FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #267: A Letter in Braille

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I received an interesting envelope the other day. 

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A closer look . . .

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And inside . . .

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If you look closely, you can see the raised dots under the lettering. Braille, of course. Here’s my reply . . .

Dear Jaquan,

Thank you so much for your letter. I am always grateful whenever a young person reaches out to me in kindness after experiencing one (or more!) of my books.

But your letter was unique, and it moved me. The truth is, I’ve never before received a letter in braille. Nor have I heard from a reader who knows my work only through audio books. Normal for you, but new to me.

By writing your letter, Jaquan, you opened up a glimpse of your world to me. I thank you for that. Running my own clumsy fingers across those little bumps on the page, my eyes closed, I can scarcely imagine how you have the sensitivity and skill (and brain power!) to decipher that extraordinary coded language. I bow my head to you in admiration and respect.

I don’t know which books you’ve heard on audio. To be honest, I’ve long been disappointed that the vast majority of my work has not made it to audio. I guess I’m not a big enough deal. A few Jigsaw Jones titles in the past, that’s it. I wonder if in your world there are people providing you with homemade audiobooks? If so, wow, that’s a generous thing for someone to do.

I am aware that our public service radio station has a service where volunteers can come in to read books for the blind. I’m sorry to say that in the past I’ve always concluded that I didn’t have the time. Or maybe I just lacked energy, or heart. Now you have me thinking about it again, wondering if that’s something I should be doing.

I wish you good health and happiness. Happy reading. And thanks, ever so much, for your note. You’ve inspired me.

James Preller

5 QUESTIONS with Nina Crews, illustrator of “Seeing Into Tomorrow”

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The first time I met Nina Crews, I was eating on the hallway floor of a school in Albany, NY. Just sitting there on the tiles, catching a few minutes for lunch during a book festival. Nina sat down across from me and, putting two and two together, I asked, “Are you the daughter of Donald Crews?” We had a nice chat that afternoon; a number of years passed; and now with the publication of her quietly remarkable book, Seeing Into Tomorrow, I reached out to Nina again. She’s an easy person to like, an artist with a deep commitment to children’s literature. I don’t have a powerful spotlight here at James Preller Dot Com, but this is an artist who merits our attention.

Here comes Nina now . . .


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Congratulations on your new book, Seeing Into Tomorrow. I’ve been waiting for this one since we first discussed it via Facebook about a year ago.

Thanks so much! I am so happy to have it out in the world!

Lately I’ve been on a major haiku kick of my own, reading and writing a little bit each morning. I’ve been reading through a collection of more than 800 of Richard Wright’s haikus. I enjoy taking them slow, savoring each poem, just a few pages before I start the day. I originally took Wright’s book out of the library, but soon realized that I needed to have my own copy, write in it, keep it on my shelf. How did you select the poems included here? That seems like an impossible process.

shoppingI know the Wright book very well! It was the source for the haiku included in my book. I read through it numerous times and also used a lot of post-its. Each review brought new discoveries, and also helped me clarify the direction of the project. There were really two main criteria that a poem had to meet for me to add it to my shortlist. First, I looked for poems that could resonate with children emotionally and second, for poems that could be portrayed through relatable everyday scenes.

I’m moved by the idea of Richard Wright turning to haiku late in his life, at a time when he was struggling through a long illness, sliding toward death. I sense that the process of writing these poems –- and seeing the world through them — comforted him. There’s terrible beauty in these poems.

Yes. I know what you mean. It was also a period of mourning for him. His daughter writes in the introduction to the haiku book that two close friends passed away in 1958. Even more significantly, his mother died in 1959. I imagine these losses put him in a very reflective mindset. His daughter calls his writing of haiku “self-nurturing.”

That’s a nice phrase, much better than “self-medicating.” With haiku, like yoga in a way, I believe the experience of writing them, of being present in the world, is more personally meaningful than the end product. Anyway, Nina, tell me about your cut-up approach to the photographs. I’m not a visual artist, but I used to fool around with that technique years ago, inspired by the work of David Hockney. It’s a lot of fun.

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I am a fan of David Hockney’s photocollages and studied them closely while I was working on this book. For the most part, my images were not created by cutting up a single image, but by closely cropping the scenes as I photographed. I’d start at one end of a scene and move my camera, over bit by bit, up and down, to the left or to the right to cover the entire area. I liked the movement that this technique created and wanted the additional variation that would come from shifts in perspective or focus as I moved around. If you look closely at Hockney’s images, you’ll see that he does this, too. I think it gives the final image a bit more “breath.”

Oh, I get it now. I assumed it involved scissors, a lot of cutting and snipping and pasting. Why did you feel that approach was right for this book?

I read a great essay about haiku that talked about how the poems should have a sense of movement in them. There are a number of ways one can show movement in photography –- motion blurs or sequential images for instance. This approach is another way of showing movement and I liked how shapes of the collage could create a gesture on the page with the child portrayed acting as an anchor.

I appreciated how the book begins with a haiku about a name written in the snow, which to me is a declaration of existence, “I am” . . . and how a signature returns later in the book . . . and you close with a hopeful vision of, or for, tomorrow. Nicely curated, Nina.

Thanks!

You focused your camera exclusively on African American boys for this book. Why boys?

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There were a few things that factored into this decision. Early on in my work on the book, I read Black Boy, Wright’s autobiography. In it, he describes how he experienced nature as a young child and the language he uses in those passages is similar to the language in his haiku. My exploration of shopping-1these poems became an exploration of Wright’s biography and photographing African-American boys made sense to me. It also struck me that there are not a lot of “nature” books with children of color, in general, and African American boys, in particular. I am pleased to give this “picture space” to young brown boys.

Am I right in recognizing Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, in some of these images.

Yes. I did photograph some scenes in Prospect Park. It is really an extension of my studio. Because the images for this book really depended on the right light and the right weather, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to get shots I might use. I also photographed extensively in upstate New York – Bear Mountain and the Hudson Valley.

You dedicated this book to your family. You certainly have talented parents, in Ann Jonas and Donald Crews. No pressure, Nina, just be amazing!

51Lz8Nj7V+LYes, they set a high bar. They also provided a lot of support and have been great role models. But beyond my parent’s role in my development as an author illustrator, I feel a great deal of gratitude to my family for many less tangible lessons. For instance, I am thanking my grandparents who told me about their childhoods on farms in the South and my parents for taking my sister and I on many walks in nature.

That’s your father, isn’t it, admiring the freight train. I see what you did there, since his book, Freight Train, was a Caldecott Honor Book. He always brought a great sense of design to his work.

Yes, I asked my father to do a cameo for this page. It’s a nod to his work -– Freight Train and Short Cut and also inspired by the fact that he enjoys watching trains with his grandchildren. That’s my son with him.

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I actually interviewed your father many years ago, in the early 90s, for a book I did with Deborah Kovacs, the out-of-print classic, Meet the Authors and Illustrators. He struck me as a calm, gentle, elegant, highly-cerebral kind of guy. I picture him in a bowtie.

He owns many bowties, though does wear standard neckties as well. He’s very stylish and one of my favorite people!

Well, Nina, I’m really glad we were able to share this time together. You have a lot to be proud of with this beautiful book. Well done!

Thank you! I have enjoyed our chat!

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To learn more about Nina Crews, visit her website. Nina’s book includes substantial biographical information on Richard Wright, adding depth and layers to a reader’s experience of the poems. 

To explore more interviews in the award-winning (not really) 5 QUESTIONS series, click here and scroll, baby, scroll. You’ll find interviews with London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Bruce Coville, Lizzy Rockwell, Aaron Becker, Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Jeff Mack, and many more.

 

My Nephew, Dan the River Man, in THE COURAGE TEST

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I didn’t set out for a research trip. We were simply looking to have a family adventure whitewater rafting. We’re lucky, because my nephew, Dan Rice, works as a guide for the Adirondack Rafting Company. That’s Dan in a steel-gray helmet in the photos, steering us through the waters.

As I said, I didn’t intend to write a fictionalized account of that experience. But, absolutely, experience is a great foundation for any future writing. Once I had it in back pocket, it was something I knew I could use at a later date.

The opportunity presented itself when I began writing The Courage Test, which came out in paperback a few months ago ($7.99, cheap). I decided to have Will and his father go rafting on the Lochsa River. It made sense, since the Lewis & Clark Expedition navigated those same dangerous waters, and the book was conceived as a parallel journey. When it came time for me to describe the river guide, I didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

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Finally, we gather around our boisterous river guide, who introduces himself as “Dan the River Man.” He’s a muscular, shaggy-haired, bearding outdoorsman, probably in his early thirties. He assures us that this is not his first rodeo. Our group includes six other adults in addition to my father and me, and we’re assigned a big orange inflatable raft. It looks bouncy and safe. We’re all dressed in rented wet suits and wear life vests and plastic helmets.

Before we even get into the water, Dan makes a few jokes to show us he’s a cool guy, and then shifts into a no-nonsense talk about river safety. We go over a list of dos and don’t — mostly don’t. Dan steps up and with a firm yank tightens each individual life vest. Next Dan drills us on paddle techniques. Some of it I already know, thanks to Ollie. We’re going to have to work hard and listen to his instructions, when to “dig in” and put our backs into it, when to shift our weight, and when to lie back. “We can’t possibly avoid every obstacle on the river. Let’s say, oh, we’re going to roll over a rock. I’ll shout out, ‘Bump!’ When that happens, you’ve all got to lean into the center of the boat. It’s critically important. We don’t want anybody falling over the side.” Dan scans the group, and his gaze lingers longest on me, maybe because I’m the youngest. “Mistakes can cost lives,” Dan reminds us. And he says to my father, “Make sure you two sit near me.”

Dan gives us a final inspection, and we put in at a quiet bend of the river. Soon the water carries us away. It doesn’t stay quiet for long.

The first hour is probably the most exciting sixty minutes I’ve had in my entire life. And then with a lurch the boat suddenly tips down, and there’s a bounce and a jostle, and Dan cries out, “Big bump! Lean in!” Before I can react, I’m popped backward into the air like a rag doll. My feet kick at the clouds. The paddle flies from my hands. 

I cry out something like, “Aaargggh!” or “Whaaaaazit!” But mostly it all unreels like a movie, a rapid-fire succession of flickering images across a screen. The only sound is the river’s unremitting roar.

I hit the water, and I’m instantly thrown into a frenzied, swirling liquid mass of pure force. I have no control over my body; I’m just tumbling and rolling in the helter-skelter of rapids. It’s like getting hit by a locomotive, then another one, then another one. I’m buried under for a horrifying ten seconds, gulping water in a panic, and then I’m thrown up into the light, lungs screaming for air. From the corner of my eye I see the raft ahead of me, shocked faces staring back, my father shouting wordlessly, arms waving, pointing. There’s Dan in his silver Ray-Bans, ever cool, standing at the back of the boat. He looks back at me over his shoulder, assessing the situation, while still navigating the course ahead. 

I am a bullet, shooting the rapids. 

I don’t want to spoil anything for future readers, so I’ll cut the scene here. I’m grateful to my nephew, the real Dan the River Man, who expertly took care of us on our happy, laugh-filled journey with the Adirondack Rafting Company. Good times, good times.

The lesson here? Hang out with writers at your peril. You just may find yourself in a book one day. 

SOME REVIEWS . . .

“Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip.”Booklist, starred review.

“There is plenty of action . . . A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama.”School Library Journal.

“Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here.”Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #266: All About Monsters

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Sam writes . . .

 

Dear Mr. Preller,

HI! My name is Sam. I am in 4th grade. I was wondering if I could interview you for a school research project. my topic is monsters. I can send the questions by email if it is convenient for you.
 
Sincerely,
Sam
 
And the next day . . .
 

Hi Mr.Preller! These are the interview questions.

 
 1) what is the most common monster?
 
 2) what are common monster traits?
 
 3) why are monsters feared?
 
 4) how are most monsters created?
 
 5) how do your monsters act?
 
 6) how did you create your monsters?
 
Thanks for making the time to do this!
 
sincerely,
Sam
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream.”

 
I replied . . . 
 –
Sam,
– 
You should know that I don’t know any monsters personally — and I mean, monster-monsters, not monstrous people or events — we all c8ef36cf51ff34e2a2e8e1bbed323631have a little monster inside us, I believe — so I’m not sure I have the exact brand of expertise you seek. For my “Scary Tales” series, for example, I usually make up “monsters” that I imagine might frighten a reader, or frighten me, though I have yet to write a story about a monster-dentist. Talk about scary! I could call it, THE ROOT CANAL! Or, I don’t know, THE BRACES TIGHTEN!
 –
(I never had braces, but the idea terrifies me.)
 –
Another scary title for a monster story might be, oh, THE CONGRESSMAN!
 
Yikes, horrifying. 
 –
So I guess in that sense monsters can come in all shapes and sizes. Not necessarily swamp monsters or werewolves or zombies.
 –
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: The One-Eyed Doll."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: The One-Eyed Doll.”

 
Anyway, that said, let me try to answer your questions, Sam.
 
1. The most common monster? The one under your bed.
 
2. Common traits? They like to hide in dark places.
 
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: Swamp Monster."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: Swamp Monster.”

3. Monsters are feared because they are . . . other. Different. Not us. But the reverse can also be true. In my book Swamp Monster, the creature from the swamp, the so-called “monster,” simply wants her baby back. An egg has been stolen from her. She’s a loving mother. So I ask you, as I did in the book, who is really the monster in that story? I guess it depends on your point of view.

 –
4. Monsters are created from the dark places in our imaginations. Once they are dreamed up, they are free to go about as they please. There’s no putting the toothpaste back into the tube, so to speak.
 –
5. Like every other character in a book or story, monsters want something. The question is always: What does this character want? In The One-Eyed Doll, the “monster” — I use quotes here, because I’m not always comfortable labeling these creations as monsters — wants to be a real girl. Not a monstrous desire at all. But of course, in order one_eyed_dollesec01to get what she desires . . . well, that’s the scary part. The wanting can be a sort of disease, a sickness that allows you to do horrible things. Greed is the kind of disease that can turn ordinary people into monsters. They want what they want. When I think of monstrous people in our world, the common characteristic is a lack of empathy. They don’t care about anyone else but themselves. Selfish, greedy. They don’t care who they hurt as long as they get what they want. Once you begin to think about how someone else might feel . . . once you walk around in someone else’s shoes, see life from their point of view . . . that’s when you lose your ability to be a monster.
(These are complicated thoughts, Sam, and I’m not sure I’m articulating them well, but maybe worth a conversation with a teacher or parent or some friends. There are so many types of monsters in the world, it’s hard to keep them sorted out. Can you be a bully if you truly, deeply think about how your target feels? Can we rip the immigrant father away from his children if we truly succeed in imagining their hearts and minds? Can we pollute a river if we care about our planet and the people who live on it?)
– 
To me, a monster is almost always deeply egocentric, unable to think of anyone else’s feelings but his/her own.
 
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: Nightmareland."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: Nightmareland.”

 
6. How do I create them? The glib answer is that, as a writer, my job is to make things up. And I do that piece by piece, characteristic by characteristic. When I wrote a book about bullying, Bystander, the character who was the “monster” in that story — a boy who did 9780312547967monstrous things — I made sure that he was attractive in many respects. A good-looking kid. A smooth talker. Nice smile. That’s what made him especially dangerous. He didn’t appear, at first, as a monster. Quite the opposite. Sometimes the scariest kid in class is four feet tall and wears blonde pigtails and has a terrific smile. And sometimes the monster might be childhood illness, as in my book Six Innings. Or a mother’s cancer in The Courage Test. Not something I made up, but recognized as a actual terror in the real world. But again, let’s get back to traditional monsters, and what the monster wants. In Good Night, Zombie, the monsters are zombies. They aren’t complicated. They just want to eat. Unfortunately, we’re on the menu!
 –
Thanks for your questions.
 
I’m curious. What are you going to do with them? 
 
My best, 
 
James Preller

DIGGING UP THE LOST WORDS: Inspired by Haiku & Candice Ransom

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I’m blogging today to share an insightful article by children’s author Candice Ransom. I found myself nodding all the way through it, making connections to my own recent experience with haiku and, for lack of a better word, my effort, simply, to attend to things, to see the thing-specific, while desiring to learn the elusive words.

Ms. Ransom began her article, titled “Poetry from Stones” in Bookology magazine, this way: 

Outside my window right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Outside my window, the leafless sweetgum shows a condo of squirrels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the horizon indicates wind moving in, and a white-crowned sparrow scritches under the feeders. Better. Even in winter, especially in winter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating.

In November, I taught writing workshops at a school in a largely rural county. I was shocked to discover most students couldn’t name objects in their bedrooms, much less the surrounding countryside. Without specific details, writing is lifeless. More important, if children can’t call up words, can’t distinguish between things, they will remain locked in wintry indifference. Some blame falls on us.

Oxford Junior DictionaryA recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary swapped nature words for modern terms. Out went acorn, wren, dandelion, nectar, and otter. In went blog, bullet-point, attachment, chatroom, and voicemail. Updating dictionaries isn’t new. And maybe cygnet isn’t as relevant as database, but it’s certainly more musical.  If we treat language like paper towels, it’s no wonder many kids can’t name common backyard birds.

When I was nine, my stepfather taught me the names of the trees in our woods, particularly the oaks. I learned to identify red, white, black, pin, post, and chestnut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. Labeling trees, birds, and wildflowers didn’t give me a sense of ownership. Instead, I felt connected to the planet. I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept quiet.

< snip >

I’m sorry, but I can’t resist quoting Ransom’s great piece at some length. She goes on to discuss a new book, recently discovered . . .

The Lost Words: a Spell BookSo imagine my delight when I found a new book for children, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. British nature-writer Robert MacFarlane paired with artist Jackie Morris to rescue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words like newt and kingfisher are showcased as “spells,” rather than straight definitions. MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the creature sink deep, while Morris’s watercolors create their own magic.

On their joint book tour throughout England, MacFarlane and Morris introduced children to words—and animals. On her blog Morris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year-olds when the booksellers stopped me. ‘Ask the children if they know what a wren is, first, Jackie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had never seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so perhaps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”

The Lost Words makes me want to take children by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illustrate our winter landscape. By giving kids specific names, they can then spin a thread from themselves to the planet.


Ah. Long, slow clap.

6792381Sometime in December, wary of time wasted on social media, the allure of Facebook, and my own (possibly connected) struggles as a writer, I decided to make a change. I felt empty, scattered, and discouraged. You know, the writer thing. I promised myself to begin each day by reading and writing haiku. It became my daily practice. Ten minutes, half an hour, even longer, however it worked for that day. Sometimes I’d go to my haiku before I made the morning coffee, and absolutely — this was a rule — before turning on my computer. On some miraculous mornings, I’d think of a haiku before my head left the pillow. 

UrP4fwuq1G3L+lCQHXVjJ4WD9n1O4!fHVzU32t1zotb2XltGqt5NH08Zg1lv!rMx0rUDeeqoUwC9Vrx87vEQ1D!qv90OwVUiNQfyiA+baMM=I’ve been reading Richard Wright’s marvelous late-period haiku poems, written at a time he was deathly ill, as if clinging to the world; rereading Basho’s A Haiku Journey; slowly leafing through various collections. I don’t read too many poems at a time; it’s not something to take at a headlong rush, another box to tick off. What I love about reading and writing haiku is that the practice forces me to slow down, to be present, to (try to) see the pear in the sunbeam, so to speak. People have asked what I’m going to “do” with the poems, and I explain that for me this has been
about the process, not the product. The poems are secondary. Possibly irrelevant. Most of them are “bad,” if you need to measure them that way. I try to avoid thinking about result. In this sense, for me, it’s like yoga. It’s something I am doing for myself, tuning to a different frequency. I’m not trying to “beat” your downward dog.
411ouV3CMiL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_Haiku traditionally places a primary focus on nature. Seeing the moment, hearing the rain. This relates, of course, to William Carlos Williams’ 20th century directive, “No ideas but in things.” Or earlier, Tolstoy’s “God is in the details.” The necessity for the writer to move away from abstraction, the world of ideas, to see the particular thing itself. At least, to begin there. To be present in a world of multi-tasking and lost words. This of course spills over into relationships, parenting, conversations in coffee shops. It is . . . a way.

41CT8T98W7L._SX255_BO1,204,203,200_During this time, even before I found Candice’s article, I’d been troubled with an old failing of mine. I’m not terribly good at knowing the names of things. My brain is fuzzy. I love nature and the great outdoors, but I’m not a trained naturalist. I need to do better. So as part of my haiku journey, living this new enthusiasm, I’ve been reading about trees and nature. Watching videos. Buying field guides. Studying up. Trying to dig up the lost words.

Because I believe the words connect us to seeing deeply, the words enrich our perception of reality. The words connect us to some vital spark in this world: to nature, to our planet, to each other. I often suspect that our temporary president has never once sat on a mountaintop and appreciated the wonder and awe of nature. Just listen to him speak. Look at his policies. Read about how he eats. This temporary man has never gazed at a sunset without wondering how he might monetize it. Turn a profit. I believe he’s empty in that regard, like any non-reader, full only of avarice and self — nature as a thing to be used. It shows in his incurious mind, his disregard for the care and well-being of our planet.

He doesn’t know the words.

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