by Zoe Milenkovic
Gotham Children’s Book teacher James Preller candidly admits, “I wasn’t a reader as a kid.”
When he was young, his dream career was to play baseball for the New York Mets. He describes his childhood self as a doer, spending his time running around and playing sports.
Nevertheless, James began his career as a junior copywriter at Scholastic in 1985, where he stumbled into the world of children’s books. He quickly found a deep respect for the genre and its audience. The next year he published his first children’s book, MAXX TRAX: Avalanche Rescue, a very 80s adventure about superpowered trucks.
James attributes his storytelling ability to one of life’s surprises: he never grew up. His fifteen-year-old blog, jamespreller.com, acts as a personal archive. There, he explains this secret to his success, “I care the same way that I cared when I was ten years old.”
James has written over thirty books, with topics ranging from pirates to cyberbullying. According to James, it’s the young readers that keep the job rewarding. Not only does he continue to visit schools, but he also responds to fan letters on his blog with honest answers and touching anecdotes.
In all of James’s books, character drives the story. “As a writer, you have to be every character,” James notes. As the most important aspect of the story, James believes it’s crucial to know the characters inside out. Not just who the character is, but what they want, how they think, and even what their room looks like.
Despite its importance to Preller, character is not always the first thing that comes to mind. “Sometimes I’ll have ideas that I need to inhabit,” James observes. Speaking to his writing process, James tends to chip away at these ideas, rather than let them run wild. Unlike many authors, he writes a careful first draft. “People will say, ‘you should write horribly,’ ‘your first draft’s awful,’ and then go back and revise. And I don't do that.” Instead, he revises as he goes, saying, “I tend to go back and back and back, and still try to move forward.”
But overall, James sees each person’s writing process as an individual’s preference. The most crucial part of being a writer is learning through doing, finding what your own system looks like. He explains, “Ultimately, you have to figure out who you are and what works best for you. And it may change from book to book.”
This philosophy of learning through trying resonates through James’s Gotham classes. He dislikes the idea of promising, ‘this is how you write a bestseller’ or ‘this is how you get published.' Instead, he adds “What I really want to do is help inspire and activate writing and creativity.”
James compares learning writing to skiing. A ski instructor can teach someone how to start and stop, and how to get up when they fall down, but in the end, “the mountain is going to teach you how to ski.” The empty sheet of paper serves as a writer’s bunny slope. In this way, James encourages learning and productivity through trial and error, through doing. Just like a kid, running around, having no idea, but figuring it out.
James touches on this topic further on his blog, bringing it back to his childhood love of baseball. He mentions the legend Ted Williams: “When asked about his goals for the upcoming season—Did he hope to bat for a .350 average? Mash 40 homers?—Williams replied, simply, that his goal was to put a good swing on the ball.”