Archive for May 29, 2009

A Dream Goes On Forever

This song’s been in my head for the past few weeks, great lingering melody. A bare bones approach in this live version, just Todd and a piano, two minutes of pure pop for now people. Have a great weekend . . .

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Five Haiku

I’ve never written much in the way of haiku. But for some reason, I knocked out these five the other morning, rapid fire. Perhaps I was inspired by a recent second-grade poetry reading, where so many kids, including my Maggie, tried their hand at the ancient form. Seems easy, but it’s not. Or more to the point: easy to do poorly, not so easy to do well. It’s much harder to write a bad sonnet. What makes a good haiku? As you can see below, I have no idea. No one has ever accused me of being a poet. Not that it stopped me. In life, we get so much rejection; so many will tell us, “No.” The important thing, I think, is to never say no to yourself. Artists need to know that, for sure. So does everybody else. To that end: Yes, yes, yes.

Also, this blog’s guiding principle has always been to throw it out there, warts and all. Especially the warts.

So in keeping with my word for the year, here goes something . . .

Columbine, pretty

Flower, will we never learn?

Reach down, snap your neck.

Sunset on the sea.

The swimmer dragged under drowns.

Sweet color of blood.

This life is not fair.

Prepare, dear one, for heart ache.

The umpire’s blown call.

I am lost again

And surrender to the snow.

Sleep’s dark, cold embrace.

Five orphans asleep,

One blanket covers them all.

Hold tight to your dreams.

James Preller Interviews . . . Betsy Bird, of Fuse #8

It doesn’t take long for a book-loving blog-hopper to discover Betsy Bird’s A Fuse #8 Production. It is so consistently good — full of personality and life and enthusiasm for children’s books — that many of us return on a regular basis. Heck, she’s practically a Cult Figure, though without the flowing robes or talk of alien spaceships riding behind Comet Hale-Bopp.

I thought it might be fun to hang out with Betsy for a little bit. Hopefully you’ll think so, too. Hey, here she comes now . . .

Betsy, thanks for stopping by. Can I get you anything? A drink, some Ritz crackers, a cheese log?

A cheese log? Seriously? Man, I haven’t seen a good cheese log since the Blizzard of ’08. I will have some M & M’s if you have them, though.

Sorry, I’ve only got the brown M & M’s, which I save for emergencies. My cheese log memories are not blizzard-related like yours. Mine are associated with my mother’s famous Monday Bowling Nights. With seven kids, she deserved one night out, and that’s all she got. She’d return home with her bowling partner and neighbor, Mrs. Kleinberg, and they’d drink Gallo wine, smoke cigarettes, and chat. I’d crawl under the coffee table, eavesdrop, and ponder the mysterious appeal of a nutty port wine cheese log.

For me, cheese logs are entirely mythical. The kinds of things that “other people’s families” ate.  A log o’ cheese seemed so weird to me as a kid.  But enough about cylindrical cow by-products!  Let’s get this interview ah-goin’.

Betsy, you are a librarian, blogger, bon vivant, and soon-to-be-published author. So let’s start with that last part first. I understand that you recently sold two manuscripts. Congratulations, that’s really exciting. Have you been dreaming of this for a long time?

Many, many thanks! I have indeed been dreaming of this, but sort of in a lazy “that’s something I should do when I’m a grown-up” way. Then this illustrator comes along, asks if I’ll write a book if he illustrates it, and voila!  I become the luckiest librarian in the Western Hemisphere. I cannot account for the Eastern Hemisphere at this time.

I loved your “happy dance.” Understated, dignified, professional.

I try. You should see my slightly more complicated “Dance of Joy”. It involves ferrets.

The mind reels. So, tell us a little bit about the stories.

Ah.  Well, when said illustrator (I’m waiting for his name to be officially released before I “out him”, so to speak) contacted me he only had one idea.  To wit: “Giants leaping.” Awesome. So book #1 is Giant Dance Party. A small girl teaches a troop of gigantic, gangly, clumsy giants to dance. Hilarity ensues. Book #2 is still in the works, but it involves giants in New York. I can say that much.

Come on, don’t make me beg. Tell us the name of the illustrator. Or at least give us a hint. Does it rhyme with “Maurice Sendak?”

You got me. It’s Four Piece Svensack, the great Swedish performance artist of 33rd and Broadway. Okay, here’s a real hint though. My illustrator is blond.  Ha! Didn’t see that coming, did you?

That narrows it down, thanks. So that was the trigger for you, just two words, giants leaping? Did s/he show you an illustration? Did you talk about it? Or did the ideas just instantly flow?

The illustrator did send a sketch or two, now that you mention it. But only after I said something equivalent to, “That’s a frickin’ AWESOME idea!” Then I wept. We talked a lot about it, sometimes over email and sometimes over the phone. It was nice.  I hear that in most cases an author doesn’t get to interact with their illustrator like this, but it’s much more fun if it’s a joint effort, I think.

That’s correct, writers and illustrators rarely have much contact. And I suspect something may be lost in that great divide. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many great books come from one person, the multi-talented writer/illustrator. At least in those cases, there’s back-and-forth (even if it’s only inside one mind), rather than the publishing standard of writer finishes, illustrator takes over, and never the twain shall meet. Anyway, I can’t wait to see your book. When should I start camping out in front of my local independent bookstore?

No idea. I mean, some idea. It’s won’t be 2010, I’m pretty sure.  Being a cynical sally I assume 2013.  My illustrator is a happy, sweet, wonderfully optimistic sort and says 2010. Probably 2011 or 2012.

Soon you’ll be joining the fraternal organization of children’s authors and illustrators. We’re a semi-secret society, loosely modeled after the Freemasons. I’m sorry, but I can’t show you the secret handshake until the first book hits stores. Homeland security, you understand.

Understood. We librarians have our own super secret handshake anyway. It involves being double jointed (which all real librarians are anyway). And now I can be a part of the super secret children’s-librarians-turned-authors club. As it happens, my children’s room here at NYPL has had two authors before me. Marcia Brown wrote Stone Soup while working in my room, and Claire Huchet Bishop wrote The Five Chinese Brothers. So, y’know. There’s a precedent.

It makes sense that a dedicated children’s librarian would become a talented author. What’s next, “Dancing with the Stars?”

Absolutely! I mean, the first book’s all about dancing giants, right? I’m envisioning a Giant Dance Party song, a dance craze (that would involve a lot of galumphing), a music video, the works.

Where did you grow up? What brought you to the Big Apple?

I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the tourist board’s slogan is “Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!”

There is, really? I thought it was like a gag.

Nuh-uh. No gag. I’ve since made friends from Eureka and Kokomo. If I can get a pal from Walla Walla I have it made. Anywho, I was raised there, went to college in Richmond, Indiana (“Fight, fight, inner light, kill, Quakers, kill!”), lived in Portland, Oregon for a time, moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and then my husband got into Columbia University’s screenwriting program.  We’ve been here ever since, but we’re probably headed for L.A. next.

You seem to have one of the busiest, most popular blogs in the kidlitosphere. How did that all begin for you?

Ironically, with a School Library Journal article (ironic, I mean, since they now host my blog). I can’t remember what it was called, but the piece discussed children’s literary blogs, and it sounded fun. I’d already been writing reviews on Amazon.com for a lark. It wasn’t much more of a step to just start writing them on my blog as well. Then I added news. Then I started reporting on publisher events here in NYC. And then SLJ decided to buy me up so I sold out to the man and have been very happy ever since.

It’s clear from Fuse #8 that you a voracious reader, print and new media. What makes a good blog, do you think?

Personality, for one.

Personality?! Oh, rats!

Regular updates for another. If a blog can give me something I’ll find nowhere else, that’s a lure. Plus, I’m a sucker for a catchy name.

Like, um, James Preller’s Blog? How’s that for catchy?

It’s got a beat and I can dance to it. Gold, kid! Authorial blogs are sort of exempt from the whole “Catchy Name” requirement, y’know. If you start calling your site “Tin Can Phone” or something, how’s anyone going to know it’s you?

You recently published the results of a reader’s poll, asking folks to name their top ten picture books of all time. You compiled those lists to create a master list of “Top 100 Picture Books.” In what way did the results surprise you?

Ooh. Excellent question. I think I was very surprised that people didn’t send in the books they solely loved when they themselves were small children. It was a nice mix of books from the canon, books people liked now (and that their kids like right now), and books from their youth. And who could have predicted two top slots for Mo Willems? Surprising to say the least. I was also surprised that Dr. Seuss didn’t do better than he did. The man was clearly too prolific. His books split the vote over and over again.

Split the vote? You are bringing up bad memories of Ralph Nader and the 2000 election. For me, when Go, Dog. Go! wasn’t included, that pretty much made the whole list meaningless in my eyes. But still fun!

Go, Dog. Go! will have it’s day. I didn’t allow Easy Readers on my Picture Book Poll. At some point I’ll do an Easy Reader poll as well. Then you can see how the book stacks up against the likes of Frog and Toad and The Cat in the Hat.

I don’t really get the need for that distinction — but it’s your poll! Reading the results, I was happy to be reminded of old classics (never expected Millions of Cats to rank so high), or discover recent titles that I’d missed. Were you disappointed that any specific titles that didn’t make it?

Oh sure. The list is totally lacking in diversity. I think we figured out that only two of the creators were people of color. A little weird, actually. And there were certainly titles I would have considered shoo-ins. The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss for one.The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein for another. There’s no predicting what showed up.  Except for the Top 10, of course. Those were a little easier to predict.

There’s also that critical difference between “favorite” books and “important” books. Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll was a landmark book, I think, as was, in a different way, something like Emily Arnold McCully’s Mirette on the High Wire. Top 100? No idea. But among the Top 100 most influential books, I’d think so. These lists get complicated.

Well, there will always be beloved books that are considered “important”, and titles that are “important” but people don’t gravitate naturally towards.  As a reader poll, my list is limited to the individual preferences of my readers. It’s completely subjective. Which is fine, but it’s not the be all and end all of lists.

You did a lot of research on each book. I think that’s a big part of Fuse #8’s success –- you put a ton of effort into it. How many hours a week do you put into the blog?

Hours a week? Oo-de-lally. Hmm. Well, we’re going to pretend that the poll was the exception rather than the rule. On average, though, I’d say I spend a good 14 hours a week on the blog. Two hours a night or so. That’s just a rough estimate.

You’ve met a lot of authors over the years. What have been some of the highlights?

Having tea with Ursula LeGuin was quite the thrill. And getting to speak at The Eric Carle Museum where I later had dinner with Jane Yolen, Jeanne Birdsall, and others. My contact with Mo Willems and Jon Scieszka is flattering. And getting to sit at the Newbery Award winning table two years in a row (first for Susan Patron who mentioned me in her speech, and the second time for Laura Amy Schlitz). Those are some of them, certainly.

Is it true that one of the items on your Bucket List is to sing Karaoke with Ed Young?

Absolutely. If by “Bucket List” you mean “Thing That Will Never Occur in This or Any Other Lifetime”.

Who are you still dying to meet?

The Golden Fleece is, and shall evermore be the aforementioned Sendak. Of course if I met him I’d just flap my gums for a while and be destroyed by his single withering glance. But it might still be worth it.

Blogs are a growing force in children’s literature: influential, timely, free. Is that a good thing –- and why?

I see it as a good thing on the whole. With the decline of newspaper book review sections and the shift to online resources, blogs are becoming a new voice in the marketplace. They will never replace professional reviews, of course, but if a purchasing librarian or parent trusts a blogger’s voice and title selection then they’re going to be more inclined to get their book suggestions from that source. And as long as the bloggers keep their opinions sharp and their heads on straight, the relationship will be beneficial for all.

Your answer suggests there might be a downside.

Well, there’s always the danger of getting too darn cozy with the publishing types. Or reviewing stuff just to make people happy, and not because it’s actually any good. Like I say, you have to trust your blogger. If you suspect they might be compromised (I suddenly have a flash from a movie where someone yells over a phone, “The librarian blogger is compromised! I repeat…!”) then find another. There are plenty of fish in the sea.

With great power comes great responsibility. How do you choose what to review?

It’s tough. I receive boxes of books from publishers, titles from individual authors and illustrators, and additional books from people who want Amazon.com reviews (that’s a whole different market right there). What I tend to do is to put them on my bookshelves in the order of publication date.  January books first, February second, etc. I organize them within each month in the order I would like to read them. Then I read through them in this pattern: current month title, past months’ titles, future month title.  These I put on the old To Be Reviewed shelf where they wait. Now my reviewing is a different pattern. I prefer to review a picture book, then a novel, then a graphic novel or poetry book or non-fiction title.  Because of the sheer amount of non-fiction out there, however, I usually will alternate between a non-fiction book and a graphic novel, then another non-fiction book and a book of poetry. Deciding which book to review next usually depends on how well a book has stayed with me. If I read your book two months ago but can’t remember the plot or the characters, it’s not going to get reviewed. But if it really gripped me in some way (or was memorably awful) it’s getting a review at some point.

If kids like it, is it a good book?

Sometimes. Kids also like eating snot and watching Barney television shows, so I dunno if you should necessarily consider them to be the number one arbitrators of taste. But taking a kid’s opinion on any book is important. Just so long as you remember that there are different kinds of kids with different tastes out there.

Okay, Lightning Round: Five favorite movies?

Jump Tomorrow
Happy-Go-Lucky
The Brave Little Toaster
Memento
Young Frankenstein

I have “Happy-Go-Lucky” on my Netflix cue. Love Mike Leigh. Okay: Five favorite places in New York City?

Bank Street Bookstore
Central Park
Books of Wonder
The Jefferson Market Library branch
My library (whoop!)

Five favorite children’s books?

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
Ultra-Violet Catastrophe by Margaret Mahy
Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge
The Mysterious Tadpole by Steven Kellogg

The Mysterious Tadpole? I’m surprised. Why that title?

Well, I’ve a weakness for it.  And I should clarify that I’m talking about the original.  Not the subsequent reillustrated monstrosity they’ve started selling recently.  The original had everything. Mystery. A friendship between a magical creature and an everyday child. A satisfying conclusion. Plus it has a moment (in the original) when you get to see an American Indian single-handedly taking down an evil pirate ship. Where else are you going to see that in a picture book, I ask you?

You are on a rooftop in the city, peaceful under the stars. There’s a song playing and a drink in your hand. What’s the song? What’s the drink?

Ah. That would be a glass of Pims (the mysterious British summer drink that never lists its ingredients on the bottle) and the song would be “This Is the Life” by Amy MacDonald.

Here’s two girls sweetly covering Amy MacDonald’s tune . . . just for Betsy.

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Almost forgot: Where’d you get the name, A Fuse #8 Production?

Fuse #8? Hasn’t a thing in the entire world to do with children’s literature.  Here’s the scoop. When I graduated from college I was given my grandmother’s dilapidated 1989 Buick Century. The paint job had long since peeled away thanks to a permanent parking in the lot next to her nursing home, but I didn’t care. It was my first wheels. So I park on the street one day in good old Richmond, Indiana and after I take the key out of the car the automatic locks start leaping up and down and up and down. Convinced that my car is possessed (she was christened Linda Blair from there on in) I eventually discovered that the lock situation was killing my battery.

So I’ve just graduated, I’m broke, and I take it into the shop for repairs. The repair guy takes one look at it, opens the glove compartment, and removes Fuse #8. I am told that if I just take that fuse out, it won’t kill itself and he doesn’t charge me a cent. Mind you, Fuse #8 controls the horn, the radio, and the automatic windows, but it’s not like I care. That man was a saint.  Fast forward a couple of years and my husband’s looking for a good name for his new film production company. He really wants to call it A Widow Be Damned Production since he’s having rights-related difficulties with Erskine Caldwell’s widow. I counter with A Fuse #8 Production. It’s got everything!  A number. A weird word. My suggestion is summarily rejected but I vowed from there on in that I would name SOMETHING A Fuse #8 Production someday. And so I did. Since then I’ve wanted to name something Tin Can Phone, but nothing appropriate has presented itself yet.

Thanks, Betsy. You’ve been wonderful. Good luck with your writing. And thanks, especially, for the great job you do at Fuse #8 — it’s always an entertaining, informative read. As a parting gift, please accept this John Deere “Select Series X300 Tractor,” featuring Edge Xtra Deck, Twin Touch Pedals, V-Twin Engines, and Cast-Iron Front Axles. It comes with a four-year warranty, or 300 hours, whichever comes first.

Awesome! I’ve had this John Deere Striping Kit  that fits 48″ & 54″ Decks for the X300 and X500 kicking around my tiny New York apartment for about a year or so. Finally some way to make use of it! Cheers and thanks so much for having me here on your blog.  It’s been a hoot.

—–

If you enjoyed this interview with Betsy, you might like interviews with other stars of the kidlitosphere, the bloggers behind Literate Lives (Bill and Karen) and The Happy Nappy Bookseller (Doret).

For author/illustrator interviews:

There’s Matthew Cordell, Karen Roosa, Ellen Miles, Daniel Mahoney, Jack Rightmyer, and R.W. Alley.

And if you want to read an interview where I’m the interviewee, go here. It’s non-stop fun and wall-to-wall action.

For appreciations:

There’s William Steig, Arnold Lobel, Raymond Chander, Bernard Waber, and James Marshall.

Thanks, and come again!

Fan Mail Wednesday #44-47 (Bonus Friday Edition)

Today we’re all about bullies, and book titles, and bicycles, and the perils of publishing. That’s right — sound the timbrels! slaughter a fatted calf!– I’m banging out a bonus Friday Edition of Fan Mail Wednesday, absolutely free of charge.

Really: It comes with your meal!

Letter #44:

Dear James,

I wrote you an email this past summer telling you how much I enjoyed Along Came Spider. I wanted to tell you that the students liked the book also. I did add Six Innings to our class library as well. Some of the kids wanted to share their reactions with you, so . . .

Omar: I like the book Along Came Spider because it shows the problems that most kids face in school like being bullied and having problems with your friends.

Kyle: I like the book because it shows what happens when kids go to school and how they get bullied, how it is hard to make friends and the peer pressure. I am really disappointed that you are a Mets fan, because I am a Yankee fan.

Christine: I like the character Spider because he is a regular kid in a normal school but he has a “not so normal” friend. I like Trey because he is getting bullied but does stand up for himself.

These were just three that wanted to share. CITI FIELD IS OPEN. HOPE YOU WILL GET TO CATCH A GAME.

Robyn

I replied:

Dear Robyn, Omar, Kyle, and Christine:

Two things first:

1) A letter from Flushing, home of the Mets, yippee!

2) I’m sorry I’ve sat on this letter for so long. I kept getting stuck on that word, “bully,” and wasn’t sure how to answer at first. Not that I’m any more sure today, but I did want to respond in some way.

When I wrote Along Came Spider, I saw it as a book about the classroom community. Something that explored relationships, and our responsibility to one another. I hoped that in the hands of a good teacher, it would also serve as a good conversation starter, a springboard for classroom discussion. Because goodness knows there are no easy answers.

I never saw Along Came Spider as about “bullying,” specifically. I’m still not sure if that’s the right word. I recently wrote a book that’s set in a Middle School on Long Island, Bystander (Sept, 2009), so I’ve done a lot of research on the subject. That is: I’m not an expert, but I’ve learned a few things.

Usually bullying is defined as repeated, chronic behavior. It is something beyond “like and dislike.” I don’t think we can be friends with everyone, nor do I think it’s even advisable; I encourage my own children to avoid certain types of kids. At the same time, I hope they treat everyone with a basic level of courtesy and respect. We need to be tolerant of differences, but never tolerant of cruelty.

Is it Spider’s job to be friends with Trey? No, I don’t think so. But he can show him compassion and kindness. Also, hopefully, his relationship with Trey should not be determined by peer pressure, by what other’s think is “cool” or “uncool.” That’s not easy, either. What’s the difference between “peer shunning” and simply not really wanting to be around somebody?

With Bystander, featuring seventh-grade characters, I speak to  that subject much more directly. Hopefully you’ll find it, read it, and enjoy it.

A couple of other things:

*  Kyle, if you had my mother, you’d probably be a Mets fan, too. I don’t think I had a lot of choice. When I was in 3rd grade, the 1969 Mets won the World Series — and I was at Shea Stadium for the 5th and final game of that series. I remember it vividly.

* Robyn, thanks for your continuing interest and support. I haven’t made it to Citi Field yet, but we’re hoping for a family trip sometime this summer. I am traveling to Pittsburgh with a friend, to catch a couple of Mets games. Every year we make a trip to see the Mets somewhere — Chicago, Washington D.C., Philadelphia —  and it’s always a highlight of our friendship.

Thanks for your patience,

JP

Letter #45:

Dear Mr. Preller,

Our third grade book club just finished reading Jigsaw Jones #9: The Case of the Stinky Science Project.

Our question is, why is the title The Case of the Stinky Science Project?  We think it should be the “The Case of the Stolen Ice Cream Money.”

We love all your other books. We like this one, too.  We also like the details you put in like on page 66 where you wrote: “My finger did push ups on the doorbell.”

Please write back.

from,

Suzanne, Kylie, and Anna

I replied:

Dear SKA (Suzanne, Kylie, and Anna)

or, hold on . . .

Dear ASK (Anna, Suzanne, Kylie):

Great question, though I’d expect nothing less from a loosely-based organization that calls itself “ASK.”

The short answer is that titles are hard. To make them even more difficult, the publishing schedule at Scholastic requires that the cover be produced months before the actual book is written. Oh, I’ll have a pretty good idea of what the book will be about. We’ll brainstorm cover concepts and I’ll offer suggestions for a title. My editor then takes that title to a committee of “title experts” and they pick their favorite. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.

In this example, we probably thought that getting the word “stinky” into the title would instantly guarantee us a place on The New York Times BestsellersList (it did not). The book does have a close connection to the school Science Fair, Ms. Gleason teaches the “Scientific Method” throughout the story, and there is a stinky part involving a rotten egg salad sandwich. Thinking like scientists, Jigsaw and Mila manage to solve the mystery. I mean to say: I don’t think the title is so, so terrible.

But what do I know?

Thanks for pointing out a favorite sentence. I particularly like two parts of this book: 1) When Bobby Solofsky and Bigs Maloney debate who would win a fight between Spider-Man and Yoda; and 2) Everything about the character of little four-year-old Sally-Ann Simms, “a walking hurricane in lavender and pink.” As Jigsaw notes in the book’s opening paragraph:

The pink bows didn’t fool me. I ignored the matching lace socks and the little red plastic pocketbook. I knew that Sally-Ann Simms was one tough cookie.

I modeled Sally-Ann on a girl in our neighborhood at the time. She was a rough-and-tumble kid with plenty of spunk. I enjoyed this early exchange between Jigsaw and Sally-Ann:

I opened my detective journal to a clean page. Using a bright pink marker in honor of Sally-Ann’s lace socks, I wrote: CLIENT: SALLY-ANN SIMMS.

“I’m all ears,” I said.

Sally began, “I was having a tea party with Mr. Bear and Lady Snuggles and . . .”

Lady Snuggles?” I asked.

Sally-Ann fixed me with a stare. “Yeah, Lady Snuggles. My stuffed doll. You got a problem with that?”

I stammered, “No, er, I just . . .”

“You just . . . what?” Sally-Ann asked sharply.

“Never mind,” I said. “What happened next?”

Okay, guys, that’s plenty of answer for you. Thanks for reading my book!

JP

Letter #46:

Dear James

I like your book called the case of the bicycle bandit.  It was good I injoy the part thay said stuff abut Ralphi bike. It was funny because when thay said no body what he old rusty bike.

Signer,

Zanyae

My answer:

Dear Zanyae:

Thanks for writing to me.

Growing up, I was the youngest of seven children. Five boys, two girls. We had a shed filled with old, battered bicycles in various states of disrepair. I remember my older brothers forever messing around in the backyard with them — taking those bikes apart, putting them back together again in new ways — swapping out torn-up seats for newer “banana-shaped” models, fat tires for skinny tires, standard handlebars upgraded to fancier, cooler versions. My brothers Billy and John were car mechanics in training, just a few years away from their first jobs at the Citco gas station in town. And always there was the smell of oil, black oil everywhere. It came in little red-and-white cans. My brothers would drip it onto the rusty spots, the chain and spokes, their hands, pants and shirts permanently blackened with grease.

Good times, good times.

The heart of the book was definitely inspired by those memories. And it’s not an accident that a kind-hearted older brother plays a key role in the mystery.

My best,

JP

Letter #47:

Hello. My daughter Quin so enjoys your Jigsaw Jones mysteries that we have all but completed our collection.  The only book we can’t seem to find is the Super Special #5: The Case of the Four-Leaf Clover. Was it widely published?  Do you know where I might be able to obtain a copy?  I have tried Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble (online and in-store), and our library does not have it either.  Thank you for any information you might be able to provide.   We very much look forward to the new Jigsaw Jones book coming this fall, I believe.  Thank you for writing such a fun series of books.  They have been instrumental in my daughter learning to read on her own this year.  Best regards, Monica

I replied:

Monica:

I’m sorry it’s been so difficult for you to find The Case of the Four-Leaf Clover.

For reasons that are too complicated to answer without actually whining, or breaking into Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” let’s just say that you intuited the situation correctly. Four-Leaf Clover was never available in stores. It’s a book-club only title. Thus, nearly impossible to find.

The good news is you can contact Scholastic Book Clubs at a toll-free number, 1-800-724-6527, or go to this website for more information. My experience tells me that they are very receptive to customer’s requests, and will try to do everything possible to be helpful.

Good luck with the search. And thanks, Quin, for reading so many of my books — that’s just wonderful. I’m really lucky to have such a dedicated fan.

JP

Mighty Casey: Editorial Letter Excerpts

I’ve been doing a lot of school visits, book signings, and book fairs over the past two months. It’s been a lot of fun, distracting, joyful, happy, hard, and humbly rewarding. One of the highlights of my act — between juggling chain saws and wrestling live bears — has been reading Mighty Casey, illustrated by Matthew Cordell, to audiences up to 200 (squirming, wriggling) children. The book really goes over well (if I don’t say so myself), especially when I stop and go into great uproarious detail about Ronald the Runt, who has to pee, “and decided left field would do.” Kids love that part, and it’s absolutely true to my coaching experience. Happens every year. Some of those little boys just want to play and play until the lastpossiblesecond, not missing a thing, and they don’t always make it all the way to the bathroom.

When Ernest Thayer wrote the original “Casey at the Bat,” published in a San Francisco newspaper in 1880, he considered it a mere doggeral. He even used a pen name, to disassociate himself from the poem that would later (ironically) define his career.

I never really thought of Mighty Casey as a poem, per say. It rhymes and bounces along well enough, but it’s not, to me, poetry. Like most published books, it went through various drafts and revisions. And it was definitely made better through the help of my editor at Feiwel and Friends, Liz Szabla. As a rule, anybody with two z’s in their name has to be awesome. Name your child Buzzy and you are guaranteed a terrific kid. Anyway, here I am digressing once again, suggesting names for your children, which, let’s face it, is probably a personal decision and none of my business. But: Buzzy. Think about it.

I just came across an editorial letter from Liz, with comments and suggestions in response to the first draft of Casey (that is, the first  draft that Liz saw; not the first draft I wrote). The way this works for Liz is like this: We’ll talk on the phone, go through things in a general manner, and she’ll follow that up with a more detailed “formal” letter. Most editors seem to work this way. Below you’ll find the bulk of that letter, with only a few passages removed to save the author from further embarrassment. I should also note, for those interested in the publishing process, that I didn’t see that first draft as a finished piece. It needed work and I knew that. But I had reached the point where I needed another eye, another point-of-view. I needed, that is, HELP! And Liz was there to catch me.

MIGHTY CASEY is mighty charming and we’ve enjoyed the time we’ve spent with it. I’m delighted now to be sending you our thoughts as well as a line-edited manuscript. You and I haven’t worked together before – please know that all my suggestions are open to further discussion if anything doesn’t feel quite right.

First and foremost, the Delmar Dogs are hilarious! Casey, as the unlikely hero, is wonderful. And the echoes of “Casey at the Bat” make Casey’s final triumph all the more satisfying, of course.

Let me break in here to comment that all editorial letters begin with a compliment. It’s a trick they teach you early on in Editorial School. The editor opens your ears by saying something positive. I tell this to kids who do peer writing in school: Always begin by saying something nice. Find a part in the story that you like and praise it. That way, you increase the chances of the writer hearing any critical suggestions you might later make. I’m saying: Liz didn’t fool me; I knew there was a big “but” in there somewhere.

You’ll see that I’ve make some suggestions and tweaks on the manuscript to fine-tune the rhythm or syntax in places. I won’t detail those suggestions here, but do let me know if I’ve fouled anywhere (heh, heh). Now onto a few issues to keep in mind as you consider the line-edit….

Note: the “line-edit” is the marked up manuscript, with more detailed comments and suggested changes in the dreaded red pencil. The general editorial letter comes along with a marked-up manuscript, which can be a cold thing, almost painful. Thus, the editorial letter serves as fabric softener to the line-edit’s starch. (Oh dear me, a laundry metaphor? Move on, people, there’s nothing to see here, nothing at all . . . .)

4th stanza
Although the “enjoyed…destroyed” rhyme is marvelous and unexpected, I can’t help but wonder if, in the fourth stanza, the parents’ feelings about the game are at odds with the Dogs’ pride at trying their best. To say that the adults don’t “enjoy” the games is a bit of a disconnect with the spirit of the Dogs. Still, I certainly see how it might be tough for the parents to see their kids trounced, and if this is what you intend, then let’s leave it. But if you want to work on another layer of subtlety – that is, the kids’ pride being stoked by their parents’ empathy, then I believe it’s worth exploring.

This is an example of an editor forcing the writer to think. I had to go back and look at what I was attempting to achieve in that stanza. I suspect Liz’s motherly instinct was to keep the parents cheerful and positive, whereas I wanted the recognition of how tough it can be to sit in those stands sometimes. In the end, I pretty much kept this stanza as is, but Liz made me to think about it and justify those words in my mind.

13th stanza
I’m a bit confused about why so few spectators notice or cheer when Jinn Lee bloops a double and later scores a run. Here’s where I see the Dogs and the parents on their feet, pumping their arms in the air!

Liz was right — and she was right in many places — so I changed it. The revision now reads: “When Jinn Lee clubbed a homer/The crowd stood and cheered.”

18th stanza
As Casey steps up to bat, there are a few things readers should know: How many outs are there? That is, is he the team’s last hope? If he strikes out, do they lose? If the situation is clarified, then you’ll really ratchet up the suspense in this last section.

Again, just some essential details that I completely neglected to add. Or perhaps assumed. The facts were there, but I didn’t make them clear, clear, clear. This is a common kind of editorial suggestion — to “pause a beat” — forcing the writer to slow down, to really set the scene for the reader. Sometimes we’re in such a rush to get to the next thing, we don’t always properly build up to that Big Moment. It’s a Hitchcock trick. Once you’ve built up suspense, it’s time to slow things down. Think of those movie shots when we see close-ups of the killer climbing the steps, footfall by footfall. The doorknob slowly, slowly turns . . . or Casey taps his cleats.

The finale
I suspect the ending could have more zing to it…. The mother crying and the father’s heart bursting with pride seem stereotypical amid all the other fresh action and description. The fact that they’re stereotypical does fit the tone and conclusion of “Casey at the Bat,” but I believe descriptions that are as fresh as the rest of the story will complement the tone and mood you’ve established and make for a stronger ending. Also, the “bursts with pride” description echoes the language of the 3rd stanza (“bursting pride”). Would you consider echoing some of the language in the ending for “Casey at the Bat” instead? “[H]earts are light…men are laughing…little children shout…”?

The very last line is also in need of some zing. “Three cheers” feels predictable and “our side” seems too general and not exciting or punchy enough for a conclusion. Perhaps you can work “Delmar Dogs” into the final line, so that it appears in the opening and conclusion, just as “Mudville” does in “Casey at the Bat.” What do you think?

Hey, I knew the ending wasn’t right (to put it kindly). I probably even said so when I handed in that first draft to Liz. I was struggling with it. I remember interviewing James Marshall, tape recorder rolling, back in the early 90’s. He said something that always stuck in my head, simple and profound: “It’s always the ending that gives me the most trouble. The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles in the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it. So it’s a puzzle that has to be solved. I remember with one of the Miss Nelson books, it took us [the author Harry Allard and I] two years to come up with an ending we liked.

Liz concluded her letter:

This is already so much fun – I believe that with some fine-tuning, it will be an even more dramatic and satisfying experience. Jean and I look forward to seeing what you come up with, Jimmy.

Please call or email me if you have any questions, or want to discuss any of these issues further.

Aren’t I fortunate to have such a warm, insightful, supportive editor? Liz made me think. She offered ideas and suggestions, but always made it clear that it was my book, my decisions. She got me to get back to work, keep hauling those rocks — but without feeling bad about myself, or my book. Instead I was energized, enthusiastic, ready to roll up my sleeves. Now you can see why so many authors dedicate books to their editors. We know we couldn’t have done it quite so well without a lot of help from the unseen hand of a talented editor.

Every time I read Mighty Casey out loud to a group of kids — when they laugh in the right parts, when they lean in to learn what happens next, when they burst into applause at the end — I always think of Liz and my publisher Jean Feiwel, and wish that they could be with me to share in the moment. The applause is also for them.

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Food Fight

My wonderful editor at Scholastic, Shannon Penney, suggested this title to me. That happens sometimes, when book club editors will come up with a desired theme or vague concept, and Shannon will be assigned with the grim task of conveying it to me: Halloween, snowboarding, Halloween, Ghosts, Halloween, or whatever. I try to be open to them, find ways to make it work. But here was an idea that I instantly hated. “No, no-no, no NO-no NO,” I said. “Jigsaw would never do that, and it’s the last thing I’d want to celebrate in these books.”

Yet I could not completely deny the appeal of flying meatballs. It would be a fun scene to write. I said I’d think about it. Maybe there was a way.

Next I made a phone call to Ellen Mosher, a second-grade teacher at Westmere Elementary. Ellen did not recall witnessing any food fights, but she said there might have been a few isolated incidents of smashed cupcakes, etc. I asked, “What if a food fight happened. Let’s say it was a huge misunderstanding, no one was at truly fault, but it just kind of got out of hand. What would happen next?”

“Oh,” Ellen said. “It would be a very big deal. The principal would definitely get involved. The kids would have to do the cleanup, and write letters of apology.”

Hmmm, I thought. Maybe there was a way into this story after all. It wasn’t so much about the food fight, but about everything that happened next, the consequences. A teachable moment.  And a story I could feel good about telling.

—–

Many Jigsaw Jones books have a connection to the New York Mets, usually in the names of bit players. In this book, the lunch aide’s name is Mrs. Minaya, after the Mets’ General Manager, Omar Minaya. The other lunch aide, Mrs. Randolph, was named after the Mets’ sourpuss manager at the time, Willie Randolph.

For the mystery, Mrs. Randolph mistakenly accuses Joey Pignattano — named after a coach from the Mets (1968-1981), Joe Pignatano, an ex-Brooklyn Dodger famous for growing tomatoes in the bullpen  — of starting the food fight.

“Jigsaw, you’ve got to help me,” Joey pleaded. “I’m innocent!”

Do readers notice any of this? Does anybody care? I kind of doubt it. Mostly it’s just a thing I’ve always done in this series to entertain myself — and possibly some random Mets-loving reader out there. When it comes time to make up the name of a character, I’ll begin my search with former New York Mets.

—–

Around the time of this book, Paris Hilton was on TV with a FOX reality series called “The Simple Life,” a show where two socialites (Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie) attempt to work a series of low-paying jobs, such as doing farm work, working in fast-food restaurants, and so on. That’s where I got the idea of Paris Hilton working as a substitute school nurse. Funny, right? You know, flipping through a magazine while some kid hurls into a garbage pail. I imagined that she’d say something like, “Could you keep it down, I’m trying to polish my toenails.” So I created the character of Nurse Hilton, placed her in the middle of the mystery, and  was on my way. When I added her dog, I had the key to the mystery.

Jigsaw described her this way:

She was impossibly tall and thin. She had blond hair. And long legs that went all the way to the floor.

Jigsaw will eventually discover that Nurse Hilton was hiding Tinkerbell, her pet Chihuahua, in the filing cabinet. In the nurse’s office, Jigsaw takes in the scene:

I glanced around the room. The desktop overflowed with stacks of folders. Some had even fallen on the floor. A travel magazine opened to a photo of Paris. I saw lipstick and a hand mirror.

Why were so many folders on the desk?  Why had there been reports of barking in the lunch room? Jigsaw and Mila figure it all out in time to save Joey. And as for Nurse Hilton, she hasn’t been seen since.

Fan Mail Wednesday #43 (Monday Edition)

I spent time last night writing a post on a different topic, but then hit a snag that made it “unpublishable.” So I decided to answer this overdue letter instead. That’s right, a special Monday edition of Fan Mail Wednesday!

Dear: Mr. Preller

My name is Benjamin. I am 6 years old and in grade one.  I am doing a project on secret codes. I have read some of your Jigsaw Jones mystery books and would like to know all of the secret codes that you use in your stories.

How do they work? How do you decide what codes to use in your books?  Where did  you come up with the idea to use secret codes and how did you get the idea to do the ones you use?

My favorite book is The Case of the Spooky Sleepover.

I like the secret codes you use in your books, a lot.

From Benjamin

I replied:

Dear Benjamin,

Thanks a lot for your note. Or let me try that in code:

AADVARK WRITE RAIN THANKS BUT WINDY A HAVE BASEBALL WILL SHUCKS BREEZY LOT YOU FOR HAIL FOR TRUST US MONKEYS SUNSHINE YOUR ZIP ZAP POW SNOW NOTE COOL.

Did you figure it out? I used a Weather Code. The only words that mattered were the ones that came right after a weather word. So to solve the secret message, just circle all the weather words. Then underline all the words that come next. The underlined words — or the words that come immediately after a “weather word” — make up your secret message.

What’s fun about the Weather Code is that you can easily change it to make up new codes in the same manner. A Baseball Code. A Color Code. An Animal Code. Whatever you want.

As a kid, I definitely thought that codes were awesome. So when I started this series, I knew I had to include a new code in every book. I’ve used many different codes, including Substitution Codes, Space Codes, Up and Down Codes, Alternate Letter Codes, Telephone Codes, IPPY codes, Vowel Codes — even Pig Latin.

Today as a writer, I love codes because they offer clever ways of playing with language. I think readers learn by puzzling over codes. You have to use Brain Power.

Benjamin, I could talk about codes forever. I’ve built a small collection of different books about codes and I keep them on a nearby shelf. I read through them to find a code that seems right for Jigsaw. That’s part of the research I do for my job, and I love it. Even better, I discovered that after I learned a few codes, that I could make up my own. And you can, too!

IPPY Codes are also fun. All you have to do is add the letters IP after every consonant in each word. So the word DOG becomes DIPOGIP and SLIME becomes SIPLIPIMIPE. Of course, it’s important to know a consonant from a vowel — but I bet you do.

DIPOGIP SIPLIPIMIPE = DOG SLIME!

To learn all the codes I’ve used, I’m afraid you’ll have to read all my books. Oh, the misery! Or, hey, wait: You could buy the book, Jigsaw Jones’ Detective Tips. It doesn’t include every code I’ve ever used, but it will help you think, look, and act like a top detective.

Okay, here’s another code. It’s called a Zigzag Code. You have to start at the top left, read down, then up in a zigzag, then down, in a zigzag pattern. The tricky part is that there are no spaces between each word, so you have extra work to do.

C  N  O  S  L  E   Y  Y  T  R  C  D

A  Y  U  O  V  M  M S  E  Y  O  E

Space Codes are also easy to write (but harder to solve). All the words are spelled correctly and in the right order, but the spaces are in the wrong places. When you write the message, just put the spaces in weird places.

THA  NKSF  OR  YO  URLET  TERB  EN  JAMIN!

JP

The Yellow Balloon: My Walmart Story

About once a year I find myself in Walmart. It’s never a proud moment. But on this day I needed a copy of “Hotel California” by the Eagles, because my son Gavin was practicing the guitar solo.

For a variety of reasons, I resorted to Walmart.

One of my problems with Walmart, besides those associated with the Big Box Store economy, is that whenever I’m there I always seem to witness an example of bad parenting. Some small act of cruelty, a slapped hand, a raised voice, or some other terror. It’s just hard to watch.

But I went in and picked up my CD without incident, only $7.99, a steal.

Back in the car, I prepared to pull out of my parking space. Directly across from me, I saw a small child, not two years old, in a cart with a yellow balloon. He held it the way all young children hold balloons, with gratefulness and wonder. And at that moment, the balloon slipped from his grip.

The boy watched it fall to the ground. He reached out his stubby arms, stretched for the balloon from his seat in the shopping cart. Behind him, a man and a woman loaded the car with groceries. They didn’t see, didn’t know. The boy watched as that balloon drifted a few feet away, tumbling on the asphalt. So near, so far.

I could have gotten out, walked over, handed the boy the balloon. But even as I considered that, his mother realized what had happened. She touched the man’s arm, pointed to the balloon, spoke.

The man frowned, dismissed the balloon with a wave, returned to loading the groceries. He couldn’t be bothered. The mother stood, did nothing. The boy watched as the balloon, a yellow and elusive thing, slowly drifted away, like a promise unkept. He didn’t even cry.

I imagined fetching that balloon and returning it to the child. The smile on his face. I’d play dumb, say something like, “Here you go, little guy.” And to the parents, a shrug, “He dropped it.”

But I didn’t. I just turned the key, drove away, forgot all about it.

Fan Mail Wednesday #42

Here’s an email that came over the wire . . . all the way from South Korea!

Hi, James, how do you do? 안녕하세요?

I’m a mom living in Korea (South) with a 4th grade son (Jisuk ) and a 6th grade girl (Jiwon) and a 43 year-old husband.

All of my family enjoy reading your “Jigsaw Jones” books. Especially we enjoy listening to the story recorded. The voice actor sounds really great!!

I admire that your idea with childhood with courage, curiosity, friendship, and family union. Jigsaw and his friends have made me think about many kinds of virtues. I’ve felt sorry about me on many things for a long time, but when Jigsaw lost Rags, his grandmother helped him get up.

I, now, do not feel sorry about me and my circumstances.

I can learn many good things from Ms. Gleason also. Ralphie and Justin are my favorite brothers. Among the books, The Case of the Bicycle Bandit is my favorite one.

My two kids cannot speak or read English so well, but they love your books much. I majored in English at a college, so I can understand English books. In Korea, most people want to speak English very well to enter a good college or to get a good job. But Korean and English are so different languages that generally it is very hard to learn English for Koreans.

I learn English (with a bc ) in my middle school for the first time. English was a sort of fantasy to me, and I could enjoy the mysterious foreign language with both fun and enthusiasm. But now,  most Korean little girls and boys lost this taste of the foreign lannuage, for them English is just an annoying subject. They hate English because of the stress caused by some advices and real homeworks. But I think all languages are precious  and useful.

I do not force my kids to learn English. But I read them good books. James I really appreciate your great books. The characters are good. My English proficiency is so low that I can’t express my appreciation for your work fully.

I hope that I could meet your books recorded in audio type. And above all I wish you would write good books continuously.

Hoping your health and happiness.
Mi-Young HAN
감사합니다. 한미영 올림

My reply:

Dear Mi-Young HAN (감사합니다. 한미영 올림):

Two days ago on my blog I announced that one of my books, Six Innings, was given an award. I wrote that I felt honored to receive it. But believe me, receiving your kind letter feels like the greater reward. I’m truly fortunate that we are able to connect in this way, through our shared love of books, across this vast geographic and cultural distance. Maybe we are nearer than I thought.

I’m glad that you appreciate the positive values that I try to convey in my Jigsaw Jones series. While I never wish to be moralistic in these stories, it is my intention to show good kids acting with kindness toward one another. Happy families, wise teachers, creative classrooms, good friendships. My readers are young. And if indeed the world can sometimes be a hard, cruel place, it’s a lesson that can surely wait. All writers have to make decisions about what we put out into the world, and with these books, at least, I hope to offer stories that kids will enjoy and parents can appreciate.

As for the difficulties of learning English: I hear you. For much of my education, I thought it was “an annoying subject,” too! You are too humble about your own proficiency, for you expressed yourself very well. I am grateful for that.

You might be interested to know that my baseball novel, for ages 10-up, was recently translated into Korean.

How cool is that?

I searched for some kind of link to share with you, but came up empty. Hopefully you’ll have better luck tracking down the book, if you so wish.

Thanks for that great letter.

JP

One Year of Bloggy Goodness

A year ago today, I made my first post on this blog.

I’ve somehow managed 248 posts over that period, all of them a laugh riot. This site has had 23,272 visits, 57,560 pageviews at 2.47 pageviews per visit, and 16,111 “unique” visitors.

No, I don’t know what that means, either. But I do know I’m grateful to everyone (and anyone!) who has stopped by to check it out. And I’m especially grateful to my Nation of Readers who swing by on a semi-consistent basis. Thank you.

My friend Craig Walker used to joke, half-seriously, that everything you could ever say about love has already been said on the Supremes’ “Live at the Copa” album. That is, there are no new revelations forthcoming. So we fall back on the old cliches because they pretty much say it all. Blogging has opened new doors for me, and most significantly, introduced me to a lot of great people. A community. More than anything, that’s been the best part of this blog — and I’m looking at you, dear frantically clicking reader.

So what did I post a year ago? A little tribute to my pal, Craig Walker, titled “Remembering Craig.” I learned more from Craig about children’s literature, and life, and laughter, than just about anyone in this world. He was that rarest of things: a truly great man. My enduring image is of Craig at his desk at Scholastic, while a line of young editors waits outside the door, hoping to catch a few minutes of his time. And whatever they needed, Craig somehow gave: a decision, advice, support, insight, friendship, or laughter. He left us all enriched. But he did leave us, late summer of ’07, and we’ll never forget that time we had, all of us. Craig’s one amazing gift, I think, was that each one of us — out of hundreds — felt that we shared with him a special, individual, meaningful friendship. (I guess we all felt like “unique visitors,” way before it became a kept statistic.) For that time, he was ours. Craig was wholly present with the person in his company; he made you feel, in that moment, like you mattered most of all.

How’d he do that, I wonder? How do you become such a good man?

—–

This is my original post from a year ago:

I often fill my books with little in-jokes, things that few people (if any) will notice. I guess that’s true of most writers. After I worked for a long time on individual character sketches, it came time to construct the actual game for Six Innings — the play-by-play details. I started by looking at a lot of Little League scorebooks, because I’m a nut when it comes to authenticity. Thanks to the Internet, I was also able to review detailed scorebooks from actual Major League games at baseball-reference.com, one of the coolest baseball sites ever.

I searched for one game in particular: Game Six of the 1986 NLCS, Mets vs. Astros. It was a sixteen-inning ordeal, and maybe the best game I ever saw. But it’s also tied to a specific memory. I worked as a copywriter for a children’s publisher in New York. While at work, I followed the game on the radio. At around quitting time, maybe a little before, I called my great pal, Craig Walker, and said, “Hey, our Mets are losing 3-0. It’s the 8th inning. Let’s go to Acme on Great Jones Street, have a beer, and watch them break our hearts.”

Craig did not need to be asked twice. We sat down at the near-empty bar, ordered a glass of suds, and watched the television. The Mets miraculously tied it up with three runs in the ninth inning. The game was on. We ordered another beer. Then another. Because the game kept on going. Ten innings, twelve innings, fourteen innings. We ordered food. We laughed, we watched the game in wonder and anxiety and joy. We made about a dozen new friends that day, since by then the city had caught on and seemed to stop — something was happening in Houston, a ballgame of amazing drama, and everybody had to Stop & Pay Attention. In the top of the 16th, the visiting Mets scored three runs. We sweated through the bottom of the inning, when the Astros almost came all the way back. It taught me that it was more exciting, more stressful, trying to cling to a lead than to dramatically win a game with the swing of a bat (which is joyous and exhilarating, don’t get me wrong).

I used that game as a model for parts of Six Innings. I cobbled together the top of the 9th and the bottom of the 16th and transferred it to the 6th inning of my fictional game. Today I read the book and the ghost of that afternoon with my beloved friend, the great Craig Walker, still hovers around the edges. Craig is gone now, passed too soon from this world, and he never got to read my book, our book, a tale I dedicated to him.