Tag Archive for Jamie Smith

An April Fools Classic: Writing the Memory

I’m not a prankster, merry or otherwise, so April Fools Day isn’t a big day here at Chez Preller. But as a kid, we had one surefire trick that worked every time. It was fast, easy, and painless (illustrations by Jamie Smith).

I wrote about it in the “currently unavailable” Jigsaw Jones #22: The Case of the Perfect Prank. (Yes, it kills me to type that.)

To set the scene, Jigsaw wakes up to screams. He finds his mother at the kitchen sink, soaking wet. We’ll let Jigsaw take it from here:

The trick was an oldie but a goodie. At our house, we have one of those sinks with a spray nozzle. You squeeze it, and water comes out of the nozzle instead of the faucet. The trick is to tie a rubber band around the nozzle. Then you aim the nozzle outward. Daniel and Nick must have done it last night, when they were giggling in the kitchen. Come morning, my mom went into the kitchen to make her “necessary” pot of coffee. She turned on the water and . . . splash, the spray hit her!

It works every time.

Kids ask me all the time, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Sometimes it’s as easy as recording a memory . . . and giving it to someone else, a shift from memoir to fiction that makes all the difference. And of course, Jigsaw’s perspective was my life perspective as the youngest in a family of seven children. Sometimes you’re in the middle of the action. Other times, you’re the forgotten observer, witness to all the goings-on. They didn’t realize I’d write about it 30 years later. Neither did I.

I think the trick for teachers — and this is so hard — is to get kids to value the everyday life that surrounds them. All that “slice of life” stuff. Ideas aren’t some magical golden drops from the gods. And if writing has given me anything (and it has), it’s been reflection, looking back, holding on to something valuable amidst the blur and whoosh and accelerated push of life. Maybe I’m just old. But those memories mean more and more as each year passes.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find a rubber band.


Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Class Clown

A while back, I got a surprising phone call about this book: a group (legitimate, apparently) named Arts Power wanted to turn it into a musical.

Okay, great. And so they have. I have not seen it, though I did have the opportunity to read the adaptation, which smartly compressed the cast to four characters. Really, it’s all up to the songs, and I haven’t heard ’em. But it’s definitely an honor to have that book plucked from the torrent and highlighted in this way. Break a leg, Arts Power!

As for the book itself . . .

I see that it is dedicated to teacher Mary Szczech and the children in her 1999-2000 classroom. When we first moved to the town of Delmar, this would be 11-12 years ago, I contacted the local elementary school in the hope of finding a teacher who would allow me to sit in on classes throughout the year. I understood that it would take a certain kind of teacher, open and confident. Enter Mary Szczech. My time in Mary’s classroom was so helpful to me — I learned so much — that I’ve adopted that research strategy for many subsequent projects. I like to get inside the classroom, soak up the atmosphere, all those little details I couldn’t possibly make¬† up.

I sometimes struggle with kicking off the mystery proper. There are books in the series when the actual “client with a case” doesn’t show up until 3-4 chapters into the book. Other times, like this one, Jigsaw is in detective mode from page one. Here we find Jigsaw, Mila, and Athena Lorenzo (the client) up Jigsaw’s tree house. Strange as it sounds, when they are up there, I know I’m on firm ground.

* Jigsaw’s father has a scene in the book when Mila overhears him talking to a bunch of raisins: “Listen here, you dried-up grapes. I need you to concentrate.” When questioned, he claims to be training them. “You’ve heard of a flea circus? Well, I’m starting a raisin circus.” Thus the theme of practical jokes — in good taste and poor — is established. When my son Nick was little, I used to perform the same raisin trick for him. And in that way, you see my curious attachments in this series: I strongly identify with Jigsaw . . . and his father. I’m both guys.

* As for the case, a series of pranks has been running through the school. Somebody is pulling fast ones all over the place. This presents a major conflict for Jigsaw, since he suspects one of his best friends, Ralphie Jordan:

That night, I took a long, hot bath. I lay perfectly still, thinking about my good pal Ralphie Jordan. It sounded like the kind of pranks he’d pull. I put my head under the water and counted as high as I could. When I came up for air, I knew two things: Catching Ralphie wouldn’t be easy. And it wouldn’t be fun.

* Another suspect emerges, though Jigsaw himself doesn’t at first notice. It’s the humor-challenged Helen Zuckerman, who’s been telling a lot of corny jokes lately:

For some reason, Helen Zuckerman had decided to become funny. Which is sort of like deciding to become a tall redhead. Some things you just can’t change. And Helen Zuckerman, no matter how hard she tried, was about as funny as a spelling test.

* One of the things I learned during my visits to Mary Szczech’s class was the clap-clap thing, which I put into my books:

Ms. Gleason clapped her hands softly, clap-clap. That was our signal to be quiet. We all clapped back, CLAP-CLAP-CLAP.

* I put another true life event into this story. At the time of this book, we owned a basset hound named Seamus, who was a slave to his nose and pretty much untrainable. One morning Seamus got out and Lisa had to run around the neighborhood in her bathrobe trying to catch him. So naturally Ms. Gleason tells her students:

“Wow, what a morning! My crazy basset hound, Brutus, got loose again. You should have seen me. I was in my bathrobe, chasing Brutus through my neighbor’s garden!”

We all laughed. We loved it when Ms. Gleason told us her Brutus stories. Her dog sounded like a real nut.

What else?

* The students fix two broken sentences to start the morning, and I took that practice directly from Mrs. Szczech’s classroom: that boy don’t go to pottsford school any more and ms willard will learn us how to multiply this year said irving

Can you find what’s wrong?

* The raisin trick returns, when Mr. Jones puts his “five best swimmers” into a glass of seltzer. Try it sometime.

* In almost every book, I like to reference a real-life title. In this one, Jigsaw and his father are reading Shiloh together. As a parent, I love those quiet moments together.

My dad closed the book and stood up to leave.

“Hey, Dad . . .”

“Yeah?”

“You were funny tonight, with the raisins.”

He looked at me suspiciously. “Funny how?” he asked, rubbing his chin. “Funny strange? Or funny ha-ha?”

I smiled. “Just plain funny.”

“Thanks, kiddo,” he said, leaning down to kiss me. “I try.”

* The school librarian is named Mrs. Kranepool, after the original New York Met, a player beloved by my mother. Do you see how the writing process works for me? I’m constantly drawing upon my own life for ideas. It’s not all daydreams and wild leaps of the imagination.

All interior artwork shown from The Case of the Class Clown was illustrated by Jamie Smith. The cover illustration was done by R. W. Alley.

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar

As part of a continuing (read: sporadic) series of posts, I take a look back at old Jigsaw Jones titles with the intention of providing my Nation of Readers with more “extra juicy” background info.

If you are like me, you might gag at the thought of yet another writer describing his “creative process.” There is something oh-so-wearying about it. The phrase, “Don’t be a gasbag,” leaps to mind. But let’s see if I can pull this off without too much self-aggrandizement. The simple truth is that I am proud of this series and I sometimes (often?) wonder how much longer they’ll be around. I see this blog as document, as archive.

Today’s title is seasonally appropriate, Jigsaw Jones #29: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar. It begins with Jigsaw chatting with two of his brothers, Daniel and Nick, as they prepare for a family ski vacation.

Some background: My father was a veteran of World War II, who returned home, got married, went to college on the G.I. Bill — a great investment by the Federal Government, by the way — and looked with my mother for a nice place to settle down and raise a family. Suburbia, preferably. He found a newly-built home in Wantagh, Long Island, designed after the Levittown model (for a fascinating history on that, click here). They bought a three-bedroom house for somewhere along the lines of $12,500.

One problem: My parents kept having children. Seven in all. It got crowded. At one point when I was still quite young, my folks slept in the back bedroom, my two sisters (Barbara and Jean) shared a small room, three boys had the front room (John, Al, me), and my father turned the garage into a bedroom for the oldest boys (Neal and Bill). I have strong memories of those early childhood days, sharing that crowded room with two big and somewhat mysterious brothers.

Below, here’s my whole family except for Mom, 1967. We always dressed that way! I shared a bedroom with the two goons on the right — don’t let the ties fool you.

The dynamic in the book’s first chapter, with two older brothers schooling Jigsaw, springs directly from my sense of those times.

They are teaching Jigsaw how to talk cool, in the snowboarder’s hipster jargon:

“Let us quiz you, Jigsaw,” Nick said. “What do you call someone if you don’t know their name?”

I thought for a moment. “Dude,” I answered.

“Excellent!” Nick cheered. “What’s a face-plant?”

“It’s when you fall into the snow face-first.”

“Awesome, Jigsaw,” Daniel said. “Totally gnarly!”

“Gnarly?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“It means very, very cool,” Nick explained. “Do you smell me?”

I sniffed, confused. “What?”

“Do you smell me?” Nick repeated. “It means, do you understand?”

“Not exactly,” I groaned.

In the next chapter, Jigsaw gets to try out his new language skills on Mila Yeh, his partner and best friend:

“I’m jealous,” Mila complained. “I wish I were going¬† on a ski trip.”

“Snowboarding,” I corrected her.

“It sounds hard,” Mila said. “I hear that beginners fall down a lot.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I think it will be sick.”

“Sick?” Mila asked. “Who’s sick?”

“Not who,” I said. “It. Snowboarding will be sick.”

Mila frowned. “I don’t get it.”

“It’s the opposite of wack,” I explained.

Okaaay,” Mila murmured.

“Do you smell me?” I asked.

Mila sniffed. “Well, now that you mention it, you do smell a little ripe.”

Don’t they have a nice friendship? Anyway, some random things:

* I loved the setup for the book, with Jigsaw away from Mila for the first time. It gave the book a different shape — and put Jigsaw in a tough situation. After all, this was #29 in the series, so I was eager to find new ways to keep it fresh. I know that some successful series, like The Magic Tree House, tend to follow a more rigid formula. And I understand the reasons why that’s appealing and reassuring for young readers. But it just wasn’t me. For better and for worse, I kept trying to mix things up.

* Mila mentions to Jigsaw that she’s practicing for a piano recital. Her song will be “The Maple Leaf Rag.” This comes from my son, Gavin, who also played that song in a recital.

* Grams and Billy are left behind to “mind the fort.” This expression, used by Mr. Jones, was something my father commonly said. I love his old verbal habits, the phrases he often used, and I try to keep them alive as best as I can — more than ever now that he’s gone. It’s a way of keeping that connection alive. I hear those phrases and think of Dad, all the more so when his words come out of my mouth.

* I once edited a book on snowboarding, written by Joe Layden. I learned a lot about the sport in the process, so it was comfortable territory for me to explore in the context of a Jigsaw Jones mystery.

In my story, a star snowboarder named Lance Mashman (love that name!) is at the lodge for an upcoming exhibition. However, someone steals his lucky bandanna — and with it, his confidence. While working on No Limits, I was impressed by many of the top female snowboarders, such as Shannon Dunn and Victoria Jealouse. They had a vitality and strength that inspired me, qualities I love to see in my own daughter. Also, they conveyed a refreshing take on competition, much different than you normally hear in the context of traditional athletics. So I invented the character of Tara Gianopolis, a rival to Lance, and a very cool young woman:

Illustration by Jamie Smith — crudely scanned.

“But you two compete against each other,” I said. “You are enemies . . . .”

Tara shook her head. “Man, you don’t know much about snowboarders, do you? This isn’t like football or basketball. We’re athletes, but we’re just trying to be the best we can be. It’s about nailing a backside rodeo or pulling off a perfect McTwist. It’s not about winning medals or beating people. It’s about freedom and creativity.”

“So you don’t care if you win?” I asked.

“I care, I guess,” Tara said with a shrug. “But as long as I ride well, I’m okay with whatever happens.”

* One of the suspects turns out to be Lance’s manager, Bubba Barbo, named in honor of my former editor, Maria Barbo. Once again, that’s a great aspect of writing mysteries. The genre forces the detective out into the world, this moral compass encountering life, making observations, going places, meeting new people all the time. As a series writer, that holds tremendous appeal — new characters in every book. Here’s a snippet from a conversation between Jigsaw and Bubba:

“It sounds like you think Lance is annoying,” I commented.

Bubba growled. “I don’t think he’s annoying. Lance is annoying. He’s always late. He drives me up a wall and across the ceiling.”

“You don’t like him?” I asked.

Bubba made a face. “Whaddaya, kidding? I love the kid,” he said. “Lance has talent. He’s a genius on a snowboard. A great athlete. And besides that, Lance has heart. He’s good people. You know what I’m saying?”

Yes, I knew what Bubba was saying. “I heard that he fired you this morning,” I said.

Bubba stepped back, surprised. Then he laughed out loud. “Lance fires me every week and twice on Sunday,” Bubba claimed. “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re a team.”

For fun, here’s a clip of Victoria Jealouse (and others) in action:

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Click below for other posts in this series. Some day I’ll get around to every book:

Jigsaw Jones #7: The Case of the Runaway Dog

Jigsaw Jones #15: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow

Jigsaw Jones #16: The Case of the Sneaker Sneak

Jigsaw Jones #28: The Case of the Food Fight

Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter