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.

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