Archive for November 30, 2008

James Preller Interviews . . . Author Ellen Miles

I’ve been cleaning and vacuuming all day because we’re having a special guest. Ellen Miles has spent her adult career involved in children’s books in some capacity, as an editor, an advocate, and a writer. Ellen has recently enjoyed rising popularity with her “Puppy Place” series for Scholastic. But more than any of those credentials, Ellen is here because she’s my friend.

And look, that’s her walking up the front path.

Ellen, it’s so nice of you to stop by.

Thanks for having me. I truly appreciate this opportunity to procrastinate in a brand-new way.

Do you remember when we first met, back around 85-86, when we both worked at Scholastic? Craig Walker was there, throwing punchlines at people like Phoebe Yeh, Brenda Bowen, Holly Kowitt, and Jan Carr. I was a junior copywriter and . . . you were in mailroom, right?

I was the junior elevator operator. Actually I was the editor of the TAB book club, which is for middle school kids. My job was to figure out which thirty or so items to offer each month, ranging from serious fiction to posters of kittens in sunglasses.

Did you get to write those clever phrases on the posters, like, “Hang In There!” Or my current favorite, “Cattitude!”

No, that task went to the editorial assistants. I wish I got the royalties for “Hang In There!”

I hate to say this, but they even made it into a book about “inspirational art of the 1970s.”

In that job, I also got to edit some original fiction. One of the best parts (aside from the lifelong friends I made there) was that I got to read People magazine at my desk, since part of my job was to be on top of current trends.

What did you learn as an editor that helps you as a writer today?

That editors are not the enemy. I love the editing process. I’ve always seen editors as equivalent to coaches for athletes — an editor is just someone who helps a writer be and do her best. I also learned a lot about the basic craft of writing.

Okay, sure. But if editors aren’t the enemy . . . then who is?

I don’t know about you, but I’m my own worst enemy.

You seem to have found a true home in the wilds of Vermont.

I love Vermont with all my heart and it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else. As a kid I spent all my summers here and I think I always knew I’d end up here when I was a grownup. Not that I’m a grownup yet.

Vermont is incredibly beautiful, has a low population thanks to its long winters (which I love, both the winters and the population that is), and feels like an island of progressive sanity in a world gone awry. It’s no surprise that Vermont was the first state to come in for Obama on election night, and that it gave Obama the highest percentage of votes of any states save D.C. and Hawaii. Living in Vermont, it’s easy to be green, non-materialistic, local, and all that other good stuff that other people are just catching on to.

I am your basic NPR-listening, granola-crunching, Subaru-driving, compost-making, do-gooder liberal, so I fit right in here. I was enough of a city girl to resist Birkenstocks for many years, and while I have finally capitulated to those I still vow to never wear a denim jumper over a turtleneck.

Hold on, you’re not one of those hippies I read about who threw their Birkenstocks at Karl Rove’s car?

Did you know that Vermont was the only state Bush never visited during his time in office? Maybe it’s because if he did show up we planned to prosecute him for war crimes.

Back to your fabulous career before this becomes too much like “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” It seems like “The Puppy Place” series is doing really well. Tell us about it.

The series is about a family who fosters puppies, and each book is centered on a different puppy. The books are sweet, easy to read, and crammed with doggie love and doggie info. They always have a happy ending (as the tagline says, “Where every puppy finds a home”), and there’s no dark stuff unless you include the occasional housetraining “mistake.”

Hey, poop happens.

Exactly. The series came about when our old friend, Craig Walker, knowing that I loved dogs and knew a lot about them, suggested I write some books about puppies. “Something where we can slap a big picture of a cute puppy on the cover,” is what I remember him saying.

Yes, I can hear Craig saying exactly that.

There are now thirteen Puppy Place titles in print with at least five more coming down the pike, and I’ve sold more than a million copies in the US, the UK, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. Kids and dogs have a strong mutual attraction, and young readers seem to love these books.

I’ve talked to other series writers about this. I guess we all have a little bit of an ugly step-sister kind of experience. On one hand, the books are bought and read and loved. But at the same time, they are critically ignored, never reviewed, seemingly unread by the “people who matter.”

Sometimes I like the freedom and anonymity of not being reviewed. It seems that the world of literary children’s literature and YA is a feverish contest for awards and reviews and recognition, and I sometimes wonder whether people are writing for kids or for the adults on the awards committees. I’m definitely writing for kids – and frankly I’m also writing to pay the mortgage. It’s hard to imagine having the luxury of writing anything I wanted, without worrying whether a publisher would publish it or readers would buy it. Maybe someday I’ll have that luxury and it’ll be interesting to see what I produce.

I hear you about the mortgage. I wrote two books about Norfin Trolls under the name Mitzy Kafka. I worked as a ghostwriter. I wrote an unauthorized biography of “The Rock.” I wrote a picture book adaptation of the direct-to-video classic, “Slappy and the Stinkers!” There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t write. I wrote four books based on an unpopular toy — a toy “craze” that never got crazy — under the name, Izzy Bonkers. Let’s see Jean Craighead George top that!

I can top that: I once wrote some books based on video games. Then there’s the crowning glory of my writing-for-hire ouevre, my novelization of that classic film, Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas! Many of my friends still think my coolest gig ever was writing Scooby-Doo books.

I used a pen name for a lot of my work-for-hire jobs, but sometimes I forgot to do that, so if you Google me certain books come up that make me feel like I’m walking around with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe.

That’s so great, Ellen. I’ve done about half-a-dozen rescue jobs, where a manuscript was so bad it was beyond editing, so they sent it to me for a torched-earth rewrite. Hey, I just remembered another one: I did a picture book adaptation of the second Pee-Wee Herman movie, “Big Top Pee Wee.” You know, the one Tim Burton didn’t make.

I once wrote about how to choose a dog dish, for a pet website.

You enjoy getting fan mail, don’t you?

I love it. It’s the best part of the job. Kids send me pictures of themselves and their dogs. They decorate their letters with drawings. They tell me that my books ROCK!!!! and that I’m the best author ever, they give me ideas for future plots, they tell me about books they’re writing. I have my favorites hanging on my study wall and I read them over and over. The bottom line about series writing vs. literary writing is that whether or not my books have lasting merit, they do get kids excited about reading, and to me that’s the best possible outcome. Nothing compares to the thrill of getting a letter from a kid who says, “PS, Before I read your books I never liked to read. Thanks for making reading more fun,” or from a parent who writes to say “Thank you for making our daughter into an independent reader.”

I have to say, Ellen, you strike me as really happy these days.

I am happy. I love where I live, and I have a great job, a terrific boyfriend, and wonderful friends and family.

You, um, have a boyfriend? Don’t tell me he’s one of those hulking lumberjack types they’ve got running around in the mountains up there?

No, he’s more of a SNAG, you know, a Sensitive New-Age Guy. Drives a Volvo, communicates well, cooks, vacuums, does the grocery shopping. Not that he’s a total sissy. He’s built all his own houses and he’s out chainsawing right now.

So tell me, Ellen. Just between us. Is there a part of you that wants a big hardcover book, where some reviewer like Lisa Von Drasek from The New York Times takes you seriously as an artist?

I would definitely like to develop as a writer and I’m curious about what I might be capable of, but no, I have never felt a deep urge to be a Critically Acclaimed Writer. I’m not one of those who always wanted to be a writer, and who has a passionate need to tell my story to the world. I fell into writing sideways. It’s the best job I can imagine and I’m good at my craft, and for now that’s enough. That said, of course I’m working on a middle grade novel on the side, though I have no expectations for where it might go or if I’ll even ever finish it. It’s really just an experiment and a way to learn more about writing. I’m in a writer’s group with two writer friends, and their support and encouragement and guidance is a wonderful thing.

Hey, I loved that photo you sent. You look so content and relaxed to be sitting with that small group of kids. Where was that taken?

That was a party given by a fantastic reading-mentoring program I’m involved with, called Everybody Wins. The Vermont chapter honored me this year with an award for my contribution to children’s literacy. They threw a happy, chaotic kids’ party during the day and had a gala Book Bash for adults in the evening, at which I (yikes!) had to make a speech. I’ve mentored three girls over the years and have shanghaied my mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, and several friends into becoming mentors as well. The program is elegant in its simplicity — all you do is go to the elementary school on your lunch hour and read with a kid for forty-five minutes — and yet it has an amazing impact on the kids and on the mentors as well.

I’ve participated in a similar program here. (Of course, nobody threw me a fancy gala.) It’s neat when you see some of those kids again, five, ten years down the line. You spy each other across a room and, it’s hard to describe, but you both know you had that time together. And they know you were there – you cared enough to show up every week — and nothing can take that connection away.

One of my former mentees, who I first met when she was in third grade, is now in eighth. We’re still friends and always will be. She came to my gala. (So sad that you’ve never had a gala.)

Believe me, Ellen. It is enough — more than enough — that you’ve had one. And now I see we’re out of time. Please keep this handsome set of carving knives as a parting gift!

Thanks, Jimmy! It was fun.

Wait, almost forgot the Lightning Round! Favorite books?

Ellen Tebbits, Beverly Cleary; War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy.


Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan; On Green Dolphin Street, Miles Davis; Something New, The Beatles (the first record I ever owned).


The Last Waltz, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, Amarcord. I know, none of these books, movies or albums were created within the last twenty years. I’m a fogey, what can I say?

Type of Dog?

I’d say Labs. Or any kind of puppy.

Ten Best Christmas Movies

As the author of the Jigsaw Jones series, I’ve been told by more than one editor that I am “so Jigsaw.” And I suppose that’s reasonably true. But I also identify with Jigsaw’s father. He is, like me, a list-maker. (By the way, Nick Hornby nailed that particular aspect of maleness in his book, High Fidelity — that atavistic urge to build fires, hunt, and make lists.) The scene below was inspired by interactions with my own children. At this time of year, we seem to always make a list to plan “The Christmas Movies We’ve Got to See.”

The scene below, which contains said list, comes early in Jigsaw Jones Super Special #4: The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery, soon after Jigsaw’s father has despaired over the empty materialism of the holidays. He has just insisted, over protests, that the family remain together to decorate the tree. This book is, by the way, one of my favorites in the series. Jigsaw tackles the ultimate mystery, the big man in the red suit, in a way that I hope is satisfying (and not disillusioning) for readers of all persuasions.

“But I have plans . . .” Hillary protested.

“You heard your father, Hill,” my mother said. “We’re going to do something nice together — or else.”

For a while there, I worried that “or else” was going to win. But once we got started, we had fun. Even Hillary. Grams baked sugar cookies. Billy brought down his guitar and played rockin’ versions of Christmas tunes. Then my mom pulled out the DVD of A Charlies Brown Christmas.

“Ah, a classic,” my father beamed. “My favorite Christmas show ever.”

After we watched it, we started talking about all of our favorite Christmas shows.

“Let’s make a list,” my father suggested.

“Oh, your father and his lists,” my mother groaned, laughing.

“Hey,” he protested. “I love lists!”

“So let’s do it,” I said.

We got to work on a list of the Ten Best Christmas Shows in the History of the World. Then we promised to watch every single one this year. Here’s our list:

A Charlie Brown Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (original version, duh)

A Christmas Story

The Polar Express

The Santa Clause


Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Miracle on 34th Street

Home Alone

A Christmas Carol

“Pretty good,” Grams said, looking over the list when we finished. “But you have to add It’s a Wonderful Life.”

That’s when I got a phone call from Sally Ann Simms. It sounded important. “I have a case for you,” she said. “Are you still doing detective work over Christmas?”

“You bet,” I replied. “A good detective is always on the job. For a dollar a day, I make problems go away.”

We arranged to meet the next day. I hung up the phone and rushed back to the discussion. “You can’t scratch Elf off the list,” I exclaimed. “He pours maple syrup on his spaghetti!”

NOTE: Okay, what do you make of that list? Did I miss any? Do you hate any that were included? My hands-down favorite is A Christmas Story, though there are definitely language issues that need to be addressed before viewing, and may not be suitable for every family. And for what it’s worth, I really, really detest Frosty the Snowman. I just want that guy to melt. Lastly: It just occurred to me that Santa himself is the ultimate list-maker! (Though, if the articles I’ve read are true, The Lord Almighty may lay claim to that crown on Judgment Day.)

So, Santa, I don’t know if you keep up with the children’s literature blogs or not, but if you do, please know, I’ve been awfully nice! But don’t worry about gifts just yet. I’ll send a list.

In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

Happy Thanksgiving

Not sure what I’ll accomplish this week, blog-wise. So I think we’ll see a few days of light posting, if anything. But we’ll come back strong at the end of the weekend with a terrific interview with author Ellen Miles.

As a family, every year we try to do some kind of community “work” on Thanksgiving, something simple to remind ourselves of the greater world outside. It feels right. Then we eat like wild dogs. Have a great holiday — and thanks for stopping by.

In the meantime, 74 seconds of light-hearted nonsense:

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Writers on Writing: Five Quick Quotes

True story: I just found this three-page list of typed quotes on the bottom of my t-shirt drawer. I figure it dates back seven years, from when I was working with my son’s third-grade classroom — and at which point I learned, not coincidentally, that I knew nothing about how to teach writing.

All I had in my bag of tricks was encourage, encourage, encourage.

Anyway, these quotes come mostly from interviews I enjoyed, but also possibly from the supporting research I did. I’ll parcel them out over time in spoonfuls, five per blog entry:

Writing is very difficult and gives me a great deal of pleasure, partly because it is so difficult.” — Maurice Sendak.

“If you work hard on something, and think about it very deeply, new ideas sort of bubble to the surface. I find that while rewriting — even just retyping a page — new things come in that I hadn’t thought about before. Rewriting is important. I don’t think you are finished after only one or two drafts. Rewriting is not only polishing sentences; it is also a process of searching for new things to improve your story.” — Bernard Waber.

“I revise and revise and revise. I’m so picky. Yonder took me seven years to write. That book meant a lot to me. I wanted it to be perfect.” — Tony Johnston.

“Writing a story is like going down a path in the woods. You follow the path. You don’t worry about getting lost. You just go.” — Jan Brett.

“You never want to write about a perfect person. Look at Ramona Quimby. She’s not perfect — but it’s the failings that remind us of ourselves. That’s what builds character.” — Patricia Reilly Giff.

Obama’s Use of Complete Sentences Stirs Controversy

I liked this short piece, written by Andy Borowitz and published by The Huffington Post online, “Obama’s Use of Complete Sentences Stirs Controversy.”

It reads in part:

In the first two weeks since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has broken with a tradition established over the past eight years through his controversial use of complete sentences, political observers say.

Millions of Americans who watched Mr. Obama’s appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday witnessed the president-elect’s unorthodox verbal tic, which had Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opened his mouth.

But Mr. Obama’s decision to use complete sentences in his public pronouncements carries with it certain risks, since after the last eight years many Americans may find his odd speaking style jarring.

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You fool me, you can’t get fooled again.

James Preller Interviews . . . Daniel Mahoney

I’m with Daniel Mahoney, a local illustrator who I first heard about from Frank Hodge, the legendary bookseller from Hodge-Podge Books in Albany. I ran into Daniel at a Planet Fitness (in our line of work, aerobic fitness is essential), and later at a book signing. But we’ve never officially hung out.

Quick story: We have a local organization, the Children’s Literature Connection, comprised of area teachers, librarians, authors and illustrators. Every once in a while I receive a postcard inviting me to an “Author’s Tea,” where the group presumably gets together, visits an artist’s studio, drinks tea (I’m guessing!), and, um . . . sings bawdy sea shanties? It’s probably a wonderful afternoon. But historically, I’m not much of a joiner. So I grumble, “Author’s tea? Invite me to an Author’s Beer and maybe I’ll show.” No hard feelings.

I mentioned this to Daniel, and he sympathized. So now we have plans, along with Jeffrey Scherer and Matt McElligott, to begin a new local tradition, sans tea.

Good morning, Daniel. Uh, dude, could you stop working and look at me? What’s on your drawing table right now?

I’m putting the finishing touches on the cover for a book proposal I’m about to send out. It’s titled, Monstergarten.

Great title. What’s it about?

It’s about a monster’s first day of school, and he’s nervous about the whole thing. The last painting I made was an interior illustration that I will be sending out with the dummy. It’s the opening scene of the book where the monster attempts to scare someone in preparation for his big day.

So that’s what it takes to sell a book? You have to send in a manuscript, book dummy, cover, and a sample of interior art?

When I send it to my agent, yes. She is in NYC as we speak (or type), showing it around. That’s pretty much the standard submission these days.

You still work as an X-ray technologist. Does that mean, like, you can tell what I just ate for breakfast?

I actually work only part-time as an X-ray technologist, so I can only see your eggs and toast on a part-time basis.

It still sounds gross. At what point did you decide to make the shift to children’s books? Was there a specific moment?

Well, I had been pondering about how to express myself with my art and earn a living at the same time. After not having any success publishing a comic strip in the newspaper, it hit me one day while shopping for my niece in a bookstore. As I perused the children’s section, I was in awe of all the beautiful books that people were creating for kids. I thought, I could do that, and knew right there and then that’s what I wanted to do.

Were you an artist as a child?

I’ve been drawing since I was three and a half years old, when my mother used to say I was the good one out of the three of us boys. I would sit with my crayons and paper at the coffee table while my brothers were out tormenting cats or whatever.

But you didn’t go to art school?

I did not go to art school. I’ve always loved to draw; and that’s key. I’ve been given a gift, and I’ve merely tried to take that gift as far as I can — and I continue to hone that gift and use it to the best of my ability. You never reach your “best” with art. You can always get better with constant practice and diligence.

I don’t know if you saw that I recently referenced a comment by James Marshall. He basically said that he was glad he never went to art school, because he felt it might take away his originality. Mark Teague is another guy I think of who was “self-taught,” as they say. There are probably many, many others.

Yes, I did see that, and it made me feel better about never going to art school. He makes a good point, and I’ll remember it every time I get stuck on a painting and wish I went to art school.

Your books earned some really nice reviews. The Saturday Escape and The Perfect Clubhouse were listed as Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year. A Really Good Snowman was named in a 2006 Kansas State Reading Circle Recommendation. That must have been enormously vindicating.

When my first three books came out, I was very new to the business. To tell you the truth, I never paid a lot of attention to that stuff. Now I appreciate what those acknowledgments mean.

Can we talk about your style a little bit? It’s so distinctive. I’m stumbling for words, because I don’t have the language to describe it. You have almost a folk-art approach, an old-timey sort of flatness to the composition. Am I making any sense at all?

Yes, perfect sense. My style arose from my knowledge (or lack thereof) of how to paint. I basically went to the art store and bought a bunch of watercolors because that’s what I noticed other children’s book illustrators using. I started experimenting with the paints, and gradually my style emerged. No instructor was there to tell me I was doing something right or wrong, so I just let loose with the brush. After much time and a lot of mistakes I developed a style that publishers seem to like.

Well, the style suits your subject matter. There’s a genuine warmth and gentleness to your stories. I saw that you recently attended the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. That sounds pretty cool. I never get invited anywhere.

I actually didn’t get invited. I asked the director if I could attend, and she said sure. I bet you could do the same.

I guess I’m like that shy guy at the roller rink, hoping that some girl with sweaty hands will ask me to skate during “Lady’s Choice.” It’s sad, really. I’m going to have to work up the courage.

It’s the third year I’ve been to the festival, and it just gets bigger and bigger every year. Last year they sold 35,000 books! Usually 35-45 authors and illustrators attend every year, including James Howe, Michelle Knudsen, Vivian Van Velde, and Paul O. Zelinsky, a personal hero whose artwork is sheer genius. I actually ate Indian food right next to him the night before the festival. He and a bunch of other authors and illustrators were staying in my hotel, so we just arranged this nice little outing to get to know each other. You have got to attend, Jimmy. Tell them I said so.

Okay, Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?

Bedtime for Francis, The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak, Awful Ogre’s Awful Day, everything by Dr Suess.

I don’t know Awful Ogre. What’s special about that book?

It’s an awfully good book of poems, written by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. It’s a book about grossness and yucky stuff in general that my four-year-old and I just eat up. These two masters of good, sick fun have created the funniest, most brilliant book about a day in the life of an awful ogre in all his disgusting glory.

Favorite musicians?

Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Eminem, The Cranberries.

That’s some diverse collection. I’d love to see them eat brunch together. You know, James Taylor asking Eminem to please pass the huevos rancheros and in return getting, like, stabbed in the neck with a fork, then the girl from the Cranberries writing a really mournful song about it.

But I digest. Top Movies?

Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, Boys Don’t Cry, Halloween, Monster, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, The Incredibles, Ratatouille.


Chocolate cake — by a long shot.

Okay, Daniel. I can see the guy with the cue cards is waving frantically, so I guess our time is up. Thanks a lot. Good luck with Monstergarten. I’ll see you around.

Yes, we should have tea sometime.

It Was 40 Years Ago Today . . .

On November 22nd, 1968, The Beatles came out with a double-album, brilliantly packaged in a plain white cover. Officially titled, “The Beatles,” it became more familiarly known as “The White Album.”

I was seven at the time. The album included four glossy photos of each Beatle: John, Paul, Ringo, George. I remember staring at those faces, memorizing the names. Anyway, there’s all sorts of reminiscences on the web — here, there, and everywhere.

Here’s a clip of a young Alison Krauss singing “I Will, ” a minor track off a major album.

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Around the Horn: The “Me, Me, Me!” Edition

Weird confluence of things in a 24-hour period, with five books colliding. Let’s recap:

* In the mail yesterday, the first hot-off-the-presses copy of Mighty Casey!

I love this book, it’s beautifully published, and I’m so happy that it brought Matthew Cordell into my world. That said, it’s always oddly deflating to receive the finished book. It’s over, done, finished. After all that build-up, years in the making. It’s like that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller song from the tailend of the Brill Building era: “Is That All There Is?” If you don’t know this 1968 tune, here’s how it opens, as spoken and sung by Peggy Lee:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement. I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire?”

* In the mail today, the first-pass galleys to Bystander (Fall, ’09), my “bully book” set in a middle school. To me, this is more exciting, because we’re in the thick of it. Here’s my first chance to see this book set in type. I’ll see the typeface, the way they handled chapter openings, the leading, margin width, the feel and heft of the whole thing. I’ll find out how it pages out, the length. And I’ll read it through again, pen in hand, for the 50th time (approximation). This pass represents my last chance to make corrections before it goes to bound galleys, otherwise known as “uncorrected” review copies. Even so, there will be more opportunities to overthink the whole thing.

* I got word last night from Shannon Penney that Along Came Spider was reviewed by Booklist (see below). For some reason, this book has been deadly quiet, met with a collective yawn. Not reviewed at all in PW, SLJ, Horn Book, any of the traditional venues. So I’m grateful to John Peters at Booklist for reading it, and for the review:

The lifelong friendship between two fifth graders—one with a mild spectrum disorder—hits the rocks but emerges intact in this perceptive tale from the author of Six Innings (2008). Feeling conflicted but wanting to fit in better with his classmates at Spiro T. Agnew Elementary, Robert (nicknamed Spider) uncomfortably tries to put some distance between himself and his buddy Trey, whose obsessions, lack of sensitivity to social cues, and general clumsiness have resulted in a reputation for being “out there.” Acting on Spider’s suggestion that he make other friends, Trey beats the odds and finds two: the school’s young librarian and a genial new classmate named Ava. Spider also makes another friend, and by the end discovers that there’s still room in his life for Trey. By regularly switching points of view, Preller gives readers a chance to see the situation from each boy’s angle and to consider the central insight that differences aren’t always as important as they seem.

* I posted yesterday about Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Secret Skeleton. Scholastic is in the process of making the cover. And since I’m working with a new editor on this one, I need to check in and make sure I’ll get another chance to make corrections in galleys. Because — get this — it’s not perfect.

* Amidst all this background noise, I’m supposed to be writing a new book. I’m in the early stages of Joker (a working title I’m not loving), which mostly means jotting down notes, reading things, daydreaming, hoping to sort out in my mind some kind of shape and scope of this thing before jumping in with both feet. I want it to be funny, and that’s so much easier to describe than actually pull off. I don’t have the voice yet. Now I just kind of write and think, “This so blows.” I guess you could say we’re in the Self-Loathing Stage. Always fun.

Okay, here’s the immortal Peggy Lee:

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Jigsaw Jones Cover: Part 4, Sketches Are In!

This is the fourth installment of a series of posts following the creation of a single book cover for Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Secret Skeleton. In Part One I interviewed Scholastic editor Matt Ringler, and we talked about the “cover concept.” For Part Two, illustrator R.W. Alley agreed to giving us a look behind the scenes. In Part Three, our interview with R.W. Alley gave us a fuller appreciation of book covers from the artist’s perspective — it also gave us a chance to “meet” R.W.’s alter-ego, Bob.

Now it gets fun, as the cover moves from word to image. R.W. Alley just sent me some rough sketches. By way of explanation, he wrote:

Attached here are three (well, one is sort of a repeat) sketches that I doodled up last night. I think I like the one with the case title stacked in the doorway. Smaller Jigsaw (might be a problem), but bigger skeleton. In any case, this is how I usually work. Sketch the idea in with a red pencil (sometimes, blue), go over that with a dip-in-the-ink-bottle pen called a crowquill, then add color pencil to simulate, if not actually create, color. The actual drawings are about four by three inches and not in proportion to the final book size, so that will be something to be annoyed about later on. I’ll send both cover ideas to the editor and wait.

Twenty-eight minutes after the first batch of sketches, Bob sent another email:

Hi Jimmy,

As I was sending the first sketches, this third composition occurred to me. The editors like to have Jigsaw pretty big on the covers, so maybe this will suite better.



Here’s a reminder of the original cover concept as presented by “the Scholastics” to the illustrator:

Jigsaw Jones is sneaking into the janitor’s storage closet. We see him standing in the doorway. It’s dark but Jigsaw has a flashlight. In a back corner, lit up by the beam of light is a plaster human skeleton, hanging from a stand by its head. The skeleton should be the size of a normal person, like the ones used in science class to study anatomy. Jigsaw looks frightened. We can also see the normal paraphernalia that would be in the storage closet (i.e. mops, brooms, buckets, etc.). Visibly crumpled in the skeleton’s hand is a piece of paper (a clue).


NOTE: Here’s some links to the all the posts in this seven-part series: One, Two, Three, FourFive, and Six, and Seven. Read them all and experience the awe and wonder of the creative, collaborative process!

Fan Mail Wednesday #21

Time’s a-wasting, so away we go:

Dear Mr Preller,

I recently read The Case of the Best Pet Ever. The main character of the book is funny and likes finding out mysteries. I noticed that Rags looks a lot like Daisy. Rags sleeps, drools, barks at the door bell and never seems to get things where he means to put them. Is that just like Daisy?

Is Rain just like your daughter? I liked her because she was the owner of the pet store and I love pets. I really liked when the ferret helped the team discover the mystery of how they lost their stuff. I also liked the time when all the pets came together for the contest and it got really nutty. Our family has stuff like that happen. Does your family have that kind of fun also? I also really liked how the little piece of fur lead them to discover the mystery of who was taking their stuff. I think it will help me to try to notice little things each day.

My favorite chapter is Rags to Riches, because at the end it tells us who took all their stuff. At Fins and Feathers it was really neat to imagine how crazy it was. I also thought it was cool that Rain the girl character was so active. I really felt like I knew her and I liked her because she was a girl.

Continued Success,


I replied:

Hi Reece,

Thanks for your kind and well-written note. You are an observant reader. Like a good detective, you notice small details.

You are right about Rags — he does look like my current dog, Daisy. But it’s only a coincidence.

When I wrote that book, we had a basset hound named Seamus (the book is dedicated to him). Seamus ate socks, stole food off the table, drooled constantly, and smelled bad. And those were his best features! He inspired aspects of Rags. While doing research, I discovered a Doggie IQ Test. You place a towel over the dog’s head and observe its reaction. An alert dog quickly shakes off the towel. A medium dog might wait a few seconds before responding. And a dog like Seamus sits and wonders who turned out the lights. Or in Rags’ case, falls asleep!

Jigsaw gets pretty bummed about Rags — he wasn’t going to win any talent shows — until Jigsaw realizes Rags’ true talent. As Jigsaw notes late in the book:

The big fur ball loved me with all his heart. Every minute of every hour of every day.

And that’s no small trick.

My father patted me on the shoulder. “A wise man once said, ‘Try to be the person your dog thinks you are.'”

He smiled and headed back into the kitchen. “I have an important meeting with a cheesecake,” he explained.

What else? Oh, yeah, you mentioned Rain. I wanted her father to be a “crunchy granola” type, thus his daughter’s name. I liked Jigsaw’s line after his brother, Billy, tells Jigsaw that his new girlfriend’s name is Rain. Jigsaw asks, “Does she have a sister named Partly Cloudy?”

My best,


P.S. This was a difficult book for me, because when I was writing it my oldest son, Nicholas, became sick with leukemia. Though I did my best to keep working, my concentration was not great. And writing is nothing if not concentration. I finally asked my publisher for help and Howie Dewin stepped in as co-author. While this book is mostly me, some parts are not. The whole experience was a blur. So I look at that book and feel like it could have been better. It sort of bothers me. After that I took a break, then came back strong with Jigsaw Jones #23: The Case of the Perfect Prank.

P.S.S. Nick is doing great, by the way!