Archive for Around the Web

Notes on Revising Jigsaw Jones, Confronting Sexism, and a Changing World

This piece was originally posted with the help of my friend Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer) at the Nerdy Book Club, a great site for teachers and librarians and book lovers of all sizes and shapes and backgrounds. On school visits, I’m often asked about revision. Actually, teachers often ask — the kids, not so much. Which pretty much underscores the issue. Revision is essential to all good writing, but most young writers just want to be done. They want to type those two glorious words, THE END. Maybe my little essay below will help pull the curtain back in an interesting way into one writer’s experience with revising books . . . that were already finished. It never ends, it never, ever ends.

 

Writers are not often given the opportunity to revise our work post-publication. We labor like the dickens throughout the writing process -– drafting, daydreaming, dithering -– until those last desperate hours of corrections. Then we let the book go scampering off into the wild. Not perfect, not ever perfect, but the best we could do at the time.

In the case of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, I’ve enjoyed a unique experience. The books had gone out of print with my original publisher. And then, to my great delight, the good folks at Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan) decided to bring the books back into print. The plan was to launch with a brand-new title, The Case from Outer Space, but also to bring back eight previously published titles that had been unavailable.

I was given the rare chance to go back and fix things. Update, revise, tweak, correct. It’s been an instructive experience. I’ll begin with a specific example. Early in The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur, Jigsaw is having a catch with Mila. The book read:

 

I threw the baseball in a high, long arc to Mila. She drifted back and caught it easily. Mila is a pretty good ballplayer. She is also my partner. We’re detectives.

 

One word troubled me. Pretty. Mila was a pretty good ballplayer. There was something condescending there, a hint of sexism. It doesn’t read “for a girl,” but it’s implied. So, working closely with assistant editor, Anna Poon, we decided to simply strike that word. Now it reads: Mila is a good ballplayer.

There, much better. Plain and simple, a stated fact. For the most part, that’s been the kind of revision I’ve done. Sure, the world has changed; there were issues with phones in several places. But overall I was relieved to see that the sentences didn’t bother me. I wasn’t constantly pulling out my hair, ashamed at sloppy constructions. I didn’t feel a need to rewrite the books in a major way.

I’d learned while writing the series to (mostly) avoid specific cultural references. But even so, I slipped up. So I needed to strike references to Britney Spears’ bellybutton (shaking head, even now), Blue’s Clues, baseball slugger Mike Piazza, and Barney the (annoying) Dinosaur. It would be more relatable for young readers if I shifted to generic descriptions, i.e., the hit song on the radio.

Wait: Do radios still exist? Do stereos? Better to have the music blast from the speakers and leave it at that.

The world keeps shifting, and it was fascinating to see that change through the perspective of books that were written only 10-15 years ago. In The Case of the Bicycle Bandit, Jigsaw makes “photocopies” of a flyer. “Camcorders whirred” in The Case of the Mummy Mystery. But not anymore, folks.

I didn’t find much in the way of terrible, shameful mistakes. Some issues crept into a book here and there. Nothing horrible –- and even defensible from the perspective that the book’s narrator, Jigsaw Jones, might himself be a little imperfect. He’s just a boy after all. I didn’t want to sterilize the books, but here was my chance to revisit these stories and think them through one more time.

There was a star athlete in The Case of the Smelly Sneaker (formerly titledThe Case of the Sneaker Sneak, a title I loathed and was eager to change), Lydia Zuckerman. Something a little off slipped into my descriptions of Lydia. Her nickname, for example, was “The Brown Street Bruiser.”

At one point, Jigsaw made this regrettable observation: “She’s not a girl. She’s a . . . a . . . terrorist in tights.”

Um, not cool, not now, and not really what I meant to say. Also there was this description:

 

Lydia Zuckerman was in fifth grade, but she already looked like an NFL linebacker. Lydia was tough – a stomping, sneering, snarling mass of muscles.

 

On another page, Lydia is described as “big and mean.”

Okay, I get it. I was trying to be lightly humorous. I played up the fear that Jigsaw and the other boys might have for a strong, powerful, imposing girl. But in retrospect I feel like I missed an opportunity to say something deeper, more meaningful. After all, I am the father of a 16-year-old daughter, Maggie, who is a strong, tall, dedicated athlete. I didn’t want to reduce Lydia to a cartoon. So instead of “big and mean,” Jigsaw now describes her as “tall and talented.” And Lydia is now known as “The Brown Street Superstar.”

Nuance, mostly.

I feel better about it, glad that I had a chance to revise these eight books and share them again with a new generation of readers. And what is revision if not the chance to step back, to see again? And maybe, here and there, in small ways, to go back and try to make it better.

 

James Preller is the author of the acclaimed novels Six Innings, Bystander, The Fall, and The Courage Test and the Scary Tales series, all published by Feiwel and Friends. He has also written several picture books, but is perhaps best known for the Jigsaw Jones series. He travels to classrooms around the country and maintains a blog about writing and literacy. He lives in Delmar, New York, with his family.

Can I Just Read Now?

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Bill Watterson on Creativity, Inspiration, Playfulness, and Artistic Integrity

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Today, thanks to the genius Brainpickings site, I discovered a wonderful commencement address by Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes comics.

I have so much respect for the integrity and wisdom of this artist. Here’s a small sample:

“If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.

[…]

At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.

[…]

A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.”

Go ahead and click here. You might be inspired.

As for the comic above, I think Mr. Watterson is correct. And I am sure he’s writing from personal experience. There’s nothing like a deadline for a kick in the pants.

Students often ask about writer’s block. They seem fascinated by it. I tell them that my father was an insurance salesman with seven children. He never had insurance block. Nope. He just went to work.

In this profession, when you are stuck?

Make something up!

I discussed this with author Todd Strasser the other day at an event in Walkill, NY. He agreed and said [sic]: “No reader ever opens a book, points to page 112, and complains, ‘You just made this part up.'”

Because: of course.

It’s how we roll.

Thank you, Bill Watterson, for your great shining example.

 

 

YOU CAN TRY THIS AT HOME, FOLKS: “And Then the Murders Began.”

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There’s a thing going around the interwebs, credited to author Marc Laidlaw, who came up with a handy suggestion for improving the opening of just about any book.

Basically, after the first sentence — or, I’d say, at the first possible opening — insert the sentence, “And then the murders began.”

I thought I’d give it a try with a few favorite children’s books:

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The kids in Room 207 were misbehaving again. Spitballs stuck to the ceiling. Paper planes whizzed through the air. And then the murders began.

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At the foot of an old, old wharf lived the cutest little tugboat you ever saw. And then the murders began.

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Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live. But every time Mr. Mallard saw what looked like a nice place, Mrs. Mallard said it was no good. And then the murders began.

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Leo couldn’t do anything right. He couldn’t read. He couldn’t write. He couldn’t draw. And then the murders began.

 

Fun, right? You can try it home.

Of course, as any law-abiding, egotistical, self-obsessed author, I couldn’t resist seeing what opportunities I may have missed with my own books.

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My mother pushes me out the door, and I don’t know why. “I don’t want to go,” I tell her. And then the murders began.

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Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have typed a message on her social media page that said, “Just die! Die! Die! No one cares about you anyway!” And then the murders began.

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Sam Reiser’s bed was pushed against a second-story window that overlooked a stand of cherry trees. The trees on this June morning were filled with birds, chirping like lunatic alarm clocks. And then the murders began.

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The first time Eric Hayes ever saw him, David Hallenback was running, if you could call it that, running in a halting, choppy-stepped, stumpy-legged shamble, slowing down to look back over his shoulder, stumbling forward, pausing to catch his breath, then lurching forward again.

He was running from, not to, and not running, but fleeing.

Scared witless.

And then the murders began.

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“Wait up, Jigsaw!” Ralphie Jordan cried out. “My bike chain slipped off!” And then the murders began. (Macmillan, August 2017)

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Carter Novack pulled hard on the school front doors. And then the murders began.

 

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There I was, lying on my bed on another sticky summer afternoon, examining my reflection in a hand mirror. I pondered the first day of seventh grade, just four days away, and gazed at my decomposing face. And then the murders began. (Macmillan, October 2017)

 

The Truth Behind the Photo that Tricked the Internet into Hating on Kids Today

If you spend any time on Facebook, you’ve probably seen this 2014 photo, which periodically makes the rounds to disgusted clucks of disapproval.

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There it is, the end of the world as we know it. A metaphor for our times.

One thing we’ve learned about the internet, people love to pile on. It makes us feel better about ourselves. Read the comments under this photo when it is shared and you’ll find the overwhelming majority of people are appalled by “kids today.” This shot, for many people, represents all of society’s ills in a nutshell: this is why we’re going to hell in a handbasket. Those darn kids and their stupid phones!

And yet to me it never looked quite right.

Maybe that’s because I’ve spent time in schools, have teenagers of my own, or perhaps I’m just not so ready to believe the worst about this generation. In fact, I incline toward the opposite direction. I look at young people today and feel hope.

And I also believe in teachers — that they wouldn’t be so ready to allow students to stare vacantly at phones during an educational field trip to a museum. Right? That’s obvious, isn’t it?

Earlier this morning I saw that photo come around again. I typed out a quick response, but didn’t post my comment. Instead I saved it.

I had written this:

“My two cents: I’ve seen this photo before and I don’t like it. Very easy to shame these kids for using their phones, and the reality is we don’t know what’s going on here. It may be as bad as it looks, or something else entirely. They might be bright, thoughtful, intelligent, creative young people who are using those amazing computers in their pocket to enhance learning. They may even have been instructed to do after viewing the artwork. I know the idea here is to portray these students as brain-dead zombies and for us all to feel smug and superior about the younger generation. It doesn’t seem fair or accurate.”

I didn’t post those thoughts because these days I am trying to stop myself before unloading on innocent victims. But it did spur me to do some research, and I discovered this:

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It turns out that these students were, in fact, on a field trip. The museum allowed them to download a free app onto their phones — you know, those useful, instructive computers they carry around in their pockets.

Reports indicate that the students were active, engaged, inspired.

The lesson here is don’t be fooled by one photo.

And more importantly, don’t be so ready to judge.

You don’t want to be this guy:

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