Tag Archive for Donalyn Miller

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.

“Teaching Is Believing” — My Short Essay over at THE NERDY BOOK CLUB


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I’m a big fan of Donalyn Miller.

Do you know her? As a classroom teacher, Donalyn made a splash with her book, The Book Whisperer. I met Donalyn during a trip to a reading conference in Dublin, Ohio, where I had the opportunity to hear her present to a large audience. She was impressive and her message was inspiring.

If you are an educator, you should read this book.

If you are an educator, you should read this book.

Long story short: Donalyn has made a deep impact bringing books and young readers together, and she does it without ego or self-aggrandising motives. There’s nothing phony about Donalyn. She’s simply a positive force in the world of children’s reading. My kind of people.

Several years back she started The Nerdy Book Club with, I believe, Colby Sharp. It’s an active, inspirational resource/blog for teachers and librarians who care about children’s literature. I recommend it. Over the past couple of years, Donalyn has allowed me to contribute a few essays, and I’m always grateful to reach that specific audience, and to participate in that grand conversation.

I’m happy with my recent essay and I invite you please check it out (link below). The idea came as the result of a few things going on in my life, particularly the end of my baseball coaching experiences. I reflected on what I had learned from those times coaching young people, and I connected those lessons to teaching and writing. But don’t go by me. Judge for yourself.

Here’s the opening:

I’m at loose ends.

For the first time in 16 years, I find myself not coaching a baseball team. During those seasons, I’ve coached a men’s hardball team, and all three of my children at various stages of Little League, including All-Stars and competitive Travel teams.

Now it’s over.

All I’m left with are memories, some friendships, and my accumulated wisdom, which can be reduced to a single, short sentence. So I’m passing this along to the readers of the Nerdy Book Club because I think it connects to teaching. And writing. And maybe to everything else under the sun.

When I started coaching, my head was exploding with knowledge. I knew all this great stuff! Boy, was I eager to share it. I had an almost mystical awareness of the game: tips and strategies, insights and helpful hints. Baseball-wise, I knew about the hip turn and burying the shoulder, how to straddle the bag and slap down a tag. The proper way to run the bases, turn a double play, and line up a relay throw. As coach, I simply had to pour this information into my players –- empty vessels all –- and watch them thrive.

But something happened across the years. I found myself talking less and less about how to play. Fewer tips, less advice. It seemed like I mostly confused them. The learning was in the doing.

I became convinced that the most important thing I could do was believe.

< snip >

Please click here to read the whole enchilada.

But before you go, here’s a nice quote from Donalyn that I figured I’d share.

Truth!

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Give Student Writers the Freedom to Embrace Their Inner Zombies


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: 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.

——

There are currently five books available in my “Scary Tales” series.

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Donalyn Miller’s “The Book Whisperer” Reaches Cultural Icon Status

I met Donalyn Miller at a Literacy Conference in Ohio. She was the keynote speaker and I came away impressed, inspired, and determined to read her book, THE BOOK WHISPERER: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child.

I started reading it yesterday, frustrated over my own 9th-grade son’s brutal, book-hating experience in advanced, 9th-grade English.

I underlined this passage from Donalyn’s book, page 18:

Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters — the saints and sinners, real or imagined — reading shows you how to be a better human being.

The book is filled with passages that make you want to stand up and cheer.

Anyway, this morning Donalyn Miller shared her enthusiasm over this fun bit of pop culture stardom:

Good for Donalyn Miller, good for Jeopardy.

It’s funny, isn’t it? That’s a real touchstone in America today. An undeniable sign that you’ve arrived and made your mark. You become a clue on Jeopardy!

Donalyn is also a founding member of the Nerdy Book Club, which you should definitely follow. Seriously, I insist.

The Dublin Literacy Conference — featuring Donalyn Miller, Sharon Draper, Ruth Ayres, and Hot Tubs

I had a great time at the Dublin Literacy Conference back in February. I saw a couple of old friends, Karen and Bill from the Literate Lives blog, and finally met two women I’ve known almost exclusively through their terrific blog, A Year in Reading, Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn.

You can’t talk to either Franki or Mary Lee for long before you are promising to read a book or two that they absolutely loved. These are the ones that sounded most interesting to me . . .

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.

I also heard a morning keynote speech from Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer. She was terrific and inspiring, and an expert on building a classroom community of voracious readers. Boys, girls, whoever walks into the room. Many teachers told me that Donalyn’s professional book was excellent — fast, accessible, illuminating, and motivating.

So that was cool, meeting her. Riding in a car with Donalyn in the back seat. We didn’t get much of a chance to talk, pulled in different directions, always seated at different tables, but it was a pleasure to become aware of her, sit in the auditorium and hear Donalyn’s thoughts, humor, and classroom-earned wisdom. The pedagogical stuff was solid, but she really won me over when she talked about specific students in her classroom, these small laser-like observations, like the boy who informed her that he did not read any books the previous year, except this: “I think I might have read Hatchet.” He wasn’t sure. At those points in her talk, I recognized that Donalyn knew these kids, stone-cold knew 6th-graders, and that she loved them. I was sold.

At lunch, Sharon Draper was the keynote speaker. Sharon is a force of nature, strong and lively and confident and outspoken, a woman to be reckoned with. My daughter has already read Out of Mind, so I brought home a copy of this book for my 7th grade son, and he’s reading it now.

Oh yeah, she also had the line of the weekend, quoting from (I think) an African proverb, but addressing all the changes in education these days, today’s sad and misguided emphasis on testing:

“If you want an elephant to grow, you feed it, you don’t measure it!

My most unexpected pleasure came from a young woman I met. We got to talking, she was there to make a presentation, and I slowly realized that this was, holy wow, Ruth Ayres from the fabulous Two Writing Teachers blog.

Me: “I love your blog. You do such a great job. I think I’ve even commented a few times.”

Ruth: “I know!”

I guess I didn’t figure she’d know me, or care, but she did. Anyway, anyway. Ruth and Staci (the other writing teacher) do a “Slice of Life” Challenge through their blog. This is their fifth year, so it’s a slick presentation, there’s even a button thingy you can download or whatever, way beyond the capabilities of this bargain basement blog. Essentially, they invite teachers (and readers in general) to put their money where their mouths are. If you are going to teach writing, then write. And share it. And enjoy it.

By the way, Donalyn was on a parallel mission, calling on teachers . . . to read. It’s obvious, but there you go. A lot of teachers, for valid reasons, feel too busy to read. But even so: Read. No excuses.

To me, I’ve always maintained that teaching = enthusiasm transferred. You want them to catch the reading fever? It helps if you’ve already got the bug.

Next week I’ll share one slice of life from my visit, because I had a great encounter in a hot tub.

No, it’s not what you’re thinking.