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Chapter 5, UPSTANDER: An Excerpt

It’s not a simple thing, selecting the right excerpt to share. So many factors to consider. The selection can’t be from too late in the book, too riddled with spoilers. But you don’t want the isolated excerpt to mislead the reader into thinking, Oh, so that’s what the book is about! Because, obviously, it’s about so much more. This is but one chapter out of thirty-eight.

When reading aloud to large groups, I tend to go with two options: 1) Something funny, or 2) Something dramaticI think curious fans of Bystander might particularly enjoy Chapter 11, which details the origins of Griffin and Mary’s relationship. But I didn’t go with that here. Instead, we’re early in the book, a look into Mary’s home life. Is that the heart of the book, where our main character is more witness than participant? An innocent bystander watching the struggle between her brother and her mother? 

Sigh. Who knows.

Will six people even read this? Instead of “Who knows,” maybe I should have typed, “Who cares!”

The chapter below is just a taste of the writing, I guess, and some of the themes explored in the book. It’s a domestic scene, centered around a kitchen table. And that does feel right for many of my works of realistic fiction. I’m fascinated by closely observed moments that take place in families, the literature of the kitchen table.

It is summer, school is soon to begin, and Mary makes the mistake of entering her own home . . . 

 

5 [marshmallows]

Walking home, Mary resolved not to think about Griffin Connelly. That boy had jangled her nerves. We have a connection. Yeah, right. She looked forward to popping a marshmallow—or, okay, three— into her mouth. Not at the same time, of course. Eating marshmallows always helped bring her world into balance. Namaste, Mary thought, grinning to herself. She imagined a chubby marshmallow, with little stick arms and legs, doing yoga. Downward dog, maybe, or meditating. That might be funny to draw. Ohmmmm. If she could think of a clever caption, it might even be a cartoon: the mindful marshmallow.

Mary kept a secret stash of marshmallows in the back of her bottom dresser drawer. The big, extra-fat ones they sold at Stewart’s for s’mores. Marshmallows were Mary’s weakness. But, seriously, that wasn’t the best way to express it: a weakness. It’s not like Mary wolfed down an entire bag in one sitting. It wasn’t a problem; she wasn’t in a marshmallow crisis or any- thing. Mary knew that sugar was super bad for you— everyone saw the same videos in health class—but a couple a day wasn’t going to kill anybody.

Mary then made the strategic mistake of opening the front door. Home sweet home.

Her mother’s voice came from the kitchen, sharp and urgent, “Are you high right now? Just tell me.”

“Jesus, Mom, no!” Jonny shot back.

They were fighting again. It felt as if the air in the house was crowded with charged particles. Mary could sense the electrons and protons ricocheting off the furniture like steel balls from a shotgun. The muscles in her lower neck tensed and tightened.

“You’re lying—” her mother shouted.

“Hi! I’m home!” Mary called out in her sunniest voice. It was as much a plea as a greeting: I’m home; you can stop now, please. Mary heard the rattling of dishes in the sink, the scraping of a chair across the floor, but no greeting in response. She waited, slipped off her sandals. This is ridiculous, she decided. I’m in my own house. I live here.

“If you love me, you’ll stop.” It was her mother’s voice, raw with emotion.

“I told you. I’m not using,” Jonny retorted.

Mary stood at the entranceway to the kitchen. Her mother leaned against the counter, arms crossed, scowling. Jonny sat at the table, cereal floating in a bowl of milk. He wore an unbuttoned cardigan sweater. Yes, in August. The rules of this particular contest: no punching, no kicking, just words. Winner takes nothing. Jonny tapped a spoon in agitated rhythm on his right thigh. That was his giveaway. The way his eyes darted and his body vibrated with pent-up energy. The muscles of his jaw tightened from clenched teeth.

“Don’t come in here, May,” Jonny warned, not looking in her direction. “Mom’s acting like a crazy person again.”

There was a prickly edge to his voice, like razors strung across wire. His hair looked oily and uncombed. His pale skin appeared nearly translucent, except for the dark circles under his eyes. Mary thought, Don’t pretend I’m on your side. I’m not your ally, brother. I’m not on anyone’s side.

“I don’t even recognize you anymore,” her mother said. “This isn’t you, Jonny. It’s not you.”

“Oh, Jesus, here it comes,” Jonny muttered, the spoon rat-a-tat-tatting against his leg. He raked a hand through his hair.

Mary’s mother stepped toward her only son, palms open. “You’ve got to listen to me, Jonny. We can’t go on like this.”

Jonny flicked the spoon into the cereal bowl, splashing the milk. The spoon bounced and rattled to the floor, hitting his mother’s leg. “I’m trying to eat one bowl of cereal in this insane house,” he roared. “So freaking what? I slept late. Lots of people do. Besides, I have a stomachache. It hurts. I probably have an ulcer. Do you even care? Besides, what temperature do you keep it in here? I’m freezing!”

“It’s set at seventy-two degrees—”

“It’s too cold. I get the chills living here. It’s ridiculous, Mom. I’m nineteen years old. I party a little bit. A regular, normal amount. It’s one of the few things in the world that actually feels good. That’s my big federal crime, Ma? That I go out with my friends?”

“Your friends,” her mother scoffed. She brushed the thought away with a wave of her hand.

“Yeah, my friends.” Jonny rose to his feet, his movement sudden and alarming. “Real people who actually care about me.”

Mary stood paralyzed, watching it all. They had forgotten she was there. She had become invisible in her own kitchen.

Mary’s mother stepped back. She brought a hand to the side of her head, trying to collect her thoughts— or to keep them from exploding. With obvious effort, she adopted a softer voice. More soothing, calmer. “Jonny, please, listen to me. Please. You need help. I think you have a prob—”

“Oh no. No, no, no. I’m not going back to that place,” he said.

Her mother held out a hand, patting the air. “Okay, okay, just . . . sit . . . okay?”

“You can’t make me. I’d rather die than go back to Western Winds,” Jonny replied. He sat back down. Swiveled his head, stared coldly at his sister. “Good luck when I’m gone,” he said. “It’ll be just you, Mom, and the Garden Gnome in this demented house.”

The Garden Gnome was Jonny’s nickname for Ernesto, their mother’s boyfriend. Ernesto was short and paunchy, and he wore a scraggly, elfish beard. Not his fault, but those were the facts. Mary stifled a grin. She caught herself and flashed a time-out sign with her hands. “Stop,” she said. “Just stop.”

She crossed to the refrigerator. Grabbed two clementines, checked her phone, looked from her mother to Jonny. “I’ll be in my room,” she announced. “Headphones on.”

This Fancy Chart Explains the Intersecting Timelines for BYSTANDER and Its Prequel/Sequel, UPSTANDER

Everybody loves a fancy chart, right? It gives any project gravitas. 

This one visually explains the intersecting timelines for my books Bystander and Upstander

So here we go, fresh from the Chart Factory in Gloversville, NY . . . 

And if perchance that makes no sense to you, know this:

The timeline for Upstander (coming May 11th) begins before Bystander, but ends at the same time, at the same basketball game (which was clever, I thought, and, hey, still think). 

About halfway through Upstander — page 112, chapter 21 — the story catches up to the first chapter of Bystander. From that point on, the world of those two overlapping novels gets bigger, richer, deeper. Maybe even better!

Anyway, that’s what’s going on with this follow-up book. 

 

         

BOTH TITLES WERE NAMED JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTIONS.

Rough Sketch of Jigsaw Jones from “The Case of the Cat Burglar”

This guy . . . 

 

Rough sketch by R.W. Alley for the upcoming book, Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Hat Burglar (Fall, Macmillan, 2019).

 

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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