded to that book in school visits? –The response to Bystander has been incredible—and humbling. Many middle schools have used it as their “One School, One Book” community reads, which is such an honor.I attempted to write a lively, unsentimental, informed, fast-paced story. I hope that I’ve given readers something to think about, while leaving them to draw their own conclusions. I didn’t write a pamphlet, 10 steps to bully-proof your school. Robert McKee, in his book Story, says that stories are “equipment for living.” I believe in the power of literature to help us experience empathy.–What’s next for you? Am I right that there’s a new Scary Tales coming out in 2015, as well as a new novel? Working on anything else you’re allowed to discuss now? –I have an ambitious hardcover coming out next year, titled The Fall (Macmillan, Fall 2015), in which I return to some of the themes first explored in Bystander. We’ve seen “the bully” become this vilified subcreature, and in most cases I don’t think that’s fair or accurate. Bullying is a verb, a behavior, not a label we can stick on people to define them—especially when we are talking about children. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”The book is told in a journal format from the perspective of a boy who has participated in bullying—with tragic results—and now he’s got to own it. A good kid, I think, who failed to be his best self. To my surprise, the book ended up as almost a meditation on forgiveness, that most difficult of things. The opening sentence reads:
“Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have sent a message to her social media page that read, ‘Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway! (I’m just saying: It could have been me.)”
I was guided throughout my writing by a powerful quote from the great lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
I recently got a note from a fifth-grade teacher who has not only given me guidance and support over the years, she’s become a friend. She recently sent a query about book dedications (below), and I thought it was an interesting subject, so decided to share it here. It got me thinking about all the great dedications (East of Eden by Steinbeck, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis; Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne; the Lemony Snicket dedications in the books for “A Series of Unfortunate Events”; Harry Potter #7, and many more.
Here’s A.A. Milne’s lovely dedication to his wife:
Do you have a favorite? Care to share it?
No, I guess not.
But anyway! We begin . . .
We are publishing our hard cover books and I am getting ready to have the students write their dedications. It occurred to me that I teach them the how to’s of this process, but not really the whys. So, I’ve done a bit of research and found out why and how dedications first began. My question to you is, as an author, how do you decide who to dedicate each book to? What goes into your decision? If you have a second to let me know, I’d appreciate it. I thought it might make for a nice connection I could share with the kids.
Hope all is well.
I guess I’ve never really thought much about dedications, since they tend to rise up from the book itself.
For example, I know that I’m going to dedicate my next book to my wife, Lisa. It’s a book that’s taken me a long time to write, so I don’t feel like I’ve been that great a provider lately. Meanwhile, Lisa’s hard work as a midwife — all the many sacrifices she’s made for our family — has truly made the book possible. Without her support, I could not have done it. And sometimes it’s important to say those things out loud.
At the same time, that’s almost always true, and I can’t dedicate every book to Lisa. She’d get a swelled head.
With Six Innings, an important person in my life had recently passed away after a long illness. He was a children’s book editor, Craig Walker, and had taught me a lot about books and writing and life — plus we had seen a lot of baseball games at Shea together — so it felt natural to dedicate the book to him. Funny, but looking back, I assumed that I had dedicated it to my mother, since I closely connect baseball with Mom because she’s such a huge fan.
Um, sorry Mom!
I’ve dedicated books to ideas. For Along Came Spider, “For the evens, and the odds.”
For Bystander, I wrote that book with my brother John very much in mind. Amazingly, he died the day after I handed in the first draft to my editor, so he became like a ghost haunting the pages; I had to dedicate it to his memory and the two boys he left behind.
You can never, ever go wrong dedicating a book to your parents.
I’ve sometimes had someone who specifically helped me with the book, either through inspiration or assistance, so I’ve dedicated books to teachers and classrooms that I’ve visited. I’ve thanked editors and friends; I’ve noted poems and baseball teams (see: Mighty Casey); I’ve celebrated new births and ex-wives (though not at the time!); and I periodically dedicate books to my children, when the book seems like a good fit.
And lastly, with Jigsaw Jones, and 40 books in the series, I’ve gotten a little silly at times. I dedicated The Case of the Food Fight to “Hostess Cupcakes.” A little frivolous, I suppose, but beneath that I thanked a teacher, Ellen Mosher, who talked me through a couple of plot points. Her thoughts and suggestions very much shaped the story I would write, and I wanted to show my appreciation.
A dedication is an opportunity to thank someone. It’s a chance to say something nice, without the mushiness of actually having to stand there and say it. A dedication can be serious, thoughtful, sad, or funny. It depends on you, the author. In the best world, it is appropriate to the book, a beginning of sorts, cohesive with the story. It should all hang together as a whole.
But really, it’s not that complicated. The answer is in your heart.
Hey, a bloggable topic!
P.S.: I remember a dedication by Johanna Hurwitz, I can’t recall the book, but it went like this: “To Robert Redford. He knows why.”
For an interesting article on dedications, which quotes the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Dedications with this withering line, “Dedications really do bring out the worst in authors,” click like a maniac right here.
Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?
Well, deadlines help, because they force you to knuckle down. I generally know when a book is finished, and I’m all too happy to push myself away from the desk and say, “Done.” But when I read my so-called “finished” books — published books that have sat on my shelves for years — I still come across things I’d like to change, do differently. It’s never perfect, far from it. I forget who said it, but somebody once observed, “Books are never finished, they are abandoned.” That kind of makes sense to me.
4) And while we’re talking blogs and swapping links, nobody does a better job at eliciting lively, thoughtful discussion in the comments section than Roger Sutton. He’s been having a very good week.
5) Sometimes I worry that with the influence of “American Idol,” and the over-the-top song stylings it favors (we used to call it “showing off”), people may have forgotten what a great vocal performance sounds like. The difference between real soulfulness and the trappings of soul. Click on this one, featuring Mavis Staples, and remember . . .