James Preller is the author of Bystander. He writes books ranging from picture books to Young Adult. He has written what seems to be about a hundred books, give or take. Please visit his website at http://jamespreller.com/.
1. Bystander is about bullying, but focuses on the children that stand by and watch, as opposed to those doing the actual bullying. Please tell us a little about the plot.
A seventh-grade boy, Eric Hayes, moves into a new town. He is quickly befriended by a smart, engaging, charismatic boy named Griffin Connelly – who also happens to be a manipulative bully. I wanted to explore how Eric navigates his way through that confusing, ethical maze. And I wanted to make sure that the bully was drawn as a realistic, accurate character consistent with current research – not as the hulking, dim-witted stereotype too often found in books and movies.
2. I have middle grade children, so I am keenly aware of the dynamic you describe in your novel. What motivated you to write this story and examine the role of the bystanders as opposed to the victim or the bully?
I write realistic fiction, and for this book I decided to graduate to a middle school environment. I’ve also focused on friendship in the past. So the bullying theme was sort of a natural outgrowth of those things – but once I settled on it, I had to do a lot of research. And it was the research – the reading, the school visits, and my conversations with experts — that led me to the role of the bystander. From a narrative point of view, that also worked for me, since the bystander is, like a writer, both observer and witness.
3. Is there anything that readers of your book can take from this story in order to better deal with bullies?
There are no easy answers. Quick story: My oldest son is sixteen. I often worried when he didn’t talk about his feelings. He’d clam up. Then I realized, he doesn’t have the vocabulary to even know what he’s feeling. To paraphrase Ron Burgandy in “Anchorman,” he was trapped inside a glass booth of emotion. Language is important, it’s a tool to help us perceive things, name things, understand. It’s common for kids to say something like, “Oh, I didn’t know that was bullying; I was just making fun of her shoes.” Like any good book, hopefully Bystander enriches the way readers understand their world.
4. The main character’s father suffers from schizophrenia. Why did you include that in the story, and how do you think middle graders will deal with that subject?
I wanted Eric Hayes to have some kind of vulnerability, a gazelle with a limp, and I needed the leonine bully to recognize it. His parent’s separation – the absent father – achieved that for me. As for the mental illness, that’s something I know from personal experience. My brother John suffered from it – and the result of that suffering was acutely felt by his two sons. Those boys, my nephews, will carry that pain around with them forever. Bizarrely, on the day after I handed in the manuscript, I learned that my brother had died. As for how readers will react, I have no idea – but I do believe very strongly that it’s better to bring these family problems out into the open, to look at them honestly, rather than to keep them as dark secrets. There’s no shame in being sick.
5. What about this novel do you think young boys would enjoy?
I wanted the book to have the quality of a thriller, a forward push and momentum that made the story fast-paced and unputdownable. As realistic fiction – utterly lacking in dragons, vampires, time travel, and boy wizards – I hope that readers would recognize the characters in this book as an accurate reflection of their world.
6. Did you intend for this to be a book for boys?
I realized that by focusing primarily on boy characters – though one girl, Mary, plays a crucial role – that it would be a book that might have more appeal to boy readers. I don’t know if that keeps girls from reading it or not; girls tend to be a little more open-minded than boys about reading about the opposite sex.
7. You’ve been writing books for boys for a long time. You author the very successful series, Jigsaw Jones, and have written some picture books. You’ve written several middle grade books and one of your most current novels is for Young Adults. How many books have you written and do you have any other books for middle graders in the works?
Thanks for asking. I have a new middle grade book coming out this summer — best for grades 3-5 — called Justin Fisher Declares War! It’s about a lively, attention-seeking fifth-grade boy who struggles with discipline issues in school. He’s sort of a class clown gone wrong — with hilarious results. Hopefully it’s fast-paced, funny, light and easy to read. I think of it as my rebound book after Bystander.
8. Book trailers are becoming more and more common, particularly for children’s books. Do any of your books have trailers? What do you think of book trailers as a marketing tool for children’s books?
I saw that you had written about trailers on your blog. Honestly, I lack those video skills. I’m not very adept at the PR aspects of being a writer – I’m kind of grossed out by too much self-promotion, frankly. I mean, I appreciate any efforts my publishers make to promote my books – but to date I haven’t written anything that’s gotten a big marketing push. Thus, no trailers. Same with Twitter. I understand that I’m missing out on all these “cross-pollination opportunities” or whatever, but it’s just not my personality. Mostly, I just want to write the books (crazy, I know), though I do enjoy visiting schools to promote reading and writing.
9. Which novels by other authors would you recommend to boys?
I’m always uncomfortable when it comes to “books for boys,” because those lists tend to fall into extremely narrow stereotypes of what boys supposedly like. You know: body humor, relentless action, sports, etc. I’m not a big reader when it comes to children’s books, so I’ll leave those recommendations to others, except to say that I have great respect for Louis Sachar and Jerry Spinelli. But I do want to sound that warning about so-called “books for boys.” When my 2008 book Along Came Spider came out – which is basically a boys friendship story – one blogger, Karen at Literate Lives, said, “I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendships and themselves, so it was a delightful surprise to find and read a book that deals with boys trying to find where they belong in Along Came Spider.” Now think about that for a moment. It came as a “surprise” that a book would treat a boys friendship with the same attention and depth commonly seen in books about girls. Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll was published in 1972, and in many respects it doesn’t feel like we’ve come very far in our thinking about boys over the past 38 years.