Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Marshmallow Monster

I turn your attention to Jigsaw Jones #11: The Case of the Marshmallow Monster (still in stock!).

The idea for this one can be traced to Rockville Centre, New York, home of my third-favorite brother, Al. (Just kidding, bro.) He mentioned that the neighborhood men enjoyed an annual father-son camping trip. I immediately recognized the story potential, a convenient device to get Jigsaw out of his school environment. Remember, writing a series presents its own set of difficulties, boredom (the “been there/done that” syndrome) being one of them. I’d found that to keep the work fresh and self sane it was best to break out of the perceived formula whenever possible. I modified the idea by including girls on the trip. After all, where would a camping trip be without Mila Yeh? It would be like forgetting the s’mores.

* In the folklore tradition, no matter how outrageous the tale, there’s usually a pedestrian message behind each story. The story might involve, say, banshees and ghosts, but the message amounts to: don’t go to bed without first doing the dishes. For the campfire story in this book, the adult intention was to encourage the campers to stay inside their tents at night. However, it spurred a much different result. I needed one of the fathers to tell a scary story, thought of this guy . . .

. . . and invented Shirley Hitchcock’s dad. You may notice the resemblance, as illustrated by Jamie Smith, below.

Mr. Hitchcock stirred the fire with a long stick. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. We sat gathered around the warm flames, waiting. “I shouldn’t have said anything,” he muttered, scolding himself. “I don’t want to scare you kids.”

A chorus of voices rose up.

“It’s okay.”

“We won’t be scared.”

“Besides, we like getting scared.”

Later on, Mr. Jordan calls the storyteller by his first name, and the winking tribute was complete: “I’d say that’s enough for tonight, Alfred. It’s time these kids were ready for bed.” Do any young readers get this reference? Doubtful. I do it for my own amusement, and for any parents and teachers who might be reading the books aloud.

* I borrowed the handclap rhyme from some neighborhood kids, David and Emily. When I heard it, I knew I could use it in a book someday — and with their permission, did.

Chicka-chicka, boom-boom.

I can do karate!

Chicka-chicka, boom-boom.

I can move my body!

Chicka-chicka, boom-boom.

I won’t tell my mommy!

Chicka-chicka, boom-boom.

Oops, I’m sorry!

* Due to the benign culture of the stories — it’s a safe world where everybody’s nice, basically — I struggled to invent scenes where Jigsaw could encounter real danger. Only infrequently was I able to give the young reader an edge-of-the-seat, trembly feeling. I think I managed it in this one, however. I get a kick out of writing in that tradition, where the doorknob slowly, slowly turns.

* I still like the opening to Chapter Two — reminds me of my father — though I wonder if it’s already dated in these days of the GPS:

We got to the campground right on time. That is, if your idea of “right on time” includes a flat tire and getting lost in the middle of nowhere. That’s the place right after my dad says, “I know a little shortcut.”

It’s a few mile past, “I don’t need a map.”

* Lastly, the book features another sly tribute — this time to Bogart and Bacall and the classic film, “To Have and Have Not,” based on the Hemingway novel, screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Falkner (who could write a little bit).

I shook my head. “Too dangerous. It’s something I have to do alone.”

Danika took off her necklace. She handed it to me. I saw that it was a leather string with a whistle attached. “You might need this,” she said. “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and . . . blow.”

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