Tag Archive for Laura Heffernan

Fan Mail Wednesday #23

Every year I hope to be better with Fan Mail.

But I guess I might as well confess this, even if it makes me look like a creep: While I’m grateful for fan mail, and amazed, and often touched, there’s a part of me that sees it as more work. And expensive, too, because almost nobody sends a SASE these days. Part of the problem is me: I’ve never been happy with the idea sending back a standard reply. I put effort into my responses, and time. That is, when I’ve responded (I usually do). But sometimes I let time slip away. Tremendous guilt over that. So one unhappy aspect of Fan Mail for me is, “Oh, great. A new way to hate myself.”

Here inside the expansive offices of Jamespreller.com, I’ve instituted Fan Mail Wednesday. I like the blog approach, and the cost is right. I took a little break from that over the holidays, but now like a lion in a cage, hear me roar: Meow!

I got this email a few days ago:

Dear Mr. James Preller,

My name is Michael and I am a senior in high school. I recently came across your book, Along Came Spider. It was due to pure chance that I came across your book. I was at Barnes and Noble, meandering around and happened to be in the children’s section and picked up your book. Within moments of flipping through the first few pages, I lost myself in the story of Spider and Trey. At the end, I read your acknowledgments section and understood where you got the basic idea for your story from. However, I do not understand why you chose an autism spectrum disorder (which I presume from the descriptions of Trey that he had Asperger’s Syndrome). There were so many other conditions you could have chosen, or none at all. What compelled you to choose an autism spectrum disorder? Nor do I understand how you were able to so effectively capture the mind and imagination of a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Given the intense complexity of autism, the fact that you were able to accurately characterize autism in a child to such a degree of detail and depth is commendable and insightful.

In addition, the friendship between Spider and Trey was a unique twist and resonated many feelings and thoughts within me. I thank you for writing about such a friendship. I immensely enjoyed the story, especially the conflicting angst that Spider was going through as well as Trey’s understanding of friendship.

I replied:

Thanks for your letter, Michael. The quality of your writing is even more impressive than the quality of your reading! Very nicely done. First of all, I should note that I’ve contacted the people at Guinness, and it’s been determined that you are the first High School senior to read the acknowlegements section of a book, any book. Your name will be featured prominently in the 2010 edition of the World Records. (Actually, um, no.)

But I wonder: Did you really stand there in Barnes & Noble and read the whole book? Did you at least buy a muffin or something? How am I going to catch up to J.K. Rowling if all my readers do this? She’ll be in her yacht and I’ll be swimming alongside it.

To answer your question, I arrived at Asperger’s in a circuitous way. At first, I was interested in an outsider. I’m often drawn to themes of inclusiveness and exclusiveness. Which I guess is a fancy way of saying, “friendship,” how we treat each other. In order to create this character, this child who did not fit in, I needed specific characteristics. You achieve that through the accumulation of small details. I began by asking questions. What does he like? Is he good at sports? What does he dream about? What kinds of things upset him? Who are his parents? And so on. I not only asked those questions of myself, I talked to experts. One principal in particular, Laura Heffernan at Glenmont Elementary, gave me an hour of her time. We talked and talked. She kind of casually brought up “kids on the spectrum” and it resonated with me. I went to the library. I bought books and underlined passages, almost filled an entire notebook. What I learned fit my conception for this character. It worked for the story.

But you are right. I could have explored the same ideas, written the same essential book, by selecting a different condition or none at all. The dynamic in the relationship was, to me, more important that Trey’s particularities. Does that make sense?

I appreciate that you feel I effectively captured the mind of a child with autism. Honestly, I don’t really know if I did or not. But I tried to do my best. I’ve had good experiences, though. I recently had a mother come up to me, pull me aside — I could see the upset in her eyes — and say, “That’s my son. He was just diagnosed with Asperger’s.”

Well, there’s more. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I feel a connection with children with autism. It’s not an intellectual understanding. It’s not even experiential. But somehow I identify with many of those common symptoms. I don’t have autism, but in some small way I feel I can glimpse its shadow. Can’t everyone? Don’t we all have at least those shadow traits? Or not? All that said: I didn’t make that a big part of Along Came Spider. I didn’t feel qualified, or ready, or brave enough, or whatever. If you are still interested in the topic, I recommend the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. He goes much, much deeper.

Thanks for reaching out and contacting me. I’m really grateful, and honored, to have a reader like you.


Finding the Story: Writing Spider

I plan on writing a series of “behind-the-scenes” blog entries about my experience writing the book, Along Came Spider. My writing process, if you will. Sigh. I have to confess that the thought of it makes me want to hurl, since it borders on self-obsession and pretentiousness. I really don’t want to this be about me, per say, but that’s all I’ve got, my story. Here’s how I came to write a single book.


A few years ago, two editors at Scholastic, Craig Walker and Shannon Penney, came to me with an idea. They wondered if I’d like to try writing for readers who were slightly older than my Jigsaw Jones audience (ages 6-9, approximately). They also hoped that I could make it a school-based story, probably for grades 4-5. I agreed to give it a shot.

But . . . what next?

I didn’t have a grasp on 4th- and 5th-grade classrooms, so that became the first order of business. I couldn’t begin writing until I could speak with author/ity on that world. While writing Jigsaw, I sat in on many, many 2/3 classes; I enjoyed it, learned from it, was inspired by those sessions of silent watching. The ideas came organically, growing from the specificity of that soil. I contacted a local fifth-grade teacher, Chris Porter at Glenmont Elementary, because I’d known her for years, admired her enthusiasm for literature and her commitment to teaching. With openness and warmth, Chris invited me into her classroom, where I was free to visit any time throughout the school year. Over a period of six months, I came and went as I wished, sitting in the back, silently observing. If something particularly cool was going on, Chris might send me a note. Like, oh, “For our Canada unit, we’re making an eight-foot long paper mache moose. It’s a mess, and it’s crazy, and we don’t really have any time to do it, but it’s so much fun! You’ve got to come and see it.”

I didn’t have a story in mind. I didn’t know what I was looking for. My goal was to sit and absorb the goings-on of a lively, creative classroom, and see what comes of it. I saw the flow of the school day, the way things worked. I filled a composition book with random notes, quick character sketches, hair-brained ideas. No story yet, but I was getting a handle on that world. I soon realized that sitting in a well-structured classroom was not nearly enough. I needed to see the students “in the wild,” meaning: recess, the lunch room, gym, on the bus. That is, all the time they were away from Chris’s watchful eye, when they had more freedom to interact, to be themselves, to mess up.

Eventually the themes in this story — which was to become Along Came Spider — began to take hold. I began deeply interested in exclusion and inclusion, in how some kids didn’t quite fit with the larger group. At the younger grades, eccentric behavior was more easily absorbed. But after a few years — second grade, third, fourth — the students become more familiar with each other. I could see how some of them were in danger of becoming increasingly isolated. I could imagine that Middle School could easily become a problem; they were at risk of becoming lost in the crowd, alienated, separate and alone. I didn’t see students who were picked on or bullied. They were just . . . accepted, tolerated, ignored.

When responding to an email query, Chris wrote to me:

“I know as a fifth-grade teacher, I always hope that the ‘troubled’ student who doesn’t fit in the mainstream group is able to find just one friend. I truly believe you can get through anything knowing that you have someone who likes you and see you for just you — as well as someone who will include you in the most difficult times of the day — recess/lunch!”

I taped those words to the wall beside my computer. And I was on my way. I still didn’t have the story, exactly, but I had the stirrings of what I wanted to write about. Now I needed to do a new kind of research. It was time to hit the books . . .