Archive for Jigsaw Jones

A Letter to Educators, Summer Hours, & Zoom Thoughts

In the best of times, my creativity ebbs and flows. This past month, I’ve found it difficult to put a post together. Part of that is my own distracted, short-circuited mind; another aspect is a nagging sense that few people care anyway. I guess a lot of writers feel that way from time to time, though my case has been acute of late. Strangely, I’ve still been actively writing manuscripts. Good ones, too, I think. But I am a little disheartened about my place the industry; I’m just not confident that my recent stories will see the light of day. What’s a writer to do? A strange place to find myself after spending the past 35 years in the children’s book world. On the positive side, I completed a prequel/sequel to my middle grade novel Bystander, titled Upstander, which should come out sometime next year. No cover yet, still waiting to see what that will look like.

So if you are here now, reading this — thanks for that. I hope to never take you for granted. 

SUMMER HOURS

I generally cut back on ye olde blog posts in the summer, since a lot of my traffic seems to revolve around the school year. I’ll still post when I’m moved to do so, or if something spectacular comes up, though for the most time it’ll be quiet. But before we all pitch tents in our backyards, I wanted to share with you a publicity letter I wrote to “select” educators who expressed interest in my new book, All Welcome Here, illustrated by the legendary Mary GrandPre. 

ALL WELCOME HERE: A LETTER TO EDUCATORS

Dear Educator,

As an author who has worked in children’s books for more than half my life, I’ve visited hundreds of schools across the country. I always come away with a good feeling in my heart, not only because of the students, who are amazing, but also because of the vibrancy and intimacy of the classroom. I’m moved by the good work that people like you are doing, day after day, year after year, sometimes under extremely challenging circumstances. Online learning anyone?

Teachers can be counted on to open their hearts and their classrooms to every child who comes through that door. All those values we hold close to our core -– empathy, inclusion, kindness, community –- become a living reality in your classroom. This is the great promise of the American Experiment played out before our eyes. It truly works, you’ve seen it, and it’s beautiful.

I was inspired to write All Welcome Here early in 2016. The world as I knew it felt fractured and divided. Today, four years later, it seems all but shattered. But together we’re picking up the pieces, working to cobble together a better, brighter, more loving and ethical land of the free.

Please think of this book as my thank you for that great effort. I know you work hard to foster those values in your school community. Hopefully this book, so gorgeously illustrated by Mary GrandPre, will serve as a springboard for positive conversations between you and your students. Also, I hope that you find it to be entertaining, and funny, and joyful. Jon-Kim spilling his crayons, Chloe’s laughter, and the way a shy girl tentatively makes a new friend. Even the shaving cream behind Principal K’s ear. This book is my tribute to those everyday moments that happen in your school lives, day after day, year after year. Thank you for your valuable work.

Be safe, stay healthy, and good luck!

James Preller

 

ZOOM VISITS

I’ve enjoyed several Zoom and Google Meets Visits over the past few weeks. Some have been particularly meaningful, I think, making me a true convert to the value and impact of a properly structured Zoom Visit.

To me, the key figure in an online visit is the teacher. It is the teacher who inspires, who prepares, who builds anticipation, and who actively moderates (thank you, “mute button!”) an online visit. A Zoom Visit with one class can be a profoundly (and surprisingly) intimate experience. It is very much like stepping into a classroom for a loose, easy-going conversation between students and author.

And guess what? In normal times, that never happens. There’s no time for a visiting author to move from classroom to classroom; instead, we present to entire grades or multiple grades: hundreds of students at one time. That’s awesome and powerful, too. But a Zoom Visit can be inspirational in its own unique way. A standard in-person presentation is a broadcast with a short Q & A tagged on at the end; a Zoom Visit is more interactive, featuring more of a direct one-on-one connection.

I recently heard from an enthusiastic teacher on Long Island who wrote to me after a visit with her class. She said:

“I had to share some more feedback I have received from parents . . . you truly have influenced many of my students. I realize the technology was a bit of a pain, but the outcomes are so worth it! I cannot thank you enough for your time and inspiring words!!”

She included some follow-up emails from parents:  

“Danny was so jazzed up after this he wants our whole family to write a book. He has assigned us all jobs to do and he is the author. I never would’ve thought that he’d be so into this. Thank you again. I haven’t seen him this excited about something in a while.”

Here’s another:

“Super inspirational!!! And so so patient. Like when they asked the author similar questions he just patiently answered! It’s inspiring us (at home) to maybe build a mini library!”

Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Note: I believe I talked about my love of Little Free Libraries, which I featured in Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space. Pretty cool if a family reads my book and turns around to build one of their own. That’s the literacy connection, how books bring us together and help build communities.

My point here is not to toot my own horn (though, obviously, I’m doing that), but to express again that I AM SOLD ON ZOOM VISITS.

I think we’ve still got to figure out the money — it has to be very affordable, but at the same time “more than free.” We can individualize visits, or even create recurring visits, around concrete themes. For example: haiku poems. We could talk about them, share them, learn together. Or writing mysteries. Last week I enjoyed a visit with a Texas librarian that centered around dialogue. 

In short, I think it’s more productive to think of a Zoom Visit not as “the James Preller show” but more of a unique way to bring an author into your classroom to directly connect with and inspire your students. 

Feel free to write to me at jamespreller@aol.com to discuss it. I’m open and flexible and eager to meet your students.

THANKS AGAIN FOR STOPPING BY!

 

-Z

 

Jigsaw Jones Shares His “Simple Trick” for Solving Puzzles

“I’ve never met a puzzle
I couldn’t solve.”

 

Image is phone capture from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE, illustrated by R.W. Alley.

 

Everyone seems to be doing puzzles these days. Stores are sold out, orders are backlisted, as families gather around the table and drive themselves insane enjoy time together. There’s a midpoint stage in every puzzle when you’d swear that the cat has eaten three missing pieces or there’s an obvious manufacturer’s defect. How does one persevere through the tough times? I decided to ask an expert. 

Here’s Jigsaw Jones himself, from page 2, The Case from Outer Space:

I was standing at my dining room table, staring at a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle. It was supposed to be a picture of our solar system. The sun and eight planets. But right now it was a mess. Scattered pieces lay everywhere. I scratched my head and munched on a blueberry Pop-Tart. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right. As a cook, I’m pretty good with a toaster. I began working on the border, grouping all the pieces that had a flat edge. Sooner or later, I’d work my way through the planets. The rust red of Mars. The rings of Saturn. And the green tint of Neptune. I’ve never met a puzzle I couldn’t solve. That’s because I know the secret. The simple trick? Don’t give up.

Don’t ever give up. 

The Craft of Recording Audiobooks: A Conversation with Voice Actor Christopher Gebauer

Exciting news, folks: thanks to Recorded Books, there are now 14 Jigsaw Jones titles available in audiobook format. Cheap! The voice actor, Christopher Gebauer, did a terrific job, full of wit and nuance and a sure sense of character. So I looked him up on ye olde interwebs to send along a complimentary note. We emailed back and forth, and I eventually asked Christopher if he’d be willing to do an interview. He waffled until I told him, “Seriously, you don’t have to wear pants.” That seemed to win him over.

Hey, Christopher. How you holding up? Is it safe to assume you are in sweatpants with a big bowl of Fiddle Faddle nearby? And not the dapper guy I see in this photograph?

Ha! Yes. More than safe. I have grown to love that I can wear pajama pants at all times and have made it my quarantine business attire. Except when I walk the dog or get groceries. That requires real pants. I get “dressed” just for the necessities now.

Okay, so you are in your PJs. That’s a relief. Where are you now?

I currently live in Astoria, a neighborhood in Queens, NYC.

Not far from Flushing and the New York Mets! Pretty sure Mr. Met has a place in Astoria.

I may have seen him around. Yes, I’m holed up there, but at my girlfriend’s apartment rather than my own. Staying inside and doing the social distancing. Which is odd. As an almost lifelong New Yorker, an empty street slightly terrifies me.

Yeah, it’s got to be strange. My oldest, Nick (26), is in Manhattan, so I’m acutely aware of the experience down there.

 

You came to my attention when I saw that 14 Jigsaw Jones titles had been produced by Recorded Books — and you were the voice actor who read them all. That’s a lot of Jigsaw Jones. Did it make you a little crazy? I haven’t even read that many!

Hahaha. No. I never got tired of these stories. I grew up listening to books on audio cassette tapes, and my favorite stories were the ones that had personality. Sometimes that was as simple as a narrator having that intangible weight or gravitas to their voice (we had a collection of ghost stories and Poe poems read by Vincent Price that I adored), but often it meant having fun characters, each with their own voices and rhythms. And Jigsaw’s world has that in spades. I may have taken a few liberties with some of the characters, but finding their voices was pretty straightforward coming from what I read. It made the whole process an absolute blast. Plus, I got a nostalgic blast of my Elementary school years spent with Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys.

Many of us enjoy audiobooks, but the process is something of a mystery. How does it work? You get a call? They send you the books? How do you prepare for the recording sessions? I guess there are about eight related questions I could ask. Maybe you could just talk us through it?

It all depends on the source. Many self-publishing authors post their titles on an audition platform like ACX.com and vet a slew of candidates (and there are some new audition sites coming online from major publishing houses now as well), some producers from different publishers or audio production teams will email me out of the blue with an audition opportunity, or sometimes producers just ask if I’m available and willing. Direct offers only come from people I have done a great deal of work for but that was kind of how I was approached on Jigsaw: I do a large amount of YA and kids literature for Recorded Books and they felt like I would be a great fit for the gumshoe genre stylings of Jigsaw Jones (hopefully they were right!).

How do you prepare?

After getting a gig, I read through the book(s), taking notes on words or names I need to check pronunciation on, as well as marking when new characters are introduced in the story. If someone sticks around for a while or returns in another book, I want to remember what they sound like so I track who pops up where and how people describe them and how they sound.

 

After that is settled, I usually record in a studio somewhere in NYC, but I have lately been recording books from my girlfriend’s audio studio (a soundproofed closet) to great effect.

Seriously, you did a fantastic job. And I’ll admit to approaching these things with a feeling of dread. It’s strange to hear someone else read the voice in my head. I guess in your position, you have to try to divine an author’s intentions, while still owning it for yourself? I guess that’s true for all acting in general.

That’s so kind of you: truly. I am honestly often slightly terrified that an author will DESPISE what I do with their words. Especially with children’s and YA literature, I just remember what I loved at that age and I just hope my choices translate into something people don’t hate. So far my instincts have done me well in that regard, but it is a leap of faith. I would be remiss in not pointing out that so many of your characters had such a clear rhythm in how they were written that it really just came down to would you find my voice annoying.

 

But thankfully I didn’t feel like scrying bones: most of the voices felt like an easy choice.

Scrying bones, oooh, I like that. You must have voiced more than a dozen characters, easily. Two dozen? How do you keep it all straight?

I just try to keep track! Once I realized so many characters would keep showing up throughout the series I noted every time a character would speak in each book. I then recorded samples of each voice on my phone so if I needed to remember what they sounded like I could reference those soundbites quickly.

Readers are fussy about how books are read on tape. It’s a huge responsibility. I’ve tried to listen to some and nearly drove off the road. If it’s too fast, I’m done. Are there common mistakes you try to avoid? Give us a pro tip or two!

Pro tip? Ho boy. Pace is everything: while you do need to say everything clearly, you can’t go too slow or too fast. For me that came from being comfortable with public speaking. As a kid I went to an episcopal church and often did readings. To make sure I didn’t read too quickly, I would rest for a beat of silence at every comma, and three at every period (meaning I would count to that number in my head). Between that and memorizing and reciting poems and plays I built a bit of a public speaking/narrator cadence. And that age-old adage is key: practice makes perfect. if you are interested in narrating, find ways to read aloud (even if it is to yourself). Everyone can record themselves with a phone now, so read a chapter or two aloud, listen back and see what you think. Copy your favorite narrators: think about what kind of cadence and flow they have and try it out. None of this was probably useful but it’s what I did!

What’s next for you? More voice work? Film, television, stage? How does a young actor survive during these times? You can’t even wait tables!

You are very right! I was unfortunately laid off a from a restaurant the week before this Covid crazy hit (didn’t extend the 15 year lease and they told us 24 hours before closing down) so these are odd times indeed. Thankfully I can record from home and have been able to audition for a bunch of Voice Over and audiobook
work. In terms of film I have a tiny part that will probably get cut from an upcoming and still unannounced film and otherwise I’ll be finding work wherever it comes. I have been doing live drinking game play readings with a company called Drunk Texts which we have been doing with The PIT improv here in NYC. So yeah…staying afloat and sane while the world is in limbo.

Drunk Texts! Yikes! Now we’re hitting too close to home. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Mostly, I want to thank you again for doing such an incredible job reading my books. You are clearly a talented actor. I’ll be off on the sidelines, quietly rooting for you. I wish you good health and a great career.

Truly, thank you. Your books were an absolute joy to read and it is so kind of you to ask me to do this. I’m lucky I get to perform at all and working on something good makes a world of difference. Thank you for Jigsaw and good luck and health to you and yours sir! Stay Sane!

Too late, my friend!

 

Born and raised in Manhattan, Christopher Gebauer was fascinated with acting from a young age. Whether it was a performance in one of his favorite movies, the nuance of a narrator for an audiobook, a character’s voice in a video game or animated show, Chris wanted to be a part of that world. Chris graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2012, where he studied at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and the Stonestreet Studios for Film, TV, and Voice-Over. Since graduating, Chris has been working in stage and film, including a couple of Off-Broadway shows, and has recently found a tremendous amount of joy narrating audiobooks.

 

 

A Tribute to Jigsaw Puzzles (We Go Way Back)

 

Preliminary sketch by R.W. Alley for THE CASE OF THE HAT BURGLAR, a Jigsaw Jones mystery.

My name is James Preller and I have a problem.

It goes something like this:

My wife Lisa yawns, says, “I’m going up to bed.”

I stand by the large dining room table. It’s almost 10:30. There’s a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle spread out before me, halfway done. The edges, the easy parts, in place. There’s still about 500 loose pieces that all look, at a glance, the same. That’s the thing about puzzles: glancing won’t get it done. You’ve got to scrutinize. 

Lisa goes up, I remain. Just be a minute, I say. Time passes. At around 2:30, bleary and blurry and buzzing, I drag myself away.

Something happens when we break out the puzzles. I get a little obsessive. Okay, a lot obsessive.

Help me.

Quick flashback: I am a shy kid in an afternoon kindergarten class with Miss Croke in Wantagh, Long Island. She seems nice. Tall with glasses. The other kids strike me as boisterous and messy and problematic, especially one girl named Kathy who keeps threatening to hug me.

The way I cope is to stick to myself and do jigsaw puzzles. One after another after another. I have clear memories of this. Miss Croke coming along, sweetly asking if I’d like to, you know, do anything else besides puzzles? No, I’m good, I assured her. I was not unhappy, just quiet and reserved and, okay, a little freaked out.

(Like most shy kids, once I’m back home I won’t shut up — even after it’s forcefully suggested.)

Later, in 1997, I started writing a mystery series for young readers. At first, I didn’t have the name of the main character. I used Otis as a placeholder. Then Theodore. I decided he loves puzzles. That made sense to me, a detective would enjoy assembling the clues, piecing them together to create a full picture of the truth.

My editor, Helen Perelman, pulled a line from that first book, The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster, tweaked it, and used it as a tagline: “Jigsaw puzzles are like mysteries — you’ve got to look at all the pieces to solve the case.”

Excerpt from THE CASE OF HERMIE THE MISSING HAMSTER.

So here I am, along with everybody else in May, 2020, hunkering down to COVID-19, quiet and reserved and still a little freaked. Once again busting out the jigsaw puzzles. In fact, I recently texted my friend, Corina, wondering if she was interested in a puzzle swap. Corina’s also an enthusiast, though I don’t sense it’s an affliction with her. She likes the Ravensburger puzzles whereas I have a preference for difficult nature scenes. We left a few boxes on our front stoops and made the masked exchange.

Looking back on all that, I suppose it wasn’t an accident I named him Jigsaw. 

There are 14 Jigsaw Jones titles currently available from Macmillan. (You should buy them all.) And in each one, there’s a moment when Jigsaw withdraws to spend time alone, deep in thought, working on a new jigsaw puzzle, thinking about the case.

Oh, almost forgot: I read aloud the entire book, The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster, on my Youtube channel. It’s a series of five videos. Feel free to share them with young readers, that’s why I made them.

     

     

Completed: I’ve Now Posted a Full Reading of JIGSAW JONES: THE CASE OF HERMIE, THE MISSING HAMSTER

Greetings, my dearly beloved Nation of Readers.

Both of you! I mean it, thanks for stopping by here of all places.

I don’t know if anyone cares or not — it’s never stopped me before! — but I’ve been slowly posting videos over at my Youtube channel. Maybe it’s helpful to some families and teachers during this time of closed schools and the uncertainty of online learning.

My apologies, I kind of take an everyman-downmarket approach to these videos. Nothing too spiffy, I’m afraid. I usually don’t even comb my hair. Hey, we’re in lockdown, folks. Just keeping it real.

Anyway, I’ve been honing my opening moments in these videos. Raising my game. This one, embedded below, is fairly ridiculous. My might enjoy it. I’m hoping that maybe some young readers will, too.

So, yeah, give it 30 seconds and then you’re good.

It might make you laugh. 

Or shake your head with pity. 

Your call!

And if you are interested in the complete book — which is out of print, by the way — go to my Youtube channel, click here, subscribe, and start with the first video. I keep them at around 15 minutes each, so this book took five videos to complete. 

Quick note on the “out of print” thing. I’ve written 42 Jigsaw Jones books. They all slowly, painfully went out of print. Then Macmillan stepped in and we’ve been bringing back new, revised, updated editions. If a reader enjoys this book, for example, there are 14 titles freshly available wherever good books are sold. 

               

     

My best. I hope that you and everyone you care for remains healthy and happy as you all continue to protect the vulnerable. There are days when this isn’t so bad at all, others when it feels awful. 

It won’t last forever. Better times ahead.

Until then, there’s always books.