Christmas trees hold a special kind of magic for Halii (Fain) Preiss, Pacific. It goes back to when she was a young girl growing up in Villa Ridge.
“As a child I had a big imagination, and Christmas time always felt magical — still does,” she said. “Our family Christmas tree always had colorful lights, mismatched ornaments with sentimental value and a large angel at the top.
“When I was younger and the tree was lit up at night, I would fantasize about being tiny enough to climb into the tree . . . There’s just something about the glow of a Christmas tree.”
Ten years ago, when Preiss was just 19, she did more than just imagine what it would be like. She created a story about it. And now that story is a book.
“Climbing Up a Christmas Tree” is available locally at Neighborhood Reads bookstore, 401 Lafayette St. in Downtown Washington, or directly from Preiss, who has been sharing her story at various events since the book was published last month.
This week, Preiss will be at Scenic Regional Library in Pacific Thursday, Dec. 12, and at Pacific’s annual Christmas on the Plaza this Saturday, Dec. 14, following the parade, which begins at 6 p.m. Meet Preiss and Pacific Mayor Steve Myer under the pavilion to hear them read “Climbing Up A Christmas Tree” and a couple other Christmas stories.
The story follows Little Mouse as he attempts to climb the Christmas tree. He has a letter for Santa, but he doesn’t know how to deliver it, so he decides to ask the angel at the top of the Christmas tree for help. But the tree is so tall, and there’s a mean cat, Snowball, who stands in the way.
Mustering his bravery, Little Mouse embarks on his adventure. He makes friends along the way, and in the end, his Christmas wish comes true.
Seeing the story in print is a Christmas wish come true for Preiss as well. She had the story published through Barnes and Noble self-publishing, but it was no easy task.
The story went through a number of edits before it was ready, and then there was the challenge of finding an illustrator who could do the job — not to mention raising the funds needed to pay him.
Time also was an issue. Preiss didn’t begin making the push to publish the story until this past summer, and she wanted it finished in time for sale this Christmas.
Teaches English to Children in China
Preiss is a stay-at-home mom of a soon-to-be 3-year-old son, but for the last four months she also has been working as a teacher for VIPKid, an online teaching and educational company based in China.
Her students so far have all been Chinese children whom she interacts with through a live online learning platform. She works with one student at a time. Preiss is in her home in Pacific, and the student is in his or her home in China.
“It’s sort of like a Skype call, except that there are interactive slides where the kids can click or sometimes something moves on the screen,” said Preiss, who has a bachelor’s degree in English. “They can see what I draw on the screen, and I can see them.”
She helps the students learn basic English and actually works with them more on pronunciation than anything else. The work isn’t hard, she said, but the timing is tricky.
Because China is halfway around the world, and Preiss is working with her students after they get out of school there, her lessons often start long before the sun comes up here.
“The earliest I’ve ever woken up for this is 3:50 a.m.,” she said. “I had four classes, the first one starting at 4:30 a.m. They are each 25 minutes long.”
Preiss said she sometimes does silly things during a lesson to try to engage her students, but the humor doesn’t always translate.
She’s paid per child, per class, and currently is making almost $20 an hour, sometimes even a little more.
To get her VIPKid business started, Preiss created a profile video that parents watch to decide if they want to hire her. Their feedback on her performance also factors in to whether other parents want to hire her.
The more bookings she gets, the more money she makes.
Writing Exercises, Self-Help Book Provide Motivation
Earlier this year, before she started working for VIPKid, Preiss found herself feeling really low. Being a stay-at-home mom is hard work, and she felt like she had lost her identity a little bit.
With encouragement from her husband, Nathaniel Preiss, she began meeting a friend at Scenic Regional Library in Pacific to do writing exercises and give each other feedback on their writing.
After reading a self-help book that her friend shared with her, Preiss found herself motivated to push forward with things she had always wanted to do — like publish her old story about Little Mouse.
“Not everything in the (self-help) book were to my beliefs, but it got me thinking, ‘Why am I not just going for it? There’s always going to be a reason not to this,’ ” said Preiss. “And in July, I just had this epiphany — ‘Just go for it!’ I thought.”
In the 10 years since Preiss had written “Climbing Up a Christmas tree” she had sent it off to various literary agents, usually about once a year. She got some responses back, but nothing very promising. That’s the story of most authors seeking to have a book published, especially first-time authors.
Preiss was determined to have the book out by Christmas, so she opted for self-publishing. She turned to friends and family to help with the editing process, and began asking around for an illustrator.
She hired Gary Gackstatter, an active artist who also works as a composer, conductor, clinician, performer and teacher, teaching at St. Louis Community College at Meramec as coordinator of music and conductor of the Symphonic Band and Meramec Orchestra.
She met Gackstatter at a coffee shop in Pacific where she used to work. He created pen and ink drawings for the story.
Preiss created a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money she needed to hire Gackstatter. Shortly into her fundraising effort, she learned that a friend had a child diagnosed with cancer, and decided to shut down her campaign. She wanted any of her friends who were willing to donate funds to give them to the their friend to help offset the medical expenses.
But a single benefactor unexpectedly donated the remaining funds Preiss needed to pay Gackstatter, so the rest of her friends and family could donate to their friend whose child had cancer.
Preiss’ husband, who works as a computer programmer, helped her format the story and artwork to submit it to Barnes and Noble for printing. She thanks him and everyone else who contributed in the dedication page.
But she also dedicated the book to her readers . . . “any child going through a situation that makes them feel small or powerless, there’s hope in the scariest situations.
“The Angel at the top of the tree might be your goal, but sometimes what we need comes from the unexpected journey. As long as you’re moving in the right direction, it doesn’t matter the size of your step.”
Looking ahead, Preiss said she will continue writing and has lots of other stories and different concepts that she wants to explore. Already she has many short stories that she’s written in the small writers’ group that she meets with at the Pacific library. None of them are finished yet, but she’ll continue working on them.
“As a mom, I feel like I’m living between the moments of when my son needs me, when the laundry needs to be done, and all of that. So I’ll keep writing.”