Tag Archive for Fan Mail Wednesday

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #314: On Math & Writing — the Rule of Three — and Ted Lasso

 

Sometimes questions come from far afield — in this case, the field of mathematics. Natalie — who could not have been any nicer or more considerate — wrote to me with questions for a school project. 
Natalie wrote . . .
I would like to ask you a few questions. If you do not feel comfortable answering my questions please don’t feel pressured to! I’m doing a project for one of my classes about writing, and how it can relate to math. For this project I need to ask a writer questions, and I heard you reply. My questions are;
1.) Can you describe what you do for a living?
2.) How is math used in your career?  Can you provide examples?
3.) How often is problem solving used in your career?
4.) Is there anything else you would like to tell us about how math relates to your career?
I replied . . . 
Natalie,
These are interesting questions. I’ll do my best.
1. I am a children’s book author. I write a range of books, from picture books for very young readers to young adult novels.
2. I get complicated royalty statements filled with numbers that make me cry. Seriously: confusing numbers, percentages, discounts, etc. Creatively, I think that math enters into story structure, the classic three-act formula. Beginning, middle, and end. Picture books are almost always 32 pages due to folios and printing standards. At some point, you have to be very aware of how (and where) your story is landing on the page. 
3. In storytelling, there’s the “Rule of 3.” We see it in humor, particularly, i.e., his bedroom smelled of old socks, axe body spray, and stale cheese. For some reason, it’s funniest with 3 items. Four is too many; two is not enough. Another example would be, oh, let’s see, a penguin who is determined to fly. For some reason, it appeals to the mind when we show the penguin fail once, twice, three times . . . and then succeed (in some way). I think that’s because it takes three to establish a pattern, a rhythm. It’s somehow comforting to the reader. My old picture book, Hiccups for Elephant, is extremely mathematical, since it is centered around patterns and repetition. All the animals are asleep. Except for elephant. Chimp wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! Lion wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! Zebra wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! See that, Natalie? One, two, three. Now, finally, mouse wakes up, offers advice. It works! Ah-choo! The funny twist at the end. Simple mathematics. 
4. Not really, no. Ha! But, okay, as you know, math is hardwired into our brains. When I read a book — this is just me & my own idiosyncrasies — I am always doing the math. That is, I first like to locate the last page and note the number. The book I’m currently reading is 278 pages. I don’t have to look that up, it’s burned into my brain. While I read it, I am aware of when I’m 1/3 of the way through, 1/2 way through, 2/3 through, etc. It’s not just racing to the end, it helps me sense the shape and body of the story. Do you watch Ted Lasso? That was originally conceived as a three season arc. A beginning, middle, and end. Season 1 was wonderful because it set up the situation, introduced all the characters, established the problem. Season 2 suffered, in my opinion, because it was the middle. The inevitable sag. Middles are very, very difficult to write. But it will lead us to the conclusion, the end, Act 3: the satisfying resolution. Simple math, yes. It’s everywhere. 
Hope that helps.
James Preller
Natalie, again . . .
Thank you so much for the reply! I love these answers, and the examples used. I didn’t expect to get a reply from anyone until, I found a thing of you showing that you do try your best to reply to anyone, and everyone. I will be sure to put your quotes, and phrases into my presentation! Sorry for the random email. And if there was anything you felt uncomfortable with. If you have any questions as to why I asked, or maybe as to what the presentation is about don’t be scared to ask! If there is anything you wouldn’t like in the presentation let me know!

 

 



Subject: Interview questions (school project)

FAN MAIL #313: Feeling Great About These Sweet Messages from a Teacher in Terra Haute, Indiana

It’s a hard career, I’ve got to admit. Ups and downs and times when I’ve wanted to give up. But I received the sweetest email the other day from a special education teacher in Terre Haute, Indiana. There’s a bit of background about this particular group of readers that I won’t disclose here, other than to say that as a group they struggle with reading. Many of us do. According to the email, “None of them are very excited about reading as it is extremely difficult for them.”

Anyway, here’s an except of the first of two emails I received . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,

 

< snip >
I recently began reading some of your Jigsaw Jones books to them, and they LOVE them!  They have so enjoyed using the clues to make predictions and inferences.  We have used the stories to practice finding the main idea and details, problem and solution, and visualization. They are so engaged with these books they have begun checking them out of the library to read on their own. We recently finished The Case of the Mummy Mystery and they were so disappointed.  They said, “That can’t be the end, what about the mummy that walked through town on Halloween?  Who was the mummy?”  They were still talking about it the next day, so I took advantage of their engagement with a writing assignment.  They have written you a letter asking if you would consider writing another version of the book and they even included some ideas.
I want to thank you so much for giving my students the joy of reading.  I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see them so excited and engaged with a book. I will send you an email of their letter, but wanted to explain things first.  I also noticed that you do Zoom meetings with classes and was wondering if you could give me some more information on that? Thank you again for writing such engaging stories.
Sincerely,
Mrs. J
I immediately wrote a response to the class (below) and we’re already planning for a little Zoom get-together just for the fun of it. I also wanted to share this email I received after my reply. Maybe other authors will be cheered to read it. Maybe teachers will see the value in making these connections.

Hello Mr. Preller,

I read your reply to the students today and they were beyond thrilled!!! They couldn’t believe that you actually took the time to respond to their letter.  As I read your explanation of the mummy, it was like little light bulbs went on above their heads.  One student said, “Oh…I get it. The

mummy wasn’t real, it was just a story.  So there weren’t any clues for Jigsaw to follow.” They were all very excited when you talked about them writing their own book. They couldn’t stop talking about their ideas – from the title to the plot! What struck me the most though, was when I read “Your friend, James Preller”.  One student asked, wonderingly, “He’s our FRIEND now?”  and another said, “Wow!  I always wanted to have a famous writer for a friend!”  You will never know how much that email meant to them…or to me.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart for making my students feel special, loved, and IMPORTANT.  Thank you for encouraging them to keep reading (and recommending books!)  I can’t wait for our Zoom meeting when they will have a chance to talk to you “in person”.  Until then, please know that you have made 6 children and 2 teachers very, VERY happy!!!

Mrs. J
And while we’re here, this is the long, rambling reply I sent:

Wow, you guys are tough!

But before I get into answering your comments and questions, a few things. I received the nicest letter from your teacher, Mrs. Johnson. You are so lucky to have a teacher like her —- someone who reads full books out loud, someone who really cares about you, someone who believes in you. 

Please, please, take a moment in your hearts and be grateful for that. We all need someone who believes in us.

I will get to your FANTASTIC IDEAS about future mummy stories. But first, a word in my own defense:

I’d give you a SPOILER ALERT, but since you already read the book, I guess I can’t exactly ruin the ending.

I appreciate that you are careful readers. If you go back to the story, you’ll see that all of the talk about the mummy was just that . . . talk. Stories, legends, and possibly exaggerations. Not necessarily the truth. It begins with Jigsaw’s older brothers, in Chapter 3, “The Legend of the Mummy,” telling Jigsaw a scary story. Is it true? Or are they just having fun scaring the pants off their little baby brother? Did they make it all up?

Fun fact: I am the youngest of 7 children, with 4 older brothers. Do you think they ever tried to scare me with made-up stories? 

I’m the little guy, surrounded by giants.

Oh yeah, they did!

Later, Ralphie Jordan repeats another mummy story that he heard. Is it true? Is it a fact? Maybe. But there’s no reliable witness we can trust. It’s just a story. Like, oh, all those legends we hear about Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. Is it really real? Personally, I have my doubts. No one knows for sure. 

Meanwhile, for Halloween, we see that Joey is dressed as a mummy. Is he the “real” mummy from the stories? No, it’s just Joey. So when Geetha see “the mummy,” it’s just good old Joey Pignattano. 

Was there a real, actual MUMMY walking in graveyards, pushing poor Earl Bartholemew?

Nobody knows. That’s for you to decide. The job that Jigsaw got hired to do was the make sure that Joey didn’t get cheated in the bet, and I think he earned that money.

Thanks for all your wild, smart, creative ideas. I’m impressed. I wish my brain worked that well! Forget me, you are the ones who should be writers! I had to laugh at your recurring comment, “you take it from here.” Ha, ha, ha. Everybody has work for me! 

Well, here’s an idea: YOU WRITE IT!

You have my official permission to write your own mystery. If you wish to include Jigsaw Jones, yes, please, go for it. Or invent your own character. If you are not an illustrator, maybe you could act out the mystery and take photos, telling the story that way.

(Note: If you do write a story —- together or individually —- please send it along. I’d love to STEAL YOUR IDEAS!)

Mostly, I just want to say how happy I am that you enjoyed my books. I have been a reader all my life. It’s not something that happens overnight. Slowly but surely, book after book, I became a more skilled and enthusiastic reader. It took time. And yes, reading will make you smarter and it will help you in school. It will help you in work, too. But most of all, reading has given me a lifetime of pleasure. It’s given me happiness. I couldn’t imagine life without good books to read, to enjoy, to learn from.

You are all doing great. Thank you for reading Jigsaw Jones. By the way, you might enjoy my “Scary Tales” books. I recommend Swamp Monster or I Scream, You Scream or Goodnight, Zombie or Nightmareland or One-Eyed Doll. Any of them, really, though I think Home Sweet Horror is the scariest and maybe not the best place to start. The books are not too hard to read and grades 3-5 love ‘em! No one gets hurt in those stories. But I do want readers to lean in on the edge of their seats, heart pounding. I love suspense. The doorknob slowly, slowly turns . . . 

Happy Halloween and please keep reading —- my books or any books at all!

Your friend & fellow reader, 

James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #310: Emir Calls My Book a “Literary Wonder” — I Take the Rest of the Day Off

A reader, Emir, wrote a nice letter about a Jigsaw Jones book, The Case of the Million-Dollar Mystery. By way of background, somebody in room 201 has been leaving behind anonymous notes that read:

It’s time for Jigsaw and Mila to figure out who’s behind these mysterious notes. Let’s move on to Emir’s letter . . . 

Dear Mr Preller,

I am writing to you to express my great appreciation for the book which you have written called The Case of the Million-Dollar Mystery.

I have found the book to be fascinating and absorbing. I like mysterious stories which keeps me eager to read. I was very curious and excited throughout the story and I was really surprised at the end. I really enjoyed reading about Jigsaw and Mila’s mysterious mission. Also the way they inspected and found the suspect was brilliant. The illustrations of the book were actually really helpful to recognize the character and to visualize the plot.

Illustration by Jamie Smith.

Additionally the book gives a really good message to the reader. I think giving such a good message like be a better person through an interesting story is a brilliant idea. The girl in the story makes an experiment to invent goodness and it works, that raises awareness of being a better person
Again, I would just like to express my deepest thanks that you created this literary wonder which has raised my awareness about being a better a person.

I replied . . .

Emir,

Thank you so much for your kind letter. I’m glad that I managed to surprise you at the end.
And wow, you called my book a “literary wonder” — what a fine compliment! I’m just going to take the rest of the day off. Sit by the bird feeder and see who flies by.
You inspired me to pull that book off the shelf and read the last few lines:
“I looked around at the class. Everybody seemed happy, smiling, laughing together. Eddie had his invention back. He seemed happy, even if it didn’t turn out to be a million-dollar idea. And there, sitting quietly at her desk, was Geetha.
Just watching.
Maybe we can invent goodness after all. I guess it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Or a mystery.
Just one piece at a time.
We’ll all get there, together, one step at a time.”
Well, here we are, years after I first wrote those words, and I still think they are true. One day. One person. One kind thought at a time.
I believe your letter, Emir, your small kindness, brings us all a little closer to that dream.
Have a great summer, my friend!
James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #306: A Reader “OBSESSED”

There’s something about readers who enjoy scary stories. They bring a unique level of enthusiasm — of passion — to their reading. They don’t just like a book, they almost seem to take up residence, they dwell inside it. While I’ve written many types of books over the years, across various genre, there’s nothing that works better in front of a large audience than reading a carefully-selected passage (not too scary!) from one of my “Scary Tales” books. 

Which is to say, here’s a card from Gracyn in Texas . . . 

I replied . . .

Dear Gracyn,

Thank you so much for your wonderful card. My wife had saved it but mistakenly tossed the envelope. So, yeah, I had to do the deep dive into the garbage bin to retrieve your return address.

(Old coffee grounds are gross, btw.)

Texas, hey. I’ve been fortunate to visit your state several times for book conventions, author visits, and even to play in a men’s baseball tournament. Always a good time.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from “I Scream, You Scream!” AKA, “Dr. Z’s Adventure Park.”

You aren’t too shabby a writer, yourself. “I could not stop telling my friends all about it in grave detail.” Wow, that’s a great choice of words. It’s an ordinary sentence until the end there, when you added in grave detail. Perfect! Keep that up and I’ll be reading your books someday.

Be sure to thank your teacher for having my book in your classroom library. I appreciate that. There are six “Scary Tales” books in the series. I find that everything I write helps me become a better writer. My most recent novel, Blood Mountain, is a realistic story about two siblings who are lost in the wilderness. It’s a scary, suspenseful, survival thriller. The lessons I learned writing “Scary Tales” helped me write that book. In this case, the frightening things were “real” compared to the ghosts and zombies and swamp monsters in the series. But the writing is very similar. Still building suspense, setting up situations, trying to make the reader lean in.

And if a girl named Gracyn can become OBSESSED, well, that’s the best I can possibly hope for.

Thanks for that.

Um, and now . . . I better go wash my hands.

My best,

 

James Preller

 


P.S. This is the cover of Blood Mountain. Because one good book leads to another!

 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #301: Vivaan’s Halloween Disguise

It’s been a while since I’ve shared any fan mail, but I suppose this qualifies. Our correspondence began with a comment on my blog:

My 5 year old son was Jigsaw Jones for this Halloween. He handed out his business cards all over the neighborhood “for a $1 a day, make problems go away(plus expenses).” Thank you for creating JJ.



In return, I wrote to the boy’s mother, expressing my wonder and appreciation. I also offered to send along a few books, by way of thanks.

She wrote back:

Hello James, 

I am so glad that you emailed me. This means a lot to my son. Vivaan is 5.5 years old and is always on a lookout for a mystery since I read the first Jigsaw Jones to him 2 months back. We got to know about the Jigsaw Jones series from a website recommendation. As we are a family on a small budget we have been borrowing books from the Boston Public Library for now and I hope to buy them all in future for him and his younger brother.
When we talked about Halloween this year, Vivaan was decided he wanted to be a detective. Vivaan’s pockets in this picture are full of — a journal, a magnifying glass, a flashlight, wig for disguise, a magazine with eye holes to spy and his quite famous (in our neighborhood) business cards. Vivaan and Joe now distribute the cards to strangers on morning walks and want to make it into a real business. They are waiting for their first mystery. Joe wants to save the money they make for college and Vivaan wants to invest in cool gadgets like night vision googles.
Vivaan’s favorite part in the books are the coded messages between Jigsaw and Mila. It is also amazing for me to see Vivaan use detective lingo and similar language as your books. 
Also we are a family from India and I was secretly pleased to see an Indian name, Geetha Nair, in one of your books.
Thank you creating for Jigsaw Jones, we are very grateful! I am completely fine for you to use any of the attached pictures for your blog. 


So, yeah, that’s how it goes in this creative life. Just when I want to despair over this world gone wrong, something like this comes along and it all seems hopeful again. A heart pierced. Just look at that beautiful child, five years old, a perfect stranger, pretending to be a character in a book on Halloween.