Tag Archive for R.W. Alley

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #256: Favorite Characters

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Here’s one from Jake in Iowa . . .
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     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!

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

 

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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

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Jigsaw Jones is back! Highly recommended.”

As far as I’m aware — and I think I’ve been paying attention — no book from my Jigsaw Jones series has ever been reviewed. Until now. With the 41st title in the series.
Up in the treehouse with Danika, Mila, Jigsaw, and Joey. Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Up in the treehouse with Danika, Mila, Jigsaw, and Joey. Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

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Thank you, School Library Journal and Gina Petrie, for recognizing the happy news surrounding the revival of this popular series (more than 10 million books sold, and counting). 
 
But most of all, my heartfelt thanks goes out to classroom teachers for keeping these books alive in the minds of young readers. I still receive a steady flow of fan mail, and I know that it’s because of teachers and librarians who have kept this series on the shelves and in the bins: tattered, mangled, well-used. Don’t despair. Eight “classic” titles will be reissued this year by Macmillan, revised and updated and available in paperback (cheap!), plus the brand new one, The Case from Outer Space. It’s out of this world.
 
But don’t take my word for it . . . read the official review from SLJ!
 
 
THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE
Jigsaw Jones Series

Author: James Preller 

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Pages: 96
Price (Hardcover): $15.99
Publication Date: August 2017
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250110183

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Jigsaw Jones is back! Preller’s puzzle-solving second grader returns for his first mystery in 10 years, coinciding with the republication of four original “Jigsaw Jones” mysteries. Fans of the 32-book series will be happy to once more see Jigsaw, fellow detective Mila Yeh, teacher Mrs. Gleason, and other familiar friends. Here, classmates Joey and Danika find a mysterious note in a book they borrowed from a neighbor’s Little Free Library. They are convinced it means that aliens are coming. Jigsaw and his friends spend afternoons investigating the mystery, while during the school day, they learn about the solar system. Then they catch the bus home, where they are involved in stakeouts, neighborhood canvasses, and code-breaking. As usual, Preller brings the threads together in the end. He references other real-world titles (Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s “Nate the Great”; David A. Kelly’s “Ballpark Mysteries”; Richard and Florence Atwater’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins), includes a secret code (a “Substitution Code” this time), and incorporates deductive reasoning, allusions, and similes. Jigsaw has the same droll sense of humor longtime fans will remember (“As a cook, I’m pretty good with a toaster.”). VERDICT Those who enjoy Preller’s works for younger readers will welcome the return of Jigsaw Jones. Highly recommended, especially for devotees of series such as David A. Adler’s “Cam Jansen,” Ron Roy’s “A to Z Mysteries” and “Calendar Mysteries,” and, of course, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s “Nate the Great.”–Gina Petrie, Catawba College Library, NC