Tag Archive for Mila Yeh

Fan Mail Wednesday #196: In Which Adam Calls Me “Ms. Preller” & Other Indignities



Here we go, folks: “Fan Mail Wednesday!” This letter begins with an inadvertent salutation — and a cool statement of purpose.

Adam:Fan Mail

I replied:

Adam, dude.

Or should I call you Shirley?

What do you mean addressing this to “Dear Ms. Preller”?

That’s Mr. Preller to you!


Ha-ha. I thought that was a funny mistake in your letter. At least, I hope it was a mistake. I don’t have anything against girls — I like girls, I do! — it’s just that, well, I’m a boy. Or an ex-boy. Now I’m an old geezer with gray whiskers growing out of his chinny-chin-chin. But in my head, I’m eight years old.

I loved the first line of your letter. “I am going to ask you some stuff.” You got right to the point. No messing around with chit-chat.

Mila Yeh, Jigsaw Jones, and Ralph Jordan talk on the bus. Illustration by Jamie Smith.

Mila Yeh, Jigsaw Jones, and Ralph Jordan talk on the bus. Illustration by Jamie Smith.

I actually did enjoy writing this book, thanks for asking. It was a fun mystery, because it combined “slightly spooky” with “very silly.”  As for when it was written, all you have to do is look at THE PAGE THAT NO ONE ON THE PLANET EVER READS.

Which page is that? It’s called the copyright page. In this case, it’s directly opposite the “Contents” page. It has the author’s dedication, followed by a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo in tiny type, including the book’s ISBN. Below that, you’ll find this:

Text copyright, © 2004 by James Preller.

There it is, the answer to your question. I wrote that book ten years ago. Time flies!

Here our detectives solve the mystery -- it was good old Mr. Copabianco, the school janitor, all along.

Here our detectives solve the mystery — it was good old Mr. Copabianco, the school janitor, all along. He’s into the arts.

The tree house office is actually in Jigsaw’s backyard. In the summer, he works out there, because he loves it. He must like the nebulous heights. In the winter, he moves his office into the basement, next to the washing machine. Mila is Jigsaw’s partner. I think of her as the brains of the operation, while Jigsaw is the one with the unstoppable spirit. He never gives up. Together, they make a great team.

Oh yes, I’m glad you mentioned the illustrations in this book. They were done by a terrific guy who lives in England named Jamie Smith. We’ve never met, but we have exchanged a few emails over the years. I love his work — and I even have a few of his original pieces hanging in my office, nicely framed.

Take care. I hope you don’t mind a little good-natured kidding!

Your friend,

“Ms” James Preller




Building Character

There are a million ways to create a well-rounded character, and all of them crystallize with concrete details. Today I’d like to share one small example.

I was reading an interview with a young actress, Elisabeth Moss, and a couple of times she described things as “super-[fill in the blank]!”

You know: “I was super, super, super-happy” and “she’s still super-young.”

That appealed to me as a writer, for a number of reasons. It’s a youthful, energetic, and distinctive way of speaking. I immediately imagined a female character who uses that phrasing in her dialogue. Since I’m currently revising a book, I’ll look at giving that vocabulary to a character (and only one character). I may discover that it works,  or find that it’s unnecessary or even excessive. We never wish to gild the lily. In which case I’ll file it away — read: hope to remember it — for another day.

The point is, I do seek out particular phrases or speech patterns for different characters. Charlie Brown says, “Good grief.” Jigsaw Jones says, “Oh brother,” “Go figure,” and “Yeesh.” Another character might say “like” a lot or utter something like, “Am I right or am I wrong?” As a writer, you try to find those singular ways of speaking, anything to help individualize a character. Then you look at clothes, or mannerisms — the way Mila Yeh pulls on her long black hair, or another character scratches behind his knees — and those specific details build character.

So thank you, Elisabeth Moss. You were super-helpful!

Absent Parents in Children’s Literature

A friend of mine, author David Klein — whose debut novel, Stash, is due out later this month — alerted me to a recent interweb discussion about absentee parents in children’s literature.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford summarized the debate here, while making some solid, sensible points. Here’s one quick snip:

Another major factor in YA and MG literature is allowing the characters to fight their own battles. It’s a very common theme in YA for parents to be absent, abusive, oblivious, or otherwise useless. There’s actually a reason for this, other than the obvious ready-made angst factor. You see, for a story to truly be centered around an underage MC, they have to do everything themselves. Parents, guardians, and other adults can’t do it for them.

Of course, this is an old narrative device, wildly popularized (and trivially conventionalized) by the folks at Disney (Bambi, Simba, I’m looking at you). Seriously, the list of dead or missing parents in Disney films is long and almost comical in its predictability.

Note: This screen shot was filed under the caption,

“Awesome Moms,” so of course she had to go.

The role of parents is often a thorny issue in children’s books, for some of the reasons explained above. But as a devoted parent, I have mixed feelings. I understand the narrative expediency of eliminating parents, or making them appear incompetent, but at the same time I kind of hate it in books when every adult is a complete, useless waste of oxygen. I guess I’m much more offended by one-dimensional characters than the idea of absentee parents.

Personally, I tend to write sympathetically about parents in my books. The trick is to keep the story child-centered. Because, likewise, I also loathe it when a perfect adult prances into the story and solves the problem for the child.

In Bystander, my recent book about middle school bullying, I created an absent father and it served as an important fact in my main character’s life. A source of vulnerability, the limp in his walk. At the same time, Eric’s mother is outstanding. She does a lot of things right as a parent of a child who is bullied. For example, even though her role in the book is limited, Ms. Hayes has thoughtful family policies about computer and cell phone use, she advocates aggressively for her child with the school once she perceives a problem, she makes an effort to spent alone time with him and, basically, she tunes in. I like her and wanted to model how a good, caring mother might act under those circumstances, since I think that’s the most likely scenario. The adults in the school are also shown in a positive light.

Even so, the conflict and the drama remain with the boy, Eric Hayes, in his own world (mostly) away from home. Mom isn’t the answer, but she does provide a foundation of support.

In Six Innings, I’m pretty sure all the adults portrayed are sympathetic and realistic, though Mike Tyree’s parents are distracted by his sister’s athletic success. They don’t quite give Mike the attention he needs. When I started the book, a few people asked me, essentially, “Are you going to write about how the Little League parents and coaches are so awful and over-the-top?”

My answer, “No, not this time.”

In my experience, the coaches — while flawed and sometimes too focused on their own child — are good, decent parents who volunteer an incredible amount of time and energy to the benefit of many children in the community. These aren’t horrible people. And overwhelmingly, the parents in the stands are good folks, too. Hopelessly biased, a little irrational at times, emotionally invested, caring. What I respect most is they are . . . there. They show up, and if you ask me, that’s 95% of parenting: showing up, day after day.

Quantity time, not quality time.

Art: rough cover sketch by R.W. Alley,

where Jigsaw literally finds a skeleton

in the closet.

Lastly, since I’m on this topic, I’ve written almost 40 Jigsaw Jones mystery books. His parents are amazing, loving, funny, intelligent, present in every way. It’s a great family. Mila Yeh has a stepmother — and guess what? She loves Mila just as much as a birth mother. Part of that was inspired as a reaction against the negative cliches that are prevalent about stepmothers, but also by my own wife, Lisa, who is an incredible mother and stepmother.

Still: The stories are about Jigsaw, his adventures and struggles in his boyhood world, and that’s where the conflict takes place. So from my point of view, I think you can represent strong, capable, caring parents in children’s literature and still keep the story kid-centered and child-resolved.