Most people outgrow their childhoods, but James Preller relives his almost every day.
Preller, best-known for his "Jigsaw Jones" children's series, is an author who never underestimates young readers.
"I think from an outsiders' point of view, people think kids' books are light and fluffy - until they start reading them and see what's out there," Preller said.
The writer, who has published everything from picture books to young adult novels, will appear on April 15 at Barnes & Noble in Saratoga Springs.
His most recent book, "Bystander," tells the story of a new kid in town who witnesses bullying at his middle school. Although bullies are not a new literary topic, Preller worked to approach the subject from a different and more honest perspective.
"I had the idea that evil has a pretty face. I wanted the bully to be verbally charming and charismatic," he said
The author, who lives in Delmar, made the story more complex than just a big kid at school muscling other students, and he didn't want to give the book a Hollywood happy ending.
"This is not the revenge fantasy where all the nerds get together and teach the bully a lesson. I resisted the easy solutions because I don't think they are there," he said. "I don't think bullying is going to end, and I can't provide those simple answers."
He does, however, believe most students are strong enough to overcome the negative experience and move past it.
"Bullying does reach its peak in
middle school and does tend to diminish as kids get older. When we look back, we survive it and we get through it. It's not that we triumph and all the bad guys learn a valuable lesson, but the rest of us can figure out how to diminish the harm they do," he said.
In the book, Preller makes it clear that boys aren't the only ones who engage in bullying. A group of girls in the novel uses the Internet to harass a fellow student.
"Cyber bulling is absolutely a problem. I think with girls, that's where you tend to see more of the cyber bullying," he said.
Although the book covers difficult territory, Preller said he made an effort to keep the story entertaining for young readers.
"When you write a book like this that maybe has a hot topic, it gets lost that you are still trying to tell a good story. You don't want the reader to be conscious that they are being taught a lesson. If they feel that they are, they are going to put the book away," he said.
Preller creates a diverse cast of characters in his books, but he always has one group in mind.
"I tend to write boy-centered books," he said.
His comfort level with the issues young men face as they grow up is evident in "Six Innings," which recently was released in paperback.
The novel is a play-by-play description of a championship game between two Little League teams. The cast of characters features a mix of personalities, including the game announcer - a former star who is on the sidelines after a battle with bone cancer.
"I'm a big baseball fan, and I've spent a lot of time in the world," he said. "I'm writing within that great tradition of baseball books. I've read so many baseball books that I am proud to have a book that will join those books on the shelves."
The announcer character was inspired by the writer's oldest son, Nicholas.
"He is a two-time cancer survivor, and I coached him when he was sick," Preller said. "It gave me a valuable perspective on the game. We all express hopes out there on the field, but I was glad he was just out there on the grass playing."
Despite being a writer with a long list of hit books, Preller prefers to live in the moment, always stretching his abilities.
"I have been really fortunate that my publisher, Macmillan, is really happy to let me write whatever it is that is in my heart and my head. They are not trying to put me in a little box," he said.
For Preller, the joy of writing is in creating believable protagonists.
"I like to begin with characters when I write," he said. "It kind of happens organically."