I took this photo of my fat cat.
For an author of a series called “Scary Tales,” it impossible not to feel a little inspired.
I took this photo of my fat cat.
For an author of a series called “Scary Tales,” it impossible not to feel a little inspired.
This isn’t the sort of letter I normally share, but boy is it ever relevant to my life lately. This is the time of year when I field many inquiries about my availability for school visits.
For educators who’d like help on that, I’ve posted on the topic many times before . . .
* Quickie overview of a standard visit.
* An author’s perspective, featuring my mantra: Authors don’t do school visits; schools do author visits.
* One Book, One School: Some reflections.
The easiest thing would be to click here on the archive for “school visits” and you’ll find links to all sorts of visits, reflections, complaints, experiences. Read them all and you’ll never want to see me again. It would be like the aversion therapy in “Clockwork Orange.”
Here’s my second oldest brother, Billy with cigarette, on an early 70’s Christmas morning when he received the soundtrack to “A Clockwork Orange.” I remember being a little kid — Billy was ten years older, this was likely 1971, so I was 10 — and listening to him tell me all about that movie in jaw-dropping detail. That’s my sister Barbara, left. (Don’t you just love old family photographs?)
Anyway, just in the next two months, I’m looking at trips to MA, CT, NC, SC, and FLA. And I’m in discussion with educators in MI, NJ, CO, OH. It’s a change from my pre-hardcover life, when most of my visits were local. These far-flung visits require a lot more organization from the schools, because I can’t possibly visit a school for one day in, say, Kentucky. I’d spend more time traveling than working, and that’s a crazy commute.
Here’s a letter that is very kind and somewhat typical.
Hi James –
We’re wondering if you’d be available to visit MI in March 2011. We’ve tentatively chosen Along Came Spider as our One Book, One City for Kids title, but we’d really like to have the author visit us after the kids have finished reading it. I think our kids would really enjoy meeting you!
We purchase a paperback copy of our OBOC for Kids title for every 4th grader in the city, hoping that that will help get the word out about how much fun reading can be. The students start reading in January and then usually have the author visit for a couple days in March, visiting 4 schools. We’re flexible about the dates, and have run the program from March to May instead, but would really like the January – March reading months as our first pick, with you coming here two days in March. Those dates have typically been a Monday/Tuesday. We’ve had good luck with school visits then.
We’re curious about your availability, and of course, we need to ask the questions about fees and travel accommodations before we make final decisions.
Thanks, and we look forward to hearing from you soon!
Sarah,Great to hear from you.–I’ve got to figure out some kind of proactive approach to this recurring “problem” (in quotes!) in my professional life. Because it’s killing me.
So, long story short: Yes, thrilled, I absolutely WANT to visit Grand Rapids. I’d love to do it. The time-frame is still open for me.
However, I live near Albany, NY, so there are travel hurdles to overcome. I haven’t looked into the reservations, but I assume it would not be direct, making the travel pretty time-consuming. A lost day. My basic policy — and believe me, I’m still trying to figure this out — is that I need 3-5 days worth of visits to make the travel worthwhile.
I have to add, I’ve been fielding many requests for Bystander lately, so your interest in Along Came Spider both surprised and delighted me. I love that book, but recognize that it’s fairly quiet and, frankly, hasn’t been a huge seller (though it earned some very nice attention). Have you seen the companion book, Justin Fisher Declares War? Same school, different teacher, but some overlap with students (Trey and Spider make cameos).–
I’m sorry, I really am, because I understand that good people tried their best, but I get depressed every time I look at these covers. What do they communicate about the books? The ex-boy in me thinks, Yuck. Does saying so make me a bad person?
I’ve been meaning to blog about a visit I enjoyed last year, when a school district in PA coordinated their efforts for a full 5-day visit. It was such a rewarding experience, because the librarians knew each other, used parental volunteers, and we even got to go out for a nice dinner and drinks one night. I really think that’s the model on how to do it, when hoping to attract authors who must travel. It requires more planning, but I think the payoff is huge.
Anyway, um, I’d love to hear that you think some other area schools might like to hop on the bandwagon. As you may know, I have titles for grades PreK-8, and am still most popular for my Jigsaw Jones series, so hopefully I might be appealing to other elementary schools.
Please stay in touch. And thank you — thank you, really — for giving this your time and effort.
There’s so many different topics that I’m eager to tackle — bullying, books for boys, slow reading, and many more — but right now I’m just going to show some brag photos.
Note: Did you like that use of the word “brag?” Stole it from Feed by M.T. Anderson. Good book, vibrant, creative, smart, perhaps a little too message-driven (mindless consumerism = bad), and part of my ongoing education in Speculative Fiction, where everything seems possible — and pitfalls abound.
Anyway, some shots:
Maggie, age 9 . . .
Nick, age 17 . . .
Me, age 49, after pitching batting practice on a hot day. Sorry, no photos of the Good Wife this time around — I haven’t yet obtained written permission.
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: