Archive for December 20, 2012

Fan Mail Wednesday #162

I’m one of those people who doesn’t feel particularly proud or accomplished, much more aware of what I haven’t done — and maybe can’t ever do — than what’s already past. I know, I know. But that’s just how I’m built, so you’ll have to write a letter to the manufacturer.

The truth is, I got a few great letters recently. I haven’t been sharing them of late, or been particularly tuned into the “James Preller” franchise — this business of being “James Preller” — just generally weary of this Industry of Self. Not the writing, not the books, not the real work: that stuff is great.

Anyway, here’s a letter from someone I met long ago . . .

Hi Mr. Preller,

I’m sure you wouldn’t recognize my name, but my name is Katie F. and I was in Ms. Goeke’s 2nd grade class when you visited back in ’98. Now I am 22 and about to graduate with my MBA, my how time flies! I still own the first couple of Jigsaw Jones books, and while reorganizing my bookshelf to make room for some textbooks I came across the second book, The Case of the Secret Valentine. I remember vaguely having a visitor in the class who Ms. Goeke had explained was an author. However, I had completely forgotten that my name is on the second page! You have clearly had great success with this series, I see there have been many more books published since I left that target age group; congratulations!

My question is, what inspired the main idea of the series? The characters? Did you already have a kids detective series in your head when you came to observe my class?

I used to jokingly tell people I inspired a kid’s series in elementary school because I used to play detective on the playground all of the time back then. I doubt I was actually the true inspiration, so I was wondering if you didn’t mind sharing that with me? I’ve been very curious!

Apologies if you have already answered this question on your blog somewhere!
Katie (Kathryn) F.
I replied:
The author mumbles to himself: “I am only as young as I feel, I am only as young as I feel, I am only as young . . .
Oh, hey, Katie, I didn’t see you standing there!
Thank you so much for that remarkable letter. I remember that time well, though you are correct, the names of the individual students in that class have long since slipped away.
Back then, fifteen or sixteen years ago, I was given a four-book contract to write a mystery series. This was based on something I generated myself, gave to an editor, and Scholastic decided, “Let’s see if he can do it.”
It was important to me to write accurately about the school life of children. Fortunately, I knew your teacher, Jen Goeke, and she welcomed me into her classroom. I visited many times, actually. In fact, I loosely modeled Jigsaw’s teacher, Ms. Gleason, after your (our!) Ms. Goeke. I admired so many of the little things so did with her students, the affection, the calm, the deft way of balancing the needs of individuals with the pedagogical objectives of the classroom. I’m sure you’ll agree, mostly she was really, really nice. There’s a lot of Ms. Goeke in those books.
I love this illustration by R. W. Alley from the first book in the series, The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster.
Here’s a snatch of dialogue from that scene:
“Ms. Gleason,” I said.

Ms. Gleason looked up and smiled. “Yes, what can I do for you two?”

“We really, really need to learn about snakes and hamsters,” I said.

Ms. Gleason put down her blue pencil. “This sounds serious.”

“It is,” Mila answered.

“Very serious,” I whispered. “It’s a matter of life and death.”

Ms. Gleason put her hand over her mouth. Her eyes got wide. “Oh, goodness,” she said.
Yes, I see that you are right. I dedicated book #3, The Case of the Secret Valentine, to the students in your 2nd-grade class. One other thing I tried to put into those books, and that I re-learned partly from those visits with Ms. Goeke, was how a child can truly and deeply fall in love with his or her teacher. She was beautiful and lovely and most of all she was kind. I wanted to pay tribute to that.
I am sorry to say that you were not the inspiration for the series. (Actually, my team of lawyers has advised me to say that, in fear you will be seeking a claim on royalties earned.) I already had the basics in mind before I walked into your classroom. But I did get inspired there, and I’m sure you played a part in that.
I wonder: Do you have a class picture? Could you send a file to me? I’d love to see one, if that isn’t too much to ask.
Thank you for taking the time to write. I was nice for me to find an excuse to revisit those times and that place. Congratulations on your MBA. Now go out there and fix the world! That was one of the things I learned, you know. Hopefulness. Belief in a better future. I’d sit in that classroom, surrounded by kids exactly like you, who were being taught by a young woman like Jen Goeke, and I knew that somehow we’d make it through, that it would all be all right somehow.
My best,

How I Feel These Days

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“All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being . . . My life has value!'”


The Perils of Skype: There’s the Giant “Oz Head,” for Starters

Let’s start with the horror:

Run for the hills, people.

On a Thursday morning in late November, I Skyped with students in Pine View Middle School, somewhere in Florida. The basic setup was that a small number of students gathered in the media room to ask The Great Oz Head a variety of excellent questions. Once it was established that no, in fact, I had no idea how to return them to Kansas, we talked for about 30 minutes about writing and my book, Bystander, which was read by all the language arts classes in the school, grades 6-8.

The program — that is, my enormous Oz Head — was televised live into 80% of the classrooms. The rest, I’m told, viewed the recorded presentation. In all, the Skype reached a population of 900 students. Crazy, I know.

At the risk of blowing my own horn, the reviews were good. Martha Ann Winterroth, who helped pull it all together, wrote to me with a curious follow-up question:

“Awesome!!!” “I LOVED it!!” Those are a couple of comments from the students as we disconnected from you!! It truly was an extremely successful Skype with you. However, there was one question that did not get asked that we would LOVE for you to (briefly) answer for us:

In chapter 27, did you intentionally have Mr. Scofield direct Eric to page 116 so that the reader would go back to that page and read about the quote from MLK (“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”)?

Thanks again.  We appreciate your time and knowledge and words of wisdom.  It is something that these kids will remember for a long, long time!
My interrogators. Not sure if the word “enthralled” leaps to mind.
Well, that was nice to read. I’m trying to relax with Skype, keep it loose and — I guess the word is —  authentic. I just want to be a regular guy, talking clearly and honestly. (That’s my gimmick!) Anyway, in answer to the above question, I had no idea what they were talking about. Yes, on page 116, Mr. Scofield does introduce the quote from Martin Luther King, thus:
“What’s this got to do with us?” a boy asked.

“Everything,” the teacher answered. “It’s about having the courage to do the right thing.”

The bell rang. Eric grabbed his books and headed for the door. Mr. Scofield pointed to a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. that had been tacked to the bulletin board. “King called it ‘the appaling silence.'”
Scofield was on his feet now, still teaching even after the bell, still declaiming quotes. “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Strange guy, that Scofield. A little hyper sometimes. But the image stuck in Eric’s head like a dart to a wall: a man attached to wires, pounding on walls, pleading, “Stop, somebody please, make them stop.” It was hard to pretend that the wires were not, in some strange inexplicable way, connected to him.
The famous Milgram Experiment, which is discussed
in the book during Mr. Scofield’s English class.
So then I turned to Chapter 27. Toward the end, Eric is distracted, thinking about Griffin and Cody and Eric’s stolen bicycle. Mr. Scofield tells Eric to turn to page one hundred and sixteen, please. A number that was a total coincidence, believe me. I wish I was smart enough to dream up that stuff! My compliments to whomever figured out that connection. It’s an impressive example of close reading and attention to detail.

I received another note, this one from Jamie, who first contacted me for a potential school visit.

Thanks so much for taking the time to Skype with us. The kids loved it! Not only were the students talking to you enthralled, but so was the entire school while they watched it! We now have a celebrity among us! Also, thank you for writing the book! As you know it was a school-wide initiative to have students become more aware of that bystander role. I, as an English teacher, loved how you showed them your “sloppy copy” of your books! You were fantastic!


For more on the Milgram experiment . . .

. . . click here.

Fan Mail Wednesday #161: In Which Juan Hopes I Am Happy

This is just lovely . . .

Seriously, how lucky can a guy get? To open an envelope and find something as pure and kind and good as this?

Plus — it came with a drawing. Be careful, it’s a little spooky. . .

I replied to Juan this way, knowing that my letter could never be as good as his:

Dear Juan:

Thank you for your kind letter. I am always pleased when someone (finally!) notices that I’m cool.

Do not worry, Juan, because I am happy. I am fantastically, terrifically happy. I have three great kids, an awesome wife, two black cats, and a dog that barks and barks and barks. I think she’s insane! Perra loca!

Guess what? I just read a beautiful letter – from YOU! And it came with the coolest, spookiest picture! And guess what else? Now it’s hanging up on my office wall!

Thanks, also, for saying that I am a nice person. I try, every day. I bet you try, too, because writing that letter to me was a very, very, VERY nice thing to do.

I hope you can find plenty of Jigsaw Jones books in the library. Free books to read! What could be better? (Okay, free chocolate, sure. That’s tough to beat. But books are pretty tasty, too.)

The good news is that I’ve been writing a new series for readers your age. Every book will be a scary story. The series will be called –- are you ready for this? are you holding onto your hat? – SCARY TALES. The first book is called Home, Sweet Horror and it will be available in July. I’m most excited about Book #3, though. It has zombies in it!

My best,

James Preller