Illustration by Jamie Smith from Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter. This is one of my favorite illustrations from the entire series for reasons explained below. Jamie gave me the original artwork — for free, here, take it — and now I hang it on my office wall, and it always makes me think of my brother. Every day.
In what I hope will be a recurring feature on an irregular schedule, I thought I’d try to convey some of the background to each of my Jigsaw Jones titles.
And in no particular order.
The Case of the Ghostwriter has a lot of cool little things in it that most readers might miss.
I dedicated this book to Frank Hodge, a near-celebrity local bookseller on Lark Street in Albany, who is known and beloved by many area teachers and librarians. He’s one of Albany’s living treasures. When I moved to the area from Brooklyn, in 1990, Frank’s store, Hodge-Podge Books, was right around the corner. Of course, I stopped in and we became friends. I actually put Frank in this story: a guy named Frank owns a store called Hedgehog Books. I even included his cat, Crisis. Jigsaw and Mila visit Frank’s store in the hopes of tracking down a mysterious author.
Chapter Eight begins:
Hedgehog Books was a cozy little store. Our parents had been taking Mila and me since we were little. My mom said that Frank’s favorite thing was to bring books and kids together.
In the story, there’s a series of popular books — The Creep Show series — loosely modeled on R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps.” Mila has been eating them up, reading titles such as Green Wet Slime and Teenage Zombie from Mars. The author’s name on the cover, a pen name, is R.V. King. (Ho-ho.) There’s a rumor that he’s coming to visit room 201 for the “Author’s Tea.” Who can the Mystery Author be? I bet you can guess.
For me, the part I’m proudest of in this book is Chapter Seven, “My Middle Name,” a tribute to my oldest brother, Neal, who passed away in 1993, a few months after my first son, Nicholas, was born.
Ms. Gleason has the students reading family stories in class, Abuela by Arthur Dorros and The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Pollaco. The students, including Jigsaw and Mila, are asked to write their own family stories.
To research his family stories, Jigsaw interrupts his parents while they are playing chess. “Now’s not a good time,” his father replies. “I’m trying to destroy your dear mother.” (I always liked that line.)
At bed that night, Jigsaw and his father have a heart to heart. Mr. Jones tells Jigsaw about his middle name, Andrew, who was Jigsaw’s uncle. Now this part is totally true, because my son’s middle name is Neal, after his uncle.
“And he died,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Andrew died.” I heard the air leave my father’s lips. The sound of a deep sigh.
I put my head on his shoulder. “Why did you name me after him?”
They talk some more:
That’s when I noticed it. The water in his eyes. A single tear, then another, slid down his cheek. My father was crying. I’d never seen him cry before. It made me nervous.
“Don’t be sad, Dad.” I hugged him with both arms, tight.
He wiped the tears away with the back of his sleeve.
He sniffed hard and smiled.
“I’m not sad, Jigsaw,” he said. “It’s just that I remember little things that happened. Little things Andrew said or did. And I’ll always miss him.”
“Can you tell me?” I asked. “About the little things?”
My father checked his watch. “Not tonight, son. It’s late already. But I will tomorrow, promise.”
“Good night, Dad,” I said. “I’m sorry you’re sad.”
“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “That’s life, I guess. Sometimes we lose the good ones. Good night, Theodore Andrew Jones. Sleep tight.”
Then he shut the door.
I’d never attempt to read that chapter aloud to a group. I can never read it without remembering, without crying. I guess in that scene, I’m Jigsaw’s dad — and my son, Nicholas Neal Preller, stands in for Jigsaw, trying to learn about an uncle, my brother, whom he never had the chance to meet.
Readers can connect with Milo, by Alan Silberberg, in very different ways. I suppose that’s true of any book, we all bring our disparate selves to the text, but it seems especially true for Milo, a story for middle grade readers that embraces broad goofy humor on one end, and authentic, emotional grief on the other. Actually, that’s not true. Those qualities aren’t on separate ends, but are intermingled throughout. It’s a book where a boy can sneeze on someone’s neck in class, then return home to a house of fog and loss, where no one has quite figured out how to move forward after a death in the family. For me as a reader, it wasn’t the humor that hooked me. It was the humor combined with real emotional depth.
That rare thing in children’s books: a boy in full.
After I read Milo, I wanted to meet Alan because I sensed that he and I shared things in common. So I contacted Alan through his website and requested an interview. There was much I wanted to discuss, and our conversation flowed so naturally, that our Q & A went on slightly longer than The Reagan Years. I decided to break it up into two parts. I’m indebted to Alan for his time and patience and for the care he took in answering my questions.
(Whew. I’m relieved he’s not a Yankees fan.)
Alan! Hey, thanks for stopping by all the way from Montreal. Which is still in Canada, right? Could you please leave the soggy Uggs by the front door? Yeah, the moose, too. That’d be swell.
It’s true, Montreal is still in Canada. But you know, I’m from Boston (Go Red Sox!) so my heart — and shoveling technique — is from New England.
I gather that you didn’t initially set out to tackle this huge, daunting topic –- the death of a parent.
You are so right! When I started writing this book my goal was to write a pretty silly book that would include my cartoon illustrations. What started as a goofy look at a 7th grade kid starting a new school turned into something much deeper once I realized I had my own story to tell.
I know that this book grows out of your own personal experiences. Could you give us a little background on that?
My mom died of brain cancer when I was nine years old. It happened really fast too. It was a terrible time in my life and I guess I have always identified with that lost boy whose mother suddenly went away. In my family “death” never really got discussed so after she died we all just did our best to pretend we were okay, which on one level was comforting because I didn’t have to really deal with the grief and loss. With my sense of humor intact, I moved on from that life-altering event — but always dragging along a sad piece of me like a shadow.
“A sad piece of me like a shadow,” that’s nice. I just finished a young adult novel that grapples with some of the same feelings, where things unsaid are more important than what’s spoken. But I don’t suppose you’d let me steal that “sad piece of me” line, would you?
Be my guest. Just buy me an iced espresso some time. And a cookie. Chocolate chip is always nice.
At one point in the book, Milo says, “I miss a dinner table that doesn’t feel lopsided,” and I completely understood that line. I mean, you got me right there. My oldest brother, Neal, died of AIDS back in ’93. And after that, I often said that our family became like a ship that listed to the side. The ballast was off, you know. We never sat in the water quite right after that.
I think that’s what loss does to a family — even the most messed up families are a balanced whole. And the loss of someone we love just throws that balance totally off. And I think it doesn’t matter at what age we lose someone — that loss sets us adrift. I like your boat metaphor.
You attempt to do something that’s not at all easy –- balancing some traditional, goofy boy humor with a sensitive, heartfelt story about deep, deep loss.
Once I knew that the silly story I started out to write was drawing deeper from my life I made the decision to stay true to who I was back then. Life was suddenly sad — but I was still a funny kid. I think it’s important to have a balance in a story like this because life isn’t all one thing or another and a story about loss can also be a funny story. Of course the cartoons help to give the book a lighter tone, but to be honest, some of the cartoons are quite poignant and a bit sad too.
I have to say, I’m often frustrated when I encounter these limited notions about “what boys like” and, consequently, “what boys are and can be.” So we see books with the goofball stuff –- with varying levels of originality — but not very much in the way of emotion. Because I guess there’s this idea that boys don’t “do” feelings. And perhaps they don’t, I don’t know. But at the same time: it’s real, it’s true, this stuff happens to actual boys. As I’ve said before, it can’t all be farts and firetrucks.
I know what you mean. I hear it all the time that a book is a “girl” book or a “boy” book and sometimes I think that’s just marketing. Whether boys, or girls for that matter, will be drawn to Milo is out of my hands. I have gotten wonderful feedback from kids who have loved the book and have had the experience of knowing first-hand that the book has helped kids dealing with loss. At the other end of the spectrum — I know kids who have read the book because they love the cartoons and think the story is “real” but still made them laugh . . . and made them think. At the end of the day I want Milo to find its way into the hands of kids who like a good story and especially those kids who are ready for the real emotions that I wrote about.
Tell me a little bit about the father. He’s suffering, too, but because we see him from Milo’s point of view, we just get this sense that dad is basically out of it. For Milo, he has to find help elsewhere –- because dad’s not emotionally available.
Milo’s whole family has suffered a loss and though the story is told from Milo’s point of view he experiences his dad as being kind of absent. There’s one cartoon I did where Milo says that he misses his dad almost as much as he misses his mom, because his dad is having a hard time too. I think that’s what can happen when one parent dies. The child can lose two parents.
There are a few helpful adults in Milo’s world, and I think you handle them realistically. They don’t swoop in and save the day. In fact, well, nobody does. Nobody can. But they do help.
I guess it would have been too easy to have some adult be able to make everything “okay” for Milo. But that just isn’t realistic. What I did want to explore though is how Milo learns how to grieve his mom’s death with the help of his older neighbor. She doesn’t make everything right for him but she is the one who opens a door that leads him to say the goodbye he never said. It was a healing part of the book to write for me because I got to be Milo and say the goodbye I never said too. And that all happened through Milo’s relationship with the neighbor character, who was based on one of the moms in my neighborhood who took me in after my mom died.
That must have been a remarkable moment when you were able to hand her the finished book.
It was actually bittersweet because the real Sylvia passed away just after the book came out. I had told her months earlier how she had inspired a character in my new book and she was very happy about that. I was told by her family that they were able to read some of the book to her before she passed and that she was very touched by it.
I’m glad you were able to honor her with that gift of recognition after all these long years. I also really liked Milo’s friendship with Marshall. They are just boys, you know, going to the store, spending their money on junk food, sitting down on the curb, goofing around like a pair of glorious idiots.
And yet at the same time, Marshall is clearly not a total clod. I’m not sure what I’m saying, exactly, other than I think your book respects the complexity of boys –- and as an ex-kid myself, and a father of two boys, I really appreciate that.
Thanks. I really liked creating the relationship between Milo and Marshall. It just felt right that these two would know each other and get along so well. Marshall is a bit left of center, but I was hopefully not writing a geeky character, just someone who lives life in his own unique way. Milo is more of an internal guy and Marshall is an extrovert — so the combo really works. Thinking back to the friendships I had back at that age and being the father of a son who just lived it also helped me channel their relationship.
Alan, let’s pick up this conversation on Wednesday. I assume you can stay over, right? You can sleep on the cot. In the closet. With the Uggs.
And the moose.
PLEASE COME BACK LATER THIS WEEK FOR THE THRILLING, DEATH-DEFYING CONCLUSION OF THE ALAN SILBERBERG INTERVIEW.
CLICK HERE AND BE MAGICALLY TRANSPORTED TO PART 2.
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:
Click below for other posts in this series. Some day I’ll get around to every book:
I’ve been a huge music fan all my life. As the youngest of seven children, born in 1961, I grew up with an amazing record collection right in my living room, combining the tastes of four older brothers and two older sisters. I still listen to music all the time. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been obsessed with Bob Dylan over the past couple of years. My oldest brother, Neal, was a big fan; I always liked and respected Dylan; but now I am fascinated, reading book after book, listening to the songs over and over again.
In April of 2007, I finally went fully digital with my work computer/iPod setup. The weird thing about an iPod is it keeps track of your listening history. I have precisely 26,198 songs on my iTunes library and I know for a fact that I listened to “Tell Me Why” by Neil Young exactly ten times over the past year, but somehow I’ve heard “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones only once.
Here’s a list of the Top 20 Most Played Songs on the iPod. Not my favorites, not the coolest list I could ever come up with, just what I listened to the most these past fourteen months:
1. Positively 4th Street/Bob Dyan. The greatest kiss-off song ever written, supposedly in response to being jeered at Newport after he went electric. His goodbye to the folk community. “You got a lotta nerve/To say you are my friend . . .”
2. Romulus/Sufjan Stevens.
3. Little Martha/The Allman Brothers Band
4. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues/Bob Dylan. If you haven’t heard Nina Simone’s version of this, well, what have you been doing?
5. Lion’s Mane/Iron & Wine. Love this guy, very quiet, almost gothic singer/songwriter.
6. You Still Believe in Me/M. Ward. A pretty, quiet guitar song.
7. For No One/Rickie Lee Jones. Great Beatles cover.
8. Subterranean Homesick Blues/Bob Dylan. I shared a bedroom wall with my oldest brother, Neal, each on opposite sides. This song bled through that wall, night after night, when I was what? five, six, seven years old? I guess it made an impression. Neal passed away in 1993 and my family has felt off-balance ever since, a ship listing to one side. I still can’t listen to Dylan or the Stones or the Talking Heads without thinking of Neal — and that’s a good thing.
9. She Belongs to Me/Bob Dylan
10. Workingman’s Blues/Bob Dylan
11. Tell Me That It Isn’t True/Bob Dylan. His voice kills me on this track, off the “Nashville Skyline” disc.
12. Well-Tempered Clavier/M. Ward
13. King of Carrot Flowers Part 1/Neutral Milk Hotel
14. Changing of the Guards/Patti Smith. A cool cover of a Dylan tune; she nails it.
15. Film/The Bad Plus.A hipster jazz trio covers an electronica song by the Aphex Twin — and it is sublime.
16. To Be Alone with You/Bob Dylan
17. Girls in Their Summer Clothes/Bruce Springsteen. I love that this track doesn’t sound like standard Bruce; I like to see him stretch to learn new tricks.
18. I Lost the Tooth I Lost/Justin Roberts. Along with Ralph’s World and Dan Zanes, Justin Roberts is among my favorite children’s musicians. My Maggie loves this song.