FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #255: Hobbies in Ohio

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Did you know I often include a baseball card with my letters to young readers? Yeah, I do. This guy, Jack, got a 1969 Topps Bobby Tolan because he played for the Cincinnati Reds. The Ohio connection.

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I replied:

Dear Jack,

Thanks for your terrific, well-written letter. I loved that you included colorful illustrations -– lucky me!

1055418.1443369346I’m glad to hear that reading my books is one of your hobbies. What other hobbies do you have? Wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess. Hmmmm. You like to carve wooden ducks in the basement? You collect and stack old marshmallows? You taught yourself how to speak Wookie? You build bridges made entirely of burnt pumpernickel toast?

No? Rats!

Reading books –- any books, even mine -– is a hobby that you and I share. Everybody knows that reading will make you smarter, but I think it also makes you happier. So I’m very glad to learn that you are enjoying books, too. Keep it up!

When I meet people who say they don’t like to read, I always think, Oh, boy, you are really missing out.

Yes, your teacher is right, Jigsaw does say “Yeesh” a lot. Though I think he’s saying it less and less these days. I’m not sure if he says it even once in the latest, The Case from Outer Space. The dot, dot, dot thing is called an ellipsis. It’s interesting that you noticed I do that. Now I’m worried that I might do it too much!

An ellipsis is usually an omission, words left out, but I mostly use it in the Jigsaw Jones series to indicate a pause. For example, Mila might say to Eddie Becker, “You like to eat . . . lizards?” To me, it tells the reader to give a little pause there, a little air, a little space, before going on to the next word.

That’s me, I’m always trying to help the reader out.

I found another one on page 53 from The Case from Outer Space. I’ll include the setup:

“Good,” I replied. “Are you sure she didn’t see you?”

Joey paused. His mouth said “No,” but his head nodded yes.

He had me confused.

I repeated the question as if I were talking to my dog. “Did . . . she . . . see . . . you?”

Joey shrugged. His nose twitched. “Maybe, sort of.”

“Maybe,” I echoed.

“Well, she waved to me,” Joey admitted. 

My best to you, kind Jack!

James Preller

Two Full Reviews for BETTER OFF UNDEAD, Plus Chapter 3, “Drink Plenty of Fluids”

Here’s goes, the full text of the first two reviews for BETTER OFF DEAD along with a sample chapter for the curious.

 

From Booklist, with a STAR!

star-512Preller takes the black-kid-in-a-white-school premise to the next level with Adrian, who is not only African American, but also a zombie. The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc. Having inexplicably survived a fatal hit-and-run accident over the summer, aptly named Adrian Lazarus is off to seventh grade, sporting a hoodie to hide his increasing facial disfigurement and lunching on formaldehyde smoothies to keep himself together. Simultaneously resenting and yet understanding the varied reactions of his schoolmates—which range from shunning to all-too-close attention from a particularly persistent bully—Adrian is also surprised and pleased to discover that he has allies, notably Gia Demeter, a new girl with a peculiar ability to foretell certain events. Preller might have played this as a light comedy (and there are some hilarious bits), but he goes instead for darker inflections. Even as Adrian sees himself becoming ominously aggressive (while developing tastes for roadkill and raw meat), his discovery that fabulously powerful data miners Kalvin and Kristoff Bork are ruthlessly scheming to put him under the knife in search of the secret to his longevity cranks the suspense up another notch. Nonetheless, in a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending. — John Peters

From School Library Journal:

Gr 4-7–Adrian Lazarus is a middle school zombie, the result of an accident that left him “as undead as a toenail and not really thrilled about it.” The book is similar to Paolo Bacigalupi’s Zombie Baseball Beatdown; however, this cautionary tale is more than just a brain-eating gross-out. Set in the not-too-distant future when humanity is suffering from numerous self-inflicted woes, this story’s villains are the Bork Brothers, owners of K & K Industries, “the richest, most powerful corporation on the planet” and also the source of much of the planet’s environmental troubles. Like The Wizard of Oz, to which this book makes frequent allusions, the Bork Brothers control the world behind a curtain of extreme privacy, “pour[ing] their millions of dollars into helping certain politicians win elections.” With one of the brothers dying, they attempt to kidnap Adrian, hoping to glean the secret of cheating death. Adrian foils this plot with the help of his friends, one of whom is a thinly disguised Demeter-like creature. While following these fantastic adventures, readers learn about real environmental issues, such as the vanishing of bees, with the clear message to not be a “zombie,” but to instead take action to protect the planet before it is too late. VERDICT This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.–Eileen Makoff, P.S. 90 Edna Cohen School, NY
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends * Pages: 288 * Price (Hardcover): $16.99 * Publication Date: October 2017 * ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250066480
EXCERPT NOTE: Below is chapter 3 of 39 chapters. The book is just settling in, and here we address the central dilemma. The actual plot — the new friends, the deeper themes, and the mystery that propels the book forward — come gradually later. Still setting the scene, meeting our main character.

3

 

Drink Plenty of Fluids

 

 

I was a busy guy during the first week of my death. Sort of the opposite of what you’d imagine, right? You’d assume it would be quiet, even relaxing, being dead and all. But not in my unlife. There was a lot to do.

For the first few days after the accident, I was seen by every medical expert in the area, even people from the FBI and mysterious others flashing U.S. Government badges. All day long they wandered into my hospital room to marvel at the new patient. They looked at me and frowned, clucked and murmured, and said helpful things like, “Hmmm, interesting, interesting.” I was a fascinating case, a puzzlement. I was tested, probed, poked, prodded, scanned, questioned, measured, charted and MRI’d until, finally, the folks in their white coats shrugged with a mixture of defeat and boredom. After three sleep-interrupted nights of liquids dripping and machines beeping, they told me to go home. Something about insurance costs. There was nothing to be done. After that, I was assigned to the primary care of Dr. Lewis Halpert. He was some hot-shot specialist flown in from who-knows-where. And so we visited his pristine office for regular check-ups at the K & K MediCorp building. As far as I could tell, I was his only patient.

On the day when my bad news got worse, I played with the controls of a leatherette recliner of the type normally found in a dentist’s office. My mother fiddled with her new watch computer, setting up the connection with my Dad who was still deployed at an unspecified location somewhere in the African continent. Dad couldn’t give us details on his work assignments, it was hush-hush, and we’d often go months without a word. Even so, he was supportive about my situation. Dad said he wanted to come home immediately, but, well, the Corporation couldn’t let him go just yet. He was a second lieutenant in a privatized army, outsourced by the government, and Corporate depended on him. The Skype was Dad’s way of being there, a grim-faced, tight-lipped, square-jawed head on a computer screen.

The room was filled with glass surfaces and glittering utensils. I kept catching my reflection staring at the strange surroundings like a startled woodland creature. Chap-lipped, sore-faced, hideous: zombie me. I missed the identity of my dark skin in our mostly white town. I used to be the black kid, but not anymore. Race, religion, politics, “zombie” trumped them all. After another routine examination –- reflexes, none; eyesight, failing; sense of smell, gone; etc. — Doctor Halpert looked at me, mustache drooping, eyes flickering with indecision. He parked heavily on a stool and rolled close to me, leaning in. “Adrian,” he began, raising his palms as a sign of surrender. “As doctors, we like to think we have all the answers. We possess all this expensive equipment, years of scientific research . . .” his voice trailed off, losing steam. He sighed, checked my mother with a glance, looked hopelessly at my father’s image in the laptop. “But there’s so much we don’t know. That’s just a fact.”

I watched him, gave a nod. At least he was honest.

“By every measure we currently employ, medically speaking, you should be dead,” Dr. Halpert said.

My throat felt dry. My tongue seemed to swell. I tried to swallow.

“You don’t have a heartbeat,” Doctor Halpert stated. “Yet here we are. We have tested you in every conceivable manner. And the fact is,” –- he ran his thumb and index finger down his thick mustache –- “the fact is,” –- repeating himself, struggling to find the words –- “we just . . . don’t . . . know . . . diddly.”

“But, Doctor –-“ my mother interjected.

“Oh, we have theories. We could sit around and speculate all day long. It might be this, it might be that. An exotic strain of virus. Ebola this, Superflu that, cancer-causing agents in the water table, the fallout from fracking, too many genetically-engineered foods, a new strain of dengue fever, or just plain bad luck. All I know, Adrian, is that you are –-“

“—- a freak,” I said.

“No, no, no,” Doctor Halpert said, “A miracle! And as a man of science, it kills me to say that. I don’t believe in miracles, Adrian. I believe in facts, hard data, research. We simply don’t understand how you are walking around today, much less why. Talking. Seeing. Thinking. And, seemingly, living. It makes no scientific sense. When it comes to your case, Adrian, we might as well be in the dark ages, applying leeches and burning incense.”

“Is it . . . contagious?” asked my mother, inching ever so slightly away.

“Not at all,” the doctor replied. “It’s certainly not an airborne virus or anything of that nature. Of course, I wouldn’t let him bite you, ha-ha-ha!” He turned to me, smiling broadly. “You’re not going to bite your mother, are you, Adrian? Of course not!”

I joked, “Yeah, no, I just had a big lunch.”

More laughter, ho-ho-ho, even my dad thought it was a laugh riot. Mom, however, didn’t seem amused. Her mouth laughed, but her eyes didn’t get the joke. Mom’s cell buzzed with an incoming message. She checked it, frowned. She was missing work for this appointment.

Dr. Halpert looked at me, waited. I didn’t know what to say. I rarely did. My thoughts refused to organize themselves; the words wouldn’t cohere. My mind was a buzz, a beehive, a blur, a whirr. I stared at him, blinking, thinking, coming up empty.

My father broke the silence. “Well, that’s not a very satisfactory answer, is it, doctor?”

Dr. Halpert shook his head. “No, it isn’t,” he admitted.

“So what now?”

Doctor Halpert glanced at me, and back to the computer image of his inquisitor. “Summer’s almost gone. School starts in another week or so. Middle school, I guess.”

“You think he can go to school?” my mother chimed in, shock registering in her voice. “You think it’s all right?”

“Life goes on,” the doctor replied. He scratched his cheek with nervous fingers, tugged at his white lab coat. Perhaps Doctor Halpert recognized the irony of his own words –- this crazy situation -– so he quickly added, “I mean, Mr. and Mrs. Lazarus, I don’t see the harm in it. Admittedly, Adrian’s is an unusual case. Bizarre, truly. No one has an explanation for what’s happened to your son. By everything we know, there’s simply no way on earth your boy should be sitting in my office having this conversation. There’s no heartbeat! He’s dried up, blood doesn’t course through his arteries. He’s a zom . . .”

The doctor stopped himself, embarrassed or unwilling to finish the word; so it hung in the air unspoken like a bubble on the verge of bursting. Zombie. I felt a twitch in my stomach. If I had anything to hurl, I would have upchucked right there on the floor.

The thought of going back to middle school, seventh grade, was sickening.

My mother sat staring at me, the downward sickle of a frown on her lips. She made a dabbing gesture on her face, as if applying phantom makeup. “Is there anything we can do to –-“

“Ah, yes! I almost forgot,” Dr. Halpert said, jumping out of his seat cheerfully. He pulled open a cabinet door, then another, reached for bottles, pushed others aside, scanned labels. By the time he was finished, the counter was cluttered with all sorts of medicines and potions. “The good news is, there’s some very simple things we can do to stave off the symptoms.”

The doctor read the question in my eyes.

“I don’t think we can cure you, Adrian –- this is uncharted territory for all of us — but there’s a lot we can do to keep the, urm, illness from progressing. You know, just by using standard over-the-counter products such as creams, lotions, eye-drops, salves, and whatnot. Chap stick, for example, works wonders,” Dr. Halpert said. “And drinking plenty of fluids will help, too.”

My mother listened intently, obviously interested. She finally had something to latch onto after days of helpless hoping. They weren’t going to try to cure my condition. Nope, they just wanted to conceal it.

“Essentially, Adrian, you’ve lost your vital secretions. You’re body is drying up, no juices, and we can’t have that.”

“I see,” my mother murmured, grasping the concept. She said, “It’s like putting on hand moisturizer. I do that every night before bed, Adrian.” She raised her smooth, well-moisturized hands as if they were exhibits in a legal proceeding.

I smiled weakly.

“Exactly,” Dr. Halpert chirped. “We’ve got to keep him . . . squishy.”

Both of them chuckled over the word. Squishy. Ho-ho. Meanwhile, I scratched at the skin on my dry, flaking knees. “Doctor,” I spoke up. “I don’t have a heart beat. My face is falling apart –- my face! Are you seriously telling me to drink lots of water?”

He shook his head. “No, no, no. I mean, yes . . . and no. The truth is, Adrian, water will help. Lots of it. A gallon a day, maybe two in your case. But I have something else in mind, too.” He plucked a pink pad from his front coat pocket, scribbled on it, tore off the top sheet, and handed it to my mother.

She scanned it and read, “Formaldehyde smoothies?”

“Formaldehyde is a common embalming agent,” Doctor Halpert explained. “It’s frequently used in, urm,” he gestured with his hand, pulled again on his thick mustache, and said in a muffled voice, “funeral homes and whatnot.” Cough-cough.

“On dead bodies?” I interrupted.

My mother gaped at me, neck stretched forward, as if to say: Don’t be rude. I felt pressure behind my eyes, a welling up, but no tears came. Not squishy enough, I guess. No juices. Real zombies don’t cry.

The doctor continued, “Formaldehyde helps preserve dead tissue –- though it’s most often used as a fixative for microscopy and histology, but nevermind that. The point is, Adrian, if you drink one of these smoothies every morning, I believe it will help keep you looking better, feeling better, and, urm, smelling fresher.”

He stood to open a window.

For a moment I thought about jumping out of it. But what would be the point?

Dead was bad. Middle school would be worse.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #254: In Which I Sign a Book as a Birthday Gift for Dad

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Welcome to Fan Mail Wednesday! We’re starting back up after taking it slow over the summer. Nobody reads blogs over the summer. I mean to say, nobody reads blogs, ever. But I persist because I am happy to do it and, hey, somebody might! You’re here, aren’t you?

Right? I mean: Somebody’s here. Hellllllooooo???

Anyway: Here’s a lovely exchange I had with Kayla, an old fan who is searching for the perfect gift . . . for her dear old dad. 

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Hi Mr. Preller!

 
My name is Kayla, and I am from Bloomington, Minnesota. Growing up, my dad and I read your Jigsaw Jones stories every night. Your stories were a huge part of my childhood through elementary school, I collected all of the stories, and they were lined up on my shelf in number order, my most prized possessions. Now I am 19 years old, and I can’t WAIT to bring my collection of all the Jigsaw mysteries to my future classroom with me!
 
I am emailing you specifically to ask about a signed copy of one of your books. My dad and I have some wonderful memories reading Jigsaw together, and I would love to be able to give him an autographed copy of one of the stories for his birthday. I was wondering where I could send my book/stamp to, and how much it would cost for you to sign it.
 
Thank you so, so much for your time! I hope to hear back from you soon.
 
Kayla
I replied:
 
Kayla,
 
Thanks for your sweet note.
 
There’s actually a new book out and I’d love to send you a signed copy, my treat. Just give me your address and your father’s name. I’m not awesome at going to the Post Office, but I’ll do my best.
 

JP

And Kayla answered:

That would be absolutely incredible!

5101AF-k+oL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My dad’s name is Bob. If you would be so kind, would you address the mail to my name, as I don’t want him to open it until his birthday:) And my address is ____________, Bloomington MN, 55438
Thank you SO much! My dad is going to be so excited!
 –

Free “Jigsaw Jones” Teaching Guide: Just Click the Link!

 

Copy-and-paste the link below for a free CCSS Teacher’s Guide for my new Jigsaw Jones chapter book, The Case from Outer Space. Thanks to the good people at Macmillan for making it happen. Sorry about the extra step of copying and pasting — you’ll really work up a sweat! — but it’s the best I can do.

That’s it, that’s all I’ve got for you today. Carry on!

 

https://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/activity-guides/9781250110176AG.pdf?utm_source=exacttarget&utm_medium=eblast&utm_term=na-201709mcpgschlinl&utm_content=na-learnmore-readingguide&utm_campaign=201709mcpgschlinl

 

Notes on Revising Jigsaw Jones, Confronting Sexism, and a Changing World

This piece was originally posted with the help of my friend Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer) at the Nerdy Book Club, a great site for teachers and librarians and book lovers of all sizes and shapes and backgrounds. On school visits, I’m often asked about revision. Actually, teachers often ask — the kids, not so much. Which pretty much underscores the issue. Revision is essential to all good writing, but most young writers just want to be done. They want to type those two glorious words, THE END. Maybe my little essay below will help pull the curtain back in an interesting way into one writer’s experience with revising books . . . that were already finished. It never ends, it never, ever ends.

 

Writers are not often given the opportunity to revise our work post-publication. We labor like the dickens throughout the writing process -– drafting, daydreaming, dithering -– until those last desperate hours of corrections. Then we let the book go scampering off into the wild. Not perfect, not ever perfect, but the best we could do at the time.

In the case of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, I’ve enjoyed a unique experience. The books had gone out of print with my original publisher. And then, to my great delight, the good folks at Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan) decided to bring the books back into print. The plan was to launch with a brand-new title, The Case from Outer Space, but also to bring back eight previously published titles that had been unavailable.

I was given the rare chance to go back and fix things. Update, revise, tweak, correct. It’s been an instructive experience. I’ll begin with a specific example. Early in The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur, Jigsaw is having a catch with Mila. The book read:

 

I threw the baseball in a high, long arc to Mila. She drifted back and caught it easily. Mila is a pretty good ballplayer. She is also my partner. We’re detectives.

 

One word troubled me. Pretty. Mila was a pretty good ballplayer. There was something condescending there, a hint of sexism. It doesn’t read “for a girl,” but it’s implied. So, working closely with assistant editor, Anna Poon, we decided to simply strike that word. Now it reads: Mila is a good ballplayer.

There, much better. Plain and simple, a stated fact. For the most part, that’s been the kind of revision I’ve done. Sure, the world has changed; there were issues with phones in several places. But overall I was relieved to see that the sentences didn’t bother me. I wasn’t constantly pulling out my hair, ashamed at sloppy constructions. I didn’t feel a need to rewrite the books in a major way.

I’d learned while writing the series to (mostly) avoid specific cultural references. But even so, I slipped up. So I needed to strike references to Britney Spears’ bellybutton (shaking head, even now), Blue’s Clues, baseball slugger Mike Piazza, and Barney the (annoying) Dinosaur. It would be more relatable for young readers if I shifted to generic descriptions, i.e., the hit song on the radio.

Wait: Do radios still exist? Do stereos? Better to have the music blast from the speakers and leave it at that.

The world keeps shifting, and it was fascinating to see that change through the perspective of books that were written only 10-15 years ago. In The Case of the Bicycle Bandit, Jigsaw makes “photocopies” of a flyer. “Camcorders whirred” in The Case of the Mummy Mystery. But not anymore, folks.

I didn’t find much in the way of terrible, shameful mistakes. Some issues crept into a book here and there. Nothing horrible –- and even defensible from the perspective that the book’s narrator, Jigsaw Jones, might himself be a little imperfect. He’s just a boy after all. I didn’t want to sterilize the books, but here was my chance to revisit these stories and think them through one more time.

There was a star athlete in The Case of the Smelly Sneaker (formerly titledThe Case of the Sneaker Sneak, a title I loathed and was eager to change), Lydia Zuckerman. Something a little off slipped into my descriptions of Lydia. Her nickname, for example, was “The Brown Street Bruiser.”

At one point, Jigsaw made this regrettable observation: “She’s not a girl. She’s a . . . a . . . terrorist in tights.”

Um, not cool, not now, and not really what I meant to say. Also there was this description:

 

Lydia Zuckerman was in fifth grade, but she already looked like an NFL linebacker. Lydia was tough – a stomping, sneering, snarling mass of muscles.

 

On another page, Lydia is described as “big and mean.”

Okay, I get it. I was trying to be lightly humorous. I played up the fear that Jigsaw and the other boys might have for a strong, powerful, imposing girl. But in retrospect I feel like I missed an opportunity to say something deeper, more meaningful. After all, I am the father of a 16-year-old daughter, Maggie, who is a strong, tall, dedicated athlete. I didn’t want to reduce Lydia to a cartoon. So instead of “big and mean,” Jigsaw now describes her as “tall and talented.” And Lydia is now known as “The Brown Street Superstar.”

Nuance, mostly.

I feel better about it, glad that I had a chance to revise these eight books and share them again with a new generation of readers. And what is revision if not the chance to step back, to see again? And maybe, here and there, in small ways, to go back and try to make it better.

 

James Preller is the author of the acclaimed novels Six Innings, Bystander, The Fall, and The Courage Test and the Scary Tales series, all published by Feiwel and Friends. He has also written several picture books, but is perhaps best known for the Jigsaw Jones series. He travels to classrooms around the country and maintains a blog about writing and literacy. He lives in Delmar, New York, with his family.