Tag Archive for Wantagh

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the 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.”

For fun, here’s a clip of Victoria Jealouse (and others) in action:

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Click below for other posts in this series. Some day I’ll get around to every book:

Jigsaw Jones #7: The Case of the Runaway Dog

Jigsaw Jones #15: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow

Jigsaw Jones #16: The Case of the Sneaker Sneak

Jigsaw Jones #28: The Case of the Food Fight

Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Sneaker Sneak

When I speak to students, I remind them that I’m an ex-kid myself. It’s not as obvious as it used to be. I was a boy who loved boy things, with no burning interest in books or writing. I make that point only because it’s true.

When I was a kid, some of my friends began a tradition that we came to refer to as, “The Turkey Bowl,” where we played a loose, informal game of tackle football on Thanksgiving morning. And there I see it on the first page of my 3/1/01 manuscript: The Case of the Turkey Bowl, a title that would not last.

I played so much tackle football as a kid. Usually at Beech Street School in Wantagh, Long Island, with boys named Pat Sweeney and Jimmy Bradshaw, Michael Rose and Gary Francke, and whoever else was around that day. Nowadays I’m involved in youth sports from the adult perspective. And I make the same sour observation: “Kids these days, they don’t know how to play unless there’s five grown-ups standing around looking bored.”

It’s something that we’ve lost over the years — dis-organized ball — and I think it was something important. Kids today don’t have the freedom, or possibly the wherewithal, to play self-regulated sports. It just doesn’t seem to happen much. And maybe that explains to a degree why I like living in upstate New York. It feels about 30 years behind the times, in a good way.

The first chapter of this book is based on my memory of those days, those great games we used to play. I remembered one of my greatest triumphs: the day I tackled Michael Lenninger. He was an older kid, bigger, stronger, but somehow he joined our game. Every neighborhood had a Michael Lenninger, and on this day the guy was killing us, a punishing runner who left would-be tacklers scattered like bowling pins. Well, during that game I became determined to take down Michael Lenninger. I knew it would hurt. But the next  time he charged up the middle, I held my ground, wrapped my arms around his churning legs, and dragged that big bull to the turf. I remember that moment vividly, across almost 40 years, even though it was a big deal to exactly no one else. Why? Because it mattered to me, it was important. I showed courage and resolution on the proving grounds of Beech Street School; I proved something to myself.

In the book, Jigsaw tackles Bigs Maloney — or at least attempts to:

Bigs pawed the ground, snorted, and charged.

Where was a red cape when I needed one?


Whap, kersplish, oof, splaaaaaatt!

The next thing I knew I was lying flat on my back. Dizzy, I stared at the spinning sky. A few clouds floated past. They were white and fluffy. One even looked like a wittle, itty-bitty bunny wabbit. Off in the distance — far, far away — I heard Bigs Maloney rumble into the end zone. Or maybe it was a herd of rhinos tap-dancing on my skull. I wasn’t sure.

Joey knelt beside me. He poked at me with his finger. “Jigsaw? Are you okay?”

I blinked. At least my eyelids weren’t broken. “Anybody get the license plate of that marching band? I think I was just trampled by a tuba.”


In most of the books in the series, I try to reference a real book — usually one that I admire. So in Chapter Three, we find Jigsaw and his father reading Skinnybones by Barbara Park. I’d probably just read that book with my son, Nick, and we both enjoyed it very much. I once got to interview Barbara Park, in fact, and she was wonderful, alive and warm and funny.

My boys refused to read her Junie B. Jones books, since like many boys they were repulsed by the idea of a female protagonist. For some reason, Maggie never really got hooked, though she read several. As for me, I admired Mick Harte Was Here, and was happy to show a little love for Barbara in this book. Also, I think it’s one of those things that helps make the stories realistic for readers. “Hey, I read that book!” Just another way of connecting their world to Jigsaw’s.


Another writer I’ve always respected is Dick Francis. I recently loaned one of his books to a literary friend, and he sort of sniffed at it, unimpressed, and returned it to me unread. Probably in a hurry to read more Margaret Atwood. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyway, Francis writes mysteries, thrillers, suspense novels set in the world of horse racing. The books aren’t wildly ambitious. He just writes bestsellers that people like to read. A little adventure, a little love interest, a strong main character, an unfolding mystery: voila!

I had a friend in high school whose mother was an avid reader and a huge Dick Francis fan. She turned me onto him. I remember her complaint about many “literary” books by flashy writers: “Too many words, too many words,” she’d sneer. She liked writers who got to the point; who didn’t show off; who told a story and got out of the way. Her tastes would not have gone down well at the Academies of Higher Learning. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but Mrs. Flynn had given me a lesson that would stick with me, and grow inside me, for years to come. The value of restraint.

Back to Dick Francis: One of his things was there’s always a strong nonfiction element to his stories. He’d research a topic and integrate it into the story. So you’d read one of his mysteries and in the process learn about photography, or the brewing process of a single-malt scotch, or horse breeding, or whatever. I loved that about Francis, and have tried to emulate that aspect in my Jigsaw Jones books.

I’m wondering: Is emulate a fancy substitute for steal?

In this book I do a bit about turkeys, the wild compared to the tame, and so on. Just a little content in the book, so maybe somebody learns a little something along the way — and I always do it knowing that I owe the concept to Dick Francis. Now you know it, too. Hopefully, again, it also reflects the lessons that typically go on in real schools, another connection to the reader’s world.


Oh, hey, look at Chapter Six, “The Kid in the Hall.” Here’s a combined reference to my beloved New York Mets and Dav Pilkey. In terms of plot, Jigsaw is looking for a witness, and who better than the biggest troublemaker in school, the kid who is perpetually sent outside to sit in the halls. His name is George Seaver (Tom Seaver’s birth name) . . .

. . . and his teacher is Mrs. Koosman, named after probably my favorite southpaw of all time.

I modeled the character of George Seaver on what I imagined a young Dav Pilkey to be like, a kid making his own comic books in the hall, dreaming up adventures, talented and a little weird. I’m sure that Pilkey talked about this in an interview somewhere. From my book, The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators:

This outrageous behavior did not endear Dav to his teachers. “When I was in second grade, I got in trouble a lot. To punish me, my teacher would send me out into the hallway. Before long, I was spending so much time in the hall that my teacher moved a desk out there for me.”

Dav seized the opportunity by stuffing the desk with art supplies and paper. To keep himself busy, he drew pictures and made up stories. Dav didn’t realize it then, but he was preparing himself for his future career. “I used to staple sheets of paper together and write my own comic books,” he remembers. “I had invented a whole slew of amazing superheroes, including Captain Underpants, who flew around the city in his underwear giving wedgies to all the bad guys.”

Thus inspired, I wrote this scene:

George was drawing a picture and giggling to himself. Without looking up, he said, “Jigsaw, Mila. What’s what?”

“More like who’s who,” I said. “We’re working on a case. We’re wondering if you might have seen anything.”

George finished the picture. It showed a boy flying happily above the clouds. I looked closer. The boy in the picture looked exactly like George. He shoved the page under a stack of papers.

“What are you drawing, George?” Mila inquired.

“Comics,” George replied. “I’m going to publish graphic novels someday.”

“But in the meantime,” I said, “you’ll be happy making Mrs. Koosman bonkers.”

George smiled. “Hey, it’s a living.”


I stole a joke from Woody Allen in Chapter Eight.

Somebody stole Bigs Maloney’s sneakers, forcing a cancellation of the game, and Jigsaw has to confront the prime suspect,  Lydia Zuckerman, the notorious Brown Street Bruiser. But before I get to the joke — and you’ll recognize it when it comes — I have to say that I’m happy with how Jigsaw stands up to Lydia in this scene. And also, how it was foreshadowed in the football game. Jigsaw’s character is consistent, even if his results may vary. The guy has got guts, and we see that in the very first chapter.

Lydia is big and tough, and she’s in the middle of her exercise routine:

“Not now,” Lydia said.

“I’ve only got a few questions,” I offered.

“I’m busy,” Lydia retorted. “Get out.”

Lydia grabbed a towel and ran it across her face. She started on a set of push-ups.

I stood beside her, arms on my hips. “I don’t want trouble,” I said. “But a witness saw you at the scene of a crime. I’m not leaving until you give me answers.”

“What crime?” Lydia grunted.

“Bigs Maloney’s sneakers took a walk,” I told her. “Thing is, Bigs’s feet weren’t in them at the time.”


I turned to leave.

Lydia looked me up and down. “Hey, detective. You ever think about exercising?”

“I tried lifting weights once,” I answered. “But they were too heavy.” [Thanks, Woody!]

Lydia smiled. “You’re funny, Jones.”

“Yeah, a regular laugh riot,” I mumbled.


Thanks for listening! From what I can tell, this book is out-of-print and unavailable in stores. I can’t tell you how that feels.

POSTSCRIPT, 5/3/16: I originally wrote the above about seven years ago. Today I’m happy to announce that “Sneaker Sneak” will be brought back into print in the Spring of 2017. The title may be changed to The Case of the Smelly Sneaker.

James Preller, 2nd Grader

First, please note this blog’s snazzy new “Search” function. With more than 200 posts since May, I figured it was time.

I’ve also added a couple of childhood photos to the, um, “Photos” page. I hope to add a couple more, as time allows.

A lot of kids who read Jigsaw Jones are in second grade. In fact, Jigsaw himself is in second grade — and has been, for eleven years now.

This is what I looked like in second grade on the day of my first communion. That is, washed up, combed, wearing clean socks and, for a time at least, decidedly on the side of angels. This was when I attended St. Frances de Chantel in Wantagh, Long Island, New York. I am quite certain that this was (and will forever remain) the only time in my life that I wore a white clip-on bow tie. One can only hope.

Our Scarecrow Tradition: Photograph, 1973

Some of you among my Nation of Readers may recall this post from October 30th, and the wonderful snaps contained therein, about the time-honored Preller tradition of building a Halloween scarecrow.

Here’s a handy visual reminder of said scarecrow, circa 2008:

Well. Recently my sister’s high school friend, Bruce Donnola (who, amazingly, went on to become !Bruce Donnola!), sent me this classic photo from 1973 — which varifies that I wasn’t lying about the whole scarecrow thing. And if I ever get it scanned, I have another b/w one from what has to be from the ’50s — same scarecrow across six decades. Prellers. Don’t. Change.

A few comments about the photo:

1) That’s my sister Jean, or two-thirds of her, on the left; Bruce in the middle, with his cool long hair; and the lovely and talented Sharon Kosakoff, right.

2) Bruce claims that my mother took this shot. And after careful study, I can only say: looks about right. Pointing was never Mom’s bread-and-butter. In fact, come to think of it, bread-and-butter was Mom’s bread-and-butter. And a can of Campbell’s creamy mushroom soup poured over pan-fried boneless chicken breasts.

3) Behind them, look!, that’s my old house where I used to live! 1720 Adelphi Road, Wantagh, NY. I had the same phone number my entire childhood: 718-785-7379. There’s something really nice about that.

4) Nixon was President at the time of this photo. I remember him well. Believe it or not, Nixon’s dog, Checkers, immortalized in the legendary “Checkers Speech” of 1952, is buried in my hometown, right across from the Wantagh High School. We used to hang out there sometimes, cutting classes, just for the delicious teenage irony of it.

5) I place a key dramatic scene at this exact gravesite in my upcoming novel, Bystander (Fall, 2009). Just for the nostalgic irony of it. True story.

Have a great weekend.


Nooooo, wise guys, I didn’t decide to be some forlorn 70’s kid for Halloween.

That’s my actual life we’re looking at. Don’t I look thrilled? I lived with that lamp, that wallpaper, those wide lapels in Wantagh, Long Island. Analyzing the photo further, you get a hint of the black-and-white cushioned chair against the backdrop of that wallpaper. Just imagine living with that visual collision of patterns . . . all the time. Welcome to my world.

Actually, these photos are the result of more housekeeping. I finally fixed some broken links on my BIO page. Here’s my whole family, all seven of us, from a slightly earlier time: I’m the baby, up front and left-of-center. Which is still true today.

My oldest brother, Neal, went off to Princeton around that time, and came back a long-haired freak! My next oldest, Billy, dropped out of college and was soon drafted into Vietnam. He returned a short-haired freak — but the important thing was that he returned. Times changed pretty fast during The Nixon Era. I always wanted to set a book in that period, 1969-70, my year of small miracles. Not a memoir, but fiction grounded in that time period. When my mother woke me early one morning to watch a grainy television picture of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon; and even more amazing, when I saw the Mets take Game Five of the World Series. Cleon Jones caught that final out, dropped down to one knee, squeezed it tight. And somehow, through that wild season, we had survived.

By the way, this is my 100th post!