Tag Archive for Upstander Preller

UPSTANDER Excerpt: “He Keeps Asking Me, ‘Send a Pic, Send a Pic.'”


“She’d heard that older guys collected pics of girls
and swapped them like trading cards.
It was pretty gross.
But also a little flattering.
Like it might be nice to be asked by the right person,
even if the answer was still definitely no.
Some girls said it was no big deal,
that sharing a photo was the new first base.”


In this scene, early in Upstander, Mary is visiting at Chantel’s house. Readers of Bystander should recognize Chantel Williams as the name of a character who was on the receiving end of some internet bullying. In Upstander, we meet her as a fully-formed character. An athlete, an older sister to three brothers, a friend. 

Chantel’s phone buzzed. She glanced at it and shook her head. Mary sensed the message had upset Chantel, because she grew quiet and had a far-away look in her eyes. Chantel held out her phone and said, “He keeps asking me to send a picture.”

At that moment, Mrs. Williams entered the kitchen. Chantel hurriedly pocketed her phone. “It looks great, girls, thank you. Mary, you are welcome to stay if you’d like. I believe Chanti had her hopes on a horror movie. I’d be happy to drop you home if you can’t get a ride.”

Mary looked at Chantel, who smiled and nodded.

“That sounds great, Mrs. Williams. I’d love that!” Mary replied. “Thank you very much.”

Mrs. Williams pointed two index fingers toward the ceiling, reminding Mary of an old Western gunfighter. “Listen, I’ve got the three amigos up there. Jamel and Keyon are in the tub. I have no idea on God’s green earth what Darius is up to. I think he’s building a Lego space station or alien prison or some such folderol.” She waved a hand, amused by it all. “We haven’t had any drownings yet, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

“I can help—” Chantel began to offer.

“No, Chanti, you entertain our guest while I wrestle those rascals into bed.” Mrs. Williams made a loud whew sound, as if she was exhausted, but her eyes told a different story. They twinkled brightly. Maybe she didn’t mind all that mothering after all.

The girls didn’t pay close attention to the movie, except for the really good parts. They’d both seen it already. Instead, they huddled close, sharing one light blanket, and talked.

“Who is asking you for a pic?”

“Hakeem,” Chantel answered, her voice barely above a whisper. “Promise you won’t tell. It’s so stupid.”

“Of course,” Mary said. She paused a beat. “What did you do?”

Chantel craned her neck to make sure her mother wasn’t nearby. “I didn’t even understand him at first,” she admitted. “I was like, a picture of what?”

Both girls cackled.

“You didn’t, did you?” Mary asked.

“No!” Chantel answered. But after a pause, she admitted, “I didn’t say no, either. I made excuses like, ‘I’m busy’ or ‘I look bad right now.’ You know?”

Mary nodded. She didn’t know, she’d never been asked before, but it was exciting to think about. Mary wondered if Hakeem had asked Alexis or Chrissie. Some boys were like that. She’d heard that older guys collected pics of girls and swapped them like trading cards. It was pretty gross. But also a little flattering. Like it might be nice to be asked by the right person, even if the answer was still definitely no. Some girls said it was no big deal, that sharing a photo was the new first base.

“I like him,” Chantel said. “Hakeem’s nice and funny and—

“—kind of good-looking,” Mary added, exaggerating slightly.

Chantel let out an embarrassed laugh. “I guess, yes. But he keeps asking me. ‘Send a pic, send a pic. You look so good.’ All that stuff. Persistent, you know? I’m afraid if I shut him down, he’ll stop talking to me.”

They both stared at the movie for a few minutes.

Someone was getting stabbed with scissors. “Lupita Nyong’o is so beautiful,” Mary said, admiring the actress on-screen.

“I know,” Chantel agreed. “Her skin is perfect.”

“Boys can be such idiots,” Mary said.

“Are they all like that?” Chantel asked.

Mary shrugged. She didn’t know. “It seems like a lot of them are, maybe. Like it’s normal for them.”

Chantel shook her head. “He says the pictures fade away after seven seconds . . .”

“Yeah, but they can take screen captures,” Mary warned.

“Hakeem keeps saying he’s not a screenshotter,” Chantel said. “And you know what? That makes me think he is. If I sent him something, he’d have it forever.”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “And who knows what he’d do with it after that.”




Addendum: In order to write this scene, or even to imagine it, I had to do a lot of reading, reflecting, digging around for stories, experiences, attitudes. Most if not all of what appears in the above scene is a direct result of things I “overheard” in my research. 

LISTEN NOW: Check Out My Interview on Spotify & All Your Wildest Dreams Will Come True!

Bob Nuse and Anna Van Scoyoc are librarians in the Mercer Country Library System. Which I believe is somewhere in deepest, darkest New Jersey.

I first encountered Bob in the early months of the pandemic. At the time, many of us in the children’s book world were trying to figure out how to proceed, how to connect, how to keep the book thing alive — and, yes, how to contribute something positive to this awful situation. I made a bunch of videos and created a Youtube channel. Bob began by enlisting authors to make short videos for their locked-out library patrons. That initiative eventually grew into a podcast, “Behind the Books,” which is extremely well done and  incredibly impressive.

I hope that other librarians take note of the possibilities (and contact me if you need a guinea pig).

When Bob invited me to talk about my new book, Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, I didn’t hesitate. After all, I have a face for podcasting. I hope you give it a listen. I’m on at about 14:30, so you can skip that other stuff and jump to yours truly. It’s a ten-minute conversation. We also talk a bit about my book of linked haiku, All Welcome Here

I’m usually somebody who can’t stand to look at or hear myself — I was on “The Today Show” once with Katie Couric, long ago, and I’ve never watched it. But here, thanks to Anna’s expert editing, deleting all my stammering, fumbling mutterings, I come off as sober and reasonably intelligent. I can live with that!

I assume you might need to open Spotify in order to listen. Not sure about that. Thanks again, Bob and Anna, I’m grateful for the work you do.

This Fancy Chart Explains the Intersecting Timelines for BYSTANDER and Its Prequel/Sequel, UPSTANDER

Everybody loves a fancy chart, right? It gives any project gravitas. 

This one visually explains the intersecting timelines for my books Bystander and Upstander

So here we go, fresh from the Chart Factory in Gloversville, NY . . . 

And if perchance that makes no sense to you, know this:

The timeline for Upstander (coming May 11th) begins before Bystander, but ends at the same time, at the same basketball game (which was clever, I thought, and, hey, still think). 

About halfway through Upstander — page 112, chapter 21 — the story catches up to the first chapter of Bystander. From that point on, the world of those two overlapping novels gets bigger, richer, deeper. Maybe even better!

Anyway, that’s what’s going on with this follow-up book. 




Great News: UPSTANDER Named a Junior Library Guild Selection!

Great news! I’m pleased to share that my upcoming book, UPSTANDER (Macmillan, May 11), has been named a Junior Library Guild Selection. It is a fine distinction and, remarkably, my fourth novel to receive that “gold standard” of excellence (joining BYSTANDER, THE COURAGE TEST, and BLOOD MOUNTAIN).

Educators can request a PDF of the book via NetGalley. I’m not actually sure how that works. And by “not actually sure” I mean: I have no earthly idea!


Thanks. I’m eager to share more about this book, a sequel/prequel to BYSTANDER that stands alone to tell Mary’s story. 


A Conversation About Book Covers with Illustrator Deborah Lee, A Rising New Voice in Children’s Books


Back in the halcyon days of school visits, I’d often get questions about my book covers. People tend to assume that the author sits back in a stuffed leather chair, calling the shots. That’s far from the truth — I only sit on cinder blocks! My shorthand answer is that as an author, I’m responsible for the interior of the book. Every single page. But the cover? That’s the publisher’s. They’ve invested money in the book, talked to sales representatives, editors, designers, artists, bean counters, and endured actual meetings. Seriously. They go into windowless rooms and hammer it out. They want to sell the book, too.

What I mean to say is that the process is mostly out of my purview. Take for example my upcoming book, Upstander (Macmillan, 2021). One day my editor, Liz Szabla, sent me a file and said, more or less, “Here’s the cover, hope you like it.”

And you know what? I did, a lot. I found out the name of the illustrator, Deborah Lee, and wrote to thank her. Deborah was willing to answer some of my questions. Here she is now (I know, I’m excited, too).


First off, who are you? Could you give us some quick background? How did you get into illustrating book covers?

Hey! I’m a Korean-American freelance illustrator who works primarily in the publishing and editorial industries. And to be honest, I’ve only started working independently this year—before, I was working at LinkedIn and Lyft as a designer and illustrator for a year and a half while juggling freelance illustration. I was a designer for a while because I didn’t pick up my current profession as a career choice until my senior year of college. (Unfortunately, the university, which is strongest in engineering, has no resources in illustration, so I was pretty much on my own for that.) It was my final semester when I had some presentable work ready to show, and the stars aligned when my current literary agent found me through social media, which began my career in publishing. The rest is history!

So this is all new. How exciting. Where do you live?

I live in Oakland, CA, which is across the bay from San Francisco. But next spring we’re moving back to Pittsburgh, where my partner and I graduated from college. We miss having seasons and cheaper rent.

So let me see if I’ve got this right. One day you get offered a book cover job for something called, Upstander? They tell you how much money you’ll make and you say, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it anyway.”

Couldn’t have said it any better.

Ha, it’s pretty much the story of my career.

HOWEVER, I do love drawing book covers! They’re some of my favorite kinds of projects—the sketch ideas come by much more easily since there’s already a clear narrative in place. A lot of my quick freelance assignments tend to look for illustrations about very abstract concepts and current events.

I understand that, as fate would have it, you were already familiar with my Jigsaw Jones books.

Yes!! It’s been a long time, but my brother and I borrowed most, if not all of the books from the library when we were growing up. I’m sure we had some of the boxed sets too!

That’s pretty cool. Obviously you were an amazing kid. Back to the cover. Do you work from a designer’s concept?

The designer, Mike Burroughs, gave me some pointers in regard to symbolism (eye and speech bubble emoji) and mood (loneliness, tension) but luckily, I still had creative freedom! Mike was also looking for something more conceptual and less narrative-based, but reading the book helped anyway so I could take notes on any key scenes that could inform the cover as well. Also it helped me understand Mary’s (the protagonist) conflict enough to depict her facial expression as appropriately as I could. There’s a lot going on in her life.

Do you try to deliver a variety of approaches?

Definitely! I remember intentionally keeping one sketch without the emoji that Mike was looking for, just in case. I also varied the amount of literal vs conceptual elements in each one. But over all, telling different stories with each concept shows the design team that I’m flexible, and not super stuck on just one idea.



Finally, the publisher selects one and says, “Perfect! This is exactly it! We just want you to change a few things . . .”

That did happen! At first I made Mary look a little too young, which wasn’t that difficult to fix. I also had the speech bubble display some indistinct text, which was replaced by the blurb that’s seen in the final deliverable. Thankfully this was a very straightforward project—Mike was really easy to work with!

“The final deliverable.” It’s that kind of insider lingo that keeps a Nation of Readers coming back to James Preller Dot Com! I have to tell you, Deborah, I’ve shared our cover on Facebook and your work has received so many compliments. People seem to really to be intrigued by the cover. There’s a sense of mystery to it that, I hope, will draw readers into the story. That is: Thank you!

And thank *you*!!! I’m so glad it resonated with everyone—especially with how little the cover reveals about the story.

So what else are you up to? Have you done other covers? Do you hope to illustrate your own books? Hang in fine museums? What’s next? 

Whew, so since 2018 I’ve been working on my debut authored/illustrated graphic memoir called In Limbo with First Second/Macmillan. It’s the most daunting and laborious project I’ve ever been took on—I treat that project alone like a day job and a half.

Oh, my goodness. That looks incredible. Just a staggering amount of work. I want it now. 

All-in-all, it’s a rewarding process and I can’t wait to see it in full by Spring 2022.

Could you tell us more about it?

In Limbo covers my time during high school as a severely depressed and abused teenager with an identity crisis as one of the only Asian-American kids in my year. It’s dark—so much so that my editor at First Second/Macmillan had to remind me constantly to put in lighter scenes in the beginning stages of the draft! While I’m not complete with the final pages yet, I can already say that this book has taught me not only the graphic novel process, but also it brought a ton of insight about myself. Basically the longest therapy session ever. I’m very grateful to have been given this chance.

Sounds like a story you had to tell. I’ll be looking for it.

And while I work through that one, I’m illustrating another graphic novel (authored by Tina Cho) for Harper Collins called The Other Side of Tomorrow, which is publishing around 2023. I’m very lucky to be working on these projects—and for now I’m most looking forward to having physical copies of both books in my hands!

Yes, that’s a beautiful moment in the life of a creator. The first time holding it in your hands, the satisfaction of, “I made this.”

As for covers, I have done one other before this for a middle-grade book called Invisible Boy. That one was tricky—it talks a whole lot about child trafficking, so I had to be careful with how I depicted that. And again, one of my favorite kinds of projects. Crossing my fingers for more of these!



Well, Deborah, it’s been a pleasure to get to meet you. Such an exciting time in your career, just as you are lifting off into the stratosphere. I’m absolutely positive that we’ll be hearing a lot more from you in the future. I’m glad all those Jigsaw Jones books did you some good. I wish you the best of luck — and thanks, again, for our book cover. It will always connect us, and for that I’m very glad.

Haha, thank you so so much!! (I’ll be needing it!)