Archive for August 13, 2008

Fan Mail Wednesday #9

Yes, it’s that time of week again — Fan Mail Wednesday! Sound the trumpets, roast a wildebeest! As I’ve noted before, summer is definitely the slow season when it comes to fan mail, so I’m grateful for whatever I can get, especially when it comes from a parent who is writing simply to express thanks. Such a nice thing to do. Of course, I wrote a ridiculous reply because sometimes I just can’t stop myself; now I’m hoping that Terri doesn’t hate me.


Hello James,

We just wanted to drop you a note to tell you how much we are enjoying your Jigsaw Jones series, we are on book 19 and are reading them in sequence. Sara and Noah (who are six years old twins) really enjoy them. It has become the nightly routine before bed to read two or three chapters. They really are enjoying the books with laughter every night and trying to figure out the mysteries with the clues you give early in the books.

Here are the notes from Noah and Sara:

From Sara,

I really love your books a lot! I like that jigsaw like to solve mysteries.

From Noah,

I love your books! I like that Jigsaw solves the mysteries with Mila. My favorite book was the disappearing dinosaur, because it was about magic. I love Jigsaw Jones!!!! Bye.

Thanks again for the wonderful books,

Chad, Terri, Sara, and Noah

I replied:

Dear Chad, Terri, Sara, and Noah.

Okay, it’s nice that I got praise from Chad, Sara, and Noah — but where’s Terri? I mean, she signs off at the end, but I’m not feeling the love.

Maybe Terri can write back and tell me how wonderful I am.

I’ll wait.

Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dum.

But, okay, seriously (and I’m speaking now to Chad, Sara, and Noah — NOT Terri): Thanks so much for that kind note. You know, authors write stories and the books get printed and go out into the world and you never hear back from them. So it means a lot to hear from actual readers — TWINS, even! — who enjoy the books. I have three kids, ages 15, 9, and 7, and we’re always looking for good things to read. And I’m so grateful when we find books that my kids will enjoy, books that get them reading, turning pages, thinking. I’m in awe to play a small part in that process, and touched that you three (not Terri) took the effort to write to me and say those kind things.

It occurs to me that I’ve been assuming that Terri is Chad’s wife. But perhaps Terri is your pet or something, a little box turtle in a plastic tray or something, in which case I totally forgive Terri for not sending any fan mail — since everybody knows turtles are notoriously poor typists.

Keep reading, keep enjoying books, and thanks again for the note (and my apologies for the crazy response!).

My best,


P.S. You know, in all seriousness, thanks for that note. I appreciate it!

EDIT: I immediately received this reply (isn’t the internet wonderful?):

Terri here, also known as mommy, sorry not a box turtle, was out grocery shopping when the original e mail was sent. I let Chad speak on my behalf, but I’ll say a few words on my own here. We love the books! Myself included. I have to read the chapters I missed on the rare nights when I’m out doing errands to catch up so I’m ready for the next night. The kids can’t wait to read them, they’ve been their first choice for bedtime ever since we discovered them. Thanks so much!


The Onion News just cracks me up, what can I say? Here’s a good one. Some of their pieces have language issues and adult content, but here’s one that’s fun for the whole family. If you are ever looking to kill twenty minutes, go to youtube and search “The Onion.”

I believe this dog’s cousin lives around the corner from me . . .

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Finding the Story: Writing Spider

I plan on writing a series of “behind-the-scenes” blog entries about my experience writing the book, Along Came Spider. My writing process, if you will. Sigh. I have to confess that the thought of it makes me want to hurl, since it borders on self-obsession and pretentiousness. I really don’t want to this be about me, per say, but that’s all I’ve got, my story. Here’s how I came to write a single book.


A few years ago, two editors at Scholastic, Craig Walker and Shannon Penney, came to me with an idea. They wondered if I’d like to try writing for readers who were slightly older than my Jigsaw Jones audience (ages 6-9, approximately). They also hoped that I could make it a school-based story, probably for grades 4-5. I agreed to give it a shot.

But . . . what next?

I didn’t have a grasp on 4th- and 5th-grade classrooms, so that became the first order of business. I couldn’t begin writing until I could speak with author/ity on that world. While writing Jigsaw, I sat in on many, many 2/3 classes; I enjoyed it, learned from it, was inspired by those sessions of silent watching. The ideas came organically, growing from the specificity of that soil. I contacted a local fifth-grade teacher, Chris Porter at Glenmont Elementary, because I’d known her for years, admired her enthusiasm for literature and her commitment to teaching. With openness and warmth, Chris invited me into her classroom, where I was free to visit any time throughout the school year. Over a period of six months, I came and went as I wished, sitting in the back, silently observing. If something particularly cool was going on, Chris might send me a note. Like, oh, “For our Canada unit, we’re making an eight-foot long paper mache moose. It’s a mess, and it’s crazy, and we don’t really have any time to do it, but it’s so much fun! You’ve got to come and see it.”

I didn’t have a story in mind. I didn’t know what I was looking for. My goal was to sit and absorb the goings-on of a lively, creative classroom, and see what comes of it. I saw the flow of the school day, the way things worked. I filled a composition book with random notes, quick character sketches, hair-brained ideas. No story yet, but I was getting a handle on that world. I soon realized that sitting in a well-structured classroom was not nearly enough. I needed to see the students “in the wild,” meaning: recess, the lunch room, gym, on the bus. That is, all the time they were away from Chris’s watchful eye, when they had more freedom to interact, to be themselves, to mess up.

Eventually the themes in this story — which was to become Along Came Spider — began to take hold. I began deeply interested in exclusion and inclusion, in how some kids didn’t quite fit with the larger group. At the younger grades, eccentric behavior was more easily absorbed. But after a few years — second grade, third, fourth — the students become more familiar with each other. I could see how some of them were in danger of becoming increasingly isolated. I could imagine that Middle School could easily become a problem; they were at risk of becoming lost in the crowd, alienated, separate and alone. I didn’t see students who were picked on or bullied. They were just . . . accepted, tolerated, ignored.

When responding to an email query, Chris wrote to me:

“I know as a fifth-grade teacher, I always hope that the ‘troubled’ student who doesn’t fit in the mainstream group is able to find just one friend. I truly believe you can get through anything knowing that you have someone who likes you and see you for just you — as well as someone who will include you in the most difficult times of the day — recess/lunch!”

I taped those words to the wall beside my computer. And I was on my way. I still didn’t have the story, exactly, but I had the stirrings of what I wanted to write about. Now I needed to do a new kind of research. It was time to hit the books . . .

Free Hugs

The fabulous Liz Szabla, my editor at Feiwel & Friends (and, yes, my genuine, honest-to-goodness, beloved friend) enjoyed the Dancing Matt clip so much she forwarded me a link to this video, below. Stay with it. About halfway through it takes a turn and goes to some unexpected places.

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Spider in Stock!

One of the salient features of is that it lists the sales rank of every item. So a hypothetical author could — hypothetically speaking — click on his or her book to get a sense of sales. While Amazon represents a small sample of total sales, I’ve always found it generally indicative of the big picture: a semi-unreliable barometer. My editors have warned me against looking, since it becomes a nervous tick, like picking at a scab: “Don’t do that, leave it alone, it’s disgusting.” But . . . we all do it. Because authors at their core are scared witless that nobody cares, and amazed (relieved, gratified, stunned) when anyone does.

I learned today that Along Came Spider — that hotly-awaited tome about the trials and tribulations of fifth grade — is now in stock. The current sales rank is #1,209,311. In English, folks: One million, two-hundred and nine thousand, three hundred and eleven. Ouch. Okay, it’s early yet, maybe the rest of the world hasn’t caught on. (Or, er, maybe it has?!) Isn’t that what every author fears the most? You write the book, somehow manage to get it published, and the world collectively yawns.

We shall see. In the meantime, I’ll do my part. Give me an oar and I’ll put my back into it. To that end, I’ll blog about the book every now and then, provide some inside story into the making of this legendary book. More to come, soon. Until then, come on, friends, let’s get that number under one million — I’ve got two cats and a goldfish to feed!