Tag Archive for R.W. Alley

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #262: A Remarkable Letter from Istanbul

postalletter-150x150

 

Such an impressive letter from a young reader in Istanbul . . . 

 

Dear Mr. James Preller,

Hello, my name is Damla. I am a 9 years old 5th grade student from İstanbul Hisar School. I read your book named “ The case from outer space”. Your book was very fun and interesting and I want to share my thoughts with you in this letter.

istanbul_600x225

First of all the Jigsaw Jones character was my favorite because he has good friends, he is smart and fun. Also he likes adventures and that’s why he is curious.

I chose to first read this book from the series because I am interested in getting to know more about space!

I was very curious about what would happen and what all those codes meant. So I kept reading and reading.

Finally finding out that it wasn’t an alien but a lady astrounot coming to school was a great surprise to me.

If I could be one of the kids I wish I was Jigsaw because you created this character with great curiosity, courage and power to finish whatever he starts.

Thank you for creating such a story and writing it so nicely so that I could read.

Best Regards,
Damla

I replied . . .

Dear Damla,

That was a gorgeous letter, Damla, so kind and thoughtfully crafted. Thank you very much for that.

And all the way from Istanbul, too!

You are right about Jigsaw. It’s not that he’s the smartest guy in the room. But he’s got spirit and integrity and he never gives up. Fortunately, as you noted, Jigsaw has good friends, especially Mila. She helps him a lot.

OUTER SPACE_70 (1)

Yes, I really like outer space too. It’s something that fascinates me. The great unknown. One of the ideas the book asks is if there’s life in outer space. Okay, perhaps not little green men from Mars. Or, um, definitely not men from Mars. But why not from some other distant planet? Perhaps a planet we don’t even know about yet!

When I researched for the book, I read about scientists who have made it their life’s work to listen for messages from deep space. They keep sending out signals, working to improve their equipment, hoping that someday, somehow, we people of earth will receive an answer. That’s why I ended the book the way I did, with the notion that maybe our current phones just aren’t good enough yet.

Like those cell phone commercials: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?”

I particularly like that final chapter when Jigsaw, Grams, and his father walk out into an open field to stare up at the night sky. Haven’t we all done this?

OUTER SPACE_84 (1)

“Oh hush, you two,” Grams said. “Just look at the stars.”

And so we did.

We stood in an open field.

In the dark of night.

And gazed at the stars.

In perfect silence.

“That’s the real mystery, Jigsaw,” my father said. “Are we alone in the universe? We don’t know yet. It’s a mystery that can’t be solved –- even by the best detectives.”

“Not yet,” I said, gazing at the night sky. “Not yet.”

Not terrible, right? Don’t you love that illustration by R.W. Alley? His real name is Bob. I love those brief, quiet, family moments in these books. I try to tug at the reader’s heart a little bit if I can. 

Thank you for that truly exceptional letter, Damla. Here in the United States, a 5th grade student is usually 11 years old. Our 9-year-olds tend to be in our version of 3rd grade. It’s just one of the little cultural differences between us.

You know what? Boy, I’d love to see photo of you and your school. Your teacher. Your friends. Your dog. Whatever you want. You don’t have to send me anything — no pressure — I’m just happy to have a reader so far away. I’d love to see your face.

When you get a tiny bit older, and a more accomplished reader, you might like my new books The Courage Test and my brand-new one, Better Off Undead. I’d love to think of you with one of those books in your hands (and my words in your head).

Until then, I’d like to imagine that you and I will both step outside on the same warm night, to look up in silence at the same twinkling stars and distant planets, full of wonder and happiness.

Your friend, truly, 

James Preller

Making Connections (and Friends) with a Little Free Library!

static1.squarespace

Here’s a quick story:

It was love at first sight. I first heard about Little Free Libraries five or six years ago. There are so many things to like: the community building, the celebration of literacy, the connectivity, and the creativity & craftsmanship of the objects themselves.

When I started writing a new Jigsaw Jones book — my first in ten years, my 41st overall — I knew I wanted to celebrate this small but powerful idea. Take a book, leave a book. So I centered the mystery in The Case from Outer Space around a note left inside a book found in a Little Free Library.

This one of the illustrations from my book, drawn by R.W. Alley:

IMG_3170

I had to create the character who put up this particular Little Free Library. What should he or she be like? Well, wonderful, right? Giving, kind, literate, fun-loving, happy. I decided to model this character — a key witness in our story — after my friend, author Robin Pulver. (She writes the “Language Arts Library” series and the classic “Mrs. Toggle” books, which were also illustrated by R.W. Alley, so there was a nice symmetry to it: you can learn more about Robin here.)

urlI didn’t ask Robin’s permission, I decided to surprise her. Fingers crossed, sensing she’d get a kick out of it.

I enjoyed writing that scene when my imaginary detective, Jigsaw Jones, interviews the fictional “Mrs. Pulver.” It was very meta. Here’s the essence of it, from Chapter 4:

I did push-ups on the Pulvers’ doorbell. A smiling woman with short hair answered the door.

I told her that I was a detective.

“How thrilling,” she said.

“I am working on a case,” I explained. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

I showed her my card:

NEED A MYSTERY SOLVED?

Call Jigsaw Jones or Mila Yeh, Private Eyes!

Mrs. Pulver whistled. “Wowee zowee.”

“It’s a living,” I said.

She told me about the library. She said that she read about Little Free Libraries on the Internet. “I thought it was a wonderful idea,” she said. “So I asked Harold to build one.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Harold?”

“My husband,” she replied. “He’s retired. I like to give him little jobs.”

I asked, “Have you noticed anything . . . strange?”

“Oh, Harold has been strange for years,” she said, laughing.

“No, I mean about the library,” I said.

She clasped her hands. “Lots of folks come and go. Friends, neighbors, even people I’ve never seen before. It’s lovely, actually. The books connect us.”

Here’s a sadly dark photo of Robin and me from last week’s Rochester Children’s Book Festival.

IMG_3165

But wait, I have to tell you about one more cool connection.

Yesterday I received this beautiful book in the mail. A gift from the author herself. A stranger to me, but now a friend.

PAR52_Books_Cover_LittleFreeLibrary_web2

 

Margret Aldrich had discovered the Little Free Library reference in my book and was moved to send along a copy.

Once again I ask myself, How lucky am I?

Books really do connect us.

Margret included a kind inscription:

IMG_3168

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #256: Favorite Characters

postalletter-150x150
 
Here’s one from Jake in Iowa . . .
 –

     dear mr. Preller,

my favrite charecter is bigs malony. And if your wondring i read your book The case of christmas snowman. Also your books are relley good i have read some of your other books. what is it like to be a author? how much time does it take to write chapter books? Because you are good at it. Right now my favorite book out of all yours right now is the case of christmas snowman. How much books have you written?
 
Jake 
2nd Grader 

Cedar Rapids, Iowa 

I replied:

     Dear Jake,

I love writing about Bigs Maloney. Every class seems to have that one boy who is the biggest and toughest. That’s Bigs. He might seem scary on the outside, but deep down he’s a really sweet boy. He’s one of my favorite characters in Ms. Gleason’s classroom. I think Joey Pignattano is the funniest. He’ll eat anything!
A favorite moment from the series, when Jigsaw goes toe-to-toe with Bigs Maloney. Illustration drawn by R.W. Alley.

A favorite moment from the series, when Jigsaw goes toe-to-toe with Bigs Maloney. Illustration drawn by R.W. Alley.

I love being an author, especially when I receive kind letters like yours. I can write a Jigsaw Jones book in two months. It takes a while to figure out the mystery — to really think about it: the crime, the suspects, the solution — and then I can start writing. Good writing often begins with good thinking.
 
My brand-new Jigsaw Jones book is titled The Case from Outer Space and I am super proud of it. The books in the series had been hard to find the past few years, but now I’m a very happy to say that a bunch of them are back in stores and on Amazon. There will be 9 out in all by November. Unfortunately, The Case of the Christmas Snowman is still out of print. Good thing you have a terrific teacher who has an old copy. Give her a big hug for me.
Thanks for reading my books. Keep it up!
 –
My best,
 
James Preller

Notes on Revising Jigsaw Jones, Confronting Sexism, and a Changing World

This piece was originally posted with the help of my friend Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer) at the Nerdy Book Club, a great site for teachers and librarians and book lovers of all sizes and shapes and backgrounds. On school visits, I’m often asked about revision. Actually, teachers often ask — the kids, not so much. Which pretty much underscores the issue. Revision is essential to all good writing, but most young writers just want to be done. They want to type those two glorious words, THE END. Maybe my little essay below will help pull the curtain back in an interesting way into one writer’s experience with revising books . . . that were already finished. It never ends, it never, ever ends.

 

Writers are not often given the opportunity to revise our work post-publication. We labor like the dickens throughout the writing process -– drafting, daydreaming, dithering -– until those last desperate hours of corrections. Then we let the book go scampering off into the wild. Not perfect, not ever perfect, but the best we could do at the time.

In the case of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, I’ve enjoyed a unique experience. The books had gone out of print with my original publisher. And then, to my great delight, the good folks at Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan) decided to bring the books back into print. The plan was to launch with a brand-new title, The Case from Outer Space, but also to bring back eight previously published titles that had been unavailable.

I was given the rare chance to go back and fix things. Update, revise, tweak, correct. It’s been an instructive experience. I’ll begin with a specific example. Early in The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur, Jigsaw is having a catch with Mila. The book read:

 

I threw the baseball in a high, long arc to Mila. She drifted back and caught it easily. Mila is a pretty good ballplayer. She is also my partner. We’re detectives.

 

One word troubled me. Pretty. Mila was a pretty good ballplayer. There was something condescending there, a hint of sexism. It doesn’t read “for a girl,” but it’s implied. So, working closely with assistant editor, Anna Poon, we decided to simply strike that word. Now it reads: Mila is a good ballplayer.

There, much better. Plain and simple, a stated fact. For the most part, that’s been the kind of revision I’ve done. Sure, the world has changed; there were issues with phones in several places. But overall I was relieved to see that the sentences didn’t bother me. I wasn’t constantly pulling out my hair, ashamed at sloppy constructions. I didn’t feel a need to rewrite the books in a major way.

I’d learned while writing the series to (mostly) avoid specific cultural references. But even so, I slipped up. So I needed to strike references to Britney Spears’ bellybutton (shaking head, even now), Blue’s Clues, baseball slugger Mike Piazza, and Barney the (annoying) Dinosaur. It would be more relatable for young readers if I shifted to generic descriptions, i.e., the hit song on the radio.

Wait: Do radios still exist? Do stereos? Better to have the music blast from the speakers and leave it at that.

The world keeps shifting, and it was fascinating to see that change through the perspective of books that were written only 10-15 years ago. In The Case of the Bicycle Bandit, Jigsaw makes “photocopies” of a flyer. “Camcorders whirred” in The Case of the Mummy Mystery. But not anymore, folks.

I didn’t find much in the way of terrible, shameful mistakes. Some issues crept into a book here and there. Nothing horrible –- and even defensible from the perspective that the book’s narrator, Jigsaw Jones, might himself be a little imperfect. He’s just a boy after all. I didn’t want to sterilize the books, but here was my chance to revisit these stories and think them through one more time.

There was a star athlete in The Case of the Smelly Sneaker (formerly titledThe Case of the Sneaker Sneak, a title I loathed and was eager to change), Lydia Zuckerman. Something a little off slipped into my descriptions of Lydia. Her nickname, for example, was “The Brown Street Bruiser.”

At one point, Jigsaw made this regrettable observation: “She’s not a girl. She’s a . . . a . . . terrorist in tights.”

Um, not cool, not now, and not really what I meant to say. Also there was this description:

 

Lydia Zuckerman was in fifth grade, but she already looked like an NFL linebacker. Lydia was tough – a stomping, sneering, snarling mass of muscles.

 

On another page, Lydia is described as “big and mean.”

Okay, I get it. I was trying to be lightly humorous. I played up the fear that Jigsaw and the other boys might have for a strong, powerful, imposing girl. But in retrospect I feel like I missed an opportunity to say something deeper, more meaningful. After all, I am the father of a 16-year-old daughter, Maggie, who is a strong, tall, dedicated athlete. I didn’t want to reduce Lydia to a cartoon. So instead of “big and mean,” Jigsaw now describes her as “tall and talented.” And Lydia is now known as “The Brown Street Superstar.”

Nuance, mostly.

I feel better about it, glad that I had a chance to revise these eight books and share them again with a new generation of readers. And what is revision if not the chance to step back, to see again? And maybe, here and there, in small ways, to go back and try to make it better.

 

James Preller is the author of the acclaimed novels Six Innings, Bystander, The Fall, and The Courage Test and the Scary Tales series, all published by Feiwel and Friends. He has also written several picture books, but is perhaps best known for the Jigsaw Jones series. He travels to classrooms around the country and maintains a blog about writing and literacy. He lives in Delmar, New York, with his family.

Fan Mail Wednesday #253: From Selasie, a Writer in Texas!

postalletter-150x150

 

This one comes from a young author in Beaumont, Texas . . .

 

Scan

I replied:

Dear Selasie,

Thank you for your letter and your kind comments about my Jigsaw Jones books.

I am impressed that you belong to a writing club at such a young age. When I was going into 3rd grade, my big life ambition was to see how many marshmallows I could cram into my mouth. I didn’t even begin to form the faintest dream of becoming an author until high school. But I did write, and really that’s where we all begin. With pen in hand, staring at that blank page.

So you are way ahead of me.

Sure, yes, please send along a manuscript. I’d love to read it. That said, please know that my belief is that the best thing you can do at this point is to write and read –- often, and widely –- rather than focus on publication. Enjoy yourself, follow your enthusiasms, have fun with it

Joey and Danika visit Jigsaw's house in THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. This wonderful illustration is by R.W. Alley.

Joey and Danika visit Jigsaw’s house in THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. This wonderful illustration is by R.W. Alley.

There is a new Jigsaw Jones book coming out this August 8th, The Case from Outer Space, along with four other titles. By November, there will be 8 “classroom classics” available for the first time in years –- previously published, newly revised and updated, all from Macmillan. Ask for them at your local bookstore.

I’m always glad to hear from my friends in Texas. I’ve wanted to get invited to visit schools in TX for years. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m not giving up hope!

Oh, and thanks for the SASE. I’ll save it for next time you write. I am sending along two posters, one for you and one for the kind teacher who hosts your writing club.

Keep writing. You inspire me!

James Preller