Tag Archive for Bystander

What Is a Smile If Not a Baring of Teeth?

The end of summer? Oh, let’s call it the beginning of autumn.

I’m excited to embrace the daily routine, my kids at school while I quietly hum along downstairs. We break out the sweaters, play soccer and baseball, rake leaves, build fires in the backyard, clean the gutters one last time, throw an extra blanket on the bed.

Blog-wise, I’m eager to get going on a lot of projects. I want to start talking about Bystander in earnest, background stories and such. That begins today, below. Honestly, I have notes for dozens of potential topics. I want to attempt a series of posts on “How to Plot a Mystery,” since so many teachers seem to work on that in the classroom. I’ve found some amazing videos to share, want to talk about books I’ve recently read (The Grapes of Wrath, In Fed We Trust, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, Columbine, Swordfishtrombones, The Hunter, etc.), so many things to discuss!

Anyway, a cyberpage has turned. I’m energized and enthusiastic. I’m finishing a manuscript this week and starting another immediately.

Let’s talk about smiles . . .

I began my work on the book that would become Bystander by hanging out in the local library with a composition notebook. At the top of the first page of that notebook I see that I copied a line from Michael Connelly’s  Echo Park: “What is the bad guy up to?” I was excited. After writing 30-plus Jigsaw Jones mysteries for younger readers, I finally had a bad guy. It wasn’t going to be all benign misunderstandings and well-intentioned foul-ups; here, I had a character with potential for real darkness.

I see that I was reading Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children, by Jonathan Kellerman. A powerful, disturbing book that looks at antisocial youth, from aggressive bullies to cold-hearted killers.

And right there on that first notebook page I started a list of potential “bully” characteristics. I wrote:

Smart, charismatic, charming, popular, superior, tortures animal?, trouble with police?, lights fires, COLD, raised by grandmother?, non-compliant, poor grades, not affected by discipline, causes fear, lucid, psychopathic?, free of angst, free of insecurities, (later, when caught, self-pity), preternaturally CALM.

I was in the first stages of character development — and for me, I’m at my best when character evolves into story, as opposed to plugging character into plot. That is: character first. With my focus exclusively on this “bad guy,” I even came up with a potential book title: Predator.

It became important to me that my main antagonist, Griffin Connelly, was divorced from the bully stereotypes we often see in books and movies. You know, the bully as gross coward, unlikeable lug, dim-witted brute, dirty, ugly, unpopular. It simply wasn’t realistic, and by turning bullies into  one-dimensional characters, we surrendered much of the complexity (and difficulty) of the topic (and story).

A quick plea: There’s a tendency to slot any topical book, such as this, into the bibliotherapy shelf. But Bystander is a story, a page-turner with thriller elements that a biased Jean Feiwel called, “Unputdownable.” It’s not a thesis paper. It’s a good, fast read. I hope boys find it.

Whew. I see that I’m letting this post get away from me, because I’m trying to talk about too much. So I’ll get specific:

I wanted Griffin Connelly to be  a great-looking kid, with charm and verbal dexterity and a great smile. He would be, in every sense of the word, attractive. All the surfaces would shine. The ugliness concealed.

His smile was one of the keys to his character. But what is  a smile if not a baring of teeth? The smile beams beatifically, but also represents a flashing of fangs. A threat. The wolfish grin. There’s menace under the surface.

Griffin Connelly was the kind of person who would smile at you while he stuck a knife in your back. And maybe, for pleasure, gave the blade a twist. The toothy smile was the mask he wore, this master of the mixed message.

Page 7, when Eric first meets Griffin:

The shaggy-haired boy in the lead pulled up right in the middle of the court, halfway between the foul line and the basket. He stayed on his bicycle seat, balanced on one leg, cool as a breeze. The boy looked at Eric. And Eric watched him look.

His hair fell around his eyes and below his ears, wavy and uncombed. He had soft features with thick lips and long eyelashes. The boy appeared to be around Eric’s age, maybe a year older, and looked, well, pretty. It was the word that leaped into Eric’s mind, and for no other reason than because it was true.

Some random examples now . . .

Page 11:

Words came easily to Griffin, his smile was bright and winning.

Page 18:

Griffin flashed a smile, that hundred-dollar smile he could turn on in an instant. He reached out his fist. “Are we cool, buddy

Page 50:

“Mrs. Chavez!” Griffin exclaimed, smiling cheerfully. “Please let me help you with that . . .”

Page 68:

There was no way Eric could tell Griffin Connelly that story. So he told bits and pieces and white lies. Eric wondered if Griffin sensed it, the whole truth, if somehow Griffin already knew, saw into Eric’s secret heart and smiled.

Page 78:

“You want to hang out, don’t you?” Griffin asked. He smiled, put an arm around Hallenback’s shoulder.

Page 130:

Griffin winked at Eric. Then gave that big Hollywood smile, and swept the hair from his eyes.

Page 130:

“What are you going to do? Punch me?” Griffin taunted, grinning.

Page 131:

“I’ll be seeing you around, Eric,” Griffin said. His smile was like a pure beam of distilled sunlight. His long lashes blinked, his cheeks pinkened. He wore a perfect mask of kindness and light.

Page 165:

Griffin smiled wide, folded his hands together, and said in a soft voice, “We’ll see about that.”

Page 186:

Griffin grinned through the insults.

——-

Presented in this way, it may seem a little much. But  in the context of the story, I suspect it’s unnoticed. The accumulated effect, I hope, is creepiness. Here’s a guy you can’t trust. Every threat comes with a smile. White teeth gleaming in the sunlight, fangs bared.

“My Grandma, what big teeth you’ve got?”

Don’t let that smile fool you.

Final Cover: Bystander

I remember how I first dreamed of a book with my name on it.

I’d read about other writers and how they felt. The way William Faulkner exalted on the day when he finally received the finished jpg file in an email from his editor . . . and how he immediately posted that image on Facebook with the status line, “HOW COOL M I?”

Oh, the magic of those times.

I mean to say: Look at this! It’s only been kicking around in slightly-unfinished form since forever, because the art director, Rich Deas, needed to hold onto it for last-minute microscopic tweaks and noodles. And believe me, nobody tweaks and noodles like Rich. I owe that guy about twelve beers and a bowl of tweaks and noodles.

Anyway, I love this cover, I think it establishes the right tone. It’s appropriately dark and graphic and — oh, lord, here comes that word we can’t escape these days — edgy.

But regardless of the cover, I always make the same comment: My name should have been bigger. I’ve read that Faulkner felt the same way.

I’m told that I’ll be holding an advance copy of the book sometime in August, that it will hit stores in late September. You work and work, then wait and wait, worry and fret. I’ve learned that the only solution to this sorry state is to be working on a new book. Which reminds me . . . I’ve got to go!

Fan Mail Wednesday #44-47 (Bonus Friday Edition)

Today we’re all about bullies, and book titles, and bicycles, and the perils of publishing. That’s right — sound the timbrels! slaughter a fatted calf!– I’m banging out a bonus Friday Edition of Fan Mail Wednesday, absolutely free of charge.

Really: It comes with your meal!

Letter #44:

Dear James,

I wrote you an email this past summer telling you how much I enjoyed Along Came Spider. I wanted to tell you that the students liked the book also. I did add Six Innings to our class library as well. Some of the kids wanted to share their reactions with you, so . . .

Omar: I like the book Along Came Spider because it shows the problems that most kids face in school like being bullied and having problems with your friends.

Kyle: I like the book because it shows what happens when kids go to school and how they get bullied, how it is hard to make friends and the peer pressure. I am really disappointed that you are a Mets fan, because I am a Yankee fan.

Christine: I like the character Spider because he is a regular kid in a normal school but he has a “not so normal” friend. I like Trey because he is getting bullied but does stand up for himself.

These were just three that wanted to share. CITI FIELD IS OPEN. HOPE YOU WILL GET TO CATCH A GAME.

Robyn

I replied:

Dear Robyn, Omar, Kyle, and Christine:

Two things first:

1) A letter from Flushing, home of the Mets, yippee!

2) I’m sorry I’ve sat on this letter for so long. I kept getting stuck on that word, “bully,” and wasn’t sure how to answer at first. Not that I’m any more sure today, but I did want to respond in some way.

When I wrote Along Came Spider, I saw it as a book about the classroom community. Something that explored relationships, and our responsibility to one another. I hoped that in the hands of a good teacher, it would also serve as a good conversation starter, a springboard for classroom discussion. Because goodness knows there are no easy answers.

I never saw Along Came Spider as about “bullying,” specifically. I’m still not sure if that’s the right word. I recently wrote a book that’s set in a Middle School on Long Island, Bystander (Sept, 2009), so I’ve done a lot of research on the subject. That is: I’m not an expert, but I’ve learned a few things.

Usually bullying is defined as repeated, chronic behavior. It is something beyond “like and dislike.” I don’t think we can be friends with everyone, nor do I think it’s even advisable; I encourage my own children to avoid certain types of kids. At the same time, I hope they treat everyone with a basic level of courtesy and respect. We need to be tolerant of differences, but never tolerant of cruelty.

Is it Spider’s job to be friends with Trey? No, I don’t think so. But he can show him compassion and kindness. Also, hopefully, his relationship with Trey should not be determined by peer pressure, by what other’s think is “cool” or “uncool.” That’s not easy, either. What’s the difference between “peer shunning” and simply not really wanting to be around somebody?

With Bystander, featuring seventh-grade characters, I speak to  that subject much more directly. Hopefully you’ll find it, read it, and enjoy it.

A couple of other things:

*  Kyle, if you had my mother, you’d probably be a Mets fan, too. I don’t think I had a lot of choice. When I was in 3rd grade, the 1969 Mets won the World Series — and I was at Shea Stadium for the 5th and final game of that series. I remember it vividly.

* Robyn, thanks for your continuing interest and support. I haven’t made it to Citi Field yet, but we’re hoping for a family trip sometime this summer. I am traveling to Pittsburgh with a friend, to catch a couple of Mets games. Every year we make a trip to see the Mets somewhere — Chicago, Washington D.C., Philadelphia —  and it’s always a highlight of our friendship.

Thanks for your patience,

JP

Letter #45:

Dear Mr. Preller,

Our third grade book club just finished reading Jigsaw Jones #9: The Case of the Stinky Science Project.

Our question is, why is the title The Case of the Stinky Science Project?  We think it should be the “The Case of the Stolen Ice Cream Money.”

We love all your other books. We like this one, too.  We also like the details you put in like on page 66 where you wrote: “My finger did push ups on the doorbell.”

Please write back.

from,

Suzanne, Kylie, and Anna

I replied:

Dear SKA (Suzanne, Kylie, and Anna)

or, hold on . . .

Dear ASK (Anna, Suzanne, Kylie):

Great question, though I’d expect nothing less from a loosely-based organization that calls itself “ASK.”

The short answer is that titles are hard. To make them even more difficult, the publishing schedule at Scholastic requires that the cover be produced months before the actual book is written. Oh, I’ll have a pretty good idea of what the book will be about. We’ll brainstorm cover concepts and I’ll offer suggestions for a title. My editor then takes that title to a committee of “title experts” and they pick their favorite. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.

In this example, we probably thought that getting the word “stinky” into the title would instantly guarantee us a place on The New York Times BestsellersList (it did not). The book does have a close connection to the school Science Fair, Ms. Gleason teaches the “Scientific Method” throughout the story, and there is a stinky part involving a rotten egg salad sandwich. Thinking like scientists, Jigsaw and Mila manage to solve the mystery. I mean to say: I don’t think the title is so, so terrible.

But what do I know?

Thanks for pointing out a favorite sentence. I particularly like two parts of this book: 1) When Bobby Solofsky and Bigs Maloney debate who would win a fight between Spider-Man and Yoda; and 2) Everything about the character of little four-year-old Sally-Ann Simms, “a walking hurricane in lavender and pink.” As Jigsaw notes in the book’s opening paragraph:

The pink bows didn’t fool me. I ignored the matching lace socks and the little red plastic pocketbook. I knew that Sally-Ann Simms was one tough cookie.

I modeled Sally-Ann on a girl in our neighborhood at the time. She was a rough-and-tumble kid with plenty of spunk. I enjoyed this early exchange between Jigsaw and Sally-Ann:

I opened my detective journal to a clean page. Using a bright pink marker in honor of Sally-Ann’s lace socks, I wrote: CLIENT: SALLY-ANN SIMMS.

“I’m all ears,” I said.

Sally began, “I was having a tea party with Mr. Bear and Lady Snuggles and . . .”

Lady Snuggles?” I asked.

Sally-Ann fixed me with a stare. “Yeah, Lady Snuggles. My stuffed doll. You got a problem with that?”

I stammered, “No, er, I just . . .”

“You just . . . what?” Sally-Ann asked sharply.

“Never mind,” I said. “What happened next?”

Okay, guys, that’s plenty of answer for you. Thanks for reading my book!

JP

Letter #46:

Dear James

I like your book called the case of the bicycle bandit.  It was good I injoy the part thay said stuff abut Ralphi bike. It was funny because when thay said no body what he old rusty bike.

Signer,

Zanyae

My answer:

Dear Zanyae:

Thanks for writing to me.

Growing up, I was the youngest of seven children. Five boys, two girls. We had a shed filled with old, battered bicycles in various states of disrepair. I remember my older brothers forever messing around in the backyard with them — taking those bikes apart, putting them back together again in new ways — swapping out torn-up seats for newer “banana-shaped” models, fat tires for skinny tires, standard handlebars upgraded to fancier, cooler versions. My brothers Billy and John were car mechanics in training, just a few years away from their first jobs at the Citco gas station in town. And always there was the smell of oil, black oil everywhere. It came in little red-and-white cans. My brothers would drip it onto the rusty spots, the chain and spokes, their hands, pants and shirts permanently blackened with grease.

Good times, good times.

The heart of the book was definitely inspired by those memories. And it’s not an accident that a kind-hearted older brother plays a key role in the mystery.

My best,

JP

Letter #47:

Hello. My daughter Quin so enjoys your Jigsaw Jones mysteries that we have all but completed our collection.  The only book we can’t seem to find is the Super Special #5: The Case of the Four-Leaf Clover. Was it widely published?  Do you know where I might be able to obtain a copy?  I have tried Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble (online and in-store), and our library does not have it either.  Thank you for any information you might be able to provide.   We very much look forward to the new Jigsaw Jones book coming this fall, I believe.  Thank you for writing such a fun series of books.  They have been instrumental in my daughter learning to read on her own this year.  Best regards, Monica

I replied:

Monica:

I’m sorry it’s been so difficult for you to find The Case of the Four-Leaf Clover.

For reasons that are too complicated to answer without actually whining, or breaking into Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” let’s just say that you intuited the situation correctly. Four-Leaf Clover was never available in stores. It’s a book-club only title. Thus, nearly impossible to find.

The good news is you can contact Scholastic Book Clubs at a toll-free number, 1-800-724-6527, or go to this website for more information. My experience tells me that they are very receptive to customer’s requests, and will try to do everything possible to be helpful.

Good luck with the search. And thanks, Quin, for reading so many of my books — that’s just wonderful. I’m really lucky to have such a dedicated fan.

JP

. . . and Friends?

I got a fat package in the mail yesterday, sent by my editor at Feiwel & Friends, Liz Szabla. It contained their Fall 2009 catalog, along with ARCs for eight upcoming novels:

Everything for a Dog by Ann M. Martin

In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith

Spellbinder by Helen Stringer

The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander

Buck Fever by Cynthia Chapman Willis

The Eyeball Collector by F.E. Higgins

Bystander by . . . that would be me (and for the record, I can’t wait to talk about this book, and the topic of bullying in general)

One of Jean Feiwel’s stated missions for her new publishing venture, after something like 20 years at Scholastic, was to Keep It Small. And so far, she’s stuck to that goal, despite the temptations to grow, and Grow, and GROW. But still: Feiwel AND Friends. If you are like me (read: hopelessly cynical), then you probably think, “AND Friends,” yeah, right.

But I do feel a difference. Part of that is based on my association with the merry crew that makes things happen at F & F. It’s a small staff and I think I’ve met them all, even the person who gives Liz and Jean their weekly pedicures, and I’ve even Facebooked a few. (Yes, it’s a verb now.) But there’s also, for me, a sense of community with the other authors and illustrators. We’re all on the same team, so to speak, and like a fan in the stands, suds in hand, I’m rooting for them.

Will I read all these galleys? Nope. I mostly read adult books. But I’m eyeballing that new Andrew Smith book, curious about what he’s done with it. And Julie Halpern is a fresh, original voice — so uncool that somehow she’s totally the coolest one of all. Then there’s Spellbinder, a debut novel, which on the surface seems familiar and yet strange at the same time. Who is Helen Stringer, anyway?

A confession: I’ve never had much interest in cultivating friendships with other authors. I know a few on Facebook and whenever I read their status updates on new galleys or their writer’s block or revision process or whatever — well, it just turns me away. I’m just not interested (as I sit here, blogging, semi-ironically, at this Shrine to Myself). The idea of going on, say, an “artistic retreat” with a bunch of other writers makes my skin crawl. I’m not sure why that is, exactly, but it’s real for me. Maybe I like regular people better. Or maybe I’m too competitive, or too insecure. Maybe it’s like ordering a Bud in a can when there’s some snazzy cherry-flavored micro brew available. I don’t know.

But this crowd at Feiwel and Friends? It’s hard to explain. Just a sense I guess, a feeling that’s kind of sloppy and formless, like a first wet kiss. A little creepy, but kind of nice, too. A little like . . . friendship. With benefits. Like free ARCs!

And by the way: I’m back from vacation. Hear me roar.

Bloggy Blogness: Around the Horn

A few things:

* My Best Pal in the World Whom I Never Actually Met, Matthew Cordell, gets the “Random Illustrator” Feature over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. They do a first-rate job over there, always.

* The fabulous Brenda Bowen — most recently of Bowen Press — has dusted herself off and started a new blog, called Bunny Eat Bunny. Just a thought: Maybe Brenda should have named it Bunny Dust Bunny. Or not! Anyway, Brenda is in the process of reinventing herself (she’s like Madonna that way) and I know many of us are eager to see what’s next. In the meantime, Brenda’s blog is just a nice way to stay in touch, to see an active, insightful mind at work.

* For bright bursts of optimism, beauty and creativity, is there any place on the web better than Color Me Katie? It’s a visual site, very little reading, and always a pleasure and an inspiration.

* I’d say this spot has been my favorite children’s literature blog of late: consistently excellent.

* The first, early review of Bystander, due out in Fall of ’09 (Feiwel and Friends).