Archive for May 31, 2012

This Morning’s Sweet Photo

A friend sent along this note . . .

“He fell asleep reading your book. I couldn’t resist a photo.”

Grumpy Answers to Great Questions: Wastepaper Prose (and Other Literary Woes)

I was recently invited to participate in Round 7 of “The Author Insight Series,” hosted by the outstanding Wastepaper Prose blog.

It was exciting to get an invitation anywhere, frankly, so I went out, bought a lightweight seersucker suit, and dithered over which holiday present to re-gift.

(Little known fact: I am 51 years old and have never owned a suit. Or a watch. Carry on!)

The Insight Series is actually quite impressive. In this case, Susan sent along a list of 16 questions to 23 authors. We all answer the same questions in our own way. My way was, naturally, the grumpy way; I feel like that’s my turf.

It’s strange to experience the compare-and-contrast effect of 23 writers answering the same question. I didn’t want to lose! Didn’t want to be the one lame author limping along in last place every time, feet blistered, clutching my side, gasping for air. Everything in life is a competition, as I tell preschoolers at every opportunity, and I was determined to avoid that kind of embarrassment.

Here are the answers to Question #1: “If someone had a behind-the-scenes pass to observe your writing process what would they see?”

My writing process in a picture. Do we really need

a thousand words?

In all seriousness, across four-plus years of blogging I’ve tried to write openly and honestly about my writing process . . . without sounding too precious about it. Click here if you care about that stuff.

I was glad for the opportunity to participate. Glad to be able to bring some sliver of attention to my upcoming YA novel, Before You Go. Authors come in all shapes, shades, and sizes — all with our own fingerprint — and it’s worthwhile, perhaps even inspiring, to celebrate that variety of voices. And guess what else? There was be PRIZES and GIVEAWAYS, signed books and such, at the end of the series. Go to Wastepaper Prose and knock yourself out. Hopefully you’ll discover some new writers in the process.

Four Old Family Photos

Busy day yesterday, as I drove down to CitiField (300 miles round trip) with Gavin and Nick to catch the Mets. My attendance record stands now at 0-3, and each game fairly abysmal. This is the price I pay, I tell myself, for being in attendance for Game 5 of the 1969 World Series, when the Amazin’s won it all and later went on The Ed Sullivan Show to sing, “The Impossible Dream.” Oh well, my boys were happy. It was a sweltering day, the sun beating down on our heads, and I spent more than $40 on water at the park.


Anyway, I wanted to post two photos yesterday for the holiday . . .

My father served in the Air Force. This photo was taken during his basic training in Tennessee, 1944. He wrote on the back of the photo, presumably sent to his parents in Queens, NY: “Here I am all dressed up. My hat is on cockeyed. Don’t I look independent?”

My brother Bill, the second oldest in the family, served in Vietnam. I figure this shot for somewhere in 1967-68. I remember when he was over the there, and the body counts on the nightly news, a little boy wondering, hoping. When he came home, I ran and jumped into his arms.

When you warm up the old scanner, it’s hard to stop. This is from my sister Barbara’s 8th-grade graduation from St. Frances de Chantel in Wantagh, NY. Back in in June, 1965, when the number one songs for the month were: “Help Me, Rhonda,” The Beach Boys; “Back in My Arms Again,” The Supremes; “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” The Four Tops; and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” The Byrds.

Music was really, really great when I was a kid. And it was about to get even better. (I think 1967 was the best year for music in the 20th century, since you asked.)

I used to be two years old. Go figure. This is from April, 1963, and I’m next to my sister Jean, age 5, going on 6. She was something with those straight bangs. On school visits, I’ll sometimes joke that there are no photos of me, because nobody bothers taking pictures of Kid #7. There’s truth in that, of course, but I’ve found some scattered old photos, too. Usually I’m standing next to somebody else, or a brother’s new car. These photos have become my small treasures.

Sneak Peak 2: My New Series of Scary Tales

Last month I handed in the manuscript for the first book in a new series — my first since Jigsaw Jones. Though Jigsaw is still around, with many titles still available, I haven’t consistently written new books in that series for the past six years.

In the intervening time, I’ve published hardcover books, a first for me, in picture book format (Mighty Casey, A Pirate’s Guide for First Grade) and for older readers (Six Innings, Along Came Spider, Justin Fisher Declares War, Bystander, and Before You Go).

I haven’t written specifically for what was once my core readership, the grades 2-4 crowd. I needed to step away, explore different things. But now I’m back, writing 80-page chapter books for exactly that age group. And I have to tell you, I’m absolutely in my comfort zone with this new, evolving series — my “Twilight Zone” for younger readers.

Here’s a sample page 1 from my first draft, scribbled out on a yellow legal pad (as if my usual practice):

Kind of messy, right? Not sure you can read this. Lots of interesting changes/revisions/improvements on the fly. I gave the sister an early line of dialogue, then to the side, later, asked myself: “still sleeping?” Brought “Our new home” up into the first paragraph, deleted words and phrases, etc.

Last week I received the copyedit in the mail, which I reviewed over the phone with my editor, Liz. So now that same section looks like this:

The ring, I learned as I wrote, figures large in the story. There is a power to it. So during revision I made sure to get it into that opening scene, underscoring Kelly’s relationship to it, giving it, in other words, its moment.

I was grateful to receive positive feedback from my publisher, since the first book in a new series can be tricky. You make many decisions that you’ll have to live with for the length of the series. Jean Feiwel sent me a note, “I love love love this book.” That was good day. I was not asked to make any big changes, just light revisions. In another month or so I’ve receive the galleys, with the corrected type set in a carefully-selected font, exactly as it will appear in final book form, and with it the opportunity for another round of tweaks, improvements. The artwork will come in within the next two weeks — and there will be a lot of it. That’s exciting. I can’t wait to see what the (super-talented, surprise) illustrator does with the story. All the while, I’m writing the second book of the series, which is due in another month.

The series, tentatively titled “Shivers,” will launch in the summer of 2013.

EDIT: Now called “SCARY TALES.”

Starting a new series presents many challenges, the thrill of creating something brand new. Hopefully this will be the beginning of something great. That’s always my dream going into a job, “Maybe this one will be great.” I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet, but I keep hoping.

We are not interested in creating a formulaic set of stories, stamped out by a factory. We want each book to stand alone, featuring different characters and different settings. Again, in this sense, I am inspired by Stephen King and “The Twilight Zone” (and yes, I own the complete series on DVD), which rather than one type of story, featured a comprehensive variety of sub-genre, including science fiction, horror, social satire, fantasy, ghost stories and countless variations. My hope is that across a number of books we’ll be able to accomplish something similar in terms of scope and content, while still maintaining a signature fingerprint. When a reader opens a “Shivers” book, he’ll know that he’s about to get strapped into the roller coaster, taken for a wild ride, and returned back safely again — hopefully screaming, “Again, again, again!”

For fans of process, here’s another example of how the story moved from first draft to copyedit:

The copyedited version, which arrives after many revisions by me at home before it goes to the publisher, represents the first edited response from my publisher. Again, this sample shows a light touch by the folks at Feiwel & Friends, thank goodness. Note the circles around “Liam.” We commonly refer to this as an echo. Sometimes when we use a word too many times over a few sentences, or when, in this case, the paragraphs open in the same way. Doesn’t mean it must be changed, just that it should be looked at, considered, before it is changed or not. Alert readers will also note that I changed “‘Hello,’ he called” to “‘Hello,’ he bleated.”

A little lamb, lost in the wilderness.

Have a great Memorial Weekend, everybody. And please remember why we celebrate it. Be grateful to the uniformed men and women who have served our country over the years.

Sneak Peak #1: A Pirate’s Guide to Recess

Avast, ye scallywags! Greg Ruth is currently illustrating the sequel to A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, in which we take it out to the playground and introduce fierce Captain Molly.

Look for A Pirate’s Guide to Recess (Macmillan) in the summer of 2013.

Are Students Sick & Tired of Anti-Bullying Messages? And What About You?

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I have doubts. Not about bullying, exactly — I know it’s a serious issue, a matter of life and death — but I fret about the effectiveness of talking about it.

You could call it an occupational hazard.

Does anyone hear the message anymore?

Anti-bullying rhetoric seems everywhere these days. Trending hot on Twitter. Almost fadish. And I sometimes wonder if kids have tuned it out. In my travels, I’ve talked to many teachers who have expressed that worry.

This year, I’ve visited schools in OH, MA, FLA, MI, NJ, NY, SC, PA, and CN — often because I wrote the book, Bystander. I’ll arrive at a school where all the middle schoolers, grades 6-8, have read and discussed my book. They’ve wrestled with the issues, hopefully identified with characters, felt compassion, empathy, anger. Or, I guess, some of them have just been bored by another book they didn’t get to select themselves. In most cases, my novel is only one small piece of a comprehensive anti-bullying agenda.

But as I’ve said before, I wrote a book. A story. Not a brochure on how to make your school a “bully-free zone.”

Despite the amazing letters I receive, I still wonder what I can say on a school visit that won’t come off as yet another lecture to this audience. What can I say that might make a difference. And if, perhaps, they simply can’t hear it anymore.

Is it worth beating on that same old drum?

Then I opened up The New York Times and read Nicholas D. Kristof’s op-ed piece from Thursday, May 17. And I’m reminded, yet again, why this matters so very much; and how real people — the children in our village – are powerfully effected every single day; and that anything we can do is far, far better than sad resignation.

As an author and father of three children, ages 11, 12, and 19, I believe that the core of this issue comes back to simple values. Do unto others. The importance of thinking to yourself, “How would that make me feel?” Identifying with others. Caring. Our fundamental humanity.

The issue of bullying is about the importance of compassion, tolerance, kindness, and empathy — at a time in life when empathy does not come easily to many middle schoolers. Stories can help. Like Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, to cite one recent, brilliant work of children’s literature. I read it recently and then pressed it into my 5th-grade daughter’s hands. You must read this, I said. I loved the way, like any great book, Wonder brought us into the hearts and minds of different characters. How we experienced forms of bullying, of painful isolation, from the inside out. I loved Palacio’s message of kindness and compassion.

Anyway, I digress.

Here’s an excerpt from Mr. Kristof’s op-ed piece:

Plenty of adults are skeptical about the fuss over bullying. “How come the thin-skinned kids nowadays can’t handle the bullying that made us better, stronger adults?” one man wrote to me on Twitter.

He should read what Madison Jaronski, 15, of New Hope, Pa., wrote:

“Tears have been flooding down my face; breathing is a task that now seems impossible. I draw my legs closer and closer into my chest as I try to transform the pressure into reassuring comfort. I begin to slowly rock myself, and by now my tears have colored my pillow black. …

“All of my accomplishments and enjoyable moments are overshadowed by the pain and harassment that was thrust upon me. Just looking at my surface, you would see a confident young woman, as sturdy as a rock. You would never think that I was broken, broken into a million pieces like shattered glass, all because of the work of a group of senior boys.”

You want to reach out to these kids and envelop them in a big warm hug and tell them that they are smart, sensitive human beings, a thousand times better than their tormenters.

To read the winning essays, go here. Just do it.

You will be blown away.

Here’s a brief sample from one winning essay, written by Lena Rawley, age 17, from Montclair, NJ:

Teenage girls are cruel super-humans from a distant galaxy sent here to destroy us all. They have the self entitlement of a celebrity heiress and the aggression of a Roman Gladiator. Like vampires they feed off the blood of the weak. They’re pubescent monsters. Adolescent boogeymen.

While my observations may be coming from a point of bias, that doesn’t mean they are faulty in accuracy. As a teenage girl myself, I think I know teenage girls quite well. Not only was I a former teenage mean girl, but I was tortured, tormented, isolated and socially maimed by them as well.


Just came across this school that featured a booktalk about Bystander, way back in 2011. I appreciate that this kind of thing has been happening in many schools across the country, and sometimes on a schoolwide scale, but this one is especially sweet since I grew up in Nassau County, too. I just love the idea of parents and kids coming together and talking about this stuff — that this book, my book, offers a safe springboard for those conversations. Wow.


Lastly, here’s a recent Doonesbury . . . still kicking it after all these years.

Fan Mail Wednesday #153: Funny Line

A quickie today. A boy named Dominik wrote a brief whisper of a letter, and concluded with a sentence that cracked me up.

My favorite scene in every book is when the case ends.

I told him I often feel the same relief. Okay, sure, I know what he meant, that moment of satisfying resolution when the detectives get their man. But substitute “book” for “case” and it reads differently.

Fan Mail Wednesday #152: Featuring Artwork!

I like it when the letters include artwork.

I replied:

Dear Andrew,

Hey, thanks for your typed letter, the terrific drawing, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Well played, young man!

I’m glad you liked The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow. It has one of my favorite moments in it, when Mila figures the suspect might have printed his name in the shirt. After all, moms and dads do that for kids all the time when they go to camp. So Jigsaw checks the shirt and says, “We’re looking for a kid named Eddie Bauer.”

For blog readers, here’s the scene where Mila and Jigsaw investigate the mysterious scarecrow . . .

Mila 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.”

Mila smiled. “Look,” she said.

I craned my neck to read the label. “We’re looking for a kid named Eddie Bauer.”

“That’s the clothing label!” Mila said. “Read the other name.”

I read the name that was printed on the marker: Buzzy Lennon.

I looked up into 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.

I got the name of the old lady who lived alone in the house from a song by The Beatles: “Eleanor Rigby.”

I appreciate your idea for a different ending. And you are right, that would have been smart. Too bad that Buzzy was so lazy -– he’d rather cheat than do an honest day’s work.

It was nice hearing from you. Keep on reading those books!

Your friend,


Fan Mail Wednesday #151: Some Letters Are Just So Sad

When you are an author, and if you are lucky, kids send you letters. Some are formulaic, an assignment; others go deeper and seem more genuine. And some letters chip away at your heart — and you try to answer the best way you know how.

I won’t share the full letter here, or my reply. But read this . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #150: Weirdness & Other Fine Qualities

To mix things up, I thought I’d run a “Fan Mail Wednesday” piece on an actual Wednesday. I think it’s good to keep readers off-balance. So, here’s a good one. I only wish I could share with you the name of the letter writer, it’s just one of those perfect names that authors like me love to steal.

I replied:

Dear H____,

Thanks for your wonderful letter, I really enjoyed it. I don’t hear from many students who write in cursive –- I thought it had gone the way of the dinosaurs. These days I sign my books in print, because I assume that most kids can’t even read cursive.

Smart that you picked up on Joey’s eating. There are many characters in the Jigsaw Jones series, 40 books, 250,000 words. I try to make each character complete – an individual. I do that by trying to give each one a few distinct traits. Joey is a little goofy, sweet-natured, and he often takes things too literally, like Amelia Bedelia (as when, in The Case of the Rainy Day Mystery, Jigsaw tells him to “put a tail on Bigs Maloney”). But the real key to Joey is his enthusiasm for food. He eats fast, and usually has a crumbled Oreo in his back pocket.

Art by Jamie Smith from The Case of the Rainy Day Mystery. Sadly, it looks like Scholastic has let this most excellent book go out of print. I dream of  getting the rights back for these neglected books, and republishing them myself. I know I could sell ‘em.

So, hmmm, some people think you are weird. Maybe you are a different, I don’t know. But there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m often bored when I meet super-normal people, you know what I mean? I think it’s our quirks and oddities that make us interesting. And believe me, everyone has a little bit of weirdness inside. We’re human beans, after all; it’s our differences that make the world go round.

Anyway, as we travel through life, we eventually find and attract the right kinds of friends –- the people who like us for who we are. If someone thinks you are weird . . . so what. You don’t have to “not like them,” but I do recommend not paying much attention to that kind of thinking.

Be yourself, H_____. Thanks for your kind, well-written letter. You made me happy, and I think you’re terrific. My best,