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Where James Bond Meets Jigsaw Jones

One of the pleasant things about writing a continuing series is that I get to revisit secondary characters. I first wrote about Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III in the 19th book in the series (as they were once numbered by Scholastic), The Case of the Golden Key. Reginald is the richest kid in town: he and Jigsaw do not immediately hit it off. After some opening tensions, they eventually become friends.

I brought Reginald back in another book, The Case of the Double-Trouble Detective. Again, I enjoyed bouncing these two opposites off each other. Jigsaw is a regular guy, a hardboiled 2nd-grade detective, whereas Reginald wears bowties and eats cucumber sandwiches. Jigsaw, again, helps Reg out of a jam. To repay that debt, Reginald becomes Jigsaw’s “go to” guy in The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery when he needs to borrow some advanced technology. 

 

Illustration by Jamie Smith from THE CASE OF THE SANTA CLAUS MYSTERY. Jamie contributed so much to this series, drawing the interior illustrations for approx. 30 titles. Thanks, my friend, forever in your debt!

In The Santa Claus Mystery, I first used Reginald to pay sly tribute to the classic “Q” character from the James Bond movies. An aside: I very much enjoyed how “Black Panther” updated Q in the character of Shuri, charismatically played by Letitia Wright. It’s a hoot to have that high-tech expert on hand to assist our hero with funky (and entertaining!) gadgets. The scene I wrote in Santa Claus so tickled my funny bone, I felt compelled to bring back a variation of it in the new book, The Case of the Hat Burglar, amazingly the 42nd title in the grand opus.

Let me give you the setup and a brief excerpt. In chapter 7, Jigsaw needs help. Someone has been stealing items from the school’s “Lost and Found.” Jigsaw and Mila visit Joey’s lab seeking assistance:

At the front curb, my brother Billy rolled down the driver’s side window. He called, “I’ll be back to pick you up in an hour, Worm!”

“Thanks for the ride,” I called back. “But don’t call me Worm!”

He zoomed away, leaving Mila and me at Reginald’s front door. I did a few push-ups on the doorbell. Gong-gong-gong.

Mila shivered. She blew clouds of cold air from her mouth.

“Reginald expects us,” I said. “I told him all about the case.”

The front door opened. “Jigsaw and Mila! Splendid, splendid!” Reginald ushered us inside. “It’s frightfully cold out there.”

“Yeah, frightfully,” I echoed.

I noticed that Reginald had on a pair of baby blue bunny slippers. The slippers looked toasty, but they didn’t match his outfit. He wore a sweater-vest over a white shirt and a yellow bow tie. Neat and tidy, as always.

I was glad I didn’t have holes in the toes of my socks.

We shed our winter clothes and kicked off our shoes. Those were the house rules: no shoes, sneakers, or boots. Reginald handed our things to a tall butler, Gus, who had appeared at his side.

“May I take your hat?” Gus asked.

“No, thanks, Gus,” I replied. “There’s too much of that going around already.”

He raised an eyebrow, confused.

“Hat burglars,” I explained. “It’s a thing now. I’d prefer to keep this one on my head, if you don’t mind. We’re kind of a team.”

Gus harrumphed and said, “Suit yourself.”

I harrumphed back.

“Reggie, your house is amazing!” Mila gushed. And she was right. It was amazing — if you liked things like indoor swimming pools and private game rooms and seventeen glistening bathrooms with gold faucets.

I thought it was a little much.

We followed Reginald down a long hallway.

A while back, Reginald had started his own “secret agent” business. It didn’t work out so well. He thought being a detective would be fun, a chance to play with fancy gadgets and gizmos. But Reginald learned that solving mysteries could be a rough business. It took hard work and brainpower. Reggie was a nice kid, but he was as tough as a silk pillow. He promised I could borrow his gadgets anytime.

Today, I needed him to keep that promise.

Reginald pushed open a door, then said over his shoulder to Mila, “Please come into my research room.”

I’d been here once before. The room looked like a laboratory. Various objects had been placed on marble countertops. “This is all your spy equipment?” Mila asked.

She picked up an old boot.

It was a mistake I’d once made myself. “Be careful, Mila,” I warned.

Sploinnng! A suction cup attached to a spring popped out of the sole.

“Whoa,” Mila said, jumping back in surprise.

“Suction-cup boots,” Reginald explained. “For walking on ceilings.”

“It really works?” Mila asked.

Reginald shrugged and admitted, “I’m afraid to find out.”

Mila picked up two plastic goldfish. “What are these?”

“Underwater walkie-talkies,” Reginald explained.

“Glub, glub,” I commented — for no reason at all.

“And this?” Mila pointed to a tray of cucumber sandwiches. “Let me guess. Is it some kind of secret listening device?”

“No, it’s a tray of cucumber sandwiches,” Reginald said. “For snack time.”

“Cucumber sandwiches, yum,” I groaned. It was the last thing in the world I’d want to eat. I was a peanut butter and jelly kind of guy. “Sadly, Reggie, we don’t have time for snacks. We’re here on business.”

Reginald perked up when I told him we needed a way to keep an eye on the Lost and Found.

“We can’t be there to watch it all the time,” Mila explained.

“Ah, I have just the thing.” Reginald walked across the room and picked up a guinea pig plush toy.

“A plush toy?” Mila said.

Reginald used a pinkie to push his glasses back up his nose. “It contains a motion-sensitive camera. The very latest technology,” he said. “Daddy got it on one of his business trips. Just point the nose to the area you wish to watch, and the camera automatically snaps a photo whenever anyone walks past.”

Mila examined it closely. “Perfect,” she announced. “And cute, too.”

“I can have the photos sent to you — to a cell phone, laptop, home computer, whatever you’d like,” Reginald offered. He handed me a headset. “If you’d like, we can communicate using this. Stereo sound, naturally.”

I shook his hand. “Reggie, you’re the cat’s meow.”

He smiled broadly. “My pleasure, Jones. I’m happy to help. But before you go, please take a moment to enjoy a delicious cucumber and cream cheese sandwich.”

He looked up at me through round, hopeful eyes.

I frowned at the tray of sandwiches.

Mila’s eyes twinkled and she gave me a secret nod. I knew what I had to do.

“Sure,” I said to my friend, Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III. “Who doesn’t love a cucumber sandwich?”

 

For those keeping score at home: The brand-new Hat Burglar will be published in Fall, 2019. Golden Key is currently out-of-print, but coming back revised and updated sometime in 2020. Double Trouble and Santa Claus are both out of print — but you never know! By 2020, there will be 14 titles available in bookstores, all published by Feiwel & Friends at Macmillan. Several titles will be offered on Scholastic’s SeeSaw Book Club this year.

Making Connections (and Friends) with a Little Free Library!

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Here’s a quick story:

It was love at first sight. I first heard about Little Free Libraries five or six years ago. There are so many things to like: the community building, the celebration of literacy, the connectivity, and the creativity & craftsmanship of the objects themselves.

When I started writing a new Jigsaw Jones book — my first in ten years, my 41st overall — I knew I wanted to celebrate this small but powerful idea. Take a book, leave a book. So I centered the mystery in The Case from Outer Space around a note left inside a book found in a Little Free Library.

This one of the illustrations from my book, drawn by R.W. Alley:

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I had to create the character who put up this particular Little Free Library. What should he or she be like? Well, wonderful, right? Giving, kind, literate, fun-loving, happy. I decided to model this character — a key witness in our story — after my friend, author Robin Pulver. (She writes the “Language Arts Library” series and the classic “Mrs. Toggle” books, which were also illustrated by R.W. Alley, so there was a nice symmetry to it: you can learn more about Robin here.)

urlI didn’t ask Robin’s permission, I decided to surprise her. Fingers crossed, sensing she’d get a kick out of it.

I enjoyed writing that scene when my imaginary detective, Jigsaw Jones, interviews the fictional “Mrs. Pulver.” It was very meta. Here’s the essence of it, from Chapter 4:

I did push-ups on the Pulvers’ doorbell. A smiling woman with short hair answered the door.

I told her that I was a detective.

“How thrilling,” she said.

“I am working on a case,” I explained. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

I showed her my card:

NEED A MYSTERY SOLVED?

Call Jigsaw Jones or Mila Yeh, Private Eyes!

Mrs. Pulver whistled. “Wowee zowee.”

“It’s a living,” I said.

She told me about the library. She said that she read about Little Free Libraries on the Internet. “I thought it was a wonderful idea,” she said. “So I asked Harold to build one.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Harold?”

“My husband,” she replied. “He’s retired. I like to give him little jobs.”

I asked, “Have you noticed anything . . . strange?”

“Oh, Harold has been strange for years,” she said, laughing.

“No, I mean about the library,” I said.

She clasped her hands. “Lots of folks come and go. Friends, neighbors, even people I’ve never seen before. It’s lovely, actually. The books connect us.”

Here’s a sadly dark photo of Robin and me from last week’s Rochester Children’s Book Festival.

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But wait, I have to tell you about one more cool connection.

Yesterday I received this beautiful book in the mail. A gift from the author herself. A stranger to me, but now a friend.

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Margret Aldrich had discovered the Little Free Library reference in my book and was moved to send along a copy.

Once again I ask myself, How lucky am I?

Books really do connect us.

Margret included a kind inscription:

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Notoriously Tough Critic Raves about New “Jigsaw Jones” Book

She’s 91 years old.

She’s tough as nails.

Mom’s motto: “Getting old is not for sissies.”

And she loved my new book, The Case from Outer Space, coming August 8th.

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Maybe I’ve been writing for the wrong demographic all along. Why write for young people at all? Picture books for preschoolers? Novels for tweens? YA?

Forget all that. I’m going after the untapped nonagenarian market!

Thanks, Mom.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #225: Kentucky Student Pretends to Be . . . Me!

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I received this note from a mother the other day:

My son, Joey, completed his reading project that I mentioned in an earlier CourageTestFrontCvre-mail.  He had to read three books from one author, provide summaries to the class, create a poster, and be the author for a class presentation.  This is a picture of him after the big event.  He read Bystander, The Fall
and Before you Go.  His classmates were very interested in the subject material.  They asked many questions after the presentation.

In any case, thought you might like to see the picture.  We were going to put facial hair on but the teacher did not allow make up.

Joey is looking forward to your new book, The Courage Test.

I keep imagining this dear, kind mother sitting at the kitchen table shaking her head, “Why, Joey? Why?”

There are, of course, copious tears.

There’s even a Youtube video of Joey, as James Preller, giving a brief presentation. It was a strange sensation for me, as if staring into a mirror and seeing a much improved version of my actual self. I liked that Joey wore the Mets hat, and it’s fairly remarkable that he came up with an Oneonta sweatshirt. It is too bad about the rule against facial hair. That would have nailed it.

Thank you, Joey. I’m grateful and a little shocked that you would pick me out of all the possibilities. Though I suppose I was a better choice for you than, say, Beverly Cleary. I just don’t see you in those glasses.

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RE-POST: Give Student Writers the Freedom to Embrace Their Inner Zombie

1621704_667566729951571_1638043617_nNote: A variation of this essay first appeared a while back over at the fabulous Nerdy Book Club, founded by Donalyn “The Book Whisperer” Miller, Colby Sharp (the man, not the cheese), and possibly several other folks. The history is not entirely clear to me. Nonetheless! You can follow all their nerdy, book-loving, classroom-centered hijinks on Facebook, Twitter, and various other social platforms, I’m sure. 

 

 

These days, young people are crazy about zombies. That’s just a plain fact. Not every kid, of course, but a lot of them.

And I’m here to say: Use that as an advantage in your classroom. Seize the day zombie! Particularly when it comes to student writing. Some girls want to team up to conjure a story about a zombie apocalypse? Here’s a pen and paper. Go for it, ladies.

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Many students, as young as third grade and on up into high school, are watching THE WALKING DEAD. The secret that quite of few of them don’t realize is that the hit television show is not about zombies at all. It’s about people surviving zombies. The zombies themselves are boring, without personality, almost irrelevant. They could be switched out for deadly fog, or World War II, a forest fire, or a tsunami. The zombies are simply a device to propel forward a character-driven story. It’s the engine that drives plot — all those pistons churning — and gives each moment heightened meaning.

That’s my point here. Any zombie story is almost entirely about character.

zombie-3-comingWhat we need to recognize is that, counter-intuitively, the zombie plot device perfectly lends itself to character-centered story. In the case of THE WALKING DEAD, it could even be argued that it’s about family, blended, modern, unconventional, or traditional.

With, okay, some (really) gross parts thrown in. Warning: Some characters in this story may get eaten. Hold the hot sauce. Ha! And why not, if that’s what it takes? If a little bit of the old blood and guts is the hook you need to lure in those writers, embrace it.

You can’t write a good zombie story without creating an assortment of interesting characters. Then you place those diverse characters in danger, you bring them into conflict with each other, you get them screaming, and talking, and caring about each other.

As, okay, they are chased by a bunch of zombies.

There’s no drama unless the writer makes us care about his or her characters. Your student writers will be challenged to make those characters come alive, become vivid and real. We have to care that they live or, perhaps, really kind of hope they get eaten alive in the most hideous way possible by a crazed zombie mob. Screaming, hopefully.

Don’t be turned off by that. Remember, it’s really all about character development, keep your focus to that. Dear teacher, I am saying this: embrace your inner zombie –- and turn those students loose. We can’t all write about dinner parties and visits from Aunt Gweneth.

What they will be writing will be no different than your typical Jane Austin novel. Except for, you know, all those bloody entrails.

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There are currently six books available in my “Scary Tales” series. Not pictured: Swamp Monster.

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