Some quick hits today:
* “Ritual” would be too big a word for it, too religious; “tradition” doesn’t feel quite right either. But when I begin a new book, I go to my local CVS and buy one of these bad boys:
Which I did yesterday. It’s more than a little daunting. I don’t know what this book will be about, exactly. I mean, yes, I have some notions, a few seeds, but mostly: a boatload of blank pages and a world of possibilities. Exciting, to venture out into that snow.
* I’m really happy that my fifth-grade son, Gavin, just read and enjoyed this book:
I discovered it over at Literate Lives and the book sounded interesting. So I went to the library and picked up a copy, hoping that it might pass Gavin’s sniff test. I think the baseball on the cover helped. As some sort of boy’s defense mechanism against poetry, Gavin still contends that the book — written in free verse — “wasn’t really poetry so much.” He identified with the main character, who plays piano and baseball; but the book also stretched him in new directions, in terms of format and content. You can read some reviews here and here. Congratulations to first-time author, Ann Burg. You did good.
* I’m plotting a long conversation with author Lewis Buzbee. I just finished reading (and loving!) this book . . .
and I intend to read this one, too . . .
Sometimes you read an author, or a blog, and you just simply like that person. Which is not at all a requirement for liking a book, mind you. Anyway, I’m excited about getting to spend time with Lewis, and I know my Nation of Readers will enjoy him, too.
* I get it, nobody really thinks they have thirty minutes to waste spend watching a video. But think about it. If the time invested inspires you, gives you ideas, colors the way you look at the world, entertains you, than thirty minutes is a low, low price to pay. That is: You do, you really do. I found this over at Talkworthy and all I can say is, make the time. The video is titled “The Art of Possibility” and features a talk given by Benjamin Zander. It will inspire you. And as a parent with three kids who take piano lessons, in a house where music is important and valued, I found it especially relevant. Check. It. Out.
* The next book I’m reading:
* Let me send you away with this great cover of “What’s Going On” by Los Lobos. Silky cool, like the other side of the pillow on a warm summer night.
Archive for September 22, 2009
When I was a kid, I used to watch professional wrestling on television. This was before it went big time, before Hulk Hogan and the massive popularity of the WWF and big events on pay-per-view cable. I watched during the era of Bruno Sammartino, Gorilla Monsoon, Killer Kowalski, The Sheik, Ivan Koloff, Pedro Morales, Haystacks Calhoun, and other charismatic brawlers of yesteryear.
One of the events that I found mind-blowing — and happily recreated with friends on rowdy afternoons — was called a “battle royal.” While rules varied from match to match, essentially they would shoehorn about twenty wrestlers into a ring and the last man standing was declared the winner. They eliminated a wrestler either by pin or by hurling him over the ropes and out of the ring.
Good times, good times.
And that’s exactly what you’re likely to see at the 12th Annual Children’s Book Day at Sunnyside, in Tarrytown, New York, a veritable battle royal of sixty children’s book authors and illustrators. There will be petty jealousy, eye pokes, mule kicks, and plenty of blood (that’s right, I’m looking at you, Jean Craighead George).
This year the tag team of Susan Brandes and Beth Vetare-Civitello has put together a spectacular day-long festival for young readers, families, and friends. It’s a happy event in a beautiful location, and I encourage you to make the trip — meet authors and illustrators, get books signed, spend too much money, listen to music, watch performances, stroll the historic grounds . . .
. . . or simply fulfill your blood lust.
Come see Tony Abbott’s superkick . . . Katie Davis’s flying lariat takedown . . . Ed Young’s sleeper hold . . . Wendy Mass and her devastating forearm shiver . . . or the classic “El Kabong” as executed by Mark Teague.
Here’s some more illustrious names you’ll find in the ring: Pam Allyn, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Judy Blundell, Nick Bruel, Alyssa Satin Capucilli, Bruce Degen, Jules Feiffer, Dan Greenburg, James Howe, Susan Jeffers, Peter Lerangis, Gail Carson Levine, Rafe Martin, Jean Marzollo, Barbara McClintock, Lloyd Moss, Bernard Most, Jerry Pinkney, Marisabina Russo, Peter Sis, Rebecca Stead, Todd Strasser, Eric Velasquez — and many more. Holy wow.
I’ll be there, too.
The date is Sunday, September 27th, from 11:00 – 5:00. For directions, click here.
Here’s another in a series of “inside stories” about my Jigsaw Jones books, with the idea that it might be interesting and/or useful to teachers and students engaged in the writing process. Hopefully I’ll work my way through all the titles eventually, but don’t hold your breath. For similar posts, click here, or here, or here.
Illustration by Jamie Smith.
I’m not great at saving things; I’m more of a chucker than a keeper. But before writing this post, I pulled out my folder for this book, Jigsaw Jones #15: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow. In it, I found a mess of index cards with words scribbled on them. Brief, typed passages had been taped to most cards (see below).
As I recall, it was an experiment in plotting, inspired by a method employed by a famous film director (forget who). I had this vision of all these color-coded index cards thumb-tacked to the wall, helping me see the flow of story. Some examples:
CARD SAMPLE #1
Scene: Jigsaw talks w/ X about Solofsky, who is always a suspect.
“He’s a real stone in my shoe.”
“It’s like a pain in the neck. Only lower.”
CARD SAMPLE #2
What If —
Who profits from this, and how?
CARD SAMPLE #3
Mrs. Rigby on sidewalk. With broom. Witch-like. Scary.
Gives credence to magic scarecrow theory.
Does she say something to support this notion?
This goes back to my haberdashery comment from the other day. Like many writers, I begin with scraps and remnants that occur to me in the early stages of brainstorming — snatches of dialogue, an idea for setting, a key moment for a character — and later try to stitch them all together. In the process, a lot of fabric get pushed aside, swept into a heap, thrown away. In this case, the idea on CARD #3 was never used.
An early draft of the book begins with Jigsaw opining:
Don’t get me wrong.
I like leaves. But I like ’em when they’re hanging around. Not when they’re falling to the ground.
Sure, it’s not their fault. You can’t blame a leaf for being a leaf. It’s not like they want to dry up and die. So I blamed my father instead. He’s the one with the big ideas. Every year he makes us rake the yard . . . .
By the final draft, I deleted that preamble and began the book:
Every fall my dad makes us rake the yard, front and back. He calls it “The Big Fall Cleanup.” I call it something else.
There’s a strong Beatles element to this story. At one point, Jigsaw has to venture out alone for a dusky, dangerous meeting:
I walked down Abbey Road. The evening chill nibbled on my ears like a pet parakeet. I turned right onto Penny Lane.
The other Beatles connection is the old, lonely widow who lives in the spooky house, “the Rigby place.” If she keeps her face in a jar by the door, I never mentioned it. But I did think of my own grandmother when I described her:
There was nothing remarkable about Mrs. Eleanor Rigby. There were probably ladies like her all over town. She lived alone in a big old house. She had white hair. She wore a pink sweater with large white buttons. Her right arm, I noticed, trembled nervously.
And she smelled of butterscotch.
* I usually reference a real book in these stories, and in this one it’s Owls In the Family by Farley Mowat.
* There’s a moment when Kim Lewis, clearly upset over losing a necklace, hires Jigsaw. I like the way he responds internally, when his thoughts speak to the heart of detective work.
I’d seen the same look on other clients. Kim was counting on me. That’s the way it is when you’re a detective. You’re the guy who is supposed to make everything right.
And for a dollar a day, you do the best you can.
* The book features a Double Backward code in a note Jigsaw sends to Mila: EM RETFA DESAHC DNA EVILA EMAC WORCERACS A YRROS.
* People ask me to name my favorite books, and I’ll often reply that I have favorite “moments” in my books, chapters that I like, passages. Here’s one sly bit of humor, with a brief description that I think deepens the mood. While searching for clues, Mila and Jigsaw inspect the scarecrow in front of the Rigby place:
Mila slapped her forehead and exclaimed, “How could I be so dumb!” She reached behind the scarecrow and fumbled with the shirt collar. “My father’s a neat freak,” Mila jabbered. “He organizes everything. He even writes my name in the back of all my clothes.”
She smiled triumphantly. “Look,” she said.
I craned my neck to read the label. “We’re looking for a kid named Eddie Bauer,” I said.
“That’s the clothing label!” Mila said. “Read the other name!”
I read the name that was printed in black marker: BUZZY LENNON.
I looked up at the trees. There were hardly any leaves left. The sky was crisp and bright. Halloween was next week, then Thanksgiving, then the frozen days and nights of winter. I turned to the front door of the sad, old, silent house. “Let’s see if the doorbell works,” I said.
The door slowly opened with an eerie squeak. Mrs. Rigby’s small, red-rimmed eyes blinked in the sun.
“Yes, what is it?” she asked.
* Mrs. Rigby’s name was originally McCartney, to complement the character of Buzzy Lennon, but that changed along the way. Do young readers notice such things? Do they care? Probably not. But I like it, these little homages, and figure a few parents might enjoy them, too.
Alas, Haunted Scarecrow is yet another Jigsaw Jones title that appears unavailable in trade. On sad days, when rain streaks the windows, it doesn’t feel like I’m promoting these books — it’s more like I’m giving them a proper burial. The good news is — and there’s always good news — you can contact Scholastic Book Clubs at a toll-free number, 1-800-724-6527, or go to this website for more information. I hear they are receptive to customer’s requests, and will try to do everything possible to be helpful.
Hot stuff, coming through — watch your back, people!
Before I share this note from Travis, I have to tell you about my dream last night. During the day, I spent some time at a grammarian’s website, trying to learn something about “good English.” You see, I’m not gifted at grammar; I get confused, I forget rules, I lose track of tenses — to the point where I feel like I’m not much of a writer at all. (Okay: I feel like that a lot, especially lately.)
So last night I dreamed that this grammarian sent an email praising my most recent blog post that included an excerpt from Bystander. He wrote that it was sturdy and sound, and that I had complete control of the language and the literary techniques employed within. No mistakes!
I woke up to discover it was only a dream. Bummer. Now I’m no Carl Freaking Jung, but obviously some part of me was craving that affirmation, like the dog that fetches the fuzzy tennis ball and drops it at your feet: “Good writer, Jimmy, good boy.”
And here comes Travis . . .
Dear James Preller,
Hi, my name is Travis. I am thirteen years old. I attend Triton Middle School. I like your book Six Innings. It’s a very good book about Little League baseball. I used to play Little League but now I play on the big diamond. I play shortstop, third base, and I pitch. I used to play for the Tigers but now I play for the Indiana Eagles.
You should make more books about baseball. Six Innings is a very good book and I would like there to be a sequel to the book. You should make one about the kids in nine innings in high school though. They could be going against people on a high school team.
Thank you for making the book Six Innings and I hope you write a nine innings sequel to the book. Please write back if you would. I will get extra credit if you respond to this letter.
Thanks for your letter. When people write books — or blogs, or notes to friends, or anything — what we crave most is some kind of response. Otherwise it floats out there like a balloon into the clouds. Thanks to your letter, I now know that a ballplayer named Travis read my book and liked it. Thank you for that, truly.
I guess we live in an age of sequels, when there’s often a Roman numeral after a movie title. A sequel is almost expected. I know that I’d like to write another baseball book someday, not sure if it should be a sequel. But at the same time, I’m trying to explore others ideas, since I didn’t want to get put inside a box labeled: BOYS SPORTS WRITER. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I wanted to attempt other things, too. Maybe surprise some folks along the way. Does that make sense to you?
If there’s a sequel, that would mean at least some of the same characters. Maybe an All-Stars situation, or a tournament. I’ve always liked the title, Extra Innings. That’s one way of going, I guess. I feel I’d have to stay with that same age group.
Another way: I visited the Little League World Series recently, and wow, that would be a cool setting for a book. Every year, there’s always some team that surprises everybody by making it to Williamsport, this year it was that underdog team from Russellville, Kentucky, a group of ten boys who defied the odds and fulfilled an impossible dream. They didn’t win the tournament, but getting there was victory enough: that team came out of a Logan County Little League that had only thirty-three players! Isn’t that incredible? I actually watched them go toe to toe with the eventual champion, Chula Vista, California. It was a rout, 15-0, but those kids from Kentucky won my heart. A great team and a great story.
Another way would be to follow your suggestion. Write older. Think about those high school players. Some of them dreaming of college scholarships, some maybe realizing that their baseball dreams were coming to an end. I’d have to think about that some more. But I know I’ve got another baseball book in me — probably more than one, actually — so I appreciate your encouragement.
Great to hear from you, Travis! Your letter was just what I needed: “Good writer, Jimmy, good boy.”