Margi Preus, Newbery Honor Author of Heart of a Samurai

Sitting on her dad’s lap reading National Geographic magazine from back to front is one of the first reading experiences Newbery Honor author, Margi Preus, treasures. In fact, the book that launched her on the path to a love of literacy is Indians of the Americas published in the 1950s also by the National Geographic Society.

“I’m sure I couldn’t read a word of it. But there were some very vivid illustrations in there and it certainly made me want to read. [Later] Pippi Longstocking got me going as a reader and Harriet the Spy (Harper & Row, 1964) made me want to be a writer—or at least to keep a spy notebook, which I still do.”

Though she started with a spy notebook, today Preus’ body of work includes picture books, plays, and novels. Yet, Preus did not consider herself a “real” writer until she was awarded the Newbery Honor for Heart of a Samurai (Amulet Books, 2010). “It was a big surprise, that’s for sure. Even so, I still mostly doubt it. However, having my books so warmly received and knowing there are readers out there enjoying them really helps allay my doubts. Thank you, Readers!”

“[When I found out about the Newbery], I was on a ski vacation staying in a little cabin in the mountains of Washington state with my husband and a couple of friends. My cell phone rang at 7 a.m. which was a surprise because, for one thing, I was asleep; also, I didn’t know my phone would even work there. The committee gave me the news and asked me not to tell anyone. ‘Who am I going to tell?’ I wondered, gazing out the window at an entire mountain range between me and civilization.”

Since 2010, Preus has had two additional well-received, award-winning historical novels published: Shadow on the Mountain (Amulet Books, 2012) and West of the Moon (Amulet Books, 2014). Both, like their predecessor, are chock full of delicious details and feature strong, young characters who overcome adversity.

“As my grad school prof, John Gardner, said, ‘Details are the lifeblood of fiction.’ Details are what make the readers believe your lie. How much more convincing is a lie when told with perfectly juicy details? What if I say I once had dinner with Elvis Presley, but I can’t describe his jumpsuit? The smell of his hair product? The musical sound of his chewing? Nobody will believe me.”

To collect the details built into her work, Preus conducts a great amount of research, usually involving travel and always involving reading. “I read a lot of books, and by ‘read’ I mean ‘skim.’ I am extremely accomplished at it. I read (skim) a lot of nonfiction, but I am also very fond of reading novels set in the time and place. Novels are the best for getting the flavor of the place, next to actually traveling there, which I also like to do. By the time I was done writing Heart of a Samurai, I bet I’d read Moby Dick six times, two pages at a time, not in any particular order.”

“Reading aloud is essential. Parents to their kids. Teachers to their class. Librarians to everybody. That and modeling reading. Being absorbed in your own reading. As the youngest of six kids, I could never get anybody’s attention because everyone in the family had their noses buried in books. What, I wondered, was more interesting than ME? Made me want to find out.”

Though Preus’ books are geared toward the middle-grade reader and above, students of all ages enjoy the tales woven through the pages. In fact, she enjoys discussing the books and answering questions about them with students via free 20-minute Skype sessions and in person. “I love talking with kids. In person is best, but Skype is cheaper for schools, and we get straight to the questions which is my favorite part. Also, I can wear my pajamas, at least on my lower half! The questions kids come up with blow my mind—they’re so good.”

Preus also welcomes fan mail. “I respond in kind: a letter for a letter, an email for an email. Tweet and you shall be tweeted to. Please friend me! Follow me! Write me a letter!” Readers may contact Preus through her websiteemailTwitter, and/or Facebook.

Did You Know?

  • The most unusual hitchhiking trip Margi Preus took was via canoe through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in Minnesota. “If I weren’t so tethered to a computer, I would be in the BWCA more often, probably having unlikely encounters with bears.”
  • Preus’ many unlikely encounters with bears began when she was two years old.
  • When Preus was in kindergarten, her writing ambitions were launched. “I began scheming when I didn’t get the part I wanted in Mrs. Frang’s kindergarten musical, Sleeping Beauty. You can probably guess which part I wanted. I was crushed. Then it dawned on me that if I wrote my own plays, I could star in them. I didn’t actually know how to write yet, so that was a big incentive to learn.”
  • Today, Preus still reads a book from back to front, just like she did with the National Geographic magazines that fascinated her. “I’m a skimmer, a jumper, and a looker-througher of books. I like the feel and the smell of paper and I don’t like not being able to physically flip pages. Some days it’s all the exercise I get!”