Book Dedication: Blood Mountain

Today is our youngest child’s 18 birthday, which I guess makes it some kind of landmark in the annals of my long slog to old age and decrepitude.

But let’s not make it about me!

When it came to coming up with a dedication for my upcoming middle grade survival story, it was an easy decision to make. 

Thank you, Maggie, for the inspiration!

And from Blood Mountain (Fall, 2019) . . .

 

This book is dedicated to my daughter, Maggie —

because when I needed inspiration

for a girl character who was fierce,

determined, sensitive, and kind,

I only thought of you.

The Beauty of Bare Winter Trees: Haiku & Bill McKibben

Admittedly, I am contrarian by nature. I’ve always bristled at the idea of “peak season” when it comes to fall foliage. This idea that there’s a perfect weekend when the deciduous trees of the Northeast look their best. Sure, the colors are spectacular, no doubt. But I like the trees all the time, any day of the week.

Especially in the winter.

That’s when I can most admire their scaffolding, the structure and shape and enduring strength of the creature itself. They drop their leaves and apply their resources to more pressing matters, hunkering down to survive another long, cold winter.

These days, I frequently find myself driving from Delmar to Saratoga, up and back, about three times a week. My daughter, Maggie, rows for the Saratoga Rowing Association — and the water’s up there. So in the car we go. It’s more travel time than I’ve ever had in my life. I’m one of those people who gets excited every single time I see a hawk — or maybe it’s an eagle, it’s hard to tell. On a travel day, I spend about 90 minutes cruising on 87, listening to music and admiring the trees. And in winter, I can really see the random hawks perched on the limbs, feathers puffed up against the cold, giving them the appearance of jolly, fat assassins.

On most days, I’ll compose a few lines of haiku as I drive, hoping to jot them down later. I realize it’s a form derided by some literati, but I enjoy writing most of my haiku in the traditional 5-7-5 form, even though it’s somewhat out of style nowadays. I like the wordplay and rigor of it. Often my focus is on those trees, the winter weather. Here’s a few, like a fistful of almonds:

 

In the winter trees

her bony grip, long fingers

twisted and wind-whipped.

 

The wolf’s moon hangs low

beckons through bare branches, come:

a headlight drives past.

 

Where a branch broke off

the grandfatherly red oak

a barred owl now nests.

 

The plump winter wren

moves through the understory,

trills and whirls, tail down.

 

The tall trees lie down

in shadow across sunlit

snow, ever patient.

 

Amidst the white field

a stand of resolute oaks,

but not forever.

 

The sparse silhouette

against a gray winter sky

declares: hickory.

 

The beech holds its leaves

shimmering like winter moons

papery and light.

 

Steel-gray buckets tapped

into maples; the crows watch

from snow-covered limbs.

 

Crows seem skeptical

of melting snow in cold rain,

perched on bare branches.

 

The bare winter elms

reveal the assassin’s shape:

hawk perched on a limb.

 

Anyway, whatever. I don’t worry too much about ideas of quality — whether they are “good” or not — more interested in the process of attending to things, getting out of myself, and seeing. Basho’s “the journey itself is home.”

It made me happy to read the following passage in Bill McKibben’s most recent novel, Radio Tree Vermont.  I’ve been a huge fan of his work since reading his landmark book, The End of Nature, when it came out nearly 30 years ago. In this scene, Vern Barclay muses on Vermont’s trees after the giddy explosion of autumn colors has passed:

And when it was over, it was even better. The leaves were down by mid-October, and you could see the shape of the land again, see the late sun silhouetting the trees along the ridgetops as it set. You could sense the architecture of the hills, every hollow and creekrun and knoll visible from the road. When people thought of trees, they thought of leaves — that’s how a child would draw them. But the natural inclination of trees at this latitude was bareness — seven months of the year, at least upslope, they stood there stoic. Leaves were the fever-dream exception to the barren rule, and Vern felt calmer once they were down. 

 

AN ASIDE: My first book of haiku, written for children, comes out in the Fall of 2019, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre (of Harry Potter fame). It is titled All Welcome Here and celebrates the community of the classroom on the first day of school.

From Sketch to Final: Jigsaw Jones, Before and After

I love the journey from written word to sketch to final art. Here’s a quick glimpse at two examples from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones title, The Case of the Hat Burglar, illustrations by R. W. Alley — but you can call him Bob.



  

I wrote the first Jigsaw Jones book in 1997. Since that time the series has rolled along, gone painfully out of print, and then miraculously sprang to life again — like Lazarus and Beef Jerky and Toto’s “Africa.” Yesterday I received the Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) for the newest title, coming this summer, the 42nd Jigsaw overall. Creating a book is a lengthy process, and nothing makes it feel like a real book quite like the day when the ARCs arrive. Still excited, still think it’s the best one yet, but now feeling more grateful than ever. Thanks, all. Carry on! Cover art & interiors by the great Bob Alley.

I have a few spare ARCs in my possession. If you are a teacher or librarian who would like to share this “unfinished” book with young readers — they’d be the first students on the planet to read it — please send me a note with your address at jamespreller@aol.com. 

Daisy (2007-2018) and the Letter She Wrote as a Puppy to Obama

We feel it at the doorway, those occasions of coming and going. We arrive now and home has been transformed into something different — a less welcoming place. No one meets us in the hallway, front paws dancing. The house does not stir. She got old in a day, an instant, and was gone. Leaving the house also conveys her absence, our loss. No one anxiously watching as we assemble ourselves, coat and shoes and keys, hoping we’ll reach for the leash. Sorry, Daisy, we’d say, you stay and guard the house. Other times, it was let’s go for a ride –- and Daisy bouncing out the door for a walk amidst the trees, off leash. Our peaceful communion. These days we move in and out of the house like ghosts. Pale shadows, we come and go and it almost doesn’t matter anymore. We miss her so.


I am reminded of a letter that Daisy wrote, and I posted, years ago at a different time in America . . .

 

Dear President-Elect Obama:

It is with some difficulty that I type this, as I am a dog and not really a Mac person.

I’ll try to be brief. My name is Daisy. You probably receive thousands of letters each week from dignitaries, heads of state, and ordinary citizens. But, really, how many come from dogs?

Since you are likely curious, I’ll explain. I became a reader when I was a pup, confined to a small newspaper-covered quadrant of the kitchen. It was during this tense house-breaking period that I first sought solace in the written language of humans. Soon enough, I began to follow the Presidential election with great interest.

Hold on, I’ve got an itch behind my ear. Scritch-scratch, scratch scratch scratch SCRATCH, scratch scratch scratch, scratchy-scratch!

Ahhhh. Much better. I was recently chewing on a fuzzy, delicious tennis ball when I overheard a dinner conversation. I learned that your family will be getting a new dog when you enter the White House. I immediately went to the recycle bin to fetch the newspaper. I found the full text of your November 4 victory speech, and I quote:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

Blah, blah, blah. I’m skimming, skimming . . . ah, here it is (!):

Sasha and Malia, I love you both more than you can imagine, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.

Clearly, this is the first true test of your administration. The eyes of the canine world are upon you. Don’t blow it on a lunatic Irish Setter or Pomeranian. Clearly, an Alaskan Husky is out (unless you want to be post-ironic, which I don’t think is the best way to kick off an administration — just my opinion).

You can imagine my thrill when I learned you are considering adopting a goldendoodle. As I am myself a goldendoodle — and proud of it! — I felt compelled to type this message. (And if somebody would ever trim my nails, it would be a lot easier!)

Speaking for my brothers and sisters everywhere, I urge you to go with the goldendoodle. We don’t shed. We are hypoallergenic. We are gentle with children. And we certainly don’t yap-yap-yap like some breeds (I blame Bush’s skittish Scottish terriers, Barney and the odiously named “Miss Beazley,” for much of went wrong the past eight years).

And, though I am loathe to sound egotistical, we are undeniably cute.

Photo: Diamonddoodles.com.

But, yes, your every decision will be scrutinized. So in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit this up front: We might not look so great when soaking wet. But then, who does? Joe Biden? I think not.

True, we have our critics. Some sneer and call us “designer dogs.” Some say we lack backbone. To which I respond: It’s true. In times of danger, I’ll flop on my back and submit. We’re like Gandhi in that respect. Besides, You don’t need a junk yard dog. You already have that scary Rahm Emanuel . .

. . . .and those creepy Secret Service guys.

Here comes the most sensitive issue of all. We are not quote/unquote “a recognized breed” by the (snooty, unpatriotic) American Kennel Club. Not a recognized breed?! Pause a moment and let that sink in. Does it resonate, just a little bit? Not a recognized breed. Yes, sadly, it’s true, even in today’s America, when we had thought we had come so far. But it represents a bold new opportunity for your presidency. For isn’t this in keeping with your call for change, for new ideas? Let’s turn away from the old way of doing things! I quote again from your acceptance speech:

It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

Make a statement, President-elect Obama, Sir. You are the bright, shining symbol for the disenfranchised everywhere. Open your arms wide! Embrace us! Go with the goldendoodle. Recognize us as a breed. Let us lay down by your feet.

I’m begging you, as only a dog can beg: Throw us a bone here, will you?

Speaking for doodles everywhere, we will love your daughters with all our doggy hearts.

Yes! We! Can!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a tail to chase.

Faithfully yours,

Daisy

One Question, Five Authors #5: “How has your work been affected by today’s political climate?” 

Welcome to the fifth edition of the “One Question” series.

My thanks to the five respondents below: Tanya Lee Stone, Jennifer Sattler, Lesa Cline Ransome, Barbara Dee, and Travis Jonker. For your answers . . . and for your fine work.

This is an issue that fascinates me, since it’s been the crucible for so many of us these past few years: How do we proceed under these conditions? As citizens, as artists, as storytellers, how do we respond? Does the job description, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, change?

Note: If there’s a published author or illustrator who’d like to participate in this series, please feel free to email me at jamespreller@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook. There’s a link to the previous ones in the series in the right sidebar under “categories.”

 

Tanya Lee Stone

For the past ten years, my work has focused on filling in some of the gaps in our histories; namely, true stories about women and people of color. Those stories have always been important, but perhaps now more than ever it is essential that they are more widely spread and that readers understand that we are all connected — in our pain and in our triumphs.

In Girl Rising, for example, which deals with the fact that 130 million girls globally are not being educated, I hope I have made it difficult for readers to ignore the fact that these are not “other” girls in “other” places — they are kids just like them — with similar hopes and dreams. And with this awareness of connectedness, I hope, comes increased activism. To that end, I structured the third part of the book around guiding readers toward activism without becoming too daunted by such large issues of slavery, early child marriage, and lack of access to education.

Lesa Cline-Ransome 

I have always enjoyed writing books that celebrate history, culture, heroic figures and the power of perseverance. When I began writing nearly twenty-five years ago, I was interested in finding the untold stories of everyday heroes—Satchel Paige, Marshall Taylor, and Pele, who rose above obstacles. Later I wrote about historic figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who had endured their share and more of injustices and hardships. My hope was that all children who read of these struggles would begin to understand how the pains of our past were met with fierce resistance.

And then the election of 2016 happened. And suddenly the distant past seemed not so far away as hate crimes rose and civil rights and protections of marginalized communities were rolled back. Each book I write now feels like less of a focus on history and more of a roadmap to how we must continue to have a voice. The word resistance has now taken on a new urgency, reminding young readers, not of our distant past, but of a world that continues to need voices to speak out against injustice. Now, more than ever, I am using the power of story to chart the progress we’ve made through the years, while reminding readers, there is still a mighty long way to go.

Jennifer Sattler

Right after the election in 2016, I was wondering, like everyone else I know, what on earth I could do to effect change. I can’t go door to door, or make cold calls. That’s not who I am. But then I read somewhere (I wish for the LIFE of me I could remember where) a woman saying, “Do what you do but with a new sense of purpose.” That really resonated with me. So, I wrote Bully. I needed it to still feel like one of my books. I didn’t want to preach or be overtly political. After all, my books are for young children, so I wanted to address something that a lot of them were now dealing with now more than ever.  Most of the books on bullying that I’m aware of have this sympathy for the bully and, honestly, VERY unrealistic expectations for kids to deal with the situation. The bully always comes around and becomes a friend. This has not been my experience . . . ever. As a mother, as a kid who faced bullies, and as a woman. I want kids to feel empowered. And most importantly, not alone.

 

Barbara Dee

In January 2018 my publisher offered on a full manuscript of a middle grade novel — plus whatever MG I wrote next. I’d never had a two-book deal structured this way before, and it struck me as both a vote of confidence and incredible pressure, because at that point I didn’t even have an idea for another book. As I waited for my editor to send notes about Book 1, the news last winter was full of stories about sexual harassment (including some about prominent kidlit authors). These stories horrified me; and the more I researched the origins of such behavior, the more I was convinced that we needed a #MeToo story set in middle school. I began writing very fast, telling myself it was just a draft for Book 2. But before I got to the end, I knew that this story, both timeless and very much a product of the Trump era, needed to be out in the world as soon as possible.  Fortunately, my publisher agreed to flip the order of the two books, releasing Maybe He Just Likes You next fall.

 

Travis Jonker

In my role as school librarian, the current divisive political climate has made me more vigilant about the books in our collection and the books I read aloud with students. Themes of inclusion, kindness, and diversity have become even more of a focus. And it doesn’t always have to be an overt, “Hey, kids, here’s a book with a lesson about kindness.” Usually the more subtle the better. Now as a newly published author, I feel stories that in some way talk about universal themes — and I know I’m not making news here — tend to be more engaging. My favorite line from an Andrew Smith book is that, “The best books are about everything,” which I think means that good books reach for universal topics — love, death, fear, etc. In the podcast interview I did with Mo Willems, he said that every Elephant & Piggie book was addressing a “philosophical question.” So I definitely think about how a story I’m writing connects to larger ideas. With The Very Last Castle, the rough plot came first, but it wouldn’t have become a book without the themes of community and courage that came later in the writing process and gave the story depth. But I honestly can’t say any of that is a direct result of the current political climate. However, I do think it’s made me more sensitive to themes of inclusion, kindness, and diversity in the books I read and share.