Tag Archive for Jigsaw Jones preller

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar

 

UPDATE: I am reposting this from six years back. This book — like every Jigsaw Jones title — subsequently went out of print. Hard to find. I’m told that dedicated fans have success on eBay and Craig’s List. The good news is that Macmillan has contracted to bring eight classic titles back into circulation, beginning this August. I’ve also written a brand new mystery, The Case from Outer Space. And I’d gladly write another if anyone asks. To date, there are no plans for 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.”

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #201 — Plus a FREE Bonus Drawing!

postalletter-150x150

Before I answer Kallen’s letter below, I wanted to share a cool drawing that was sent to me by a boy named Ethan, who lives in Ontario, Canada. Ethan is a fan my “Scary Tales” series, and I believe this is his version of Bloody Mary from the book, HOME SWEET HORROR.

Drawing by Ethan.

Drawing by Ethan.

 

Isn’t that great. I love the body; very creepy somehow.

Now here’s a letter from Wisconsin:

Scan 4

I replied:

Dear Kallen, 

Thank you so much for your super kind letter. I realize that it took you a lot of time and effort to write to me, and I want you to know that I appreciate it.

I’ve been busy working on new books –- I just finished one that took me nearly four years! — but I am happy to take a few minutes out of my (freezing!) Sunday to respond to your request.

Please find my lousy signature below. I say “lousy” because I have terrible handwriting; I blame it on the fact that I’m a lefty.

A great writer? Did you really say that?

I go back to your letter, reread it, then reread it again. Yes, Kallen really said it: “You are a great writer.”

I think I’ll just float around on white, fluffy clouds for the rest of the day!

Your friend,

James Preller

A Tale of Two Covers: What Scares Me, And What Doesn’t

I do not, typically, stalk myself.

I am not, usually, Googling myself.

But it has been known to happen.

Though less and less.

Curiously, new things do pop up.

Yesterday, seeking a jpeg book cover image of my newest SCARY TALES book, Good Night, Zombie, I came across this . . .

I learned that it was the Australian cover — or possibly the British cover? — to the book. Let’s look at the American version for reference . . .

Obviously, they’ve taken the circle logo and made it drippy, like paint splatter. From a design standpoint, I understand that. The strength of the circle is also its design flaw. It is abrupt, awkward, intrusive. The circle does not at all “work” with the other elements. Quite the opposite. The artist, the spectacular Iacopo Bruno, has to illustrate around the logo. It’s an obstacle and it prevents a lot of illustrative possibilities. Which, again, is its strength as a design element — the in-your-faceness of it. Blam, it’s right there. Try to not see it.

Green is the perfect color here, by the way. And the fourth book, Nightmareland, has to be red. It’s in the text. I was at a book fair in Chappaqua on Saturday and had the wonderful opportunity — as an author who normally sits in a windowless room — to watch young readers look at and choose between books #1 and #2 in the series (or, hey, pick up Bystander or Six Innings or slide past to the next table). They look at the yellow Home, Sweet Horror and the purple-ish, I Scream, You Scream. And it’s simply true that boys are turned off by certain colors. Or, okay, have decided preferences. The color to I Scream is something that some boys have to overcome, and the creepy dragon and freaky guy help.

The Australian cover also has an interesting tagline: “Scare Yourself Silly.”

I like it, I think, because in a subtle way they are signaling that maybe this isn’t the “deep gore” some adults might fear. It’s scary, for sure, in that heart-quickening way — anticipatory, suspenseful — but the reader will survive.

OTOH, what does the reader want?

The reader wants to be scared.

(Though perhaps not terrified. Everything is a matter of degrees, personal preferences.)

I’ve heard some parents say, “Will this give her nightmares? I don’t want her to have nightmares.”

And I always silently think: Well, good luck with that.

We all have nightmares. I had a dream last night that two frail, pink-eyed, white rabbits were in my house and my cats were on the slaughter. It was a mess. I woke up. Life goes on. Maybe you had a nightmare about a missing Blackberry. And your kid is worried about the ropes course in P.E.

Nightmares are going to happen, with or without SCARY TALES. The wind in the trees. The lightning. The thunder.

I’ve visited schools and talked about bullying. Talked about, recently, the suicide of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old girl I think about every single day. I’ve done this at grades 5-up. She haunts me, that girl. I’ll tell children about my oldest son’s experience with cancer. About how he was really sick for a long time. I’ve written about teenagers who drive cars into trees. And I’ve been asked to not discuss ghosts (not that I do, much, and only passingly). I’ve been asked — in two schools, same district — to not talk about SCARY TALES at all. (I declined that invitation, btw.) Because they are scared, too. Afraid of the parent who might complain, the headache they might endure, the freedoms they might have to defend.

I am sympathetic to a point. But personally, just being me here, I find real life to be a whole lot scarier than any story I can make up about ghosts or zombies or androids or freaky snowmen. You just close the book, put it away. Process it . . . however. Real life is something altogether different.

Also: I’m just trying to write the most entertaining stories possible. Lively, fast-paced, suspenseful, surprising, fun. Scary? Sure. But it’s not only that, or merely that.

At the same time, I heard from a librarian yesterday about how the students can’t wait to get their hands on these stories. About what a huge hit they are in the school. It’s such an interesting world, and a curious experience to find myself in the middle of it. Nobody ever complained about Jigsaw Jones or Hiccups for Elephant.

Fan Mail Wednesday #129

This one is from Canada — I can tell, because it will cost me almost a dollar to send a reply.

And yes, folks, that’s a hint! Please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

I replied:

Dear Troy,

Thanks for your letter. I love hearing from fans of Jigsaw Jones, because I think he’ll always be my favorite character. Jigsaw and me — we’re tight. I’m proud of those books.

Ideas come from everywhere and everything — but most often, for me, from real life. I think of it as a diving board. I bounce on real life, spring into the air, and land into a pool of imagination. That’s writing for me, real life splashing into the liquid world of “anything goes!”

Does that make any sense at all? I start from real life, then . . . sort of make stuff up. And that’s one way of describing the genre, Realistic Fiction.

My publisher, Scholastic, has been kind enough to publish 40 Jigsaw Jones titles. At this point, they don’t want any more. I’d love to write another story with Jigsaw. Who knows, maybe someday.

Yes, I suppose Jigsaw and I are similar. We share the same views on most things. We vote the same in general elections. We both like the Mets and cereals that are bad for our teeth; we both dislike making our beds, and people who eat tuna fish with their mouths open. I admire a lot about Jigsaw — he has fine qualities I’ll never possess. I especially like his friendship with Mila Yeh. Those two are great together, true friends, and I like the way they are so good to each other.

Keep on reading, my friend! All books, any books, even mine.

JP

The Great Comedy Albums of My Youth: “March Comes In Like A Lion . . . and Out Like a Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse”

“Now look, pal! I know a country where March comes in like an emu and goes out like a tapir. And they don’t even know what it means!” — John Belushi

Do you remember listening to comedy albums? I sure do. In the 60’s, I inherited some classic Bill Cosby disks from my folks, plus the great Allan Sherman. I wore the grooves off his debut record (below), which featured tracks such as “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max,” “My Zelda,” and “The Streets of Miami.”

According to the usually reliable Wikipedia, Sherman’s 1962 disk, “My Son, the Folksinger,” became the fastest-selling album up to that time. Think about that for a minute. Imagine everyone on the show “Mad Men” running around quoting Allan Sherman. Soon after, I guess, the Beatles showed up and changed everything.

The Cosby album that I loved was “I Started Out as a Child,” and again, I listened to it over and over again. Those routines are burned into my skull: “The Giant,” “Sneakers,” “Oops!,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “Ralph Jameson.”

As I got older, I remember when Pat Sweeney and I discovered his older brother’s album, “Big Bambu” by Cheech & Chong, which came out in 1971 (“Sister Mary Elephant,” “Ralphie and Herbie”). Oh my, oh my. The original album, as I recall, came packaged with rolling papers! We didn’t even know what they were for . . . yet. Comedy was taking on a new edge, an outsider status — and we loved that subversive quality. Just listening to it felt like a small criminal act. For that reason, we loved George Carlin, who raised the stakes considerably. In 1972, he came out with “Class Clown,” featuring “I Used to Be an Irish Catholic” and, most famously, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”

Again, it’s hard to describe the naughty thrill we felt as boys huddled around the turntable. We lapped it up and laughed and laughed, and somehow that counter-cultural strain seeped into our consciousness and shaped the way we looked at the world. Looking back now, I realize that I was at the exact right age for that moment in America, a tween when all the hypocrisy was hilariously exposed.

In 1976, when I was fifteen, I got a new album for Christmas (it was on my list, taped to our refrigerator), featuring The Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players. We had moved past Watergate and Vietnam, the 60’s were morphing into the Carter era and Disco was beginning to thump from speakers — as the Sex Pistols began gearing up against the bloated rock excesses of bands like Pink Floyd — and somehow this troupe of Saturday Night Live regulars had its collective finger on the pulse of America.

The stars are now legendary: John Belushi, Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd, Loraine Newman, and Chevy Chase — with a memorable guest appearance from Richard Pryor (“Word Association”).

The one skit that inspired me to write this today came from John Belushi, as a high-strung weatherman. Here he plays with the notion of March coming in like a lion and out like a lamb. (See full transcript below.) You can also click here to listen to a 30-second snippet of that routine, plus many other classics (“Emily Litella,” “News for the Hard of Hearing,” “Uvula,” “Dueling Brandos,” “Jimmy Carter,” and more). I loved that album, just as I loved the excitement of staying up late to watch the weekly show.

It may be an overstatement to say that comedy was dangerous, but it was definitely no longer my dad’s old Allan Sherman albums. Times had changed and it was reflected in what made us laugh.

Here’s the skit:

Chevy Chase:
Last week we made the comment that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Now here to reply is our chief meteorologist, John Belushi, with a seasonal report.

John Belushi:
Thank you Chevy. Well, another winter is almost over and March true to form has come in like a lion, and hopefully will go out like a lamb. At least that’s how March works here in the United States.

But did you know that March behaves differently in other countries? In Norway, for example, March comes in like a polar bear and goes out like a walrus. Or, take the case of Honduras where March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a salt marsh harvest mouse.

Let’s compare this to the Maldive Islands where March comes in like a wildebeest and goes out like an ant. A tiny, little ant about this big.

(holds thumb and index fingers a small distance apart)

Unlike the Malay Peninsula where March comes in like a worm-eating fernbird and goes out like a worm-eating fernbird. In fact, their whole year is like a worm-eating fernbird.

Or consider the Republic of South Africa where March comes in like a lion and goes out like a different lion. Like one has a mane, and one doesn’t have a mane. Or in certain parts of South America where March swims in like a sea otter, and then it slithers out like a giant anaconda.

There you can buy land real cheap, you know. And there’s a country where March hops in like a kangaroo, and stays a kangaroo for a while, and then it becomes a slightly smaller kangaroo. Then, then, then for a couple of days it’s sort of a cross between a, a frilled lizard and a common house cat.

(Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him)

Wait wait wait wait. Then it changes back into a smaller kangaroo, and then it goes out like a, like a wild dingo. Now, now, and it’s not Australia! Now, now, you’d think it would be Australia, but it’s not!

(Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him)

Now look, pal! I know a country where March comes in like an emu and goes out like a tapir. And they don’t even know what it means! All right? Now listen, there are nine different countries, where March comes in like a frog, and goes out like a golden retriever. But that- that’s not the weird part! No, no, the weird part is, is the frog. The frog- The weird part is-

(has seizure and falls off chair)

As a final comment, and coming full circle, I have to confess to lifting some of those ideas for a brief scene in Jigsaw Jones Super Special #1: The Case of the Buried Treasure (maybe my favorite out of all the Jigsaw books, and amazingly still in print). I don’t think I consciously made that connection to Belushi and SNL, but in hindsight I can see that my roots were showing.

Setup: Jigsaw and Mila are at the bus stop, talking with Joey Pignattano. Note to teachers: the book focuses a bit on similes — it’s a minor theme running through the story — and you may find that instructive/helpful.

“I was wondering,” Joey Pignattano said to me. “What kind of animal do you think January would be?”

“What?!” I replied.

“I mean, if January were an animal, what kind of animal would it be?” Joey pondered.

“Do you understand what he’s talking about, Mila?” I asked. “Because I sure don’t.”

Mila smiled. At least I think she smiled. There was a big, fluffly scarf wrapped around her head like a hungry boa constrictor. “Maybe Joey is trying to think of a simile,” she offered.

Joey nodded gratefully. “You know how they say March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb? Well, I’m thinking that January would be an aardvark.”

I sighed. “Let me get this straight. March comes in like a lion. So you think January comes in like . . . an aardvark?”

“Yes,” Joey answered. “Or do you think maybe it’s more like an American bald eagle?”

“A woolly mammoth,” Mila stated.

I turned to her in surprise. “Nuh-uh,” I retorted. “January is definitely a skunk. This weather stinks.”