Archive for December 23, 2011

Overheard: Maggie comments on the interior design of Chipotle

I know: I said I wasn’t posting until 2012. And that’s still totally true! Except . . . that Maggie just said another one and I had to get it down on paper. Or something like that.

Anyway, my two boys, Nick and Gavin, love Chipotle; it’s their idea of fine dining, competing only with the Five Guys burger chain for favorite fast food dispensary. Maggie, unlike her neanderthal brothers, has far more refined taste. She won’t eat fast food under any circumstances. But while we were out shopping yesterday, Gavin, Maggie, and I ducked into Chipotle for a quick bite, despite Maggie’s protests.

Maggie sniffed and observed, “It looks like a really fancy version of a prison cafeteria.

I don’t know. I think maybe she nailed it.

But what is my eleven-year-old daughter doing in prison cafeterias? Anyway, after these guys sat down, we knew it was time to leave.

Soul Christmas Playlist

This will be my last post until 2012. I want to thank you for stopping by — I really do appreciate your interest and your support.

I wish you a healthy, happy holiday season.

I love Christmas music, all of it, of every stripe. And while there’s no beating Bing or Frank or even Burl, here’s some R & B/soul holiday tunes you might enjoy . . . because Otis and James are pretty cool, too.

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

Merry Christmas, Baby, Otis Redding

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

Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas, Carla Thomas

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

Presents for Christmas, Solomon Burke

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

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Ray Charles

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

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Amy Winehouse

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

Christmas Comes But Once a Year, Charles Brown

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

Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto, James Brown

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

Jingle Bells, Booker T. & the MG’s

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

I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Fats Domino

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

I Want a Rock n Roll Guitar, Johnny Preston

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

Back Door Santa, Clarence Carter


My youngest turns eleven tomorrow. I came across this old photo of us, probably about seven years ago. A certain kind of guy might even get a little weepy looking at it.

Happy birthday, Mags.

The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers

I’ve been enjoying Linda Perlstein’s wonderful book, Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers, which you might recall from a previous post, here.

I’m not really interested in conjuring up a new review for it, since most of it has already been said. For example, from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Perlstein’s interpretation of what’s going on inside [middle schoolers] hormone-charged world is information every educator and parent should have . . . . A fascinating and important book.”

But as a writer, as someone who finds this stuff useful — applicable, insightful, helpful, necessary — I just want to say: Thank you, Linda Perlstein, great job. Very impressive, not only the detailed, intimate research, but somehow organizing that mound of raw data, as it were, into such digestible (and entertaining) form.

I’ve been working on a book about middle schoolers, seventh-graders to be precise, and at the same time sharing a house with a seventh-grader of my own. This book feeds and informs that work. So as always, I’m reading it with pen in hand, underlining, starring, writing in the margins, endlessly fascinated, sympathetic, horrified, amused, saddened. Such an age of change and uncertainty.

I share the above as an example of my marginalia. I nodded during that passage, because it exactly echoed the central theme of my 2008 book, Along Came Spider.

Anyway, here’s another brief passage I loved. Perlstein is writing about Jackie Taylor, a seventh-grader, her inner thoughts and musings:

If there were a giant question box in the sky, to which you could submit any query without fear of embarrassment, Jackie would ask two things: How do you make out? and What happens after you die?

There it is in a nutshell, don’t you think?

Confession: I Finally Got Around to Reading “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier


And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”


I’m not a ticker by nature. You know tickers, right, those bird-watchers who have the list in their back pockets, and are all too delighted at each new sighting to check another one off the list. Yellow warbler, good, that’s done.

I worry about those people. I sit up at night, fretting over the shallowness of that experience. Is that all they want, I agonize, just to check it off and be done with it?

I suspect that some readers are the same way. Read it, read it, read it. Done, done, done. What’s next?

Where’s the reflection? When did it become a race?

Better to read one book well, and deeply, than to race through a dozen.

That said, it felt good to finally get around to reading Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, the book that rekindles the question, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

By the way, you know where that quote’s from, right? Only one of the greatest poems ever.

I thought The Chocolate War was brilliant, expertly written, full of youthful rebellion, combativeness, anger, sorrow, energy, brutality — and still timely today. A stunner, frankly. There are not many times when I feel I could have written someone else’s book, and it would be misguided and presumptuous for me to say that here, but I did feel a kinship with Cormier. I understood him down to my bones, recognized his choices, knew exactly what he was trying to achieve.

Cormier’s book is darkly beautiful, the characters vividly drawn, sharp and jagged. There’s the cold manipulation of Archie Costello, the puppet-master. Jerry’s confusion and inner conflict, his unresolved emotions, the way events took on a life of their own beyond any decision or intentionality. And all that catholic school stuff, yes, I remembered that,  too. The 70s were my era, and the tone of this book rang clear and true. Cormier got it all right. The novel’s themes are closely connected to my own book, Bystander, but Cormier goes deeper, darker, older. If Bystander is right for middle school — a somewhat gentle introduction to bullying, a story that peers over the precipice but never makes that leap into the void — then The Chocolate War goes a step or two beyond, grades 8/9-up. It takes you into the black. Where I stopped short, by design, Cormier plunges bravely onward.

Stop it, stop it. But nobody heard. His voice was lost in the thunder of screaming voices, voices calling for the kill . . . kill him, kill him. Goober watched helplessly as Jerry finally sank to the stage, bloody, opened mouth, sucking for air, eyes unfocused, flesh swollen. His body was poised for a moment like some wounded animal and then he collapsed like a hunk of meat cut loose from a butcher’s hook.

On a different note, in my upcoming book, Before You Go, the main character, Jude, is a runner. I had to think about that, and describe his running, here and there, nothing much. A metaphor, for sure, alluding to deeper themes, but also something as concrete and specific as sneakers on the sidewalk.

Well, here’s a paragraph from The Chocolate War. A quick description of a minor character, Goober, who likes to run. Want to read a great passage?

The Goober was beautiful when he ran. His long arms and legs moved flowingly and flawlessly, his body floating as if his feet weren’t touching the ground. When he ran, he forgot about his acne and his awkwardness and the shyness that paralyzed him when a girl looked his way. Even his thoughts became sharper, and things were simple and uncomplicated — he could solve math problems when he ran or memorize football play patterns. Often he rose early in the morning, before anyone else, and poured himself liquid through the sunrise streets, and everything seemed beautiful, everything in its proper orbit, nothing impossible, the entire world attainable.

All I can add to that is, wow. Just slack-jawed wow. Poured himself liquid through the sunrise streets. Liquid! The portrait of Goober  goes on for another remarkable paragraph, where Cormier turns the phrase, “The neighbors would see him waterfalling down High Street . . .”

Waterfalling! The noun as verb, the image startling and yet crystal clear, natural not forced. Waterfalling down High Street.

Run, Goober, run. See Goober run. Liquid, waterfalling.

Damn. That’s great writing.


A librarian friend chimed in with this comment, via email:

Saw on your blog that you finally read The Chocolate War.  Amazing book, huh?  It gets banned EACH AND EVERY year, as you can probably imagine, for being – and I quote from some of the language in the bans and challenges – “pornographic,” for foul language, for its portrayal of violence and degradation of schools and teachers,” for its “blasphemy” and because it is “ humanistic and destructive of religious and moral beliefs and of national spirit.”  One challenge, in a Georgia high school, cited “ I don’t see anything educational about that book.  If they ever send a book like that home with one of my daughters again I will personally burn it and throw the ashes on the principal’s desk.”  And my favorite, from someone who wanted to ban it because the ending was…get this…too pessimistic.

A book like that, you just HAVE to read.

A Jigsaw Christmas

Maybe the worst part of writing a series is the nagging sense that, after ten books or so, nobody really notices if the books are any good or not. Especially not your publisher. Your editor cares, for sure, but everyone else . . . shrug. The sum of your work gets reduced down to a number, the notion of “quality” gets subsumed by “quantity” — and the book is as good as its sales figures. I know, I know: Real World 101. But still.

So as part of my continuing “Stories Behind the Story” series, I’d like to put the focus on Jisgaw Jones Super Special #4: The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery. It’s one of my favorites in the series and it’s probably out of print.

When I wrote the book, I really tried to create a great holiday story — a story with value and content that could stand up to any of the Christmas classics. So I decided to tackle a tricky subject: Jigsaw gets hired to prove if Santa is real or not. Now I knew that I had a range of readers with a varying beliefs, and I felt a keen obligation toward them, so I was determined that my book would not spoil it for anyone. In essence, I wrote myself into a box, locked the lid, and like Houdini had to squirm myself out of it.

Here’s an early scene in Jigsaw’s basement office:

Sally Ann’s mood turned serious. She stared hard into my eyes. Her arms were crossed. “I want to meet Santa,” she demanded.

I cracked open my detective journal. “Santa?” I repeated, scribbling down the name. “Last name?”

“Claus,” Sally Ann said.

“Santa . . . Claus,” I wrote.

“That’s the one,” Sally Ann said.

“Big white beard? Wears black books and a red suit? Last seen driving a sleigh led by, let’s see . . .” I flipped through the pages of my journal and pretended to read, “. . . eight flying reindeer?”

Sally Ann didn’t like being teased. She never cracked a smile. Instead, she rummaged inside her pink plastic pocketbook. She pulled out the head of a Barbie doll — that’s it, just the head. Sally Ann frowned and continued poking around. She pulled out some baseball cards, a tissue (used, I suspect), a handful of rocks, beads, a hammer (!), and other assorted junk.

“Here,” she finally said.

Sally Ann smoothed out a dollar bill on my desk.

Illustration by Jamie Smith.

She was serious.

Sally Ann Simms wanted to meet Santa Claus.

And it didn’t seem like she would take no for an answer.

I asked her why.

“We have business to discuss,” she grumbled.

And so the book begins, fueled by the mystery. Along the way, a number of  entertaining events occur — including a sly tribute to Dick Van Dyke. With the help of Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III, sort of standing in for the character “Q” in the James Bond series, Jigsaw planted a hidden camera on Sally Ann’s mantelpiece.

After Christmas,. the only thing left to do was to retrieve the photographic evidence from inside the camera . . .

By December 27, Eddie Becker had already left three telephone messages at my house. I didn’t return the calls. I already knew what Eddie wanted.

A photograph of Santa Claus.

He wanted to get rich. But I just wanted to get it over with.

Mila had said it from the beginning: “I don’t think we should mess around with Santa.”

I was finally beginning to understand what she meant.

After lunch I clomped through the snow to Sally Ann’s house to pick up the daisy camera. I brought Rags so he could play with Pickles. Sally Ann had built a giant snowman on her front lawn. Actually, it was a snowman and a snowdog. She even used a real leash.

I returned home not long after. I brought the camera into my bedroom and stared at it for a long time. I thought about a lot of things. About Santa Claus, about Christmas, and about what it meant. I thought about my parents, and Equinox, and the smiles on the faces of the people when we delivered their holiday meals.

I picked up the vase and turned a leaf, just as Reginald had showed me. A small camera popped out. I remembered his warning. If I expose the film to light, all the photos will be ruined.

“Whatever you do,” Reginald had said, “don’t pull these petals.”

Down the hall, I heard the phone ringing. Probably Eddie Becker again, I figured, eager for his big payday. I took a deep breath . . . held the camera under my lamp . . . and pulled on the petals.

Poof, no proof.

The film was ruined.

Some mysteries don’t need to be solved. I believed in Santa, and I believed in the spirit of Christmas, and I didn’t need to dust for fingerprints to prove it. My heart told me everything I needed to know.

I wasn’t going to mess with Santa. The big man deserved that much. After all, I figured I owed the guy.

Case closed.

A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

NOTE: This book was dedicated to my editor at Scholastic, Shannon Penney (who remains a loyal blog reader), and also acknowledges the charitable work performed by the staff and volunteers at Equinox, a nonprofit community agency that seres the Capital District area of New York. Jigsaw and his family spend a brief part of this book volunteering at the very same Equinox.

Oh, hey, I might as well include this little scene, because I’m fond of it. Setup: It’s Christmas Eve and Jigsaw is trying to fall asleep. Remember that feeling, in bed on Christmas Eve, just wanting it to come. Jigsaw’s mother enters the room and rubs his back. He’s still just a boy.

“How did you like delivering those meals today?”

I was getting sleepy. “I liked it, I guess.”

“Is that all?”

“It felt like we were doing a good thing,” I said. “I guess that made me feel good, too.”

My mother bent down and kissed me on the cheek. “Funny how that works,” she said. “Good night, Jigsaw. You make me proud. See you in the morning.”

“Good night, Mom. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I was alone again. Now my eyelids were heavy.

I didn’t want it to end. Christmas Eve, the most magical night of the year. I just lay there, enjoying it. And then, drifting off easily, tired and happy, I slept.

Fan Mail Wednesday #131: Upcoming Books

Hello!  My name is Russell. I want to read all of your books. I am enjoying Bystander so much. I was just wondering what other books you have besides Bystander because I am reading it now? Please contact me back when you have free time. Thank you so much.



I replied:


Thanks, I’m glad you liked Bystander. Though I’ve written for many years, including 40 titles in the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, Bystander was the first time I set a book in a middle school. So I don’t have much that’s exactly right for you as a follow-up . . . yet.

My book, Six Innings, fits in with Bystander, in terms of reading & interest level. It revolves around a Little League championship baseball game (thus, six innings, not nine). It was named an ALA Notable and I’m proud of that.

Next summer, I have a new book coming out, Before You Go, that is probably grades 7/8 – up. There’s a little bit of mild language in it, some alcohol, but not much. I guess it’s up to individuals as to where they draw the line on those issues. The main characters are ages 16, 17. Essentially the setup is this: Opening scene, four unnamed teenagers drive on a dark road. The car spins out of control, hits a tree. One passenger dies. Next page, we rewind six weeks into the past, and gradually meet all the characters. The reader doesn’t know who is going to be in the car, or who will die. The book catches up to the accident about 2/3 of the way through. So the book is in two sections: “Before” and “After.”

I’m also writing a new middle school book, tentatively titled, Zombie Me. But I can’t really talk about that one until I finish it — it’s been an exciting book for me to write, but such a struggle.

Now study up, ace those finals, and enjoy a great holiday season.

My best,


Santa Always Disappoints

A writer friend of mine, a relatively new mother, recently commented: “Every year I’m thrown by what an as*hole Santa is to Rudulph.”

I nodded in agreement. That movie, which I love, probably contains the worst characterization of Santa ever. He’s never seemed more small-minded than in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” He’s basically a bully, and Comet, a very disappointing dad.

All I can say to Rudolph is, hey, if you’re listening to me, little guy . . . it will get better.

I was pleased when a few years back Jack Johnson recorded an updated version of the song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindoor.” It’s got the usual laid-back Johnson sound, with a groovy twist to the lyrics:

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

. . . well Rudolph he didn’t go for that
he said, “I see through your silly games.”
How could you look me in the face
when only yesterday you called me names?
Well all of the other reindeers man,
well they sure did feel ashamed,
“Rudolph, you know we’re sorry,
we’re truly gonna try to change.”

As a side note, after I wrote the above I came across this article from the Huffington Post. It’s all a little too much, granted. Why can’t we all just get along?

Note: Did an image search and came across this craziness.

“Bad Decisions Make Good Stories.”

I came across this wall photo on the web. I wasn’t too crazy about it, frankly, didn’t strike me as hysterical, but number 10 got my attention:

Bad decisions make good stories.

(Click on the image if you wish to make it larger. You know that, right?)

I think that five-word sentence serves as an excellent piece of advice to writers. Just as we don’t want to read about perfect people who always do the right thing, and think the correct thoughts, there is nothing duller than a character who never makes a mistake.

It’s the imperfections that make us human. The wrong turns that take us to unexpected places.

I recently received an email from a middle school teacher who complimented me on Bystander. However, she wondered about the scene late in the book when Eric snuck into Griffin’s house. She wasn’t comfortable with it, didn’t feel that Eric was modeling the appropriate behavior, sending the right message. My answer was simple. First, I reminded her, respectfully, that I wrote a story, not a thesis, and that I never intended for Eric to portray “all the correct responses” to bullying. And secondly, that I had no desire to write about a character who never experienced a lapse of judgment. More importantly, as a writer I understood and recognized Eric’s motivation — that part made sense to me, the urge for revenge, why he wanted to take back what was stolen from him — even if it wasn’t the “right” thing to do.

The lapse made him more human.


Bad decisions make good stories.

Just to be clear: I also dislike it when character do incredibly stupid things for seemingly no reason, or when they act in ways that are inconsistent with their character. The “bad decision” should (or must) fit in with the logic of the character as written.

Or so I tell myself.

The Picture Book Pledge

I discovered this great post from The Arts Room blog, where they are taking their 2nd Annual Picture Book Pledge just in time for the holidays.

Please follow the link above to read about the pledge, find some book recommendations, and see a charming video about the diabolically clever new picture book, Press Here, by Herve Tullet.

Well done, Arts Room! And you too, Monsieur Tullet.

Along those lines, my friend, illustrator Matthew Cordell, has been banging on a similar drum. But Matt’s drum, “A Children’s Book Challenge,” is on Facebook. Because he’s sooo New Media.

You can get to it by clicking like a madman here. Be sure to click the “like” button when you arrive.

By the way, and seriously, Matt is amazing — and so productive that I want to punch him in the face. (But in the nicest, sweetest way possible.) Just look at this list of titles — the guy doesn’t sleep! It’s especially great that Matt is now writing some of his own books. Here’s an upcoming one (January 2012) I’m particularly excited about.

Matt blogged on this topic in a post titled, “Reawaken Your Love for the Picture Book”:

The children’s picture book is not doing so well. People aren’t buying it like they should. I don’t have all the facts and numbers (I’m not that guy), but I know enough to tell you that. Maybe it’s because of tough economic times. Maybe it’s because of e-bookery or general gadget-y (short attention span) distractions. Maybe it’s because parents aren’t reading to their kids enough. Maybe it’s because education is accelerating young readers at a newer, faster pace, and rushing them over the picture book form. Maybe it’s because it’s been forgotten how important, irreplaceable, and (when stars align) how spiritual the picture book experience is to both children and adults.

A couple of paragraphs later, Matt issued this challenge (which is funny to me, because Matt is such not an in-your-face, “issue a challenge” kind of guy):

This is my challenge to you, dear readers. Go into a book store (not a website, but a store with a roof, walls, people, books you can hold and browse over) and spend some time in the children’s book section. Find something incredible (it ain’t hard). Then, when you’re all filled up, buy just one picture book. And in a week’s time, repeat. Buy one picture book a week for your kid(s), some other kid(s) you love, or for yourself or some other grown-up you love. I can identify that it’s hard to get, at first, but adults can also enjoy reading picture books. And if you absolutely can’t swallow that concept, you can’t escape appreciating them for the amazing artwork alone. It’s like buying amazing art that can sit on your coffee table (or wherever you keep your favorite books with your favorite images) for, like, 16 bucks or whatever. Someone you know needs more picture books in her/his/their life/lives. You need to experience, again, what you loved when you read picture books as a kid.

Lastly, in the spirit of sharing, here’s the most recent picture book I purchased. I discovered it on a school visit to my native Long Island and immediately thought — and upon closer inspection, still think — that this is a perfect picture book. Seriously. It’s flawless. And I don’t say that about many picture books.

Wait, whoops . . .

You know, I’ve never much cared for Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go, which has become the knee-jerk graduation present for every kid in America. My recommendation: give that graduate The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds, and encourage him to make his mark on the world.