Franki Sibberson chats with James Preller about his experiences writing the popular Jigsaw Jones book series, as well as his advocacy work. You can follow James at his blog:
A full transcript of the podcast is available below the player.
Franki Sibberson: Jigsaw Jones is such an important series for transitional readers, and I'm a huge fan of various books as a really important stage for readers. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of writing a popular series like Jigsaw Jones and if that's a lot different from the writing you've been doing more recently?
James Preller: Well, I guess you have to back up and recognize that there are 40 books in that Jigsaw Jones series. So it's kind of this crazy – I mean, I don't know if I knew that to start with, I don't know if I would have done it. So you can never complain about something that is popular and it's been such a gift for me to be able to write. In a lot of ways it's been my classroom. As a writer I've learned about pacing and developing characters, and what to do with writer's block and all of those things you encounter. So I sort of feel like it was my elementary school for a writer. But the thing is with writing a series, what's different is you have your main characters. I know it's Jigsaw Jones. I know it's a mystery. I know it's roughly 6000 words, whereas now if I start a new book, I'm back to the blank white page in the silent room. What is it about? Who's in it? Why am I writing this? Why would anyone read this – all those questions.
With Jigsaw I had a certain confidence that I kinda knew what I was doing. I tried very hard – the work for me with Jigsaw after a while became how to keep this fresh, how to keep this interesting, because if I'm bored, if I lack energy, I have a very hard time working. So the great thing about a detective is you have this character who goes out into the world, and he encounters people and places and things, and he's put in situations. So I would just invent new characters, put him in new places. I tried to avoid the rigorous formula that you see in some series. I do feel like I had a mystery; I was kind of married to that idea, but beyond that I had a lot of freedom. So writing a new book is very – is a really different experience.
But the thing that I do know – and I have to say that what Jigsaw taught me – was that I can actually finish a book, because there are times I really have doubt. Self-doubt is a big, big part of, I think, writing for many of us, and certainly for me. It's like am I going to be able to finish this? Do I have anything to say? And at least Jigsaw I can look back and say, "Well, there's 40 of you, so I'm not a complete couch potato here. I must get it done sooner or later."
Franki Sibberson: That's interesting. Yeah, I love that series. So you seem – when I look at your stuff, and I've been reading it for years – you seem not only to be a writer for kids, but you also seem to have a couple causes that you really wanna make a difference for kids beyond just books. You're really committed to boys reading, bullying, things like that. Can you talk about some of those things that you're really committed to?
James Preller: Yeah, it's interesting you ask that question in that way, because I guess I don't think that I start there. I write realistic fiction, which obviously is not the most popular genera out there these days, but I write realistic fiction. So to me the measure of my books success is if a kid sees his world reflected there and says, "Yes, this seems like this would happen in my fourth grade classroom. This would happen with my sister." So I'm trying to reflect the world that kids live in, and I find that a very interesting, rich world where all kinds of things happen.
Kids can get cancer or someone can be on the spectrum – on the autistic spectrum or whatever. So I got interested — after doing Jigsaw Jones I had some freedom to write different books and explore different things. I have a sixth grade son, and I was thinking about middle school, and I started — that's really when bullying is at its peak. So I just kind of felt like, I'm interested in those themes of fitting in and not fitting in and inclusion and exclusion, and just the more I thought about middle school and witnessed it and went in and started to read about it, bullying became what I focused on. So I guess I didn't come at it like, "Oh, I've got this cause, and I've got this powerful message." It sort of grew like, "This is what kids encounter, and I'm going to write about it," and it kind of came out of that.
Now, of course, I don't think it's the quote, unquote message book. Although, I don't know that there's anything wrong with that, but I think get back to show, don't tell, and I'm trying to tell a story.
Franki Sibberson: It's just a great book. But you could tell from your blog and everything else that you've either got interested in this or people have probably responded to your books in a way that kind of makes you somebody that understands it and what it's doing and how to help kids, I guess.
James Preller: I think so. Let me talk about my son for a minute. My high school son, Nicholas – he's a high school senior. He is a two time cancer survivor, and like many boys, he's not a great communicator. He just isn't. And I used to think to him like, "Come on, Nick. You've got to communicate. You've got to convey. You've got to talk about your feelings, not only with me, but in life. Blah, blah, blah — you're gonna be married. You're going to have to talk about what you feel like." And then one day it just dawned on me that like, "Oh my — he doesn't know what he's feeling. He has no idea." It's Will Ferrell in the movie Anchorman. He's trapped in a glass booth of emotion. So I think what books can give us is some of the emotional literacy, and with Bystander. I think it's just like helped readers kind of go, "Oh, I see. That's bullying right there." And can I just back up and just say one thing about bullying before we go on?
You always talk about "the bully," you know, "the bully" or "the victim," and I think these labels can be so unfortunate, because we are so many different things over the course of a day. So what we're really talking about is behaviors, not labels that people can't get under. So someone who is acting as a bully in one situation is going home and hugging his mother and is walking his dog and is maybe being a good brother and is maybe being a target for somebody else or is being a good teammate or all these things. I think you see a lot of really good kids who are just kind of going down the wrong path a little bit with some bullying behavior, and it may be because they're insecure. There's all kinds of reasons why they do it. But I hate the like "Oh, this kid's a bully. That's who he is," and it's like "Well, no."
Franki Sibberson: That's interesting.
James Preller: I hate to see kids get that label.
Franki Sibberson: Right, so over to your Fathers Read book. I like your Fathers Read book. So that's intended to really help dads become good role models for their sons? Is that right? Was that your goal when you created it?
James Preller: It's a funny thing. It's just –
Franki Sibberson: Or it was just like a reflective dad?
James Preller: This is what I think. I think that I became interested – obviously the literacy gap is a real concern in education today. Boys are not reading as much as girls and they're falling behind in every measureable way that you can see. So then you see all the different reasons, all the different reasons that are talked about, whether school itself is to blame because it's gender biased, or it's the way girls learn versus the more active way boys learn. And then I'll see lists of books – "Here's books for boys." And that's when I started feeling like – I'd look at these books for boys, and it became like a stereo type of what a boy is or should be. "Oh, you've got a boy, so here's a book on trucks and smashing things," and "Oh yeah, try farts. Books aren't farts. Boys love that stuff," and they do, but they're also – boys can be sensitive and thoughtful and caring and all kinds of things. Boys can feel sadness and have experienced their parents being divorced. Real life happens to boys too.
So I began to feel like – I just wanted to not be complaining about the literacy gap, and I just wanted to make one positive statement which was like, "These boys need to see dads reading. They need to see fathers – they need to look over and – what's dad doing? Dad's sitting in a chair and he's reading the newspaper or a magazine or a computer or a novel, – like that reading is a guy thing." Really, I don't know that that blog makes any difference in the world at all, but I do feel like I just want to send that one message out there in the best way I can, which is just that we need to see fathers reading, and it's important. And the more I've read about it and the more research is out there, you start to realize that there's a lot of people who recognize that as a real missing piece in so many families. You have boys who aren't reading. Show me dads who are reading, and I think that boy has a real good shot at becoming a reader.
Franki Sibberson: Your books are so interesting what you say about boys and reading and the stereotypes. So when I think about your books, I think boys and girls equally like your books. I don't think they're boy books, but I feel like – do you write them targeted knowing that you want to write a different kind of book for boys, or do you just write a good story and it's not even in the back of your mind, your commitment to boys reading when you're writing?
James Preller: I don't think that I have gone out and said, "Oh, I want to write a book for boys." And I've never been really good at coming at books that way. In some ways I wish I could. I had a funny – it's not even funny, but I was in scholastic publishers, and I had a top editor talk to me, and they had just bought the Harry Potter book, and they had said, "Jimmy, I'm telling you, I feel like this folklore and dragons and kind of Irish, English folkloric fantasy is going to be the next big thing. You should do that." And I just felt like "I don't really have a feeling for that material. I mean, that's great, but I can't do it." So I wish I could write by design that way.
So no, I don't think, "Oh, this is for boys," necessarily. In some ways, it's probably just a result of my own limitations as a writer. I'm an ex-boy, and I kind of have that perspective. I look at my fourth grade daughter and go, "I've got to write a Maggie book. I've got to write a real girl book," and I've had girl characters that I'm proud of. But I do kind of tend to lean towards the male perspective.
Franki Sibberson: So when I read Justin Fisher I loved it right away, because most of my career I've taught grades three, four, five and you just seem to really get the struggle that nine and ten year olds are going through growing up and becoming who they are and figuring out what makes sense as they grow up. Did you draw on your own experience, or now that I know you have kids that have just gone through that – how did you capture that age group in school so well, do you think?
James Preller: I think if I have a quote, unquote gift. I think I do have a knack for talking to kids and kind of getting where they're at. For that book I spent a lot of time in a fifth grade classroom just observing. And I found a teacher who would let me just kind of come and hang out. But for whatever reason, I was able to kind of walk around in those shoes. I don't think I necessarily drew on my own experiences, but I can remember struggles with identity. And again, I look at my kids. Seeing it in a different way now with my sixth grade son who's now in middle school, and identity is so difficult.
Here he is, so pure, driven, and he's looking around, "How should I act? What should I do?" And I don't even think he looks to himself, and coincidently – or not coincidently, that's why bullying peaks, I believe, in middle school, because people aren't asking themselves, "What do I think? What should I do?" They're looking around at everybody else trying to figure out. So it's such a struggle for these kids to figure out who they are.
Franki Sibberson: It's such a struggle.
James Preller: And I can really – I can feel that. I can feel that struggle. I think that if I were to have this discussion around a bunch of boys they would look at me like "What are you talking about?" But I know that I'm right. I know it's really – it's hard. And I don't want to be like, "It's hard to be a kid," but there are parts that are really challenging. It's really hard –
Franki Sibberson: You just captured it so well in that blog. It's like, "Wow." So many kids go through this and try to figure out what this means for them. Like who are they as they grow up.
James Preller: Yeah, yeah. And things that got approval second and third grade, fifth grade are not getting approval. And then I worried about those kids who – in elementary school it's often a very protective, known environment. "Oh yeah, that's Billy. He always hums in the back of the class. We know him." And then I'm looking at Billy who's humming in the back class going, "Well, when he gets to middle school, there's six elementary schools coming in together, and they're not going to say 'Oh, that's Billy. We know him,' they're going to say, 'Who is the weird kid humming in the back?'" So I started to worry about that type of kid.
Franki Sibberson: That's a good point.
James Preller: It can be very challenging – I just think figuring out who you are. I mean, don't we have trouble with that as adults?
Franki Sibberson: It's a lifelong thing.
James Preller: I think you just finally – what's nice is that I'm 50 now, so I've just kind of given up. I'm like whatever I am. I'm not forming it anymore. I'm just like, "Well, I guess this is it." But they're trying to figure, "Am I the popular kid? Am I the nice kid? Am I the kid who's good in science? Am I the athlete?" They're getting so many different signals all over the place.
Franki Sibberson: All the time. All right, so my very favorite line on your website was in your bio, and you were talking about being the same person you were as a kid. And you have a line that says you don't think of children as unfinished products, like minor league baseball players hoping to get to the big leagues of adulthood. Can you talk about that, because I just love that idea?
James Preller: Why do you love it, you think?
Franki Sibberson: Because it just really resonated for me. I feel like they're not like waiting to be people. I think the whole sense of they're people who just haven't had as many experiences, but they have ideas and thoughts, and I feel like they're brilliant little people. So I don't know. There was something about it that really resonated for me in terms of they're not waiting to be grown-ups. They're not unfinished. They're who they are and –
James Preller: Thank you. I totally – I obviously agree with you. They are brilliant people. We could talk about this one for a long time. But when I first started writing books for children, people say, "How do you do it? How do you write for kids? What's the trick?" And I think that everyone imagines that there's like a vocabulary list that you look at and go, "Okay, I can't use the word idiosyncratic, I've got to use the word odd." And it was that simple. But I learned that (a) I love a writer who uses whatever words he wants, but (b) I think that it's just like you can convey whatever content – they're capable of comprehending amazingly difficult content. You can't assume prior knowledge, but you have to kind of take them step-by-step to where ever you want to go, but they are capable of going anywhere. And they have to deal with all kinds of experiences in real life. So I just think that – I don't know, I'm losing my thought a little bit.
Franki Sibberson: No, it's just so smart and so big.
James Preller: But the other thing is, I do think that our personalities are essentially – with my son Gavin, someone will say "Oh, he's such a good boy. He's very polite. He's this -" and I always say the same thing. I used to always go, "He came out that way." I feel like I really do believe that. That's just who he is. Maggie, she's in fourth grade now, but my quick Maggie story is when she was like a little girl, she was very challenging, and she would crawl on the dinner table and you couldn't – whatever she wanted. And one day she said, "I want more juice," and I said, "Maggie, honey -" she's like two years old or even less – "Maggie, honey, that's not how we ask for things here. Let's use our manners and be polite, and remember your magic word." She thought for a moment, and she said, "I want more juice, now," and you know what, that's Maggie, and it will always be Maggie. And when I think of her as a teenager, I tremble in fear. Because I just know that that's who we're dealing with.
Franki Sibberson: Yeah, they do come with their personalities.
James Preller: They come with their personalities, and life changes them and experiences and stuff, but I think their essential me-ness is it feels like it's at their core from day one.
Franki Sibberson: All right, I want to go back to bullying for a minute. Your Bystander book is really a great conversation starter for kids when it comes to bullying and not just bullying but as you mentioned before, being the victim, being the person who stands – and not necessarily being that person but having these different roles and situations. It's really realistic, I feel like. Did you start the book intending to go in that direction? What kind of impact have you seen, 'cause I feel like the book's one that's making a lot of impact with kids in schools.
James Preller: I didn't know – I buy that blank notebook. I always go to CVS drugstore and buy those composition notebooks, like my little ritual.
Franki Sibberson: When you're ready to start.
James Preller: And those pages are blank, and I don't really know what it is I'm going to write. I knew that I felt that there were a lot of out-of-date ideas about bullying. I don't really like the Disney gloss. I try to write realistic fiction. So I didn't like – I knew that I felt like this idea of the bully as the big dimwitted hulk who's really a coward at heart – blah, blah, blah – didn't jive with me. I knew I didn't feel that was the right picture. So I started to do research on that character first, the bully. And my first work and title was Predator.
I mean, because you just jot something down at the top of the page and go "Predator." That's what I'm doing. And I started thinking about this kid and talking to experts and reading books and making a list of characteristics, and I saw that he was popular and had verbal dexterity and charm – all of these qualities that you wouldn't necessarily attach to a bully. But over time I began to realize, "You know what, the stories not about the bully. It's about all of us. It's about the bystanders." And that is – in any instance there's a couple of kids who are the targets, there's a couple of kids who are bullying, but the power is with the people, the 95 percent of us who are somehow complicit in this by either the floaters or the people who support the bully in somehow by being a witness.
One of the things I'll talk to kids about is when bullying happens; fights happen in school and that kind of thing, there's always witnesses. It never happens when no one's around. There's got to be an audience. So somehow being that audience we're kind of making it happen or somehow we're complicit in these acts. But that's when I started looking at the bystander, and I absolutely knew that that was what I felt. Getting back to the emotional literacy – I hoped that with the book, readers would start to see these different behaviors and maybe even have feeling or sympathy or empathy for some of these characters. That's a powerful thing if someone can actually feel for someone who's being targeted as a bully.
And I think that's what literature gives us. In terms of what difference the books made, it's hard to be a writer. I have my office at home. I'm alone most of the time. You don't always know what happens. You just throw it out there. Now I've been doing more and more school visits, and I'm seeing kids and talking to them, and I know that they like the book. And I know that they like it because it's got a little bit of a thriller quality. And I think for fifth graders, especially, it's like one of the first kind of gritty, realistic books they've read. There's so much escapism in popular literature right now.
I think kids are reading stuff that's fun and exciting and action-packed, but it's not a mirror that reflects their world. And I think with Bystander, hopefully it does that, and they kind of look at that. And my hope was always, always – I was very aware that I just felt like "Boy, in the hands of a good teacher, you can have some really good conversation with this book." I really did see it as a conversation starter.
Franki Sibberson: You talked a couple times about emotional literacy. I love that phrase. Could you talk a little bit about that? Like what do you mean when you say emotional literacy?
James Preller: I've probably come across it somewhere. I feel like I just made it up. But again, it really comes from looking at boys and thinking for myself, my own memories, and certainly my son, of just going like "I don't even know what they -" I think you need names in order to perceive things. It's like Eskimos having 17 words for snow, which may or may not even be true. But that language is the door to perception. So that when you can name an emotion and you go, "Oh, I'm feeling envious here. I'm feeling jealous. I'm feeling insecure," then I think you can begin to understand a lot of things that are going on, all of that rumbling in your heart that is chaotic and uncertain. So again, I think it's just like a gift of literature is that we can read about people and begin to understand ourselves in the process.
So again, I'm trying to write stories. I really want people to read a story and not feel like, "Oh, this is – I'm expanding my emotional literacy here or whatever. I'm learning a valuable lesson about bullying." I want somebody to read a story and turn that page and not put it down. I got a great letter. I have to tell you real quick.
I got a great letter from a kid the other day. And he said his name was Gunner, and he loved baseball – big, big baseball fan, and he also liked hunting. And he had gone hunting in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. So I even got out a map and looked it up. And he went hunting with his grandfather – bear hunting – and he brought my book Six Innings. So what I understand about bear hunting is you go in the spring and you kind of wait for the bears to wake up and stagger out of the caves hungry and you shoot them. So he was there reading my book Six Innings, and he said, "And then my grandfather tapped me on the shoulder. So I put down the book, very, very quietly, careful not to lose the page. I raised my gun, and I shot the bear. And then when I calmed down, I picked up the book again, and I began reading it." And it was like, "Wow," just awesome. I forget exactly what I told you that story, but it's such a good story. I'm glad I told you.
Franki Sibberson: It's such a good story.
James Preller: But yeah, he's my only bear hunter that I know of.
Franki Sibberson: I love that story – such a visual.
James Preller: Isn't it great? I know.
Franki Sibberson: So what's next for you? Your writing – I mean I think that's what your writing does. It just tells a great story, and I think the characters – like I'm a character reader, so I have to love the character. And your characters grow and change and I just – there great stories and great characters. So what's next?
James Preller: Well, thanks. I am a character writer, and I'm also like a sentence writer. When I think of the writers that I love, I always come back to – I'm one of those people who I read with a pen in my hands. That's why I'll never adapt to the Kindle, and I have no problem with the Kindle, and people can do what they want, it's all fine. But I have a pen in my hand when I read.