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

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