Archive for May 31, 2011

Fan Mail Wednesday #116

Hey, I think I’ve got one!

I replied:

Dear Brennig,

Thanks for your letter. You are my first Brennig, though I should mention that I’ve received letters from 37 Brendans and 6 Brendens.

I have to agree with you, The Case of the Buried Treasure is, overall, one of my favorite Jigsaw Jones books. It was my first “Super Special” and I think I gave it my A+ effort. I haven’t read it in many years, but I do remember the opening sentence:

It all started when the little round thing-a-ma-whosie fell off the whatsit on Bigs Maloney’s chair.

I smiled when I got toward the end of your letter, and you wrote, “I read the whole thing.” For someone your age, that’s a huge accomplishment. If you can read my book, now imagine how many more books you can read all by yourself. Watch out world, here comes Brennig!

Thanks for including a Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope. Your autograph is in the mail!


Fan Mail Wednesday #115

I’ll be honest here. I’m at a point that I reach a couple of times every year, where I’m swamped with fan mail, overwhelmed, and feel nothing but guilt. When I hear writers talk about how much they love fan mail, I often think, “Yeah, but.”

I’d yell at my staff of minions but I don’t have a staff to yell at.

But then there are letters like the one below. I’ve changed the names and deleted some details in the interest of privacy.


My name is S and I teach 8th grade language arts in a middle school. I am writing to you because I wanted to share a video with you. This past year I had a very special young man in my class, Billy Jones. Billy is autistic. Billy is actually the oldest of three children in his family. His siblings are also autistic. Billy has wonderful parents who encourage him in all aspects of his life. Billy enjoys reading and LOVES to read mysteries! When my regular ed students were choosing books to read, Billy was searching for a mystery.  He decided to read your Jigsaw Jones #6: The Case of the Mummy Mystery. Billy loved it!

For his book project, we decided to actually re-create the mystery (the best we could) here at school. So, with the help of his aide, as well as his classmates, our principal (the mummy), and other teachers, Billy had the opportunity to re-create The Case of the Mummy Mystery. I wanted to take this time to send it to you, in hopes you will enjoy it as much as we have.

Thank you for your time. Enjoy!

I replied:

Dear S:

Thank you so much for sharing that video. It was beautiful to see how so many different people in your school came together in support of Billy’s creative efforts. There’s love in that little video, and I felt it.

And for the record: Any principal who dresses as a mummy to assist someone’s class project, well, that’s my kind of guy!

A few years back I had the opportunity to work with a special education class as a visiting author, and together we created our own picture books. I returned to that magical classroom many times, and it was always the highlight of my week. Surely one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences in my career. The books we made were modest, simple, and a huge success. Like Billy’s, our books featured photographs throughout.

When complete, we gathered together for a little celebration. All the authors and me. Those bright, beautiful children, surrounded by a dedicated group of kind teachers, eating cupcakes and celebrating their achievements. I shed a few tears that day, even though I tried to hold back the waterworks.

Thank you for the important work you do. And thanks for sharing that video. Please pass along an address and I’ll send Billy a few signed books by way of appreciation.


Fan Mail Wednesday #114: A Colorful Choice of Words

NOTE: Apologies for the type-size weirdness of my reply. I don’t have the patience to try to fix it now.

Hi James Preller!

I am a fan of your books! My class wrote you. I live in Richmond Hill, Ontario and my name is Paige. I go to Red Maple Public School and I am 7 years old. I bring home Jigsaw Jones books for homework and my teacher even reads Jigsaw Jones books my whole class. How many Jigsaw Jones books have you made? Where do you live? I am even making a Jigsaw Jones mystery story for author day in class. My Jigsaw Jones story  is called The Case Of The Double Jigsaw. Why did you make Jigsaw’s real name Theodore but he didn’t like his name so he asked people to call him Jigsaw? I know he likes jigsaw puzzles. The very first Jigsaw Jones story I read was The Case of the Glow and the Dark Ghost. What is your favourite Jigsaw Jones book. Please write back.

Love, Paige

I replied:

Dear Paige,

As a writer, of course, I love your name — Paige. So it’s only natural that you’d grow up to be a reader.

To answer your questions:

* There are 40 Jigsaw Jones books in all, but some go in and out of print. Collecting them all is a real challenge!

* I live in Delmar, NY.

* I knew that most parents would not name their son “Jigsaw” — it had to be a nickname, and I needed for Jigsaw to prefer his nickname over his birth name. So I also gave him a birth name, a name that I did not particularly like. Thus, Theodore. My apologies to all the Theodores in the world. It’s not personal, guys.

* Tough question, because I don’t really have a single favorite. For the mystery, I like The Case of the Buried Treasure and The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow. The clues fell into place in a nice way. For the setting, I like the camping trip in The Case of the Marshmallow Monster. For clients, I love Bigs Maloney in The Case of the Great Sled Race, Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III in The Case of the Golden Key, and Sally Ann Simms in The Stinky Science Project. I guess there are things that I love, and things that I don’t love, about each book. I’ve never written a perfect one yet!

Thanks for your COLORFUL query!
P.S. This might be my favorite illustration from the series, because it says so much about Jigsaw. It was drawn by R.W. Alley for The Case of the Christmas Snowman.

A Website That Instantly Makes Digital Photos Look 100 Years Old

For a quick, easy way to make your new digital photos look brand old, check out this Japanese website.

All you do is upload your photo and in about ten seconds, the site spits back an aged-looking version which you can download. It’s insanely easy. Clearly, some shots lend themselves better to this treatment than others, but it’s fun experimenting with it to find out. I’d bet a baby picture might turn out especially swell, or a new photo of an old house.

For example:

Now here’s a look at a couple of friends . . .

I like what it does with a landscape, which is already timeless . . .

And it’s also a neat way to salvage a great but poorly lit moment . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #113: Skype & Teaching in the 21st Century

Preamble: My friend, talented author/illustrator Matt McElligott, is a frequent presenter at schools. I saw him when he came to my local elementary school and he was spectacular. A total pro, funny, informative, and kind. For info on his author visits, read this. See what I mean about being a pro? He makes me feel like a dirtbag, a rank amateur getting by on shaggy charm. I learn things from Matt every time we speak (twice a year if I’m lucky).

The Point: Matt recently told a good story. A few days after a visit, a librarian called Matt to convey a conversation she had just had with the mother of a young child in the school.

The Joke: The girl came home and said, “Mom, guess what!? We had an author visit our school . . . AND HE WAS ALIVE!”

Maybe you’d find that funnier if, like me, you’d been introduced as a “real, live” author dozens of times over the years. Or maybe you find it hysterical already. I don’t know how you feel. What am I? A mind-reader??!! So just . . . BACK UP, PEOPLE. BACK — IT — UP!

Ah, so. This morning I did a couple of Skype visits. I’m relatively new to Skype and still figuring it out. It’s like we’re in the first few dates of our relationship, where I’m still dressing nice and pretending that hey, no, I actually love Julia Roberts movies. The first visit this AM was with an 8th-grade class from Duxbury, MA. They had all read Bystander as part of an anti-bullying initiative and had a lot of insightful questions. It was a cool way to connect directly with readers without putting on socks and shoes. And come to think of it, that might be the right word for it: Skyping is cool.

I got the nicest note shortly thereafter . . .

Dear James,

Thank you so much for the skype session this morning. It was a great experience for me and for my students to virtually talk to a real author. We all found your answers interesting and personal. The kids said they were surprised that you were “so normal and such a regular guy.” You were so personable, honest and down to earth with them. A few students wanted to ask some other questions and I said maybe they could send you an email sometime??? It was such a great example to the kids about teaching and learning in the 21st century.

Thanks again, Martha.

I replied:

The invoice is in the mail. Please remit within 30 days.

No, kidding!

I actually replied:

Thanks, Martha. When I first started author visits, back in the way back, I was a little uncomfortable with the star treatment. Sometimes I’d get put on a pedestal, the famous author! Well, that wasn’t me; I couldn’t live up to it. I soon realized that if I had anything of value to share, maybe that was it — that I was a (relatively) normal, average, everyday guy who happened to write books for a living. I was no more special than the neighborhood architect, doctor, midwife, lawyer, or . . . um, wait, actually I am more special than lawyers. But anyway!

The Irish have an expression, “Flowers for the living.” (Meaning: You don’t have to wait until someone dies to say something nice about them.) I appreciate your kind words. And I had a good time visiting with your bright, lively students. I’d be happy to answer their email.

My best,



NOTE: I realize that I’ve been bad, bad, bad when it comes to Fan Mail Wednesday. I’ve got a huge backlog and I’m seriously in trouble. I’m going to start digging out asap. I mean it.

Couple of Snaps

Yo Yo Maggie, 4th grade.

Gavin, 6th grade.

Notes to Myself: Writing BYSTANDER

I’d guess that all writers do it, but I can only speak for myself. During the course of brainstorming for a book, which for me usually involves a composition notebook and random observations, snatches of dialogue, character traits, ideas for scenes, etc., I’ll often write brief notes to myself. These notes that I’m referring to are general guidelines for the book I’m writing — about tone, intention, theme. They serve as signposts, clarifying my intent for that specific book. I’m not talking about notes to address specific scenes in the story, but more global thoughts about the book I’m hoping to write, what I’m trying to achieve.

Below, here’s a few notes taken from a larger notebook that I filled during the research phase for my middle grade novel, Bystander. This might come across as naval gazing, I suppose, but I hope the notes shed light on my writing process and in doing so help readers and writers with their own creative work.

Don’t worry, I’ll translate these into English for those unfamiliar with the dialect of Southpaw Scrawl: “Do not like the books that ‘solve’ the problem, as in, do this and the problem goes away: not so simple.”

“Sometimes people who bully are popular w/ teachers and peers (Bundy)

Important to shatter the stereotypical views of what a bully ‘looks like.'”

“It becomes important to realize/understand what real friendship means.”

“Clique is ‘exclusive club’ not real friendship. ‘Cool’ members must conform & follow rules of group.

Real friends don’t require each other to be something they are not.”

“Children go to great lengths to hide the fact that they are victims of a bully.”

“Bully/victim is more dangerous, because acts out of anger, revenge.”

Odds & Ends

Around the web . . .

* This was sweet and lovely and instructive on the value of seeing things from a different point of view.

* I recently read this book and it’s just about perfect, a 135-page gem.

* Paste Magazine recently listed their “15 Favorite Tina Fey Moments” and I laughed all the way through. I bought the audiobook of Bossypants for Lisa, and she loved it.

* OMG (and I never, ever type “OMG” — so take note, people!), have you seen the brilliant, beautiful cover that Greg Ruth did for The Secret Journeys of Jack London by Tim Lebbon and Christopher Golden? It does everything a cover should do, makes you want to pick up the book and read it. Greg Ruth, my goodness. Wow.

* Okay, I guess Lois Lowry can be president after all. Seriously, I love her blog, somehow all that great humanity comes leaking through. And if my math’s not wrong, she looks terrific 97 years old.

* This is my favorite song from the new Fleet Foxes CD, “Helplessness Blues.” It’s a fan-made video of “Lorelai,” which opens with Brian Wilson-era harmonies and a touch of Dylan. “I was old news to you then, old news, old news to you then.”

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Overheard: “Don’t try to write anything funny.”

Ah, the joys of middle school life. Is anyone else out there in the midst of it? It’s a really complex time for those kids. And they might be, possibly, out of their minds. Helplessly so.

Anyway, the scene: Gavin, my 6th-grader, comes to me in the morning. He needs me to write a note giving him permission to ride the bus to a friend’s house after school.

That he comes to me with a Post-It Note we’ll ignore.

As I’m about to write the brief note, he says, “Don’t try to write anything funny.”

Because parents can be so painfully embarrassing . . .

The Note Pressed Into My Hand

When you do school visits, there are many pleasures — a few quiet moments spent in conversation with a librarian, the roaring laughter of a large group of kids, the student artwork in the hallways, a teacher who says something nice. It’s all too much for me to describe.

Today I cleaned out the large, stuffed book bag that I carry on school trips. In one zippered pocket, crumpled in the bottom, a found a folded sheet of looseleaf paper. A note. I remembered the blonde-haired girl who came up to me with it in her hand. A second-grader, I’d guess. I’d spoken to her grade earlier in the day and now, evidently, she’d sought me out. The girl did not talk, but looked at me with something close to awe. She pressed the paper into my hand, smiled shyly, and quickly walked away, if only because running was not permitted in school.

I don’t remember where we were, which school, which state. It was just one of those little moments that happen along the way when you are an author, and when you’ve been blessed to connect with a reader. Some kid somewhere who picked up your book.

Thank you for the note, Avairee. I LOVE IT.